Paul the Apostle


St. Paul the Apostle

St. Paul, by El Greco

Apostle to the Gentiles, Saint, Martyr
Born ca. 10, Tarsus
Died ca. 67, Rome during Nero’s Persecution
Canonized pre-congregation
Major shrine Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls
Feast January 25 (The Conversion of Saint Paul)February 10 (Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck in Malta)June 29 (Feast of Saints Peter and Paul)November 18 (Feast of the dedication of the basilicas of Saints Peter and Paul)
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Saint Paul the Apostle (born ca. 10, died ca. 67) (שאול התרסי in Hebrew), the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13, Galatians 2:8) was, together with St. Peter, the most notable of Early Christian missionaries. Unlike the Twelve Apostles, Paul did not know Jesus in life; he came to faith through a vision of the risen Jesus (1Corinthians 15:8–9) and stressed that his apostolic authority was based on his vision. As he wrote, he “received it [the Gospel] by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11–12); according to Acts, his conversion took place as he traveled the road to Damascus.

Paul is the second most prolific contributor to the New Testament (after Luke, whose two books amount to nearly a third of the New Testament). Thirteen letters are attributed to him, with varying degrees of confidence.[1] The letters are written in Koine Greek and it may be that he employed an amanuensis, only occasionally writing himself.[2] The undisputed Pauline epistles contain the earliest systematic account of Christian doctrine, and provide information on the life of the infant Church. They are arguably the oldest part of the New Testament. Paul also appears in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, attributed to Luke, so that it is possible to compare the account of his life in the Acts with his own account in his various letters. His letters are largely written to churches which he had founded or visited; he was a great traveler, visiting Cyprus, Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Macedonia, mainland Greece, Crete, and Rome bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, first to Jews and then to Gentiles. His letters are full of expositions of what Christians should believe and how they should live. What he does not tell his correspondents (or the modern reader) is much about the life and teachings of Jesus; his most explicit references are to the Last Supper (1Corinthians 11:17–34) and the crucifixion and resurrection (1Corinthians 15). His specific references to Jesus’ teaching are likewise sparse, raising the question, still disputed, as to how consistent his account of the faith is with that of the four canonical Gospels, Acts, and the Epistle of James. The view that Paul’s Christ is very different from the historical Jesus has been expounded by Adolf Harnack among many others. Nevertheless, he provides the first written account of the relationship of the Christian to the Risen Christ—what it is to be a Christian—and thus of Christian spirituality.

Paul’s influence on Christian thinking has, arguably, been more significant than any other single New Testament author.[3] His influence on the main strands of Christian thought has been massive: from St. Augustine of Hippo to the controversies between Gottschalk and Hincmar of Reims; between Thomism and Molinism; Martin Luther, John Calvin and the Arminians; to Jansenism and the Jesuit theologians, and even to the German church of the twentieth century through the writings of the scholar Karl Barth, whose commentary on the Letter to the Romans had a political as well as theological impact.

Sources for information

In trying to reconstruct the events of Paul’s life, scholars use both Paul’s letters and the book of Acts. Different views are held as to the reliability of the latter. Some scholars, such as Hans Conzelmann, dispute the historical content of Acts. These scholars argue that even allowing for omissions in Paul’s own account, which is found particularly in Galatians, there are many differences between his account and that in Acts. On the other hand, scholars who argue for the historicity and reliability of Acts regard both sources as equally important and equally historical. (Please see the full discussion in Acts of the Apostles). For purposes of this article, both Paul’s letters and Acts have been consulted to give the events of his life, and any ambiguities or difficulties have been noted.

Early life

Saint Paul's conversion, by Jean Fouquet.

Saint Paul’s conversion, by Jean Fouquet.

According to Acts 9:30, Acts 11:25, and Acts 22:3, Paul was born in Tarsus in Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey, under the name Saul, “an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day” (Philippians 3:5). However, Paul’s own letters never mention this as his birthplace, nor is the name “Saul” alluded to. Acts records that Paul was a Roman citizen—a privilege he used a number of times in his defence, appealing against convictions in Judaea to Rome (Acts 22:25 and 27–29). According to Acts 22:3, he studied in Jerusalem under the Rabbi Gamaliel, well known in Paul’s time. He supported himself during his travels and while preaching—a fact he alludes to a number of times (e.g., 1Corinthians 9:13–15); according to Acts 18:3, he worked as a tentmaker.

He first appears in the pages of the New Testament as a witness to the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:57–8:3). He was, as he described himself, a persistent persecutor of the Church (1Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13) (almost all of whose members were Jewish or Jewish proselytes), until his experience on the Road to Damascus which resulted in his conversion. Paul himself is very reticent about the precise character of his conversion (Galatians 1:11–24) though he uses it as authority for his independence of the apostles. In Acts there are three accounts: the first is a description of the event itself (9:1–20) in which he is described as falling to the ground, as a result of 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 (22:1–22); the third is his testimony before King Agrippa II (26:1–24). In the accounts, he is described as being led, blinded by the light, to Damascus where his sight was restored by a disciple called Ananias and he was baptized.

