Biography of St. Paul the Apostle
Born in Tarsus (present-day Turkey), Saul was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Pharisee who persecuted the Christians with great hatred – he even led the crowd in stoning St. Stephen, the first martyr.
After the martyrdom of St. Stephen, Saul appealed to the high priest and Sanhedrin for his consent to arrest all Jewish Christians in Damascus and bring them to Jerusalem. He was granted permission and set out to continue destroying Christianity.
However, Saul was nearly to Damascus when he was surrounded by a great light and fell to the ground. He heard a voice saying:
“Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?”
Saul asked, “Who art thou, Lord?” The voice replied, “Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecute.”
There was a Christian of great distinction in Damascus, much respected by the Jews for his irreproachable life and great virtue named was Ananias. Christ appeared to this holy disciple, and commanded him to go to Saul, who was then in the house of Judas in prayer. Ananias trembled at the name of Saul, being no stranger to the mischief he had done in Jerusalem, or the reason he travelled to Damascus. But Christ overruled his fears, and charged him a second time to go to him, saying: Go, for he is a vessel of election to carry my name before Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel; and I will show him how much he has to suffer for my name.
This experience caused his conversion to Christianity. He was baptized, changed his name to Paul, traveled, and went to see Peter and the other Apostles in Jerusalem. He was the Lord’s chosen instrument to take the faith to the Gentiles.
Though he was severely beaten, arrested, exhausted, and hungry, Paul spent the rest of his life tirelessly preaching the Gospel all over the Mediterranean world. He was imprisoned and taken to Rome where he was beheaded around the year 67 during Nero’s persecution of Christians.
He is buried in the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome.
St. Paul is the author of 14 letters in the New Testament: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews.
He is also the patron saint of evangelists, authors, lay people and tent-makers.
Conversion to Christ
Saul Studied in Jerusalem
Paul was born before the year 10 A.D. to a Jewish family from Tarsus, in Cilicia (now Eastern Turkey). He received the biblical name Saul and the Roman name Paul (his father, most likely having been granted Roman citizenship, wished to show his gratitude to the Pauli family). He was educated in Jerusalem.
Paul himself recounted that, “At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law and was zealous for God” (Acts 22:3) and again, “I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6), “circumcised on the eighth day” (Phil. 3:5-6).
During the martyrdom of Stephen, “The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58) “… Saul was consenting to his execution. On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the Church” (Acts 8:1).
Saul, who defended with zeal his “ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1:14), could have even been a Zealot (cf. Acts 22:3). His defense of the tradition of his ancestors would explain his expedition to Damascus to persecute Hellenist missionaries like Stephen who challenged the Temple, in order to subdue them at all costs, even torture. This would also clarify two strange episodes: Paul was not at peace with the Church of Jerusalem and he had to escape under the threat of death (Acts 9:26-30); later, forty Jews would form a conspiracy to kill Paul, who was at that time a prisoner of the Romans (cf. Acts 23:12-22) and it is very well known that the Zealot party punished all those who betrayed their solemn oath.
The Acts of the Apostles quote the famous phrase heard on the way to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
The story that Paul himself recounts about the apparition of the Risen Lord betrays a great interior turmoil, according to the prophetic vocations/conversions of the Old Testament, which always announced a mission: “But when (God), who from my mother's womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles…” (Gal 1:15-17).
The radical “conversion” of Saul did not represent for him a change of religion: he felt more than ever before to be a Jew, because the “God of our Fathers” was sending him to spread the Gospel. The evangelizer of the pagans continued to preach to the Jews as much as he could, up to his final appeal to Rome. Paul’s conversion and baptism meant that he had discovered his true and proper place in the life of Israel.
The date of this most important event is ignored; the Letter to the Galatians may seem to indicate the years 33-35, a short time after the establishment of the first Church in Jerusalem, created around “Peter with the Eleven” (Acts 2:14).
Source: Vatican Website http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/conversione.htm
The Beginning of the Ministry
Jerusalem: The Meeting with Peter
“Three years later”, Saul went up to Jerusalem to get to know Kephas (from the word “Rock” in Greek), the name he always used for Peter – and “remained with him for fifteen days” (Gal. 1:18). It is certain that the latter taught him the oral tradition relating to Jesus which Paul had not known (cf. 1 Cor. 11:23-35), as well as a Christological interpretation of the prophets, according to what the Master taught his disciples.
His visit was discreet: the only other Apostle of the Church whom Paul met was “James the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19). Paul was spiritually enriched through Mother-Church, but he could not integrate himself into it, most likely due to his past involvement as a zealot. He even escaped from an assassination attempt by the Hellenist Jews (cf. Acts 9:29-30).
