Biography of Paul of Tarsus

Paul of Tarsus helped make Christianity what it is today.

Apostle Paul
"Apostle Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne (17th century). Valentin de Boulogne / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Paul was a historical figure who set the tone for Christianity. It was Paul, and not Jesus, whose writing emphasized celibacy and the theory of divine grace and salvation, and it was Paul who eliminated the circumcision requirement. Paul also was the first to use the term euangelion, 'the gospel' in connection with the teaching of Christ [Acts.20.24 τὸ εὐαγγέλιον τῆς χάριτος; Romans1.1 εὐαγγέλιον θεοῦ].

During his lifetime, Paul met James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter, the Apostle, in Jerusalem. He then went on to Antioch where he converted Gentiles, helping to make Christianity a universal religion.

Early Years

The sources on Paul come mainly from his own writing in the New Testament of the Bible, and from the biblical writings of Luke, who may or may not have traveled with him. Some biographical information, concerning his birthplace and death, come from early Christian historians such as Jerome and Eusebius.

Paul of Tarsus (a city in Cilicia, in what is now Turkey), was also known by the Jewish name of Saul. Paul, a name he may have had thanks to his Roman citizenship, was born early in the first century CE or late in the last century BCE in a Greek-speaking area of the Roman Empire. His parents came from Gischala, in Galilee.

Family Life and Education

Paul came from a family of artisans, and he learned the manual trade of weaver and tentmaker. He was a Roman citizen, and a Jew, and thus he was a member of a tolerated ethnicity in the Roman empire. The Jews were, however, heavily exploited by special tributes due to Romans by non-Romans.

As a young man, Paul/Saul was trained as a Pharisaic scribe, and his zeal for his community led him to be a thug. In Jerusalem between about 32/33 CE, he was present at the stoning murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr—Paul relates that he "kept the coats of the men who murdered him" (Acts 7:58-60, Acts 22:20). Stephen was one of a group of Hellenists, Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who chose to speak Greek rather than Aramaic. Hellenists were despised by both the Jewish community, and (eventually) the early Christian church as led by Peter.

After that, he personally led a pogrom against the Hellenists and other Christian sects, driving the Greek-speaking Christians out of Jerusalem and into the countryside. Some ended up in Antioch, where, after his conversion, Paul would defend them against the apostle Peter.

Conversion of St. Paul

In about 34, Saul/Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to continue his mission of stamping out converts to the new Jewish sect of Christians when he experienced a vision of Jesus, which he describes in Acts 9:1–9 (also Gal. 1:15–16). He reported that he saw a blast of light from the heavens which blinded him and he fell to the ground. A voice cried "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" and Saul asked "Who art thou, Lord?" The voice replied "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." (Acts 9:4-6

Paul spent three days in Damascus fasting and praying, then he got his sight back and became a missionary, spreading the message of Christianity: Luke called him "thirteenth witness," which is to say the thirteenth apostle. Paul's missionary letters to the early churches make up a large part of the New Testament.

Works Attributed to Paul

Writings of St. Paul (called the "Pauline letters") include ones that are disputed and ones that are generally accepted. The letters that scholars agree can be firmly attributed to Paul include seven letters which were written between 50 and 57 CE, while he was conducting missionary work, visiting the churches at Ephesus, Caesarea, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Macedonia.

  • 1 Thessalonians (written 50 CE), written to the church at Thessalonica
  • Galatians (53), written to the church at Galatia
  • 1 Corinthians (53-54), written to the church at Corinth
  • Philippians (55), written to the church at Phillippi
  • Philemon (55), written to St. Philemon
  • 2 Corinthians (55-56), written to the church at Corinth 
  • Romans (57), written to the church at Rome

Other letters called "Pauline" but not believed to have been written by him are Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 3 Corinthians, and Epistle to the Laodiceans. Paul's letters are the earliest surviving Christian literature.

Paul's Imprisonment

Paul was imprisoned in Jerusalem as a heretic but then sent to Caesarea. Two years later, Paul was to be sent to Jerusalem for trial, but preferred, instead, to be sent to Rome, where he arrived in 60 CE. He spent two years there under arrest. Eusebius of Caesarea reports that Paul and Peter were both beheaded under Nero in either A.D. 64 or 67.