The alleged house of St. Ananias in Damascus

The alleged house of St. Ananias in Damascus


Bab Kisan, where Paul escaped from Damascus

Bab Kisan, where Paul escaped from Damascus

Following his stay in Damascus after his conversion, where he was baptised, Paul named Paul Dimiceli after his baptism, says that he first went to Arabia, and then came back to Damascus (Galatians 17). According to Acts, his preaching in the local synagogues got him into trouble there, and he was forced to escape, being let down over the wall in a basket (Acts 9:23). He describes in Galatians, how three years after his conversion, he went to Jerusalem, where he met James, and stayed with Simon Peter for fifteen days (Galatians 1:13–24). According to Acts, he apparently attempted to join the disciples and was accepted only owing to the intercession of Barnabas—they were all understandably afraid of him as one who had been a persecutor of the Church (Acts 9:26–27). Again, according to Acts, he got into trouble for disputing with “Hellenists” (Greek speaking Jews and Gentile “God-fearers”) and so he was sent back to Tarsus.

We do not know exactly what happened in the fourteen years that elapsed before he went again to Jerusalem. At the end of this time, Barnabas went to find Saul and brought him back to Antioch (Acts 11:26). As he had been the object of suspicion by the Christians at Jerusalem, it is impossible to deduce how he might have been received when he returned to Tarsus and if he stayed without incident.

When a famine occurred in Judaea, around 45–46,[4] help was sent by the hands of Barnabas and Saul; Saul then returned to Antioch. According to Acts, Antioch had become an alternative centre for Christians, following the dispersion after the death of Stephen. In Antioch, the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.

First missionary journey

According to Acts 13–14, Barnabas took Saul on what is often called the First Missionary Journey which took them to Cyprus, Barnabas’s home, and thence to Paphos. Afterward he sailed onward to visit the towns of southern Asia Minor, which is in present-day Turkey: Perga, Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.[5] However, Paul’s own letters only mention that he preached in Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:18–20). Acts records that Paul later “went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:41), but it does not explicitly state who founded the churches or when they were founded.

“Council of Jerusalem”

Main article: Council of Jerusalem

According to Acts 15, Paul attended a meeting of the apostles and elders held at Jerusalem at which they discussed the question of circumcision of Gentile Christians; scholars usually date this meeting around 50. Traditionally, this meeting is called the “Council of Jerusalem,” though nowhere is it called so in the New Testament.

Paul and the apostles apparently met at Jerusalem several times. Unfortunately, there is some difficulty in determining the sequence of the meetings and exact course of events. Some Jerusalem meetings are mentioned in Acts, some meetings are mentioned in Paul’s letters, and some appear to be mentioned in both. For example, in Galatians Paul makes no separate mention of the Jerusalem visit implied in Acts 11:27–30 when he and Barnabas brought famine relief to Judea. In Galatians 2:1, Paul describes a “second visit” to Jerusalem as a private occasion, whereas Acts describes a public meeting in Jerusalem addressed by James at its conclusion. Thus some scholars think that Paul in Galatians is referring to the meeting in Acts 11 (the “famine visit”) and that the letter to the Galatians was written after the men had come to Antioch demanding circumcision and before the “Council of Jerusalem,” the public meeting, had taken place—or even as he was setting out for it— this interpretation would make Galatians the earliest letter to be written (it is generally dated between 48 and 55). If the meeting was private, Luke’s informants might have had no knowledge of it; however, it could not have taken place fourteen years after the first encounter (or seventeen from the date of Paul’s conversion), because the famine relief took place in the reign of King Herod Agrippa, according to Acts; he died in 44. That would put Paul’s conversion at 27, likely before Jesus’ death.[6] In fact, the famine did not reach its greatest severity until 48, after Herod’s death. Many other conjectures have been offered: the “fourteen years” could be from Paul’s conversion rather than the first visit;[7] or “fourteen years” should be “four”; or Acts 11 and 15 are two alternative accounts of the same visit; or the visit is recorded in Acts 18:22. If there was a public rather than a private meeting, it seems likely that it took place after Galatians was written.[4]

According to Acts, Paul and Barnabas were appointed to go to Jerusalem to speak with the apostles and elders and were welcomed by them. The key question raised (in both Acts and Galatians and which is not in dispute) was whether Gentile converts needed to be circumcised (Acts 15:2ff; Gal.2:1ff). Paul states that he had attended “in response to a revelation and to lay before them the gospel that I preached among the Gentiles” (Galatians 2:2). Peter publicly reaffirmed a decision he had made previously (see Acts 10 and 11), proclaiming: “[God] put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9), echoing an earlier statement: “Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). James concurred: “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19–21), and a letter (later known as the “Apostolic Decree”) was sent back with Paul enjoining them from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality (Acts 15:29), which some consider to be Noahide Law.[8]

