Paul the Apostle
Saint Paul is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Western world. Just a quick look at the headlines of his life are enough to understand his impact; his works are some of the earliest Christian documents that we have, 13 of the 27 books of the bible are written by him, and he's the hero of another, Acts of the Apostles.
Famously converted on the road to Damascus, he travelled tens of thousands of miles around the Mediterranean spreading the word of Jesus and it was Paul who came up with the doctrine that would turn Christianity from a small sect of Judaism into a worldwide faith that was open to all.
What we know about Paul comes from two extraordinary sources. The first is the Acts of the Apostles, written after Paul's death, almost certainly by the same author who wrote St Luke's gospel. There is evidence that Acts was written to pass on the Christian message, but behind the theology lie clues about Paul's life. The author of Acts claims that he knew Paul and even accompanied him on many of his journeys. The second source is Paul's own letters. They represent Paul's own version of events, and it seems reasonable to accept them as the more reliable account.
The one thing most people do know about St Paul is that he underwent a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. Precisely what happened has been hard to determine as the accounts in Acts and the letters differ on the details. For example, when St Paul talks about his conversion he makes no mention of a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus.
But behind the paradoxes and the puzzles, there are fascinating glimpses of the man. Reading Paul's letters and Acts of the Apostles we learn that Paul was born in Tarsus, in modern day Eastern Turkey, he was a tent maker by trade, was an avid student under the top Jewish teacher in Jerusalem and was also a Roman citizen. Here is a man who worked with his hands but wrote with the grace of a Greek philosopher; a Jewish zealot who nevertheless enjoyed the rights of citizenship in the world's greatest empire.
In his letters, we also discover the Paul who writes warmly of his friends, both men and women, the Paul who frets about how the members of his churches are coping without him and who defends their status as true converts and the Paul who appeals for the freedom of a slave. But like all great and charismatic figures there is another side; the Paul who berates his followers for backsliding and doubting; the Paul who tells women to keep silent and condemns homosexuality and the Paul who'll stand up to the Apostle Peter, one of the most senior people in the early church and call him a hypocrite to his face.
Academics are trying to piece together these scraps of information with a new technique that's rather like a combination of sociology and forensic anthropology. They've come up with a picture of Paul who'd be a man of his time and place; a hot headed Mediterranean who'd be quick to defend his honour and the honour of his followers, but who'd demand loyalty in return.
Paul wrote some of the most beautiful and important passages in the whole of the Bible, but his works have also been used, among other things, to justify homophobia, slavery and anti-Semitism. He has also been accused of being anti-feminist, although many modern scholars would argue that in fact he championed the cause of women church leaders. In the final analysis, Paul was the first great Christian theologian, establishing some of the building blocks of the faith that we now take for granted, though there are those who argue that in laying out these ground rules, Paul has obscured and separated us from the true teachings of Jesus. But perhaps the true sign of Paul's importance is that even nearly 2000 years after his death he still inspires passion; whatever you feel, it's hard to feel neutral about Paul.
In the New Testament, we have fourteen letters traditionally assigned to Paul, but the scholarly consensus now holds that of the fourteen, seven were actually written by Paul:
1 & 2 Corinthians
The others were most likely written by a disciple of Paul’s, using his name to carry authority. We understand these letters to be circumstantial, meaning they were never intended as systematic theology or as treatises on Christianity. In other words, the letters are responses to particular problems and circumstances as they arose in the various communities. They were not written as universal dictates to serve as Christian ideology but only came to have importance and significance over time.