Paul was the first and greatest Christian theologian. He belonged to that generation which was more creative and more definitive for Christianity’s formation and theology than any other since. And within that generation it was he more than any other single person who ensured that the new movement stemming from Jesus would become a truly international and intellectually coherent religion.
Paul’s influence and writings have shaped Christianity as the writings/theology of no other single individual have.
The Synoptic Gospels certainly take us back closer to the teaching of Jesus. John’s Gospel has had an immeasurable influence on subsequent perception of Jesus Christ in particular and on Christian spirituality in general. Without Acts we would have little clear idea how Christianity first spread.
But if theology is measured in terms of articulation of Christian belief, then Paul’s letters laid a foundation for Christian theology which has never been rivaled or superseded.
Paul’s theology has influenced many other theologians down through the ages.
In the patristic period his influence on Clement, Ignatius, and Irenaeus is clear enough.
In late antiquity, Augustine restated Christian theology as a form of Pauline theology which came to dominate most of the Middle Ages.
Paul’s theology shaped the Reformation.
And in the modern period the diverse testimonies of many theologians attest same continuing formative influence of the first great apostle-theologian.
It is important, therefore, for each generation of Christian theology to reflect afresh on Paul’s theology.
A. Youth and Conversion
B. Pauline Missions
C. Paul’s last imprisonment
A. Youth and Conversion
The date of Paul’s birth is unknown. He called himself an “old man” (presbytes) in Philemon 1:9, i.e., someone between 50 and 56 years of age; this would mean that he was born in the first decade CE. Luke depicts Saul as a “youth” (neanias) standing at the stoning of Stephen, someone after 24 years old.
Paul never tells us where he was born, but his name, Paulos, would connect him with some Roman town. He boasted of his Jewish background and traced his lineage to the tribe of Benjamin (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5; and 2 Cor 11:22). He was an “Israelite,” “a Hebrew, born of Hebrews … , as to the law a Pharisee” (Phil 3:6), one “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” and one who excelled his peers “in Judaism” (Gal 1:14).
In calling himself a “Hebrew” (Hebraios), he may have meant that he was a Greek-speaking Jew who could also speak Aramaic and could read the OT in the original.
Paul’s letters, however, reveal that he knew Greek well and could write it and that in addressing Gentile churches he usually quoted the OT in Greek. He had a Greek education.
Luke also presents Paul as “a Jew,” as “a Pharisee” born in Tarsus, a Hellenistic town of Cilicia (Acts 22:3,6; 21:39), as having a sister (Acts 23:16), and as a Roman citizen from birth (Acts 22:25–29; 16:37; 23:27).
If Luke’s information about Paul’s origins is correct, it helps explain both the Hellenistic and the Jewish background of Paul.
The Lucan Paul also boasts of being “brought up in this city of Jerusalem and educated at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3), i.e., Gamaliel I, the Elder whose “school” in Jerusalem was around 20–50 CE.
Though the Lucan picture of Paul’s youth spent in Jerusalem may explain his Semitic training and mode of thought, Paul himself never utters a word about this feature of his youth.
Though Paul’s mode of argumentation and use of the OT resemble those of contemporary learned Palestinians Jews, his dependence on rabbinical traditions is more alleged than proved.
The only evidence that Paul was trained by a rabbinical figure such as Gamaliel is the statement of Acts.
Whether Paul was married or not is not clear.
1 Cor 7:8 would have suggested that he was widower at the time of writing this letter.
Again, 1 Cor 9:5 would mean that Paul had not remarried. But we cannot be sure.
Paul wrote of the crucial turn in his life in Gal 1:16: “God was pleased to reveal his son to/in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”
This revelation followed upon a career in Judaism and a persecution of “the church of God.”
After it he withdrew to “Arabia” and then “returned” to Damascus is inferred from the vb. “returned.”
Three years later he escaped from Damascus (AD 39) and went up to Jerusalem (Gal 1:18). Thus around AD 36 Paul the former Pharisee became a Christian and an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13).
