Paul (Saint Paul, Paul of Tarsus, Saul of Tarsus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Paul (Saint Paul, Paul of Tarsus, Saul of Tarsus)

Paul (Saint Paul, Paul of Tarsus, Saul of Tarsus) (ca. A.D. 4-ca. 67)

A Jewish tentmaker of the early Roman Empire, Paul of Tarsus, Cilicia (present-day southern Turkey), produced at least seven and maybe as many as 14 epistles of encouragement to followers of a revolutionary new faith. Originally called Saul, he was a contemporary of Jesus and of the Jewish historian FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS; he converted to Christianity and adopted the name Paul following a vision that blinded him on the way to Damascus, Syria. Like the Roman poets OVID and VIRGIL, the Numidian philosopher AUGUSTINE of Hippo, and the modern Russian writers ANNA AKHMATOVA and BORIS PASTERNAK, Paul wrote of his beliefs at a time of social and economic unrest under the emperors Caligula and Nero. As a missionary, he traveled to Antioch, Corinth, Crete, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, Sicily, Turkey, and Thessalonica in southwestern Macedonia to recruit converts and encourage the Christian faith. He gained renown for spirited sermonizing, very different from traditional Judaism, on topics of predestination, good deeds, faith, atonement, salvation, impurity, diet, and divine grace.

Paul had an advantage over his brother evangelists. When in conflict with religious and civil authorities in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome, he claimed Roman citizenship, a privilege that established his rights, guaranteed him a proper trial, and saved him from arbitrary execution. The letters he sent to new Christians defined elements of faith that remain pivotal to followers. His simplicity touched troubled hearts with practical guidance: “Hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Concerning the redemptive power of the Messiah, he challenged his audience with a rhetorical question in the context of Roman imperialism: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). The affirmation of hope in his words comforted women, slaves, prisoners of war, lepers, and members of minor sects—those most vulnerable to Roman prejudice.

Composing in koine, or dialect Greek, around A.D. 53, Paul took into account the multicultural turmoil created by Rome's subjugation of Jews, coupled with attacks by Jews on Jesus Christ's followers, a new sect that threatened conservative Judaism and the dominance of their priests. Of his own past role as a Pharisee persecuting Christians, Paul emphasized the importance of benevolence over law in one of his most quoted verses: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). He outlined the style and tone of communion, a peaceful sharing of bread and wine with fellow Christians. He established the act as a sacrament and an anticipation of the messiah's second coming: “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). One of his lyrical visions of life after death carries the poet's ecstatic vision: “Behold, I shew you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). To a people conquered and controlled by Roman legions, the promise of transformation in the afterlife held great appeal.

Paul demanded the constancy and inclusion of all converts to Jesus's teachings. To squabblers over the admission of both genders and disparate sectarians to Christian fellowship, he exulted, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28), a rejuvenating proclamation to victims of Roman harassment. He popularized the use of the Greek descriptor Christos (the anointed) as Jesus's official title and challenged marginalized minorities to think of themselves as religious warriors: “Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). The bold equating of Roman despotism with satan put backbone into disciples by allegorizing their daily miseries as the eternal war of good against evil.

Paul's WISDOM reflects the thoughts of a realist running out of time. In his 60s, he observed, “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out,” an existential commentary on mortality (1 Timothy 6:7). To heighten an argument against materialism, he declared, “For the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). At the time of his beheading in Rome in or before A.D. 67, Christian fervor had aroused sufficient disquiet in Emperor Nero to warrant persecutions, including the torture of Christians who allegedly confessed to starting the Great Fire of Rome on July 18, A.D. 64. According to book 15 of the Annals (A.D. 116) of the Roman historian TACITUS, a roundup of adherents resulted in “mutilation by dogs or, fixed to crosses and made flammable, on the dwindling of daylight they were burned for use as nocturnal illumination” for the imperial gardens, around which Nero drove his chariot (Tacitus 2004, 326).

In his last years, with serenity and grace, Paul conferred a benediction on his beleaguered followers: “Now the god of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight” (Hebrews 13:20-21). The blessing is still used to strengthen congregations' patience and faith.


Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000.

Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986.

Tacitus. The Annals. Translated by Anthony John Woodman. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004.