Although Luke tells us in Acts 22:3 that Paul was born in Tarsus in Cilicia (in south eastern Turkey now, with a population of about 100,000) there is good reason to believe the tradition that St Jerome hands down that Paul was born in Giskala in northern Galilee. We are told that Paul was taken with his parents as a prisoner of war from Giskala, a tradition only in Jerome, but which makes sense because the Romans made the victims of war pay for their campaigns, and so the Romans worked out their cost, took prisoners, sold them as slaves and got their money back, so Paulís parents were sold as slaves in Tarsus. No one kept slaves for long in the ancient world, most were liberated in their forties because they were eating more than they were worth. If you were liberated by a Roman master you automatically became a Roman citizen, that is why Paul is a Roman citizen and also an Aramaic speaker, not just a Jew born of Jews, but he also spoke the local Aramaic language of Palestine which was not true of most Jews of the Diaspora outside Palestine. It is possible that Jesus one day ministered in Giskala but Paul would have been long gone by then. Paul was probably born around the same year as Jesus.
In dating Paulís life I am following Jerome Murphy OíConnorís Paul: A Critical Life. His parents traced their ancestry back to the tribe Benjamin (Rom 11:1; Phil 3:5). Paul was a citizen both of Tarsus and of Rome. He made use of the citizenship of Rome when it suited, e.g. during his trials (Acts 22:25-29).
In 15 AD, he came to Jerusalem to make his four years of rabbinical studies under Gamaliel (Acts 22:2) who was a Pharisee (Acts 5:34). When Paul came to Jerusalem he already had a very good secular education, had gone through the course of rhetoric at one of the famous schools in the East. There were three such schools of rhetoric, Athens, Alexandria, Tarsus and the course lasted four years. We can presume Paul completed these studies at Tarsus. His letters show he was a skilled rhetorician, and he could turn the rules of rhetoric upside down when it suited. When Paul came to Jerusalem he joined the most fervent party i.e. the Pharisees. He didnít want to get involved with any political party e.g. the Zealots or the people on the right, the Essenes at Qumran. His teacher, Gamaliel, was outstanding, and Paul was the best in his class that year (Gal 1:14). There is a saying in the Mishnah that when Gamaliel the Great died respect for the Law ceased; that is exaggerated but it does show his influence. Remember that Gamaliel defended the Christians (5:34-39), if it is the work of God we cannot stop it. He became a strict Pharisee (Gal 1:14) so much so that he persecuted the Church as he admitted in his own writings e.g. 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6 and he was the only Pharisee to have persecuted Christians. Paul had a sister married and living in Jerusalem (Acts 23:16) so it may be that his entire family had moved to Jerusalem. From 2 Cor 5:16 scholars debate whether or not Paul would have met Jesus during this time, but if he didnít it is like that he would certainly have heard of him.
Since Luke says Paul voted to put people to death (Acts 26:10) this means he was a member of the Sanhedrin which had authority in capital cases but it is not to be taken seriously since he would certainly have boasted about it in passages such as 1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13; Phil 3:6. It seems that exaggeration is at work in Luke to make the miracle of his conversion all the greater. How did Paul flush out Christians? A simple test was all that was needed, ask someone to renounce their faith in Jesus and those who didnít were Christians (Acts 26:11). Tacitus and 1 Clement indicate that Christians turned in other Christians during the persecutions of Christians in Rome! Perhaps this happened also in Jerusalem.
What did Paul look like? We have a description of him in the Aprocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, where he is said to be ďsmall in stature, with a bald head, bowed legs, a well-shaped body, his eyebrows meeting over a slightly hooked nose, full of good nature. Sometimes he seemed a man, other times the face of an angel.Ē You may have the impression that Paul was a powerful teacher and preacher but he admits that he was not (1 Cor 2:1-3; 2 Cor 10:10; 11:6). College students say that lecturers are good researchers or teachers but both qualities are not always in the same person. From 1 Cor 7:8 it is obvious that he was not married when he wrote that letter. Older scholars suggest he was never married while younger ones suggest he was a widower. As we begin we pay tribute to the enormous feat undertaken by Paul in travelling so much for the proclamation of the Gospel during which he certainly encountered many dangers (2 Cor 11:26).