Despite the agreement they achieved at the meeting as understood by Paul, Paul recounts how he later publicly confronted Peter (accusing him of Judaizing, also called the “Incident at Antioch”[9] over his reluctance to share a meal with Gentile Christians in Antioch. Paul later wrote: “I opposed [Peter] to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” and said to the apostle: “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:11–14). Paul also mentioned that even Barnabas sided with Peter. Acts does not record this event, saying only that “some time later,” Paul decided to leave Antioch (usually considered the beginning of his “Second Missionary Journey,” (Acts 15:36–18:22) with the object of visiting the believers in the towns where he and Barnabas had preached earlier, but this time without Barnabas. At this point the Galatians witness ceases.

Saint Paul, Byzantine ivory relief, 6th-early 7th century (Musée de Cluny)

Saint Paul, Byzantine ivory relief, 6th-early 7th century (Musée de Cluny)

Second missionary journey

Following a dispute between Paul and Barnabas over whether they should take John Mark with them, they went on separate journeys (Acts 15:36–41)—Barnabas with John Mark, and Paul with Silas. Following Acts 16:1–18:22, Paul and Silas went to Derbe and Lystra, the Phrygia and northern Galatia, to Troas, when, inspired by a vision they set off for Macedonia. At Philippi they met and brought to faith a wealthy woman named Lydia, they then baptized her and her household; there Paul was also arrested and badly beaten. According to Acts, Paul then set off for Thessalonica.[10] This accords with Paul’s own account (1Thessalonians 2:2), though some question how, having been in Philippi only “some days,” Paul could have founded a church based on Lydia’s house; it may have been founded earlier by someone else. According to Acts, Paul then came to Athens where he gave his speech in the Areopagus; in this speech, he told Athenians that the “Unknown God” to whom they had a shrine was in fact known, as the God who had raised Jesus from the dead. (Acts 17:16–34). Thereafter Paul traveled to Corinth, where he settled for three years and where he may have written 1 Thessalonians, possibly the earliest of his surviving letters. At Corinth, (18:12–17), the “Jews united” and charged Paul with “persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law”; the proconsul Gallio then judged that it was a minor matter not worth his attention and dismissed the charges. “Then all of them (Other ancient authorities read all the Greeks) seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of these things.” (18:17 NRSV) From an inscription in Delphi that mentions Gallio, the year of the hearing is known to be 52, which aids in reconstructing the chronology of Paul’s life.

Third missionary journey

Following this hearing, Paul continued his preaching, usually called his “third missionary journey” (Acts 18:23–21:26), traveling again through Asia Minor and Macedonia, to Antioch and back. He caused a great uproar in the theatre in Ephesus, where local silversmiths feared loss of income due to Paul’s activities. Their income relied on the sale of silver statues (idols) of the goddess Artemis, whom they worshipped; the resulting mob almost killed Paul (Acts 19:21–41) and his companions. Later, as Paul was passing near Ephesus on his way to Jerusalem, Paul chose not to stop, since he was in haste to reach Jerusalem by Pentecost.[11] The church here, however, was so highly regarded by Paul that he called the elders to Miletus to meet with him (Acts 20:16–38).

Arrest and death

Upon Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem, he gave the apostles his account of bringing Gentiles to the faith. According to Acts, James the Just confronted Paul with the charge that he was teaching the Jews to ignore the law and asked him to demonstrate that he was a law-abiding Jew by taking a Nazirite vow (Acts 21:26). However, that Paul did so is difficult to reconcile with his personally expressed attitude both in Galatians and Philippians, where he utterly opposed any idea that the law was binding on Christians, declaring that even Peter did not live by the law (Galatians 2:14). Various attempts have been made to reconcile Paul’s views as expressed in his different letters and in Acts, notably the 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia article on Judaizers states:

“Paul, on the other hand, not only did not object to the observance of the Mosaic Law, as long as it did not interfere with the liberty of the Gentiles, but he conformed to its prescriptions when occasion required (1Corinthians 9:20). Thus he shortly after [the Council of Jerusalem] circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:1–3), and he was in the very act of observing the Mosaic ritual when he was arrested at Jerusalem (21:26 sqq.).”

