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Holman Bible Dictionary
Early Life and Training (A.D. 1-35) Paul's Jewish name was Saul, given at birth after his father or some near kin, or even after the famous Old Testament King Saul, who like Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin.
Being born in a Roman city and claiming Roman citizenship, Paul (Paul os ) was his official Roman name. Normally, a citizen would have three names similar to our first, middle, and last names. The New Testament records only the name Paul which would have been the middle or last name, since the first name was usually indicated only by the initial. See Rome; Roman Empire; Roman Law .
Tarsus, the place of Paul's birth (Acts 22:3 ), is still a bustling city a few miles inland from the Mediteranean on Turkey's southern shore. By Paul's day it was a self-governing city, loyal to the Roman Empire. We do not know how Paul's parents or forebearers came to live in Tarsus. Many Jewish families emigrated from their homeland willingly or as a result of foreign intervention in the centuries before Christ. A nonbiblical story says that Paul's parents migrated from a village in Galilee, but this cannot be verified. See Tarsus .
Growing up in a Jewish family meant that Paul was well trained in the Jewish Scriptures and tradition (Acts 26:4-8; Philippians 3:5-6 ) beginning in the home with the celebration of the Jewish holy days: Passover, Yom kippur, Hanukkah, and others. At an early age he entered the synagogue day school. Here he learned to read and write by copying select passages of Scripture. He learned the ancient Hebrew language from Old Testament texts. At home his parents probably spoke the current dialect—Aramaic. As Paul related to the larger community, he learned the Greek language. Every Jewish boy also learned a trade. Paul learned the art of tentmaking which he later used as a means of sustenance (Acts 18:3 ).
Paul eventually went to Jerusalem to study under the famous rabbi, Gamaliel. He was probably 13 to 18 years old. See Acts 22:3 ). Paul became very zealous for the traditions, that is teachings, of his people (Galatians 1:14 ). He was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5 ).
This zealous commitment to the study of the Old Testament laws and traditions is the background of Paul's persecution of his Jewish brothers who believed Jesus was the Messiah. Luke introduced Paul in the Book of Acts at the execution of Stephen. Now Stephen was executed because he placed Jesus (1) superior to the law and (2) superior to the Temple. Furthermore he claimed (3) that the fathers of the Jewish nation had always been rebellious. Paul, from his training, vigorously disagreed with Stephen's point of view. Stephen opposed the very foundations of Judaism since the days of Moses. Stephen's sermon apparently stimulated Paul's persecution of the church (Acts 8:1-3 , Acts 9:1-2; Acts 26:9-11; Philippians 3:6; Galatians 1:13 ). To be an effective persecutor, Paul would need to know as much as possible about Jesus and the church. He knew the message of Christianity: Jesus' resurrection, His messiahship, and His availability to all humankind. He simply rejected the gospel. See Acts of the Apostles; Stephen .
Paul's Conversion (A.D. 35) Three accounts tell of Paul's Damascus Road experience: Acts 9:3-19; Acts 22:6-21; Acts 26:13-23 . The variations in details are accounted for by recognizing that each story is told to a different audience on a different occasion. Paul was traveling to Damascus to arrest Jewish people who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah. This was legally possible since city governments were known to permit the Jewish sector of the city a reasonable degree of self-government. The journey would take at least a week using donkeys or mules to ride and carry provisions. See Damascus; Messiah .
As Paul neared Damascus, a startling light forced him to the ground. The voice asked: “Why persecutest thou me,” and identified the speaker as Jesus—the very one whom Stephen had seen at the right hand of God when Paul witnessed Stephen's stoning. Paul was struck blind and was led into the city. Ananias met Paul and told him that he had been chosen by God as a messenger for the Gentiles (Acts 9:17 ). After Paul received his sight, like other believers before him, he was baptized.
In this conversion experience, Paul accepted the claims of Jesus and the church, the very thing he was seeking to destroy. Jesus was truly the Messiah and took priority over the Temple and the law. The experience was also Paul's call to carry the gospel to the Gentile world (Acts 9:15; Acts 22:21 ).
Both his conversion and call are reflected in Paul's letters. He wrote that Jesus had appeared to him (1 Corinthians 15:8-10; 1 Corinthians 9:1 ); the gospel Paul preached had come by revelation (Galatians 1:12 ); he had been called by God (Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 3:2-12 ). His conversion brought a complete change in the inner controlling power of his life. It was like dying and receiving a new life (Galatians 2:20 ) or being created anew (2 Corinthians 5:17-20 ). This experience of radical change and call to the Gentiles provided the motivation to travel throughout the Roman world. See Conversion .
