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Paul - The Colossal Apostle

Acts: 8:1-31, 12:25-14:28, 15:36-28:31;
Romans 14:14; Titus 1:12-14

Paul - Roman Citizen

One of the funny things about the Bible is that the people who you might think wrote the books probably didn't. For instance, Biblical scholars tell us Matthew didn't really write Matthew, Mark didn't write Mark, and John didn't even write John. Shoot, we learn that Moses didn't even write the Books of Moses, particularly the parts that were written after he died.

But where the scholars do agree is that Paul actually did write the letters of Paul, or at least a good chunk of them. And it was through Paul's letters, preaching, and travels (along with his buddy, Silas) that ultimately got the Roman Empire to become finally and completely Christianized. Yes, Paul was truly the Colossal Apostle.

Now all of this is all the more odd because Paul was about the last person you'd expect to join what the Romans called a depraved and extravagant superstitio. He was, in fact, about as mainstream as they came. He was Jewish, yes, but he was part of what scholars call the "Hellenized" community. That is, he had gone native to the point of adopting Roman and Greek clothes and customs. Very likely he kept his head trimmed in a nice neat Graeco-Roman coiffure and may have even gone around clean shaven. More importantly, uniquely among the Apostolic Fathers Paul was a Roman citizen - and proud of it.

Actually Paul was something of an Apostle-Come-Lately to the scene. As a kid he had grown up in Tarsus which is a small town on the south coast of modern Turkey and probably spent a good deal of his time helping his dad make tents. But as he got older and became an important member of the Jewish community, he learned there was a band of nuts going around causing trouble. Eventually the Romans slapped a name on these malcontents and called them Christiani after their Chief troublemaker. Christians, the Romans said, ate babies rolled in flour, had wild and crazy orgies, and drank blood. Not nice people.

But one Roman governor finally went to the trouble of checking into these stories and found they weren't true. Instead he learned the Christians only ate food of a "harmless, ordinary sort", and once a week they met in their houses before dawn to sing hymns to Christ "as if to a god". They didn't have orgies either or eat babies. Instead the governor learned Christians were just a peaceful and pacifistic group that were of no danger to the Roman empire. Then he rounded up every Christian in town and killed them.

Now contrary to what people believe who get their - quote - "knowledge" - unquote - of Christian history from television and movies, it was not the beliefs per se that cause the difficulties between Christians and Romans. The Romans were among the most tolerant people toward new religions and beliefs than any civilization before or since. What, then, was the problem?

Well, part of the problem was that Christianity was simply too new to even be considered a religion. Even more than a hundred years after the birth of Christ, the Romans still thought of it more as a social club or gathering. Called hetaeriae by the Romans, these clubs were banned in times of unrest which was pretty much always. The only way out, then, was to meet in secret, and that was also illegal.

The Christians also had a problem even if the hetaeriae were not banned or if they had advertised their services through the Imperial post. Since the Christians had to work for a living (it appears few, if any, were clients of some rich, fat-cat Roman), the most convenient time to meet for worship was at night. That, though, violated one of the oldest laws on the Roman books. The Twelve tables - copies were posted here and there about the Empire - stated flat out that groups had to meet in the daytime. That meant they could not meet "before dawn."

So Christians found that no matter how nice they tried to be, if they got together they were breaking Roman law. At night, meetings were illegal and if they met during the day, they were still a hetaeria, which was also illegal. They couldn't even volunteer for the local fire departments or get together for a bake sale (both of which could also be considered hetaeriae). So unless the Christians could convince the Roman authorities that all they were doing was having dinner or indulging in an orgy (neither of which were considered hetaeriae) , then they could be arrested.

Bake Sale

Another "crime" the Christians often committed was contumancia. This was something like contempt of court although the best translation is something like "obstinancy." In other words, if you did not show proper respect to the magistrate that, too, was a punishable offense. Of course, it was up to the magistrate or official to decide if proper respect had been shown. One Roman governor who called the Christians in to be questioned kept asking them if they were Christians and warned them that if they said yes, they would be executed. They replied truthfully that they were. The governor decided that no matter if they were guilty of other crimes or not their contumancia should not go unpunished and sent them all out ot be killed.

But what caused Christians their biggest problem was they refused to sacrifice to the Emperor or the gods of the state. If you didn't do that, the Romans thought, then their gods got angry and sent down all sorts of plagues, famines, and pestilences. Without an official exemptions (which the Jewish community had), refusal to make an offering to the Emperor was a crime.

Now crimes in Rome were pretty much an all-or-nothing matter. After all, Romans had no jails or really any kind of enforcement agencies. Anything you did wrong, even what today would get you only a small fine or a warning, would land you in the arena to be eaten up by lions, tigers, or whatever other animals they had. Or you might be forced to fight against some other convict and keep going until the master of the - quote - "games" - unquote - ran out of criminals.

