A formidable theologian—sometimes even regarded as the founder of Christianity inasmuch as it was Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, who laboured that the Church should be an authentically international and intellectually coherent community—whose correspondence occupies a substantial part of the NT. There is no serious doubt about Paul's authorship of the epistles to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Philippians, and Philemon; and most scholars accept the first to the Thessalonians and Colossians. The epistle to the Ephesians is sometimes regarded as a compendium of Pauline theology rather than a letter from Paul's own hand, and the Pastoral Epistles would not generally be used as evidence either for Paul's thinking or for his imprisonment after the end of Acts 28. The epistles were written for particular occasions and were dictated to a secretary, such as Tertius (Rom. 16: 22), and are therefore first‐hand witnesses to the life and tensions of the apostolic Church, as well as giving autobiographical information about Paul. The Acts of the Apostles, by contrast, is a secondary piece of historical writing. But neither epistles nor Acts tell us what Paul looked like, though an unreliable work of the 2nd cent. (the Acts of Paul and Thecla) describe him as short, bald, bow‐legged; of vigorous physique, with meeting eyebrows and a slightly hooked nose. From references in the epistles, especially 2 Corinthians, we deduce that Paul was a masterful and proud teacher, and yet could be humble, exacting, and irritable, though also forgiving and magnanimous. He attracted the loyalty, even love, of disciples (Gal. 4: 15) and had an intense pastoral concern for his communities; he was anxious to promote reconciliation amongst the disaffected. But by Jews he was hated for his apostacy.
Although the letters were non‐literary in the sense that they were not intended for publication or for posterity, they were carefully preserved by recipients and continued to be read and valued. They have thus acquired an after‐life with its own authority. Their author was certainly not uneducated. Paul was born about 10 CE into an orthodox Jewish family (Phil. 3: 5–6) at Tarsus. He left home at a young age for Jerusalem (Acts 22: 3) and was trained by Pharisees. He became a persecutor of Christians and as such was on the way to Damascus (33 CE) when he received his call (or experienced a ‘conversion’, Gal. 1: 23) to follow Jesus as Messiah and take the gospel to the Gentiles, thereby threatening Israel's distinctiveness and boundaries. Paul was equipped for this by his knowledge of Greek, even though his thinking has a strongly Hebraic tone.
What happened to Paul on the way to Damascus did not involve his total repudiation of his Jewish heritage nor an overwhelming sense of failure as a Jew. Rather, it was from now on Paul's conviction about Christ, crucified and risen, as the Messiah. Hence the means of salvation was not by membership of the community of the Torah but of the new community of Christ. Salvation was by grace through faith in Christ, and initiation into his community was by baptism, though Paul's ‘conversion’ has not always been so interpreted, especially since Martin Luther's very pejorative view of Judaism. He understood Paul to have been struggling to gain salvation through doing the works of the law as had been Luther's own experience as a Catholic monk. Luther believed that Paul, like himself, was transformed by his relying in faith solely upon the grace of God. However, it is shown by recent surveys of Jewish texts that Judaism of the 1st century CE was in fact itself a religion of covenant and response to grace. What Paul rejected in his letters was the ritual requirements distinctive to Judaism and therefore any attempt to impose such dietary and other regulations on his Gentile opponents. It was not a matter of Gospel against Law, or faith in God's grace against reliance on human works. The essence of Paul's liberating discovery on the Damascan road was Christ, not a release from a burden of incompassionate and ungracious legalism, which was a caricature of Judaism.
Paul was a man of some social standing as a citizen both of the Greek city of Tarsus and of Rome itself (according to the Acts; Paul's Roman citizenship is never mentioned in his epistles). The latter conferred privileges, such as exemption from degrading punishments and the right of appeal to the emperor in the case of capital charges. Paul's Roman citizenship was from birth and was probably a reward given to his father by the emperor, which passed on to the son. According to Josephus, many Jews possessed Roman citizenship. Not surprisingly, Paul maintains that the power of (Roman) government was God‐given (Rom. 13: 1–7). It is possible that a directory of citizens was kept at Rome. Paul's marital status is unclear: it has been held, variously, that he was a celibate, a widower, or legally separated from a wife.
Paul had two names: the Hebrew, Saul, after the first Hebrew king, and Paul, which is Latin (= ‘the little one’) and was probably adopted because of its sounding rather like Saul. He is depicted as a man of wealth, able to pay the expense of a Nazirite vow (Acts 21: 24) and to excite Felix's expectation of a bribe (Acts 24: 26). He receives preferential treatment from time to time and the author of Acts seems keen to create an impression that Christian belief and good social standing were entirely compatible. The fact that Paul worked with his hands, making tents, did not relegate him to the artisan class, since it was the practice of rabbis to teach without charging fees and to have a trade by which to live. It is clear that, unlike Jesus, Paul was essentially a townsman, for he refers to the theatre (1 Cor. 4: 9), commerce (2 Cor. 1: 22), shops (1 Cor. 10: 25), and games (1 Cor. 9: 24). After Paul, the Church continued to thrive in cities while paganism prevailed in the countryside.
