Bible Study: New Testament
The Life of St. Paul
On his Life and DeathA. The Details furnished us in the New Testament
B. His Imprisonments and Death at Rome.
C. The Question of his Journey to Spain; Traditional Details of his Life; his name "Paul."
A. Details furnished by the New Testament.
It must be remembered that we have no biography of the Apostle of the Gentiles. St. Luke in his Acts makes no pretense of giving us one. He is simply concerned with the spread of the Church, and the career of the great Apostle is but an incident—though one that bulks largely—in that story. It is possible, however, to reconstruct from Acts and from various hints dropped in the Epistles a general scheme of St. Paul's life.
Saul was "born at Tarsus in Cilicia," but educated in Jerusalem "at the feet of Gamaliel." In some way he had acquired the rights of Roman citizenship; it may have been by inheritance. He is first introduced to us in the New Testament story as a persecutor of the Church at the time of Stephen's martyrdom. His conversion would seem to have followed speedily on this episode, and he makes very frequent reference to it. After his conversion he seems to have stayed for a time in Damascus, whence he went to Arabia, and thence to Damascus again. This occupied the first three years after his conversion, and after his historical visit to Jerusalem "to interrogate Peter" he passed to his native Province of Cilicia. These were the years of preparation for his great ministry. From Tarsus he was fetched by Barnabas, who introduced him to the Church at Antioch. A year later Saul and Barnabas were entrusted by the Antiochian Church with the administration of the alms there collected for the poor at Jerusalem during the famine. They returned from Jerusalem accompanied by John Mark.
These were the formative years for St. Paul. Damascus, Arabia, Damascus again, Jerusalem perhaps twice, Tarsus, Antioch, Jerusalem once more, and now Antioch a second time, all had claimed him, and he had won his experience of the faith. He was ripe for those missionary journeys which are so fully described by St. Luke. The divine call came to him at Antioch, and his first voyage embraced Cyprus and the center of Asia Minor. A fairly lengthy period at Antioch preceded the Council at Jerusalem which was to determine the true relation of Judaism to the Christian faith. Hardly was the Council over than he and Barnabas once more set out on a visit to the scenes of their previous labors. A dissension between them led to a division of the party; Barnabas and Mark went to Cyprus, while Paul and Silas went to Cilicia, and thence to the Churches already founded at Derbe, Lystra, etc. Here the Apostle found the man who was to be his lifetime companion, Timothy. They went thence to the Eastern coast of Asia Minor, where a divine vision directed them to pass over into Europe; thus began the evangelization of the West. His missionary journey embraced Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, and a short stay at Ephesus, whence he returned to Jerusalem, and so to Antioch. After a short rest he set out again, apparently alone. This time he covered the now familiar ground of central Asia Minor for the third time, and finally came to Ephesus, where he taught for two years. A riot drove him out, and he went to Achaia. Thence he returned on his track, passed through Philippi to Troas, and so to Miletus, whither he summoned the Church of Ephesus to meet him. On leaving them he took a boat for Caesarea, went up to Jerusalem, and was arrested there by the Jews.
B. His Imprisonment and Death.
But here the Roman authorities stepped in, and he was detained in prison at Caesarea for two years. His appeal to Caesar led to his shipment to Rome, where he passed two more years in prison. At this point St. Luke's narrative breaks but the so-called Pastoral Epistles, viz. those to Timothy and to Titus, show us that he was released from prison, and recommenced his missionary labors in the East. After some years he was again arrested and conveyed to Rome. The last Epistle we have from his pen, the Second Epistle to Timothy, depicts him as expecting his final trial, and calmly awaiting death. That he did meet his death in Rome is vouched for by unassailable tradition, though the New Testament is silent. On this point it may be remarked at once that very few realize how overwhelming is the weight of tradition regarding St. Paul's martyrdom in Rome. Thus Lanciani says emphatically: "For the archaeologist, the presence and execution of SS. Peter and Paul in Rome are facts established beyond a shadow of doubt by purely monumental evidence." And Edmundson, who quotes the above words, says: "The deaths by martyrdom of the Apostles Peter and Paul at Rome towards the close of Nero's reign are among the facts of first-century Christian history which may in these days be regarded as practically outside controversy." The earliest witness we have is St. Clement of Rome, who writes to the Corinthians:
"Through a wicked jealousy (Clement is insisting on the evil effects of 'jealousy,' which has proved the ruin of the Corinthian Church) Peter endured not one nor two, but many trials, and having thus borne witness (i.e. suffered 'martyrdom') he passed to the place of glory which was his due. Through jealousy Paul too earned the reward of patience . . .; he became a herald of the Word in East and West, and so earned the glorious renown of his faith; he taught righteousness to the entire world; he came to the bounds of the West; and he bore witness (suffered martyrdom) at the hands of the Prefects."
