THE LIFE AND EPISTLES OF ST. PAUL
Origin. St. Paul, the Apostle
of the Gentiles and Chosen Vessel, was born in the prosperous city of Tarsus of the Roman province of Cilicia (Acts 9,
11; 21, 39; 22, 3) of Jewish parents (Acts 21, 39; 2 Cor. 11, 22), who were descended
from the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11, 1; Phil. 3, 5). As he was a "young man" at the stoning of St.
Stephen (Acts 7, 58) and calls himself "an old man" when writing to Philemon (v.9) about the year 62/63, we may conclude
that he was born around the beginning of the Christian era.
He was a citizen not only of Tarsus (Acts 21, 39) but also of Rome from birth (Acts
22, 27 f). From this we may infer that his father must have been a man of means and a prominent as well as
influential member of the community.
The Apostle had two names: Saul, a Hebrew name---in memory of the fist king of Israel, who was also a
member of the same tribe (Acts 13, 21)---and Paul, a Roman name. In his Epistles he always makes use of the
name "Paul." In the Acts "Saul" appears up to the time when he meets Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus (Acts 13,
9) and thereafter only three times in reported speech (Acts 22, 7.13; 26, 14).
Education. In his youth
Paul had acquired a threefold education. First, he learned the Greek language in his Tarsian environment, as is evident
from his later skill in writing his Epistles. The Bible of the Jews of the Dispersion was also the Greek Septuagint
version. Secondly, his father probably initiated him into his own trade, which was that of tent-making, and thus Paul
later during his apostolic labors was able to defray the cost of his food and lodging by the work of his own hands (Acts 18,
3; 20, 34; 1 Cor. 4, 12; 1 Thess. 2, 9; 2 Thess. 3, 8).
Such an occupation was in accordance with a Rabbinical maxim: "Whoever does not teach his son a trade, teaches him to be a
brigand." Thirdly, in his father's house at Tarsus his religious education was strongly Pharisaic (Acts 23,
6). To complete his schooling Paul was sent to Jerusalem, where he sat at the feet of the learned Gamaliel and was taught
according to the strict acceptation of the ancestral Law (Acts 22, 3). Here he also acquired a good knowledge
of exegesis and was trained in the practice of disputation. He apparently returned to Tarsus before the public ministry
of Christ opened in Palestine, for he never refers to any personal acquaintance with Christ during the Savior's mortal life.
Some time after the death of our
Lord, Paul returned to Palestine. His profound conviction and emotional character made his zeal develop into a religious
fanaticism against the infant Christian Church. He took part in the stoning of the first martyr, St. Stephen, and in
the general and fierce persecution of the Christians that followed (Acts 7, 58; 8, 3; 26, 9-11;
1 Cor. 15, 9; Gal. 1, 13; 1 Tim. 1, 13). With the proper authorization
from the high priest, he departed for Damascus to arrest the Christians there and bring them bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9,
As he was nearing Damascus about noon, a light from heaven suddenly blazed around him. Jesus with His glorious body
appeared to him and addressed him, turning him away from his apparently successful career. By omnipotent grace an immediate
transformation was wrought in the soul of Paul. In a miraculous manner he was suddenly converted to the Christian faith
and arose as an Apostle (Acts 9, 3-19; 22, 6-16; 26, 12-18).
He remained some days in Damascus after his
baptism and confirmation (Acts 9, 10-19) and then went to Arabia (Gal. 1, 17), the kingdom of the Nabataeans,
possibly for a year or two, to prepare himself, according to the common opinion, in seclusion and solitude by prayer and meditation
for his future missionary activity. Having returned to Damascus, he remained there for some time and preached in the
synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. For this he incurred the hatred of the Jews and had to flee from the city (Acts
9, 23-25; 2 Cor. 11, 32 f). He then went to Jerusalem to see Peter (Gal. 1, 18)
to pay his homage to the head of the Church. Later he went back to his native Tarsus (Acts 9, 30) and
began to evangelize his own province (Gal. 1, 21) until called by Barnabas to Antioch (Acts 11, 25).
After one year, on the occasion of a famine, both Barnabas and Paul were sent with alms to the poor Christian community at
Jerusalem (Acts 11, 27-30). Having fulfilled their mission, they, together with John Mark, returned to Antioch
(Acts 12, 25).
Journeys. Soon after this both Paul and Barnabas were selected by the Holy Spirit for
a special task (Act 13, 1-3). With John Mark as an assistant they made a first missionary journey (44/45--49/50
A.D.) visiting the island of Cyprus, then the regions of Pamphylia---where Mark left them to return to Jerusalem---Pisidia
and Lycaonia, all in Asia Minor, and establishing churches at Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe (Acts 13-14).
