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Copyright 1996 P. F. Collier, L. P. All rights reserved.
PAUL, ST. (died c. A.D. 68), founder of Pauline Christianity. His name was originally Saul. He later claimed that he was a Jew of the tribe of Benjamin, from a long-established Pharisee family in Tarsus. According to Acts (though not according to Paul himself) he studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, the leader of the Pharisees and grandson of Hillel. This account of Paul's youth, however, is subject to doubt, since the tribe of Benjamin had long ceased to exist, and Pharisee families are otherwise unknown in Tarsus. According to Paul's opponents, the Ebionites, he came from a family of recent converts to Judaism. He learnt the trade of tent-making (or perhaps leather-working), by which he made his living.
While still a youth in Jerusalem, Saul became part of the opposition to the newly formed Jerusalem Church (the disciples of Jesus, who, believing that Jesus had been resurrected, continued to hope for his return to complete his messianic mission). Saul was present at the death of Stephen. Soon after, Saul was an active persecutor of the Jerusalem Church, entering its synagogues and arresting its members. Acts represents this as due to Saul's zeal as a Pharisee, but this is doubtful, as the Pharisees, under Gamaliel, were friendly to the Jerusalem Church (see Acts 5).
Moreover, Saul was acting in concert with the high priest (Acts 9:2), who was a Sadducee opponent of the Pharisees. It seems likely that Saul was at this period an employee of the Roman-appointed high priest, playing a police role in suppressing movements regarded as a threat to the Roman occupation. Since Jesus had been crucified on a charge of sedition, his followers were under the same cloud.
The high priest then entrusted Saul with an important mission, which was to travel to Damascus to arrest prominent members of the Jerusalem Church. This must have been a clandestine kidnapping operation, since Damascus was not under Roman rule at the time but was in fact a place of refuge for the persecuted Nazarenes. On the way to Damascus, Paul experienced a vision of Jesus that converted him from persecutor to believer. Paul joined the Christians of Damascus, but soon he had to flee Damascus to escape the officers of King Aretas (II Corinthians 11:32-33), though a later, less authentic, account in Acts 9:22-25 changes his persecutors to "the Jews."
After his vision, according to Paul's own account (Galatians 1:17), he went into the desert of Arabia for a period, seeking no instruction. According to Acts, however, he sought instruction first from Ananias of Damascus and then from the apostles in Jerusalem. These contradictory accounts reflect a change in Paul's status: in his own view, he had received a revelation that put him far higher than the apostles, while in later Church opinion he had experienced a conversion that was only the beginning of his development as a Christian.
Paul's self-assessment is closer to the historical truth, which is that he was the founder of Christianity. Neither Jesus himself nor his disciples had any intention of founding a new religion. The need for a semblance of continuity between Christianity and Judaism, and between Gentile and Jewish Christianity, led to a playing-down of Paul's creative role. The split that took place between Paul and the Jerusalem Church is minimized in the Paulinist book of Acts, which contrasts with Paul's earlier and more authentic account in Galatians 2.
Paul's originality lies in his conception of the death of Jesus as saving mankind from sin. Instead of seeing Jesus as a messiah of the Jewish type human saviour from political bondage he saw him as a salvation-deity whose atoning death by violence was necessary to release his devotees for immortal life. This view of Jesus' death seems to have come to Paul in his Damascus vision. Its roots lie not in Judaism, but in mystery-religion, with which Paul was acquainted in Tarsus. The violent deaths of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, and Dionysus brought divinization to their initiates. Paul, as founder of the new Christian mystery, initiated the Eucharist, echoing the communion meal of the mystery religions. The awkward insertion of eucharistic material based on I Corinthians 11:23-26 into the Last Supper accounts in the Gospels cannot disguise this, especially as the evidence is that the Jerusalem Church did not practise the Eucharist.
Paul's missionary campaign began c.44 in Antioch. He journeyed to Cyprus, where he converted Sergius Paulus, the governor of the island. It was probably at this point that he changed his name from Saul to Paul, in honor of his distinguished convert. After journeys in Asia Minor where he made many converts, Paul returned to Antioch. His second missionary tour (51-53) took him as far as Corinth; and his third (54-58) led to a three-year stay in Ephesus. It was during these missionary periods that he wrote his Epistles.
Paul's new religion had the advantage over other salvation-cults of being attached to the Hebrew Scriptures, which Paul now reinterpreted as forecasting the salvation-death of Jesus. This gave Pauline Christianity an awesome authority that proved attractive to Gentiles thirsting for salvation. Paul's new doctrine, however, met with disapproval from the Jewish-Christians of the Jerusalem Church, who regarded the substitution of Jesus' atoning death for the observance of the Torah as a lapse into paganism. Paul was summoned to Jerusalem by the leaders James (Jesus' brother), Peter, and John to explain his doctrine (c.50).
At the ensuing conference, agreement was reached that Paul's Gentile converts did not need to observe the Torah. This was not a revolutionary decision, since Judaism had never insisted on full conversion to Judaism for Gentiles. But Paul on this occasion concealed his belief that the Torah was no longer valid for Jews either. He was thus confirmed in the role of "apostle to the Gentiles," with full permission to enroll Gentiles in the messianic movement without requiring full conversion to Judaism.
It was when Peter visited him in Antioch and became aware of the full extent of Paul's views that a serious rift began between Pauline and Jewish Christianity. At a second conference in Jerusalem (c.55), Paul was accused by James of teaching Jews "to turn their backs on Moses" (Acts 21:21). Again, however, Paul evaded the charge by concealing his views, and he agreed to undergo a test of his own observance of the Torah. His deception, however, was detected by a group of "Asian Jews" (probably Jewish Christians) who were aware of his real teaching. A stormy protest ensued in which Paul feared for his life and was rescued by the Roman police, to whom he declared for his protection that he was a Roman citizen. This surprising announcement was the end of Paul's association with the Jerusalem Church, to whom the Romans were the chief enemy.
The Roman commandant, Claudius Lysias, decided to bring Paul before the Sanhedrin in order to discover the cause of the disturbance. With great presence of mind, Paul appealed to the Pharisee majority to acquit him, claiming to be a Pharisee like James. Paul was rescued by the Pharisees from the high priest, like Peter before him. However, the high priest, resenting this escape, appointed a body of men to assassinate Paul. Learning of the plot, Paul again placed himself under the protection of the Romans, who transported him by armed guard from Jerusalem to Caesarea. The High Priest Ananias was implacable, no doubt because of Paul's defection from his police task in Damascus, and laid a charge of anti-Roman activity against him. Paul appealed for a trial in Rome before Caesar, his right as a Roman citizen. The assertion of Acts that the Jewish "elders" were also implicated in the charges against Paul is unhistorical, since these same elders had just acquitted him in his Sanhedrin trial. Paul was sent to Rome, and here our information ends. Legends speak of his eventual martyrdom in Rome.
Paul's authentic voice is found in his Epistles. Here he appears as an eloquent writer, skilled in asserting his authority over his converts as their inspired teacher. The view often asserted, however, that Paul writes in the style of a rabbi is incorrect. His occasional attempts to argue in rabbinical style (e.g., Romans 7:1-6) reveal his lack of knowledge of rabbinic logic. Paul's letters belong to Greek literature and have affinity to Stoic and Cynic literature. His knowledge of the Scriptures is confined to their Greek translation, the Septuagint. Paul was a religious genius, who invested Greek mystery-religion with the historical sweep and authority of the Jewish Bible.