Clement does not say that these Apostles died in Rome; but his silence has to be interpreted in the light of unanimous tradition; if he did not mean that they died at Rome he would have had to explain away the witness of 2 Timothy, which implies it. Moreover, Clement was writing from Rome, and therefore seems to take for granted that everyone knew that these Apostles died there. St. Ignatius of Antioch again can mean nothing else when he writes to the Romans: "I do not, like Peter and Paul, make arrangements (διατάσσομαι) for you." Clearly Ignatius knew that these Apostles were at least the "founders" of the Church at Rome, as St. Irenaeus expresses it in the classical passage: "We set forth the tradition of the greatest and most ancient Church, of the one known to all men, which was founded and established at Rome by the two glorious Apostles Peter and Paul." Similarly Tertullian: "Consult your own records, and you will find that Nero was the first to assail with the Caesar's sword—and especially at Rome—this sect that had arisen." That Tertullian refers here to the death of the Apostles seems clear from other words of his: "Run through the Apostolic Churches . . . if you are in Italy you have Rome whence, too, the voice of authority is at our call. How blessed is that Church! For together with their blood the Apostles poured out on it all their doctrine! There Peter was made like his Lord in his death, there Paul was crowned with the Baptist's death." Eusebius' comment on the passage quoted above from Tertullian's Apologia is worth giving in full:
"Historians tell us (ἱστορουνται), then, that Paul was deprived of his head in Rome itself, and that Peter, too, was crucified under him (Nero). And this history is confirmed by the fact that the names of Peter and Paul are attached to this day to the cemeteries there."
Eusebius proceeds to quote further confirmation derived from a statement of
"Gaius, a Catholic who lived at Rome during the episcopate of Zephyrinus, the Bishop of Rome: 'Now I can point out to you the monuments of the Apostles; for if you will but go out to the Vatican or along the Ostian way you will see the monuments of the men who founded this Church.'"
And Eusebius immediately adds a piece of information which is worthy of note:
"And that they both suffered martyrdom at the same time is stated by Denis, the Bishop of Corinth, in his homiletic address to the Romans; he says: 'You, too, by this your admonition have welded together the Churches planted by Peter and Paul, viz. the Roman and Corinthian Churches. For both of them came to our Corinth and planted us, and similarly both of them went to Italy, and when they had taught together there they suffered martyrdom at the same time.'"
The two Apostles, then, presumably suffered on the same day. St. Jerome positively states that this was in the fourteenth year of Nero, viz. in A.D. 67. Of late years it has been the custom to throw doubt on this, and maintain that the year 64 is the more probable. But the sole reason for this seems to be that since the fire which destroyed Rome took place in that year, and since the Christians were accused of having caused this fire, and were therefore persecuted, it seems absurd to suppose that the death of the two Apostles was as far removed from the date of the fire as the year 67. Hence it is often asserted that the date of their death must be A.D. 64, despite the positive assertions of St. Jerome and Eusebius. The value of such a line of argument is nil, and, as Mr. Edmundson has—amongst others—recently shown, it is in flagrant contradiction with those very statements of Tacitus which were supposed to support it. The fire was indeed the cause of a persecution which gradually developed in intensity, and which covered the last years of Nero's reign; but there is absolutely no ground for supposing that this persecution came to a climax before A.D. 67, in which year a practically unanimous tradition places the martyrdom of SS. Peter and Paul.
C. Further Details of the Apostle’s Life.
St. Clement, in the passage quoted above, says that St. Paul became a herald of the word in East and West . . . he taught righteousness to the entire world, he came to the bounds of the West, and he suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Prefects." It is generally supposed that Clement thus signifies his belief that St. Paul actually went to Spain, as he proposed to do when writing to the Romans. But it should be noted that Clement's combination of the two statements, viz. that St. Paul "came to the bounds of the West," and that "he suffered martyrdom at the hands of the Prefects," seems to imply that he understood by "the bounds of the West" no more than Italy. The earliest positive statement to the effect that St. Paul actually went to Spain occurs in the Muratorian Fragment "profectionem Pauli ab Urbe ad Spaniam profisciscentis." As a matter of fact, St. Paul only says that he planned a visit to Spain, just as he planned a visit to Rome, but his visit to Rome proved to be of a very different kind from what he had contemplated. It certainly seems impossible to fit in a visit to Spain before his first imprisonment at Rome, and there is no proof that he paid such a visit after his imprisonment there. The Fathers speak very guardedly. Thus Origen, while saying that "he established Churches throughout the breadth of the entire world," yet in his commentary on Romans 15 speaks very clearly indeed about the whole being merely a project; he even says that when the Apostle states that he is only going to "pass by" the Roman Church he merely means that it depends upon them whether he stays long or not and, apparently, that the proposed visit to Spain would also depend on the kind of reception the Romans gave him. St. Jerome in one place seems, it is true, to take for granted that the Apostle went to Spain, but elsewhere he remarks that the Apostle "saw that he had preached the Gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum, that he had gone to Rome and to Spain—that is, had either gone or was planning to go"; so, too, St. Chrysostom points out that the Apostle's words only indicate his eagerness to go to Spain; while, lastly, St. Thomas remarks that it is not certain whether he actually went.
