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"Paul: His Life and His Works" Lesson Plan

Kenneth Atkinson
Associate Professor of Religion
University of Northern Iowa

Project/Course: Introduction to the New Testament
Actor/role: Student; undergraduate level
Syllabus Section: Paul

By reading the OBSO articles listed below along with the thematic essay that includes further links to OBSO material, students will develop a strong understanding of Paul, the author of much of the New Testament. Paul is a central figure in the history of Christianity. Like Jesus, his life is difficult to reconstruct. Paul's letters sometimes do not agree with the account of his life in the book of Acts. Scholars, moreover, believe that Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him. This section introduces students to the academic study of Paul's life and teachings.

Incorporation of OBSO into Course

Instructors should assign the following background essays on Paul (listed below). The OBSO material can be used in a variety of different ways depending upon the course. The following are some recommended options.

Semester-Long Course

For a typical university course, students can read the background essays in preparation for the class. The thematic essay supplements this material and provides numerous hyperlinks to other related articles and supplementary material available on OBSO. Instructors can place the links on a web page to accompany the course. Students can also use this material to review for quizzes and exams.

Online Course

In an online course, instructors can place the links included in the thematic essay, along with a list of the background essays and thematic essay below, as the entire assignment. The thematic essay can serve as the primary text. Instructors may wish to create a web page of hyperlinks to other related articles and supplementary material available on OBSO.


Students should begin by reading the following background essays in the OBSO dealing with Paul. Instructors can project several of these articles during class lectures. The thematic essay and hyperlinks introduce students to many topics relevant to Paul's life and writings. Students should be assigned sections from Paul's letters to help them understand Paul's theology. They should be encouraged to use the New Oxford Annotated Study Bible (NRSV), and to look at the various commentaries on the OBSO. Students should be assigned the book of Galatians and commentary to help them learn more about Paul's background and theology.

Background Essays

Paul: His Life and His Works

Paul was the most controversial person in the early Christian church. He was a Jew like Jesus and the twelve apostles. But religion was the only thing he had in common with them. The apostles were eyewitnesses to Jesus'; life and resurrection; there is no evidence that Paul met Jesus. His use of the title "apostle" was controversial. He believed he had a right to be called an apostle because he claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus in a vision. He quickly eclipsed Jesus'; other apostles, especially Peter, to become the most important teacher of Christianity. Paul wrote more New Testament books than any other Christian. His life takes up much of the book of Acts. Because Paul cannot be understood apart from his unique background, we must begin by looking at his early life to understand how he shaped Christianity.

Early Years

Paul, previously called Saul, was born in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia, which was a major Roman city. He was uniquely qualified to spread Christianity outside of Palestine because he spoke languages other than Aramaic, such as Greek and, likely, Latin. But the primary reason he became early Christianity's greatest missionary is his Roman citizenship.

Paul was born a Roman citizen. This made him unique among the early Christians; neither Jesus nor the twelve apostles were citizens of the Roman Empire. Scholars continue to debate how Paul's family acquired citizenship since few Jews possessed it. It is doubtful that one of Paul's ancestors acquired it through military service since he would have had to worship the pagan gods. Although citizenship could be purchased, opportunities to acquire it in this manner were restricted. Many scholars believe that Paul's ancestors were among the Jews the Roman General Pompey took to Tarsus in 63 BCE. Some were likely given their freedom, and citizenship, at a later date.


Paul was a Pharisee. He studied under a famous rabbi named Gamaliel. The Pharisees, despite their modern-day reputation as hypocrites, were regarded as pious Jews in Jesus'; day. They believed in resurrection and the Oral Law, which is a body of tradition that they were taught had been passed down through successive generations from Moses to their time. After Paul's day, Jews placed the Oral Law in writing. The Pharisees used it to help them interpret Scripture. Their counterparts, the Sadducees, rejected the Oral Law. They also did not believe in resurrection or angels. They were literalists and followed only those teachings actually written down in the Bible. Jesus was closer to the Pharisees, which is why he frequently debates them in the New Testament. Scholars believe that the Gospel of Matthew reflects debates between the Jews and the Pharisees about Jesus after Christianity had separated from Judaism.


Scholars agree that Paul began his career as an opponent of Christianity. He claimed the resurrected Jesus appeared to him while he was traveling to the city of Damascus. Paul became blind for a short time. After a Christian healed him, he converted to Christianity. He spent the remainder of his life teaching about Jesus.

