Saint Paul was born around AD 3. He is considered to be the greatest missionary of Christianity and its first theologian, called Apostle to the Gentiles.
Born to Jewish parents in a thoroughly observant home in Tarsus (now in Turkey), Paul was originally named for the ancient Hebrew king Saul. On the eighth day he was circumcised, as stipulated by the Jewish Law; indeed, in all respects he was reared in accordance with the Pharisaic interpretation of the Law. As a young Jew of the Diaspora (the dispersion of Jews into the Greco-Roman world), Saul took as his everyday name the Latin Paul, a name with a sound similar to that of his Hebrew birth name.
Paul’s letters reflect a keen knowledge of Greek rhetoric, something he doubtless learned as a youth in Tarsus. But his patterns of thought also reflect formal training in the Jewish Law as preparation for becoming a rabbi, perhaps received in Jerusalem from the famous teacher Gamaliel the Elder (flourished AD20-50). By his own account Paul excelled in the study of the Law (see Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:6); and his zeal for it led him to persecute the nascent Christian church, holding it to be a Jewish sect that was untrue to the Law and that should therefore be destroyed (see Galatians 1:13). Acts portrays him as a supportive witness to the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Paul became a Christian after experiencing a vision of Christ during a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-19, 22:5-16, 26:12-18). Paul himself, in referring to this event, never uses the term conversion, which implies shifting allegiance from one religion to another; he clearly perceived the revelation of Jesus Christ to mark the end of all religions, and thus of all religious distinctions (see Galatians 3:38). Instead, he consistently spoke of God’s having “called” him (see Election below). Paul viewed his call to be a Christian and his call to be an evangelist to the Gentiles as a single and indivisible event. He recognized the legitimacy of a mission to the Jews, as carried out by Peter, but he was convinced that Christianity was God’s call to all the world, and that God was making this call apart from the requirements of the Jewish Law.
According to the widely known account recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul carried out three well-defined missionary journeys (see maps). The letters reveal that Paul’s missionary itinerary was guided by three major concerns: (1) the vocation of a missionary to work in territory as yet unreached by other Christian evangelists—hence his plan to go as far west as Spain (see Romans 15:24, 28; see also Romans 1:14); (2) the concern of a pastor to revisit his own congregations as problems arose—hence, for example, Paul’s several visits to Corinth; and (3) an unshakable determination to collect money from his largely Gentile churches and to deliver the collection himself to the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem. Although scholars do not fully understand Paul’s motive for this endeavor, it is certain that he wished by it to bring together the churches of his Gentile mission with those of the Jewish Christians in Palestine.
From Acts it is known that Paul was arrested in Jerusalem after riots incited by his Jewish opponents, and that he was finally taken to Rome; it is also in Acts that Paul speaks of the possibility of his own death (see Acts 20:24; see also Acts 20:38). He was executed in Rome, probably in AD62; Christian tradition from the 4th century fixes the day as February 22.
It has been a widely held view that Paul’s thought was soon virtually eclipsed by other theological teachings and was recovered only by St. Augustine in the 5th century and again by Martin Luther in the 16th century (and by them only in part). This view is now being somewhat revised. Although the author of 2 Peter speaks of difficulties in understanding Paul (see 2 Peter 3:16), numerous communities of the late 1st and early 2nd centuries preserved Paul’s letters and tried valiantly to apply aspects of his thought to the new situations in which they found themselves. Such Pauline communities are reflected in Colossians, Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus. It is true, however, that a thorough, sustained engagement with the theology of Paul was not undertaken until the works of Augustine and Luther; in the 20th century, the work of the German theologians Karl Barth and Ernst Ksemann has renewed interest in Paul’s theology.