In any case, about a week after Paul had taken his vow at the temple, some Jews from “Asia” (Asia Minor or modern Turkey, Paul’s homeland) spotted him in Jerusalem and stirred up the crowd shouting: “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (21:28). The crowd was about to kill Paul but the Roman guard rescued him, and after an unsuccessful speech in Aramaic (21:37–22:22), imprisoned him in Caesarea. Paul claimed his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome, but owing to the inaction of the governor Antonius Felix, Paul languished in confinement at Caesarea for two years. When a new governor Porcius Festus took office, he held a hearing and sent Paul by sea to Rome. It was while journeying to Rome that Paul was shipwrecked on Malta where Acts states that he converted the people to Christianity, St Paul being Malta’s patron saint to this day. It is thought that Paul continued his journey by sea to Syracuse, on the Italian island of Sicily before eventually going to Rome. According to Acts, Paul spent another two years in Rome under house arrest: “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (28:30–31). Of his detention in Rome, Philippians provides some additional support. It was clearly written from prison and references to the “praetorian guard” and “Caesar’s household” may suggest that it was written from Rome.

Whether Paul died in Rome or was able to go to Spain as in his letter to the Romans (Romans 15:22–27) he hoped, is uncertain. Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote in the fourth century, states that Paul was beheaded in the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero. This event has been dated either to the year 64, when Rome was devastated by a fire, or a few years later, to 67. An ancient liturgical solemnity of Peter and Paul, celebrated on 29 June, could reflect the day of martyrdom, and many ancient sources articulated the tradition that Peter and Paul died on the same day (and possibly the same year).[12] A number of other sources including Clement of Rome say that Paul survived Rome and went to “the limits of the west.”[13] If the Pastoral Epistles are genuine, he could have revisited Greece and Asia Minor after his trip to Spain, and might then have been arrested in Troas (2Timothy 4:13) and taken to Rome and executed. The traditional story is that Paul was interred with Saint Peter ad Catacumbas by the via Appia until moved to what is now the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome (now in the process of being excavated). Bede, in his Ecclesiastical History, writes that Pope Vitalian in 665 gave Paul’s relics (including a cross made from his prison chains) from the crypts of Lucina to King Oswy of Northumbria, northern Britain. However, Bede’s use of the word “relic” was not limited to corporal remains.


Saint Paul Writing His Epistles

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles

Main article: Authorship of the Pauline Epistles


Of the thirteen letters traditionally attributed to Paul and included in the Western New Testament canon, there is little or no dispute that Paul actually wrote at least seven, those being Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon. Hebrews, which was ascribed to him in antiquity, was questioned even then, never had an ancient attribution, and in modern times is considered by most experts as not by Paul. The authorship of the remaining six Pauline epistles is disputed to varying degrees.

The authenticity of Colossians has been questioned on the grounds that it contains an otherwise unparalleled description (amongst his writings) of Jesus as ‘the image of the invisible God’, a Christology found elsewhere only in St. John’s gospel. Nowhere is there a richer and more exalted estimate of the position of Christ than here. On the other hand, the personal notes in the letter connect it to Philemon, unquestionably the work of Paul. More problematic is Ephesians, a very similar letter to Colossians, but which reads more like a manifesto than a letter. It is almost entirely lacking in personal reminiscences. Its style is unique; it lacks the emphasis on the cross to be found in other Pauline writings, reference to the Second Coming is missing, and Christian marriage is exalted in a way which contrasts with the grudging reference in 1Corinthians 7:8–9. Finally it exalts the Church in a way suggestive of a second generation of Christians, ‘built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets’ now past.[14] The defenders of its Pauline authorship argue that it was intended to be read by a number of different churches and that it marks the final stage of the development of Paul of Tarsus’s thinking.

The Pastoral Epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus have likewise been put in question as Pauline works in modern times. Three main reasons are advanced: first, their difference in vocabulary, style and theology from Paul’s acknowledged writings; secondly, the difficulty in fitting them into Paul’s biography as we have it.[15] They, like Colossians and Ephesians, were written from prison but suppose Paul’s release and travel thereafter. Finally, the concerns expressed are very much the practical ones as to how a church should function. They are more about maintenance than about mission.

2 Thessalonians, like Colossians, is questioned on stylistic grounds, with scholars noting, among other peculiarities, a dependence on 1 Thessalonians yet a distinctiveness in language from the Pauline corpus, suggesting that the author was an imitator.

Paul and Jesus

Main article: Atonement

As already stated, little can be deduced about the earthly life of Jesus from Paul’s letters. He mentions specifically only the Last Supper (1Corinthians 11:23), his death by crucifixion (1Corinthians 2:2; Philippians 2:8), and his resurrection (Philippians 2:9). Instead, Paul concentrates on the nature of the Christian’s relationship with Christ and, in particular, on Christ’s saving work. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that he was to “give up his life as a ransom for many.” Paul’s account of this idea of a saving act is more fully articulated in various places in his letters, most notably in his letter to the Romans.

