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Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed for the Church a special year to honor St. Paul the Apostle, beginning with the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 28, 2008. This Catholic Update explores his call and mission, his work as an evangelizer, his teaching through letter writing, his conversion, his Roman citizenship and his role in shaping our Catholic culture.

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Introducing St. Paul the Apostle

His Life and His Mission

By Ronald D. Witherup, S.S.

Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed for the Church a special year to honor St. Paul the Apostle, beginning with the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, June 28, 2008. This year honors the saint at the 2000th anniversary of his birth.

St. Paul is the most prominent personality of the New Testament, apart from Jesus himself. Thirteen of the 27 books of the New Testament bear his name. All of them are letters. Much of what we know about Paul comes from these remarkable written sources, supplemented by stories from the Acts of the Apostles, in which Paul figures prominently in the second half (chapters 9–28).

These are the only two sources for Paul’s life; however, they differ at times in details. Lacking any formal biography, biblical scholars have been able to piece together the basic outline of Paul’s life. They use Paul’s letters as the primary source of information, since they are first-person accounts. Acts is used to complement and supplement that information.

Paul, also known by his Jewish name, Saul (see Acts 13:9), was born in Tarsus, Cilicia, in Asia Minor (now modern-day Turkey) probably between 1 and 10 A.D. He was a diaspora Jew, that is, a Jew living outside the homeland of Palestine. Tarsus was a large, prosperous city in the Roman Empire, so it is quite fair to call Paul an urbanite. He was likely well-educated, apparently a student of the great rabbi Gamaliel I in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3).

Paul’s call and mission

Paul himself admits that he persecuted the Church out of zeal for his Jewish background. However, around the year 35 A.D. he had a remarkable experience. On the road to Damascus, the risen Lord, Jesus, appeared to him and called him to be “the apostle to the Gentiles” (Acts 9:1-19). Paul never describes this event in detail. Rather, he speaks of a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12) that leaves the impression of a supernatural appearance of the resurrected Jesus, or perhaps what we might call a mystical experience.

Paul would not characterize his experience as a “conversion” in the sense of a change of religion, but more likely as a “call” or “commission.” Acts portrays the event in terms reminiscent of the call of Old Testament prophets, and this is consistent with Paul’s own description found in Acts. Paul considers himself an “apostle,” one who has been called and sent by the Lord Jesus himself for a special mission. He was to bring the Gentiles into the fold of those who accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited messiah, the Savior of the world.


Paul’s mission as evangelizer

After his call, Paul began an intense ministry of evangelization. He took up (or returned to) the work of tent making so that he would not be a burden to the communities he served. After a mysterious three-year period in Arabia, he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, James, the brother of the Lord, and John (in about 38 A.D.). They were leaders of the new movement of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem that Acts calls “the Way” and who eventually became known as “Christians.”

These leaders apparently endorsed Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Paul, accompanied by colleagues, then went to Syria, Cilicia, and Galatia and eventually crossed over into Europe to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in Macedonia, Achaia and throughout the Mediterranean region. This period of Paul’s journeys can be dated from about the years 38 to 50.

Acts portrays Paul’s missionary activity in a series of three journeys. While there can be no doubt that Paul’s travels were extensive, the portrait in Acts may be somewhat literary. It corresponds roughly to the geographical outlook of Acts 1:8, which shows the expanding Christian mission in stages, going from Judea to Samaria to “the ends of the earth.”

In any case, Paul’s ministry was missionary evangelization, which he exercised with great effect. He established communities of faith in many major cities of the Roman Empire, such as Ephesus, Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica.

Teaching through letter writing

In the last decade or more of his life, Paul not only continued his missionary activity but also wrote letters (from about the years 50 to 60). The letters that survive in our New Testament, in their canonical order, are: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon. (Six other letters are attributed to Paul but disputes exist over their authorship. They may have been written by members of his communities, under Paul’s name, a custom of the day.) Letters afforded him an excellent means to stay in touch with the communities that he founded on his various missions.

His disciples preserved them for later Christians, assembling them into a collection that formed the foundations for the New Testament. At times, Paul would write from prison, one of the many experiences of suffering he endured as a follower of Jesus. At other times he would write to admonish his communities, to instruct them, to encourage them and to express his plans for the future.

On at least one occasion, the Letter to the Romans, he wrote to introduce himself to a community that had been founded by others. The earliest letter of Paul is First Thessalonians (50-51); the last letter is either Romans or Philemon (written sometime between 58 and 60).

By any estimation, Paul was a formidable personality. He argued persuasively with the well-known early Christian leaders, especially Peter and James, over the need to adapt the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). He also had no trouble sternly reprimanding his communities whenever he thought they had strayed from the gospel he preached.

