Paul chased the western horizon to win souls for Christ
by Joe Bollig
Once he was the hunter. Now he was the hunted. Paul began his trip to Damascus as a persecutor of Christians, but three years later, he was a Christian himself.
And not just any Christian, but a major evangelist — that is to say, a major irritant to some Jews of Damascus. That’s why they formed a plot to kill him.
The Christians of Damascus helped him escape from the city. It was an opportune time for him to finally head to Jerusalem to meet Peter and the other apostles.
The question was: Would they want to meet him?
GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER
The Jerusalem Christians had every reason to fear and distrust Paul. After all, they knew him best as a persecutor of the faith:
“When he arrived back in Jerusalem, he tried to join the apostles there; but it turned out that they were all afraid of him. They even refused to believe he was an apostle” (Acts 9: 25- 26).
But one of the Twelve, Barnabas, took Paul under his wing, introducing him to the other apostles and telling them about Paul’s work.
It didn’t take Paul long to set to work evangelizing — with the same result as in Damascus.
He made people so mad they wanted to kill him.
Local Christians quickly hustled Paul out of town and harm’s way, and took him to the port of Caesarea, where he secured passage to his old hometown of Tarsus. Not much later, Paul established his home base at Antioch, site of a major Christian community, and where followers of “the Way” were first called “Christian.”
GO WEST, YOUNG APOSTLE
Paul and Barnabas met up in Antioch and were commissioned as missionaries by the church. This was the first of four, possibly five, missionary journeys made by Paul.
One, of course, was an involuntary trip, undertaken courtesy of Rome.
The two missionaries’ first distinct journey was made to south-central Asia Minor (modern Turkey). As in Damascus, Paul preached there to the communities of Jewish Diaspora (Jews who lived outside the Holy Land).
But even before that trip, Paul had discovered that Gentiles — any person not a Jew — responded to the message of Jesus, too.
“He began the Gentile mission immediately as he was called to do, to be the Apostle to the Gentiles,” said Jamie Blossler, assistant professor of theology at Benedictine College in Atchison. “But he gives us no details. In fact, he seems to sense the larger church might be hesitant about the Gentile mission.”
Indeed, a group of evangelists from Jerusalem came to Antioch and began teaching that the Gentile converts had to convert to Judaism before they could follow “the Way” — in direct contradiction to what Paul and Barnabas had been teaching about God’s grace versus the Jewish Law. This led to the church’s first council, in Jerusalem, where the apostles and elders backed Paul and Barnabas.
Paul’s missionary journeys mostly took him and his companions through western Asia Minor and eastern Greece, the boundaries of the Aegean Sea basin.
It’s hard to pin down the dates and travels of Paul, because he seems to indicate in his New Testament writings that he visited other places as well as the ones we’re familiar with, possibly even Spain. But many scholars agree that Paul’s first journey occurred roughly from 46 to 48; the second from 49 to 52; the third from 52 to 57, and the fourth (as a prisoner of Rome) from 58 to 66.
“Some scholars think there was yet another — a fifth journey,” said Blossler. “In Paul’s later letters, he mentions being in places such as Crete. . . . Some speculate that, after going to Rome, he was released and had another journey where he might have made it as far as Spain.”
But it was always westward that Paul was headed, as if he took the great commission — to go to the ends of the earth preaching the Gospel — quite literally, said Blossler. He didn’t want to go where someone else had already preached or planted a church.
Periodically, however, Paul would return to Antioch and Jerusalem to fulfill religious vows or responsibilities. Despite his teachings on grace, Paul still practiced ritual Judaism and would visit the Temple. Paul would also make a report to Jerusalem about his activities or drop off aid for the needy.
Paul was nothing if not a self-starter. He trained his own mission team, then trained the local leaders of the churches he started. Paul, being Paul, triggered drama and danger on every journey.
In the Acts of the Apostles and in the epistles, we learn that Paul was sometimes abandoned by his fellow missionaries and believers at local churches, had a falling out with Barnabas, scolded Peter for waffling on policy about Gentile converts, suffered exposure from different kinds of weather, and endured shipwrecks, assassination plots, conspiracies, persecution, snakebite, riots, mobs, trials and near-death stonings.
