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Weekly General Audience August 27, 2008
BY The Editors
his general audience on Aug. 27, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of
teachings on St. Paul, in commemoration of the Year of St. Paul.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During my last catechesis before the
summer holidays some two months ago, I started a new series of teachings
devoted to the Year of St. Paul, offering my reflections on the world in which
Today I wish to resume my reflection
on the Apostle to the Gentiles by offering a brief biography. Since we will
dedicate next Wednesday to Paul’s conversion, that extraordinary event on the
road to Damascus and the fundamental turning point in his life as a result of
his encounter with Christ, today we will reflect briefly on his life as a
We find some essential biographical
data about Paul in his Letter to Philemon, where he refers to himself as “an
old man” (see Philemon 9: presbýtes), and in
the Acts of the Apostles, where, at the time of Stephen’s death by stoning, he
is described as “a young man” (see Acts 7:58: neanías).
The two descriptions are obviously
somewhat general, but in ancient usage, a man in his 30s was described as a
“young man,” while “old man” was used for those who were in their 60s. In
absolute terms, the date of Paul’s birth depends largely on the date of his
Letter to Philemon. Traditionally, it was believed to have been written during
Paul’s imprisonment in Rome in the mid 60s.
Paul would have had to be born in
the year 8 in order to have been more or less 60 at the time, and to have been
30 at the time of Stephen’s stoning. This chronology seems right. Our
celebration of the Year of St. Paul follows this chronology. The year 2008 was
chosen in light of a birth date around the year 8.
His Early Years
In any case, Paul was born at Tarsus
in Cilicia (see Acts 22:3). The city was the administrative capital of the
region, and in the year 51 B.C., its proconsul was none other than Marcus
Tullius Cicero, while 10 years later, in the year 41 B.C., Tarsus was the place
of the first meeting between Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
A Jew from the Diaspora, Paul spoke
Greek even though his name was of Latin origin and was derived by assonance
from his original Jewish name of Saul (Saulos). Moreover, he held Roman
citizenship (see Acts 22:25-28). Thus, Paul lived on the frontier of three
different cultures — Roman, Greek and Jewish — and perhaps it was because of
this that he had an openness that was universal in nature and quite fruitful — building bridges among cultures with a truly
He also learned a manual trade,
probably from his father, working as a “tentmaker” (see Acts 18:3: skenopoiòs),
which probably meant he worked with coarse goat’s wool or linen fibers that were
made into mats and tents (see Acts 20:33-35).
Around the age of 12 or 13, the age
when a Jewish boy becomes a bar mitzvah (a son of
the Law), Paul left Tarsus and moved to Jerusalem to be educated at the feet of
Rabbì Gamaliel the Elder, nephew of the great Rabbì Hillèl, following the rigid
norms of the Pharisees and acquiring in the process a great zeal for the Torah
(Law) of Moses (see Galatians 1:14; Philippians 3:5-6; Acts 22:3; 23:6; 26:5).
Based on the profound orthodoxy that
he learned at Hillel’s school in Jerusalem, he perceived the new movement that
was centered on Jesus of Nazareth as a threat to Jewish identity and to the
true orthodoxy of its patriarchs. This explains why he fiercely “persecuted the
church of God,” as he himself admits three times in his letters (1 Corinthians
15:9; Galatians 1:13; Philippians 3:6).
Even though it is not easy to
imagine what this persecution consisted of concretely, his attitude, in any
case, was one of intolerance. It is
within this context that the event of Damascus takes place, which we
will return to in my next catechesis.
What is certain is that, from that
moment on, his life changed and he became a tireless apostle of the Gospel.
Indeed, Paul is renowned in history more for what he did as a Christian — as an
apostle — than for what he did as a Pharisee.
Apostle to the Nations
Traditionally, his work as an
apostle is divided into his three missionary journeys, to which a fourth
journey is added, when he went to Rome as a prisoner. Luke recounts all of them
in Acts. As regards these three missionary journeys, we have to distinguish the
first one from the other two.
