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Paul was born at Tarsus in Cilicia (Map 7:F3), at about the beginning of the common era. A member of a Hellenistic Jewish family, which could trace its descent to the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11.1; Phil. 3.5), he was given the Hebrew name Saul, as well as the name Paul. Unlike many Jews, he was also a Roman citizen (Acts 16.37; 22.25–28).

As a child, Paul would learn of his Jewish heritage in the local synagogue at Tarsus. He received at least the final stages of his education in Jerusalem, though, under the guidance of Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22.3; 26.4). He soon rose to a position of some eminence as a Pharisee, perhaps even becoming a member of the Sanhedrin (Acts 26.5; Phil. 3.5).

When Christianity first came to prominence in Jerusalem, he was strongly opposed to it and was prepared to take personal responsibility for ensuring its extermination (Acts 9.1–2; 1 Cor. 15.9; Gal. 1.13). But while on his way to Damascus in Syria, chasing Jewish Christians who had fled there, he had a remarkable experience that changed the course of his life. Looking back on it twenty years later, he compared it to the appearances of Jesus to the disciples after the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15.1–11); as a result of that encounter, his fervent devotion to biblical faith as understood by the Pharisees was augmented by an unqualified commitment to the gospel.

From this point, his life took a new direction, as he threw himself into missionary work throughout Asia Minor and Greece. He established many churches, and saw himself as God's chosen agent to take the gospel to the gentiles (Gal. 1.15–16, 2.7–8). The New Testament nowhere mentions his death, but reliable traditions depict him as a martyr in Rome, beheaded during the persecution of Nero in the mid 60s CE.


We have two major sources of information about Paul: his letters and the book of Acts. There has been much debate concerning their relative worth. Paul's own writings must obviously have priority, though it is certainly not easy to reconstruct the story of someone's life on the basis of a miscellaneous and incomplete collection of occasional letters. Acts at least appears to provide a plausible framework, but is not always easy to correlate with what can be deduced from the letters.

Both sources must be treated with some caution, for neither was intended to be a biography. He features prominently in Acts, but the main focus there is on the rapid spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome. The letters are mainly concerned with specific circumstances in the life of various churches, and inevitably reflect more of these than they do of Paul's own life. They contain limited personal details and report very few incidents.

Additionally, Acts and the letters deal with different aspects of Paul's life. Acts shows him as a great missionary pioneer, taking the gospel to far‐flung corners of the empire. It therefore reports his initial preaching of the gospel to non‐Christians and their reactions to it, but it never mentions the letters! But they were written to Christians, and show how Paul related to those already in the church. For this reason alone it is difficult to draw direct comparisons between the two sources of information.

Yet we have little alternative but to try to combine the two sources. Acts provides the one really useful clue to the chronology of Paul's life. The reference to his encounter with Gallio at Corinth (Acts 18.12–17) dates this incident somewhere between 1 July 51 and 1 July 52, and by judicious deductions from that it is possible to work out a general outline of Paul's life. But there are still problems. There is no agreement on the number and sequence of his early contacts with the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 11–15; Gal. 1–2). There is also doubt over the number of times he was imprisoned, with Paul apparently implying an imprisonment at Ephesus not mentioned in Acts (Rom. 16.7; 1 Cor. 15.32; 2 Cor. 1.8; 11.23).


Tarsus was a typical Hellenistic city, with a cosmopolitan population and a variety of religious options for its people. Its citizens were well known for their interest in philosophy, and Tarsus was home to several prominent Stoics, including Athenodorus, adviser to Augustus. No doubt, Paul had at least a passing acquaintance with their thinking, as well as some knowledge of the various mystery religions and of Greek philosophy in general. He occasionally makes specific reference to Stoic writers (1 Cor. 15.33), and some have thought his letters show influence from Stoic and Cynic debating styles. But it is unlikely that he had a formal education in such subjects. He did, however, enjoy and appreciate life in the Hellenistic cities, and his metaphors demonstrate close knowledge of urban activities (1 Cor. 3.10–15; 4.9; 9.25–27).

Throughout his letters, Paul exhibits a passionate devotion to his Jewish heritage (Rom. 11.1–6; Gal. 1.13–14; Phil. 3.4–6). He was always at pains to demonstrate that his understanding of the gospel was quite consistent with biblical faith, and that Christian believers were spiritual heirs to ancient Israel. Toward the end of his ministry, he invested much time and energy in maintaining good relations between gentile Christians and the church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8.1–15; Rom. 15.25–33). It was his insistence that gentile churches give financial aid to the church in Jerusalem that ultimately led to his arrest and transportation to Rome (Acts 21–28).

His thinking also owed a good deal to the beliefs of the original disciples. Admittedly, he could declare himself independent of the Jewish apostles (Gal. 1.11–12, 17), but that was a tactical move in the face of strident opposition. When his presentation of the gospel is compared with other parts of the New Testament, it turns out to have the same basic structure as the preaching of Peter and other leading apostles. Moreover, the practical advice he gave his converts is surprisingly similar to that of other New Testament writers.

The nineteenth‐century Tübingen school dismissed this picture as a harmonization produced by the writer of Acts in the interests of the later catholic church. They thought Paul radically different from Jerusalem and Jewish Christianity. More recently, things have turned full circle and some have argued that Paul was actually under the control of the Jewish church, and took his orders from Jerusalem; that too seems unlikely. Nevertheless, Paul was concerned for the unity of Jews and gentiles in the church, and we misunderstand him if we place his life and thinking outside the mainstream of first‐generation Christianity.

Missionary Activity.

