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H - 171 : The extraordinary Story of Paul


Saint Paul's Statue in Front of Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican in Rome

 

Sailing for the next three years in the footsteps of Saint Paul to Rome, makes me want to write about  this extraordinary man. Most of us know him from his letters to fellow Christians. Not many realize that he is the author of 13 of the New Testament's 27 books. In addition, he is frequently mentioned in Acts. Without Apostle Paul, the followers of Jesus would have remained a small sect in Judea and probably disappeared. But under his guidance and teaching Christianity expanded and prospered. Quite an achievement for someone who never met Jesus, prosecuted his followers earlier in his career and was a Greek speaking Diaspora Jew from Taurus on Anatolia’s south coast.

 

Apostle Paul's conversion on the Road to Damascus


There is a lot of excellent literature on Saint Paul and the principles of his teaching. Not spending much time on it. My focus is rather on the circumstances which made his success possible. Want to share a few observations I made - all deserving an explanation. Why did Christianity spread from Antioch and not from the Holy Land? How comes that the first bible texts are written in Greek and not in Aramaic, the language of Jesus? Why do the Apostles take missionary trips to Asia Minor and Greece? Why does the new faith succeed in the Hellenistic World but fails in Judea?

 

The Hellenistic World about 100 Years after Alexander


I am not having a degree in theology or ancient history. My expertise is in finance, business, the military and modern history. Applying personal experience to above questions leads to intriguing conclusions. Having been to many of the places Saint Paul visited also helps. Documentary evidence though I have none. My conclusions are contextual. My biggest challenge were the many contradictions I found in literature though. Dates are imprecise, it is difficult to draw a time line. Even “fundamental” facts are supported by little evidence. Did Saint Peter really travelled to Rome to establish its first church? There is a lot of hearsay.

 

The very first Church in the Eastern Hills of Antioch was the Site of Ancient, Pagan Graves


From several sources we know that Paul converted around 37 AD. He then disappeared for three years in Arabia. Was he hiding from Jewish prosecutors, his former colleagues? We find him in 40 AD in Taurus again, his home town. It is unclear though what he does there. Working on his parents’ land? Or as a tent maker? Or did he preach? A few years later he moves to Antioch, the third largest town in the Roman Empire. There he helps setting up the first church. Not in our sense as a building. But in the Greek sense of “ecclesia”, the gathering of invited citizens. In 44 AD, fearing for his life, Saint Peter fled Judea and joined Paul in Antioch. Some sources say that Peter arrived before Paul. Be it as it may, Judea was a dangerous place for Jesus’ followers. Several were killed. Antioch was far safer.

 

Romans conquered and completely destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD (painting from 1850)


Antioch was one of the many Hellenistic towns with a large Jewish community. Will have to cover the origin of the Jewish Diaspora in a separate blog as it is an interesting story by itself. The worldly and Greek speaking Jews in Antioch were quite open to the gospel of Jesus. When Saint Peter came up north, he was allowed to use one of the old graves as gathering place. Antioch’s Jewish community was fully naturalized and participated as citizens in the Polis. They spoke, read and wrote in Greek and were familiar with Greek philosophy. They also easily conversed with Romans who admired anything Greek. They also were quite affluent merchants. You need some wealth to have your own synagogue.

 

Paul's and Barnabas' first Mission started in Seleucia, Antioch's big harbor


The Jewish Diasporas in other Hellenistic cities were similar. Not being influenced by local Judean customs, they followed Moses’ principles and streamlined the Thora. Shortly after the reign of Alexander the Great, the Thora was translated into Greek – with the normal number of mistakes of course. In a nutshell, the Jewish Diaspora was influential and a natural counterbalance to the leaders in Judea. This independence became even more important during the Jewish uprising from 66 to 73 AD. The Roman response was savage. More than a million Jews lost their life, on the road from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean, 80’000 Jews were crucified. Jerusalem and the temple were levelled to the ground.

 

Paul's 2nd Mission in 50 AD lead him to Mainland Greece - he mostly walked and financed his life and travels with working as a tent maker or from donations


The welcome of the Jewish community in Antioch must have encouraged Paul and Barnabas to visit other Jewish diasporas. Maybe they could not convince the diehards in Jerusalem but win over the influential Jewish diaspora. And so they went on three missions. It is noticeable that Paul and Barnabas always went to the local synagogue first. Clearly, they wanted to talk to the local Jewish community. Both fluent in Greek speakers, they were perfect for the mission. The success with the Jewish community was limited though. Many remained skeptic. Few were openly hostile. Often, Paul and Barnabas overstayed their welcome and were chased out of town.

 

Was not able to date Paul's third Mission - We know that he was in 58 AD in Jerusalem


But pagans, the bible calls them gentiles, came to listen. I guess even Paul was surprised. There was no plan to convert people outside the Jewish cultural sphere. For these pagans, who had lived through 300 years of war after the demise of Alexandre’s Empire, Paul’s message of forbearance, peace and eternal life resonated. They all had heard of or had seen crucifixions before. For them life was often short and brutal. There was nothing they could do to improve their lot. Paul’s message that living a pious and modest life would get you access to paradise fell on open ears. Quite often by merchants, soldiers and sailors.

 

Apostle Paul writing Letters in Greek


Culturally, the time was ripe for monotheism. Centuries of war for dominance in the Med eventually resulted in the emergence of the Roman Empire and one single emperor. People were willing to accept his authority as trade-off for peace and stability. Whether an Emperor could be a deity though – after Augustus all were deified – was another matter. People knew that humans were no Gods. Why should a man who takes your money and kills you for minor infractions own your soul? Jesus was the perfect alternative. Once human, now spiritual. He had the power to forgive and bring peace. An amazing thought. Jesus as the spiritual anti-emperor.

 

And that is how Christianity started. As a quiet opposition to the Roman Empire. Christians would give the Emperor what was his, but not their soul. Early Christians were separate from others. Without temples and public religious ceremonies, they could only rely on them-selves. This is likely the reason why communal meals - the last supper - were so important.

 

The Spread of Early Christianity - Interestingly it also spread to the Persian Empire in the East


None of this would have happened had Paul not been a Greek Diaspora Jew. He was the critical link or bridge between the future believers in Christ and the Jewish religious tradition. His letters were the reason that the first bible was written in Greek. The rise of the Roman Empire provided the cultural homogeneity for the idea that there is only one God.  

 

 

 

 

 

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