He was sent on his way to Tarsus, where again he took up his work as a tentmaker, and continued to proclaim his faith in the synagogue (cf. Acts 18:3). These were the years of his personal growth.
ANTIOCH: THE BEGINNING OF THE MISSIONARY ADVENTURE
At the beginning of the 40s A.D., Barnabas was sent from the Church of Jerusalem to Antioch of Syria in order to reclaim the Church established by the Hellenist missionaries who were expelled from Jerusalem. He went to Tarsus to seek Paul’s help and became one of the leaders of the community, evangelizing with great success. This became the first separation from the synagogue environment, because Paul preached also to the Greeks. Thus, a mixed community was established. The “invention” of the title Christians used for the very first time in Antioch, represents one of the most beautiful fruits of Saul’s preaching in this town.
Henceforward, the Church of Antioch would become the center for spreading the Gospel and living independently from the Temple and the life of Judea.
The community of Antioch was arranged with a solid formation and organization. Thus, during a prayer assembly, the inspiration of the community confirmed the personal vocation. The voice of the Holy Spirit was heard saying: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2); then, the assembly prayed, fasted, laid hands on the two men and sent them on their mission.
Barnabas and Paul sailed towards Cyprus. Once again it is the Holy Spirit who sent them in this direction: announcing the Gospel in the synagogues in the Eastern part of the island, in Salamis, later in the West, in Paphos. From this moment in time, Luke began to call Saul by his Roman name Paul, underscoring, in this way, his right of full title to go on mission to “the nations”.
Establishment of the Churches in Asia Minor…
On the way to Sebastopolis, beyond Taurus, Paul found himself completely immersed in pagan territory, including cities that were strategic for Rome. Luke speaks of Paul’s first important missionary speech in the synagogue of Antioch of Psidia, a new Roman colony; after a discouraging welcome by a majority of the Jews, Paul addressed himself to the Gentiles. Thus Paul and Barnabas went to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. The two Apostles strengthened the young communities.
On the one hand, they encouraged a common life among believers coming from Judaism and those newly converted from paganism, thus making enemies among the leaders of the synagogues where they preached. On the other hand, they appointed some “elders”, according to the model of the Church of Jerusalem. When they accomplished this mission they returned to the great city of Antioch of Syria.
Source: Vatican Site: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/ministero.htm
The Council of Jerusalem
Around the year 48 an issue arose in Antioch concerning the circumcision of non-Jews, when some Christians coming from Judea claimed their freedom acquired in Christ Jesus (cf. Gal. 2:4), which even Paul and Barnabas invoked so as not to impose this rite of circumcision on pagan converts to Christianity. The community decided to consult the Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem. Thus, it sent Paul and Barnabas together with Titus, their Greek companion, as well as a delegation to accompany them to Jerusalem.
The Apostles and Elders of Jerusalem accepted Titus “uncircumcised”, thus recognizing the validity of Paul’s proclamation concerning the freedom of grace. The Assembly confirmed the main leaders of the Church and recognized the missionary vocation of Peter for the circumcised and that of Paul for the uncircumcised. As a matter of fact, a sort of partitioning of the missionary field occurred: James, Kephas and John were directed towards the Jews, while Paul and Barnabas were sent to preach to the pagans.
The Antioch Incident
The incident occurred during Peter’s visit to Antioch and it bears witness to the integrity of Paul, who would not allow for any adaptations of the truth of the Gospel. What happened? At that time, a circumcised Jewish Christian could not sit at the same table with a Gentile Christian without falling into impurity. Peter, had always testified to the supreme power of faith in Christ which gathers together within itself all human beings. He continued to do so in Antioch until the arrival of other Christians sent by James, who presided over the community of Jerusalem. It was then that Peter, who had previously eaten with the Gentiles, withdrew and separated himself from them for fear of the circumcision party (thus concealing what he truly believed). Therefore Paul became angry: “I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong” (Gal. 2:11).
The compromise agreed upon in Jerusalem protected the existence of the mixed communities of the young Churches of Asia Minor, to whom Paul had preached. Nevertheless full communion between circumcised and uncircumcised was difficult. Therefore, was the salvation in Jesus Christ considered secondary? Paul claimed new life in the faith, the gift of the Spirit and the primacy of the divine promise over the law… The controversy had originally occurred between, on the one side, James and the Church of Jerusalem along with Peter and Barnabas who, although hesitant, allied themselves with James, and on the other side, the same Church of Antioch which in the end approved the compromise reached in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:31). Eventually Paul left Antioch to visit the towns where he and Barnabas had previously taught, taking along with him Silas alone, who had been sent back to Antioch with Paul by the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem after the compromise had been reached. After this long novitiate, which endured 15 years, Paul entered into a new phase.
