St. Paul's Travels and Missionary Work

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St. Paul (A.D. 10? to A.D. 64?) — Paul of Tarsus — was one of the main figures of the early Christian period. Regarded as a fiery, charismatic orator and a passionate and tireless activist, he helped spread Christianity along with other missionaries and wrote the earliest known documents on Christianity. Paul’s first letters, written between A.D. 49 and 62, are the earliest New Testament texts.

Originally named Saul of Tarsus, Paul was born into a Greek-speaking Jewish family that had attained Roman citizenship in the city of Tarsus in southern Turkey. He was born between A.D. 7 and 10 (his 2000th birth year declared a jubilee year by the Catholic church) and was educated in Jerusalem “at the feet of Gamaliel,” grandson of the great Jewish sage Hillel. Paul learned how to make tents when he was young. During his travels he often supported himself as a tentmaker.

Paul converted to Christianity around A.D. 32 to 35, about five year's after the death of Jesus, while traveling on the road from Galilee and Jerusalem to Damascus to take prisoner as many Christians as he could find. According to Acts IX in the New Testament, Paul was suddenly blinded by a radiant light, and a voice spoke to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Shaken and lying on the ground, Paul (Saul) said, “Who art thou, Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus, who thou persecute.”

Websites and Resources: Early Christianity: PBS Frontline, From Jesus to Christ, The First Christians ; Elaine Pagels website ; Sacred Texts website ; Gnostic Society Library ; Guide to Early Church Documents; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; BBC on Christianity ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Classics Ethereal Library; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible; Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Saints and Their Lives Today's Saints on the Calendar ; Saints' Books Library ; Saints and Their Legends: A Selection of Saints libmma.contentdm ; Saints engravings. Old Masters from the De Verda collection ; Lives of the Saints - Orthodox Church in America ; Lives of the Saints:

St. Paul Work as a Missionary

Paul was not a theologian or a scholar but was a missionary. He helped spread Christianity along with other missionaries mainly to Gentiles or quasi-Jews who rejected Jewish laws like circumcision. He founded the first Gentile Christian communities (up until that time nearly all Christians were Jewish converts) and established many churches in Asia Minor and Greece.

Paul used the same tactics wherever he went. After arriving in a town he spoke at the local synagogue. When the congregations would get aroused and angry he retreated and organized a church in Gentile districts. By doing this, Paul is credited with taking the first steps to make Christianity a world religion open to anyone, rather than one previously open only to Jews.

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: In time Paul became known as the "apostle to the Gentiles," and he undertook a monumental effort to establish new congregations of believers throughout the eastern part of the Mediterranean.Paul's general method was to go "to the Jew first, and also to the Greek [Gentile]" (Romans 1:16). Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, and Paul went from synagogue to synagogue to preach about Jesus, causing consternation wherever he appeared. Paul was controversial not only because he proclaimed that Jesus was Savior but also because he taught that Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews. The New Testament shows that at first Paul's opinion was not shared by most fellow Jews who believed in Jesus. The early church's decision to admit Gentiles into the community without first making them Jews (Acts 15) set the future direction for Christianity as a multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic religion. If Paul's position had not won out, Christianity might have kept its Hebrew and Jewish character. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

In his wake, Paul left behind self-supporting assemblies called “ekklesiani” , an extension and transformation of a Galilean movement of protest in which the crucifixion of Jesus and coming Kingdom of God were seen as events meant "to deliver us from the present evil age." Some scholars believe that Paul was not trying to establish Christianity but rather was trying to reform and expand Judaism.

St. Paul’s Travels and Converts

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Paul's First Voyage
Paul preached for three years in Arabia and Damascus and then began his career as a missionary after receiving a call to “witness to all the world.” He spent 15 years on the road, traveling throughout the Roman empire, spreading the word of Jesus.

Paul passed through Galatia and Achaia. He was shipwrecked on Malta and stopped in places like Pisidian, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe in southern Asia Minor. He stayed for two or three years and spoke before thousands and provoked a riot in Ephesus in western Asia Minor.

Paul also traveled to the Macedonian city of Thessalonika in present-day northern Greece (source of the New Testament book Thessalonians) and Corinth in present-day southern Greece (source of the New Testament book Corinthians). Corinth was the center of Roman administration of Greece and the greatest metropolis in Roman Greece.