Paul clearly regarded the experience near Damascus as the turning point in his life and in the sense a “conversion.” It was for him an encounter with the risen Lord (Kyrios) that he never forgot. When his apostolate was subsequently challenged, he exclaimed, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1; cf 15:8).
As a result of that “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12) he became “a servant of Christ” (Gal 1:10), someone with a compulsion to preach the Gospel of Christ, and for it he became “all things to all human beings” (1 Cor 9:22).
Luke also associates Paul’s conversion with a persecution of the church – in Jerusalem, because of which (Hellenist Jewish) Christians scattered to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1–3) and farther.
Luke recounts the Damascus experience three times in (Acts 9:3–19; 22:6–16; 26:12–18). Each of these accounts stresses the overwhelming and unexpected character of the experience which occurred during Paul’s persecution of Christians.
In each account the essential message is conveyed to Paul: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” – “Who are you, Sir?” – “I am Jesus (of Nazareth) whom you are persecuting.”
According to Paul’s letters he visited Jerusalem twice after his conversion, once after three years (Gal 1:18) and “once again during fourteen years” (Gal 2:1).
In Rom 15:25 he planned another visit before going to Rome and Spain.
According to Acts, however, Paul visits Jerusalem after his conversion five or possibly six times:
The correlation of the Pauline and Lucan data about the visits to Jerusalem after the conversion is the most difficult aspect of any reconstruction of Paul’s life.
The best solution is to equate the Lucan visit 1 with Gal 1:18.
Some scholars take the Lucan visits 2, 3, and 4 as referencing to the same event, the “Council” (= Gal 2:1–10).
The Lucan visit 5 creates no problem, and visit 6 is that planned by Paul in Romans 15:25.
Acts organizes Paul’s missionary activity into three segments.
His journeys cover roughly AD 46–58, the most active years of his life, as he evangelized Asia Minor and Greece.
The story of this pre – “Council” mission is recounted solely by Acts (13:3–14:28) and is confined to essentials.
Paul has given us no details about his missionary activity in that period of 14 years (Gal 2:1). For a time he was in “the areas of Syria and Cilicia” (Gal 1:21) and was preaching the faith among the Gentiles. (Gal 2:2)
Moved by the Spirit, Antiochene prophets and teachers impose hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth in the company of John Mark, Barnabas’s cousin (Col 4:10).
They depart from Seleucia, the port of Syrian Antioch, head of Cyprus, and pass through the island from Salamis to Paphos. There the proconsul Sergius Paulus is converted (Acts 13:7–12). From Paphos the missionaries sail for Perga in Pamphylia (on the coast of central Asia Minor), where John Mark deserts Barnabas and Paul and returns to Jerusalem.
Barnabas and Paul make their way to towns in South Galatia: to Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. In Antioch Paul preaches first to Jews in their synagogue; and when he encounters resistence, Paul announces his turning henceforth to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46).
After evangelizing the area and meeting opposition from Jews in various towns (even stoning in Iconium), Paul and Barnabas retrace their steps from Derbe through Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch to Perga and sail from Attalia for Syrian Antioch.
One of the issues that surfaces in Mission I is the relation of the new faith to Judaism, and more specifically the relation of Gentile Christians to older Jewish converts.
Are the gentile converts to be circumcised and required to observe the Mosaic Law?
According to Luke, during Paul’s stay in Antioch (end of Mission I) converts from Judea arrive and begin to insist on circumcision as necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1–3).
When this leads to a dispute between them and Paul and Barnabas, the Antiochene church sends Paul, Barnabas, and others up to Jerusalem to consult the apostles and elders about the status of Gentile converts.
This visits results in the so-called Council in Jerusalem.
In Gal 2:1–10 Paul told of this visit; he went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus “once again during 14 years” (to be reckoned from his conversion, i.e., in the year 49–50).
Paul spoke of this visit as the result of a “revelation” (Gal 2:2), and he laid before “those of repute” in Jerusalem the gospel that he had been preaching to the Gentiles, and they “added nothing” to it.
James, Cephas, and John realized the grace given to Paul and Barnabas and extended to them the right hand of fellowship.
