Interpretation of Saint Paul
painted by El Greco, born in Crete in 1541
Paul was born in Tarsus in Asia, now Turkey, and named Saul. His birth date is unrecorded. Acts tells that Paul was a Roman citizen, studying in Jerusalem under the well known Rabbi Gamaliel, but there is some doubt about this story. Paul described himself as a Pharisee and supported himself during his travels and while preaching by working as a tent maker.
In his first mention in the New Testament, he witnessed the martyrdom of Stephen and was a self confessed, persistent persecutor of the Church. He had an experience on the road to Damascus resulting in his conversion to Christianity. Paul talks very little about the conversion itself but three accounts of his experience are recorded in Acts. The first is a description of him falling to the ground after a flash of light from the sky, hearing the words "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?". The second is Paul's witness to the event before the crowd in Jerusalem . The third is his testimony before King Agrippa. He is described as being led, blinded by the light, to Damascus, where his sight was restored and he was baptized.
Following his stay in Damascus, after his conversion, Paul went to Arabia and then came back to Damascus. Described in Acts, his preaching in the local synagogues got him into trouble, and he escaped, being let down over the wall in a basket. Three years after his conversion, he went to Jerusalem, met James and stayed with Simon Peter for 15 days. He attempted to join the disciples and was accepted, owing to the intercession of Barnabas, as they were all, understandably, afraid of him as a former persecutor of the Church. Here, he again encountered trouble for disputing with Hellenists and he was sent back to Tarsus.
When a famine occurred in Judea around 45–46 AD Paul journeyed to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to deliver financial support from the Antioch Christian community, which had become prominent as an alternative centre for Christians. This followed dispersion after the death of Stephen.
Paul’s first missionary journey begins in Antioch in approximately AD 47. The Holy Spirit identified Barnabas and Saul, to be appointed for the work to which they had been called. The group then releases the pair from the church to spread the Gospel into the predominantly Gentile area of mission. The significance of the Holy Spirit selecting him can be seen in Galations when Paul states that he is made an apostle “not through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.”
Saul and Barnabas made for the island of Cyprus where Barnabas had grown. They preached throughout the island and in the city of Paphos they meet the magician and false prophet Bar-Jesus, described by Luke as “full of deceit and all fraud”. They rebuked the magician, causing him to go blind. Having left Cyprus, Saul exchanged his Hebrew name for the Greek-Roman name of Paul, considered more appropriate for ministering to the Gentiles. He then made his way across Asia Minor and word spread so quickly that almost everyone turned out to hear him speak. So radical was Paul’s message of salvation that he was expelled by the jealous Jewish leaders when he and Barnabas were compelled to flee due to rising Jewish violence against them.
They travelled on to Lystra where there was no knowledge of God. Paul and Barnabas became distraught when they were mistaken for heathen gods after administering a healing. Paul was stoned by disgruntled Jews and left for dead but amazingly rose to his feet and fled. He unified his church in Antioch to conclude his first missionary journey.
Following a dispute between Paul and Barnabas over who they should take with them, they go on separate journeys. Paul and Silas travelled to Philippi where they met a wealthy woman named Lydia whom they baptized with her whole household. Here, Paul was arrested and beaten. He then set off for Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth where he settled for three years and where he may have written 1 Thessalonians. At Corinth, the Jews charged Paul with persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law. The proconsul judged that it was an internal religious dispute and dismissed the charges.
Following this hearing Paul continued his third missionary journey, travelling again through Asia Minor to Antioch and back. He caused a great uproar in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income due to Paul's activities. Their income relied on the sale of silver statues of Artemis, whom they worshipped, and the resulting mob almost killed Paul.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Paul provided a detailed account to James and the elders, of his ministry among the Gentiles. The Jews were on the verge of killing Paul when Roman soldiers intervened. The Roman commander took Paul into custody who claimed his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome. Owing to the inaction of the governor, Antonius Felix, Paul languished in confinement at Caesarea for two years. When a new governor took office, Paul was sent by sea to Rome and during this trip Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, where he preached the Gospel, and the people converted to Christianity. It is thought that Paul continued his journey by sea to Syracuse, on the Italian island of Sicily before eventually going to Rome. Paul spent another two years in Rome under house arrest, where he continued to preach.
Whether Paul died in Rome, or was able to go to Spain as he noted in his letter to the Romans is uncertain. The date would have been between AD64 – 67.
Saint Paul shares a feast day with Saint Peter on June 29th.