In addition to these broad outlines the Acts and the Epistles, as well as tradition, furnish us, as we have seen, with certain personal details regarding St. Paul. Thus we read of his "sister's son," but beyond this we are told nothing touching his parentage; St. Jerome, however, has preserved the tradition that his parents came from Giscala. That he was originally known by the name of Saul is clear from the narrative in Acts, where he is always spoken of as "Saul" previous to Acts 13:9, where, however, St. Luke uses the expression "Saul, otherwise Paul." Many explanations of this double name have been given. St. Chrysostom preached on the question "for three whole days," and, arguing from the analogy of such double names as Abram and Abraham, Simon and Peter, etc., concludes that the name "Paul" was divinely bestowed upon Saul shortly after his conversion. Origen and St. Jerome both draw attention to the fact that St. Luke's use of the name "Paul" coincides in point of time with the conversion of Sergius Paulus, and they conclude that just as Scipio took the title of "Africanus" from his wars in Africa and the honors he won there, so Saul took the name of "Paul" in memory of his first and most illustrious convert. The view more in repute at present, and apparently the more probable one, is that from infancy the future Apostle had two names: in Jewish circles he was "Saul," in Gentile circles he was "Paul." As for St. Paul’s personal appearance, he himself tells us that his enemies taunted him, saying his bodily presence is weak and his speech contemptible. And the Acts of Paul and Thecla describe him as "small of stature and baldheaded." That he was never married seems clear from 1 Corinthians 7:7, 9:5. St. Chrysostom repudiates, apparently with horror, the notion that St. Paul was married when he rejects the opinion of those who said that the "germane compar" of Phil. 4:3 might have been Paul's wife. So too St. Jerome. But Origen is less positive, for apropos of the same passage he remarks that "some say that St. Paul was called to the faith together with his wife"; this, however, seems to be due to an erroneous interpretation of the word "yoke-fellow," compar, σύξυγε. If Pseudo-Chrysostom gives a well-founded tradition, the Apostle must have been born in the same year as Christ, since he tells us he was sixty-eight years old when he died, and his death fell in the year 67. There is no reason for supposing that the expression "Paul, an old man," in Philemon 1:9 is to be taken other than literally. One other fact is stated emphatically in Acts, viz. that Paul was a tentmaker by trade, and the pathetic references to his toil-worn hands are frequent. Further personal traits are hinted at, e.g. that he fixed a person with his gaze, though too much insistence must not be laid on the word ἀτενίξω, as it is of fairly frequent occurrence. However "contemptible" Paul's speech may have been, according to his traducers, there can be no question that he could be fiery in the extreme. Hence St. Jerome’s remark that "his words are thunders;" indeed, Jerome seems to suggest that one might apply to him the strong expression applied by Æschines to Demosthenes. We gather from many passages how apt he was in retort, e.g. Acts 26:29. Again, his speech was certainly fluent if rude," for the Lycaonians called Paul Mercury, because he was the chief speaker." The orator’s use of the outstretched hand is shown in such passages as Acts 13:16, 21:40.
1. Acts 21:39, 22:3
2. Acts 22:3, Gal. 1:14, Phil. 3:5
3. Acts 16:37-38, 26:26-28
4. Ibid. 7:57, 22:4-5, 22:20, 26:9-13, Phil. 3:6, 1 Tm 1:13.
5. Acts 9:1-30, 22:6-16, 26:12-19, Gal. 1:13, 1:15, 1 Tm 1:16.
6. Acts 9:19-25, 2 Cr 11:32-33.
7. Gal. 1:17.
8. Ibid. 1:18.
9. Ibid., For the discussion as to these latter movements see Introduction to the Epistle to the Galatians.
10. Ibid. 1:21.
11. Acts 11:27-30.
12. Ibid. 11:30, 12:25.
13. Ibid. 13:4, 14:27.
14. Ibid. 14:27.
15. Ibid. 15:1-29.
16. Ibid. 16:6-11
17. Ibid. 18:23
18. Ibid. 19:10
19. Ibid. 20:2
20. Ibid. 21:27-30
21. Ibid. 24:27
22. Ibid. 28:30
23. H.E. II. xxii. 2 with McGiffert's notes; see, too, Introduction to the Pastoral Epistles. 24. Quoted by Edmundson, The Church in Rome in the First Century, p. 47, the Bampton Lectures for 1913.