After the Apostolic Council of
Jerusalem, Paul, accompanied by Silas and later also by Timothy and Luke, made his second missionary journey (50--52/53 A.D.),
first revisiting the four churches previously established by him in Asia Minor and then passing through Galatia (Acts 16,
6). At Troas a vision of a Macedonian was had by Paul, which impressed him as a call from God to evangelize Macedonia.
He accordingly sailed for Europe, and preached the gospel in Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Athens and Corinth. Thence
he returned to Antioch by way of Ephesus and Jerusalem (Acts 15, 36 -- 18, 22).
On his third missionary journey (53/54--58
A.D.) Paul visited nearly the same regions as in the second, but made Ephesus, where he remained nearly three years, the center
of his missionary activity. He laid plans also for another missionary journey intending to leave Jerusalem for Rome
and Spain. But persecutions by the Jews hindered him from accomplishing his purpose. After two years of imprisonment
at Caesarea he finally reached Rome, where he was kept another two years in chains (Acts 18, 23 -- 28, 31).
The Acts of the Apostles gives
us no further information on the later life of the Apostle. We gather, however, from the Pastoral Epistles and from
tradition that at the end of the two years St. Paul was released from his Roman imprisonment, and then traveled to Spain (Rom.
15, 24.28), later to the East again, and then back to Rome, where he was imprisoned a second time, and in the year
67 was put to death. Being a Roman citizen he was beheaded.
Epistles. St. Paul's untiring interest in and paternal affection for
the various churches established by him have given us fourteen canonical Epistles. It is, however, quite certain that
he wrote other letters, which are no longer extant. Mention is made in 1 Cor. 5, 9 of a previous letter,
in Col. 4, 16 of a letter to the Laodiceans, in Phil. 3, 1 of still another letter.
The place assigned to the Epistles
in the Canon of the Tridentine Council and in our Bible is the same as that occurring in the Council of Laodicea about 360
A.D. They are not arranged according to chronological order. In the first place are given the Epistles addressed
to communities, according to the relative dignity of the church receiving the Epistle and the length of the subject matter;
and in the second place we have those addressed to individuals; and finally, the Epistle to the Hebrews, which was the
last Epistle received by the entire Church into the Canon.
The Epistles are replete with doctrine. Some of the Fathers call them a storehouse of
Theology. St. John Chrysostom, the greatest interpreter of the Apostle, compares them to inexhaustible mines of precious
metals and to unfailing springs that flow the richer the more we draw from them. St. Thomas declares that they contain
practically all of Theology. The central and pivotal thought contained in nearly all the Epistles is the universality
of salvation through Christ, which can only be attained through a living faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel.
All of the Epistles, even those to the Romans and Hebrews, were written in Greek. Though St. Paul on occasions could
speak that language with grace and elegance, he did not strive after literary elegance in his compositions. His language
stands midway between the classics and the ordinary language of the papyri. Because of the pressure of his work and
care he usually dictated his Epistles and wrote the final salutation with his own hand (Rom. 16, 22; 1 Cor.
16, 21; Gal. 6, 11; 2 Thess. 3, 17). At times it is evident that the scribe did
not write fast enough for him, with the result that new ideas and pictures arose in his active mind. So overflowing
were his thoughts that the rules of grammar and style were often neglected. As a consequence a mode of expression or
an entire sentence is now and then difficult and obscure for us (2 Pet. 3, 16).
And yet, in spite of these grammatical faults
and irregularities of style, no one can read the Epistles of St. Paul without being amazed at his natural eloquence.
He delights in picturesque expressions and metaphors, questions and exclamations, climaxes, puns and antitheses, and many
other figures of speech (1 Cor. 9, 1-13; 13, 1-3; 2 Cor. 4, 8-12; 6,
4-10). His style is also strong and vigorous. St. Jerome remarks that the words of the Apostle Paul seem to him
like peals of thunder. His mental acumen and depth of feeling impart to his language loftiness, amazing power and beauty.
external form of the Epistles is the same as that found in ancient secular letters. At the beginning are given the name
of the writer, the name of the person or persons addressed and the greeting. Then there are usually added an act of
thanksgiving and some eulogistic words for the addressees. In the body of the Epistle we generally find first dogmatic
truths developed and proven, and then practical exhortations for religious life. The Epistle is concluded with personal
messages, greetings and blessings.
John E. Steinmueller