St. Paul: His Life, Conversion and Death

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Christ Appears to Paul

St. Paul (A.D. 10? to A.D. 64?) was one of the most important major figure 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.

Paul is closely associated with Damascus, Syria. On Street Called Straight in the Old City of present-day Damascus, according to the New Testament’s Book of Acts, Saul of Tarsus regained his sight and became St. Paul, the Apostle. According to the Bible, Saul began his career terrorizing Christians in Jerusalem and later was blinded by a vision from God outside of Damascus. He was led into the city and cured of his blindness by a man named Ananias, who received a vision from the Lord and told Paul: "Arise and go into the street which is called Straight.” Along the former Roman road is St. Paul’s Chapel, where Paul was lowered in basket to flee a mob of Jews; the House of Ananias, said to be original house of the man who helped Paul; and Hanania Chapel, an ancient church built on the site where St. Paul was converted to Christianity with the help of Hanania.

Paul is often portrayed in painting as a handsome man but maybe that wasn’t the case. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The Apostle Paul, who had no shortage of female admirers, is depicted in one early Christian text as a small, bald, bow-legged man, who sported a unibrow — a single eyebrow created when the two eyebrows meet in the middle above the bridge of the nose. — and sometimes the countenance of an angel....In the case of religious figures like... Paul their unattractiveness helped protect their followers from the dangers of sexual attraction. As Jennifer Eyl has written about Paul’s relationship with his female disciple Thecla, Paul and Thecla never look at each other because of the risk that they might fall in love. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 15, 2020; March 4, 2014]

Importance of Paul

Some believe that Paul was more important than even Jesus in establishing Christianity as a great religion. He transformed what had been a been a fringe movement of Jews into a religion that embraced all peoples that spread through the Roman Empire, one of the largest political domains the world has ever known. Paul is given credit for shaping Christianity’s Orthodoxy and shaping the way the Gospels have been interpreted.

Professor Wayne A. Meeks told PBS: “The Apostle Paul is, next to Jesus, clearly the most intriguing figure of the 1st century of Christianity, and far better known than Jesus because he wrote all of those letters that we have [as] primary sources.... There are many astonishing things about him. For example, in modern scholarship, we have tended to divide various categories. There are gentiles, and there are Jews. There are Greek speaking people and there are Hebrew speaking people. There's Palestinian Judaism, which includes apocalypticism. There's Rabbinic Judaism and there's Hellenistic Judaism, which has derived deeply from the Greek world. Paul seems to fall into several of these categories, therefore confounding our modern divisions. So he's an intriguing and puzzling character in some respects. [Source: Wayne A. Meeks, Woolsey Professor of Biblical Studies Yale University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“The primary impact he has left on Christianity after him is through his letters, but in his own time, he sees himself primarily as a prophet to the non-Jews, to bring to them the message of the crucified Messiah, and he does this in an extraordinary way. He is a person who is somehow a city person, and he sees that the cities are the key to the rapid spread of this new message. ...At one point he can write to the Roman Christians, I have filled up the gospel in the East, I have no more room to work here. What could he possibly mean? There are only a handful of Christians in each of several major cities in the Eastern Empire. What does he mean, that he has filled up all of the Eastern Empire with the gospel? But we look at those places and we see [that] each of them is on a major Roman road or it is at a major seaport. They are the great trading centers of the world. They are the center of migrations of people and he sees this world, from a Roman point of view, which is an urban point of view, that the surrounding country is centered in that city and the spread of Christianity depends upon getting it to those major centers.”

St. Paul’s Early Life Life

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 received an excellent Greek education as well as training in Jewish law,. This combined with his strong sense of mission, made him a bridge between the Jewish and Christian worlds. In Corinthians Paul wrote about a “thorn in the flesh” that he said was sent by “a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” Scholars have suggested that may have a been a reference to epilepsy, malaria or some other malady.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Traditionally Paul grew up as a Diaspora Jew. That is from a Jewish family, [with a] very traditional Jewish upbringing but living not in the homeland but rather in Tarsus, a city in Eastern Turkey. So he lives in a Greek city, itself, in fact, an interesting kind of crossroads on the frontier of the Middle East, and yet he also had a very traditional Jewish education. He was himself a Pharisee and trained as a Pharisee so he would have been conversant with the tradition of interpretation of the scriptures and indeed of the prophets themselves. When we hear Paul using prophetic language both as a way of framing his preaching message and also as a way of describing his own self-understanding, it is because he was steeped in that prophetic language from his own studies in the Jewish tradition. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

