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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The MOST Theological Collection: Commentary on the Pauline Epistles (The Thought of St. Paul)

"Chapter 1. The Life of St. Paul"


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Our chief sources for the life of St. Paul are things that occur in his Epistles, and the long account in the Acts of the Apostles. Many today wish to discard Acts, saying it gives a very different picture of Paul. But this is not true.1

We do not know the precise date of Paul's birth. He says he was a young man (neanias) when Stephen was stoned (Acts 7:58) which was probably in 36. So he should have been under 30 in 36 and so would have been born early in the first century, probably not later than 10 A.D. In the Epistle to Philemon, probably written about 62, he calls himself an old man (presbytes) which would mean over 50. So again, somewhere around 10 A.D. is a reasonable estimate.

He was born in Tarsus in Cilicia, a Hellenistic town. In 66 B.C. the Roman General Pompey reorganized Asia Minor, and made Tarsus a provincial capital. Mark Anthony granted, and Augustus confirmed the rights of freedom, immunity and citizenship. So Paul had Roman citizenship, a very valuable thing at that time, which he did not hesitate to invoke when needed. Paul says Tarsus was "no insignificant city" (Acts 21:39). It was an intellectual center, rivaling Athens and Alexandria.

Paul clearly knew Greek well, for his Epistles are all in Greek. He should have grown up speaking Aramaic at home, and also, according to tradition, would have begun to read the Hebrew Scriptures at age 5. His later studies in Jerusalem would have been in Hebrew.

He came from the tribe of Benjamin, and his original name, Saul, was that of the great hero of that tribe. After Acts 13:9 his name is given as Paul. We are not sure of the reason: it was usual for Jews then to have two names, one Hebrew, one the Romans could pronounce. But it is to be noted that the name Paul begins in Acts right after Paul converted Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor of Cyprus.

He says he lived strictly as a Pharisee (Acts 26:5 -- Cf. Gal l:14). He asserts in Philippians 3:6 that he kept the law perfectly.

He had a married sister whose son was in Jerusalem in 58. (Acts 23:16ff.) He himself studied in Jerusalem under the great Rabban Gamaliel I (flourished c. 10-50 A.D.). Gamaliel was somewhat liberal in tendencies, but Paul certainly did not pick any of that up. It seems to be the same Gamaliel who intervened in the Sanhedrin. (Acts 5:34 ff.) Late Christian legend said he became a Christian.

We do not know how old he was when he went to Jerusalem, probably about 13-15. Since he shows no sign of having seen Christ during His earthly career, Paul probably returned to Tarsus when still a young man, shortly before the opening of the public life of Jesus. He would not have been installed as a rabbi until about age 40. At that point he would have had to marry, but it seems he did not marry, though it is just possible he was a widower.

Studying the Law at that time meant chiefly solving cases about how to act. Some decisions were ridiculously tight. For example, the schools of Shammai and Hillel at that time debated many things: if a hen lays an egg on a festival day may it be eaten or not? May a tailor go out with his needle near sundown on Friday (he might forget and be carrying it on the sabbath?). One of the greatest of modern Jewish Scholars, Jacob Neusner2 said of many things in the Mishnah (200 A.D.-- mostly made up of earlier rulings): "Why in the world would people take seriously the nonsense we are now trying to master? And...of all the noble chapters of the Mishnah [why] have you selected this monumental nonsense?" Yes, there were noble things in the teachings of the time. They even spoke of love of God, our Father.3

Paul's use of Scripture was of course affected greatly by this training. He uses more than 80 direct quotes from the Old Testament, and many more allusions. He seldom quotes from the Hebrew text, seems to use a Greek text similar to the Septuagint. He probably did this since he was writing for Greek speakers. But also he would quote from memory and so the wording might vary for that reason. However, like the rabbis, Paul might pay little or no attention to the original setting of a quote. If the words could carry the meaning he wanted, he would quote them in that sense. But, the sense in which he used them would be something true in itself. However, he very often had a Hebrew word in his mind when using a Greek word: we will point out instances of this in the detailed comments to come. It is important to know the Hebrew meaning in these instances, which we will supply.

