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Who Was Paul of the New Testament?

Saint Paul is more in the spotlight than any other figure in the early Church. Of many others, even the apostles who were closest to Jesus, we know very little. In some cases we know nothing more than their name. This is to some extent true of Jesus who left no writings and whose historical account has been clouded over by the post-Easter faith.

His Letters

With Paul we have thirteen letters which bear his name. However modern scholarship has limited his authorship to seven:

  • 1 Thessalonians (1 Thes.),
  • 1 and 2 Corinthians (1 and 2 Cor.),
  • Galatians (Gal.),
  • Philippians, (Phil.),
  • Philemon (Phlm.) and
  • Romans (Rom.).

These were written in the fifties (50-59 A.D.), are the oldest writings of the New Testament, and contain the most accurate details of Paul’s life history.

Then we have the deutero-Pauline letters, i.e. written by a disciple of Paul;

  • Colossians (Col.),
  • Ephesians (Eph.) and
  • 2 Thessalonians (2 Thes.).

Finally the pseudonymous writings (pastoral letters):

  • 1 and 2 Timothy (Tim.) and
  • Titus.

These were written under Paul’s name by some unknown author, dealing with clerical offices of bishop, priest, and deacon as well as their discipline.

Of the thirteen letters, Philippians, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians are called captivity letters because imprisonment is mentioned in them.

Paul mentioned other letters not included in the above that were either lost or destroyed. 1 Cor. 5:9 refers to a previous letter written to Corinth. There was another “written in tears” (2 Cor. 2:3-4).

Col. 4:16 mentions a letter to the Laodiceans.

Some believe that Romans 16 was intended as a separate letter.

The other major source of information about Paul is from the Book of Acts written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke in which more than half deals with his missionary work. The author was a fellow worker and accompanied Paul on some of the journeys. It was written toward the end of the first century almost forty years after Paul’s letters were written.

In places where Acts and Paul’s letters disagree, the letters prevail. It is strange that in Acts no mention is made of Paul’s extensive letter writing. Even more strange is that Paul in his letters makes no attempt to give us a biography of Jesus and his deeds.

It is believed that collection of Paul’s letters was completed by the early second century. A mention of this appears in the last New Testament book written (2 Pt. 3:15-16). The heretic Marcion (144 A.D.) drew up a list in Rome of ten Pauline letters which included the previously listed seven authentic letters.

His Life Story

Paul was born in the first decade of the Christian era. He was a Hellenized Jew of the diaspora who traced his lineage to the tribe of Benjamin. “A Hebrew…as to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:6). His letters reveal that he knew Greek well.

Acts presents him as a Pharisee born in Tarsus, a Hellenistic town in Cilicia (Acts 22:3,6), having a Jewish name, Saul (13:9), as having a sister (23:16), and was a Roman citizen from birth (22:25f) which implied that his father was a Roman citizen before him.

He grew up in Jerusalem and was educated at the feet of Gamaliel, the elder (22:3). His writings never openly state that he had personal contact with Jesus during his public ministry.

Some hold that he was a rabbi (age for ordination was forty) in view of his going to the Damascus synagogue to root out the followers of Christ. Paul says nothing about this. Nor does he mention anything about the death of Stephen.

He admits to being a persecutor of Christians (Gal. 1:13) and presumably was married since it was required of rabbis. He probably was widowed later (1 Cor. 7:8).

His Conversion

On the way to Damascus he experienced a vision of Christ which changed his entire life. Whether it occured in his mind (Gal. 1:12,16) or externally (Acts 9:3-8; 22:6-11; 26:12-19) remains unclear. It changed him from a persecutor to a supporter of Christianity.

Christ himself ordered him to witness to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8-11 Gal. 2:7). At that time followers of Christ were part of Judaism so in reality Paul switched from Pharisaic Judaism to Christian Judaism.

He reports (Gal. 1:17-24) that he immediately went to Arabia. He obviously joined in with mission work already underway to the gentiles. He probably avoided contact with the apostles at this time because he expected their hostility to the gentile mission.

Three years later he visited with Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days and also saw James the “brother” of the Lord (Gal. 1:18-24). Following his visit he set out on a mission trip through his home area, Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21).

As previously noted Acts at times disagrees with Paul’s letters on certain facts early in Paul’s life. The author had no access to the letters because they weren’t in one collection until the first quarter of the second century as noted previously. It has been concluded that he used a style of “literary design” to fill out his history.

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