Paul of Tarsus
Paul of Tarsus was born c. AD 5 (3765–3766 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman province of Cilicia. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he gave this brief autobiography: "[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless" (Phil. 3:4-6). In other words, Paul was a cradle Jew to the fullest ethnic, national, religious, clerical, and sociopolitical meaning of the word. If there was any debate about whether the term "Jew" referred to ethnicity or religion, he was both. Paul's description of himself in this way was because of his diverse background. Sure, he was Jewish, but he was also from Tarsus, which was a renowned center of philosophy, rhetoric, and higher education among the Greeks. His father was a Roman citizen, who handed on this benefit to Paul at birth. His parents were likely Hellenistic Jews, meaning they incorporated Greek culture into their Judaic traditions. Paul grew up in Tarsus but moved to the city of Jerusalem for his theological education. He chose the Pharisee school, where he sat under the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)—whose grandfather was the esteemed rabbi, Hillel (c. 30 BC–AD 10). As a Pharisee, Paul not only learned about the written Torah, but also the oral Torah (now called the Mishnah), rhetorical debate, wisdom, and how to lead an ascetic life.
The Way to Damascus
Many Christians assume that God changed the apostle's name from "Saul" → "Paul" when he met Jesus on the way to Damascus. The idea of such a radical name change is scriptural, especially with Jacob → Israel in the Old Testament and Simon → Peter in the New. However, Jesus addressed him as "Saul" when asking about his persecution of the church (Acts 9:4). Even after Paul's conversion, other Judeo-Christians still addressed him as "Saul" (e.g., Acts 9:17; 13:2, 7). Luke, who penned the Acts of the Apostles as a sequel to his namesake gospel, wrote, "Saul, also known as Paul" (Acts 13:9). This was because he had both a Roman name as well as a Jewish one. In Tarsus and Jerusalem, his family members and other rabbis used "Saul" (Hebrew: Sha’ul; H7586). Yet, when he journeyed throughout the Mediterranean, the apostle used his Roman name, Paul (Latin: Paulus/Greek: Paulos; G3972). Although there was a Greek form of "Saul" (Saulos; G4569), he likely chose Paulos because the noun saulos was also a slang term for the erotic swagger of a prostitute.
The conversion of Paul was not so much about leaving Judaism for Christianity, but God's correction of his misplaced zeal and viewpoints. It was something greater than religious conviction or a ritual; it was an existential crisis that led Paul to meet the living God. During his three-year sabbatical in Arabia, Paul learned how Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah (Gal. 1:17-18). Even in his words, Paul never ceased in being a Jew, and often worried about the spiritual condition of his people (Rom. 2:29; 11; 1 Cor. 9:20). He wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven texts that now comprise the New Testament, all of the letters to various congregations throughout the Mediterranean. Yet, the Paul the Christian gentiles knew was a stark contrast from the Saul who once terrified the Judeo-Christians. As a Pharisee, Paul prided himself on his smart career move by learning from Gamaliel, which gave him limitless opportunities toward progression. He most likely believed that God favored him over the other Jewish scholars of his day. This bravado led Paul to show both God and his fellow rabbis that he could defend the faith, even by force if necessary. Today, commentators would identify Paul as a radical Jewish fundamentalist, his zeal driving him to even consider assault, battery, and, perhaps, murder. In the end, God did favor Paul, just not for the reason that he assumed at the start of his religious career. Paul changed from a religious zealot who maliciously cheered on the stoning death of Stephen, a young deacon (Acts 6-7), to God's messenger to the gentiles, various political leaders, and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15).
Around the World
Much of the Acts of the Apostles reads like an epic Greco-Roman travel narrative, and the story of Paul does not disappoint. His odyssey began on the road to Damascus, where he met the risen Jesus and was blinded. After his baptism and the recovery of his eyesight, Paul journeyed to Arabia to study and learn more about Jesus' life and teaching. He participated in the Council of Jerusalem c. AD 49, where he contested Simon Peter over his ministry among the gentiles (Acts 15:1-21; Gal. 1:18-19). Paul suffered through five lashings, three beatings with rods, a stoning, three shipwrecks, imprisonments, and even a venomous snakebite (2 Cor. 11:23-25; Acts 28:3-6). However, Luke carefully wrote about Paul as a sorrowful man, not as one of the Greco-Roman heroes of old. He was simply a messenger of the gospel across the eastern Roman Empire, which was Luke's central theme. Jesus chose Paul to inaugurate his church to the people of the "inhabited world" (Greek: oikoumenē; G3625) throughout the Mediterranean. Yet, God would use Paul to eventually take the gospel of Christ directly to the Roman emperor's household. From there, the Jesus movement would increase throughout the entire world (Greek: kosmos; G2889), beyond the influence and legacy of Rome.