But he also loved his communities dearly and treated them as good parents treat their children. At one point he compares himself to a nursing mother: “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:11). Elsewhere he calls himself their “father.”

More important, Paul’s letters contain tremendous insights into the spiritual life. Paul explicitly desired that his communities become “holy.” He tells the Thessalonians outright, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3a). He reminds the Ephesians “to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Holiness, he writes, is our destiny as Christians. Like all Jews of his day, Paul’s understanding of holiness was not something people accomplish on their own. Rather, holiness meant becoming more and more Godlike.

Christians inherited this perspective. God is the only truly holy one. Our sanctity, our holiness, is sharing in God’s holiness. True holiness comes about only by surrendering ourselves to God’s will and to God’s power.

When morally flawed laws already exist, prudential judgment is needed to determine how to do what is possible to restore justice—even if partially or gradually—without ever abandoning a moral commitment to full protection for all human life from conception to natural death (see Evangelium Vitae, no. 73).

Paul’s world was quite diverse, multicultural and multilingual. In the following sections, we’ll take a look at the variety of influences that shaped this great Apostle: Judaism, Greek culture (called Hellenism), and the Roman Empire. The first, and most important, is Judaism.

Paul, the Jew

Like Jesus, Paul was born a Jew and lived his entire life as a Jew. He was quite proud of his Jewish heritage. In Philippians, he summarizes his background thus: “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6).

Despite his call to follow Jesus, which we often characterize as his “conversion,” he never claims to have abandoned Judaism. Note that he highlights his Pharisaic background. That may surprise many of us.We may think of the Pharisees as the enemies of Jesus, and therefore our enemies.

While it is true that some Pharisees and other Jewish leaders strongly opposed Jesus and plotted against him, not all Pharisees acted in this way. They did, however, largely oppose the early Christians. They were zealous for their Jewish religious heritage. Paul admits this of himself and even boasts of it. Once he accepted the risen Jesus as Lord, however, all that changed. As he says in Philippians, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

This is Paul’s way of asserting the supreme importance of his newfound faith. I think the zeal that so characterized his life as a Pharisee shifted in him when he was called by Jesus Christ to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His zeal transferred to his faith in Christ. Nothing else mattered. But nowhere in his letters does he use the term “Christian” to refer to himself or to any members of his communities.

Rather, he uses the term “the saints” to describe the followers of Jesus—those who are called to holiness in communion with Christ (see, for example, Romans 1:7). The root idea of the word saint is actually someone called and set apart for a special mission. That is the way Paul envisioned this new community of faith.

We also need to remember the complexity of the first-century Judaism that Paul knew. It was not a uniform, monolithic faith. There were multiple divisions within Judaism. Four types of Jewish perspective are especially prominent.

1. Palestinian Judaism. Present in Palestine, that is, Judea and Galilee, Christians now call this place the Holy Land. Some of its characteristics in the first century included worship centered around the Temple in Jerusalem and its priesthood, and the various cultic rituals that were a part of the routine regimen of piety.

Even this type of Judaism was not uniform. Some, who thought the purity of their faith was being threatened by the compromises of their religious leaders, fled to the Dead Sea and established a kind of ascetical, or hermitage, community at Qumran. Their desire was to escape the bad influence of the secular world and thus preserve authentic faith. (Various Christians over the centuries, for example, the Amish have reacted to modern life in like fashion and try to separate themselves completely from modern secular influences.)

2. Hellenistic Judaism. This Greek-influenced world was, in fact, Paul’s primary background, since he was born and raised outside of Palestine. Greek culture was the primary cultural influence in Paul’s day, dating from the time of Alexander the Great (333 B.C.). Once the Jews were dispersed throughout the world after the first destruction of Jerusalem (by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.), they settled in many foreign lands. They adapted so much to their new surroundings that many of them eventually lost command of their native Aramaic and Hebrew languages.

They gradually translated their holy writings, which eventually became the Hebrew Bible (what Christians know as the Old Testament), into Greek, the language of the ruling empire. This translation is called the Septuagint, a Greek term. This text enabled the Jews in the diaspora to preserve, but also to adapt, their faith. Paul no doubt used the Septuagint, as his letters show familiarity with it when quoting from or alluding to the Old Testament.

3. Rabbinic Judaism. This form of Judaism’s roots is obscure but goes back to some 200 years before Paul. Its name derives from the “rabbis,” the Jewish leaders who rose to prominence after the second destruction of Jerusalem (by the Romans in 70 A.D.). In the wake of this traumatic destruction, Judaism was adapted by certain Jewish leaders of Pharisaic background. They collected and preserved their sacred writings, and finally incorporated them into a permanent sacred canon, the Hebrew Bible.