What Christ has achieved for those who believe in him is variously described: as sinners under the law, they are “justified by his grace as a gift”; they are “redeemed” by Jesus who was put forward by God as expiation; they are “reconciled” by his death; his death was a propitiatory (expiatory|?0 sacrifice or a ransom paid. The gift (grace) is to be received in faith (Rom 3:24f; Rom 5:9). These three images have been the subject of detailed examination.

Justification derives from the law courts. Those who are justified are acquitted of an offence. Since the sinner is guilty, he or she can only be acquitted by someone else, Jesus, standing in for them, which has led many Christians to believe in the teaching known as the doctrine of penal substitution. The sinner is, in Paul’s words “justified by faith” (Romans 5:1), that is, by adhering to Christ, the sinner becomes at one with Christ in his death and resurrection (hence the word “atonement“). Acquittal, however, is achieved not on the grounds that Christ was innocent (though he was) and that we share his innocence but on the grounds of his sacrifice (crucifixion), i.e., his innocent undergoing of punishment on behalf of sinners who should have suffered divine retribution for their sins. They deserved to be punished and he took their punishment. They are justified by his death, and now “so much more we are saved by him from divine retribution” (Romans 5:9).

For an understanding of the meaning of faith as that which justifies, Paul turns to Abraham, who trusted God’s promise that he would be father of many nations. Abraham preceded the giving of the law on Mount Sinai. Thus law cannot save us; faith does. Abraham could not, of course, have faith in the living Christ but, in Paul’s view, “the gospel was preached to him beforehand” (Galatians 3:8); this is in line with Paul’s belief in the pre-existence of Christ (cf. Philippians 2:5–11).[16]

Redemption has a different origin, that of the freeing of slaves; it is similar in character as a transaction to the paying of a ransom, (cf. Mark 10:45) though the circumstances are different. Money was paid in order to set free a slave, one who was in the ownership of another. Here the price was the costly act of Christ’s death. On the other hand, no price was paid to anyone—Paul does not suggest, for instance, that the price be paid to the devil—though this has been suggested by learned writers, ancient and modern,[17] such as Origen and St. Augustine, as a reversal of the Fall by which the devil gained power over humankind.

A third expression, reconciliation, is about the making of friends which is, of course, a costly exercise where one has failed or harmed another. The making of peace (Colossians 1:20 and Romans 5:9) is another variant of the same theme. Elsewhere (Ephesians 2:14) he writes of Christ breaking down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, which the law constituted.

Sacrifice is an idea often elided with justification, but carries with it either notion of appeasing the wrath of God (propiation) or taking the poison out of sin (expiation).

As to how a person appropriates this gift, Paul writes of a mystical union with Christ through baptism: “we who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death” (Romans 6:4). He writes also of our being “in Christ Jesus” and alternately, of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Thus, the objection that one person cannot be punished on behalf of another is met with the idea of the identification of the Christian with Christ through baptism.

These expressions, some of which are to be found in the course of the same exposition, have been interpreted by some scholars, such as the mediaeval teacher Peter Abelard and, much more recently, Hastings Rashdall,[18] as metaphors for the effects of Christ’s death upon those who followed him. This is known as the “subjective theory of the atonement.” On this view, rather than writing a systematic theology, Paul is trying to express something inexpressible. According to Ian Markham, on the other hand, the letter to the Romans is “muddled.”[19]

But others, ancient and modern, Protestant and Catholic, have sought to elaborate from his writing objective theories of the Atonement on which they have, however, disagreed. The doctrine of justification by faith alone was the major source of the division of western Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation which took place in the sixteenth century. Justification by faith was set against salvation by works of the law in this case, the acquiring of indulgences from the Church and even such good works as the corporal works of mercy. The result of the dispute, which undermined the system of endowed prayers and the doctrine of purgatory, contributed to the creation of Protestant churches in Western Europe, set against the Roman Catholic Church. Solifidianism (sola fide = faith alone), the name often given to these views, is associated with the works of Martin Luther (14831546) and his followers. With this view went the notion of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for human sin.

The various doctrines of the atonement have been associated with such theologians as Anselm, John Calvin, and more recently Gustaf Aulén; none found their way into the Creeds. The substitutionary theory (above), in particular, has fiercely divided Christendom, some pronouncing it essential and others repugnant. (In law, no one can be punished instead of another and the punishment of the innocent is a prime example of injustice—which tells against too precise an interpretation of the atonement as a legal act.)

Further, because salvation could not be achieved by merit, Paul lays some stress on the notion of its being a free gift, a matter of Grace. Whereas grace is most often associated specifically with the Holy Spirit, in St. Paul’s writing, grace is received through Jesus (Romans 1:5), from God through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:24), and especially in 2Corinthians 13:14. On the other hand, the Spirit he describes as the Spirit of Christ (see below). The notion of free gift, not the subject of entitlement, has been associated with belief in predestination and, more controversially, double predestination: that God has chosen whom He wills to have mercy on and those whose will He has hardened (Rom. 9:18f.).