Although the majority of his early followers were Jews, Paul recruited many uncircumcised non-Jews. The conversion of Gentiles went against the beliefs of some of the other Apostles who felt that Christian converts should be circumcised as well as baptized and that Jewish Christians were superior to non-Jewish Christians. St. Paul's acceptance of non-Jews was so unpopular that he was nearly beaten to death when he visited the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

Many of Paul’s converts were upwardly urban and mobile traders and professionals. In his book “The First Urban Christians” , New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks, concluded that "it was in the cities of the Roman Empire that Christianity, though born in village culture of Palestine, had its greatest success until well after the time of Constantine.”

Paul's Message Appeals to a Range of Social Classes

Paul wrote in First Corinthians (1 Cor 1.10 -1.17); 10 I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Ga'ius; 15 lest any one should say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Steph'anas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any one else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. [Source: Revised Standard Version]

Paul's 2nd Voyage

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The traditional view of the composition of the early Christian communities -- and the ones we know anything about are the Pauline communities -- is that are from the proletariat. Early Marxist interpreters of Christianity make a great todo with this. It's a movement of the proletariat....[Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“But if you actually look at the Book of Acts, and you look at Paul, and you begin to collect the people who are named, or identified in some way, here you have Erastus, the City Treasurer of Corinth; you have Gaius of Corinth, whose home is big enough to let him be not only Paul's host but the host to all of the Churches of Corinth, all of the little household communities can meet in his house at one time. You have Stephanos and his household who have been host to the community. You have Lydia, in Philippi, who is the seller of purple goods, a luxury fabric. You have Prisca and Aquila, and we wonder why the woman is usually mentioned before her husband. She must be a woman of some consequence, who runs a tent making establishment, accordingly to the Book of Acts, in which Paul joins, as a fellow artisan.

“So you begin to get the impression that you have quite a variety of different social levels represented in these early Christian communities. Not people at the absolutely top level; you have, with the exception possibly of Erastus, no one from the aristocratic orders - no one who would be a member of the city council. You have no agricultural slaves, are at the bottom of the hierarchy. But, in the rest of the social pyramid, everything in between, you seem to have representatives in these early Christian groups. The people who are named, whom we can identify, have the further characteristic that they seem to cross various boundaries, they're betwixt and between. In some ways, they are marked by high social status. Take Paul, himself. He clearly uses Greek very fluently. He clearly has rhetorical skills, though probably not of the sort that one would have learned at the university. He knows some of the things that are being discussed in the philosophical schools. On the other hand, he's a hand-worker, a tent maker, which is at the other end of the scale, and this is characteristic of most of those people that we know of, as leaders, who are named in the group. So, we begin to get a picture of upwardly mobile people, to use a modern anachronistic way of describing them.

Paul in Antioch

Jean-Pierre Isbouts wrote in National Geographic History: Among the places where early Christians fled for safety from persecution was Antioch, capital of Roman Syria. The newly converted Paul found himself there and, with the apostle Barnabas, spent a year preaching the gospel and establishing the first Christian church. It was there that the term “Christians” — "followers of Christ” — was coined (Acts 11:21). It was also from Antioch that Paul embarked on three separate journeys, detailed in Acts, traveling over 10,000 miles between A.D. 46 and 57. It tells of Paul’s visits to present-day Israel, Syria, Greece, and Turkey, walking roads that Romans built to facilitate control over the empire and enduring uncomfortable passages on weather-exposed decks of boats. Along the way, he argued “persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8), and performed “extraordinary miracles” (Acts 19:11), such as curing the sick. In Cyprus, he baptized a Roman consul, Paulus Sergius. He shared Jesus’ gospel and established churches throughout the Roman Empire, communities of faith that featured confessions, liturgies, bishops, priests, and deacons. [Source: Jean-Pierre Isbouts, National Geographic History, December 1, 2022]