Paul's Missionary Journeys (A.D. 46-61) (1) The first missionary journey (A.D. 46-48) began at Antioch (Acts 13-14 ). The church at Antioch had been founded by Hellenistic Christian believers like Stephen (Acts 11:19-26 ). Barnabas became its prominent leader, and Paul was his associate. Acts makes it clear that the entire church was involved in the world mission project, and the church chose Paul and Barnabas to be their representatives. John Mark went along as an important assistant. Their itinerary took them from Antioch (Antakya of modern Turkey) to the seaport of Seleucia. By ship they traveled to Cyprus. They landed at Salamis and traveled the length of the island to Paphos, from whence they set sail to Perga on Turkey's southern shore. Entering the highlands, they came into the province of Galatia where they concentrated their efforts in the southern cities of Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Their typical procedure was to enter a new town, seek out the synagogue, and share the gospel on the sabbath day. Usually Paul's message caused a division in the synagogue, and Paul and Barnabas would seek a Gentile audience. From Paul's earliest activities, it became evident that the gospel he preached caused tension between believers and the synagogue. This first journey produced results. In each city many turned to the new way (Acts 13:44 ,Acts 13:44,13:52; Acts 14:1-4 ,Acts 14:1-4,14:20-28 ); and a minimal organization was established in each locality (Acts 14:23 ). He later addressed an epistle to this district—Galatians. See Asia Minor.
(2) Paul's second journey (A.D. 49-52) departed from Antioch with Silas as his associate (Acts 15:36-18:18 ). They traveled overland through what is now modern Turkey to the Aegean part of Troas. A vision directed Paul to go to Philippi in the province of Macedonia. Philippi was a Roman city with no synagogue and a minimal Jewish population. Paul established a church there as further attested by his letter to the Philippians. From there he traveled to Thessalonica and Berea. His preaching in Athens met with meager results. His work in Corinth (the province of —Achaia) was well received and even approved, in an oblique fashion, by the Roman governor, Gallio. From Corinth, Paul returned to Caesarea, visited Jerusalem, and then Antioch (Acts 18:22 ).
(3) Paul's third missionary venture (A.D. 52-57) centered in the city of Ephesus from which the gospel probably spread into the surrounding cities such as the seven churches in Revelation (Acts 18:23-20:6; Revelation 2-3 ). From Ephesus he carried on a correspondence with the Corinthian church and possibly other churches. While in Corinth at the end of this journey, he wrote the Epistle to the Romans. See Revelation 2-3; Revelation 2-3 .
When Paul returned to Jerusalem for his last visit (Acts 21:17-26:32 ), he was soon arrested and imprisoned—first in Jerusalem and then later transferred to Caesarea (A.D. 57-59). At first the charges against him were that he had brought a Gentile into the restricted areas of the Temple. Later, he was accused of being a pestilent fellow. The real reasons for his arrest are noted: the crowd was enraged at his mentioning his call to the Gentiles (Acts 22:21-22 ), and he stated to the Sanhedrin that he was arrested because of his belief in the resurrection. These two reasons, or beliefs, were the controlling motivation of Paul's life from conversion to arrest. See Resurrection; Sanhedrin .
Paul was eventually transferred to Rome (A.D. 60-61) as a prisoner of the emperor. His story in the New Testament ends there. The tradition outside the New Testament that tells of Paul's execution in Rome is reasonable. The tradition that he traveled to Spain is problematic.
Paul and the churches (1) Paul did not hesitate to remind the churches that he possessed apostolic authority from the Lord. Galatians 1-2 is his most intensive statement of this. He blatantly stated that his appointment was from God ( Galatians 1:1 ), and that he preached the authentic gospel (Galatians 1:8 ) because he received it by revelation (Galatians 1:12 ).
He had been called by God to carry the gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:16 ). This call was recognized by the leaders of the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:7-10 ), the very church in which the most distinguished of the apostles resided—Peter, James, and John. In most of his letters, Paul identified himself from the beginning as an apostle of Christ Jesus. His certainty of the gospel and his relationship to Christ was the grounds of his relation to the churches. The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians further expresses Paul's commitment to the Gentile mission. Again he insisted that by revelation (Ephesians 3:3 ) he knew the mystery of Christ which is simply that the gospel is for the Gentiles without any restrictions (Ephesians 3:6-9 ). He had been given the specific charge to carry the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15 ). See Galatians, Epistle to; Gentiles .
(2) While Paul was intensely aware of his calling, he also recognized his dependency upon others. When he was criticized for his own willingness to accept Gentiles without their being circumcised, he was willing to enter into dialogue with the Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1 ) to resolve the question. Paul must have realized that he, as well as the young Gentile Christians, needed the approval and support of the Christian leaders in Jerusalem, the very place where the crucifixion, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus took place. During his travels, he often returned to Jerusalem to visit the church, and he brought gifts to it on more than one occasion (Acts 11:29-30; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 ).
(3) We must not think of Paul as an established administrator over the churches he founded. His letters give evidence that he did not command or dictate to his churches; rather he persuaded them. The lengthy correspondence with the church at Corinth was Paul's effort to persuade them to adopt the correct attitude towards specific problems as well as toward himself. He could only admonish the churches through the gospel.