In Tosefta, Kiddushin 1.11 we read that "a man must teach his son a trade: whoever does not teach his son a trade teaches him to be a thief." The most famous rabbis engaged in a manual trade to support themselves. They did not want to take pay for teaching. Aboth 2.2 quotes a later Rabban Gamaliel, son of Rabbi Juda ha-Nasi as saying: "The study of the Law along with a trade is a fine thing, for being busy with both makes a person forget sin. All study of the Law not joined with labor is vain, and an occasion of sin." We know that Paul supported himself by tentmaking, or, more likely, by making cilicium, a coarse waterproof cloth made of goats' hair, used for tents and raincoats. It came from his native province of Cilicia. Paul carried on this trade even on his missionary expeditions.

We do not have anything entirely certain on his physical appearance. Some have pointed to such texts as 2 Corinthians 10:1, where Paul says that he, "in appearance is lowly among them." But that could mean unimpressive, not necessarily physically short. In 1 Corinthians 2:3 he says: "I came to you in weakness (astheneia) and in fear and in much trembling." Astheneia could mean physical illness or could mean merely that he lacked authority. The trembling could have meant malaria --common in Paul's world -- or it could mean merely he felt his own unimpressiveness in the sophisticated Greek world.

There is an apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla -- probably going back to a document of the first century -- which says this of Paul: "a man short of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs, in a good state of body, with eyebrows meeting, and nose somewhat hooked, full of friendliness."4 So uncomplimentary a description is not apt to have been forged.

We do not know how long Paul may have stayed in Jerusalem after his schooling. Most likely it was a few years. He seems to have come to know the authorities there, since on his trip to Damascus later, to arrest Christians, he had authority from them.

The next thing we know for certain of him was that he watched the garments for the men who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58-60). Some would put this at about 34 A.D. It seems much more likely it was 36, for then the term of Pontius Pilate ended. He was deposed by the Legate of Syria, Vitellius, and sent to Rome to face charges brought by the Jews. Fear of such charges had led him to consent to the death of Jesus! If the new governor had not yet arrived or still did not grasp things well, there was a chance for the Jews to inflict capital punishment on Stephen -- a thing the Romans did not allow them to do (cf. John 19:6).

Since it is rather likely (cf. Acts 8:1-3 and 9:1) that Paul's journey to Damascus to arrest Christians was about the same time as the stoning of Stephen, it is probable that his conversion also came in 36 A.D. His conversion is told in three places in Acts: 9:3-19; 22:6-16 and 26:12-18. The first time is part of the narrative; the second and third are from speeches Paul gave later. Strangely, some cannot find the explanation for what they call contradictions: 9:7 says those with him heard the voice but saw no one, while 22:9 says they saws the light but did not hear the voice. The solution is easy: Greek akouein, to hear, has a broad span of meaning (so does English listen). It can mean either to merely perceive a sound, or to also understand it. Secondly, 26:14 says we all fell to the ground; while 9:7 says his companions stood amazed. Totally easy! They did fall first, then soon scrambled to their feet, and stood amazed.

If we gather up the words spoken by Jesus in all three accounts, there is not a lot of information. Yet Paul in chapter 1 of Galatians insists he learned Christianity not from the other Apostles, but from Christ in this vision. How? It must have been an interior locution -- in it God as it were touches the brain of the man, and can convey as much information as He wills in one touch.5

His friends had to lead Paul into Damascus, for he was blind. Then God sent to him Ananias, who baptized him, and he regained his sight. At once he began, to the amazement of the Jews, to preach Jesus, saying He is the son of God and the Messiah. Soon the Jews began to plot against him. Friends put him in a basket, let him down over the wall through a window.