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “We ha[ve] the story of Paul's life in a complete narrative fashion given to us in the Book of Acts, which details his activities from the time that he was in Jerusalem to the time that he goes to Damascus. There [he] has a conversion experience and afterwards comes back to Jerusalem. He then moves on to Antioch, one of the other important cities of the Greek East under Roman rule. In fact it's the capital of Roman Syria. We also know that there was a very large Jewish community in Antioch, and apparently when Paul went there it was because he understood it to offer a very important opportunity for him to preach this new message that he had come to understand as a result of his own revelatory experience about Jesus. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“...Alongside of our account of Paul's life that we get from the Book of Acts we also have an account that Paul himself gives us and it's very important to notice that in some ways these two accounts contradict one another. They're not completely parallel in the way they describe certain events in Paul's career. For example in Galatians, when Paul tells us about his early career, he explicitly says he has little or nothing to do with Jerusalem early on. Only later does he come back to Jerusalem to become more familiar with the leaders of the Jerusalem Christian community. Paul himself spends more of his time away from Jerusalem. Initially in the area of Arabia. Probably around the city of Damascus, and then he moves back to Antioch. Paul describes much of his activity in the early stages of his career as a Christian. That is after his conversion around the areas of Antioch and Tarsus, his hometown.

“Now when Paul describes his return to Antioch it's clear that's he working in this mixed Jewish and non-Jewish or gentile population of a major cosmopolitan center. Antioch itself has one of the largest Jewish communities outside of the Jewish homeland in the Roman period. It's been suggested that maybe something like forty thousand people in this Jewish community. So we must imagine a number of different Jewish congregations and sub-sections of the city in and through which Paul could have moved and still felt very much at home within the Jewish community. Some of these Jewish congregations probably like Paul, probably like other people in the homeland, also knew this apocalyptic message of a messianic expectation and maybe more than one kind of Messiah. Just like we see back in the homeland at this same period. So expect Paul to be preaching about a Messiah. To be talking about a messianic identity isn't really all that unique in and of itself, rather, it's more important to recognize that Paul and other followers of the Jesus movement of this time would have been given a special new meaning or a special new kind of information about their understanding of who and what that Messiah was to be.

Paul's Story of the Conflict at Antioch

Galatians 2.1 - 2.14 reads: 2. “I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain. 3But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 4But because of false brethren secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage — 5to them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

6And from those who were reputed to be something (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality) — those, I say, who were of repute added nothing to me; 7but on the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised 8(for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles), 9and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised; 10only they would have us remember the poor, which very thing I was eager to do.

“11But when Cephas came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. 14But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

Paul in Corinth

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “The city of Corinth in about the year 50 would have been the burgeoning capital of a Roman province in the Greek East. ... A great center. It had two ports. One on the Aegean side and one on the Adriatic side so that it served as one of the major crossroads for Roman shipping throughout the Mediterranean. So when Paul arrived in Corinth in the year 50, he would have come up the slopes to the center of the city and seen the rise of a great Roman splendor. A kind of monumental city built around the remains of the older Greek city, the center of which was the temple of Apollo with its great monolithic Ionic columns standing up above the rest of the city. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Paul's 3rd Voyage

“So when Paul gets there he must have gone among the merchants and the artisans who would have been the key figures in the economic growth of the city, precisely because Corinth was an important trade center spanning the Eastern and the Western half of the Mediterranean. ...The city of Corinth is a bustling cosmopolitan place with people from all over the Mediterranean world there, and so when we see Paul in Corinth he's really another one of these travelers and tradesman. Traditionally at least Paul is a tent maker. He's somehow involved in the tent making or leather working industry. We've often viewed Paul as some sort of handworker. He may be actually from the upper artisan class. His family may have owned the business back in Tarsus. We're not absolutely sure but it's quite reasonable to think of Paul then moving very comfortably among the artisans who frequent and inhabit the marketplaces of a city like Corinth ....

“... Let's imagine Paul going up the main street of Corinth through the monumental Roman archway into the forum, the center of city life, the place where all the business and most of the political activities are done in the public life of this Roman city. Here are the shops. Here are the offices of the city magistrates, and we're standing literally in the shadow of the great temple of Apollo. It's among these artisans, among the shopkeepers, among the bustle of activity of a Greek city that we must imagine Paul beginning to talk about his message of Jesus and so when we hear Paul say "I've determined to know nothing among you but Jesus Christ, Jesus the Messiah and him crucified," that must have struck an interesting chord among these cosmopolitan Greeks who would have inhabited Corinth at that time.


Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS: “Corinth would have been a fascinating city because it would have again exemplified the kind of maritime coastal city that we have in Caesarea Maritima. First you would have the harbor and all of the activity associated with that... One would have approached the city along a rather nice Roman highway. And as one would have approached, you would have first encountered a very nice sanctuary of Asclepius, which is where you went in antiquity to be healed, and according to the statutory regulations for Asclepius it would be located away from the city where there were fair breezes and out of the bustle and hustle of everyday urban life. [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty, Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]


“And then you would have moved on towards the city and entered along a rather monumental road called the Lechaion Way that would take you into the downtown city proper. And there would have been the magnificent temple of Apollo at Corinth that you would have encountered to the right as you came in the city. Presume by now that you would be on your feet because you weren't allowed to drive a wagon along the Lechaion Road, even though there were some interesting ruts on either side. One would have encountered, in the Roman period, a number of temples to civic deities, one would have encountered a library, one would have encountered a lot of shops.... And one would have also encountered, especially in Roman times, magnificent monumental baths. Baths were one of the principal ways in which locals could express their benefactions to the city, and they were of course integrally important for the economic and social life of the city as well.

“Up above Corinth you would have encountered a very interesting phenomenon, the sanctuary of Demeter. At the sanctuary of Demeter we have beautiful examples of the dining rooms in which one would have dined. If you think about going out to eat in antiquity, you know, what do you do on Friday night? Well, the restaurants in effect were the dining facilities of the various temples, and so one would have gone to the temple of Demeter at Corinth and dined with the goddess or one of the other deities of the sanctuary as your host or hostess, and that would be your one principal way of recreation in antiquity.”

Corinth In Paul’s Time

According to PBS: “A typical visitor to the ancient city of Corinth would have approached the city along the paved stones of the Lechaion Road. On the right stood the great Temple of Apollo, built in the 6th century BCE; seven of its Doric columns still stand silhouetted against the Aegean sun. Only a few steps from the temple were the sacred springs of the Pierenne, where pilgrims had worshipped for centuries. Towering over the entire metropolis was the Acrocorinth, an immense outcropping that sheltered shrines sacred to the goddesses Aphrodite and Demeter. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“Sitting astride an isthmus, Corinth served two harbors: Lechaion to the north and Cenchreae to the East. Along the shipping lanes and through the bustling warehouses passed luxury goods -- leather, linen, wine, oils and fine marble -- that appealed to the tastes of the city's wealthy residents. Religious practice followed trade routes. Besides Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, and Asclepius, the residents of Corinth paid homage to foreign as well as civic deities.

“It was to this sophisticated metropolis that the apostle Paul brought his message of "Jesus Christ and him crucified." Tradition claims that Paul was a tent maker, and that he first carried his message to other engaged in the same trade, including the couple identified in his letters as Prisca and Aquila.

“But Paul's' letters also indicate that he made early converts further up the social scale. Their names, both men and women, are recorded in his correspondence: Chloe, Stephanus, Gaius, Crispus, and Erastus. An inscription from Corinth mentions a city treasurer by that name. Was he a Christian from one of Paul's churches? All that we know for certain is that these early converts were incredibly diverse. They met together as small communities in the larger homes of the wealthier members. These meeting places eventually evolved into "house churches."

“Once Paul had established a group of these Christian churches, Paul moved on to Ephesus. But internal squabbles threatened to tear his house churches apart. There were conflicts over immoral behavior, spiritual gifts, and dining with pagans. Sometimes Paul tried to mediate these conflicts by sending an emissary; other times, he responded with letters.

First Corinthians

Paul wrote the letter that became First Corinthians in about A.D. 54 to the congregation at Corinth as a response to a letter his followers sent to him asking for clarification on some of his teachings. According to PBS: “He voices his concern about reports he has heard about problems arising in the congregation, including sexual immorality and lawsuits among Christians. In the following excerpts, Paul admonishes the Corinthians for their behavior, addresses their questions about marriage and celibacy, and relates the story of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Paul in Corinth

“Two of the letters now contained in the New Testament were addressed to Paul's house churches in Corinth, and express an idea central to his preaching: those who become Christians agree to set aside differences of gender, ethnicity, and class, and join together into one community: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, through many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. — (1 Cor 12:12-13).

