There is no apostle of whose life we have such full information as we have regarding that of Paul. He was born of Hebrew parents in the intellectual atmosphere of Tarsus in Cilicia, where besides receiving the regular Jewish education, he may have visited one of the many Greek schools found there. Being exceptionally bright, he was sent to Jerusalem to complete the study of the law and to be introduced into rabbinic lore. In that center of Jewish learning he received instruction at the feet of the greatest Jewish teacher of his age, Gamaliel I, and a bright future was opening up before him, since he was zealous for the law.
We first meet him in Scripture as a youth in connection with the violent death of Stephen, and soon find in him the most active persecuter of the Church of Christ. After he has finished his destructive work at Jerusalem, he repairs to Damascus with authority from the high priest to persecute the Church in that city. On the way thither his course is checked by the Lord of the Church, he becomes a penitent, and turns into a zealous advocate of the principles that were formerly obnoxious to him. Leaving Damascus, he spent three years in Arabia, where he received further instruction from God himself, and he learnt to adjust himself to the new conditions of life; after which he again returned to Damascus. Being threatened with death at the hands of the Jews, he fled from Damascus to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to his native city in Cilicia. After laboring there for some years, he accompanied Barnabas to Antioch in Syria, where he aided in establishing the youthful church in that city. He ministered to the needs of that congregation for a whole year, during which time he and Barnabas also went to Jerusalem to bring the contributions for the poor. Soon after they were directed by the Holy Spirit to preach the Gospel among the Gentiles. On this first journey they labored on the island of Cyprus and in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, preaching the Gospel and working miracles. Notwithstanding fierce opposition from the Jews, they succeeded in founding several churches. Having finished their work, they returned to Antioch in Syria, and during their stay there were delegated to the council of Jerusalem to consult the mother church regarding the debated question, whether circumcision was binding on the Gentiles. Next Paul sets out on his second missionary journey with Silas, revisiting the churches founded on the first tour and by the direction of the Holy Spirit crossing over to Europe, where he labored with varying success at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth, founding churches in most of these places. From Corinth he returned to Antioch, after first visiting Jerusalem. His third missionary journey followed shortly. Passing through Asia Minor, he finds a fruitful field of labor in Ephesus, where he remains three years, bringing all Asia to the knowledge of the truth and contending with idolatry and superstition. From there he again passes through Macedonia to Corinth, spending the winter in that city, and then returning by way of Troas, Ephesus and Cesarea to Jerusalem. Here he takes the necessary precautions to avoid all possible provocation of the Jews, but notwithstanding this they seek to kill him. Having been rescued by the chief captain, he defends his course before the Jews. This only increases their rage, however; wherefore he is taken into the castle and is brought before the Sanhedrin on the following day, where his defense leads to dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In the following night he receives encouragement from the Lord and is told that he must also bear witness in Rome. On account of a plot laid by the Jews he is transferred to Cesarea, where he again defends his course before Felix, Festus and Agrippa. The wavering attitude of the governors, who are convinced of his innocence and yet desire to favor the Jews, induces him to appeal to Ceasar. As a result he is taken to Rome, arriving there after suffering shipwreck, and remaining a prisoner in his own dwelling for two years. From the pastoral epistles and tradition we may infer that his first trial ended in acquittal. His movements after this are uncertain, though there are hints of visits to Philippi, Colossae, Ephesus, Crete, Nicopolis and even Spain. After being imprisoned again he was condemned and died as a martyr in A.D.68.
Little can be said regarding the personal appearance of the great apostle. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla he is represented as |short, bald, bow-legged, with meeting eyebrows, hooked nose, full of grace.| John of Antioch preserves a similar tradition, which adds, however, that he was |round-shouldered and had a mixture of pale and red in his complexion and an ample beard.| His opponents at Corinth said of him: |His letters are weighty and powerful, but his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible,| II Cor.10:10 ff. He himself refers once and again to his physical weaknesses. In all probability he was not a man of magnificent physique.