In Galatians 1, Paul insists he did not at once go to the Apostles to learn, for the vision had taught him. Instead he went to Arabia. We do not know what part of Arabia -- he could have gone to Mt. Sinai, but it could have been just the Transjordan. We do not know why he went to Arabia -- he could have made a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai. Or he could have merely spent time in the desert for prayer and penance. The sequence of events here is less clear -- probably his trip to Arabia fits between 9:21 & 22 in Acts. Further, 2 Corinthians 11:32 mentions leaving Damascus in a basket when the agent of King Aretas was trying to catch him: we do not know if there were two escapes in a basket or just one.

When he did go to Jerusalem, the Christians were suspicious of him, recalling what he had done in the past. Barnabas allayed their fears and took him to the Apostles. Galatians 1:18 tells of going to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas (he calls Peter by that Aramaic form regularly). Paul stresses he did not need to learn from the Apostles.

But a Hellenist plot made him leave Jerusalem, and he went to Tarsus. He seems to have stayed there probably from 40 to 44 A.D. We know nothing of his activities in that interval. Perhaps that was the time for the vision he reports in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, of being taken up to the third heaven?

Then Barnabas came to Tarsus to find him, and took him to Antioch, where he stayed a whole year. A prophet Agabus foretold a famine, which came. The church at Antioch made a collection for Jerusalem, and Paul took it there. Then he went back to Antioch -- he constantly returns there after expeditions.

His first missionary expedition was probably in 46-49. It is reported in Acts 13:3 to 14:28.

He went with Barnabas and John Mark, probably the Evangelist. They sailed from Seleucia, the port of Antioch, to Salamis in Cyprus. Then they went by land to Paphos. In the court of the Roman governor, Paul found a Jewish false prophet, Bar-Jesus, also called Elymas, with the proconsul Sergius Paulus. Paul looked intently at Elymas, and called him "son of the devil, enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villany." Elymas became blind. The proconsul believed.

We notice that Paul is not a milquetoast man, always being nice. He could be very stern and strong when the case called for it. Similarly Jesus called the Pharisees, "brood of vipers," and "whitewashed sepulchers" (Mt 24:24-33).

Next they sailed to Perga in Pamphylia -- the south central coast of Asia Minor. Here John Mark deserted.

Paul went first to the synagogue -- his usual practice, and after rehearsing Jewish history, said that God had raised up a man of the line of Jesse, Father of David. But the people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Him nor did they understand the prophecies about Him. They fulfilled these prophecies by condemning Him, but God raised Him from the dead. He then appeared to those who had been with Him before. So Paul brings them this good news.

The speech, reported in Acts 13:16-41, is very well constructed. Even though rather brief on paper, it gives one the impression of having heard a full length address. This is the way it is with the speeches in the classic histories of Greece. Since Luke was an educated Greek, a physician, we would expect him to follow the pattern used by the ancient Greek historians. Now Thucydides (1.22) tells us openly about the speeches in his works. He said he always tried to get the exact text, but could not remember all of the wording. So he would report it in his own words. If he could not get the text, he would try to get the substance, and then fill in in his own words. If he could not get anything, he would write a speech suitable for the occasion.

So we would expect that Luke would follow this pattern. Then we ask: Is it likely that Luke could get the actual text? Luke traveled with Paul many times. Paul like other travelling missionaries would use very similar presentations in many places. He would have one for Jews, another for educated pagans. So Luke could easily have gotten at least the substance, and perhaps he was present for certain typical presentations.

The Jews left the synagogue saying they wanted to hear more the next sabbath. Paul did return, and many gentiles also came. The Jews became jealous and reviled Paul and drove him away. Paul followed the injunction of Jesus, and shook the dust from his feet (Mt 10:14), and went on to Iconium.

At Iconium some Jews believed, others stirred up trouble, and wanted to kill Paul. He left and fled to Lystra and Derbe.

