Youth New Evangelization & Spiritual Renewal Seminar Series
The Christian Faith: Seminar 15

Paul The Apostle

At the beginning Jesus chose twelve disciples. This number is not coincidental and likely represents the twelve tribes of Israel. With the demise of Judas Iscariot, after Christ's ascension the number of Jesus' apostles remained incomplete until Paul joined the Church. Initially Paul did not join the Church from his own will, as he was the persecutor of the sect, but was forced into his conversion by Christ Himself.

Paul was a Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jew trained in Pharisaical manner. He became the most important figure in the history of Gentile Christianity and his writings are the earliest Christian writings even before the Gospels, which were written some 40 years later. Paul transformed the Christianity and shaped the early Church even though he actually never knew Jesus during His active life in the Palestine. We know that Saul, as he was then called, was born in Tarsus in the first decade of the Christian era. Tarsus was the prosperous capital of the Roman Province of Cilicia, now southeastern Turkey. He was the son of a highly religious Jewish family, speaking Aramaic at home and Greek outside. As a youth he was sent to Jerusalem to become a master of the law in conformity with Talmud, the Jewish code of living. He also learned a trade as a tent maker. As an adult Paul became one of the most zealous persecutors of the first Christians who were viewed by the Jewish establishement as heretics. As such he was greatly feared by the followers of Christ (Mays et al. 2000, Anderson 2007).
 

On the road to Damascus and beyond

While on the road to Damascus, where he intended to bring some Christians to trial, Paul experienced an apparition of Jesus in the form of a blinding light. Falling on the ground in response, Paul heard the voice of Jesus saying: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" This experience of his was profound, resulting in an immediate and lasting change of his heart. Following his conversion, Paul spent long period in isolation in Arabia. After three years in Damascus, falling in disfavor with a local ruler, Paul had to escape over the walls in a basket. He then went to Jerusalem where he sought out Peter together with James, the leaders of Christian community in Jerusalem. After initial fear and suspicion of being a persecutor of the Church eventually Paul became accepted as a genuine Apostle of Jesus.

Paul withdrew from the Church in Jerusalem and began to spread his doctrine about Jesus in his native Cilicia, and then with Barnabas, made his headquaters in Antioch, in Syria. It was in Antioch that large numbers of non-Jewish followers were recruited. Paul took Barnabas with him when in AD49 he went to Jerusalem to attempt in consultation with the Church leaders to heal a serious division about how far the followers of Jesus need to conform to Judaic practices. Paul's main contribution to Christianity was to insist against all opposition that Gentiles did not need to become Jews first in order to become Christians (i.e. there was no need for circumcision). In this he was at odds with the more traditionalist apostles like Peter who insisted that all Christians must accept Jewish laws and be circumcised. From many respects Paul was considered by many followers of Christ to be a bogus apostle and was forced often to defend his calling, mission and status. Nevertheless, subsequently he left the consultation with the Church, known as the Council of Jerusalem, with a clear mandate from James, Peter and John to preach among the non-Jewish headen, the Gentiles. For the next decade until his arrest in AD58, Paul traveled ceaselessly throughout the eastern Mediterranean, from Antioch to Greece, setting up Christian communities and revisiting them.

In every large town of the Empire there was a Jewish community, and a synagogue where Paul would often begin his preaching. Paul's missionary strategy was systematic. He would target the larger towns, hoping to set up Christian communities from which his teaching would trickle into outlying areas. Anderson (2007) writes that Paul's letters indicated less of an interest in numbers of believers and more in making sure there were congregations, even small ones, in every major civilized area around the Mediterranean. Paul used the local synagogue to make his first stand, preaching to any Jews who would listen. Eventually he would be thrown out of the synagogue for his heretical preaching, at which point he would found a new Church with his latest converts making up the first congregations. He would remain in the city, building up the congregation, until the orthodox Jews drove him away.

In Greece there were not always synagogues, so Paul sometimes preached to the Gentiles in the open. Athens was no exception. Philosophers in this cosmopolitan and relatively open-minded city invited him to speak before them so that they could consider what he had to say. Their reaction was not always favourable however. Afterwards he settled for nearly two years in Corinth, teaching and writing.

During his missionary work Paul underwent three extensive journeys. The first journey with Barnabas took them both to Cyprus and then to a number of towns in what is now southern Turkey.

Paul then returned to Antioch where he had a heated exchange with Peter and "withstood him to his face". Though Peter had already recognized the validity of inviting Gentiles to become Christians, now while staying in Antioch he refused on ritual grounds under pressure from supporters of James, to eat with Christians who were not of Jewish descent. Correctly, Paul considered this refusal to be utterly wrong. He felt it went against the central point of Christ's teachings, namely that salvation was for all.

Then Paul continued his relentless traveling. The most important of the Paul's three missions was the second, undertaken around AD51 and lasting four years. Traveling up through Asia to Greece he brought Christianity to Europe. He was accompanied by Silas, a leading member of the Church of Jerusalem, and Timothy, whom they met on the way.

During his third tour Paul returned to the churches of Asia Minor, Macedonia and Greece. This time He would be much preoccupied with setting right some morality issues occurring within the Church at Corinth.

By this time the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem began to loathe Paul. Only arrest by the Romans prevented Paul's public lynching in the streets of Jerusalem. His Roman citizenship guaranteed his protection by the Roman establishment. With rumours circulating of impending plot of Paul's murder the Roman authorities decided put him of harm's way in Caesarea. He was kept in prison in Caesarea for two years until in 60 the procurator of Caesarea decided to send him back to Jerusalem for trial. Paul appealed this decision however, so he was being sent to Rome. His journey to Rome was interrupted by a shipwreck off Malta where his ship run aground, its stern being smashed by high seas. Paul together with other prisoners and occupants got ashore on broken timber from the ship. There, gathering sticks for a fire, Paul was bitten by a viper. The barbarians saw this to be a sign that Paul was a wicked man. When he came to no harm however, they took him for a god. In Rome at last, he lived at his own expense under house arrest for two years and was able to continue writing further letters to Christian communities (Mays et al. 2000).

Undoubtedly strenghtened through the mysticism of his ecstatic experiences, despite opposition Paul's status grew quickly in the early Church so much so that Paul's writings became recognized as 'scripture' on a similar level to the Hebrew Bible for their use in Christian worship. Whatever his personal practices as a Jew, Paul's view that the Jewish law was not necessary for salvation for the Gentiles spelled the end of its importance as a major factor in Christian belief and practice (Anderson 2007). We must be careful however, how we interpret this. This Paul's view, which resonated deeply throughout the, especially reformed, Christian Churches is often conveniently and erroneously interpreted as: "Believe in the risen Lord Jesus, and you will be saved". During His Public Ministry Jesus never made such a promise however and was careful not to make any statements, which could lead to an assumption that good works and righteousness (i.e. obedience of the original Jewish Law) were not necessary for one's salvation (see also the introduction).
 

Bibliography

Anderson, M.R., 2007. Faith Enrichment Conference. Archdiocese Montreal, Nov. 2007
Mays, J.B., Howse C., and Beeson T., 2000. 2000 years of Christianity. National Post, Gurdon Hugo Ed.


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