Early Christianity: The Apostle Paul
What could I write about the apostle Paul that hasn’t already been written? Damn near nothing. He is without question the single most powerful influence on the Christian religion as we know it today (if you don’t count Jesus, that is). His conversion story is dramatic. His zeal was catching. His passion for converting the gentiles made Christianity its own religion rather than a subset of Judaism, and this allowed Christianity to eventually flourish throughout the Roman world and beyond.
Saul of Tarsus was born a Hellenized Jew and a Roman citizen. Saul means “asked for” in Hebrew, and he may likely have been named after King Saul, King David’s predecessor and father-in-law. He was probably sometimes called Paul prior to his conversion since Paul was the more Greek friendly version of his Hebrew name. It was almost certainly a calculated choice to use the Hellenized version of the name in his later ministry.
Saul’s dad was a Pharisee, and Saul grew up to also become a Pharisee. He first learned a trade before he was allowed to go to rabbinical school. Saul learned to make tents. Apparently the people of antiquity also felt that their children should have something to fall back on. At the tender age of twelve he would have been sent to learn scripture.
He would have been sent to a fine school, as Tarsus, located in present day Turkey, had a reputation for being something of an intellectual capital of the Jewish world. Think of Tarsus as being like present day Boston, Massachusetts. Close your eyes and throw a dart at a map of the greater Boston/Cambridge metropolitan area and pick a school, any school. Yours landed on MIT? Damn! What a shame for you!
At rabbinical school Saul would have studied intensely to become the modern day equivalent of a professor, a pastor, and an attorney. Becoming a rabbi was no small feat. It’s not exactly a shabby accomplishment now, either.
Saul of Tarsus was a contemporary of Jesus, and when Jesus’ ministry was in full swing he would no doubt have been aware of it. Jesus was only one of many such men who claimed to be the Messiah that would deliver the Jewish people from Roman occupation. The Jews dreamed of political independence and a Jewish state free from the oppression of the Romans. The Pharisees and Saducees that Jesus spoke of with such disdain for their beliefs – Saul would have been one of them, even a leader among them.
After Jesus was crucified Saul became a chief persecutor of early Christians. He was present at the martyrdom of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen. His conversion experience would have been just as shocking to him as it was to the people who heard it. In fact, many Christians did not initially trust Paul’s motives when he insisted that he had been saved and wished to preach for Christ. They were suspicious and fearful of him. I would be, too, if I were a Christian then. Paul, before his conversion, was a big Bob Dylan fan – everybody must get stoned.
Because of his impeccable Jewish education and his familiarity with Greek culture and his Roman citizenship, Paul was uniquely poised to bring Christianity to the masses, especially to the pagan masses. Thus began Paul’s ministry. He became convinced that Jesus had died to save the world from its sins and that by grace alone are we saved. This was a far cry from his previous beliefs as a Pharisee, which emphasized strict adherence to the law.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’,” (Romans 1:16,17)
The most lasting contribution that Paul made to the Christian religion was the authorship of thirteen epistles. These epistles are letters that Paul wrote to early Christian churches. He probably wrote them with the help of a scribe who may likely have paraphrased him, such was the custom of the time. The letters that Paul sent were not meant to be scripture but rather to be a means of delivering comfort and encouragement to scattered congregations. When Paul wrote on matters of theology, he was frequently answering the questions of confused parishioners or settling disputes over differences of opinion amongst a congregation. He was ultimately, in many of his letters, determining just which Jewish laws would stay a part of Christianity and which would go.
Paul wrote the following books of the New Testament:
Along with the scribe controversy, many modern theologians like to point out that Paul has a massive amount of influence for an apostle who never had any first hand knowledge of Jesus. We are, as Mohammed called us, People of the Book. We do not have Jesus among us in the flesh so we must rely on what the Book tells us about the words of Jesus, his character, his life, his ministry. What would Jesus do? Many of us would turn to the words of Paul to try to decipher this.
And why not? If no one but people who met Jesus wrote about Jesus our Bible would be the size of a tract. We’d also be missing out on some really great theological contemplations by C.S. Lewis, Oswald Chambers, J.I. Packer, Rick Warren, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Josh McDowell, Henri Nouwen, Anne Lamott, G.K. Chesterton, and the list could go on and on. All these people are also unqualified to give their opinion on Jesus.
Paul’s legacy is well deserved. That he was a faithful disciple of Jesus cannot be questioned. Paul was imprisoned four times for a total of five and a half to six years. How many of us would be willing to do that for Jesus today? He was killed for his beliefs. We’re spoiled because in the Western world we don’t have to contemplate the possibility of prison or death for our faith. Why? Because ultimately what Paul started made freedom of religion a possibility for Christians. He didn’t get to see it in his lifetime, which is a pity. But perhaps it’s also a good thing that he didn’t get to see the complacency with which many Christians worship today.