St Paul

  Saint Paul is undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the history of the Western world. His works are some of the earliest Christian documents that we have. Thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the bible are attributed to him (although modern thinking tends to favour the view that Paul did not actually directly write all of the texts that are in his name), and he is the hero of another, the 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 developed 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 other source well used in the interpretation of Paul are his Letters, born out of his passion for the people around him and his need to spread the Word of Christ at a cultural time of great social change. 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 Turke. He was a tent maker by trade, was an avid student under the leading Jewish teacher in Jerusalem, and was also a Roman citizen (due to his father). 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 worries 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 will 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 have come up with a picture of Paul who would be a man of his time and place; a hot-headed Mediterranean who would be quick to defend his honour and the honour of his followers, but who would 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. One of the most important things that Paul did was to focus the early Chistians on the life of Jesus, rather than the traditional Jewish beliefs.

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 now, nearly two thousand years after his death, he still inspires passion; whatever you feel, it is hard to be neutral about Paul.

Text prepared by David Durlston-Baker