In fact, Paul did not have direct
responsibility for the first journey (see Acts 13-14); it was actually
entrusted to Barnabas the Cypriot. Together, they departed from Antioch on the
Orontes, having been sent forth by the Church there (see Acts 13:1-3), and
after sailing from the port of Seleucia on the Syrian coast, they traveled
across the island of Cyprus, from Salamis to Paphos, crossing over to the
southern coast of Anatolia, now known as Turkey, and passing through the cities
of Attalia, Perga of Pamphilia, Antioch of Pisidium, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe,
from which they then returned to their point of departure.
Thus, the Church of the Gentiles —
the Church of the pagans — was born. In the meantime, especially in Jerusalem,
a serious discussion arose as to what point these Christians, who had come from
paganism, were obliged to participate in the life and laws of Israel (the
various observances and precepts that separated Israel from the rest of the
world) in order to truly partake of the promises of the prophets and
effectively participate in Israel’s legacy.
To resolve this problem that was
fundamental for the birth of the future Church, the so-called Council of the
Apostles gathered together in Jerusalem to resolve this problem, upon which
depended the successful birth of a universal Church.
The decision was made not to impose
observance of the Mosaic laws on pagans who had converted (see Acts 15:6-30).
Thus, they were not obliged to follow Jewish norms. The only necessity was to
belong to Christ — to live with Christ according to his words.
Belonging to Christ, they also
belonged to Abraham and to God, sharing in all the promises.
After this decisive event, Paul
parted with Barnabas, joined together with Silas and began his second
missionary journey (see Acts 15:36 — 18:22). Having passed through Syria and
Cilicia, he revisited the city of Lystra, where he recruited Timothy (a very
important figure in the early Church, the son of a Jewish woman and a pagan
man) and had him circumcised. They traveled through central Anatolia and
reached the city of Troas on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea.
Here, an important event took place.
In a dream, Paul saw a Macedonian from the opposite side of the sea, that is,
from somewhere in Europe, who said, “Come over and help us.” It was the future
Europe, asking for the aid and light of the Gospel.
Based on this vision, he headed to
Europe. He sailed from Troas to Macedonia, thus entering Europe. He landed at
Neapolis and went to Philippi where he founded a thriving Christian community.
He then proceeded to Thessalonica, which he had to leave because of
difficulties caused by the local Jews, going on to Beroea before finally
In Athens, the capital of ancient
Greek culture, he preached first at the Agora and then at the Areopagus, to
both Greeks and pagans. His discourse at the Areopagus, which is cited in the
Acts of the Apostles, is a model of how to convey the Gospel to Greek culture
and of how to help the Greeks understand that the God of the Christians and
Jews was not some God who was alien to their culture, but the unknown God whom
they had been awaiting, who was truly the answer to the deepest questions of
From Athens, he went to Corinth,
where he stayed for a year and a half. Here an event occurred that
chronologically is very reliable, the most reliable event of his entire
biography, because during this first visit to Corinth, he had to appear before
the governor of the senatorial province of Achaia, the proconsul Gallio,
charged with illegal worship.
An ancient inscription has been
found in Delphi regarding Gallio and his time in Corinth, which says that he
was the proconsul in Corinth between the years 51 and 53. We have here a date
that is absolutely certain.
Paul’s sojourn in Corinth took place
during those years. Thus, we can assume that he must have arrived there more or
less in the year 50 and remained until 52. From Corinth, he passed through
Cenchreae, the eastern port of the city, and headed back to Palestine, arriving
in Caesarea Maritima, from which he went up to Jerusalem, returning afterwards
to Antioch on the Orontes.
The third missionary journey (see
Acts 18:23-21, 16) began once again in Antioch, which had become the point
where the Church among the Gentiles had originated — the mission to the pagans
— and the place where the term “Christian” also originated. Here, for the first
time, St. Luke tells us, the followers of Jesus were called “Christians.”
