A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE LIFE OF PAUL
Paul is certainly a New Testament writer worthy of study. Not only are his thirteen books nearly half of the total New Testament (Lea and Black, p334), but by many he is considered “the most significant missionary in the history of the Christian church” (Lea and Black, p333). Other than his words on a page, what should we consider about this prolific writer?
Let us consider Paul’s upbringing and education. They are both relevant to a better understanding of the man and the writer. Paul was born into a well-established Jewish family in the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia. The year of his birth is not firmly established but believed to be about A.D 10 (NBST525 Instructor’s Notes). Some sources place his birth as early as A.D. 5 (Quency Wallace, www.biblicaltheology.com, The Early Life and Background of Paul the Apostle). His family was no doubt well-established as demonstrated by his Roman citizenship. Probably inherited from his family, this privilege was given to a small number of Jews who had performed some significant service to the Roman government at some time in their life (Carson, p355). It was handed down to each of the following generations. This also indicates that his family was probably wealthy and successful, using their Roman citizenship as an asset in their occupation.
He was born also in a well-established city. Tarsus was the central city of Cilicia, a center of commerce and education. Located just twelve miles from the coast it benefited from trading Merchants from all over that part of the world. Tarsus had been a thriving city for many years before Paul was born. At the foot of the Tarsus Mountains, its people benefited from the rich minerals and lumber of the area (Wallace). Another resource of the area was black goats. Their hair could be woven into very strong fibers and into a strong cloth used for many things. One of the best known by-products of this cloth was Tents. Tents from Tarsus were known for their quality and durability and used by many people in that part of the world.
At some point in his life, Paul learned the skill of tent making. He used it to earn money and support himself financially from time to time (Lea and Black, p346). It is somewhat likely that this was his family’s business.
Paul’s education was typical of a young man from an well established Orthodox family. His family was also of the “strictest sect”, the Pharisees (Carson, p357). His education would have started in the synagogue at about age five (Wallace). Traditional Jewish beliefs were that young men should start their exposure to the law at a very young age. He would have started by studying the Pentateuch. At age ten, he would have moved from the Pentateuch to the Mishnah, a much more detailed study of the law that required memorization and a much deeper understanding. This would get him ready for his formal rabbinical training.
At age thirteen, Paul probably left Tarsus for Jerusalem. Here the successful foundation provided by his family would again show in his acceptance into the school of Hillel, studying under Gamaliel I (Carson, p357). This was one of the most prestigious schools available for any Jewish boy. It was originally established by Hillel the Elder, considered by many to be one of the most influential Jews in all rabbinical history (Eerdmans’s Dictionary of the Bible, p591). Hillel came to Israel as a boy to study the Torah and eventually became president of the Sanhedrin. He was probably one of the rabbis who advised Herod on the birthplace of the Messiah in Matthew 2:4 (Eerdmans’s). His descendants would rule the Sanhedrin for 400 years. Gamaliel I, his grandson, Paul’s teacher and mentor would also become president of this ruling body (Lea and Black).
Paul would get his education in Jerusalem under one of the greatest rabbinical scholars of all time (Wallace). He would learn a wide range of Greek philosophy, traditional Hebrew training, ancient Hebrew languages, Aramaic translation skills as well as the most cultured versions of the classical Greek language, the language of the most professional and successful Romans. Paul’s education was indeed first class. His deep and detailed Pharisee education would have its impact on his future life in some unexpected ways. Paul would later admit that his love and zeal for his strict Pharisee beliefs would be part of his motivation for the persecution of early Christians (Carson, p357). After all, his mentor, Gamaliel, was a member of the Sanhedrin that sentenced Stephen to be stoned (Carson, p286-287). Paul was present at the death of Stephen. To Christians today Stephen’s stoning is seen as religious persecution of a follower of Christ. To Paul at that time, it was probably seen as the execution of a heretic who opposed the Sanhedrin and all it represented.
Paul’s privileged upbringing and quality education would also prepare him well for the writing that would fill his later years, those letters that have filled the hearts and minds of tens of thousands of Christians who have studied his work through the New Testament. From his birth, God was preparing him for the work that would influence the world.
Chronology of the Life of Paul
The life of Paul is a study in the ministry of one of God’s greats. Understanding the order or chronology of his life is a natural desire of anyone wanting to better understand him. This however is not a simple task.
