A Short Life of Paul: Journey to the Heart of the Church

Dominic Rolls FAITH Magazine May-June 2009

Fr Dominic Rolls offers an informative life of a great saint who became increasingly captivated by the person of Christ and His Church. Fr Rolls is Parish Priest of Dorking and scripture lecturer in Wonersh Seminary, Surrey.

Pope Benedict has declared 2008-2009 to be the Year of St Paul. Between the 29th June last year and the 29th June this year all the faithful are called to give thanks to God for the tremendous work and missionary zeal of the Apostle to the Gentiles. As a worker in the vineyard of the Lord, this Jewish convert to Christianity was and remains unsurpassed. We ask him to pray and obtain for us those graces of patience and perseverance necessary to fight the good fight to the end and win the crown of salvation, just as he did.

Saul was born in Tarsus, the principal town in the Roman province of Cilicia, around the year 8AD (hence the reason for the jubilee year). Two influences immediately come to bear on the young man of great brilliance growing up in this bustling and thriving city. As an observant Jew in the strict Pharisee tradition, he would have learnt the Law from the elders of his community and lived the enclosed life of piety in family and synagogue that a religious upbringing entailed. As a Roman citizen, either because his family had been prominent in the service of the Emperor or because they had paid a large amount of money for the privilege, Saul would have indirectly absorbed the predominant Greek philosophy. A tent maker by trade, it would be too far fetched to suggest he attended the Greekuniversity in Tarsus. Rather, through the culture and intellectual environment of which he was part, he would have been exposed to secular philosophy, especially the predominantly stoic thought of his day.

The Student

A brilliant pupil, Saul was sent to Jerusalem to finish off his studies under the guidance of the great Gamaliel. Two traditions governed rabbinic thought and Scriptural commentary there - the schools of Hillel and Simon. Gamaliel followed Rabbi Hillel and was reputed to be the best teacher of that or any subsequent period.

Pharisaism embraced a belief in the after-life and the resurrection. It embraced a full acceptance of spiritual reality, with a developed angelology, and an uncompromisingly strict set of traditions for observing the Law. Jesus would later criticise the Pharisees for abandoning the spirit of the Law in favour of their man-made traditions, but in fact the Nazarene's manner of teaching had more in common with Pharisaism than any other sect of Judaism. Saul found himself in Pharisaism, which gave full expression to his own intellectual brilliance and a burgeoning zeal for the things of God. He became focused and fulfilled in the Law, and the Law alone.

It is interesting to speculate that Saul's period in Jerusalem would have occurred just before the mission of John the Baptist began - a mission subsequently taken over by his cousin Jesus of Nazareth. Everything was poised in the plan of God. There could have been no cloud to disturb the tranquil blue skies of Saul's Pharisaism, and no reason to doubt that he would have returned to his native city one of the brightest pupils of his day. Then Jesus happened.

The impact of the Nazarene sect would probably have been localised like a small stone in a still pond. Only later, when the ripples did not die away but threatened to become huge waves, did the whole phenomenon become deeply disturbing to the Jerusalem authorities. Their actions to neutralise this threat met with final success after a hard and bitter struggle. Jesus was executed by a cornered Pontius Pilate, and the Law seemed safe from the radical repositioning advocated by the defeated and discredited Nazarene.

Saul's reappearance in Jerusalem at that time must have seemed a godsend to the Chief Priest. Persistent rumours of Jesus' resurrection emboldened and increased his following. Despite the grave doubts of Gamaliel at the rulings of the Sanhedrin against the adherents of the Nazarene sect, the mantle of swift, decisive and, if need be, brutal action laid down by Caiaphas was resolutely taken up by Saul. Even the mantles of those who stoned Stephen to death were gathered and guarded by the man who thoroughly approved of the killing of this first Christian martyr. Saul was very good at his job, and none were safe who challenged the Law after the way of Jesus. Men, women and children were hunted down and left in the appalling squalor of first century jails to come to their religioussenses.