From there, Paul headed directly to
Ephesus, the capital of the province of Asia Minor, where he stayed for two
years, carrying out a ministry that had fruitful results within the region.
From Ephesus, Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians.
However, some local silversmiths
incited the population of the city against him because their income had
diminished as the cult to Artemis weakened (the temple dedicated to her in
Ephesus, the Artemision, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), so
he was forced to flee to the north.
After traveling once again through
Macedonia, he went down to Greece, probably to Corinth, where he stayed for
three months, during which he wrote his famous Letter to the Romans.
He then retraced his steps. He
passed through Macedonia once again, sailed to Troas, and then, after brief
stops on the islands of Mitylene, Chios and Samos, he reached Miletus where he
delivered an important address to the elders of the church at Ephesus, in which
he depicted for them a portrait of a genuine pastor of the Church (see Acts
He then set sail for Tyre and
proceeded on to Caesarea Maritima before going up once again to Jerusalem.
There he was arrested as a result of a misunderstanding. Some Jews had mistaken
as pagans some other Jews of Greek origin, whom Paul had brought to the Temple
area reserved only for Jews.
He was spared the prescribed penalty
of death due to the intervention of the Roman tribune who was guarding the
Temple area (see Acts 21:27-36). All this occurred when Antonius Felix was the
imperial procurator in Judea.
After some time in jail (whose
duration is disputed) and having appealed his sentence to Caesar (who, at the
time, was Nero) because he was a Roman citizen, the next procurator, Porcius
Festus, sent him to Rome under a military guard.
Final Voyage to Rome
On the voyage to Rome, they stopped
at the Mediterranean islands of Crete and Malta, and then at the towns of
Syracuse, Reggio Calabria and Pozzuoli. The Christians of Rome came out to meet
him on the Via Appia, some as far as the Forum of Appius (about 70 kilometers
from Rome) and some as far as the Three Taverns (about 40 kilometers from
In Rome, he met with the
representatives of the Jewish community, confiding to them that it was for “the
hope of Israel” that he wore his chains (see Acts 28:20).
Luke ends his account regarding Paul by mentioning that he spent two years in
Rome under light military surveillance, with no indication of any sentence by
Caesar (Nero) or of his eventual death. Some later traditions speak about his
liberation, which allowed him to make either a missionary trip to Spain or
another excursion to the East, specifically to Crete, Ephesus and Nicopolis in
Another hypothesis conjectures that
he was arrested and imprisoned in Rome a second time (during which he
supposedly wrote his three so-called pastoral letters — the two letters to
Timothy and the letter to Titus), followed by a second trial which did not rule
in his favor.
However, for a series of reasons,
many scholars of St. Paul end the biography of the apostle with Luke’s account
We shall return to his martyrdom
much later in this series of teachings. For now, in this brief account of
Paul’s trips, it is sufficient to note how he dedicated himself to proclaiming
the Gospel, sparing no effort and facing a series of serious trials, of which
he has left us a list in his Second Letter to the Corinthians (see 11:2-28).
Moreover, he wrote the following:
“All this I do for the sake of the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:23), exercising
with absolute generosity what he calls his “anxiety for all the churches” (2
We see a commitment that can only be
explained by a spirit that was truly transfixed by the light of the Gospel and
enamored of Christ — a spirit that was sustained by a deep conviction of the
need to bring the light of Christ to the world and proclaim the Gospel to all.
It seems to me that what remains
after our brief summary of the journeys of St. Paul is seeing his passion for
the Gospel, and thereby sensing the grandeur, the beauty and above all, the
profound need we all have of the Gospel.
us pray that the Lord, who helped Paul see his light, who made him hear his
words, and who touched his heart so intimately, may also help us see his light,
so that his word may also touch our hearts and so that we, too, may give to
today’s world — which has such thirst for it — the light of the Gospel and the
truth of Christ.