Meet Paul

In the end, nothing could shut him up

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by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — One time he was nearly beaten to death. On several other occasions, he was merely beaten bloody.

He endured riots, assassination conspiracies, shipwreck, bandits, imprisonment, abandonment, and betrayal by friends. His opponents harassed him relentlessly, sometimes following him from town to town.

He was often cold, hungry, tired, and anxious. Sometimes he was sick, and physical disability became his ever-present companion later in life.

Road Warrior for God.

Iron Man for the Risen Christ.

Man of Letters and Man of Action.

Apostle to Jews and Gentiles alike.

St. Paul was all of these . . . and more.

In the end, nothing could shut him up — except the sword.

He died a martyr’s death just outside of Rome — proba- bly by beheading, as was cus- tomary in the execution of Roman citizens.

No sword, however, could kill his legacy.

He is more influential now — 2000 years later — than ever.

Year of St. Paul

No other star in the apostolic constellation, except perhaps St. Peter, shines so brightly as St. Paul.

The reasons for this are legion.

He was a writer. We know more about St. Paul than we do about any other apostle, mainly because of his writings. Authorship of nearly half the New Testament — 13 out of 27 books — is attributed to him. These works reveal St. Paul to be an indefatigable evangelist, talented writer, and first-class theologian.

He was a traveler. St. Paul traveled approximately 10,000 miles by land and sea when sailing the Mediterranean was only slightly more hazardous than walking the bandit-infested roadways. We can trace the route of his missionary travels still today by the churches he planted.

He was bold and controversial. He was just as willing to shake his finger at his fellow apostles as at unrepentant Jews and Gentiles. St. Paul even scolded St. Peter on at least one occasion. He seemed to pack trouble in his suitcase, because arguments broke out wherever he went — sometimes riots.

He was a visionary. He saw the hunger for Christ’s message in the eyes of the Gentiles. He expanded Christianity’s horizons physically, theologically and culturally by smashing through the 1st-century Jewish traditions and sensibilities that barred the way for Gentile converts. Thanks to his missionary zeal, Christianity exploded out of its Jewish cradle and blazed across the Greco-Roman world like a wildfire.

He was a convert. St. Paul’s dramatic “road to Damascus experience” took him from being the foremost persecutor of Christianity to its foremost missionary. This incredible reversal continues to fascinate believers and nonbelievers alike.

He was a martyr. Giving all to Christ meant just that to Paul — even to his last breath. By the end, he was as eager to be rid of all that separated him from Christ as the authorities were to be rid of him. If he had to be absent in the body to be present to the Lord, believed Paul, so be it. In fact, bring it on.

The church has set aside an entire year — from June 28, 2008, to June 29, 2009 — to honor St. Paul. Special observances are taking place in Rome and throughout the world.

Somehow, a year doesn’t seem like enough.

Paul: A foot in each world

St. Paul grew up in a Jewish family, but not in the Jewish homeland.

By the time of his birth, Israel had long since ceased to be an independent kingdom. It was merely another province of the Roman Empire, and a troublesome one at that.

St. Paul and his family, like other Jews of their time, were part of the Diaspora — those living in countries where Jews expelled from their homeland eventually settled.

Over time many Jews filtered back to Roman Palestine, but many others didn’t, and they formed communities scattered across the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean basin. In a cultural sense, these were Jewish islands in a pagan sea.

According to his own words St. Paul was born in Tarsus, a costal town in what today is southeast Turkey. In his day, Tarsus was the capital of the province of Cilicia, with a port and shipyard. Several important trade routes passed through Tarsus.

“[St. Paul] was a tentmaker by trade, and that is fairly significant,” explained Father Michael Stubbs, a Scripture scholar and pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lansing. “He would have associated with other tentmakers, and a lot of them were not Jewish. They were Gentiles.”

“He may have belonged to a trade guild,” Father Stubbs continued. “In the Mediterranean world, [guild members] supported one another. Often, the trade guilds served as a kind of mutual aid society, so if one of the members became sick, the others would take care of him.”

Some of the trade guilds featured a religious dimension as well as an economic one, affiliating themselves with a patron god.

But not so St. Paul. He was a Jew, and proudly so, even though his father had acquired Roman citizenship for himself and his family.

To his pagan neighbors, he was known as Paul. But within his devoutly Jewish family, he was Saul.

As he was to write later in his various letters, he was of the house of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, circumcised on the eighth day, and named after King Saul in the Old Testament. As a teenager, he was sent to Jerusalem to study under the eminent Rabbi Gamaliel.

“Tarsus was a great university city,” said Joe Durepos, author of “A Still More Excellent Way: How St. Paul Points Us to Jesus.”

“It seems that St. Paul had a marvelous education — the equivalent of a prep-school education today,” he continued. “It was very different from St. Peter and the other apostles. . . . Certainly he had a great understanding of the Jewish Scriptures, and probably a tremendously refined Greco-Roman sensibility, with an understanding of Greek philosophy of the time.”

In short, St. Paul was connected: merchant class, Roman citizenship, good education . . . and more.

He was also hard-core, testifying once, “I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6).

In fact, he was harder than hard-core.

“The Pharisees [movement] had two schools of thought: one was Hillel and the other was Shammai,” said Father Stubbs. “[Biblical scholar N.T.] Wright believes that Saul of Tarsus belonged to the school of Shammai. It was more hard line.”

His zeal bordered on the fanatical, so much so that he joined a lynch mob. Scripture records (Acts 7:58) that the mob that stoned a young Christian deacon named Stephen — the first martyr — piled their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Paul may have even been there in an official capacity, acting as a witness on behalf of the Sanhedrin, a religious supreme court for Jews.

But being a witness wasn’t enough. In his burning zeal, he sought and received permission from the chief priests of the Sanhedrin to hunt down members of a new heresy —those who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.

This was the job that put him on the road to Damascus — and straight into a remarkable encounter.

An encounter that would change his life.

An encounter that would change the world.

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