Not content with his unparalleled attack on the Church in Judaea, Saul was granted letters of authority to act against believers of the new sect in Damascus. His experience on the road to the Syrian capital changed his life completely in an instant, and remains a point of controversy in the eyes of many up to the present day.


Luke refers three times to the act of conversion in Acts, underlying its vital importance to the survival and upbuilding of the early Church. Some, who smell a rat at any possibility of miraculous intervention in human affairs, claim that Saul was never converted but merely changed sides. A troublemaker from the start, his thirst for confrontation and prominence caused him to throw in his

lot with the fledgling movement he had formerly tried to persecute. Apart from flying in the face of the facts as reported to us, this view does not make sense of the psychology of a bright, convinced and much feted student. Such a view is based on a hermeneutic of doubt, the only certainty of which becomes the unreliability of early Church interpretations of what are branded dubious events. Subsequent interpretations become far more fantastic than the accounts that they attempt to deny. In the absence of historical evidence to the contrary, our views are formed by the clear tradition of near contemporary accounts, preserved that our faith might be well founded on eyewitness testimonies within the Tradition of the Church.

So, what happened to Saul? Let the sources speak for themselves:

"Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' He asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The reply came, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do'" (Acts 9, 3-6)

Blind and stumbling, Saul is lead into Damascus. His world is turned completely upside down, and he is brought to experience the utter depths of his weakness, so that the grace of God might build him up to the heights. Through baptism received from the trembling hand of Ananias, the grace of Jesus Christ enters his soul and begins that process of conversion which will culminate in his martyrdom in Rome some time in 67AD. But before the newly named Paul can give the witness of his blood, he is required to give the witness of his word.

So Saul becomes Paul. Yet his conversion still remains a profound mystery. How much did he receive in direct revelation from God, how much did he learn from other disciples of Jesus? When did he receive the direct revelations he later claims? There are plenty of questions that can never be known definitively, though a likely scenario can fairly straightforwardly be attempted. What is certainly true is that Paul's conversion was an ongoing process, dramatic though it was in the beginning. If grace perfects through human nature, then the enormity of the vision of God given to Paul comes to him piecemeal as he struggles to live his new life fully.

Its seed was an encounter with Christ whose first words immediately and intimately associate himself with those people Saul is persecuting - a revelation that is of the Christ who is in the Church. Its fruit will be a profound knowledge of Christ and his foundational relationship, both to us - he it is "in whom we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28) - and to creation - of which he is "the first born." (Col 1:15) (cf. Faith Jan 2006, 'The Primacy of Christ: An Exegesis in Pauline Christology' by Luiz Ruscillo). It will lead, towards the end of his life, to his use of the beautiful ancient Christian hymn: "Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped." (Phil 2:5-11)


Paul leaves Damascus for Arabia, perhaps to be strengthened in spirit for the task that is laid before him. At any rate, the effect of his return to Damascus is explosive. He preaches the divine sonship and Messianic character of Jesus in the synagogues of that city. Rejected as a renegade by his former friends, the Jews try to kill him and very nearly succeed. Paul is secretly lowered from the walls of Damascus in a basket and escapes to Jerusalem. There his reputation as Saul goes before him, and he is treated with understandable suspicion by the followers of Jesus, whose lives he had so brutally persecuted previously. He is saved by Barnabas, who befriends him and champions him before the apostolic leaders of the Judean church. Paul establishes his apostolic credentials before leavingfor his native Tarsus. The sheer magnitude of such a high profile conversion must have rocked the holy city. The danger to Paul and all associated with him can only be imagined.

Barnabas' friendship with Paul extended to a shared missionary zeal. Though clearly a key figure, Paul's evangelical work was always within the mission of the universal church, which he grew to see as those in unity of belief (Phil. 1:27; 2:2), as the Bride of Christ on whom it was founded (Eph 5:23-32), and the "pillar and ground of truth" (1Tim 3:15) which faithfully hands on Christ's teaching (2Tim 2:2).

