St. Paul of Tarsus (Died c. 64)
Paul, who once persecuted Christians, had a radical conversion experience. He was never the same afterward, and went on to transform the early Christian Church. He was born Saul, in Tarsus, Asia Minor, of Jewish parents. He described that city as a cosmopolitan capital of the Roman province of Cilicia, a crossroads for Asians and Europeans as well as Greeks and Jews.
Saul received both a Greek and a Jewish education, and then went into the trade of a tentmaker. He described himself as a Pharisee and a serious persecutor of Christians. Paul was present at the stoning of St. Stephen, the first martyr. Although Paul was merely part of the crowd of onlookers, it is believed that he was supportive of the stoning. After Stephen's death, Saul went into surrounding houses and dragged Christians off to prison.
But Saul was to have an epiphany, as did so many others. He went to the high priest in Jerusalem asking for permission to seize the Christians of Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. On his way to Damascus he had a vision of Christ, and a flash of light threw him to the ground. A voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9)
Figure 2-3: St. Paul of Tarsus
When Saul asked who spoke, he heard, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Blinded at the time of the incident, Saul was led into Damascus. He spent several days there, unable to eat or drink. Then he met Ananias, a disciple of Jesus who seemed to know the enormous task Saul would be taking on. Ananias laid his hands on him and his eyesight was immediately restored and new strength surged through his body.
Saul had now experienced two miracles: a vision and a cure. Not surprisingly, he asked to be baptized and set about preaching Christianity with the same zeal he had once channeled into persecutions.
He headed first to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles. It took some convincing for them to believe that their persecutor was now their the apostles. It took some convincing for them to believe that their persecutor was now their ally, but eventually they accepted him, directing St. Paul of Tarsus him to join the apostle Barnabas in three missionary journeys.
When entering a new community, Paul — he had now taken the Hellenic name Paul in place of Saul — tried a strategy of first making contact with the local synagogue. He was saddened to discover that they wanted nothing to do with him as Jewish convert to Christianity. So he turned to the gentile community, which was more receptive. Over the years Paul became known as “the apostle to the gentiles.”
Was Paul on a horse or donkey when he was knocked to the ground?
Possibly neither — the scriptural account does not say. Generations of artists, however, have portrayed Paul as thrown from his horse or donkey, and this extrabiblical image has become fixed in the minds of believers.
He was apparently not too skilled in social graces. He was intense and did not always work well with others. Yet he got along with the apostle Luke, who was an educated, sophisticated man. And he got along with Peter as well, perhaps because Peter had known Jesus and been appointed head of the new church. Peter and Paul complemented each other. According to some scolars, Peter was a large, rather easygoing man who meant well but was unschooled and not great on follow-through. Paul was smaller, angular, and well educated.
Paul's missionary endeavors did not always run smoothly. He was often met with hostility, suffering imprisonment and stoning. He endured shipwreck and hunger, fear and anxiety, and countless sleepless nights. He was also not well some of the time, suffering from what he described as “a thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
His travels were long and lonely. He sent letter after letter back to the Christian communities he had established. These epistles — to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans — are read in churches to this day. His letters covered problems of the new Christians, interpreting the faith and observing Mosaic law (the law of the Jews attributed to Moses). The letters covered a period from about A.D. 50 to 65 and are the earliest New Testament writings.
Paul established Christian communities around the eastern Mediterranean. The aim for his second missionary journey was Corinth in Greece, and the third took him to Ephesus in Asia Minor.
Paul's Lasting Impact
Back in Jerusalem sometime around A.D. 50, Paul, with Peter supporting him, convinced the other apostles that gentile Christians did not need to be circumcised and have Jewish law forced upon them. That important decision ensured the universality of Christianity.
Eventually, around the year 57, Paul returned to Jerusalem, where he was arrested as a Christian and spent the next two years in prison. Exercising his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar, he was sent to Rome and was held under arrest there for about two years. Finally, he was beheaded, when St. Peter was crucified.
On his way to Rome to what he knew would be his death, Paul was still writing to the communities he had visited and converted. At the end, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7) He is buried in Rome, in the major basilica St. Paul's Outside the Walls. He has been called “the second founder of Christianity.” Paul's feast day is June 29, which he shares with St. Peter. He is the patron saint of Malta.