Who was the Apostle Paul? – a brief biography (what he did and wrote)

In Paul by Kurt Willems0 Comments

In this article, I will try to sketch out a brief biography of the Apostle Paul. He is considered to be one of the most famous (and sometimes misunderstood as infamous) figures in history. His basic message was that the end of the age had arrived in the Jewish Messiah named Jesus.

The resurrection of inaugurated the last days that would come to their culmination at Christ’s return with the healing of the created order and the resurrection and judgement of humanity (Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15).

This conviction, paired with discerning how best to incorporate the nations (gentiles) into the family of Israel’s God, changed the entire trajectory of his life. Paul’s biography is interesting to us because of this single shift in conviction.

The Apostle Paul, sometimes called Saint Paul or Saul of Tarsus, lived from about 5 BCE / 5 CE to about 67 CE. Saul is the alternative name, especially in the Book of Acts (Acts of the Apostles). In that text, his Semitic name “Saul” is replaced by “Paul” (likely his Latin name that is adapted in the Greek New Testament as well). The first occurrence of this name nuance is found in Acts 13.9.

Two Sources for Paul’s Biography

We have two sources of information pertaining to Paul’s biography. The Acts of the Apostles is a narrative (more stylized than “raw” history, but historical nonetheless) that features him as a primary character. But as the character in a narrative, good historical work demands that we always start with primary sources: Paul’s words in Paul’s own letters.

This second source gives us the clearest access to his life and thought. Although they are colored by his own biases (as is anything written by any human in history, so this isn’t meant to be pejorative), they give the clearest witness and access to the historical Paul.

Acts, then, is a “corroborative source” before it is a primary source, but the two need not be seen as in competition. They have different rhetorical and historical functions, which is important to name when seeking to find out more about this historical figure.

Outlining Paul’s Life

Based on the Book of Acts, Paul was a Roman citizen (Acts 16.37, 22.25-29). He was from a Jewish family from the city of Tarsus, a trade city on the Mediterranean. Located in Asia Minor, it was influential in trade since at least the time of Alexander the Great.

Paul Trained as a Pharisee

Acts 23.6 describes Paul as a Pharisee (and the son of a Pharisee) which corroborates with his own words in Philippians 3.5-6. In Acts, it explicitly names this identity as a family link, since his father also had such an identity.

At some early point in Paul’s life, Acts 22.3 claims that Paul studied under the great Pharisaic teacher, Gamaliel, who may have been the grandson of Hillel the Elder (sometimes noted as one of the great proto-rabbis [often called “sages” or “teachers”] of the first century BCE).

If this connection is true, which based on Paul’s interpretive grid throughout his letters as a wise Pharisee seems more than plausible, Paul studied under one of the most respected teaching lineages in the late Second Temple period. He seems to have been educated beyond Torah expertise, to include a deep understanding of the Prophets and classical literature and philosophy.

Paul’s Job as a Tent-Maker

Acts also describes that Paul was a tent-maker as his primary vocation (18.1-3). He worked with Priscilla and Aquila who are also mentioned in Romans 16.3-4 as “co-workers” (likely both metaphorically in regards to the message of Jesus and literally regarding a shared trade).

Paul the Persecutor Transformed

Saul is depicted in the Acts of the Apostles as a persecutor of the early Jesus movement that began in Jerusalem. In Acts 7.58-8.1, he is named as among those who approved of the stoning of Stephen. Then in Acts 9 we have the story of Paul encountering the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road, where Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9.4).

Of course, this incident leads Paul to trust that Jesus is actually the Messiah, and he devotes all of his energy from then on to proclaiming the message of Jesus to fellow Jews and especially the nations (often called “Gentiles”). The idea of persecution is corroborated in Paul’s letters in Galatians 1.13-14 and Philippians 3:6.

Paul’s Autobiography of Transformation

Galatians 1 also tells Paul’s autobiographical account of his transformation to being a Jew who follows Jesus as Lord. Likely, Acts is a stylized version of what Paul claimed himself about that experience (here, stylized simply means that the story was constructed in a way that was intended as true, but also second hand).

The estimated date of this transformative event (sometimes wrongly referred to as Paul’s “conversion” to Christianity, rather than his adoption of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and Lord) is usually somewhere between 31-36 CE. Paul also mentions this dramatic experience briefly in 1 Corinthians 15: 8, when defending the resurrection of the dead by noting that Jesus had appeared to him “last of all.”

After Paul’s Transformation

After his mystical encounter with the resurrected Jesus, Paul was blinded by the experience according the Acts 9 account. Moving back into Paul’s own firsthand account in Galatians 1-2, after this experience he went to: Arabia, then Damascus, then Jerusalem for 15 days (3 years later to meet with Cephas / Peter and James), then to Syria and Cilicia.

And then, 14 years later, Paul went back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to meet with the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church: James, Cephas, and John. In this meeting, these key leaders affirmed that Paul was indeed commissioned to be an apostle to the gentiles (which means “nations-people”).  The only thing that the Jerusalem apostles urged was that Paul and his companions “remember the poor” (Gal. 2.10).

