Saul of Tarsus: AD c.10-c.35
Saul of Tarsus, known to Christians as St Paul, grows up in a strict Jewish family in the port of Tarsus, in what is now southern Turkey. As part of Asia Minor, this is a Greek-speaking town.
A Greek-speaking Jewish Roman citizen is well equipped to have influence in the wide and stable Mediterannean world of this period, benefiting from the Pax Romana of the new Roman empire.
But the boy’s father, who arranges for him to go to Jerusalem to study among the Pharisees, would certainly be surprised and shocked to know in advance the details of his influential son’s career – in the service of a small radical Jewish sect, which as yet has not even been formed in Palestine.
After studying with a leading rabbi in Jerusalem, Saul becomes closely linked with the religious authorities in the city and zealously helps to suppress the Jewish heresy which is being spread by the followers of the crucified Jesus. He watches with full approval the stoning of Stephen, a leading Christian, and then he sets off to Damascus to seek out and arrest any Christians in that city.
On the road to Damascus he sees a blinding light and hears a voice saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ The voice goes on to add: ‘I am Jesus’.
The first missionary: AD c.35-c.55
Instead of persecuting the Christians of Damascus, Saul is baptized by them and stays among them for some three years. Later he returns to his home town in southern Turkey, preaching the Christian faith.
Then, probably in the second half of the 40s, he begins the great series of missionary journeys (using by now the name Paul) which give the young church its first sense of being a widespread community. They also give it, incidentally, its earliest written records.
Paul’s missionary journeys take him to Cyprus, through much of Turkey and to all the Greek communities round the Aegean Sea. His first visit in each new place is to the synagogue, for Christianity is still essentially a Jewish sect. If his arguments cut no ice with the local Jews, he extends the debate to the local Gentiles – usually with more success.
To the Jews, comfortably settled and tolerated in their religion by the Roman authorities, Paul is a dangerous trouble-maker. Often they throw him out of their city, sometimes after beating him with 49 lashes (one cautious stroke short of the maximum 50 in Jewish law).
One brief sequence in about AD 50 can be taken as typical of Paul’s life on his missionary journeys. He arrives at Thessalonica in Greece (the modern Salonike) and on three successive sabbath days preaches in the synagogue that the Messiah has come, in the person of Jesus Christ.
A few Jews believe Paul, as do several Gentiles elsewhere in the town, but the majority in the synagogue are incensed. They go to the Roman authorities and produce one of the arguments used earlier against Jesus: this man is an affront to Caesar, for he claims that there is another king. Paul makes a timely escape and moves south to Athens.
In this historic home of debate Paul spends some time arguing his case (a pagan altar ‘to the unknown god’ provides him with an easy opening), but soon he again has to leave for his own safety. He sends a companion, Timothy, back to Thessalonica and himself moves on to Corinth.
When Timothy returns, he brings news that the brethren in Thessalonica have various worries: in particular, what about Christians who die before the second coming? Will they miss out on a place in heaven? Paul decides that a letter is neessary to keep these new converts in the fold.
The first epistle: AD c.50
Paul’s first Epistle to the Thessalonians is the earliest text in the New Testament. Written on a scroll of papyrus in Greek, the language of the people he is writing to, the letter is intended for reading aloud to congregations in and around Thessalonica.
Paul begins with fraternal greetings; then he praises the Thessalonians for their devotion to God and his son Jesus; he exhorts them to be steadfast in suffering for the cause; he slips in a reminder that they must abstain from fornication; then he gives them the crucial assurance that dead Christians will enter heaven (indeed they will rise from their graves and ascend before the living at the last trump). He ends with a warning. The final moment may come at any time. Be well prepared.
The appeal to Caesar: AD c.55-c.60
Many Jews (with justification) see Paul as encouraging people to abandon strict observance of Jewish ritual. This reaction leads to violence when he visits Jerusalem in about 55. He is in the Temple, undergoing ritual purification, when he is assaulted by hostile Jews.
The Roman authorities, rescuing him from a murderous mob, take him into a protective custody which lasts two years – while argument goes on as to whether he should be handed over to the Jewish authorities and to almost certain death. Being a Roman citizen he can ‘appeal to Caesar’, insisting that his case be transferred to Rome. Eventually he sets off, a prisoner, on the long journey by sea to the capital of the empire.
Paul arrives in Rome in about the year 60. The Acts of the Apostles ends on a surprisingly happy note, considering that he is a prisoner sent here for trial:
‘And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.’
An unknown end: AD c.62-c.67
It is strange that Luke, Paul’s frequent companion, does not include in Acts (which he wrote some twenty years later) either the result of the legal process against Paul or any mention of his death. Christian tradition states that Paul was martyred in Rome, and perhaps a violent conclusion would not have appealed to early Christian readers of this otherwise inspirational account of the great missionary.
The date of Paul’s death is generally guessed to be somewhere between 62 (at the end of the two years mentioned by Luke) and the second half of the 60s, after the Fire of Rome has led to the first large-scale persecution of Christians.