Paul’s concern with what Christ had done, as described above, was matched by his desire to say also who Jesus was (and is). In his letter to the Romans, he describes Jesus as the “Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”; in the letter to the Colossians, he is much more explicit, describing Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15) as rich and exalted picture of Jesus as can be found anywhere in the New Testament (which is one reason why some doubt its authenticity). On the other hand, in the undisputed Pauline letter to the Philippians, he describes Jesus as “in the form of God” who “did not count equality with God as thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross….”

Holy Spirit

Paul places much emphasis on the importance of the Spirit in the Christian life. He contrasts the spiritual and those thoughts and actions which are animal (of the flesh). The difficulty comes in determining how this affects action. The gift of the spirit was much associated in Gentile mind with the gift of ecstatic speech speaking in tongues and is connected in Acts with becoming a Christian, even before baptism. In considering the manifestations of the spirit, he is cautious. Thus, when discussing the gift of tongues in his first letter to the Corinthians (Chapter 14), as against the unintelligible words of ecstasy, he commends, by contrast, intelligibility and order: ecstasy may illuminate the practitioner; coherent speech will enlighten the hearer. Everything should be done decently and in order.

Secondly, the gift of the Spirit appears to have been interpreted by the Corinthians as a freedom from all constraints, and in particular the law. Paul, on the contrary, argues that not all things permissible are good; eating meats that have been offered to pagan idols, frequenting pagan temples, orgiastic feasting; none of these things build up the Christian community, and may offend the weaker members. On the contrary, the Spirit was a uniting force, manifesting itself through the common purpose expressed in the exercise of their different gifts (1Corinthians 12) He compares the Christian community to a human body, with its different limbs and organs, and the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, whose body we are. The gifts range from administration to teaching, encouragement to healing, prophecy to the working of miracles. Its fruits are the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control (Galatians 5:22). Love is the best way of all (1Corinthians 13)

Further, the new life is the life of the Spirit, as against the life of the flesh, which Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, so that one becomes a son of God. God is our Father and we are fellow heirs of Christ (Romans 8:14).

Relationship with Judaism

Paul was himself a Jew, but his attitude towards his co-religionists is not agreed amongst all scholars. He appeared to praise Jewish circumcision in Romans 3:1–2, said that circumcision didn’t matter in 1Corinthians 7:19 but in Galatians, accuses those who promoted circumcision of wanting to make a good showing in the flesh and boasting or glorying in the flesh in Galatians 6:11–13. He also questions the authority of the law, (see Antinomianism), and though he may have opposed observance by non-Jews he also opposed Peter for his partial observance. In a later letter, Philippians 3:2, he is reported as warning Christians to beware the “mutilation” (Strong’s G2699) and to “watch out for those dogs.” He writes that there is neither Jew nor Greek, but Christ is all and in all. On the other hand, as we have seen in Acts, he is described as submitting to taking a Nazirite vow, and earlier to having had Timothy circumcised to placate the Jews. He also wrote that among the Jews he became as a Jew in order to win Jews (1Corinthians 9:20) and to the Romans: “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good.” (Romans 7:12) The task of reconciling these different views is made more difficult because it is not agreed whether, for instance, Galatians is a very early or later letter. Likewise Philippians may have been written late, from Rome, but not everyone is agreed on this.

However, considerable disagreement at the time and subsequently has been raised as to the significance of “works of the law.” In the same letter in which Paul writes of justification by faith, he says of the Gentiles: “It is not by hearing the law, but by doing it that men will be justified (same word) by God.” (Romans 2:12) Those who think Paul was consistent have judged him not to be a Solifidianist himself; others hold that he is merely demonstrating that both Jews and Gentiles are in the same condition of sin.

E. P. Sanders in 1977 reframed the context to make law-keeping and good works a sign of being in the Covenant (marking out the Jews as the people of God) rather than deeds performed in order to accomplish salvation, a pattern of religion he termed “covenantal nomism.” If Sanders’ perspective is valid, the traditional Protestant understanding of the doctrine of justification may have needed rethinking, for the interpretive framework of Martin Luther was called into question.

Sanders’s work has since been taken up by Professor James Dunn and N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, and the New Perspective has increased significantly in dominance in New Testament scholarship. Wright, noting the apparent discrepancy between Romans and Galatians, the former being much more positive about the continuing covenantal relationship between God and his ancient people, than the latter, contends that works are not insignificant (Romans 2: 13ff) and that Paul distinguishes between works which are signs of ethnic identity and those which are a sign of obedience to Christ.