In his travels over sea and land, he recorded about 10,000 miles on his metaphorical odometer.
All this — and he still managed to earn a living as a tent-maker and write, or co-write, 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament.
THE WRITE STUFF
Paul wrote a lot — but not a Gospel. And he didn’t write about Jesus during his earthly ministry.
Why? Nobody knows, wrote author Ronald D. Witherup in “101 Questions & Answers on Paul.”
Scholars generally accept, however, that Paul wrote the earliest New Testament writings, probably 1 Thessalonians, in 50-51. If Paul actually wrote all the books attributed to him, they were produced between the years 50 and 62, according to Witherup. If not written directly by Paul, they could have been written between the 80s and 100s, in the Pauline tradition, by a leader of a Pauline church.
There are five letters in which Paul indicates that he is the author, such as: “I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand,” (1 Cor 16:21); and “See with what big letters I write to you in my own hand” (Gal 6:11).
Other times, it is clear he is using a secretary/scribe, or that the letter has even been co-written.
“Timothy and Barnabas co-wrote many of his letters,” said Blossler. “We single out Paul as exceptional, but he would have seen himself as one of a larger team of apostles, even the least of the apostles.”
Why do we have more of Paul’s letters? Possibly because Paul had an academic and theological background, while others of the apostles were barely literate fishermen, said Blossler.
Scholars believe that we don’t have all of Paul’s letters, he continued, but it probably doesn’t matter. They may have been letters of recommendation or in the nature of communications to a specific person. Even if they were found, he said, they wouldn’t be added to the New Testament.
The surviving letters show Paul to be a first-rate theologian, but it would be a mistake to approach them as if they were systematic theological papers, Blossler continued.
“Scholars point out that Paul’s letters are occasional, written in response to specific occasions or situations,” said Blossler. “A lot of Paul’s letters are damage control.”
“He’s a problem solver,” he continued. “Many times we will ask, ‘Why didn’t Paul write more about Mary, or the pope, or Christ’s divinity?’
“Well, those weren’t problems he had to solve. Unless we know the occasion or situation to which he is responding, we may miss the entire point of the letter.”
An example of such confusion is the problems some people have with his letter to the Romans and Galatians, and their treatments of law and faith.
“I think a lot of the Reformation debates arose because those were treated as systematic essays,” said Blossler, “whereas Paul was really responding to the crisis of Judaizing, people trying to supplement Christ with the legal observance of the Torah.”
“Once you read Paul’s letters against that background,” he continued, “you realize he’s not diminishing the value of works. He’s simply trying to stop people from making Torah observance mandatory.”
THE END OF PAUL — NOT!
Paul went to Jerusalem for the last time, about the year 57, with donations for the poor, struggling church in the Holy Land. A riot broke out (again!) while Paul was visiting the Temple, and the Romans arrested him for his own safety.
He was held prisoner for two years and might have gotten off if he had not made an appeal based on his Roman citizenship. So off to Rome he went.
Paul arrived in the imperial capital about the year 60. There he was placed under house arrest, but was able to write letter and receive visitors.
It is there that the New Testament falls silent. And here is where tradition steps in.
According to early church tradition, which includes letters such as 1 Clement, Paul was martyred during the reign of the Emperor Nero sometime between 60 and 65. The method was decapitation by the sword — the “better” option reserved for Roman citizens. That’s why many statues of St. Paul depict him holding a sword.
In December 2006, archeologists found what they believe to be the tomb of Paul beneath the altar of the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls, in Rome. The sarcophagus has a marble tombstone that says in Latin, “Paulo Apostolo Mart.,” or “Apostle Paul, Martyr.”
Is Paul within? That will have to wait for the time when it is opened. Regardless, Paul’s legacy is much, much bigger than a dusty artifact in an ancient church.
Paul’s legacy lives on, in part because his letters are so frequently read during Masses around the world. So long as there are Christians, Paul will continue to excite passion and wonder as his words point the way to Christ. Although the Year of St. Paul will end on June 29, the legacy continues.