Saint Paul of Tarsus (originally Saul of Tarsus) or Saint Paul, the Apostle (c. 3 - c. 66) is considered by many Christians to be the most important disciple of Jesus, and next to Jesus the most important figure in the development of Christianity.
Paul is recognized by many Christians as a saint. Paul did much to advance Christianity among the gentiles, and is considered one of the primary sources of early Church doctrine. Some argue that it was he who first truly made Christianity a new religion, rather than a sect of Judaism.
In reconstructing the events of Paul's life, we are fortunate to have two sources written either during or soon after the period of his life: Paul's own surviving letters (although his authorship of some has been disputed; see below); and the narrative of Acts, which at several points draws from the record of an eye-witness (the so-called "we passages"). However, both sources have their own weaknesses: Paul's surviving letters were written during a short period of his life, perhaps only between AD 50 - 58; and the author of Acts makes a number of statements that have drawn suspicion (e.g., the fact Paul was present at the death of Stephen [7:58]).
There is also an apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. However, the events recorded in this work do not coincide with any of the events recorded in either Paul's letters or Acts, and scholars usually dismiss this as a 2nd century novel.
Because of the problems with the contemporary two sources, as Raymond E. Brown explains (An Introduction to the New Testament, 1998), historians take one of three approaches:
the traditional approach is to completely trust the narrative of Acts, and fit the materials from Paul's letters into that narrative;
the approach used by a number of modern scholars, which is to distrust Acts -- sometimes entirely -- and to use the material from Paul's letters almost exclusively; or
a more mediate approach, which is to treat Paul's testimony as primary, and suppliment this evidence with material from Acts.
Paul described himself as an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin and a Pharisee (Rom. 11:1, Phil. 3:5). He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia. According to Acts 22:3, he studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, but some scholars, such as Helmut Koester, have expressed their doubts that Paul either was in Jerusalem at this time or studied under this famous rabbi. Paul supported himself during his travels and while preaching, a fact he alludes to with pride a number of times (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:13-15); according to Acts 18:3, he worked as a tentmaker.
Acts also states that Paul was a Roman citizen, a privilege he used a number of times to defend his dignity, including appealing his conviction in Judea to Rome. Because Paul himself never mentions this privilege, some scholars have expressed skepticism whether Paul actually possessed citizenship; such an honor was uncommon during his lifetime.
Paul himself admits that he at first persecuted Christians (Phil. 3:5) but later embraced the belief that he fought against. Acts 9:1-9 memorably describes the vision Paul had of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, which led him to dramatically reverse his opinion. Paul himself offers no clear description of the event in any of his surviving letters, and this, along with the fact that the author of Acts describes Paul's conversion with subtle differences in two later passages, has led some scholars to question whether Paul's vision actually occurred. However, Paul did write that Jesus appeared to him "last of all, as to one untimely born," (1 Cor. 15:8) and frequently claimed that his authority as an apostle came directly from God (Gal. 1:13-16). His conversion may have been famous enough that he felt no need to describe it explicitly.
Following his conversion, Paul first went to live in the Nabataean kingdom (which he called "Arabia") for three years, then returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17-20) until he was forced to flee from that city under the cover of night (Acts 9:23-25; 2 Cor. 11:32f). He travelled to Jerusalem where he met Saint Peter and James the Just, the brother of Jesus (not to be confused with Saint James the Great, son of Zebedee and brother of John).
Following this visit to Jerusalem, Paul's own writings and Acts slightly differ on his next activities. Acts states he went to Antioch, from whence he set out to travel through Cyprus and southern Asia Minor to preach of Christ, a labor that has come to be known as his First Missionary Journey (13:13-14:28). Paul merely mentions that he preached in Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:18-20). While these two accounts do not necessarily conflict, it does allow speculation that the author of Acts may have modified the actual events to fit the structure of his work.
These missionary journeys are considered the defining actions of Paul. For these journeys, Paul usually chose one or more companions for his travels. Barnabas, Silas, Titus, Timothy, John, surnamed Mark, Aquila and Priscilla all accompanied him for some or all of these travels. He endured hardships on these journey: he was imprisoned in Philippi, was lashed and stoned several times and almost murdered once (2 Cor. 11:24-27).
