The Life and Times of Paul – Introduction to Paul

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Undoubtedly, Paul is one of the major figures of early Christianity. He clearly dominates much of the New Testament. More than half of the book of Acts is about him. In addition, about one-fourth of the entire New Testament is made up of his letters if we include letters he wrote and letters that have been attributed to him. Scholars have long credited him with putting his distinctive stamp upon Christian theology.

Of course, such esteem does not come without controversy. Paul has also been accused of distorting Jesus' message and of being anti-semitic. There are also controversial issues regarding women, sex, and politics.

Different Views of Paul
There are also major differences between the way Paul is portrayed in the books of Acts and the way Paul describes himself and his work in his letters. In reading Paul’s letters, one could easily get the feeling that things were quite contentious between him and the Jerusalem church.

However, the author of Acts, Luke, doesn’t breathe a word of this. It seems more important to Luke to show that everything was Spirit derived and Spirit impelled. So, Acts often portrays things going well - that the path to establish the early church was smooth. Any problems establishing the church came from outside influences, and were not the result of internal disputes.

But which account is accurate? Was it all very smooth and harmonious, or was it contentious at times? We may never be able to decide this question on every point, but, in general, scholars are more likely to give greater weight to Paul’s own writings than to what is written about him in Acts.

First References to Paul
The first references in the New Testament to Paul come in the book of Acts - at the end of chapter seven and the beginning of chapter eight. In both instances he is called “Saul,“ his name in Hebrew. It says that he was present at the stoning of Stephen and had given his approval.

Saul is named three times in the space of six verses. Whenever anyone’s name is mentioned several times in a short number of verses it tells the reader that this person is not simply a person passing by, but is someone important. In this case, it signals that Saul was very important.

Quite a bit is known about Paul. Paul was born in Tarsus, a center of Hellenistic culture. At some point Paul was sent or taken to Jerusalem to study at the feet of Gamaliel, a renowned Jewish rabbi and teacher.

Paul was a product of three main influences. He lived in a Hellenistic culture, he was a Roman citizen, and he was Jewish.  These are the religious and cultural threads that shaped Saul’s understanding of Christianity.

Education - the Hellenistic Influnce
We know from his letters that Paul was well-versed in Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy. He often uses Greek ideas, and sometimes even references Greek poets and philosophers in his writing. Since rhetoric was at the heart of education during the empire, and the form and development of Paul’s letters indicate considerable education.

If Paul didn’t study Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy while in Jerusalem, he probably attended the university at Tarsus. Some scholars think that in Paul’s time the university at Tarsus was even greater than those in Athens or Alexandria, at least in the study of philosophy and literature. In any event, Paul would have been among the most educated citizens.

Because of this cosmopolitan and educated upbringing, Saul most likely had an expanded view of Jews and Greeks that made him well-suited to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

Citizenship - the Roman Influence
In Paul’s time, most Jews were not Roman citizens because Roman citizenship wasn‘t given to everyone living in the empire. In some cases, citizenship could be obtained through service to the empire. So, scholars assume that Paul’s family must have provided some service to the empire in order to be given this status. Most likely, they made tents for the Roman army.

Paul’s Roman citizenship enabled him to travel freely throughout the Mediterranean. It also protected him from local injustices and prejudices – at least that’s how it was supposed to work. Paul didn’t hesitate for a moment to take advantage of Roman roads, stability, and justice once he started his Christian ministry.

Pharisees - the Jewish Influence
Paul was part of a Jewish religious group called the Pharisees. They believed in the resurrection, and in angels and spirits. Some believed that God was in control of everything, but that humans also had moral responsibility.

However, in Paul’s time the Pharisees also believed that all Jews should follow the same standards that the priests were required to follow. So, they tried to extend those Levitical standards of holiness to all Jews. In this way, they wanted Jewish society to be organized in relation to God’s Word.

Jewish Missionary to God-Fearers?
Some scholars argue that prior to his involvement with Christianity, Paul might have been involved in a Jewish missionary movement.