At Lystra a cripple was listening to Paul. When Paul noticed, he commanded the cripple to stand up. He did. The crowds went wild, and said the gods had come down in human form -- such stories were told in Greek mythology. They thought Paul was Hermes and Barnabas was Zeus. They wanted to offer sacrifice to them, and Paul protested in vain -- until Jews came from Iconium, turned the people against Paul. One moment he was a god -- now they literally stoned him, and left him for dead. His followers came and helped him after the Jews left. He went on to Derbe, then retraced his steps to the coast, and appointed presbyters in every church. This agrees with the fact that already in First Thessalonians 5:12 he urged the people to subject themselves to those placed over them in the Lord.

Paul then sailed back to Seleucia, and went by land to Antioch.

The fact that Paul had made numerous gentile converts, and had not told them to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses, led to dissension. Some, probably former Pharisees, objected strongly. We call these "Judaizers."

As a result, the church there asked Paul to go to Jerusalem to consult the Apostles. Paul in addition received a revelation telling him to go. The probable date was 49 A.D.

Peter spoke first at the meeting, and told his own experiences with the Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10). So Peter favored Paul's position. James next arose and did the same. Then Paul and Barnabas told how the Holy Spirit had been given to gentiles without circumcision.

Therefore the council wrote "to the brothers of gentile origin in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia." The decision was that they need not be circumcised or keep the law. But they asked them to do four things -- to avoid loose sex, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, and from the meat of strangled animals. The provision about sex was of course part of basic morality. The other three things were from the old law. They were added not in the belief they were required, but to soothe the feelings of the Judaizers who wanted to impose the whole law.

An objection is raised: Paul writing to Corinth (1 Cor 8ff.) told them they could eat meat sacrificed to idols, unless there would be scandal. The answer is easy. As we noted, the letter was addressed to Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Now if today the Vatican sends a directive to the Episcopal conference of one area, it applies there, and not elsewhere. Similarly this letter applied only in one area. Paul, as we see from Acts 16:4, did preach these things in the area to which they applied -- but not elsewhere.

After the meeting, Paul returned to Antioch, and Peter soon followed. At first, Peter followed the council decision: he did eat with the gentiles, and did not avoid the meats forbidden by the old law. But then some came "from James," and Peter stopped. Those "from James" must mean persons from the territory of James, not from James himself, for in the council he had agreed with Paul.

Paul saw the great danger if Peter would give the impression they had to keep the law, and so he rebuked him publicly. We have no account of Peter's reaction. Some today foolishly think Peter was adamant and broke with Paul. But that would mean Peter, the first Pope, would reverse his own doctrinal decision. We cannot suppose that. Really, Peter was only being weak, as he was so often during the public life of Jesus. But that weakness could seem like a doctrinal reversal: hence Paul's action.

Probably in the same year 49, Paul suggested another missionary expedition. Barnabas wanted to take along his cousin John Mark. Paul objected, for John Mark had deserted them early in the first trip. So Paul took along Silas (Silvanus), and Barnabas went to Cyprus with John Mark.

This second expedition seems to have been in the years 49-52. It is told in Acts 15:36-18:22.

Paul went overland through Syria and Cilicia, and then to Derbe and Lystra, places in which he had preached on his first trip. At Lystra he found a disciple named Timothy, whose mother was Jewish, his father Greek. Paul had Timothy circumcised because of the Jews in those places, who all knew his father was a Greek. This does not mean of course that Paul believed it was necessary to be circumcised -- it was just a tactic to please the Jews and avoid friction. This was in line with his stated policy in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul says he became a Jew to the Jews, a Greek to the Greeks, all things to all men, to gain all by some means. Of course he would not use any means that was morally wrong -- but short of that, he would bend, for the sake of the Gospel.

They next went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia. The Holy Spirit had told them not to go into the Roman province of Asia -- later Paul would spend three years at Ephesus in Asia -- or into Bithynia. The probable reason: some places needed the faith more than others. Since they could not cultivate every place at once, there needed to be a decision or a choice.