How did Paul finance his ministry and his journeys? Murphy-OíConnor suggests he may have been supported by him family until his conversion and disinherited by them after his conversion (Phil 3:7-8) and only then did he learn a trade although many scholars believe he had the trade since his youth. Anyone bred to manual labour takes pride in it e.g. ancient tombstones proudly have their tools but Paul speaks of manual labour in disdainful terms. Paul had to learn a trade that suited mobility. It had to be a skill that was needed everywhere, a skill whose tools were small and portable, and quiet to exercise so that he could talk while working. He would have been an imbecile if he decided to be a blacksmith. He tells us he worked with his hands (1 Thes 2:9; 2 Thes 3:7-9; 1 Cor 4:12). Luke tells us he worked as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). Also note the references to labouring in the following: 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23,27. There was a large demand for tents at that time. Tentmaker was a good choice because they were needed everywhere. For example, there was a tentmakersí union in Rome, the theatre was covered by tent, the Colossuem was covered by tent to protect people from the sun. Corinth was the home of the Ismian games every second year in the Spring. There was never a village there, just a temple and the municipality was responsible for putting up tents. If you travelled on a boat, you had your little tent. A tentmaker could repair anything. He had to presume everyone else was a thief, because if he lost his tools he would be finished. Therefore Paul may have slept on his chest on top of his tools.
As Paul set out for Damascus what would have been his attitude towards Jesus and his followers? He knew what the Pharisees knew of Jesus because we have a text in Josephus, the Jewish historian, which has Christian additions, but which goes back to Josephus which states that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate on Jewish charges, that he taught in a way that was accepted by the credulous and worked apparent miracles but which no one could believe in i.e. Jesus was a charlatan who preyed on the expectations of the credulous. These were the ideas in the back of the mind of Paul as he travelled to Damascus. The most extraordinary thing about Paulís conversion is in Phil 3:12, ďI was apprehended by Christ Jesus.Ē This is the text as it appear in the Greek and it may not be in some English translations. The Greek form of the verb Ďapprehendí that Paul uses there is the aorist, a form of the verb used for a particular moment in past time. So in Phil 3:12 Paul gives the impression is that he was grabbed by Jesus and had no choice. Jesus arrested him with his overwhelming power. It would be very difficult if not impossible to find a more graphic description of an act of Lordship.
Paulís conversion involved a vision of the risen Jesus. As a result of that experience of Jesus, Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. See Gal 1:16; Rom 11:13. Because of that experience he could claim to be an apostle in the same sense as the Eleven who had also seen the risen Jesus, see 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8; Gal 1:12,16. The official definition of an apostle is given us in Acts 1:21-22, and included seeing the risen Jesus. Paul experienced the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. There was never before in the early Church such a sudden and total conversion to Jesus. Because of that some scholars believe it was not as sudden as we are told, that Paul suffered a breakdown as a result of his rigidity to the Law and gradually converted to Jesus. On the other hand most scholars accept that it was a sudden and total conversion. I also prefer the latter viewpoint. God can intervene in any way he chooses.
In each of the three accounts of Paulís conversion in Acts (9:1-19; 22:3-21; 26:2-23) it is clear that Paulís conversion is to enable him to minister to the Gentiles. In Acts 9 Luke tells us that Paul began preaching immediately after his conversion but he had gone from one extreme to the other so much so that he had to be sent away (Acts 9:30). Then follows a very interesting line in Acts, ďThe churches throughout Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were now left in peaceÖĒ (Acts 9:31)
In Gal 1:17 he tells us he want to Arabia which is east of Jerusalem and was controlled by the Nabataeans. Its capital was Petra. That territory is Jordan now. However it seems that Paul did not stay quiet in Arabia because he had to leave it to go to Damascus (Gal 1:17). When the Nabataeans took control of Damascus three years later there was an attempt made to capture Paul by Aretas the king of Arabia, and as a camouflage for safety Paul had to be let down over the city wall in a basket (2 Cor 11:32-33). Thus after Paulís three years in Damascus (Gal 1:18) he had to escape to Jerusalem. Here he met Peter but stayed there only two weeks (Gal 1:18). Peter had been preaching the Gospel for a number of years by now and we can imagine that Paul learned much from him about Jesus. Although Paul may have never met Jesus he shows knowledge of the human Jesus in a number places in his letters, such knowledge is likely to have imparted to him by Peter; e.g. his reference to the meekness of Christ in 2 Cor 10:1, the tenderness and compassion of Jesus in Phil 1:8, and Paulís description of love in 1 Cor 13:4ff is surely his description of Jesus. Paul doesnít tell the full story of Jesus in his letters as the Gospels do because he doesnít need to, instead he makes allusions and all the Christians would know what he was referring to. For example, you can say something in a coded language to your family or friends and they will understand what you mean without you having to say everything. After Paulís two weeks in Jerusalem he went to Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21). Then follows a gap of eight years in what we know of Paulís life until he began his first missionary journey.