Paul's Theology Paul's writings are the major source of Christian theology both because of the amount of material and because of Paul's intensively theological writing style. (1) Human beings are alienated from God. They had the opportunity of recognizing God as Creator and themselves as dependent creatures, but instead they have rejected God and established themselves as the ultimate authority. God permitted humankind to make the choice. The results of such a choice is humankind's immorality, idolatry, and the suffering that human beings impose upon one another. In short, our declaring our independence from God has given sin an opportunity. While Gentiles have made their own abilities absolute, the Jews have made the law absolute. Each group has alienated themselves from God. This is the bondage of sin. Unfortunately, humans do not have the ability to solve this problem. We are hopelessly estranged from God. These ideas are especially described in Romans 1:18-3:8 . See Sin; Anthropology .
(2) Paul's answer to humankind's alienation was that “when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth his son” (Galatians 4:4 ). He further described the Son in Colossians 1:15-20 . First, Paul told his readers that Christ is the model for all humankind. He is the image of God (Colossians 1:15 ). Christ represents what God would like all human beings to be. Second, Christ is bound up with the One who created the universe. Its design and purpose centers in Christ. Whatever our question about our place in the world might be, the ultimate answer is in Christ. Third, based on Christ's relation to God and His place in the universe, He is the appropriate one to reconcile us to God (Colossians 1:20 ). Christ is able to reestablish the broken relationship between God and humankind. He shows us how we can realign our proper dependent relationship to God. “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19 ). See Conversion; Reconciliation.
(3) The presentation of Christ as God's reconciling gift to humankind is graphically portrayed in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus . This event is the focal point of all that Paul preached and wrote. “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2 ). The Death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus must be thought of as a unit. “If Christ be not risen, then your faith is also vain” ( 1 Corinthians 15:14 ). Paul could think of Christ's death as a Passover sacrifice (1 Corinthians 5:7 ), as a representative sacrifice (2 Corinthians 5:14 ), or as a ransom (1 Timothy 2:5-6 ). When Paul stressed the resurrection event, he thought in terms of the doctrine of the future which he had inherited from his Jewish background: (a) Human history has an end which will begin a new world. (b) This will begin with the coming of the Messiah. (c) An
intense encounter between good and evil will take place. (d) The dead will be resurrected. Jesus' resurrection is evidence that God has already begun the messianic era. It guarantees the hope that the complete resurrection and the new world is sure to come (1 Corinthians 15:20-24 ). Jesus' death and resurrection was God's way of verifying that Jesus is the One who brings about reconciliation between humankind and God. See Jesus, Life and Ministry of; Christology; Future Hope .
(4) When Paul thought about the person who accepts God's offer of reconciliation in Christ, he described persons of faith, using Abraham as a worthy example (Romans 4:3 ). Abraham had a right relation to God because of his response of faith to God's offer. Paul further described Abraham as one who was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21 NRSV). This is applied to Christians: “It [righteousness] will be reckoned to us who believe [have faith] in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” ( Romans 4:24 NRSV). Faith is simply accepting as certain the promise of salvation God has made through Christ. This response in faith is so dynamic and vital that it has transforming power and is like creating a new person ( Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 ). The person of faith is a new creation with a new motivating, energizing force, the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-11 ). The person of faith is truly “in Christ.” See Faith .
(5) The believer does not come into reconciliation in isolation. It happens in a community of faith. Paul began his missionary activities out of a congregation of believers. Wherever people became believers, a community existed known by the word church . Paul never advised a person of faith to live alone but rather to fellowship with the church. This believing community is intimately associated with Christ, who holds a position of dignity and authority over the church—He is its Head (Ephesians 1:22-23 ). At the same time Christ loves the church, and He gave Himself for it; the church is subject to Christ in all matters (Ephesians 5:21-33 ). This new community performs two functions: (a) It nurtures the person of faith so that he or she may mature “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 ). (b) It witnesses to God's power to reconcile humankind to Himself by its example of Christian fellowship within its walls and by evangelistic outreach beyond itself (Ephesians 3:10 ). See Church .
(6) The reconciled person has a new life-style. Paul expressed a concern for ethics. He listed vices: Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-11; Ephesians 4:17-19; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 2 Corinthians 12:20-21 , and others. He also listed worthy qualities: Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12-14; Philippians 4:8 . He gave advice to Christian households: Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:21-6:9 . He offered guidance in marriage matters: 1 Corinthians 7:1 . Although Paul expected worthy Christian conduct, he was not legalistic. Legalism means keeping rules for rule's sake. Rules are essential for Christian nurture. In an extended discussion about Christian conduct (1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1 ) he emphasized that a believer will be sensitive to the effect his conduct will have on a fellow believer (1 Corinthians 8:9-12 ). The ultimate standard of Christian conduct is Christ Himself. After exhorting believers to be concerned about their actions toward each other, Paul gave one of his most beautiful descriptions of the example of Jesus' giving Himself for others (Philippians 2:1-11 ). So Christ gives Himself as God's reconciling agent to bring human beings into a right relation with God, living a life motivated by the Spirit. See Ethics .
Oscar S. Brooks
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Paul'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/p/paul.html. 1991.