Now a peculiar characteristic of Roman religion was belief itself wasn't important. All you had to do was go through the motions. You could even say so, and people as high up as Julius Caesar disbelieved totally in religion of any kind. So the Romans were all the more perplexed that the Christians (and Jews) would die rather than participate in state worship. So you don't really believe the Emperor is a god? Who cares? Just throw a little incense in the fire and be done with it. But Christians wouldn't do that and so after a while just being a Christian was itself a crime.

That said, persecution of the Christians was generally sporadic and not particularly well organized. Most of the time there was a "don't ask - don't tell" policy (officially implemented by the Emperor trajan around A. D. 110), and the first empire wide persecutions really didn't begin until A. D. 250. That was when the Emperor Decius ordered that everyone (Jews were exempt) had to sacrifice to the Emperor or else. But after a year Decius himself rescinded the order. So despite what you see in the swords and sandals extravaganzas of the 1930's through the 1950's, persecution of Christians was not something that was high on the Roman agenda. Still the Christians came off as a secretive and somewhat snooty group, and in general Romans didn't like them.

Neither did Paul, but for different reasons. As he grew up and Christianity started migrating out of Palestine, he heard that there were these two guys named Peter and James going around saying that to become a Christian you first had to become Jewish. On top of that they said the Messiah had come. That was blasphemy.

So Paul went around arresting the troublemakers. He was, after all, a fairly influential citizen and all he needed was the go-ahead from the Jewish leaders. Rome always allowed the indigenous people to enforce their own laws and customs as long as they paid their taxes and acknowledged their authority. So if Paul wanted to arrest people he didn't like and have the neighborhood rowdies stone them to death, well, that was his business. Rome couldn't have cared less.

But after a while, Paul ran out of people to arrest. So he decided he'd go up to Damascus and see if there were any there to spare. He asked the local authorities for what were the equivalent of First Century John Doe warrants so if he anyone was found on the way he could arrest them too.

But it was on the road to Damascus that something happened that made Paul do a one hundred and eighty degree turnabout. Some of the skeptical pooh-pooh the story, but what he described was not unusual in what is called a "mystical experience" reported by many people who have had an abrupt volte-face in beliefs and philosophy. Even British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russel and Allen Ginsberg, the American poet, had a Paul-like experience: flashing lights, heaving earth, and transportation to some separate unearthly region. Allen, like Paul, even heard the voice of the head Honcho. Of course, Allen interpreted the voice a bit different than Paul. He thought it was the English poet William Blake.

Not so Paul. Before he knew what happened he was thrown head over heels off his horse, struck blind, and heard a voice from heaven calling "Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?" Despite the obvious lisp in the voice and discounting the possibility he might really have been struck by lightening (which can produced temporary blindness and auditory hallucinations), Paul decided it wasn't William Blake who was talking. In any case, Paul managed to get to Damascus and ended up in the house owned by Ananias, who was a member of the new sect. In a few days he got his eyesight back and suddenly and literally with the zeal of the converted, he made it his life's mission to spread the Word.

From that day on Paul began explaining Christianity so everyone would understand it. That way everyone would have one universal belief for the whole world. If there were questions, why, he'd be happy to write a letter or two and clear up the obscure points. Paul did such a fine job of explaining things that there now perhaps 300 branches of Christianity with as many as 30,000 separate denominations, many of which are convinced the others aren't really Chrisitian.

But first things first. What the Christians needed to do, Paul thought, was to build the numbers up. He quickly saw the new religion couldn't make real headway as long as it was looked on as a minor offshoot of Judaism. Something had to be fixed.

In his travels, Paul had noticed there were a lot of women joining the church, but their hubbies were off watching the Sunday afternoon gladitorial fights. Paul immediately saw the problem. In saying that you had to be Jewish first before you became Christian, Peter and James had for all intents and purposes kept Gentile males from joining the Church. Why? Well, among the Jewish customs and practices was that the guys had to be circumcised. Now that made the guys think twice about whether eternal salvation was worth it. After all, if you think being nipped in the bud at eight days old smarts, just think what it would be like having your tallywhacker clipped when you're twenty-something. Ouch!

The solution, Paul found, was simple. If you didn't want to obey the law literally, then why not obey the law "in spirit"? Don't want to get pared down? Well, dub yourself "circumsized in spirit". Then you're obeying the law. Eating "unclean" foods like pork or shellfish? Well, consider them "clean in spirit" or as Paul himself put it, you can believe that nothing is unclean in itself. It's only if you think it's unclean, then it's unclean.

Paul's hang up

It's hard to beat a "nothing is unclean in itself" philosophy, and soon Christianity became the fastest growing religion in the Empire. Certainly in our more permissive age, this teaching has been seized with gusto even in a way that Paul probably never have thought about. Now everyone knows how he never married, but that he also said it was better to marry than burn. But the proper way to tend the furnace has been a topic of debate in pulpit and (to put in mildly) in the home for two thousand years. So can Paul help us out?