The issue settled on this occasion was circumcision: It was not obligatory for salvation.
The first part of Acts 15 (vv 4–12) deals with this same doctrinal issue. Those whom Paul labeled “false brethren” are here identified as “some believers from the sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5).
When the matter is debated by the apostles and elders, Peter’s voice seemingly prevails; and the assembly agrees with him (based on his own experience in Acts 10:1–11:18).
The Jerusalem “Council” thus frees the early church from its Jewish roots and opens it to the world apostolate then confronting it.
Paul’s position is vindicated.
After the Jerusalem “Council” Paul went down to Antioch, and before long Peter followed. At first both of them ate with Gentile Christians, but soon “some people from James” (Gal 2:12), ie., Christians with pronounced Jewish leanings, arrived and criticized Peter for eating with Gentile converts.
Yielding to their criticism, Peter separated himself; and his action led other Jewish Christians, even Barnabas himself, to do the same.
Paul protested and opposed Peter to his face, because he was “not walking according to the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:11).
It may be implied that Paul was successful in his criticism, but even so the disciplinary question of Jewish dietary regulations for Gentile converts was now posed.
In Acts chapter 15, the matter of circumcision and the dietary problem are put together, but many scholars think these were two different issues debated on two different occasions.
Paul’s opposition to Peter did not solve the dietary problem at Antioch. Emissaries seem to have been sent again to Jerusalem, presumably after Paul’s and Peter’s departure from Antioch.
James convenes the apostle and elders again, and their decision is sent as a letter to the local churches of Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Acts 15:13–19).
Paul himself says nothing about this decision, and even in Acts he is only subsequently informed about it by James on his arrival in Jerusalem after Mission III (Acts 21:25).
The letter recommends (Acts 15:22–29) that Gentile Christians in such mixed communities abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from illicit sexual unions.
According to Acts 15:37–39 Paul refuses to take John Mark with him on Mission II because of his earlier defection. Instead Silas accompanies Paul, and setting out from Antioch they make their way through Syria and Cilicia to the towns of S Galatia, Derbe and Lystra (where Paul takes Timothy as a companion, having him circumcised, Acts 16:1–3).
From there he passes through Phrygia to North Galatia (Pessinus, Ancyra, and Tavium) and founds new churches. Hindered from moving to Bithynia, he goes on from Galatia into Mysia and Troas. Here he seems to be joined by Luke (Acts 16:10–17).
In response to a dream-vision Paul passes over to Neapolis, the port of Philippi, and the latter becomes the site of his first Christian church in Europe.
After imprisonment and flogging at Philippi for having exorcised a slave girl who had been the source of much gain for her masters, he passes on to Thessalonica via Amphipolis and Apollonia (Acts 17:1–9).
His short stay in Thessalonica is occupied by evangelization and controversy with Jews; it ends with his flight to Beroea (Acts 17:10), and eventually to Athens (Acts 17:15).
Here Paul tries to interest Athenians in the gospel of the risen Christ but he fails (Acts 17:32).
After his disappointment Paul moves on to Corinth (AD 51), at that time one of the most important towns in the Mediterranean world. Here he lives with Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2–3), Jewish Christians recently come from Italy and tentmakers by trade like Paul.
During his stay in Corinth, which lasts for 18 months, he converts many Jews and Greeks and founds a vigorous, predominantly Gentile Christian church. In AD 52 Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians.
Near the end of his stay (AD 52), Paul is brought before the proconsul L. Junius Gallio, who dismisses the case as a matter of words, names, and Jewish law (Acts 18:15).
Some time later Paul withdraws from Corinth, sailing from its port of Cenchreae for Ephesus and Caesarea Maritime.
After paying visit to the Jerusalem church (Acts 18:22), he goes to Antioch, where he stays well over a year (possibly from late autumn of 52 until the spring of 54).
Leaving Antioch (Acts 18:23), Paul travels overland once again through North Galatia and Phrygia to Ephesus. The capital of the province of Asia becomes the center of his missionary activity for the next three years (Acts 20:31), and for “two years” he lectures in the hall of Tyrannus (19:10).
