Who Was Saint Paul?

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Parmigianino: The Conversion of Saint Paul, circa 1527

I doubt that Karen Armstrong really believes that Saint Paul is “the apostle we love to hate,” as the subtitle of her book proclaims, not least because her view of him is so balanced and well informed. But she shows clearly that he is the most enigmatic and controversial figure in the early history of Christianity. He was a Jew from Tarsus, in what is today southeastern Turkey, and a Roman citizen. His Jewish name was Saul, but Paul his Roman one. He made his way from Tarsus to Palestine, where he became a virulent opponent of the growing movement that Jesus had launched, a movement that both Jews and Romans feared as potentially seditious precisely because it constituted, as Armstrong rightly calls it, “a sect within Judaism” and had in this case a Messiah of its own.

Paul’s complicity in the stoning in Jerusalem of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, as reported in the Acts of the Apostles, remains one of the most shocking episodes in his career. He was later to devote himself to spreading the message of Jesus, whose followers had accepted him as the Christ (the anointed), which was the Greek equivalent of Messiah. But Paul had never met Jesus or even heard him preach. Only once did he hear his voice, and that was during a miraculous revelation on the road to Damascus, when Jesus addressed him after the Crucifixion. The risen Christ wanted to know why Paul was persecuting him.

This dramatic revelation, which led to Paul’s instantaneous conversion, did not, however, immediately inaugurate his extensive travels, for which he is best known, to promote the teachings of Jesus. Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles, but as eleven of them (Judas Iscariot having died) had seen Jesus after his resurrection, Paul determined from his encounter with the resurrected Jesus that he too was an apostle. Even so, he prudently chose not to confront the other apostles in Jerusalem, who might reasonably have questioned such an abrupt change in one of their most vigorous persecutors.

He opted instead, as he wrote later to the Galatians, to travel in Arabia. Why he went there and what he did no one knows, although Karen Armstrong suspects that his skill as a tent-maker would have been useful among the nomads, who were known as tent-dwellers (skênitai). She also speculates that he may have been inspired to reflect on Abraham as the father of the Jews, even though Abraham had not been born a Jew, or on Moses, who had received the Torah not so far away in Sinai.

Paul ultimately returned to Damascus, which had come under the control of the Nabataean Arabs. He was obliged to make an ignominious escape from the city wall in a basket, supposedly to avoid…

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