25. L.c. p. 145. For the tradition that St. Paul had incurred Nero's wrath by converting his cupbearer, see St. Chrysostom, Hom. x. 2 on 2 Tim 4:13, P.G. LXII. 657.
26. I Cor. v.
27. Ad Rom. iv.
28. Adv. Haer. III. iii. 2, P.G. VII. 848.
29. Apologia V., P.L. I. 229; 015. cp. Adv. Marcionem, IV. 5, Lactantius, Instituta, IV. 15.
30. De Praescriptionibus XXXVI, P.L. II. 49 ; cp. Scorpiace, XV.
31. H.E. II. xxv, P.G. XX. 208-209; cp. IV. xxiii. I cannot understand how Edmundson, l.c. 146 and 149, can say, despite Eusebius' comment, that "Dionysius of Corinth merely states that both Apostles suffered about the same time." It is true, of course, that the fact that a solemn translation of the bodies of the two Apostles took place on June 29, A.D. 258, served to bring home to men's mind the fact that they actually died on the same day (see below), but Dionysius states this as a positive fact as early as A.D. 170, and his testimony cannot be disregarded. Neither is it fair, in view of the above, to say that the Liberian Catalogue of A.D. 354 "is the first document in which the death of the Apostles on the same day is mentioned," l.c. p. 149. It is true that Prudentius, the hymn-writer of the opening of the fourth century, places the death of St. Peter a year previous to that of St. Paul, l.c. 150; but it is quite incorrect to say that "St. Augustine [Sermons, 296-297] held a similar opinion," l.c. 150, note 1. St. Augustine maintains in positive terms that they died on the same day: "Non Petrus solus, sed etiam alii Apostoli audierunt, servaverunt, maximeque ipse consors sanguinis et diei Apostolus Paulus," Sermo CCXCVI. 4, P.L. XXXVIII. 1354; it is true that some MSS. have Dei instead of diei. But in Sermo CCXVII. 4 he says: "Diem hodiernum ambo consecraverunt." St. Jerome is equally explicit: he refers St. Peter's death to the fourteenth year of Nero, Vir. Illustr. I., and St. Paul's death to the same year, and he adds, "eodem die quo Petrus," ib. V.; finally he says of Seneca that he was put to death "two years before Peter and Paul were martyred," ib. XII. Pseudo-Chrysostom, Sermo de SS. Petro and Paulo, P.G. LIX. 494, says they died on June 29, but does not give any year. For an account of St. Paul's tomb, see St. Chrysostom, Hom. IV. 4 on 2 Timothy 2, P.G. 623-624.
32. L.c., pp. 125-144.
33. 1 Cr 5
34. Romans 15:23-24.
35. See vol. ii., p. 89.
36. Hom. XIII. 3 in Genesim, P.G. XII. 233.
37. Lib. X. 13 in Ep. ad Romanos, P.G. XIV. 1271-1272.
38. On Amos v. 8, P.L. XXV. 1043.
39. On Eph. iii. 13, P.L. XXVI. 485.
40. Hom. XXX. in Rom. xv., P.G. LX. 662; and note how in his various descriptions of St. Paul's journeys St. Chrysostom, while mentioning all sorts of countries, never includes Spain, De Capto Eutropio, 14, and De Laudibus S. Pauli, Hom. IV., P.G. LII. 409 and L. 491; cf. Hom. IX. 2 on 2 Tm 4 and Hom. X. 3, P.G. LXII. 653 and 659.
41. Lectio III. in Rom. xv.
42. Acts 23:16-22.
43. Comment. in Ep. ad Philemonem, 24, P.L. XXVI. 617.
44. De Mutatione Nominum, iv. 3, P.G. LI. 148.
45. Ibid. i. 6, ii. I-3, iii. 3-4, cols. I23, 127, I37; cp. Hom. I. 1 in Ep. ad Romanos, P.G. LX. 395.
46. Acts 13:9.
47. Proem. in Comment. in Ep. ad Philemonem, P.L. XXVI. 603-604; Origen, Praef. in Comment. in Ep. ad Romamos, P.G. XIV. 836.