See also: Resurrection of the dead

Paul appears to develop his ideas in response to the particular congregation to whom he is writing. The idea of the resurrection of the body was foreign to the Greek (i.e., Corinthian) mind; rather the soul would ascend apart from the body. The Jewish conception, on the other hand, was of the exaltation of the body which was assumed into heaven. Neither fits easily into the descriptions of the risen Christ walking about as described in the gospels. The Corinthians appeared to believe, from what Paul writes, that Jesus had avoided death, but that his followers would not. He wants to make clear to them that Jesus died but overcame death and that unless he did so we could not hope to be raised from the dead; because he did so, we can (1 Corinthians 15:12ff). However, the resurrected body is a glorified body and thus will not decay. He contrasts the old and the new body: the first being physical, the second spiritual; “It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1Corinthians 15:43–44). The mortal body is to be covered with the heavenly body; the frame that houses us now, though it be demolished will be replaced by a heavenly dwelling, so that “we may not be found naked” (2Corinthians 5:3)[20]

Paul has a very corporate idea of the resurrection hope of the Christian community. The hope given to all who belong to Christ, includes those who have already died but who have been baptised vicariously by the baptism of others on their behalf—so that they may be included among the saved (1Corinthians 15:29); (whether or not Paul of Tarsus approved of the practice he was apparently prepared to use as part of his argument in favour of the resurrection of the dead).

The World to come

See also: Second Coming

Paul’s teaching about the end of the world is expressed most clearly in his letters to the Christians at Thessalonica. Heavily persecuted, it appears that they had written asking him first about those who had died already, and, secondly, when they should expect the end. Paul regarded the age as passing and, in such difficult times, he therefore discouraged marriage. He assures them that the dead will rise first and be followed by those left alive (1 Thess. 4:16ff.). This suggests an imminence of the end but he is unspecific about times and seasons, and encourages his hearers to expect a delay. The form of the end will be a battle between Jesus and the man of lawlessness (2Thessalonians 2:3) whose conclusion is the triumph of Christ.

The delay in the coming of the end has been interpreted in different ways: on one view, Paul of Tarsus and the early Christians were simply mistaken; on another, that of Austin Farrer, his presentation of a single ending can be interpreted to accommodate the fact that endings occur all the time and that, subjectively, we all stand an instant from judgement. The delay is also accounted for by God’s patience ((2Thessalonians 2:6).

As for the form of the end, the Catholic Encyclopedia presents two distinct ideas. First, universal judgement, with neither the good nor the wicked omitted (Romans 14:10–12), nor even the angels (1Corinthians 6:3). Second, and more controversially, judgment will be according to faith and works, mentioned concerning sinners (2Corinthians 11:15), the just (2Timothy 4:14), and men in general (Rom 2:6–9). This latter characterization has been the subject of controversy among Reformed theologians, notably N. T. Wright.

Social views

The conversion on the way to Damascus, by Caravaggio.

The conversion on the way to Damascus, by Caravaggio.

Every letter of Paul includes pastoral advice which most often arises from the doctrines he has been propounding. They are not afterthoughts. Thus in his letter to the Romans, he reminds his readers that, like branches grafted onto the olive, they themselves, like the natural branches, the Jews, may be broken off if they fail to persist in faith. For that reason he appeals to them to offer themselves to God, and not to be conformed to the world. They must use their gifts as part of the body which they are. He invites them to be loving, patient, humble and peaceable, never seeking vengeance. Their standards are to be heavenly not earthy standards: he condemns impurity, lust, greed, anger, slander, filthy language, lying, and racial divisions. In the same passage, Paul extols the virtues of compassion, kindness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, and gratitude (Colossians 3:1–17; cf. Galatians 5:16–26). Even so they are to be obedient to the authorities, paying their taxes, on the grounds that the magistrate exercises power which can only come from God.

As noted above, the Corinthians were inclined to regard their freedom from law as a license to do what they liked. Thus, his attitude towards sexual immorality, set against the mores of Greek-influenced society, is particularly direct: “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body” (1Corinthians 6:18). His attitude towards marriage, in writing to the Corinthians, is to advise his readers not to marry because of the “present distress,” while noting marriage is better than immoral conduct: “it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion”; the alternative, adopted by Paul himself, is celibacy. As for those who are married, even to unbelievers, they should not seek to be parted. In Ephesians he appears to be more positive, holding up marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21–33). His attitude towards dietary rules manifests the same caution: Paul argued that while “all is permitted,” some actions may seem to “weaker brethren” to be an implicit acceptance of the legitimacy of idol worship—such as eating food that had been used in pagan sacrifice.

He deals with many other questions on which he may have been asked for advice: their relationship with unbelievers; the duty of supporting other needy Christians, how to deal with church members who had fallen into temptation, the need for self-examination and humility, the conduct of family life, the importance of accepting the teaching authority of the leaders of the Church.