Controversy in Antioch

A controversy eventually would ensue in Antioch, as the realities on the ground that complicated the bringing together of Jewish and gentile followers of Jesus, came to light. Certain men came from James (Galatians 2.12ff) to visit and caused confusion about the nature of the gospel message to the gentiles.

This controversy even, apparently, caused Peter to cower and choose to separate himself from the shared meals they were having as Jews with gentile converts. This situation becomes the anecdotal story that Paul uses in his letter to the Galatians to illustrate the reason why gentiles must not be circumcised.

Undoubtedly, there are several theories as to what Paul’s motivation actually was in sharing this story and confronting the practice of circumcision. One quick question we might ask:

Was Paul against circumcision and following the Law of Torah in a universal sense (for both Jews and gentiles) or just for gentiles? Does he have an exclusively gentile readership in mind when he uses negative language about ceremonial Torah practices?

Paul’s Missionary Journeys

Paul, if we jump back into Acts, started in Antioch as his launching point (the place of the controversy) and eventually took several trips to various regions of the Mediterranean. These travels are how Paul was able to start so many churches, many of whom for which we have letters in the New Testament.

According to the narrative of Acts, Paul’s “missionary journeys” included:

  • Acts 13.4-15.35 (begins and ends in Syrian Antioch)
  • Acts 15.36-18.22 (also begins and ends in Syrian Antioch)
  • Acts 18.23-21.17 (begins in Syrian Antioch and ends in Jerusalem)
  • Acts 27.1-28.16 (journey to Rome)

Paul’s Letters to the Churches (Our Best Biographical Sources)

Depending on how one understands the dating and authorship of the Pauline letters, the writings we have that are attributed to Paul are often said to have been written during or in response to these various journeys. The letters of Paul can be broken into two basic categories: authentic letters (meaning they are universally accepted as from the Apostle), and disputed letters (meaning that scholars disagree about authorship). They are as follows:

The Firm 7 Letters of Paul

  • 1 Thessalonians
  • Galatians
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Philippians
  • Philemon
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Romans

The Contested Letters of Paul

  • 2 Thessalonians
  • Colossians
  • Ephesians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus

It should be noted that even Christians of various stripes contest certain letters of Paul as not being directly from his hand. However, in the ancient world is was the practice at times to write in honor of someone by taking the pen up in their name.

It is highly likely that if any of these letters (especially disputed are the pastoral letters of 1/2 Timothy and Titus) were not directly from Paul that they come out of Pauline schools. His disciples likely took his ideas and carried them forward after his death, in such a scenario. In the first century these would not be considered forgeries, since they were in continuity with his message an mission.

They should be seen as containing broadly Paul’s thought, although it is in the minor nuances that scholars question authorship. Those scholars who are Christians still affirm “inspiration” and “authority” of these writings.

But again, the point should be made that many scholars affirm all of the letters as genuinely Pauline (with the important exception of the sometimes wrongly attributed letter to the Hebrews).

Paul’s Eventual Arrest in Jerusalem

Paul would be arrested (according to Acts 21) for having an anti-Law agenda, which from his letters we know was not true. He affirmed the goodness of the Torah for the Jews, but simply didn’t hold that the whole Torah was to be obeyed by the gentiles. However, if Acts is accurate, he would be arrested upon  being accused of debasing the Temple (Acts 21.27ff) by a mob. His arrest saved his life as Roman guards put him in chains.

After a group of Jews intended to murder Paul, he was transferred to Caearea Maritima. He would stay there as a prisoner for 2 years. When his case was finally revisited two years later (possibly in 59 CE), Paul took the opportunity to “appeal to Caesar” as a Roman Citizen (a fact unique to Acts). This led to Paul’s whole group being shipped out to Rome for his impending trial. After being ravaged by shipwreck (see Acts 27-28), he eventually made it to Rome (possibly in 60 CE).

Paul’s Death

Under house arrest, Paul lived in Rome for two years (at least) as he awaited his trial date. Acts ends with this open-ended statement:

Paul lived in his own rented quarters for two full years and welcomed everyone who came to see him. Unhindered and with complete confidence, he continued to preach God’s kingdom and to teach about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28.30-31)

We learn that Paul eventually was executed, not from the New Testament, but from the writing attributed to Ignatius in the early second century CE. From this we learn that Paul was martyred in Rome for his proclamation about Jesus. Dionysius of Corinth adds Peter to the list of those executed in the capital of the Empire.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul has left a lasting impact on Western (and some parts of Eastern) tradition. His writings have been used to justify agendas that the apostle himself would have stood against.

This brief biography gives a framework for engaging the Paul of history so that we can uncover what he really taught and experienced. My sincere belief is that Paul, proclaiming an alternative King named Jesus, was likely more radical than we usually realize.

Recommended Introductions to Paul

Here are a few great introductions to Paul that will take you further than this brief biography can.

Author: Kurt Willems

Kurt Willems (M.Div.) is the founding pastor of Pangea Church (Seattle, Wa.), curator of The Paulcast: A Podcast All About the Apostle Paul, blogger at The Pangea Blog (hosted by Patheos.com), graduate student at the University of Washington (focusing on Paul), and resourcer of an intelligent and humanizing faith at Theology Curator.
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