While Paul’s writings are detailed and specific on issues, they are not full of the kind of information that would allow us to create a timeline of his life (Carson, p360). His books are full of events but not so much full of the details of places and times. For that we can turn to Luke. The physician trained, detailed focused Luke gives us the insight in his book of Acts to timeline Paul’s life. While Luke and Paul do now always agree on every detail, using the general framework of events in Paul’s writing and the historical detail provided by Luke in Acts, the chronology of Paul’s life comes to life. Luke, many times Paul’s companion in travelling, unlocks the mystery of Paul’s days on Earth. This approach of using the general information from Paul’s writing supported by the historical information in Acts is an accepted method for developing a chronology of the life of Paul (Carson, p361).
This week, Paul’s missionary journeys and travels have come to life for this writer. Hearing about him all of my life, the picture of when he went where was never before clear. It has been a great journey this week moving a bit closer to clarity. His birth, in A.D. 10, was just a few years after Jesus, as John the Baptist was just a few years before. Did Paul and Jesus ever meet? If so when and where? If not, why? The timeline brings that all to life.
At age five or so, around A.D. 15, he would begin going to synagogue every day for training. At age 13 or so, he would move to Jerusalem for study under Gamaliel the great Rabbi. The next significant event we find is his presence at the stoning of Stephen, around A.D. 32 at the age of 22(Blueletterbible.org). His zeal for the Pharisee version of strict Judaism would then begin the period of his life persecuting the followers of Christ, which he saw in the same group of heretics as Stephen.
Paul and Jesus would never meet. At the time of Jesus’s death, around A.D. 30, Paul was not yet a follower, still growing in his understanding of the law under Gamaliel. He would have had no desire that we know of to meet the self-proclaimed Messiah. He would not become a follower until his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus in A.D. 34, at the age of twenty four. At the age of twenty four, Paul had already participated in the death of Stephen and been responsible for the misery of many others. But then his true life’s mission would begin.
The three missionary journeys of Paul are perhaps the most famous missionary trips in Christian history and all followed a similar pattern. He would visit a city; establish a relationship with local residents who responded to his teaching, then work there only until local authorities began to resist his efforts (Lea and Black, p306). As the previously-Christian persecuting-Roman now turned follower of Christ, he was no doubt an agitation to many Roman authorities. He would leave an area only to return to many of them in subsequent journeys to see how the local believers there had developed or what they had accomplished in his absence.
The dates and order of the travels and missionary activities of Paul are debated by scholars. Roughly, his early ministry and events leading up his first missionary journey occurred from his conversion around A.D. 34 until around A.D. 47. During that time he traveled to wilderness, back to Damascus and to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and Paul (NBST525 Instructor’s Notes). His first journey would then take him through Galatia, departing from Antioch and travelling through Selucia on the coast, to the island of Cyprus, then back to the mainland cities of Perga, Antioch of Pisidian and eventually back to Antioch of Syria, the starting place (Blueletterbible.org). His first journey would last three years.
According to Acts, between the first and second missionary journeys he would visit the Council of Jerusalem. The timing of this council is different in Paul’s writings, where it appears to be after the second journey. His second missionary journey would begin around A.D. 50 and be a much longer trip than the first, taking take him to Greece, again starting and ending in Antioch. His third journey would follow, returning to Asia and Greece from A.D. 53-57. He would again begin in Antioch but this time end in Jerusalem. As on the first journey, he would make many stops and minister to many people.
The Roman government would tire of Paul’s ministry and arrest him in Jerusalem and send him to Prison in Caesarea, then to prison in Rome. He was now forty seven. From age twenty four to forty seven, twenty three years, he had travelled and proclaimed Christ’s message. Now his life would change to a different type of ministry.
The rest of his life would be spent in and out of prison or some type of detention, until his death, traditionally thought be around A.D. 64 or a few years later. He would die at around fifty four years of age.
His writing that we so cherish today took place during his early travels and prison time. Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians and Romans would be written during his active ministry years. Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon would be written while in captivity in Rome (Blueletterbible.org). Timothy and possibly Hebrews were written while in detention, still in Rome.
What a life! He began as a child of privilege, to become a highly educated scholar and zealot of the Pharisees. He would become a missionary of Christ, great writer of theology and then a martyr for his faith. The events of his life would be studied for generations. How could the child in Tarsus have ever imagined how it would all turn out? The journey of Paul’s life is a great example for us all in that God’s will follows no human logic. Dying a prisoner of the Roman government would surely have seemed the greatest possible personal defeat to that child and young man growing up in Palestine. Yet, to us today, he is possibly the ultimate example of Christian success.