Paul When He Was a Radical Jew and Christian Hater

Paul is believed to been a member of a radical, violent Jewish sect called the Shammaite Pharisees, followers of a Jewish sage that advocated a strict interpretation of Jewish law and harsh treatment of non-Jews. Describing himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul regarded Christianity as blasphemous and was a persecutor of Jesus’s followers before his conversion. He is believed to have been involved in beating, imprisoning and even executing Christian men, women and children.

Acts of the Apostles tells the story of Paul. Initially, devoutly Jewish and a Roman citizen, he witnessed the mob scene around St. Stephen’s death, and came to believe it was his solemn duty to persecute Christians. He went as to dragging Christian men and women to prison, and torturing them if they didn’t renounce their faith. He obtained permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to pursue and arrest fleeing Christians. [Source: Jean-Pierre Isbouts, National Geographic History, December 1, 2022]

Paul said that prior to his conversion, he persecuted early Christians "beyond measure", His target seemed to be Hellenised diaspora Jewish members who had returned to the area of Jerusalem. Paul's initial persecution of Christians probably was directed against these Greek-speaking "Hellenists" due to their anti-Temple attitude.Within the early Jewish Christian community, this also set them apart from the "Hebrews" and their continuing participation in the Temple cult. [Source: Wikipedia]

St. Paul's Conversion

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. Paul claimed to have had a vision of the resurrected Jesus. 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.”

Trembling and still blinded, Paul made his way to Damascus, where he changed his name from Saul to Paul, regained his sight and was baptized. He was “filled withe the Holy Spirit” and “straightaway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.” Afterwards, Paul mediated alone for months and then sought out Peter to learn how Jesus lived. Jesus later appeared to Paul in other visions.

Paul's Conversion by Caravaggio

Galatians 1.10 -1.24 reads: 10Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ. 11For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel.

12For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it; 14and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, 16was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.

18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. 19But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. 20(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cili'cia. 22And I was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; 23they only heard it said, "He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." 24And they glorified God because of me.

Paul and the Early Church

According to the BBC: “It has been suggested that the work of Jesus Christ and the impact of his death and resurrection would not have made any lasting impact on the world were it not for the missionary work of Paul. The account of Paul's conversion to Christianity is contained in the New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles. Before his conversion Paul had been known as Saul and had been violently opposed to the Christian faith as taught by Jesus and after his death, by his disciples. [Source: BBC, June 8, 2009 |::|]

“Saul experienced a dramatic conversion, known as the Damascus Road conversion, when he was temporarily blinded. He found himself filled with the Holy Spirit and immediately began preaching the Christian gospel. Paul's teaching centred on understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a central turning point in history. He understood the resurrection to signal the end of the need to live under Jewish law. Instead Paul taught of living in the Spirit in which the power of God was made to work through human flesh. | ::|

“Some of his letters to fledgling churches throughout the Roman Empire are contained in the New Testament and outline Paul's theology. He insisted that Gentiles had as much access to the faith as Jews and that freedom from the Law set everyone free. It was this teaching which was essential for the development and success of the early church which would otherwise have remained nothing more than another Jewish sect. | ::|

St. Paul Work as a Missionary

Paul's Second Voyage

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.

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 Writings

The Epistles (Letters) of Paul, including Thessalonians and Corinthians, are the earliest known Christian documents. The earliest were written around A.D. 50. They were written before the Gospels and make up a considerable part of the New Testament. These letters were written over the years to his friends and to churches. The Book of Acts describes the early history of the Christian Church and Paul’s life and works.

In all, thirteen of the epistles have been attributed to Paul, and these account for about one-third of the New Testament. The New Testament begins with the Gospels and these are followed by the Acts of the Apostles, a history of the missionary efforts of the apostles, Jesus’ closest disciples. After this are the Pauline epistles (those written by Saint Paul), clarifying and expanding on religious doctrines deduced from Jesus’s teachings. After this are the general epistles. The final book of the New Testament is Revelation, which addresses some of the mysteries of the heavenly world and describes the Second Coming of Christ. [Source:]

Paul has been credited with defining and expressing the significance of the Christian position on redemption, Jesus’s death and resurrection. He also: 1) described salvation as something that comes “by grace...rough faith” not from following the laws of Moses; 2) worked out the logic of Christ dying for the sins of mankind; and 3) portrayed redemption as emancipation from sin rather in the Old Testament concept of freedom from slavery and oppression.