Shortly after his arrival in Ephesus, Paul wrote GALATIANS (around AD 54). To this missionary period also belong the letter to the PHILIPPIANS and possibly that to PHILEMON (around 56–57).
During this time reports came to Paul about the situation of the Corinthian church. To cope with the situation there – doubts, factions, resentment toward Paul himself, scandals – he wrote at least five letters to Corinth, of which only two survive (one of which is composite).
One letter preceded 1 Cor (see 1 Cor 5:9), warning the Corinthians about associating with immoral Christians (and probably also recommending a collection for the poor of Jerusalem, [see 1 Cor 16:1]).
Then, to comment on reports and to answer questions sent to him, Paul wrote 1 CORINTHIANS shortly before Pentecost (probably in 57).
This letter, however, was not well received, and his relations with the faction-torn church of Corinth worsened. The situation called forth a hasty visit to Corinth (2 Cor 12:14; 13:1–2), which really accomplished nothing.
On his return to Ephesus, Paul wrote to the Corinthians a third time, a letter composed “with many tears” (2 Cor 2:3–4:9; 7:8,12; 10:1,9).
Some scholars think that it could be 2 Cor 10-13.
This letter may have been taken by Titus, who visited the Corinthians personally in an attempt to smooth out relations.
Probably during Titus’s absence the revolt of the Ephesians silversmiths occurs (Acts 19:23–20:1).
Paul’s preaching of the new Christian “Way” incites Demetrius, a maker of miniature shrines of Artemis of Ephesus, to lead a riotous mob into the theater in protest against Paul and the spread of Christianity.
This experience prompted Paul to leave Ephesus and go to Troas (2 Cor 2:12) to evagelise. Not finding Titus there, he decided to go on to Macedonia (2 Cor 2:13).
Somewhere in Macedonia (possibly at Philippi) he met Titus and learned from him that a reconciliation between Paul and the Corinthians had been worked out.
From Macedonia, Paul wrote to Corinth his fourth letter (2 Corinthians - 2 Cor 1-6? or 2 Cor 1-9?) in the autumn of 57.
It is not possible to say whether Paul proceeded immediately to Corinth or went first from Macedonia into Illyricum (Rom 15:19), whence he may have written 2 Cor 10–13 or 2 Cor 8-9?
Eventually, Paul did arrive in Corinth, on his third visit there, probably in the winter 57 and stayed for three months in Achaia (Acts 20:2–3).
By this time Paul has been thinking of returning to Jerusalem. Mindful of the injunction of the “Council” that the poor should be remembered (Gal 2:10), he saw to it that his Gentile churches took up a collection for the poor of Jerusalem.
This was done in the churches of Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia (1 Cor 16:1; Rom 15:25–26). Paul planned to take the collection to Jerusalem and thus terminate his evangelization of the eastern Mediterranean world.
He wanted to visit Rome (Rom 15:22–24) and from there go on to Spain and the West. During the three-month stay in Achaia Paul wrote the letter to the ROMANS (probably from Corinth, or its port Cenchreae [Rom 16:1]) at the beginning of 58.
When spring arrives, Paul decides to sail from Corinth (Acts 20:3) for Syria. But as he is about to embark, a plot against him is hatched by some Jews; and he resolves to travel overland, by way of Macedonia. Disciples from Beroea, Thessalonica, Derbe, and Ephesus accompany him. They spend Passover of 58 in Philippi (where Luke rejoins him – Acts 20:5).
After the feast they leave by ship for Troas and journey overland to Assos, where they take ship again for Mitylene. Skirting the coast of Asia Minor, where he addresses the elders of Ephesus summoned there (Acts 20:17–35).
He is not deterred by their prediction of his coming imprisonment, but sails on to Cos, Rhodes, Patara in Lycia, Tyre in Phoenicia, Ptolemais, and Caesarea Maritime. An overland journey brings him to Jerusalem, which he has been hoping to reach by Pentecost of 58.