Paul was convinced that on the Damascus road God had commissioned him to take the gospel to the gentiles. Both tactically and theologically he felt it was important that the gospel also be proclaimed to Jews (Acts 13.46–48; Rom. 1.16; 9–11; 1 Cor. 9.20–21), and, according to Acts, his usual practice was to go first to the local synagogue. Galatians 2.7–9, however, indicates that his activity was apparently directed exclusively to gentiles.

In his travels, Paul took advantage of the fine highway system built by the Romans, and in the course of three extended tours he visited most of the key centers in Greece and Asia Minor. Although he had a physical weakness (2 Cor. 12.7–8), he must have been incredibly tough, judging from the list of hardships he survived (2 Cor. 11. 23–27).

Paul seems to have had a carefully designed strategy for evangelism. He aimed to establish churches in the largest population centers, which he could easily reach on the paved Roman roads. From there, local converts could take the message into more remote towns and villages. This was evidently successful. At least one of his letters (Colossians) was written to a church founded in this way, and later in the first century most of the areas he visited had many flourishing congregations.

Paul's converts were a typical cross section of Roman society. Many Christians were slaves, though the gospel also attracted cultured upper‐class Romans. Some were clearly influential people (Rom. 16.23), the kind who would take personal disputes to law courts (1 Cor. 6.1–11) and who could afford to make donations for good causes (2 Cor. 8.1–15; Rom. 15.25–33). Paul's coworkers also enjoyed the typically mobile lifestyle of the upper classes; in the absence of church buildings, the Christian community depended on the generosity of its richer members to provide facilities for corporate worship and hospitality for wandering preachers (Rom. 16.3–16; Philem. 2, 22; 1 Cor. 16.19). At the same time, Paul was certain that the gospel transcended the barriers of race, sex, and class, and insisted on the equality of all believers (Gal. 3.28; 1 Cor. 12.1–31).

The Letters.

Literary epistles were common in the Roman world (see Letter‐writing). Though Paul followed the style of the day, in some ways his letters are not literary works. He was essentially a speaker, and his letters contain what he would have said had he been physically present (2 Cor. 1.15–2.4). This no doubt explains his often uneven style. It also highlights some of the problems faced by the modern reader. At least one of Paul's letters (1 Corinthians) was clearly written in answer to previous correspondence from the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 8.1), and most of the others are a response to information that had reached him in one way or another. But of course we only have one side of the correspondence. And we may not even know that as well as we think, for ancient letter writers often entrusted significant parts of their message to the bearer of the letter to deliver orally. At best, therefore, reading Paul's letters is like overhearing one side of a telephone conversation: it is possible to pick up the general drift, but specific details are more elusive.

Not all of Paul's letters are like this. Some think Romans a more considered statement of Paul's thinking. Ephesians seems to have been a circular letter, sent to several churches. And in many letters, Paul shows that his writing can be sophisticated (1 Cor. 13), while his detailed arguments must have been carefully worked out before they were written down (e.g., Rom. 5–8).

Scholars disagree on whether all thirteen letters attributed to Paul are genuine. He regularly used a secretary, and wrote along with associates, so we may expect variations in style. But most doubt that the Pastoral letters come from Paul (1–2 Timothy, Titus), while others have questioned Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, on a variety of theological, stylistic, and literary grounds.

The letters certainly give us an insight into Paul's character. He was a formidable opponent (Galatians), but he also had a remarkable capacity for deep concern and true friendship (Rom. 16.1–6; 1 Thess. 2.6–9). He had a realistic understanding of human relationships, and was sensitive to those less robust than himself (1 Cor. 7–8). He also had an uninhibited sense of humor (Gal. 5.12).


Paul did not become a Christian because he was disillusioned with Judaism. He was totally dedicated to biblical faith, and quite certain that it made sense (Gal. 1.14; Phil. 3.6). It was his conversion experience that changed his life and played a major part in the development of his theology.

He discovered that Jesus was no longer dead, but alive—and must be “the Son of God” (Gal. 1.15–16; 2 Cor. 4.6). He realized that the Law was not central to salvation, for on the Damascus road God had burst into his life not because of his obedience to the Law but in spite of it. All he could do was to respond to this demonstration of God's freely given love. As he did so, Paul became aware of a moral and spiritual transformation taking place within him, a process that would ultimately remake him to be like Jesus (2 Cor. 2.18; Gal. 2.19–20).

This challenged his preconceptions, especially his attitude to the Law. How could he reconcile his previous understanding of God's will with his new perspective? He did so most eloquently in the conflict with the judaizers of Galatia, arguing from the Bible itself that the Law had always been intended as merely a temporary word from God (Gal. 3.24), and that faith had always been the true basis of salvation, as far back as the time of Abraham (Gal. 3.6–9). This was why he was prepared to argue with such force that gentile converts did not need to become Jews in order to be proper Christians.

But this was not the only way Paul described his beliefs. Elsewhere he refers to the Christian life as “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5.17), in which men and women have been “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God's beloved son” (Col. 1.13–14). The “age to come” was not locked up in the future; it had burst into the present through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Paul knew well enough that God's will was not yet fully effective on earth, and he expected a future divine intervention when the power of evil would finally be crushed, and when Jesus would return in glory (1 Cor. 15.20–28; 1 Thess. 4.13–5.11; see Second Coming of Christ). But he was certain that Christians were already a part of God's new order, and the church was to be an outpost of the kingdom in which God's will might become a reality in the lives of ordinary people. Through the work of God's Spirit, individuals (Gal. 5.22–23), society (Gal. 3.28), and the whole structure of human relationships (1 Cor. 12–14), could be radically transformed, so that in the context of a physically renewed world system (Rom. 8.18–23; Col. 1.15–20), God's people should grow to “the measure of the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4.14).

John W. Drane

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