About AD 49, after 14 years of preaching, Paul travelled to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church -- namely Peter, James the Just, and the Apostle John -- an event commonly known as the Apostolic Council. Here the accounts of Acts (chapter 15) and Paul vary considerably: Acts states that Paul was the head of a delegation from the Antiochene church that came to discuss whether Christians should continue to observe Mosaic Law, most important of which were the practice of circumcision and dietary laws; Paul later said he had attended on his own initiative, concerned that the churches he had helped to found amongst the gentiles over the previous years might be excommunicated from the leading one at Jerusalem, and concerned to defend his belief that Christ's resurrection had freed Christian believers from the need to obey Mosaic Law.
Reading between the lines, it is clear that Paul was forced to make concessions, at least concerning traditional dietary laws; he recounts how when he met Peter in Antioch not long after their meeting in Jerusalem, he berated that apostle over his reluctance to share a meal with gentile Christians (Gal. 2:11-13). His loss of face in Jerusalem may have led to his depature from Antioch (which is usually considered the beginning of his Second Missionary Journey), and he spent the next few years traveling through western Asia Minor, this time entering Macedonia, and founded his first Christian church in Philippi, where he encountered harassment. Paul himself tersely describes his experience as "when we suffered and were shamefully treated" (1 Thess. 2:2); the author of Acts, perhaps drawing from a witness (this passage follows closely on one of the "we passages"), explains here that Paul exorcised a spirit from a female slave -- which ended her ability to tell fortunes, and reduced her value -- an act which the slave's owner claimed was theft and had Paul briefly put in prison (Acts 16:22). Paul then traveled along the Via Egnatia to Thessalonica, where he stayed for some time, before departing for Greece. First he came to Athens, where he gave his legendary speech in Areios Pagos where he said he was talking in the name of the Unknown God who was already worshiped there (17:16-34), then travelled to Corinth he settled for three years and wrote the earliest of his letters to survive, 1 Thessalonians.
Again in Corinth he ran into legal trouble: on the plaints of a group of Jews, he was brought before the proconsul Gallio, who decided that this was a minor matter not worth his attention and dismissed the charges (Acts 18:12-16). From an inscription in Delphi that mentions Gallio, we are able to securely date this hearing as having occurred in the year 52, providing a secure date for the chronology of Paul's life.
Following this hearing, Paul continued his preaching (usually called his Third Missionary Journey), travelling again through Asia Minor, Macedonia, to Antioch and back. He caused a great uproar in the theatre in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income due to Paul's activities. Their income relied on the sale of silver statues of the goddess Artemis, whom they worshipped, and the resulting mob almost killed him (19:21-41). As a result, when he later raised money for victims of a famine in Palestine and his journey to Jerusalem took him through the province once again, he carefully sailed around Ephesus, instead summoning his followers to meet him in Miletus (20:17-38).
Upon arriving in Jerusalem with the relief funds, Ananias the High Priest made accusations against Paul which resulted in his imprisonment (Acts 24:1-5). Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome, but due to the inaction of the governor Felix, Paul languished in confinement at Caesarea Palaestina for two years until a new governor, Porcius Festus, took office, held a hearing, and sent Paul by sea to Rome, where he spent another two years in detention (Acts 28:30).
Acts only recounts Paul's life until he arrived in Rome, around 61; Paul's own letters cease to furnish information about his activities long before then. While Paul's letters to the Ephesians and to Philemon may have been written while he was imprisoned in Rome (the traditional interpretation), they may have just as likely been written during his earlier imprisonment at Caesarea (first suggested in 1799), or at Ephesus (suggested in the early 20th century). We are forced to turn to tradition for the details of Paul's final years. One tradition holds (attested as early as in 1 Clement 5:7, and in the Muratorian fragment) that Paul visited Spain; while this was his intention (Rom.15:22-7), the evidence is inconclusive. Another tradition, that can also be traced back to the first century, places his death in Rome. Eusebius of Caesarea states that Paul was beheaded in the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero; this event has been dated either to the year 64, when Rome was devastated by a fire, or a few years later to 67. One Gaius, who wrote during the time of Pope Zephyrinus, mentions Paul's tomb as standing on the Via Ostensis. While there is little evidence to support any of these traditions, there is no evidence against their truths, nor alternative traditions of Paul's eventual fate. It is commonly accepted that Paul died as a martyr.
Paul had several major impacts on the nature of the Christian religion. First was the concept that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ superseded the value of the Mosaic Law, a belief that is often expressed as "Jesus died for our sins." It is unclear how much of this idea is original with Paul; Jerome notes the existence in the 4th century of a heretical Christian sect in Syria called the Ebionites who still observed the Mosaic Law, thus suggesting at least some Christians may not have believed in the salvatory qualities of the passion.
