The Life Story of the Apostle Paul

Reliance on Biblical Sources and Apocrypha

What we know about Saul of Tarsus, the figure history remembers as Paul the Apostle, is wholly from his letters to Christian communities, descriptions in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles, and multiple non-canonical books, some of which appear to be wholly fictious.

We often think of Jesus as the founder of Christianity. However, much of how we understand Christianity today – our ideas about faith, salvation, and how to live a good life – are largely shaped by a man named Paul. He was not a follower of Jesus during Jesus’s lifetime, he was not one of the 12 chosen by Jesus, nor was he an original witness to the resurrection. He wasn’t one of Jesus’s original followers but became instrumental in forming how we practice and think about the Christian faith.

What We Think We Know About Paul the Apostle

Imagine someone who passionately hates something – an idea, a cause, a group of people. They spend all their energy trying to destroy it. But then, suddenly, they completely change their mind. They completely flip and now dedicate their life to supporting that very thing. This is the story of Paul the Apostle, a man who went from being one of Christianity’s fiercest enemies to its greatest champion.

Paul calls himself a Hebrew or Israelite, stating that he was born a Jew and circumcised on the eighth day of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5-6; 2 Corinthians 11:22).  His Hebrew name was Saul, and he was born in Tarsus, a city in the Roman province of Cilicia, in southern Asia Minor or present-day Turkey (Acts 9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3). He was born a Roman citizen, which means his father also was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37).

He came from a family of Pharisees and was educated in Jerusalem under the most famous Rabbi of the time, Gamaliel. He also had a sister and a nephew that lived in Jerusalem in the 60s A.D. (Acts  23:16). He advanced in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, being extremely zealous for the traditions of his Jewish faith (Philippians 3:5; Galatians 1:14).  He zealously persecuted the Jesus movement (Galatians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9), with official status as a witness consenting to the death of Stephen, the first member of the Jesus movement executed after Jesus (Acts 7:54-8:1). ).  He did so because of the Christian belief that an executed criminal ⎯ Jesus ⎯ was resurrected by God.  Such a view was inconceivable to the Jews, who believed that criminals “hanged upon a tree” were cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23).  For Paul, the unconverted Jew, Jesus was simply a criminal who was cursed by God.

Paul had some type of physical disability that he was convinced had been sent by Satan to afflict him, but allowed by Christ, so he would not be overly proud of his extraordinary revelations (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He was unmarried, at least during his career as an apostle (1 Corinthians 7:8,; 9:5; Philippians 3:8) and worked as a manual laborer, probably a “tentmaker,” though the Greek word used probably refers a “leather worker,” (Acts 18:3)  to support himself on his travels (1 Corinthians 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Corinthians 9:6, 12, 15).

The details of Paul’s death are uncertain, but religious tradition suggests that he was beheaded in Rome during the reign of Emperor Nero.  Nero notoriously persecuted Christians after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE. Paul, as a prominent Christian leader, was likely caught in this wave of violence.  As a Roman citizen, Paul would have been spared the gruesome death of crucifixion. Beheading was the typical execution method for Roman citizens. (The style of execution contrasts with the religious tradition of Peter – a non-Roman – being crucified upside-down.)

 This tradition, that Paul suffered martyrdom in Rome, is early and universal, and disputed by no counter-tradition and may be accepted as the one certain historical fact known about Paul outside of the New Testament accounts. Clement is the first to mention the death of Paul, and seems to imply, though he does not directly state, that his death took place in Rome during the persecution of Nero. Caius, a writer of the first quarter of the third century, is another witness to his death in Rome, as is also Dionysius of Corinth of the second century.  Eusebius of Caesaria states that he was martyred in Rome under Nero. In his chapter 36 of De praescriptione haereticorum, Tertullian, is still more distinct, recording that Paul was beheaded in Rome.  Jerome accepted this tradition unhesitatingly, and we may do likewise. As a Roman citizen, we should expect him to meet death by the sword.

His Religious Vision

Sometime around A.D. 37, Paul had a visionary experience he describes as “seeing” Jesus and received from him his Gospel message as well as his call to be an apostle to the non-Jewish world (1 Corinthians 9:2; Galatians 1:11-2:2). He never described this event but is the only writer of the New Testament who claims that he saw the resurrected Jesus.

Paul claimed to experience many revelations from Jesus, including direct voice communications, as well as an extraordinary “ascent” into the highest level of heaven, entering Paradise, where he saw and heard “things unutterable” (2 Corinthians 12:1-4).  He worked miraculous signs, wonders, and mighty works that verified his status as an apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Paul's Relationship With Other Apostles

it is important to recognize that the early Church was not monolithic., but held diverse views and debates over how the faith should develop. Paul’s claims were controversial, as the original twelve Apostles were those who knew Jesus during his earthly ministry. Paul asserts his authority as equal to theirs. Paul describes his interactions with other apostles, particularly Peter, James, and John, in his letters. Despite occasional disagreements and tensions, such as the incident at Antioch where Paul confronted Peter over issues of Gentile inclusion (Galatians 2:11-14), overall, there was a recognition of Paul’s authority and contribution to the spreading of the Gospel.

Paul made only three trips to Jerusalem in the period covered by his genuine letters: 40 CE, 48 or 49 CE, and 56 CE. The most significant occurred fourteen years after his call (A.D. 50) when he appeared formally before the entire Jerusalem leadership to account for his mission and Gospel message to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:1-10). Paul believed he was a divinely commissioned apostle tasked with spreading the Christian message specifically to non-Jewish people (Gentiles).  He preached that Gentiles did not have to follow Jewish customs to become Christians, a position opposed by some apostles, particularly James, the bishop of the Jerusalem church. Paul publicly criticized Peter for his hypocrisy with Gentile Christiaens, leading to the Jerusalem Council in 48 or 49 CE. Acts 15 describes the meeting where Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (non-Jews) was debated. Ultimately, apostles like Peter and James supported Paul’s work, recognizing the legitimacy of his message.