Who Is St. Paul?

Who Is St. Paul?

St. Paul is more in the spotlight than any other figure in the early Church. Of many others, even the apostles who were closest to Jesus, we know very little.  In some cases we know nothing more than their names. This is to some extent true of Jesus who left no writings, and whose historical account has been clouded over by the post Easter faith.

His Letters

With Paul we have thirteen letters which bear his name. However, modern scholarship has limited his authorship to seven: I Thessalonians, I Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans. These were written in the fifties and are the oldest writings of the New Testament and contain the most accurate details of Paul’s life history.

Then we have the deuteron-Pauline letters, i.e., written by a disciple of Paul: Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians. Finally the pseudonymous writings (pastoral letters): I Timothy and 2 Timothy, and Titus. These were written under Paul’s name by some unknown author, dealing with clerical offices, bishop, priest, and deacon as well as their discipline.

Of the thirteen letters, Philippians, Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians are called captivity letters because imprisonment is mentioned in them. Paul mentioned other letters not included in the above that were either lost or destroyed. 1 Corinthians 05:09 refers to a previous letter written to Corinth.  There was another “written in tears” (2 Corinthians 02:03-04). Colossians 04:16 mentions a letter to the Laodiceans. Some believe that Romans 16 was intended as a separate letter. Hebrews once listed as part of the Pauline corpus is now rejected.

Paul As Seen in Acts

The other major source of information about Paul is from the Book of Acts, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, in which more than half deals with his missionary work. The author was a fellow worker and accompanied Paul on some of the journeys (“we” passages, Acts 16:10-16). Written toward the end of the first century, almost forty years after Paul’s letters were written, it shows him making three journeys with a final trip to Rome.

In places where Acts and Paul’s letters disagree, the letters prevail. It is strange that in Acts no mention is made of Paul’s extensive letter writing.  Even more strange is that Paul in his letters makes no attempt to give us a biography of Jesus and his deeds.

It is believed that collection of Paul’s letters was completed by the early second century. A mention of this appears in the last New Testament book Written (2 Peter 03:15-16). The heretic Marcion (AD 144) drew u a list in Rome of ten Pauline letters which included the previously listed seven authentic letters.

His Life Story

Paul was born in the first decade of the Christian era. He was a Hellenized Jew of the diaspora who traced his lineage to the tribe of Benjamin. “A Hebrew...as to the law, a Pharisee” (Philemon 03:06). His letters reveal that he know Greek well. Acts present him as a Pharisee born in Tarsus, a Hellenistic town in Cilicia (Acts 22:03, 06), having a Jewish name, Saul (Acts 13:09), as having a sister (Acts 23:16), and was a Roman citizen from birth (Acts 22:25f) which implied that his father was a Roman citizen before him. He grew up in Jerusalem and was educated at the feet of Gamaliel, the elder (Acts 22:03). His writings never openly state that he had personal contact with Jesus during his public ministry.

Some hold that he was a rabbi (age for ordination was forty) in view of his going to the Damascus synagogue to root out the followers of Christ. Paul says nothing about this. Nor does he mention anything about the death of Stephen. He admits to being a persecutor of Christians (Galatians 01:13) and presumably was married since it was required of rabbis. He probably was widowed later (1 Corinthians 07:08).

His Conversion

On the way to Damascus he experienced a vision of Christ which changed his entire life. Whether it occurred in his mind (Galatians 01:12, 16) or externally (Acts 09:03-08; Acts 22:06-11; Acts 26:12-19) remains unclear. It changed him from a persecutor to a supporter of Christianity. Christ himself ordered him to witness to the Gentiles (Acts 09:15; 1 Corinthians 09:01, 1 Corinthians 15:08-11; Galatians 02:07). At that time followers of Christ were Jews so in reality Paul switched from Pharisaic Judaism to Christian Judaism.

He reports (Galatians 01:17-24) that he immediately went to Arabia. He obviously joined in with mission work already underway to the gentiles. He probably avoided contact with the apostles at this time because he expected their hostility to the gentile mission. Three years later he visited with Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days and also saw James the “brother” of the Lord (Galatians 01:18-24). Following his visit he set out on a mission trip through his home area, Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 01:21).

Paul, the First Theologian

The central focus of Paul’s teachings is his doctrine of the cross, “A stumbling block to the Jews and an absurdity to the Gentiles” but a power to salvation. Christ has become the new mode of salvation. He writes to the church at Corinth: “I determined while I was with you I would speak of nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 02:02). Evangelion (Greek for Good News) is used by Paul 48 times in his uncontested letters and twelve times in other letters. It became Paul’s way of summing up the meaning of the Christ-event.

The Gospel is a mystery implying that it is never understood by ordinary means but only apprehended in faith. It is to be accepted as a guide for life. “Let your manner of life b e worthy of the Gospel” (Philippians 01:27). He sees salvation for humanity as justification by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. He makes it clear that “he is handing on” what he received from apostolic sources (1 Corinthians 11:021 Corinthians 11:23; 1 Corinthians 15:01-03).  He saw the Church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27).

Paul’s Autobiography
“Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes less one; three times I was beaten with rods; I was stoned once, shipwrecked three times; I passed a day and a night on the sea. I traveled continually, endangered by floods, robbers, my own people, the Gentiles; imperiled in the city, in the desert, at sea, by false brothers; enduring labor, hardship, many sleepless nights; in hunger and thirst and frequent fasting, in cold and in nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

He was martyred in Rome during the Neronian persecution (60s). “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. From now on a merited crown awaits me...and all who have looked for his coming” (2 Timothy 04:07-08).

"Who Is St. Paul?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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