On Fatherly Admonitions, Paul wrote in First Corinthians (1 Cor. 4.14 - 4.21): 14 I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me. 17 Therefore I sent to you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 18 Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. 19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. 20 For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. 21 What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? [Source: Revised Standard Version]

On the Life the Lord Has Assigned, Paul wrote in First Corinthians: Chapter 7: “17 Only, let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was any one at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was any one at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.

“21 Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God.

Reaction to Paul in Corinth

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “They must have reacted as if this is some sort of strange message at certain levels. What does it mean to call someone the Christ or the Messiah? It must not have been intelligible to a lot of them until some sort of explanation could be given. From other references within Paul['s writings] we can determine some of the rudiments of his preaching message. He talks about how they turn from idols to serve a living God so he brings a message of the one Jewish God as part of his preaching. He's a Jewish preacher. Secondly, he talks about the wrath to come, a kind of apocalyptic image of a coming judgment on all who worship idols and don't serve that living God, and thirdly he talks about Jesus the Messiah as the one who will deliver from that wrath. So in Paul's view it is the messianic identity of Jesus that is an important new element in this very traditional Jewish message and now there's one other element. He's taking it to a non-Jewish audience. He's preaching to gentiles.

“Paul had decided to preach to gentiles apparently out of his own revelatory experience that this was the mission that had been given him by God when God called him to function as a prophet for this new Jesus movement.

“Paul was Jewish. Paul was a Jewish prophet but when Paul talks about himself he describes himself as having been called from the womb to serve and fulfill this mission. But that language of being called from the womb is prophetic language drawn directly from the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Jeremiah, so Paul sees himself in direct continuity with this Jewish legacy of the prophetic tradition as someone called to have a special purpose. A special function on behalf of God.”

Paul in the Aegean Basin

Paul by El Greco

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “After the blow up with Peter at Antioch, Paul left and went to Western Turkey or Asia Minor and Greece, and that would be the new center of his missionary activity for the next ten years of his life. The dates are hard to decipher here in precise detail but if we think of the Jerusalem conference in about the year 48 by the year 49 or 50, we know that Paul is up in Northern Greece, Macedonia, in the cities of Phillipi and Thessalonica. By the year 50 he arrives in Corinth and it's at that juncture that we think of him then beginning to preach this message of Jesus Christ.... For the next ten years... from 50 to roughly 60, Paul will concentrate all of his efforts in this region of the Aegean basin. That is the region bounded by the Eastern coast of Greece and the Western coast of Turkey and the island in-between. That will be his mission center for the next ten years. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“...Now within this circuit of the Aegean basin Paul basically has two or three major cities that serve as his mission bases. We know of the two cities up in Macedonia, Phillipi and Thessalonica, that he frequents. He travels to them on several different occasions. Corinth is his base in Southern Greece. On the Eastern side of the Aegean in Turkey his base is the major city of Ephesus which precisely at the time that Paul is arriving there is about to become the most important metropolis of all Asia.

“... [I]n about the year 50 to 55 when Paul is traveling back and forth from Corinth to Ephesus, this is a period when the whole Aegean is going through the beginnings of a massive growth under Roman expansion... Roman development. We should think of it as Roman urbanization programs. Now Ephesus up until this time had really not been the major city of Asia. Only under the Emperor Nero and a little later on would it really take off and grow to become the most important Greek city in the East. Paul was there just at the beginning of that process, and so we have to imagine Paul coming in to Ephesus from the harbor, down the main street to the Greek theater and encountering what was at that stage still a smallish city but one that was just about ready to take off. Like Corinth, Ephesus was a cosmopolitan environment. We have to imagine traders there from Egypt, from the Turkish hinterlands, from Greece, from Italy. In fact the inscriptions and the statues and the art work and the buildings all tell us that this is really a crossroads of culture and religious life throughout the Mediterranean world.