It was Barnabas who re-established contact with him in Tarsus and engaged him on a mission to the gentile converts at Antioch. The leader was Barnabas, not Paul, and the impetus for the work of evangelization came from the apostolic authorities in Jerusalem, not from Paul's own initiative. If Paul became the brightest light in the evangelical firmament, he was never the only light. Others laboured alongside him, and it is interesting to note that many of his most effective helpers later on, such as Silas and Apollos, were not his converts. Others had sowed where he reaped.


The mission to Antioch was phenomenally successful, the gentile followers of the Way becoming known as Christians there for the first time. From Antioch, Barnabas and Paul began the first missionary journey, through Cyprus (the homeland of Barnabas), Perge in Pamphylia, and the Galatian towns of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. At some stage the leadership of the mission passed to Paul for unknown reasons. No doubt his unique talents and calling brought him to the fore. Barnabas begins to fade and the work becomes truly Pauline.

Joy at his success on return to Antioch is short-lived, as Paul hears disturbing news from Antioch that his gentile converts in Galatia have come under the influence of Jewish Christians who insist on the importance of circumcision. A pattern is set for all Paul's apostolic work, whereby his presence among the young churches has a remarkable effect on conversions, only to be undermined in his absence by the mistaken insights and follies of disloyal followers.

The two agree to disagree about whether to take Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, on their second journey (Acts 15:39). Mark had given up early on their first journey and it seems Paul did not want to take the risk on the second one. It seems that through Barnabas, who finds Mark "useful", Timothy later brings him to Rome where he reconciles with Paul, "proving a comfort" to him (Col. 4:11).


For Paul the question of circumcision hit at the heart of the gospel. It was not merely a matter of discipline, but rather a denial of the intrinsic merit of the cross. If a man bound himself to the Law through circumcision, he could not be saved. He had put his trust in delusive ways incapable of salvation and rejected the sole mediation of the cross of Christ. Only in the death and resurrection of Christ could we have access to the Spirit who brings freedom and life. It is the law of the Spirit that frees and saves us, not works of the Law. Vigorous debate and a delegation to Jerusalem to clear up this problem saw Paul and Barnabas completely victorious over the Judaizers who advocated circumcision. News of their victory and repudiation of their opponents reached Antioch through decreescarried from Jerusalem by Judas and Silas. In Silas, Paul found a kindred spirit, and it was he who replaced Barnabas on the second missionary journey.

This did not start well. They tried to go east to Proconsular Asia, but were forbidden to preach. They turned north to Bithynia, and were not even allowed to enter the territory. Eventually they turned west towards Mysia and Troas, and so over the Aegean Sea to Macedonia in Greece. Ancient historians often speculate about what would have happened if Alexander the Great had gone west instead of east. A like question can be posed about Paul: what would have happened if he had been allowed to go east?

Greece proved a fertile ground for Paul, although each advance made for the gospel was dearly bought in sheer unremitting toil against equally determined opposition. They reached Europe through Neapolis and proceeded to the principal town of that part of Macedonia, Philippi, where Lydia becomes the first European to embrace the gospel. Paul insists on his Roman citizenship in this Roman colony, and the range and differing social backgrounds of his converts back up one of his key evangelising principles, flowing from his knowledge of the Son of God as the "first born of many brothers" (Rom 8:29-31) as well as "of creation" (Col. 1:15): that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Gal 3:28).

Hounded out of Philippi, Paul and Silas move on to the capital of Macedonia, Thessalonica. There the mission again meets with some success, but the hostility of the Jews forces them on again through Athens, where Paul shows a mastery of Greek thought in debate despite his abhorrence of idol worship, and so on to Corinth, the capital of Achaia. Alone and sorrowful, Paul finds a reception in Corinth that makes his mission there the crown of his second missionary journey. He spent eighteen months in this key maritime city. Under divine inspiration he changes a Jewish mission for a predominantly gentile one and prospers. Ever careful of the churches he has left, Paul writes two letters to the church in Thessalonica. The year is 51 AD.