Source: Vatican Website: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/concilio.htm
Lydia and the Church of Philppi
In Troas, during a vision Paul heard a Macedonian imploring him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Immediately, he sailed towards Greece and stopped in Philippi, a commercial city and Roman colony populated by veterans and Latin peasants, where Hellenism had a great influence upon Judaism.
The house of Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who asked to be baptized together with her whole household and used to invite missionaries over during their stay, became the centre of a community. It quickly formed and became one of the communities most faithful to Paul, by offering him the affection and material supplies of its members (2 Cor. 11:8). Some years later, before his definitive departure from the region of the Aegean Sea, he desired to celebrate Easter with this particular community.
The local authorities soon accused Paul of proselytism. At that time, Christianity and Judaism were not yet so distinct, even if Judaism enjoyed a privileged status. For the very first time, Paul, together with Silas, was imprisoned. At midnight, while they were praying and singing hymns to God, an earthquake irrupted freeing all the prisoners; the jailer, seeing the doors open, was about to kill himself thinking that the prisoners had escaped (cf. Acts 16:25-27). Paul shouted out to him “We are all here” (Acts 16:28). The jailer asked to be baptized along with his family. Paul claimed that he was a Roman citizen and thus had to be released not secretly but “in triumph”, before going back to Lydia’s house.
Thessalonica: A Place of Family Worship
At that time, when Paul went to the Synagogue as he was accustomed to doing and explained for three consecutive days that according to the Scriptures “the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead” (Acts 17:2-3), the Jews opposed him. The accusation that he was stirring up turmoil against the imperial law moved his brothers to plan his departure for Beroea. But when the Jews of Thessalonica discovered Paul’s whereabouts and the fact that he was preaching the word of God in Beroea also, they went and persecuted him there as well. Therefore, Paul had to once again escape by sea all the way to Athens, where he would later be joined by Silas and Timothy. Shortly thereafter, the community of Thessalonica would receive the first two Letters of Paul which bear witness to the fervor and restlessness of a young Church.
In Thessalonica, the Christian community’s place of worship and religion was the home, that is, the family with all that it entailed at the time: social relations and work. In particular it gathered in Jason’s home just as the Church of Philippi met at Lydia’s.
Athens, the Idols
In the capital of Hellenism, where one would come to study from all over the Roman Empire, Paul encountered the Greek culture, “exasperated at the sight of the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). He preached both in the Synagogue and in the public square – even at the Aeropagus – thus provoking the curiosity of intellectuals, “Epicurean and Stoic philosophers”, but few of them adhered to the Christian faith. “I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God’. What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). (Paul never mentioned this episode. This kind of speech recalls rather the preaching of the first missionaries in the Hellenic churches at the end of the first century to some pagans influenced by Stoicism. The absence of any hints to the Cross and salvation causes one to doubt that Paul ever said these words).
Source: Vatican Website: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/grecia.htm
The Beginnings of the Church
In this cosmopolitan city, where the worship of Aphrodite was flourishing, Paul met Priscilla and Aquila, a Jewish married couple, who in the year 49 were expelled from Rome according to the edict of Emperor Claudius, “since the Jews constantly caused disturbances at the instigation of Chrestos” (Suetonius, Claudius 25:11). The couple would later accompany Paul to Ephesus, where they would play an important role in the Church and in evangelization. In the year 54, after the death of Claudius, they would return to Rome and wait to welcome the Apostle, at that time a prisoner.
Paul, who wished “to work” in the same manner as the rabbis, in order to guarantee the gratuitousness of his apostolic service, associated with the couple and practiced their same trade of making tents. Every Shabbat, at the synagogue, he attempted to demonstrate to the doctors of the law the Messianism of Jesus. Crispus, the leading official of the synagogue, came to believe and was baptized along with his entire family. The Church of Corinth, which also received pagans, developed very rapidly. Corinth became Paul’s headquarters from the moment that Rome denied him entrance due to the decree of expulsion ordered by Claudius. He remained in Corinth 18 months.
At this time an issue arose ever more frequently: the synagogue authorities, who took advantage of the privileges they held, did not wish that Christians be confused with a dissenting Jewish sect, even though, effectively, they did not depend on them for any reason. Thus, they ended up accusing Paul of illicit religious propaganda before the proconsul Gallio (brother of Seneca, the philosopher). After having heard the accusations against him, Gallio refused to listen to Paul’s argument. He declared himself incompetent to judge such matters since Paul was a Jew and, from his point of view, this dispute would have to be resolved within the synagogue (cf. Acts 18:12-16). Thereafter, Paul sailed to Antioch and Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila, who would play a central role in creating the future community in the latter city.