The early details of Paul's life as a Christian are controversial. His biographical account in Galatians differs from Acts. The story of his vision is perhaps the most notable example. The book of Acts preserves three slightly different versions of it. Both Galatians and Acts also present variant accounts of his activities following his conversion. Scholars continue to debate whether Acts or Galatians is more historically reliable. Some experts prefer to trust Paul's letters since they are earlier than Acts while others believed that Paul sometimes distorted his accounts to enhance his portrayal as Christianity's leading teacher.


Paul spent much of his life as a Christian traveling throughout the Roman Empire establishing churches and spreading his new faith. When Paul arrived in a new city, he typically preached to the Jews in the synagogue. He was often expelled, and then focused on converting gentiles.


Reconstructing Paul's teachings are problematic since scholars do not believe that he wrote all the letters attributed to him in the New Testament. Several are likely pseudepigrapha, false letters written by Paul's followers and attributed to him to enhance their authority. This practice was common in antiquity. Scholars agree that the following are almost certainly by Paul: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. These undisputed epistles reflect events in the 40s and 50s CE. Most of these are occasional letters that were written to deal with specific problems. Both 1 and 2 Corinthians address conflicts in the church at Greek Church of Corinth while Philemon is a short letter about a slave. Romans is the most theological of Paul's letters and was likely written to the church in Rome as an explanation of his beliefs in preparation for his visit there.

Deutero-Pauline Writings

Scholars refer to the epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians as Deutero-Pauline epistles because a later author likely wrote them. Paul's writings influenced them, but their language and theology sometimes differs from the undisputed Pauline writings. These letters reflect problems near the end of the first century. Unlike his other letters (Rom 5:9–10; 1 Cor 3:15; 5:5) where he uses the term "salvation" and the verb "save" in the future sense, Ephesians claims that salvation has already taken place (2:5). Although it is possible that Paul wrote the Deutero-Pauline letters, most scholars do not attribute these books to him because of their different writing style and theological content.

Pastoral Epistles

The epistles of 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are called the Pastoral Epistles because they give pastoral advice to leaders of Christian congregations. They reflect later first-century CE debates over Jesus'; nature. These discussions often rebut views similar to the Gnostics. The church structure in these books is much more complex than the institution described in Paul's authentic letters. It reflects a later period when Christianity had become more organized and institutional. The Pastoral Epistles also present a much more negative view of women than Paul's letters. They conflict with 1 Corinthian, where Paul assumes that females can be found praying and prophesying in Christian worship on a regular basis. Some scholars believe that 1 Cor 14:34–35 was added to this authentic Pauline letter in light of 1 Tim. 2:11–15 to subordinate women. The language of the former is similar to the latter but conflicts with the remainder of 1 Corinthians, which presents women as religious leaders. Scholars believe that a single author wrote the Pastorals and attributed them to Paul to enhance their authority.

Paul's greatest contribution is his letters, in which he argues that it is no longer necessary for Christians to follow Jesus'; law. He emphasizes that Jesus is alive in heaven and is the "Son of God" (Gal. 1:15–16; 2 Cor. 4:6). He believes that the Jewish law is meant to be temporary, and that faith had always been the basis of salvation since Abraham (Gal. 3:6–9) He teaches that Christ has freed Christians from the power of death and that we will share in Jesus'; resurrection in the afterlife.

Further Reading

  • Ashton, John. The Religion of Paul the Apostle. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
  • Beker, J. Christiaan. Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.
  • Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.
  • Donaldson, Terence L. Paul and the Gentiles: Remapping the Apostle's Convictional World. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.
  • Dunn, J. D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
  • Hengel, Martin. The Pre-Christian Paul. London: SCM, 1991.
  • Lüdemann, Gerd. Paul Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology. London: SCM, 1984.
  • Murphy-O';Connor, Jerome. Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.
  • Sanders, E. P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977.
  • Schnelle, Udo. Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005.
  • Segal, Alan F. Paul the Convert. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
  • Schweitzer, A. (1931), The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle. London: A.&C. Black.
  • Segal, A. F. (1990), Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Lentz, J. C., Jr. (1993), "Luke's Portrait of Paul." SNTSMS 77. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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