Indeed he can. Just pop down to your nearest bookstore (at least if there's any left), and go to the Religion section. Pull down some of the "how-to" manuals intended for Christian newlyweds, and you'll find the "nothing is unclean" is ladled out most generously. If you don't think it's unclean to swing from the chandeliers, by all means, swing from the chandeliers. Why, you may not believe it, but in one of the manuals it even goes so far as to say that as long neither hubby nor helpmeet think it's not "unclean", why they can go right ahead and ....

Well, since this is a family website, let's just say that when the book said that nothing was unclean in itself, they meant nothing.

So in the end history really did rob Peter to pay Paul. Within three hundred years, Paul's more liberal and flexible teachings won out as he traveled from Tarsus to Antioch to Cyprus to Jerusalem to Rhodes to Tyre to Athens and on to Corinth and Crete and the rest of the eastern Mediterranean. We even read that Peter finally gave in and said everything was kosher.

It was after Paul's visit to Crete that he wrote the story about a "prophet of their own" (ergo, the Cretans) who said all Cretans were liars. Although the theological implications of this passage are often overlooked, this letter (to Titus) finally gave the ultimate Paulian flexibility to Christianity. Now only can you eat ham and raw oysters (if the latter doesn't gross you out), but you can even believe God is a penguin if that makes things easier for you. (For those interested in seeing a rigorous irrefutable proof to this most indisputable theological fact of which the most even skeptical cannot doubt, just click here.)

Paul in Spain

What happened to Paul is a bit of mystery. The story you usually hear is that he was arrested and so was sent to Rome. There he was tried, and of course, martyred for his beliefs.

That Paul was martyred is not in the Bible, even though it is the most commonly held tradition. After all Paul came to Rome about the time Nero was going nuts. So most people believe Paul got caught up in the insanity where Christians were blamed for the fire which burned a good chunk of the city, a claim that even later Roman writers thought was bogus.

However, it's highly likely that our story does have a happier ending. The fact that there is no scripture telling of Paul's martydom is a reasonable argument that he lived out his natural span. Since he was a Roman citizen and claimed his right for a full trial, he would not have been sent to the arena. Also considering that Nero's persecution was pretty much limited to Rome and was short lived, it's certainly possible Paul got off with (figuratively speaking) a slap on the wrist. The truth is Roman citizens were rarely executed and with the exception of citizens attempting to establish kingship or tyranny, Roman law permitted citizens to volunteer for exile. Indeed, banishment may well may have been Paul's ultimate fate, and we do have a second tradition that Paul wound up living and preaching in sunny Spain.

¡Vaya con Dios, amigos!


The Bible. Well, we have to cite this, we suppose, but there are so many editions that we will not play favorites. Of course, nowadays you can also get the Scripture online (see below).

Paul first shows up in Acts 8:1 and takes up most of the rest of the book. Scholars then piece together the rest of his story from his letters. Since they are not listed in chronological order, it's best to let the eggheads do this.

Early Christianity, Roland Bainton, Van Nostrand (1984) (Original 1960). A bit dated study of early Christianity. The early chapters cover the conflicts between Peter and James and Paul.

Paul - The Mind of the Apostle, A. N. Wilson, Norton (1997). One of the better selling volumes this is a "modern" "biography" (note both quotes) where (as is increasingly the case) "modern" (again quotes) Christianity is shown as arising from the teachings of Paul. It also shows you how much fun a Biblical scholar can have. You can sift through the Bible and say, well, this part of the Bible might be true, but that part is not, and if such and such a passage really happened then we can conclude this and that, but otherwise we have to believe that or this.

Very much the "nothing is accurate in itself, but if you believe it is accurate, then it is accurate" approach. Paul would have been proud.

Also some rather strange statements like how the Christians probably didn't really start the fire in Rome but you can't rule out it might have started in a Christian home. What the heck does that mean?

The Apostle - A Life of Paul, John Pollock Chariot Victor Publishing (1994). A more traditional biography which does less sorting of what did or did not happen. It more or less accepts what is written in the Bible and tells the story in a straightforward manner. Actually it's easier to follow Paul's life reading this book than what we might call the - ah - original edition.

The First Urban Christians - The Social World of the Apostle Paul Wayne Meeks, Yale University Press (1984). Despite the academic credentials, this ain't a bad book (that's a joke, by the way). Also by the very nature of the subject it isn't likely to raise the hackles of either the true believer or the skeptic. Very well documented with a lot of extra books and references you can read.

Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, Reader's Digest Association (1974). A surprisingly well written and objective book, this is actually more of a "Daily Life In the Times Of" type book. But it does so by following the stories and chronology of the Bible itself even to the point of being divided into Old and New Testament sections.