Many historians hold that at the conclusion of this second journey, in the year 52, the “Council of Jerusalem” and the “Incident of Antioch” took place.
Ephesus: Priscilla and Aquila Led the Church
According to the Acts of the Apostles, this is the third place where the Word was spread. Paul remained in this important center of exchange between East and West in the areas of culture, religion and trade for more than two years, and here he established a Church. His confrontation with Judaism gave way to an encounter with other religious currents, for example, at that time Artemis was considered to be the great Goddess of Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila led the community there and taught with zeal. When they heard Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew who arrived in Ephesus, teaching in the synagogue, they explained “the Way (of God) more accurately” (Acts 18:26) to him. He would later have great success as a catechist in Ephesus and Corinth.
Miletus: The Structures of the Church
On the way back to Jerusalem, Paul “compelled by the Spirit” (Acts 20:22), summoned the Elders of the Church of Ephesus. He foretold of his upcoming and inevitable imprisonment, persecution and death, as well as, the specific direction of his mission: “Go, I shall send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). He exhorted them to be vigilant, hard workers, and to assist the poor and the weak: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). And finally, he left them as his last will and testament “building up the Church” (1Cor. 14:12), or, rather, he commended it to the power of the Word saying: “I commend you to God and to that gracious word of his that can build you up” (Acts 20:32). Thus, the activity of the Word is primary; it creates the Church.
This event concluded with deep emotion: the assembly knelt down and prayed and they threw their arms around Paul (cf. Acts 20:36-37). They all entrusted themselves to God and to His Word. This episode is important for the institutional history of the Church. For the Elders or the presbyters, who were summoned by Paul and whom he named pastors and bishops, appointed to give spiritual nourishment and guidance and to keep vigil (this is the meaning of the word bishop) over the people of God, did not receive their powers from the assembly of the faithful, but from the Spirit.
During the course of his “independent” ministry and in the face of some unusual situations, Paul had to adopt some doctrinal innovations in order to justify his continuous appeals to the believers to group together in united communities. Undeniably, Paul succeeded, wherever he went, in creating many Churches, extremely united in order to survive and develop outside the structures tied to the synagogues.
Source: Vatican Website: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/inizi.htm
While in Jerusalem
Jerusalem: Head of the Churches
For the third time Paul went back to Jerusalem to explain to the Elders his mission to the Gentiles. This time he led a delegation representing the Churches he had founded, mostly Pagan-Christians, but also Hebrew disciples like Timothy. He became the recognized leader (cf. 1Cor. 12:14) of a group of local communities who were in dispute with the synagogues and led an autonomous existence within the Pagan communities. He named them Churches, according to the Deuteronomic tradition, and claimed for each of them the dignity of an assembly of people chosen by God, which primarily was reserved to the Church of Jerusalem. Paul exercised his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ (cf. 1Cor. 1:21; 2Cor. 1:1), a title to which he was particularly attached.
But at that time, in the capital of Judaism and in the presence of the Church of Jerusalem, presided over by James, where there were “thousands of believers... from among the Jews” (Acts 20:21), he was asked to prove his devotion to the Fathers. He wrote to the Corinthians “I have become all things to all” – (1Cor. 9:22). Therefore he would go to the Temple and be purified together with a group of Nazoreans, saying: “everyone will know…that you yourself live in observance of the law” (Acts 20:24). And it is there in the temple where Paul would be arrested.
Arrested in the Temple of Jerusalem
All signs pointed in the direction of impending turmoil: Paul’s preaching in the synagogues provoked fear, as well as, the development of Christianity which was viewed as a threat to structures and laws. Some incidents broke out when Paul arrived at the Temple on the seventh and final day of the purification: had he been perhaps accompanied by a non-Hebrew Greek, desecrating in such a way the sanctuary? Some Jews from Asia Minor recognized him and incited the crowd, which led to Paul’s expulsion from the Temple.
Thanks to the arrival of the cohort commander and a group of soldiers, Paul escaped death and wished to speak again. “Paul stood on the steps… when all was quiet he addressed them in Hebrew” (Acts 21:40): he explained his fidelity to Judaism, having been formed in the Jewish faith at the school of Gamaliel, and the disconcerting encounter he had on the way to Damascus which dominated and inspired his life. Later, in front of the Jews of Jerusalem, he added: “While I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord saying to me, ‘Hurry, leave Jerusalem at once, because they will not accept your testimony about me’” (Acts 22:17-18), and again: “I shall send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). These latter words caused another uprising among the crowd because that would mean, in effect, that the Covenant God made with the sons of Israel was opened to everybody.