In Acts 13 Paul goes on his first missionary journey whose narrative continues until the end of Acts 14. Paul was accompanied on this journey by Barnabas and John Mark but the latter deserted them in Pamphylia (15:38). A map of Paul's second missionary journey is given at this point in the printed course.
The Council of Jerusalem is described in Acts 15. The main decision taken at this meeting was to allow Gentiles become Christians without firstly having to be circumcised. In other words, Gentiles were allowed to become Christians without firstly having to become Jews.
Paul began a second missionary journey in Acts 15:36. Silas accompanied Paul from the beginning of this mission (15:40) and Timothy joined in Lystra (16:1-3). Much of Acts 16 is concerned with Paul in Philippi. After Philippi Paul visited Thessalonica and founded the church there (Acts 17:1-9). The remainder of Acts 17 relates Paulís visits to Beroea and Athens. Paulís ministry in Athens was not successful, he wrote no letter back later to the Athenians as he did to other churches. Acts 18 relates the foundation of the Church in Corinth. While in Corinth Paul wrote 1 Thes and 2 Thess if the latter is a genuine Pauline letter. Paul made a brief stop in Ephesus (18:19-21). The second missionary journey was completed when Paul returned to Jerusalem (ďthe churchĒ), mentioned in 18:22a. A map of the second missionary journey is given at this point in the printed course.
The third missionary journey begins in Acts 18:22b. It was during this journey that Paul wrote many of his letters. Much of Acts 19-20 concerns the Church in Ephesus which will be of interest to us later when we will read the letter to the Ephesians. We do not know when Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians but a good suggestion is that he wrote it shortly after arriving in Ephesus and before or around the time he wrote to the Corinthians. It may have been during this time also that he wrote the letter to the Philippians. Some say Paul wrote the letter to Philemon from here, others say from Rome later. During this time reports came to Paul of problems in the church in Corinth so he wrote a letter which has been lost. It is mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9. Then he wrote another letter answering questions sent to him. We have this letter and call it 1 Cor. This letter was not well received so Paul made a brief visit which unfortunately did not achieve results. He called it a painful visit (2 Cor 2:2). After returning to Ephesus Paul wrote a third letter which has also been lost. This must have been a severe letter since he wrote it in agony of mind (2 Cor 2:4). After leaving Ephesus Paul passed through Macedonia (Acts 20:2). During that time he is believed to have written his fourth letter to the Corinthians probably from Philippi which we call 2 Cor. Acts 20:3 tells us he spent three months in Greece and then he also wrote the letter to the Romans almost certainly from Corinth. The third missionary journey comes to an end with Paulís arrival in Jerusalem in Acts 21. As you can see he has written a large number of letters, and most during this third missionary journey. More books of the NT were written by Paul than by anybody else. A map of Paul's third missionary journey is given at this point in the printed course.
Most of the remainder of Acts concerns Paulís trials and imprisonments. Acts ends with Paul in prison in Rome. From Acts 28 it is judged that Paulís imprisonment in Rome was only a house arrest which would have necessitated a soldier to guard him and not imprisonment in the state prison. Two churches in Rome claim the honor of being built on the location of this house. They are the church in Piazza di S Paulo alla Regola in Trastevere and the Church of Santa Maria in Via Lata which is just off the Corso, Romeís main street. Some scholars believe that Paul was released from this imprisonment which is most likely since none of those who accused him in the Middle East were present at his trial. Paul is then believed to have journeyed to Spain afterwards. Some documents (1 Clement 5:7, Acts of Peter 1-3,40 and the Muratorian Canon) mention a missionary journey by Paul to Spain that can be placed after Acts 28. While there, the churches he founded in the Middle East suffered many setbacks occasioning his return.
The fire in Rome in 64 AD which started in the Circus Maximus on 18th
July destroyed ⅔of the city and lasted 7 days. There were many casualties. Although the Emperor Nero started it to
further his ambitious building project, the fire was blamed on the Christians
and Paul being regarded as a spearhead of the Christians was sought out in the
Roman Empire. So once again Paul
had to return to Rome where he was again imprisoned. This time it was not house arrest as
previously but he was imprisoned in a state prison which is believed to be the
Mamertine Prison which is now very near the Piazza Venezia in the centre of
Rome. He was beheaded outside Rome
in a place now called Tre Fontane (Three Fountains). The name ĎThree Fountainsí refers to
the fact/legend that after his head was cut off it bounced three times and a
fountain sprang up in each of the three places. The sanctuary of the Basilica of St Paul outside the Walls was built
directly on top of the grave where Paul was buried.