His personal life was full of contrasts, as Deissmann correctly observes. He was encumbered with an ailing body, and yet was a man of great endurance and of almost unlimited capacity for work in the Kingdom of God. The secret of his strength lay in his God, who spoke to him: |My grace is sufficient for thee, and my strength is made perfect in weakness.| He was a man of great humility, but was at the same time capable of uttering words of the greatest self-confidence, |before God a worm, before men an eagle| (Deissmann). It is Paul that says: |I am the least of the aposfles,| I Cor.15 : 9; |I am less than the least of all the saints,| Eph.3: 8; and: |of whom (sinners) I am chief,| I Tim.1: 16. But it is the same Paul that speaks: |I labored more abundantly than they all,| I Cor.15:10; and: |For I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostles,| II Cor.11: 5. But he realizes that all that is commendable in him and that is praiseworthy in his work, is fruit of the grace of God. Hence he follows up the statement in I Cor.15:10 by saying: |yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.| Paul was a tenderhearted man, and was yet on certain occasions very severe. He was capable of the most affectionate feeling, always solicitous for the welfare of the churches; but just on that account inexorable over against all those that were enemies to the truth. Compare in this respect the epistle to the Philippians with that to the Galatians. He placed himself entirely at God's disposal, following where He led, and was willing to be the unworthy instrument in the hand of his Lord in spreading the glad tidings of salvation. Hence he was great in the Kingdom of God.
The chronology of the life of Paul is a subject of great difficulty. Aside from the date of the first Pentecost there is but a single date in the Acts of the Apostles of which we are sure, viz., that of the death of Herod in A. D.44, and this has little value in determining the chronological order of the events in Paul's life. A question of great importance is, in what year Felix was succeeded by Festus. We cannot enter into the dispute about this date, but assume that Schurer is correct, when he fixes it at A. D.60. Geschichte des fiidischen Volkes I p.577. In the same year Paul was sent to Rome, arriving there in the spring of the following year, A. D.61. He remained a prisoner at Rome for two years, i. e., until A. D.63, when he was probably released; and lived until the fall of A. D.67 (Eusebius), or until the spring of A. D.68 (Jerome), when he was martyred at Rome.
Figuring back from the same date, we find that Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea in A. D.58, Acts 24: 27. Since he had spent the previous winter in Corinth and the fall in Macedonia, Acts 20: 2, 3, and had labored in Ephesus for a period of three years, Acts 20: 31, he must have begun his third missionary journey in the spring of A. D.54. His second missionary tour was concluded shortly before, probably in the fall of A. D.53, Acts 16: 23. This journey undoubtedly lasted about two years and a half, since the apostle would naturally set out in the spring of the year and his stay of a year and a half at Corinth together with all the work done in other places makes it impossible that he started on his journey in A. D.52, cf. Acts 15: 36 -- 17: 34. Hence the second journey began in A. D.51. This second journey was preceded by the council of Jerusalem that most likely convened in A. D.50, Acts 15. The first missionary journey must be placed somewhere between the date just named and the year of Herods death, A. D.44.
Now it is probable that we must identify the visit of Paul to Jerusalem mentioned in Gal.2: 1 with that of Acts 15. What is the apostles point of departure there, when he says: |Then fourteen years after, etc.|? Exegetically it may be the visit spoken of in Gal.1: 18; more likely, however, it is the time of his conversion, cf. Ellicott on Gal., so that the year 37 was probably the year in which that momentous change was wrought in his life. Then he spent the years 37-40 in Arabia, at the end of which period he again visited Jerusalem, Acts 9: 26; Gal.1: 18. In the same year he went to Tarsus, where he labored until about the year of Herods death, Acts 11: 25 -- 12:1.
Thus we obtain the following result:
Pauls Conversion A. D.37
First Visit to Jerusalem A. D.40
Beginning of his Work at Antioch A. D.44
First Missionary Journey A. D.45 -- 48
Delegated to the Council of Jerusalem A. D.50
Second Missionary Journey A. D.5 1 -- 53
Third Missionary Journey A. D.54 -- 58
Captivity at Jerusalem and Caesarea A. D.58 -- 60
Arrives at Rome A. D.61
First Captivity at Rome A. D.61 -- 63
Period between first and second Captivity A. D.63 -- 67
Second Captivity and Death A. D.67 or 68