Time of Imprisonment and Trials: Jerusalem, Caesarea and Rome
Paul was led to the fortress of Jerusalem, for his first trial before the Sanhedrin, however he escaped flagellation since he was a Roman citizen.
He was transferred to Caesarea, after the discovery of a plot by Hebrew zealots to kill him. There he underwent his second trial before Felix, the procurator (years 57-59).
Two years later he was tried for a third time before Felix’s successor Festus.
His fourth trial was heard by King Agrippa II: "This man is doing nothing (at all) that deserves death or imprisonment” (Acts 26:31). “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar" (Acts 26:32).
Source: Vatican Website http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/gerusalemme.htm
The Journey in Captivity
In the Eye of the Storm
Here is the most legendary story of the New Testament. From Caesarea to Rome, “sailing had become hazardous” (Acts 27:9) after the time of the Fast and now as winter approached. In effect, the ship was driven about from Crete to Malta for fifteen days. They lost their sense of direction because “Neither the sun nor the stars were visible” (Acts 27:20). Paul, the prisoner, was freer than the 276 members of the crew, the captain, the pilot, the centurion and the sailors, for he was accustomed to the sea and had been shipwrecked three times prior (cf. 2 Cor. 11:25) and, above all, he had a sense of security and confidence that came from God: “Not one of you will be lost, only the ship” (Acts 27:22). When everything seemed lost, he told his companions, “An angel of the God to whom (I) belong and whom I serve stood by me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul… God has granted safety to all who are sailing with you” (Acts 27:23-24).
Everyone reached the island; some swam to shore, while others drifted there on planks or debris from the ship. This simple and idylliac leg of their journey - “The natives showed us extraordinary hospitality; they lit a fire and welcomed all of us” (Acts 28:2) - symbolizes how the Pagan world was welcoming the Gospel. After the danger had passed and the shipwreck, Luke viewed this wonderful stop in Malta as the taste of the dawn of a resurrection. While Paul was placing a bundle of brushwood on the fire, a viper attached itself to his hand. He shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no harm…and the island’s inhabitants took him to be a God (cf. Acts 28:6). As well, Paul healed the father of the chief of the island, laying his hands on him, and on the crowd of sick who came to him. Finally, “They paid us great honor and when we eventually set sail they brought us the provisions we needed” (Acts 28:10).
Thereafter, they sailed to Syracuse, Rhegium and Puteoli. Paul had the great joy of being welcomed by some brothers – who had traveled 50 kilometers on foot to see him - because the Apostle was not unknown: three years before, they had received his great Letter to the Romans. In Rome, he found a community of Christians, whose origin is silently passed over in the Acts of the Apostles, and whom Luke described as quite large and renowned for its faith and works. Undoubtedly, Hebrew merchants brought Christianity here very early on, but it remained isolated near some synagogues. At the time of Emperor Claudius’ death, there were about 50,000 Jews from very different regions, spread throughout the large agglomeration in various synagogues.
Paul, thus, reached Rome in the year 61 to undergo judgment. After two years of living in a guarded residence, in the heart of the city close to the Tiber (the present Jewish neighborhood), during which time Paul evangelized and wrote, the case against him dissolved for lack of accusers. But in 64, after the fire occurred in Rome, Nero accused the Christians of being responsible for it. Therefore Paul was arrested, bound in chains in the Mamertine Prison and condemned to beheading, which took place outside the Aurelian Walls, along the Ostiense Way, most likely between the years 65 and 67.
Source: Vatican Website: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/cattivita.htm
The Martyrdom in Rome
The Opening of the Covenant to All Mankind
Paul’s first gesture in the capital city of the Empire and also his last words, documented in the Acts of the Apostles, were aimed at launching – once more – an appeal to the Jews. He did so in the same manner as in his earlier Letter to the Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: for Jew first, and then Greek” (Rom. 1:16). In this way, at the conclusion of his mission, the man whom the Lord had chosen as Apostle to the Nations did not want to forget even the “least brothers of mine” (Mt. 25:40), “for it is on account of the hope of Israel that I wear these chains” (Acts 28:20). He launched his final and vibrant appeal to the “conversion” of his people, to the radical change of life he had come to know. In Christ, God’s Covenant is now open to all people. His final words did not mean the end of Paul, for on the contrary, Christianity and the Good News spread to all the ends of the earth due to his great witness to the Risen One, in whose image Paul became a “Light of the Nations” (Is. 49:6; Acts 13:47).
Source: Vatican Website: http://www.vatican.va/various/basiliche/san_paolo/en/san_paolo/martirio.htm