Paul’s Life – Background and Chronology

Christ, from Christ, the Twelve Apostles and St. Paul

The Pharisee Saul, better known as Paul, laid the foundation for the Church. What can we learn from him?

By Mark D. Harris

Paul, possibly the most famous of the apostles of Jesus Christ, was a scion of Jews of the Diaspora.  Until the Babylonian exile beginning in 605-586 BC, Israelites of the tribe of Judah were concentrated in Southern Palestine.  Afterwards, they were scattered all over the ancient Near East, with large communities thriving in Alexandria and Rome.  A sizeable community arose in Tarsus of Cilicia, a province in what is now southeastern Turkey close to the border of Syria.  Tarsus was a major Roman city of trade and learning, and Cilicia was famous for its cloth products.  Both influences can be clearly seen in Paul’s later life as an educated traveler and scholar who made tents to support himself.

Jews of the Diaspora formed communities wherever they lived and so were able to maintain much of their religion and culture, including attending synagogues and observing dietary laws.  Paul, the son of observant Jewish parents, was raised as a “Hebrews of Hebrews” in this environment.  Paul’s parents were also Roman citizens, a rare honor, and so Paul inherited citizenship, which greatly helped his ministry.   At some point in his childhood he traveled to Jerusalem and learned Judaism at the feet of Gamaliel, the famous 1st century Jewish teacher.  Passionate for his Hebrew faith, Paul became a Pharisee, and excelled among his peers in every way.

Source material for a chronology of Paul’s life is found in his own writings, the Epistles, and the book of Acts.  There is remarkable agreement between the sources.  One area of seeming disagreement is that Luke mentions only three of Paul’s trips to Jerusalem, whereas Paul’s own writings mention five.  Another is the timing of the Jerusalem council.  Luke places it before the second missionary journey, and some interpret Paul’s epistles as placing it after the second missionary journey.  The difficulties are rather easily resolved.

Several important events help scholars identify the chronology of Paul’s life.  First, Paul testified before Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, in Acts 18.  An inscription in stone recovered by archaeologists mentions that Gallio was proconsul in that area in AD 51.  This important finding provides a fixed date for the second missionary journey.  Counting back from this date, scholars are able to place the Jerusalem council, Paul’s first missionary journey, and even his conversion and earlier ministry, with a reasonable degree of accuracy.  Similarly, counting forward allows us to place his third missionary journey, journey to Rome and later ministry.  Other Roman and Jewish leaders and rulers, such as Felix, Festus, Caiaphas, and even Nero, that are mentioned both in the Bible and in ancient extrabiblical sources, also help date Paul’s life.

Acts is extraordinarily important.  While Paul in Galatians mentions key events in his early ministry, the only information we have on his third missionary journey, journey to Rome and later ministry comes from Acts.  Further, one of Luke’s primary goals in writing Acts is to provide a reliable history (Luke 1:1-4).  Paul’s epistles, while accurate historically, have more of a theological intent.

A reasonable chronology has the conversion of Paul between 32 and 35 AD.  After this, he spent time in Damascus, Arabia, and Tarsus before returning to Jerusalem for famine relief.  Going to Syrian Antioch, he and Barnabas embarked on their first missionary trip (in Asia Minor) in 47-48 BC.  The overwhelming success of the Gospel among Gentiles produced the need for the Jerusalem Council (49 AD), which Paul attended.  His second missionary journey, with the fateful Macedonian call, occurred from 50-52 AD, and the third journey lasted from 53-57 AD.  After two years imprisonment in Caesarea (57-59), Paul was taken by ship to Rome, but not before being shipwrecked in Malta, bitten by vipers, and nearly drowned.

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