The view that Paul rather than Jesus was the founder of Christianity as a new religion, separate from Judaism, is based on the contrast between Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom with Paul's religion of redemption in which Christ's death and resurrection are the centrepieces of a new mystery cult. Baptism is the means of entry, and the defilement of human sin is removed as the initiate enters into communion with Christ's act of salvation. The message of Jesus about the Father has been transformed into a religion appropriate for the Graeco‐Roman world in which the heavenly Father plays only a minor role, and the Judaism of Jesus is stripped in Paul's religion of its Jewish basis of the Torah.
Part of the argument for Paul as the genius of imagination and poetry, who contrived to present the Mediterranean world with a new mystery religion round the death and resurrection of Jesus rests on his comparatively infrequent reference to the life and teaching of Jesus. However, there are references to Jesus' birth (Gal. 4: 4), to his obscurity and poverty (2 Cor. 8: 9; Phil. 2: 7), to his teaching on marriage (1 Cor. 7: 10), on the practice in antiquity approved by Jesus (which Paul did not avail himself of) that ministers of a religion should be financially supported by their fellow believers (1 Cor. 9: 14); to the Last Supper (1 Cor. 11: 23 ff.); to the recommendation to be imitators of Jesus (1 Thess. 1: 6); to the meekness and gentleness of Christ (Rom. 15: 2–3). But the main interest of Paul is in the crucifixion and in Jesus' being raised by God on the third day (there is no explicit allusion to the empty tomb). Paul taught as one who believed that God had acted decisively in the Cross and Resurrection; he interpreted the present situation in the light of those eschatological events. Both Jesus and Paul had the same hope for final salvation but each viewed it from his own standpoint: Jesus was the bearer of salvation; Paul was the messenger of what had taken place.
When Paul retreated to Arabia (Gal. 1: 17), he perhaps needed to think through the meaning of the transforming experience on the Damascus road. He knew himself to be now a slave of Jesus Christ (Rom. 1: 1), and an apostle. But whereas Jesus' twelve apostles were ex‐fishermen and were obliged to beg for their living during their journeys, Paul had a trade and never required the community's support. Nevertheless, he stressed the authenticity of his apostleship.
The Cross with its saving power was central: Paul had been a persecutor of Christians because he saw them as adherents of a false Messiah (Gal. 1: 13) who had been cursed by God (Gal. 3: 13). After the Damascus road experience he believed that Jesus was the exalted Lord in glory. Such a dramatic change of direction made him more aware than most of the mercy of God (1 Cor. 15: 9–10); he had been chosen; he was inevitably led to a new doctrine of ‘election’ and in Rom. 9–11 he argues that election cannot be in virtue of physical descent from Abraham (9: 7) and practice of good works; in Rom. 8: 38 he declares that God can even turn evil and sin to his own purposes.
Paul's sense of having failed God just when he had supposed he had been working on God's behalf made him, as a Christian, deeply conscious of guilt, and he repudiated the conceit of salvation by birth into the covenant people, which had seduced him to self‐confidence. From these convictions stemmed Paul's hostility to the campaign of certain Jewish Christians to insist that obedience to the Law could be combined with faith in Christ. For Paul, those two kinds of justification were incompatible and he could not accept his opponents' demand that his Gentile converts should first accept the requirements of the Jewish Law (by being circumcised and observing the food regulations) before being baptized (Gal. 2: 21). Paul's belief that God had sent Christ to save the world and his conviction that he had been called to proclaim this gospel far and wide made him assert that these events would not have been necessary if the means of salvation were already generally available in Judaism. If his Gentile converts were to accept the Jewish‐Christian proposition, it would be equivalent to renouncing Christ. A precondition of circumcision and Sabbath observance before being admitted into a Christian congregation would spell the end of Paul's mission. He urged ex‐Jews in the Roman Church to throw in their lot with the ex‐pagans. Emotional and legal ties with Judaism should be renounced in a united community (Rom. 15: 7). But Christians' release from the obligations of the Law, along with separation from the institutions of Judaism, does not imply that they can live without moral restraint: becoming ‘one person’ in Christ produced the ‘fruit of the spirit’. Dying with Christ led to a share in his risen life, as a new person. Paul's anxiety to preserve the unity of the Church was one motive which inspired his collection among the Gentile Churches for Christians in Jerusalem. He wanted the Jerusalem leaders to accept the validity of his Gentile mission, in which pagans were baptized without submitting to the Jewish Law. No doubt he also thought that the financial aid would assist his cause.
Paul's encounter with Gallio at Corinth (Acts 18: 12–17) can be dated in 51 CE, and his execution in Rome probably in 64 CE. See nero. Paul had travelled nearly 10,000 miles during his career as reported in Acts.