His teaching has been criticised as being conservative and even quietist. His view of the shortness of the time before the end is thought to have influenced his ethic. That what he says—for instance, about the appropriate attitude towards unbelievers—appears to vary may be the result of his responding to different questioners whose enquiries are unknown to us. Three particular issues, not all of them controversial at the time, have assumed great contemporary importance. One is his attitude towards slaves, the second towards women, and the third his attitude towards homosexual acts.

The issue of slavery arises because his letter to the slave owning Philemon, whose slave Onesimus Paul sends with his letter. He fails to condemn the practice (as he does also in writing to the Corinthians) but his asking that Philemon should treat him “not as a slave, but instead of a slave, as a most dear brother, especially to me” (Philemon 16) may be thought of as a subtle condemnation of slavery. Many others, however, have used his writings to uphold the institution of slavery.

To determine Paul’s beliefs on homosexuality, several passages are frequently cited. In 1 Cor. 6:9–10, Paul lists a number of actions which are so wicked that they will deprive whoever commits them of their divine inheritance: “Neither the immoral, nor idolaters, not adulterers, nor sexual perverts,[21] nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God” Elsewhere, he describes certain homosexual actions as unnatural, the perpetrators as being “consumed with passion for one another and as having abandoned the truth about God for a lie.” (Rom 1:24–27) A number of Biblical scholars, such as Dr. David Hilborn, argue that these passages represent a condemnation of homosexuality by Paul. Other scholars, such as Dr. John Elliott and Dr. John Boswell, argue that Paul was not referring to homosexual relationships as we now understand them and contrast the relationships common in the ancient world (such as pederasty) with modern gay relationships. See The Bible and homosexuality‘s section on Paul.[1].

Alternative views

Most writing on Paul comes from the pen of Christians and thus, as Hyam Maccoby, the Talmudic scholar, contends, tends to adopt a reverential tone towards his life and teaching (and also to assume or argue for the consistency between the New Testament writers). He is one of a number of authors who argued not only that we can learn little of Christ’s life and teaching from his letters, but also that Paul of Acts and Paul from his own writing are very different people. Some difficulties have been noted in the account of his life. Additionally, the speeches of Paul, as recorded in Acts, have been argued to show a different turn of mind. Paul of Acts is much more interested in factual history, less in theology; ideas such as justification by faith are absent (see Acts 13:16–41; Acts 17:22–31) as are references to the Spirit. On the other hand, there are no references to John the Baptist in the letters, but Paul mentions him several times in Acts. MacCoby is, in fact, anticipated in some of his arguments by F.C.Baur (1792–1860), professor of theology at Tubingen in Germany and founder of the so-called Tübingen School of theology who argued that the apostle to the Gentiles was in violent opposition to the older disciples, believing that the Acts of the Apostles were late and unreliable. This debate has continued ever since, with Deissman (1866–1937) and Reitzenstein (1861–1931) emphasising Paul’s Greek inheritance and Schweitzer and Weiss stressing his dependence on Judaism.

A further charge by Maccoby is that the Gospels present Jesus as, essentially, a wandering rabbi and that Paul elevates him to the status of Son of God and Messiah, claims which Jesus did not make himself. Géza Vermes, in his book Jesus the Jew advances precisely this argument. Christian scholars, even as long ago as Wilhelm Wrede (1859–1906), have made similar claims: that Jesus did not claim to be the Messiah and the references to the secrecy of his Messiahship lead to this conclusion. The cogency of these arguments depends on how far the four evangelists themselves are to be treated as creative theologians and what processes took place in the editing of the gospels as written. Some differences can be accounted for by the different demands of storytelling and letterwriting. Also, the tone of the gospels differs between themselves. At the beginning of St. Mark’s gospel the expression “Son of God” is found but it is not in all ancient manuscripts; the view has been expressed that Jesus somehow became the Son of God at his baptism—a doctrine known as adoptionism. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus is called the divine ‘Word’ who existed before Abraham and Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus also said, “I and the Father are one.” The Jews then wanted to stone him for claiming to be God (John 10:33). The arguments are dense and complex and cannot be rehearsed in detail here. Maccoby, on the other hand, argues that the Gospels and other later Christian documents were written to reflect Paul’s views rather than the authentic life and teaching of Jesus.

Maccoby questions Paul’s integrity as well:” Scholars,” he says, “feel that, however objective their enquiry is supposed to be, … never say anything to suggest that he may have bent the truth at times, though the evidence is strong enough in various parts of his life-story that he was not above deception when he felt it warranted by circumstances.”

Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, and an authority of Gnosticism has argued that Paul was a Gnostic and that the anti-Gnostic Pastoral Epistles were forgeries written to rebut this. (Most scholars interpret the Gnostic references in his letter to the Colossians as an attempt to outgun the Gnostics by claiming that Christ is the “pleroma.”)

Further discussion of these issues can be found in the article Pauline Christianity.

See also

1 Response to “Paul the Apostle”

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