48. Cf. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller, 10th ed., 1908, pp. 81 ff. This view has been hailed as something quite new, yet it is as old as Origen, who says that while he does not wholly repudiate the notion that the name "Paul" was adopted after the conversion of Sergius Paulus, yet he is doubtful about an explanation which is without parallel in Scripture. He notes, however, that it was the custom of Hebrews to have two if not three names apiece, and he gives instances from both Old and New Testament: "Since then," he says, "it is certain that the Evangelists could not have erred in giving the names of the Apostles, and since the custom of having two or three names apiece undoubtedly prevailed among the Jews, we must suppose that different Evangelists used different names for one and the same man [he is talking particularly of the names Lebbaeus, Thaddeus, and Jude of James as names of one Apostle]. In accordance, then, with this custom it seems to us that Paul too used two names, so that when he was ministering to his own nation he was known as Saul—for this name seems more in harmony with his native Hebrew tongue—but when he wrote laws and precepts for the Greeks or Gentiles then he was known by the name of Paul. And clearly the statement, 'Saul, who is also Paul,' can only mean that this name of Paul was not then given him for the first time, but had long been his name," Praef. in Ep. ad Romanos, P.G. XIV. 834. This is but one of the many cases where Origen's critical faculty has led him to anticipate conclusions which are thought to be quite modern. The same remark applies to St. Thomas Aquinas, who, Lectio I. in Ep. ad Romanos, i., says that there are three opinions, one that of St. Jerome, viz. that Saul took the name of Paul out of respect for his great convert, another that "Paul" means "little," and refers to his gradual growth in virtue. "Others, however, say—and better—that Paul had from the beginning two names; for it was the custom among the Jews for them to take, along with their Hebrew names, names belonging to the nations whose servants they were, so that when in the service of Greeks they took Greek names, as appears in the case of Jason and Menelaus, 2 Macc. 4." St. Thomas then remarks that the name "Paul" was a famous one with the Romans, and that "consequently whereas he was called Saul among the Hebrews, so he was called Paul among the Romans, though he does not seem to have used this name until after he began to preach to the Gentiles. . . . And this opinion is the one favored by Augustine." We cannot find St. Thomas's authority for this last remark, for St. Augustine dwells only upon the second explanation, De Spiritu et Littera, VII. (12) and Sermo CCCXV. 5, P.L. XLIV. 207 and XXXVIII. 1429.
49. 2 Cr 10:10.
50. Chap. iii. Μικος τῷ μεγέθει ψιλὸς τὴν κεφαλήν. For the Acta Pauli et Thecla see Tertullian De Baptismo, xvii., P.L. I. 1219, and H.E. III. xix.
51. Hom. XIII. 2 in Ep. ad Philipp., P.G. LXII. 279; see, too, St. Ambrose, Exhortatio Virginitatis, iv. 22, P.L. XVI. 343.
52. Ep. XXII. 20, P.L. XXII. 407.
53. Hom. I. in Ep. ad Romanos, P.G. XIV. 839.
54. Spurious Sermon on SS. Peter and Paul, 2, where the author also says the Apostle was thirty-five at date of his conversion, P.G. LIX. 495; cf. De Laudibus S. Pauli, where St. Chrysostom says the Apostle took scarcely thirty years to evangelize the nations, P.G. L. 490.
55. Acts 18:8, cp. St. Chrysostom, Hom. IV. on 2 Tm 2, P.G. LXII. 522, where, too, St. Chrysostom draws a wonderful comparison between St. Paul and Nero.
56. Acts 20:34, 1 Cr 4:12, 2 Thess 3:8.
57. Acts 13:9, 14:9.
58. 2 Cr 10:10.
59. Acts 15:38-39, 16:37, 17:16, 21:39, 23:2, 28:25-28.
60. Ep. XLVIII. 13, P.L., XXII. 502; and note Terlullian's phrase, "Agnosce Paulum columnam immobilem disciplinarum," De Pudic. XVI., P.L. II. 1011.
61. "Habet nescio quid latentis energiae viva vox. . . . Unde et Æschynes, cum Rhodi exularet et legeretur illa Demosthenis Oratio, quam adversus eum habuerat, mirantibus cunctis atque laudantibus, suspirans ait: Quid si ipsam audissetis bestiam sua verba resonantem!" Ep. LIII. 2, P.L. XXII. 541.
62. Acts 14:11.
Very Rev. Hugh Pope, O.P., S.T.M.
Doctor in Sacred Scripture,
Member of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, and
late Professor of New Testament Exegesis at the Collegio Angelico, Rome.
Luke Walker, O.P., S.T.L.;
Austin Barker, O.P., S.T.L.
Bede Jarrett, O.P., S.T.L., M.A.