Monday, October 12, 2009

Author Sketch: Paul of Tarsus

Paul (the Apostle, also known as Saint Paul)
Born in Tarsus sometime shortly before or after the beginning of the Common Era
Died between 62-65 CE in Rome
Work under Consideration: Epistle to the Romans.

Other things that happened in Paul’s lifetime:

Herod Archelaus is deposed as ethnarch of Judaea and the territory, annexed by Rome.
London is founded.
Caesar Augustus dies and is succeeded by Tiberius, Caligula and Nero.
Buddhism introduced to China by the Emperor, Ming-Ti.

The writer known as Paul is one of the more elusive figures of history. Unlike our two previous New Testament writers (Matthew and Luke), there is absolutely no doubt that a man named Paul once existed and was responsible for at least some of the works credited to him as an author. Though he never met Jesus, the man who walked the Earth, Paul was instrumental in moving the gospel of his resurrection beyond its Jewish sectarian roots and into the free market of ideas wherein it eventually spread like wildfire from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.

Also unlike Jesus, Paul, as a writer, operated on the periphery of history—our image of him a composite formed from autobiography, demi-hagiography, anthropology, and good old fashioned guessing. He was born in Tarsus sometime just before or after the beginning of the Common Era. It was already an ancient city when Saul (or Paul as he would later be known) was born, with roots stretching back at least seven hundred years that had been molded by nearly every ascendant empire along the way, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman alike. It was known, in Paul’s time, as a center of learning, attracting philosophers and rhetoricians to schools that flourished against its metropolitan backdrop.

Of the many disharmonious “facts” assumed about Paul by various writers, there is little dissent on the fact that he was, indeed, Jewish, probably born into the tribe of Benjamin. Assuming that his father was a practicing Jew, we can also assume that Paul was educated in written Hebrew and, quite possibly, spoken Aramaic. He describes himself in the Epistle to the Galatians as “advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age” and “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” [Gal. 1:14, NIV]. At some point fairly early in his life, Paul left Tarsus and came to Jerusalem, presumably to be closer to the temple to further his studies. By all accounts, including his own, he became involved in the persecution of the Nazarene sect, also referred to as The Way, which proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through the resurrection and name of Jesus the Christ. Luke suggests in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul had authority given to him by the temple to imprison followers of the Way and, is shown, at one point to be part of a mob that stoned the believer, Stephen, to death.

On a journey to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way, Paul claimed to have had an auditory hallucination wherein Jesus commanded him to go and preach his gospel to non-Jews. Paul preached the gospel of the resurrection in Christ’s name, by his own account, for three years, before returning to Jerusalem and meeting with the heads of the church there. Eventually, Paul entered into a missionary partnership with Barnabas, an elder from the Judean church, to begin spreading the gospel outside of the Jewish homeland. They found their greatest success together in Antioch where, in time, a church of sufficient size and influence to rival the original movement was founded and cultivated. Using Antioch as a base of operations, Barnabas and Paul spread the gospel through Syria and Asia Minor, creating seed churches wherever they could convert believers.

Later, Paul headed a mission of his own that spread the gospel further into Greece until he was able to establish a strong church at Ephesus. The exact details of how Paul wound up in Rome, only to be made into a scapegoat by Nero for the great fire in 64 CE and executed, are unclear. While Luke claimed that Paul was a Roman citizen, little extracanonical evidence has surfaced to support this claim. By whatever means, it is widely accepted that Paul was a part of the Roman church if not its sole and proprietary founder.

Though some of his writings are still with us today, Paul is something of a cipher onto which the reader is able to project his or her own ideas about Christianity. Some read in his writing an obviously rabbinical understanding of the Torah and cite his teachings as the clear link of continuity between Judaism and Christianity. Others, perhaps less invested in his identity as a Jew, see his mission to preach among the Gentiles as a rejection of Judaism, both as a religion and as a culture. Classicists find in his work writings an obvious synthesis of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy. It is perhaps this stereoscopic quality to his writing that has contributed to its endurance among the canon of Western thought for nearly two thousand years since his passing.

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