During 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 Paul lived.
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 whole.
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 universal perspective.
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 reaching Athens.
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 their culture.
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 20).
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 Rome).
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).
However, 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 Epirus.
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 in Acts.
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 Corinthians 11:28).
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.
Let 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.