Ceaseless effort and opposition must have taken their toll on Paul. Yet his return to Antioch heralds the start of his third missionary journey almost immediately. Moving through Galatia and Phrygia, Paul disputes in the synagogue in Ephesus and stays in the town for over two years. The circle of believers slowly widens as Christian groups are established in the towns of Colossae, Laodicea and Hieropolis. At the beginning of this period he writes to the Galatians, and at the end to the Romans (in order to prepare for a fourth missionary journey to Spain). In between he writes a series of letters to his friends in Corinth. Paul is indefatigable:

"In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as lllyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ" (Rm 15, 17-19).

Soon it became clear to Paul at Ephesus that he would have to return to Jerusalem. He had collected money for the brothers in Jerusalem from all the churches on his missionary journeys, as a gift to the poor and a concrete proof of his loyalty. Now the gift was to be given, though it became clear to Paul from the daily privations of his missions and the stirrings of his inner spirit that suffering and abuse awaited him in the holy city. He was not disappointed.

Outside the Tower of Antonia in Jerusalem the Jewish mob set upon Paul, intent on killing him. The tribune in the city had to intervene, and Paul defended himself to such effect from the threshold of the Tower that the mob became doubly intent on taking his life. Paul had to be grabbed and taken within the Tower, where the Roman soldiers were garrisoned. It was a miracle of providence, for anywhere else in the city and he would have died very quickly indeed. As Pontius Pilate had been with Jesus, so the Tribune now found himself with Paul: caught between the hammer of their prisoner's innocence and the anvil of mob rage. On discovering a further plot to kill Paul, the relieved Tribune had his prisoner spirited away by night to Caesarea Maritima and the residence of the deeply corruptRoman Governor, Antonius Felix.

Felix was not interested in Paul, though he knew him to be innocent before the railings of the Sanhedrin in his court. He was interested in a bribe. Instead of releasing his prisoner as Roman law required he had him bound in chains and led back to prison until such times as a ransom was paid to the Governor for such an influential 'guest'. No money was forthcoming, and Paul languished for two years until Felix was removed from office. Festus, who replaced him, was better, but the problem of Paul persisted. The case was heard promptly, and Paul worsted his opponents by claiming that it was on account of the resurrection that he was in chains, thus splitting Pharisee and Sadducee among his accusers. Felix's firm attitude to the Jews wavered, and he seemed willing to allow Paul to be takenback to Jerusalem (though he was almost certain to be ambushed on the way). With his options rapidly diminishing, Paul played his trump card and, as a Roman citizen, appealed to Caesar.

To Rome

Felix must have been delighted, for his problem was literally going away. Paul was taken on a dramatic journey to Rome, including shipwreck, where he was established under a

relatively free house arrest. He thrived, preaching and writing in this Indian summer of his life. The letters of captivity to the Ephesians, the Philippians and the Colossians are hotly contested as being non-Pauline, but have always been accepted in the Church's Tradition. Perhaps their difference of style can be attributed to Paul's changed circumstances under house arrest. No longer plagued by wearisome journeys and constant anxieties for the health of the churches, the more meditative and developed tone of these writings show Paul's ability to think things through rather than react to crises on the hoof, as in Galatians or the Corinthian correspondence. The letter to Philemon also dates from this period, and is the only extant Pauline letter written to an individual.

After two further years Paul was released, and may well have gone to Spain. A visit to the extreme west is recorded in the first century Letter of Clement (5, 5-7) and the tradition is also found in St John Chrysostom. Timothy was sent to Ephesus in this period, and Titus to Cyprus. Paul's extensive travels brought him back to Rome, where the situation for Christians had noticeably worsened, and he was re-arrested. This time his confinement was close and he knew that his end was near.

By tradition, the very moving second letter to Timothy dates from this time ("I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained up like a criminal - but the word of God cannot be chained" (2Tim 2, 9)). Let that Letter be a fitting epitaph for the apostle to the Gentiles, in whose tradition we stand and who has inspired Pope Benedict to declare this special Pauline Year for the upbuilding and good of all the faithful:

"As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing" (2Tim 4, 6-8)

Who could begrudge him his heaven?

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