The Apostle Paul is by far the most prolific New Testament writer. Of the 27 books that make up the New Testament, Paul is credited with writing 13 of them. His letters to various early Christian churches contain some of the best known quotes in the Bible, and it is difficult to hold a church service without referencing Paul’s writings at least once. Despite all this, few people know very much about Paul himself. As most of his works were letters to churches, there is not much explicitly stated about who he was as a person. He does not appear in the four main gospels, so the only narration that exists describing him and his actions is found in the Acts of the Apostles. Anything else must be inferred from his letters, and he was far more interested in whipping the churches he planted into shape than leaving behind a helpful historical record of his personality. That does not mean that it is impossible to reconstruct who Paul was as a person or what he was like. By reading between the lines and thinking critically, modern Christians can reconnect with this powerhouse of early Christianity and rediscover what history was determined to hide.
Paul was apocalyptic.
When most people today hear the word “apocalyptic,” they immediately think of natural disasters or terrible tragedies. That is not, however, what the word “apocalyptic” technically means. In religious terms, apocalyptic refers to writers, faiths or beliefs that hold that the end of this era is coming to an end soon. This does not necessarily imply some terrible cataclysm. It is, in many ways, a measure of time more than damage.
Paul was what is known as an apocalyptic writer. His writings make it very clear that he believed that Jesus would return to Earth soon, possibly within Paul’s lifetime. This is part of why he was so urgently pushing for people to repent or convert. He truly believed that they were running out of time to do so. Many modern readers miss this because they are used to assuming that the Second Coming will take place in some distant future. For Paul and many other early Christians, however, they felt the end of the age was right around the corner.
Paul was a Pharisee.
The idea of Paul the Pharisee is enough to make many Christians break out in hives. The Pharisees, after all, are the enemy of Christ in many of the stories in the Bible. They are the ones who constantly test Jesus and push for His death. Whether modern readers like it or not, however, the evidence points to the reality that Paul was, in fact, one of the Pharisees. Many modern readers would like to think that Paul discarded this identity after his miraculous encounter with Christ. There is no evidence, however, that Paul ever felt he had a reason to be ashamed of his identity. In Acts 23, Paul states, “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees.” He was proud of his identity and heritage as part of “the strictest party of [the Jewish] religion.” In fact, the concept of the Pharisees as enemies did not likely appear until after Paul’s death when the gospels were being composed.
Paul remained a Jew even after his conversion.
To modern adherents of either religion, this idea is baffling. How could one person possibly be both a Jew and a Christian simultaneously? In Paul’s time, however, Christianity was not yet seen as a completely separate religion. Instead, many people saw Christianity as a sect of Judaism not unlike the Pharisees or Essenes. Paul himself clearly saw the two as compatible at least in the beginning. He stated, in the present tense, that he was a Pharisee and identified himself as “a Hebrew born of Hebrews.” These were no small claims in the time of Christ.
As he aged and Christianity drew further and further from Judaism, it became increasingly difficult for Paul to uphold both identities. That is clear from the tone and words of his epistles. For years, however, he lived simultaneously as both a Jew and a Christian.
Paul was an eternal outsider.
Paul was unique among the Apostles. Not only was he a Pharisee and a Hebrew of Hebrews, Paul was a Roman citizen. Neither of these were a claim to take lightly, nor one that could be made falsely without serious consequences. Each one gave Paul an advantage, including allowing him the education that made him fluent in at least three languages, but they came at a cost. As much as Paul was proud of both his identities, each one meant that he would be an outsider to the other. When he was among Jews, his Roman citizenship set him apart. The Jews hated the Romans, and any reminder that one of their own also belonged in some way to Rome would have been unwelcome. Among Romans, Paul would have stood out even further. He did not worship the idols or follow the same Gods. He had only one God, something that would have baffled the polytheistic Romans, and followed Jewish Law, which would also have made no sense to Romans. Even though his citizenship meant he had to be treated with respect, he was an outsider.
Paul’s travels spanned more than 10,000 miles.
Given how easy modern travel is, people tend to forget exactly how difficult it was to get from one place to another in the ancient world. A trip from Jerusalem to the Sea of Galilee takes a little over an hour today. In Paul’s time, that journey would have taken two or three days on horseback and even longer on foot. It was for this reason that many people never left the town they were raised in, much less the country. Paul’s travels, however, took him throughout the Middle East, through modern Turkey and all the way to Rome. As he made multiple trips, he would have journeyed more than 10,000 miles in his lifetime. That is an astounding distance to be traveled by a person who would have relied on horses, camels, the occasional boat and his own feet. Many modern people never travel a full 10,000 miles.
Paul did not write all of the epistles.
The 13 epistles that are collectively referred to as the “Letters of Paul” were not actually all written by Paul himself. Several of them were written by students of his who used his name, a common practice in the ancient world that was seen as a way of showing respect to one’s teacher, or later ascribed to him. There are seven letters that scholars are certain were actually written by Paul: Romans, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon, Galatians, Philippians and both 1 and 2 Corinthians. Each of the letters share certain similarities in theme, style and language. Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians are believed to have been written by someone other than Paul, perhaps a student of his, but there is debate over the authorship of the three. Titus and both 1 and 2 Timothy were almost certainly not written by Paul himself. Though it was never officially listed as a Pauline letter, Hebrews is often associated with Paul despite being written after his death and not ascribed to him until some two centuries later.
Paul was wildly tolerant for his day.
Diversity was not something that was celebrated in the ancient world. People who were different were usually invading and attempting to conquer one’s country. As such, tolerance was very far from the buzzword it is today. Despite that atmosphere, Paul was actually well ahead of his time. Despite being a Jew and a Hebrew, he was willing to speak, debate and even eat with Gentiles. He did not treat his dark skinned Ethiopian converts any differently than his fair skinned Roman ones or his fellow Israelites. He was also centuries in front of the curve when it came to dealing with women. Some of the most problematic verses that deal with women teachers are in 1 and 2 Timothy, neither of which were written by Paul. In his actual letters, Paul names women as deacons and as “working hard in the Lord,” one of the highest compliments Paul ever gave. He also entrusted women to deliver his epistles to other churches, something that almost no man in ancient Israel would have allowed or considered.
Saint Paul is one of the best known figures from the ancient world both inside and outside Christianity. He was a prolific writer, incredible traveler and one of the most influential theologians to ever walk the face of the earth. Despite that, there is still much that most people are unaware of, and there are things that modern scholars still debate. Neither the unanswered questions nor the controversies, however, have stopped Paul from becoming one of the best known and most beloved saints of all time. He is, in many ways, the ultimate redemption story, the proof that Jesus really could save anyone, even the man who was once so determined to silence His teachings.