However, there is some evidence that suggests Paul's concept of salvation coming from the death of Jesus was not unique amongst Christians; Phil. 2:5-11 which expounds a Christology similar to Paul's, has long been identified as a hymn of the early Christians, and dated as existing before Paul's letter.
Related to Paul's interpretation of the resurrection are his concepts of faith, which he explains through his explanation of Abraham, and of righteousness and the forgiveness for sins, using language that Augustine of Hippo later elaborated on in his formulation of original sin.
One development clearly not original with Paul, but for which he became the chief advocate, was the conversion of non-Jews to Christianity. While a number of passages in the gospels (e.g. Mark) begrudgingly acknowledge that Gentiles might enjoy the benefits of Jesus, Paul is known as "The Apostle to the Gentiles", a title that can be traced back to Gal.2:8. His missionary work amongst the non-Jews helped to raise Christianity to more than a dissidant -- if not heretical -- Jewish sect.
His social views that became part of Christian doctrine
Paul's writings on social issues were just as influential on the life and beliefs of the Christian culture ever since as were his doctrinal statements. In fact, being part of the texts that were generally accepted as inspired scripture, these views were and still are considered part and parcel of the broader Christian doctrine by the more conservative Christians.
Paul condemned sexual immorality, homosexuality in particular, apparently based on the strict moral laws of the Old Testament, as well as presumably his own private revelation from the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:9f; Eph. 5:21-33). Some of his other dictums included advice to his contemporaries not to marry in the expectation of the near return of Jesus and the Apocalypse; permission to marry, or at least to stay married to, an unbeliever, in the hope that the spouse of a Christian will be converted sooner or later; the "he who does not work, neither shall he eat" dictum; and the command to young men who have trespassed by sleeping with a woman to marry her, a notion that remained prominent in the European culture and the English Common Law until relatively recently.
Paul may have been ambivalent towards slavery, saying that pending the near return of Jesus, people should focus on their faith and not on their social status (1 Cor. 7:21f). Due to his authority, these views have had an influence in Western society into modern times; Paul's failure to explicitly condemn slavery in his Epistle to Philemon may have been sometimes interpreted as justifying the ownership of human beings.
Paul wrote a number of letters to Christian churches and individuals. However, not all have been preserved; 1 Cor. 5:9 alludes to a previous letter he sent to the Christians in Corinth that has clearly been lost. Those letters that have survived are part of the New Testament canon, where they appear in order of length, from longest to shortest. A sub-group of these letters, which he wrote from captivity, are called the 'prison-letters', and tradition states they were written in Rome.
His possible authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews has been questioned as early as Origen. Since at least 1750, a number of other letters commonly attributed to Paul have also been suspected of having been written by his followers at some time in the 1st century -- early enough that religious writers like Marcion and Tertullian knew of no other author for them.
The following Epistles of Paul are included in the New Testament canon. Those which are questioned by a majority of scholars are in italics; those considered "prison-letters" are marked with an asterix (*).
Hebrews (see note above)
The following apocryphal works have been attributed to Paul:
Epistle to the Laodiceans
The Correspondence of Paul and Seneca the Younger
Epistle to the Alexandrians (lost)
Epistle to the Macedonians (lost)
In his book The Mythmaker, Talmudic scholar Hyam Maccoby theorizes that Paul was raised among mystery religions which featured dying and resurrected saviors, then later converted to Judaism, hoping to become a Pharisee. He found work in Jerusalem as a police officer of the Sadducee High Priest. Paul's work persecuting dissidents led to an internal conflict that manifested itself while traveling to Damascus to arrest Nazarenes. Maccoby explains his revelation was thus actually a resolution of his divided self; he fused the mystery religions, Judaism and the Jerusalem Church into an entirely new belief and centered it on the figure of Jesus.
Maccoby also contends that Paul invented many of the key concepts of the Christian religion, and that other documents were rewritten to reflect Paul's views. Maccoby questions Paul's integrity as well:
"Scholars feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, they must always preserve an attitude of deep reverence towards Paul, and never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances."
Some people, like the Talmidi Jews, share Maccoby's views on Paul's doctrines. They see Paul as an apostate from Judaism. While the teachings of Jesus may be the basis of Christian ethics, they view Paul's teachings as the true basis of modern Christian beliefs such as the atoning death of Jesus and original sin.