Paul completed a total of three missionary journeys. He went back to Jerusalem after his third tour ended in AD 57, living there for two years before his inevitable passage to Rome. Paul's reason for going back to Jerusalem was to deliver the monetary offering that he collected in Macedonia, knowing how poor the Judeo-Christians were as opposed to their gentile counterparts (Rom. 15:26). He briefly stayed with Philip in Caesarea Maritima, where the prophet Agabus warned him, "Thus says the Holy Spirit, 'This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the gentiles'" (Acts 21:10-11). It would be this same Caesarea Maritima the Romans would detain Paul until they could try him. Within seven days of his return to Jerusalem, Paul angered some Jews from the Roman province of Asia. They blamed him for defiling the temple by inviting his gentile companions to enter the areas restricted to Jews only. James of Jerusalem, who led the Judaic church, and some of the other leaders attempted to warn Paul that he already had a reputation for snubbing the Law of Moses. He took James' advice and completed the Jewish rite of purification, fully immersing himself in the temple's ritual bath (Hebrew: mikveh; H4723), as well as shaving his head. Yet, it was too late for Paul. James intended to show the Jews from Asia that Paul was still observing the law, but simply made exemptions for the gentiles who were already exempt from it. However, a number of the more fundamentalist Jews organized a mob to attack Paul. They detained him, slammed the doors of the temple, and intended to kill him. However, the Roman soldiers intervened to stop the disturbance and arrested Paul with chains. They brought him to the Antonia Fortress, the Roman military barracks which overlooked the Jerusalem temple, for processing. Then they sent him to Caesarea Maritima, the last seaport out of Judea (Acts 21).
The Way to Rome
Jesus intended for Paul to bring the gospel to Rome from the day he confronted him near Damascus (Acts 9:15-16). It is doubtful that Paul knew he was setting his death into motion when he invoked his Roman citizenship and appealed to the emperor himself. This right was not usually offered to Jews, and was never an option for Jesus. Both Festus, the procurator of Judea from AD 58–60, and Herod Agrippa II (AD 27–c. 93) wanted to release Paul, but even they could not overrule an appeal to the emperor (Acts 25:10-12; 26:32). Agrippa was only one of the kings whom Paul would preach the gospel to, the other being the infamous Nero (AD 37–68). This was the same emperor who, in July 64, burned down the majority of Palatine Hill to build his residence called the "Golden House" (Latin: Domus Aurea). Nero also used the Great Fire of Rome to persecute the Christian church, and he likely executed Paul as part of this bloodbath following two years of imprisonment. When Paul sailed for Jerusalem for the last time, he originally planned to visit Rome and continue onward to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 28). Although the New Testament authors did not talk about Paul's martyrdom under Nero, its historicity was first attested by Clement of Rome (c. AD 30–c. 100)—the only first-century writer who alluded to it (1 Clem. 5:5). This may be the same Clement that Paul himself mentioned in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 4:3). Luke probably knew about Paul's martyrdom but decided to emphasize the gospel's arrival in Rome instead. His focus was on how it overtook the earthly capitals of Jerusalem, Samaria, and the very house that ruled the empire (Acts 1:8).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we pray, that having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, we may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.
The Book of Common Prayer. Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019.
Bruce, F. F. New Testament History. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
Harris, Stephen L. Understanding the Bible. Eighth ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010.
Keener, Craig S., and John H. Walton, eds. NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019.
McDowell, Sean. The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus. New York: Routledge, 2016.
Roberts, Alexander, and James Donaldson, eds. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Grand Rapids: Calvin University, 2005. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ii.ii.v.html.
Sanders, E. P. "Saint Paul, the Apostle." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020.
Schechter, Solomon, and Wilhelm Bacher. "Hillel." Jewish Encyclopedia. West Conshohocken, PA: Kopelman, 2011. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/7698-hillel.
Shukla, Gaurav, Kathleen Kuiper, and Marco Sampaolo, eds. "Herod Agrippa II." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-Agrippa-II.
⸻. "Nero." Encyclopædia Britannica. London: Britannica, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Nero-Roman-emperor.
Strong, James. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible: Updated and Expanded Edition. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
Witherington III, Ben. The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1998.
Wright, N. T. Paul: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.
⸻. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009.
⸻. Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013.