Paul the Apostle (Greek: Παῦλος Paulos; c. 5 – c. 67), original name Saul of Tarsus (Greek: Σαῦλος Ταρσεύς Saulos Tarseus) was an apostle (though not one of the Twelve Apostles) who taught the gospel of Christ to the first-century world. He is generally considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age. In the mid-30s to the mid-50s, he founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. Paul used his status as both a Jew and a Roman citizen to advantage in his ministry to both Jewish and Roman audiences.
According to writings in the New Testament Paul, who was known as Saul early on, was dedicated to the persecution of the early disciples of Jesus in the area of Jerusalem. In the narrative of the book of Acts, while Paul was traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mission to “bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem”, the resurrected Jesus appeared to him in a great light. He was struck blind, but after three days his sight was restored by Ananias of Damascus, and Paul began to preach that Jesus of Nazareth is the Jewish Messiah and the Son of God. Approximately half of the book of Acts deals with Paul’s life and works.
Fourteen of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament have traditionally been attributed to Paul. Seven of the epistles are undisputed by scholars as being authentic, with varying degrees of argument about the remainder. The Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, already doubted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries but almost unquestioningly accepted from the 5th to the 16th centuries is now almost universally rejected by scholars. The other six are believed by some scholars to have come from followers writing in his name, using material from Paul’s surviving letters and letters written by him that no longer survive. Other scholars argue that the idea of a pseudonymous author for the disputed epistles raises many problems.
Today, Paul’s epistles continue to be vital roots of the theology, worship, and pastoral life in the Roman and Protestant traditions of the West, as well as the Orthodox traditions of the East. Among that of many other apostles and missionaries involved in the spread of the Christian faith, Paul’s influence on Christian thought and practice has been characterized as being as “profound as it is pervasive”. Augustine of Hippo developed Paul’s idea that salvation is based on faith and not “works of the law”. Martin Luther’s interpretation of Paul’s writings influenced Luther’s doctrine of sola fide.
The main source for information about Paul’s life is the material found in his epistles and in the book of Acts. However, the epistles contain little information about Paul’s past. The book of Acts recounts more information but leaves several parts of Paul’s life out of its narrative, such as his probable but undocumented execution in Rome.
Sources outside the New Testament that mention Paul include:
- Clement of Rome’s epistle to the Corinthians (late 1st/early 2nd century);
- Ignatius of Antioch’s letter To the Romans (early 2nd century);
- Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians (early 2nd century);
- The 2nd-century document Martyrdom of Polycarp.
Although it has been popularly assumed that his name was changed when he converted from Judaism to Christianity, that is not the case. His Jewish name was “Saul” (Hebrew: שָׁאוּל, Modern Sha’ul Tiberian Šāʼûl ; “asked for, prayed for, borrowed”), perhaps after the biblical King Saul, a fellow Benjamite and the first king of Israel. According to the Book of Acts, he inherited Roman citizenship from his father. As a Roman citizen, he also bore the Latin name of “Paul” —in biblical Greek: Παῦλος (Paulos), and in Latin: Paulus.[Acts 16:37] [22:25-28] It was quite usual for the Jews of that time to have two names, one Hebrew, the other Latin or Greek. In addition, Paulus was originally a surname.
In the book of Acts, when he had the vision which led to his conversion on the Road to Damascus, Jesus called him “Saul, Saul”, in “the Hebrew tongue”. Later, in a vision to Ananias of Damascus, “the Lord” referred to him as “Saul, of Tarsus”. When Ananias came to restore his sight, he called him “Brother Saul”.
In Acts 13:9, Saul is called Paul for the first time on the island of Cyprus — much later than the time of his conversion. The author (Luke) indicates the names were interchangeable: “…Saul, who also is called Paul…”. He thereafter refers to him as Paul, apparently Paul’s preference since he is called Paul in all other Bible books where he is mentioned, including those he authored. Adopting his Roman name was typical of Paul’s missionary style. His method was to put people at their ease and to approach them with his message in a language and style to which they could relate.
A native of Tarsus, the capital city in the Roman province of Cilicia, Paul wrote that he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews”, a Pharisee, and one who advanced in Judaism beyond many of his peers. He also wrote that he was “unmarried”, at least as early as his writing of I Corinthians 7:8, however some hold that he may have been married prior to that, due to certain textual analyses of his writings, and other similar rationale. His initial reaction to the newly formed Christian movement was to zealously persecute its early followers and to violently attempt to destroy the movement. Paul’s dramatic conversion while on the road to Damascus was clearly a life-altering event for him, changing him from being one of the early movement’s most ardent persecutors to being one of its most fervent supporters.
After his conversion, Paul began to preach that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. His leadership, influence, and legacy led to the formation of communities dominated by Gentile groups that worshiped Jesus, adhered to the “Judaic moral code”, but relaxed or abandoned the ritual and dietary teachings of the Law of Moses. He taught that these laws and rituals had either been fulfilled in the life of Christ or were symbolic precursors of Christ, though the exact relationship between Paul the Apostle and Judaism is still disputed. Paul taught of the life and works of Jesus Christ and his teaching of a New Covenant established through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The New Testament does not record Paul’s death.