For the rest of Paul’s career we are dependent solely on the Lucan information in Acts;
it covers several years after 58, during which Paul endures a long captivity.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Paul and his companions pay their respects to James in the presence of the elders of that church (Acts 21:18).
James immediately realizes that Paul’s presence in Jerusalem might cause a disturbance among Jewish Christians. So he counsels Paul to join four men who are about to go through the Nazirite vow ceremony and to pay the expenses for them as a gesture of goodwill toward Jewish Christians.
Paul consents, and the seven-day ceremonial period is almost over when he is seen in the Temple precincts by Jews from the province of Asia.
They accuse him of advocating violation of the Mosaic law and of defiling the sanctity of the Temple by bringing a Greek into it.
They set upon him, drag him from the Temple, and try to kill him. He is saved, however, by the tribune of the Roman cohort stationed in the Fortress Antonia.
The tribune eventually puts Paul under protective arrest (Acts 22:27) and brings him before the Sanhedrin. But fear of the Jews makes the tribune send Paul to the procurator of Judea, Antonius Felix, residing in Caesarea Maritime (Acts 23:23–33).
Felix, who expects Paul to bribe him (Acts 24:26), keeps Paul in prison for two years.
When the new procurator, Porcius Festus, arrives (AD 60), Paul “appeals to Caesar,” i.e., requests trial in Rome (Acts 25:11), in virtue of his Roman citizenship. Festus has to grant this request.
Escorted by a Roman centurion (and probably with Luke), he sets sail from Caesarea Maritime for Sidon and passes Cyprus to come to Myra in Lycia.
In the late autumn of 60 (Acts 27:9) they leave Myra on an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy, expecting bad weather. Their route takes them first to Cnidus (on the South coast of Asia Minor), then southward “under the lee of Crete off Salmone” as far as Fair Havens, near the Cretan town of Lasea (Acts 27:7–8).
When they try to reach the harbor of Phoenix, a northeaster blows up and carries them for days across the Adriatic to Malta, where they are finally shipwrecked (Acts 28:1).
After spending the winter on Malta, Paul and his escort sail for Syracuse in Sicily, then for Rhegium, and lastly for Puteoli, near Naples.
Their overland journey to Rome takes them through Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae (Acts 28:15).
Paul arrives in the capital of the empire in the spring of 61 and for two years is kept in house arrest (61–63 AD) with a soldier to guard him.
This situation, however, does not deter him from summoning Roman Jews to his quarters and evangelizing them (Acts 28:17–28).
Traditional interpretation ascribes Paul’s writing of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians to this imprisonment.
Acts ends with the brief account of Paul’s house arrest. His arrival in Rome and his unhindered preaching of the Gospel there from the climax of the story of the spread of the word of God from Jerusalem to the capital of the civilized world of the time – Rome symbolizing “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
But this was not the end of Paul’s life. The mention of “two whole years” (Acts 28:30) does not imply that he died immediately thereafter, no matter what interpretation is given to the enigmatic end of Acts.
The PASTORAL LETTERS (Titus; 1–2 Tim) have often been regarded as genuine writings of Paul and have been considered as composed by him after his Roman house arrest.
Indeed, they suggest that he visited the East again (Ephesus, Macedonia and Greece).
According to them Paul set up Titus as the head of the Ephesian church.
2 Tim seem to be Paul’s last will and testament, written as he was about to face death. It suggests that he may have been arrested at Troas (2 Tim 4:13) and brought to Rome again (2 Tim 1:17), where these letters would have been written from prison.
However, today many contemporary scholars regard these letters as pseudepigraphical, possibly written by a disciple of Paul.
Subsequent tradition tells of Paul, freed after two years of house arrest, going to Spain, then another trial and martyrdom.
Eusebius is the first to mention Paul’s second imprisonment in Rome and his martyrdom under Nero.
This testimony of Eusebius about Paul’s death is widely accepted. This persecution lasted from the summer of AD 64 to the emperor’s death (June 9, 68).
It is hard to pinpoint the year of Paul’s martyrdom, but the preferred year for the death of Paul is 67.