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More than any other single person, Saint Paul transformed Christianity from a Jewish sect into a world religion. His missionary travels founded churches across Anatolia and Greece; letters to his converts defined doctrine and settled quarrels; and above all, he persuaded Peter and the other apostles in Jerusalem to abandon the Jewish law as a guide to Christian life.
Although he considered himself a Jew throughout his life, Saint Paul is recognized today as the first distinctly Christian theologian. Paul was the first follower of Jesus to insist on the inclusion of Gentiles, or non-Jews, into the family of God. He also was the first to insist upon the importance of Jewish Scripture for the earliest followers of Jesus, and his insistence indirectly helped to form the two-part Christian Bible, which includes the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. His seven authentic letters (Romans, 1–2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are the earliest New Testament writings and thus the earliest Christian documents available. These letters are indispensable for any study of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the first-century church or any examination of first-century church controversies, doctrines, and practices. In the history of Christianity, Paul’s letter to the Romans facilitated Saint Augustine’s conversion in the fourth century and Augustine’s development of the doctrine of salvation by grace in the fifth century; it buttressed Martin Luther’s insistence on salvation by grace through faith alone in the sixteenth century and anchored Karl Barth’s work in the neo-Orthodox movement of the twentieth century.
Born a Jew in Tarsus in the early first century CE, Paul persecuted followers of Jesus early in his life. After seeing a vision of the resurrected Jesus, Paul became a follower himself and worked as a missionary between 35 and 60 CE, traveling throughout the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean and establishing churches. The dissonance between Paul’s earlier life as a practicing Jew and his new life as a follower of Jesus was not lost on those around him, and Paul had to spend a great deal of time defending his right to be an apostle for Jesus, or a preacher called to spread the gospel (Galatians, 1–2 Corinthians). Paul appears to have been executed as a martyr during the reign (54–68 CE) of the Roman emperor Nero.
Paul’s churches consisted mostly of Gentiles, and Paul argued vigorously that Gentiles did not have to adhere to Jewish traditions in order to be considered followers of Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ message was available to anyone who believed in his life, death, and resurrection, regardless of ethnicity (Galatians, Romans). Paul also gave instruction regarding the significance of Christian doctrines such as the resurrection and the second coming of Jesus (1–2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians). Paul’s discussion of the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, in 1 Corinthians and the hymn about the Incarnation (the belief that Jesus is both human and divine) in Philippians 2 are the first descriptions of these doctrines. Furthermore, because Paul wrote to specific congregations, he had much to say about social ethics in each of his letters. For example, the status of women in the early church is mentioned in 1 Corinthians, and Philemon may address slavery, although no scholarly consensus exists regarding the exact purpose of the letter.
Paul’s legacy remains controversial. While some scholars credit him for the establishment of Christian theology, others accuse him of establishing Christian anti-Judaism because of his occasionally polemical critiques of Jewish practices and his claim that only faith in Jesus, and not adherence to Jewish tradition, makes one righteous before God. His opinions about women and slaves also have been criticized for their apparent support of first-century ideals, which kept both groups in a socially subservient position to freemen. Whether one considers him worthy to be a saint or denounces him as the ringleader of Christian anti- Jewish sentiment and an advocate for social oppression, Paul left his permanent and unmistakable mark on the New Testament and consequently on all forms of Christianity, past and present.
- Dahl, N. A. (1977). Studies in Paul: Theology for the early Christian mission. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.
- Dunn, J. D. G. (1998). The theology of Paul the apostle. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
- Hawthorne, G. F., & Martin, R. P. (Eds.). (1993). Dictionary of Paul and his letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
- Roetzel, C. J. (1998). The letters of Paul: Conversations in context (4th ed). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.
- Sanders, E. P. (1983). Paul, the law, and the Jewish people. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress.
- Stowers, S. K. (1994) A rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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