The first parts cover Biblical archeology and the book actually starts off with the stories of Joseph, Abraham, and such. But it covers the life of Paul in a coherent manner which is something the Bible itself doesn't always do.

On virtually every page there are photographs and illustrations, the latter which are made up of both excellent paintings and superb ink drawings. The pictures never, it should be pointed out, claim to be depicting the actual person of the Bible. So instead of what's obviously Paul preaching in an apartment courtyard in Rome, it just says we see "an apostle". That way if you don't like a bald-headed Paul, you won't get irritated.

There is an amusing aspect of this book due to its vintage. Look at the hair styles of the guys and gals. Definitely early 1970's. Hopefully had the book been written in the 1990's we would not have seen gelled or spiked hair.

The Letters of Pliny the Younger, Betty Radice (translator), Penguin Classics, First published in 1963, it's still in print. A very readable translation, this has the famous letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor trajan on how to handle those pesky Christians. The solution of this man - often held up as the most thoughtful, honest, and intelligent Roman of the early Empire - was to kill them all.

Betty's translation - considered the best by modern scholars - is also in the Loeb Classical Library Pliny the Younger. Since the original Latin is included it's in two volumes, with the second having the correspondence to trajan.

You can also find Pliny's letters - including some Latin original - online (see below).

The Christians as the Romans Saw Them Robert Wilken, Yale University Press (1984). Excellent book on how the Romans viewed this - to quote Pliny - extravagant and depraved superstitio. Inexplicably some readers tend to take this book as a revisionist commentary when it is nothing of the kind. This book simply tells what the Romans thought of the Christians, not the author. Robert is currently Distinguished Fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. And he wrote this book, by the way, while teaching at Notre Dame - scarcely a hot bed of radical liberal theology.

Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Stephen Benko, University of Indiana Press (1984). Similar in tone and content to the book above although a bit more general in tone. The author points out that many of the odd-ball ideas the Romans had about Christianity could indeed have been true enough, since there were indeed many odd-ball sects calling themselves Christian. There are even early Christian writers who complained about deviant practices of other Christian denominations, and their complaints were much like the complaints of the Romans.

Internet Resources

As always for the internet: be wary! But there's lots of good information, and the following sites seem reliable.,

As we said above, we really should cite the Bible, we suppose, as a source and now the net is really the best place to find it. This is a webpage with most of the variant translations of the Bible posted. Pretty nice design - no flashing ads (no ads at all, in fact) and easily used. There are, though, many other online Bible websites some which are certainly comparable.


One thing that is great when discussing the Bible is to whip out a comment about the orignal language that will flummox your opponent. "Well," you say, "since Paul didn't use the word 'akarthatos' but instead wrote 'koinos', it is obvious to even the most dense that what he really meant was ...". With (among other things) interlinear translations, for the would-be Biblical scholar this is the site for you.

To avoid the problem with having the right fonts, the texts are in .pdf format, and the Greek texts are printed in characters reminiscent of the manuscript lettering - not modern Greek print. Also there are no accents which is either a plus or minus depending on your pedagogical point of view. A big plus for the self-studier is there is a interlinear transliteration with an interlinear explanation of the grammar. With a simple New Testament grammar, the armchair scholar will find this a nice site (providing he's sitting at the computer, of course).

The New Testament itself is at

"Early Christian Writings", A very nice selection of early source material including the books of the New Testament and the letters of Paul. But a lot of other stuff the professors will use in their books. Unfortunately, it looks like the site is no longer being actively maintained.

"Pliny and the Christians",

Dang, but the internet can be a great place for original source material if you know how to separate wheat from chaff. This site has both Latin and English for the letters about the Christians between Pliny and trajan from the website of Professor William Harris at Middlebury College in Vermont.

"New Advent",

Regardless of the individual's creed, it must be acknowledged that the oldest Christian Church is indeed the Roman Catholic Church and their early scholarship on Church history was the most exhaustive. This website has lots of information and sources for finding out who wrote what in the early days of Christian scholarship and you can find the story of Paul sketched out in a single article on their Catholic Encyclopedia at Of course, it is told from a particular point of view, but you can't have everything.

"Was Saint Paul struck blind and converted by lightning?", John Bullock, Survey of Ophthalmology, 39 (2), pp. 151-160. although the faithful may sneer at the thesis of this article - that the conversion of Paul with the flash of light, temporary blindness, and hearing a voice (all of which may be reported by survivors of lightning strikes) - was a natural phenomenon, it oddly enough would confirm that the Biblical account reports the events faithfully.

An interesting topic for theological and philosophical debate. The idea that interventionist events, if studied, are indistinguishable from natural phenomenon arises from religious philosophy of people like Gottfried Leibniz and others even stretching back to the Middle Ages.