Paul in Ephesus

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “While all of the cities to which Paul travels in this period are very important to his work, it's probably Ephesus and the areas immediately around Ephesus that will be his most important base of operations. For several years we will see Paul living in and around Ephesus and writing letters back and forth to these other congregations. We have to think of it this way; Paul mostly travels around in a kind of circuit of these congregations around the Aegean rim, or he sends out his helpers and his co-workers, people like Timothy and Titus, to take information or check out what's happening over in Phillipi or some place like that. Sometimes perhaps even to go and help start a new congregation. Some place over in, say, Colossae or maybe up toward the interior in Galatia. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“So we have to imagine the Pauline mission as a kind of beehive of activity... as Paul, his co-workers, other Christians from various cities are all traveling back and forth across the Aegean, but most importantly, we discover Paul doing something new. He writes letters as a mechanism for further instructing them in his understanding of the Christian message. You see it's Paul who starts the writing of the New Testament by writing letters to these fledgling congregations in the cities of the Greek East.

Paul Letters from Ephesus

Paul preaching in Ephesus

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Now when we say that Paul writes letters we have to realize that Paul really doesn't think of himself as writing scripture. He hasn't yet thought of a New Testament. It didn't exist yet. For Paul the Bible means the Hebrew Scriptures, or more precisely, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that we call the Septuagint. So when Paul quotes scripture he's quoting from the Hebrew Bible in its Greek form. When Paul writes letters he's writing everyday, ordinary letters to real people in real cities trying to deal with the circumstances in which they're living. ... [H]e does want to deal with theological issues, but Paul isn't writing theological treatises as much as he's giving advice and instruction and encouragement for living.

“The other thing that Paul's letters show us is that these fledgling congregations are also facing enormous difficulties of social adjustment, and so when Paul writes he very often is trying to mediate disputes or settle the social tensions that crop up precisely because of the mixture of people that come in to these congregations. For example we know that Paul wrote at least four or more letters to Corinth, only two of which seem to be preserved in the New Testament, and there are probably maybe as many as ten different letters that go back and forth between Corinth and Paul during the time that he's living in Ephesus. We also know from the letters that there are at least five or six different congregations of Christians in Corinth, each one located in someone's home in some different suburb of the city. So we hear of people like Chloe and Gaeas and Stephanus and a very prominent woman by the name of Phoebe who lives in the port city of Cenchreae. All of whom have congregations that gather in their homes, and so it's this mixed and varied small cell group kind of organization that probably establishes some of the important social context for Paul's letters, precisely because there are disagreements that crop up. There are differences of opinion on what the message means. There are differences of behavior and ethical patterns that these converts will naturally incline toward in their attempt to live the Christian life. Some of them take the message differently and it's those differences of opinion that prompt some controversy that Paul himself feels compelled to respond to in his letters. First Corinthians is a very good example here. Paul says, "I hear there are disputes among you," and he proceeds then to talk about the difficulties that these disputes create in the life of the Christian communities there.

“One of the difficulties is precisely over social differentiation among the members of the community. Rich and poor, Jewish and gentile are living side by side and worshipping side by side, and sometimes the tension seems to want to fragment the entire community. Paul has to say it's really the fellowship of the community, the ability to come together that's the important hallmark of the Christian message, and he has to try to show them the way to get back to that ideal.

“When we see Paul's letters, we realize that he's writing a very ordinary kind of prose letter writing style because it's very similar to what we see in all the standard letters of the ancient world. Letter writing itself had a very standardized style and tone, and we know from the discovery of many, many letters from Egypt among the papyri that the practice of letter writing and the forms of letter writing had become very commonplace in the Greco-Roman world, and Paul's letters match up with these typical letters from the ancient world very, very well. Paul adapted some of the standard stylistic features of letter writing to the particular needs of his own theological concerns and his needs of instruction for these Christian communities. So Paul kind of develops a standard letter form for his style of writing. But within that standard style Paul is very adaptable. He's able to take the standard elements of a letter and make them fit the peculiar needs of any given situation. If the Corinthian community is suffering from too much division and strife he turns it into a letter of instruction on harmony and unity. In the case of the Thessalonian congregation when they're not sure about what's going to happen to them he turned it into a letter of consolation and comfort. In the case of the Galatian community when they seemed to be ready to turn their back on Paul entirely and become much more Jewish in their orientation he turns into a scolding parent and blisters them with purple prose about how they cannot turn back on the Gospel of Christ that he had given them. So the letters very sharply intone according to the needs of the situation and the circumstances to which he's writing.