The rabbis’ timeless interpretation and adaptation of the Old Testament, in particular, influenced Paul’s own approach to these sacred texts. Paul shows himself to be adept at rabbinic interpretation of texts in new circumstances. In fact, we could well consider Paul a “rabbi” in the sense of his teaching and preaching style.

4. Apocalyptic Judaism. Just as Christians later wrote down the Book of Revelation, the Jews before them had a type of literature found in the Old Testament called apocalyptic. The word literally means “unveiling.” It refers to an outlook that envisions the revelation of God’s victory over evil at the end of time. The Book of Daniel is a prime example of this kind of literature.

Apocalyptic literature springs from the experience of dire persecution. It expresses a two-sided outlook of a cosmic battle between good and evil, God and the devil, light and darkness, and so on. This perspective developed several hundred years before Jesus and Paul, but it continued to exercise considerable influence in their times. Ultimately, its message is a hopeful one: Despite appearances in the world around us, God and the forces of good will win the final battle. There will be a judgment day, and all wrongs will be righted. The good will be rewarded and the bad properly punished.

Paul inherited aspects of this worldview that is also found in certain teachings of Jesus in the Gospels (see, for example, the sayings in Mark 13:1-37). Sometimes, Paul seems quite taken with this perspective and urges people to prepare for an imminent end of the world (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:11).

Now, some 2,000 years removed from Paul’s teaching, we realize that we do not know God’s timetable for bringing this world to its judgment day. The end does not seem as imminent as it was for Paul. We do not have the apocalyptic urgency that Paul sometimes expresses in his letters. It is one of those Jewish influences that were part of Paul’s world and that carried over into later Christian teaching.

Hellenism’s influence

Hellenism, the Greek cultural influence, was wide-ranging. It might be compared with the tremendous influence of English and American capitalism in our own day. For example, almost anywhere you go in the world today, someone there can usually speak English. Along with that goes the influence of American culture (McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Hollywood movies seem to be everywhere!), a mixed blessing for some people of other nationalities. Frankly, some in the local culture don’t appreciate the outside influence, even though others around them embrace it.

In Paul’s day Koine Greek (common Greek) was the main language. He was obviously conversant in it—he wrote all his letters in this language. Along with language came the impact of Greek culture on daily life. Social and political institutions had their roots in Greece. Examples abound. For instance, the notion of the city-state and the importance of being a citizen of such a community likely influenced Paul’s language regarding the “body of Christ.”

The gymnasium as a center for athletic contests and social interchange was another prominent Hellenistic institution. Paul was, no doubt, a sports fan. He uses considerable sports imagery in his letters (boxing, running the race, wrestling) to illustrate his message.

Yet another influence was in the religious sphere. The Hellenistic world fostered an attraction to many different cults dedicated to pagan gods and goddesses. Paul clearly opposed such influences by emphasizing belief in one God, a characteristic of Jewish faith. It was this one God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, had come to save the world. Paul’s message focused much on the oneness of God in reaction to Greek polytheism. In short, Hellenistic language and culture had a huge impact on life in Paul’s day, whether for good or for ill, and his letters often reflect this background.

Citizen of Rome

Finally, we cannot ignore the influence of the Roman Empire in Paul’s world. Rome was the ruling world power in the West. (Remember that inhabitants of Paul’s world were less aware at the time of such tremendous cultures as India and China in the East.) Paul himself was a Roman citizen.

Rome’s power was felt in numerous ways. Most important, the world was basically at peace. The Pax Romana (Latin for, “Roman Peace”) meant that travel on the extensive Roman road system and in sleek ships was fairly safe from threat of criminal attack, though still always hazardous. Paul took advantage of this relative calm, utilizing this Roman transportation system when he went on his extensive apostolic journeys to preach the gospel. He went all over the eastern Mediterranean world, and journeyed to Rome itself. He planned to go to Spain, to the far western reaches of the empire, but was martyred in Rome.

Paul also uses his Roman citizenship to ensure a fair legal proceeding (Acts 22:25-27). Rome retained the ultimate political authority over life and death. Rome, then, was always in the background, a power that could not be ignored.

Apostle to our culture

Paul, like all of us, was a product of his era. To some degree, he believed that many influences in the surrounding culture were detrimental to the spiritual health of his communities. Yet, in other instances, Paul knew how to use common cultural images to good effect in order to get his message across to his audience.

Perhaps that is the challenge of Paul to each of us today. He, who has shaped so much of our Christianity, challenges us to encounter our own culture bravely, with Christ as our guide.

Ronald D. Witherup, S.S., is provincial of the Sulpician Fathers, former Professor of Sacred Scripture at St. Patrick Seminary, Menlo Park, California, a prolific author, and a frequent contributor to American Catholic Radio. This Update is adapted from St. Paul: Called to Conversion (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

NEXT: Being Catholic Today (by Robert Barron)


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