Thecla and Paul

Paul and Thecla in a 6th century catacomb frescoe

“One of the most famous woman apostles was Thecla, a virgin-martyr converted by Paul. St. Thecla (Thekla) was born in what's now the Turkish city of Konya at the time of Christ. She was forbidden from listening to St. Paul speak when he came Konya to preach the gospel. Steven V. Roberts wrote in the Washington Post: “Sitting at her open window, she miraculously heard his voice and was instantly converted. After that she broke her engagement and vowed to remain a "bride of Christ." For that she was sentenced to death by fire. But a sudden storm doused the flames. When she spurned the advances of a nobleman in the city of Antioch, she was thrown into a pit with wild beasts, which refused to attack her. Eventually, Paul blessed her decision to live as an ascetic virgin here in the hills of Maaloula, but she faced one more trial: A local peasant vowed to plunder her virtue. She fled his advances, and the mountain opened before her, offering a narrow path of escape.” [Source:Steven V. Roberts, Washington Post, December 20, 2009]

Elizabeth Clark of Duke University told PBS: “Thecla is a literary character of probably second century Christianity who comes to be thought of as an actual historical character by the fourth century. Thecla appears in a document called The Acts of Paul and Thecla which is one of the many sets of acts that came to be labeled the apocryphal acts.... Thecla's represented as being an aristocratic young woman who hears the teaching of Paul, and upon hearing the message of Paul, which is construed in this text... as a message of sexual renunciation, she gives up her fiancee and wants to go off and follow Paul on his missionary trips. Her family is very much opposed to this. Her mother goes so far as to try to have her daughter burned at the stake to prevent her from carrying out this wish, but after many lively adventures including baptizing herself in a pool of seals, Thecla does manage to become a missionary and lives to a ripe old age preaching and teaching the gospel. So this is one of several stories in the apocryphal acts where women are represented as giving up riches and particularly marriage and sexual activity for the sake of following the teachings of the Apostles.... [Source: Elizabeth Clark, John Carlisle Kilgo Professor of Religion and Director of the Graduate Program in Religion Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I think the moral of the Thecla story is that young women would be better off not marrying in the first place, but if they are already married to try to as soon as possible... to lead lives of abstinence and sexual renunciation, and in that way they will be better fulfilling the will of God. In the Acts of Thecla for example, Paul gives a speech in which he recasts the part of the bible that we call the beatitudes. That's the "blessed are the so and so...." Paul's version of this is all about blessed are the bodies of virgins, ... blessed are the chaste. It's all about sexual chastity. That those are the people who are blessed in this new recasting of the Christian message.

St. Paul Arrest and Shipwreck

Paul arrested

Paul was arrested in Jerusalem on the request of local Jewish leaders in A.D. 58 for trying to convert Jews to Christianity. He was sent to the port city of Caesarea, where he was imprisoned for two years. He invoked his Roman citizenship and was sent to Rome where he was kept under house arrest for another two years.

In A.D. 57 AD, after completing his third missionary journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem for his fifth and final visit there. The Acts of the Apostles reports that he initially was warmly received. However, Acts goes on to recount how Paul was warned by James and the elders that he was gaining a reputation for being against Jewish Law. Paul underwent a purification ritual to address such claims. After seven-day the purification ritual was almost completed, some "Jews from Asia" (most likely from Roman Asia) accused Paul of defiling the temple by bringing gentiles into it. He was seized and dragged out of the temple by an angry mob. When the tribune heard of the uproar, he and some centurions and soldiers rushed to the area. Unable to determine his identity and the cause of the uproar, they placed him in chains. He was about to be taken into the barracks when he asked to speak to the people. He was given permission by the Romans and proceeded to tell his story. After a while, the crowd responded. "Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, 'Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.'" [Source: Wikipedia]