Paul preaching to the Thessalonians

Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS: “As opposed to some of the other sites we're talking about, Thessalonica has a modern city on top of it. The modern Thessalonica. And if one would have approached, say from the sea in the Roman period, one again would have looked up the side of the coast and seen a city rising like an amphitheater from the water, again with a with a fortified acropolis at the top and then, in the Roman period, a stunning multi-terraced forum. [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty, Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The forum in Thessalonica was quite distinctive because it was in a multi-terraced formation; one terrace would have had a very nice odeum and a ... covered portico around its side. Another terrace we know existed but we're not quite sure what was there. Certainly it appeared to be a place where statues of the emperors were displayed prominently. And then there would have been a third terrace as well. So it would have been quite dramatic, I think, looking up from the city as it rises above the coast and follows the contours of the land rather ingeniously....

“One would also encounter a temple of Dionysius. Dionysius is one of the principal deities of Macedonia, of which Thessalonica was the provincial capital. And also a number of other cults, certainly one of Artemis. There's lots of evidence of Artemis in the city. And one of the beautiful things about Thessalonica is the geographical locale and the way the city is so nicely conformed to it. And one would have encountered residential quarters that would have been quite stunning. So Thessalonica again represented a sort of a typical Roman city in the period.”

First Thessalonians

According to PBS: “This letter is the oldest book of the New Testament, written from Corinth to the Thessalonian congregation around 51 CE. In it, Paul writes affectionate words of encouragement to the Thessalonian congregation, who are apparently anxious and confused in his absence. He reiterates some of his original teachings for them, giving guidance for how they should live while awaiting the imminent return of Jesus, and encourages them to love and support one another. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

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Paul Addresses a Crowd Before His Arrest
Paul wrote in First Thessalonians: Chapter 2: 17 But since we were bereft of you, brethren, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face; 18 because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. 19 For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? 20 For you are our glory and joy.

Chapter 3: 1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, 2 and we sent Timothy, our brother and God's servant in the gospel of Christ, to establish you in your faith and to exhort you, 3 that no one be moved by these afflictions. You yourselves know that this is to be our lot. 4 For when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction; just as it has come to pass, and as you know. 5 For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain.

“6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you — 7 for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith; 8 for now we live, if you stand fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we render to God for you, for all the joy which we feel for your sake before our God, 10 praying earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

“11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you; 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all men, as we do to you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts unblamable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

End of Paul's Aegean Career

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Paul's a controversial figure throughout his life. It started when he was back in Antioch. It continues throughout his Aegean ministry, and... the conflicts and controversies that Paul precipitates by virtue of his personality and his preaching really will follow him throughout his career. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“By around the year 58 or 60, though, Paul seems to have felt that he had done as much as he could do in the Greek East and was preparing to move on. When Paul wrote the Roman letter, it's the longest of all of his letters and the last one that he wrote, he was preparing to go to Rome. He was writing to Rome but he himself had never been there. We know who was carrying the letter. It's his house church patroness Phoebe who has gone ahead to Rome to prepare the way.... Paul is going to Rome to get the Christian communities at Rome to support him in a new endeavor to go to start a new gentile mission in an area that had never before heard the preaching of Jesus.

But before he does that he wants to fulfill the promise that he had made to Peter and James back in the Jerusalem conference. For these ten years that he's been in the Aegean he's had his congregations collecting monies together to take back to Jerusalem. Now we find him gathering all that up, each congregation sending an emissary with their part of the contribution, and they're all going as a entourage to lay it at the feet of James in Jerusalem. James is the brother of Jesus, now the leader of the Jerusalem congregation, and it is the direct legacy to Jesus himself through the family members that seems to be very important in this first generation of the Jerusalem congregation.

“Paul apparently never got to Spain, although we don't know for sure. What seems to have happened is when he went back to Jerusalem with the contribution, he was arrested as some sort of rabble rouser.... This sets the stage for his eventual trials and... tradition holds he eventually died a martyr's death....

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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