(Apostle to the Gentiles, mystic, martyr, theologian and missionary)
Patronage: public relations; against snakebites; tentmakers
Name meaning: “Little”
One of the most influential figures in the establishment of the Christian religion. Paul’s conversion to Christianity resulted from a profound mystical experience. The Acts of the Apostles (generally ascribed to St. Luke, a close companion of Paul) and his own letters form two sources from which the facts and chronology of his life can be constructed. More is known about his life than that of any other principal leader of the early Church.
Paul, called Saul in Hebrew, was born a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin in Tarsus of Cilicia (Anatolia) between 1 and 10, and was a Roman citizen. He was schooled in Jerusalem and supported the Pharisees. At some time in his youth, he learned how to make tents, which he continued to do after his conversion and apostleship. In his early career, Paul studied the strict observance of Jewish law. He participated in the persecution of Christians.
However, while traveling on the road to Damascus to arrest Christians in about 36, Paul had a mystical encounter with the risen Christ, one of the most dramatic visionary experiences recorded in religious journals (Galatians 1:15–16; Acts 9, 22, 26). He was nearly at the end of his journey when he encountered a dazzling light and heard a voice audible only to him say, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul fell to the ground and answered, “Who art thou, Lord?” He was answered, “Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.
It is hard for thee to kick against the goad.” Christ then told him to proceed to Damascus, where he would learn what was expected of him. Saul discovered when he rose up that he was blind. In Damascus Paul went to the house of Judas. Christ appeared to a Christian, Ananais, and instructed him to go to Saul and heal his blindness. This Ananais did with great trepidation, for Paul’s reputation as a persecutor of Christians was well known. Ananais laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to thee on thy journey, hath sent me that thou mayest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” Scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could once again see. Saul was baptized as Paul and immediately began to preach that Jesus was the Son of God.
He considered himself to be one of the apostles as were those who traveled with Christ before his Resurrection. As the first leader of the early Christian movement beyond the Jewish community, Paul was soon known as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” The 14 letters (epistles) in the New Testament attributed to him are from those written during 10 years of missionary journeys to Anatolia (now the Asian part of Turkey), Cyprus and Greece. During that time, he changed his name from Saul to Paul. Paul first evangelized his native Tarsus.
He was summoned to Antioch by Barnabas. A year later, a famine occurred in Jerusalem, and the two went there with alms for the poor. Sometime after returning to Antioch, Paul and Barnabas set out on the first missionary journey, to Cyprus, Pamphylia, Pisidia and Lycaonia, establishing churches at Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. A second missionary journey was undertaken after the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem. With Silas, and later Timothy and Luke, Paul returned to the churches he had helped to established and then went into Galatia. At Troas, Paul had a vision of a Macedonian, which he took as a sign from God that he was to go to Macedonia. He then went to Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens and Corinth.
He returned to Antioch via Ephesus and Jerusalem. At all the new churches, he gave advice concerning proper behavior for Christians, and preached that Jesus was the savior of all nations. On his third missionary journey, he revisited most of the places he had been on the second journey. He stayed in Ephesus for three years. Plans for another missionary journey were hampered by persecutions from angry Jews. In Jerusalem, he was arrested and imprisoned for two years, but continued to preach. He appealed his case to Caesar and was sent to Rome to be tried as a Roman citizen.
There he was jailed for two more years, but probably was acquitted and was set free. Eventually Paul was arrested again and was martyred ca. 67 when Nero had him beheaded. At the Church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, Italy, there are remnants of an ancient building and a fountain in an underground oratory. The fountain is said to have sprung up miraculously in answer to the prayer of Paul when he baptized converts. The well was used into the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, the Roman Church of San Paolo alle Tre Fontane was built on the spot where Paul was beheaded. The church also has a low marble column, to which Paul was said to have been bound, and a marble block upon which he was executed.
According to lore, the severed head bounded down a grassy slope, touching at three places. There, fountains sprang up, which were then protected by marble buildings. Paul was a pioneer in evolving the revolutionary concepts of Christianity. He accommodated Jewish ideas to Gentile traditions and circumstances. He was also at the heart of controversies within the Church, especially unresolved conflicts with Peter over the extent to which Gentile Christians had to observe Jewish law. He argued in favor of protecting Christianity from intrusion by Jewish and Hellenistic ideas and practices. The Acts describes the pattern of his successful but often radical apostolic methods, which often resulted in the conversion of many people but also conflicted with secular authorities. He was beaten and arrested on more than one occasion.
The Epistles, preserved in Greek, were not meant to be doctrinal treatises, but reflections on situations in the particular church to which Paul was writing. The Epistles reveal Paul’s syntheses of Christian belief, philosophy and practice as he himself understood it through the channel of his love of Christ and against the backdrop of his astounding conversion, hearing Jesus’ voice and being struck blind. He voiced his constant sense of Christ’s leading him and urged the faithful to follow his degree of faith inwardly and outwardly to “new life” in spite of the Judaic, Hellenic, Roman and other political, religious and cultural realities of the time.
The Epistles quickly became canonical and appear in Christian liturgy along with the Gospels. Their complexities have proved endlessly fascinating to biblical scholars, who dispute full authorship by Paul of several sections and whole epistles. The Epistle to the Hebrews is thought not to have been written by Paul himself; several of his close followers have been suggested as authors. The first Christology doctrines and theories of the meaning of the belief in Christ was developed by Paul. He conceived of Jesus as the Christ, a preexistent divine being who had descended into man to save man from the powers of law, sin and death.
The resurrected Christ was raised up to sit at the right hand of God, and would return at some point in the future to judge mankind. All of Paul’s major concepts build on his analogy of the Church as the “Body of Christ.” It is used throughout his teaching of the relationship between Christ and/as the Church; it is also the foundation for his theology of justification, redemption and sacraments, and his understanding of the general dynamic of the entire Christian life. Therefore, the frequent use of the phrases “in Christ” and “with Christ” by Paul is especially significant. However, modern controversies surround Paul’s seemingly contradictory condemnation of the flesh while he used images of the body to praise the soul, most notably throughout his concept of the Mystical Body of Christ.
Paul’s concept of justification by faith has influenced the key notions of such contrasting philosophies as Sartre’s unconditioned human freedom, and psychologies such as Carl G. Jung’s individuation and Abraham H. Maslow’s self-actualization, since they each focus on the necessity of developing resources, creative exercise of freedom and the overcoming of self-deception in order to achieve meaningful existence. A significant revival of interest in Paul’s theology began in the 1960s with the advent of worldwide charismatic movements.
Paul first introduced the word “charisma” (from the Greek meaning “grace”) into theological terminology and explained the charisma as characteristic of the faithful in general, who use the special gifts of the Holy Spirit to build up the community in a special way and to get charismatic movements started. However, Paul emphasized ethics over miracles, finding the reconciliation of the different social groups within the churches as more “miraculous” than the miracles recorded in the Gospels. Paul’s symbols are a sword and a book.