Biography of the Apostle Paul
The beginnings of Paul are an interesting jumble, and they highlight the cosmopolitan world that was the Roman Empire. He was born in an Asian city now in located on the southern coast of Turkey called Tarsus in about the year 10. His parents were Jewish, presumably strict Pharisees. They were also Roman citizens.
It is important to note that even though Judea was within the Roman Empire most Jews were not Roman citizens. Citizenship outside of Italy was an honor reserved for people who made great contributions to the Empire. Thus, we may presume that Paul’s parents were people of influence and perhaps even moderate wealth.
At the age of fourteen Paul was sent to Jerusalem to train to be a Rabbi. His teacher was a prominent man named Gamaliel. Rabbis, at the time, were also taught another trade. The idea was to keep teachers from becoming a burden on society. They also wanted to have something to fall back on during hard times. Paul was trained to be a tent-maker.
Paul grew to be a man of firm convictions and fiery temperament. He always acted on his beliefs. Thus, when he was confronted with what he took to be a heresy to Judaism, he worked with all his might to quell it. This heresy would one day come to be known as Christianity and Paul was among the foremost of its persecutors.
Paul was present at the stoning of Stephen, and though he did not participate, he encouraged the violent act that destroyed the first of the martyrs. He then participated in a general persecution including, “going from house to house, he dragged out the believers, both men and women and threw them into jail.”
He then undertook a mission to Damascus. There he intended to continue attacking Christians. However, on the way, he had a vision. This vision is described several times in the Bible, three times in the book of Acts. Paul saw Jesus who asked why Paul persisted in persecuting Him. He then commissioned Paul to preach His message to the Gentiles.
This meeting with Jesus made Paul a Christian. Even so, Paul always insisted that he remained both a Jew and a Roman. But before he could fully accept this message from Jesus, Paul spent some time in Arabia and then Demascus. Searching his soul, he undertook the mission he believed had been given to him directly by Jesus. He preached in Demascus for three years. His enemies were determined to kill him so he had to slip out of the city by night.
He went to Jerusalem and there gained official sanction from the elders of the Church, including Peter and James, to bring the message of Jesus to the Gentiles. Along with Barnabas, he then went on his first Missionary Journey to Cyprus, Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. During this journey they met many hardships. Paul was even stoned, though not killed, in Lystra. It was an ironic twist that Paul underwent the same gruesome punishment he had sanctioned for Stephen and for the very cause Stephen had suffered.
Around 50 A.D. he returned to Jerusalem to report to the church elders. His visit provoked a dispute over whether Christians had to first become Jews. Paul said no. The controversy was temporarily resolved in his favor and he went on his second and third missionary journeys to Galatia, Phrygia, Macedonia and Greece. He even went to Athens where he argued with philosophers as well as pagans.
It was during this period that he met Luke, a doctor who would become a close adherent and would eventually write one of the gospels as well as the book of Acts. After his third missionary journey, Paul returned to Jerusalem where he ran into a dispute with the Sanhedrin. He was the object of a huge civil disturbance. For this, he was arrested and eventually brought to Caesarea.
While there, he was questioned and tried several times, but his enemies could not seem to make their charges stick. Even so, he was held by the governor, Felix, who was afraid he might again create problems in Jerusalem. The next governor, Festus, seemed to be loathe to come to a decision on his case, so after over two years of house arrest, Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to demand a trial before the Emperor.
He was sent on the next ship to Rome. However, the ship met heavy seas and wrecked on the Island of Malta. Paul prayed and was visited by an Angel and the entire crew was saved. Paul eventually took another boat and reached Italy. He was met by supporters and eventually made it to Rome.
The Acts of the Apostles is an original source that largely chronicles Paul’s life up to this point. It is thought by some scholars that the book may even have been a legal brief based on the recollections of Paul and the diary of Luke to help serve in his defense in his trial before the Emperor. Interestingly, neither the book of Acts nor Paul’s surviving letters depicts the results of Paul’s trial.
It is known that he spent at least two years under house arrest waiting his audience with Nero. Extant literature close to the time indicates that Paul was either tried and executed by the sword or he died during the persecution that came about after the great fire where Nero was reputed to have incited the blaze and to have fiddled during the conflagration in about 64 AD.
Some tradition also has it that Paul escaped the persecution and went on to continue his preaching in Spain. Whatever his end, it is certain that Paul was a great influence on modern Christianity, both through his missionary work and his writing.