The next morning, 40 Jews "bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink until they had killed Paul", but the son of Paul's sister heard of the plot and notified Paul, who notified the tribune that the conspiracists were going to ambush him. Paul was taken to Caesarea, where the governor ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod's headquarters. Marcus Antonius Felix ordered a centurion to keep Paul in custody, but to "let him have some liberty and not to prevent any of his friends from taking care of his needs." He was held there for two years and then ordered to go to Rome to stand trial for his alleged crimes. On the way he shipwrecked off present-day Malta

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: According to the Bible, Paul was imprisoned and en route to Rome to face trial when the ship he was traveling in hit a sandbar and ran aground. As a result of the collision, Paul and his fellow prisoners discovered that they had reached the island of Malta, some 50 miles south of Italy. Tradition maintains that Paul was shipwrecked off the coast of what is now known as St. Paul’s Bay in the northern part of the island. According to Acts of the Apostles, which records the details of Paul’s journey and shipwreck in some detail, shortly before they hit the reef, the sailors on the ship cast off four anchors into the water (27:28, 40). The sailors planned to kill all the prisoners but the prisoners, at the suggestion of a friendly centurion, jumped overboard made it to shore (some people swam, others drifted on planks, Titanic-style; Paul doesn’t tell us which group he was in). [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, October 13, 2019]

Paul said the people on Malta showed him "unusual kindness". From Malta, Paul traveled to Rome via Syracuse and arrived there c. A.D. 60, where he spent another two years under house arrest. The narrative of Acts ends with Paul preaching in Rome for two years from his rented home while awaiting trial.

Paul and the Roman Legal System

The Romans established Mirnada-like laws to protect the rights of accused criminals. One of the most famous to invoke these laws for his protection was the Paul. Chapter 22 of Acts, describes how Paul is charged by a Roman magistrate for the crime of something similar to inciting a riot. Just as he is about to be carted away to jail, to be tortured, he tells the authorities he is a Roman citizen, which means that he is allowed to remain free pending a trial.

After the chief priest of Jerusalem complained to the Roman governor Festus that Paul was still running loose, Festus replied in Chapter 25 of Acts: "It's not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had the opportunity to defend himself against their charges."

Paul later won his freedom for a couple of years by invoking his legal right to have his trail in Rome. Paul finally ends up in Rome, but the Book of Acts ends without saying anything about the final outcome of the case. Some Christians contend he was crucified or fed to the lions by Nero, but scholars believe that the charges were likely dropped because there are no other records of the case.

St. Paul Death

Execution of Saint Paul

It is not exactly clear what happened to Paul but it is believed that he was martyred in A.D. 64, the year that Nero blamed the great fire of Rome on the Jews. Before he was killed St. Paul invoked his right as a Roman citizen to be beheaded. His wish was granted. According to some, Paul was martyred at the site occupied by the Monastery of the Three Fountains in Rome. The Cathedral of St. John Lateran, the oldest Christian basilica in Rome, founded by Constantine on A.D. 314, contains reliquaries said to hold the heads of St. Paul and St. Peter and the chopped off finger doubting Thomas stuck in Jesus' wound.

In June 2009, the Vatican announced that testing of remains believed to be St. Paul’s “seems to confirm” that they indeed belonged to the saint. Carbon dating of bone fragments found in a tomb said to be St Paul’s determined the fragments date to the A.D. first or second century. A few days before that Vatican officials said they found the oldest known icon of an a Apostle, a fresco of St, Paul. found in another tomb.

Pope Clement I (A.D. 35-99) wrote in his Epistle to the Corinthians that after Paul "had borne his testimony before the rulers", he "departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance." Ignatius of Antioch said in his Epistle to the Ephesians that Paul was "martyred", without elaborating. Tertullian wrote that Paul was 'crowned with an exit like John' but it not clear which John he was referring to. [Source: Wikipedia]

It is Eusebius who states that Paul was killed during the Neronian Persecution and, quoting from Dionysius of Corinth, argues that Peter and Paul were martyred "at the same time".This is also reported by Sulpicius Severus, who claimed Peter was crucified while Paul was beheaded. John Chrysostom describe Paul being imprisoned by Nero but says nothing about his execution or Peter. Based on the letters attributed to Paul, Jerome claims Paul was imprisoned by Nero, then set free for two years and then beheaded'on the same day and buried along the Ostian Way.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ 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,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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