Who Was Paul the Apostle?
Michael Hart, who wrote a book on the hundred most influential people in world history, identified Paul as the second most influential person in history (behind Muhammad). He placed him ahead of Jesus, because the beliefs of Trinitarian Christianity owe far more to Paul’s teachings than those of Jesus.
Paul was originally named Saul. He was born and raised in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey. At that time Asia Minor (Turkey) was a part of the Roman Empire, and its culture was very closely related to Greek culture. Although he came from a Jewish family, Greek was Paul’s native language. This was not so unusual, since there were more Jews living outside Palestine than inside it. According to Hyam Maccoby, Paul’s misunderstanding of Deuteronomy was a clear sign that he had read it in Greek not Hebrew.
Asia Minor was a home to numerous pagan mystery and fertility cults. A common feature of those religions was the sacrifice of a person symbolizing a god who died and was reborn. These rituals generally took place in spring, and were symbolic of the rebirth of the earth after its death in winter.
As a young man, Paul came to Jerusalem. He entered into the service of the chief priest of the Temple. The chief priest was a high profile political post. He was a quisling expected by the Romans to identify and punish those preaching interpretations of the religion that would threaten Roman interests. To fulfill this role he had a police force. Paul found himself a job in the chief priest’s police force. He was an active persecutor of Christians for years.
Then one day, while on a covert mission to Damascus (where neither the Romans nor the chief priest had any direct authority), he claimed he had a vision. He saw a light and heard a voice that identified itself as Jesus asking him why he was persecuting him. According to Acts 9:7, those with him heard the voice but saw no one. According to Acts 22:9, they saw the light but heard nothing.
We have two very different versions of what happened next.
The first version in Acts 9:19-29 indicates that Paul went back to Jerusalem after a few days. After initial suspicion from the apostles, they accepted him, and they preached the Christian message together with him in and around Jerusalem. However according to Galatians 1:15-23, after his vision Paul talked to no one, but went straight away to Arabia, where he spent three years. When he did finally come to Jerusalem, he met none of the apostles except Peter and James, whom Paul identifies as “the Lord’s brother.” From there he went to Syria and Asia Minor. He admits that he was unknown to the Christians of Judea, although in Acts 26:20, he claimed to have preached throughout the country of Judea. It should be noted that Acts was written by Paul’s disciple Luke, whereas Galatians was written by Paul himself. In Galatians 1:20, Paul swore, “Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God I do not lie.” That makes the Galatians version more likely to be accurate, but it damages Paul’s credibility, since it shows that he was not endorsed by the apostles and he did not preach in their company.
Paul, who never saw Jesus in real life, began preaching a different version of Christianity from that practiced by his disciples who believed in him in his lifetime and learned directly from him. The Jerusalem Christians were practicing Jews. They used to attend the Jewish synagogues. How likely would that have been if they had practiced the Eucharist (drinking wine symbolic of Jesus’ blood and eating bread symbolic of his flesh)? On the other hand, that kind of ritual was just the stuff of the pagan religions of Asia Minor, where Paul grew up. The Jerusalem Christians observed the Sabbath, Jewish dietary laws and circumcision. Paul preached to the Gentiles, and he abolished all of that.
Paul seems to have had a serious problem with any outside authority. He said: “All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any.”
Paul was not overly concerned with consistency:
“To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law–though not being myself under the law–that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law–not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ–that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”
“Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord (Jesus) shall be saved.”
Yet Jesus said,
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of God, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”