St. Paul is one of the most important figures in the early church. He was born a
Roman citizen. It is important to remember that not all the inhabitants of the Roman
empire were Roman citizens. Roman citizens had certain important rights that non-
citizens did not have. Roman citizenship could be granted by the government, it could
be bought, or it could be inherited. St. Paul was born a citizen in the city of Tarsus. He
was also known as Saul. Many Jews had two names, a Hebrew one (Saul) and a
Greco-Roman name (Paul). Tarsus was a fairly large city, an important trading center.
It was a very diverse city so young Paul had contact with people of different religions,
nationalities and languages.
As a young man St. Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study with the famous rabbi
Gamaliel, and he became a rabbi. St. Paul was a Pharisee. As he says in Acts 23:6,
“….”Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the
resurrection of the dead I am on trial.”
The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism. They tried to live strictly according to
the Jewish law.
At first St. Paul was a persecutor of Christians. He first appears in the Bible in the
Book of Acts. He is present when St. Stephen was stoned to death.
“Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their
garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. “(Acts 7:58)
When he gets older he becomes a violent persecutor of Christians.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the
high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found
any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts
However, as he is riding to Damascus the risen Christ appears to him:
“Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven
flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul,
Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said,”I am
Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what
you are to do.” (Acts 9:3-6)
It is important to understand that after Jesus appeared to Paul, he did not go on to form
his own idiosyncratic religion. Rather he went to a Christian, Ananias, who taught him
the basics of Christianity and baptized him. Shortly thereafter, St. Paul began to preach
the Gospels to the Jews. However, as the majority of the Jews would not accept Jesus.
St. Paul directed his preaching to the Gentiles (non-Jews).
“But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted
what was spoken by Paul, and reviled him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly,
saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you
thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the
Gentiles.” (Acts 13:45-46)
One of the more important aspects of Paul’s Christianity was his attitude to the
Jewish law. As stated earlier, St. Paul was a Pharisee, and the most important aspect of
being a Pharisee was the strict observance of the Law. St. Paul, before he became a
Christian, tried very hard to observe the Law, but always felt he wasn’t succeeding. He
was always frustrated. So, when he became a Christian he realized that one is not save
by observing the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. St. Paul’s letter to the Roans and
Galatians deal with this issue.
This attitude towards the Law is rooted in Jesus’ attitude. We remember that
many times He was accused of breaking the Law. For example, of violating the law
against working on the Sabbath or the food laws. As Christ said
“The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27)
Also, we have to remember the controversy over the Law and gentile believers.
In other words, when the Apostles began to preach to the Gentiles, some of the Jewish
Christians thought that the Gentiles who converted to Christianity also had to observe
the Jewish Law, that to become Christian one had to become a Jew first. This
controversy roiled the early church. If a convert to Christianity had to become Jewish
too, then Christianity would simply have been a Jewish sect. However, the apostles met
in Jerusalem in the 1st church council, decided that gentile converts did not have to
observe the Law.
“Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the
disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that
we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Therefore, my
judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should
write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is
strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:10-11, 19-20)
Traditionally, St. Paul is considered to be author of thirteen letters. Some
scholars deny the direct Pauline authorship of some of the works, but St. Paul’s
teaching is seen in all. Also, we should mention that about half of the Book of Acts is
about St. Paul, his conversion, his missionary journeys, the persecution he suffered and
finally his arrest and journey to Rome for trial.