They came to Troas, near the site of ancient Troy. There a vision appeared to Paul in the night of a man of Macedonia saying: "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Paul of course left at once for Macedonia. Luke was probably with him at this point, for the text says, "We sought to go to Macedonia." Yet, we know that in travel narratives at that time there would sometimes be a shift of person, to first person plural, with no special reason. So we are not sure. They sailed to Samothrace and then to Neapolis, and on to Philippi, where they stayed some days. In Philippi there was a slave girl who had a spirit of divination, who followed Paul crying: "These men are servants of the Most High God." Paul was annoyed that she kept on crying out, and commanded the spirit to leave her. It did. The girl's owners had been making money with her divination, and so dragged Paul and Silas to the magistrates, charging they advocated customs that were unlawful for Romans. The crowd attacked Paul. The Magistrates ordered Paul and Silas beaten and put into prison. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying, and an earthquake came: all doors were opened, all chains loosened. The jailor was about to kill himself, but Paul said: "Do not harm yourself, we are all here." The jailor asked Paul what he should do. Paul told him to believe in Christ, so the jailor and his household were baptized. At daybreak the magistrates sent word to release Paul. But Paul said: "They have beaten us publicly, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have put us into prison. So do they now cast us out secretly? No, let them come themselves and take us out." The magistrates were fearful when they knew Paul was a citizen. They came and apologized.

Paul and Silas then went through Amphipolis and Apollonia to Thessalonica. Paul went to the synagogue there for 3 sabbaths. Some Jews were converted, but many more Greeks. The Jews were jealous, stirred up trouble, so that Paul left by night for Beroea. There he also went to the synagogue, and the Jews there were more receptive. But the Jews at Thessalonica heard of it, came and stirred up the crowds against Paul.

Paul next went to Athens, and was annoyed at seeing the idols. He argued in the synagogue and in the agora every day. Some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers met him, and disputed with him. Then they took him to the Areopagus. There Paul gave a speech in which he said that he had seen their altar "to an unknown god." So, he said, he would tell them who it was. And he preached Jesus and the resurrection.

Some mocked him, others said we will hear you later. He made just a few converts, including Dionysius the Areopagite. He had made a large mistake about the unknown god. The Greeks believed their gods were jealous, and if even by oversight, someone failed to offer sacrifice to all those worshipped in a place, there would be punishment.6 So the altar was a precaution, in case they forgot someone. And many Greeks did not like to think of a resurrection of all men, for they believed in reincarnation, and hoped to escape it after some time.

From Athens, Paul went to Corinth, and stayed at first with a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, who had left Rome when Claudius ordered all Jews out. Paul stayed with them, for they had the same trade as he. But the Jews again reviled and opposed him, so he moved in now with a gentile, Titius Justus, who lived next to the synagogue. Crispus, a leader of the synagogue, became a convert, but other Jews took Paul before the Roman governor, Gallio. Gallio had contempt for their charges and dismissed Paul. Then the Jews gave a beating to Sosthenes, a leading Jew, in view of Gallio, who did not intervene.

Paul stayed about 18 months at Corinth. It was probably there, in 51 A.D., that he wrote First and Second Thessalonians.

After that time he sailed for Syria, Aquila and Priscilla with him, via Cenchrae. He stopped at Ephesus in the Roman province of Asia, then moved on to Caesarea. Soon he went by land to Antioch. He may have paid a visit to Jerusalem before going to Antioch.

More on his life will be included at intervals within the following commentaries on his Epistles.


1 Cf. Wm. Most, Free From All Error, 2d ed. 1990. Libertyville, IL, Chapter 18: "Two St. Pauls?"
2 Invitation to the Talmud, revised ed., Harper & Row, 1984, p. 53.
3 Cf. Solomon Schechter, Rabbinic Theology, Schocken, NY, 1969 -- on p.18 he says he cannot understand Paul.
4 Cited from E. Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, Westminster, Phila 1964, II, p. 354.
5 Cf. St. Teresa of Avila, Life 25 and Interior Castle 6.3.7.
6 Cf. the legend of the Calydonian hunt.

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