Many synagogues in Paul’s day had non-Jews attending worship services. These Gentiles were known as “God-fearers.” They were usually sympathetic and accepting of the ethical teachings of Judaism but did not fully embrace the rite of circumcision or the dietary laws. It was these individuals who were probably most open to hearing Jewish teachings explained from a Hellenistic missionary like Paul.

Thus, Paul may have actually received some training for the itinerate preaching that characterized much of his Christian ministry while still a Pharisee.

Persecuting Christians - Stephen’s Death
Because of Paul’s Pharisaical upbringing, he saw something in the early Christians that he thought was dangerous. Since the earliest Christians considered themselves Jews, Paul may have thought it important to stop what he considered a distortion of Jewish law being preached by the early Christians. In any case, he clearly thought they were so dangerous that he wanted to do something about it - he wanted to forcibly stop them.

The record of Paul’s persecution of Christians begins on the day that Stephen is killed. However is it is possible that Paul had a much larger role to play than is generally thought. Stephen was persecuted and eventually killed by Jews in Jerusalem, much like Jesus was. Among the list of provinces from which Stephen’s persecutors came from, Paul’s home province of Cilicia is mentioned. So, it is possible that he was involved in Christian persecution from the beginning.

Beyond Stephen - A Turning Point for the Christians
On the day that Stephen was killed, the Bible says that “a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Maybe “all” is a bit of an exaggeration, but scholars wonder just how big this little church had become.

Perhaps it was 10,000 or even 20,000 people. If Paul is actively persecuting all of them, they must be leaving Jerusalem in droves. They’re fleeing the city. Can you imagine that? The apostles may have stayed behind because they felt they had to. Or perhaps they stayed behind because they felt they were so Jewish that they’d be safe – that they’d be protected, that their reputation would keep them safe.

In any case, while godly men were burying Stephen, Paul was going from house to house dragging men and women off to prison. In this instance, Paul is an equal opportunity persecutor - he takes both men and women. It didn’t matter if they were women - if they were followers of Jesus, Paul was after them.

This is a real turning point in the little church. The persecution of the early Christians was an outgrowth or result of their successes and growth. But from now on events are going to be different.

Persecution - Roman Response?
The Bible is silent on how the Romans responded to this persecution of its subjects. This probably means they probably didn’t do anything about it. This non-response may have been a sort of tacit approval, but the persecution may not have been big enough for them to even notice, let along take action.

After Stephen’s death, Paul was leading the persecution by going from house to house. So, it was most likely a very small operation - Paul in charge, with a few others for support and backup. One or two people dragging people out of their homes and putting them into prison would probably not make much of an impact on the overall stability of the empire. Thus, the Romans may not have even known that this was happening. However, even though it was a somewhat small operation, it was still very deadly.

Success of Persecution
But was Paul successful in persecuting the early Christians? The answer is, clearly, no. An analogy might help us understand why, and may show us that he accomplished the exact opposite of what he intended.

Imagine a yard full of dandelions. After the flowers have bloomed, they look like dead puff balls, but the heads are actually filled with seeds. If you didn’t know better, you might start stamping on them to get rid of the flowers. But if you did this, the seeds start flying every which way. The wind would pick up the seeds and they would sail off to take root.

Just imagine that instead of seeds being scattered, people are being scattered - perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 Christians in Jerusalem, all heading into the hills, into other cities, into the countryside. and spreading the Gospel the whole time. Well, that’s what happened. The Bible puts it this way, “They were preaching the word wherever they went.”

Clearly, this is not an effective way to stamp out a movement. Paul never intended for this to happen. He may have thought it was going to be over quickly. Instead, his persecution sent everyone out -- just like those seeds flying all over the place. And some of those seeds would find good soil and take root.

There is no question that Saul was filled with religious fervor. He took on the self-appointed task of ridding the world of this small, obnoxious little group of Christians that he felt were a great threat to his religious beliefs. But, while he intended to stamp out this movement, he actually helped to spread it. It was a wonderful mission program. It’s probably one of the clearest examples of God overcoming evil with good.

Life and Times