The sources for St. Paul's life are the Acts of the Apostles, in which he is the dominant figure, and the Pauline Epistles. The value of the latter depends on the extent to which they are accepted as genuinely written by the apostle. Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon are undoubted; Ephesians and Second Thessalonians are rejected by most critics; First and Second Timothy and Titus are generally considered to be in their present form later and non-Pauline; finally, Hebrews was not written by St. Paul himself.
Paul's first known contact with Christianity is his presence at the martyrdom of St. Stephen. Soon after this he got a commission from the chief priest to go to Damascus to help suppress Christianity there (AD 33). As he approached Damascus he suddenly saw a blinding light and heard Jesus ask,
Why persecutest thou me? Paul was temporarily blinded and was led into Damascus, where he was found (on the Lord's direction) by the disciple Ananias. On regaining his sight, Paul was baptized and immediately began preaching. (Acts 8.1–3; 9.1–30; 22.3–21; 26.9–23; Gal. 1.12–15.)
Paul spent the next 13 years learning the faith, part of the time living in seclusion in the Arabian desert. He visited Jerusalem probably twice (AD 37, 44) and dwelt at Tarsus and Antioch for some time. (Acts 11.) From Antioch, Paul set out on his first missionary journey (Acts 13–14.27; AD 47–49), on which he was accompanied by St. Barnabas and for a time by St. Mark. In general the method was to go from city to city preaching in synagogues and in marketplaces. Among the stops on this first mission were Cyprus, Antioch, and Derbe. Churches were set up, and as soon as the little Christian groups seemed strong enough the apostle and his companions would move on. Among their stops were Cyprus, Pamphylia, and Derbe. About AD 50 there was a council of the apostles at Jerusalem to discuss whether Gentile Christians should be circumcised, i.e., whether Christianity was to be a Jewish sect. St. Paul opposed the Judaistic group vigorously, and the council decided against them. (Acts 15; Gal. 2.)
On his second mission (Acts 15.36–18.22; AD 50–53) Paul, having quarreled with Barnabas, was accompanied by Silas. During visits to Philippi and Salonica they founded two churches that were to become great. They later sailed to Athens where Paul delivered his famous address on the
unknown god in the market. (Acts 17.16–34.) From Athens, Paul went to Corinth. In the course of a long stay there he wrote First and Second Thessalonians (AD 52). Possibly about this time he also wrote his letter to the Galatians, although some scholars think this was the earliest of the epistles (written from Antioch), while others believe it was written later from Ephesus. At length Paul sailed to Caesarea in Palestine and visited Jerusalem again. He spent some time in Antioch.
The third missionary journey of St. Paul (Acts 18.23–21.26; AD 53–57) took him to Galatia, then Phrygia, and over to Ephesus. His two-and-a-half-year stay in Ephesus was one of the most fruitful periods of his life; in this time he wrote his two letters to the Corinthians (c.AD 56). He went to Corinth to help the Christians there, and he probably wrote the Epistle to the Romans there. Thence he returned to Ephesus and finally to Jerusalem. This was his last visit there (AD 57–59), for soon after he arrived he was arrested for provoking a riot.
After being held prisoner for two years and after hearings before the council of priests, before the Roman procurator Felix and his successor Festus, before Herod Agrippa II, and again before Festus, he appealed to Rome on his citizen's right. So he was sent to Rome under guard. (Acts 21.27–28.31.) On the way they were shipwrecked on Malta but finally landed at Puteoli (Puzzuoli). Paul was imprisoned (AD 60) in Rome but was allowed to conduct his ministry among the Roman Christians and Jews who visited him. Of his final fate tradition says that he was beheaded south of the city, near the Ostian Way, probably during the persecution of Nero. A lesser tradition claims that Paul was released after his first imprisonment and that he went East again, and perhaps also to Spain, before his martyrdom. Some scholars believe that Paul was executed after his initial imprisonment, probably AD 62. St. Paul's tomb and shrine are at the Roman basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls.
St. Paul's figure dominates the apostolic age, and his epistles have left a tremendous impress on Christianity. The first Christian theological writing is found in them, where it is characterized rather by spiritual fervor than by systematic analysis. St. Paul became a fountainhead of Christian doctrine, and countless interpretations have been given of his teachings. Thus, Roman Catholic theology leans upon him at all times, and Martin Luther derived from the Epistle to the Romans his principle of justification by faith alone. There can be no doubt that Paul's interpretation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, his doctrine of the church as the mystical body of Christ, his teaching on law and grace, and his view of justification have been decisive in the formation of the Christian faith. The feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, June 29, is one of the principal days of the church calendar; the conversion of St. Paul is commemorated Jan. 25.
See D. R. McDonald, The Legend and the Apostle (1983); J. A. Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (1990); E. P. Sanders, Paul (1991); B. Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (2004); J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul: His Story (2004); G. Wills, What Paul Meant (2006).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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