Outlines Of New Testament History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.



              1. Date and Place of Birth (Tarsus “no mean city”).




              2. Parentage and Home Training:

              Religious and secular knowledge.






              3. Education in Jerusalem: Rabbinical training under Gamaliel.


              4. St. Paul’s Celibacy.






              1. Share of Paul in the Martyrdom of St. Stephen.


              2. Paul’s Commission to Damascus (Acts 9:1, 2).




              3. The Conversion of St. Paul: (Acts. 9:3–19, etc.)

              Its threefold account.


                            The vision of Christ.




              4. Sojourn in Arabia (Galat. 1:15–17).






              1. In Damascus:

              The city described.


                            Enmity encountered by St. Paul.


                            His flight.




              2. In Jerusalem:

              Paul and Barnabas.


                            Paul and the apostles.


                            Paul and the Hellenists.




              3. In Tarsus (Acts 9:30; Galat. 1:21 sq.).


              4. In Antioch: Successful Preaching of Paul and Barnabas. The Name of Christians.


              5. In Jerusalem Again: Relief to the Poor of Judæa.


§ 1. St. Paul’s Early Life

1. Date and Place of Birth. Saul, whose first hatred against the followers of Christ, and whose subsequent zeal for the spread of the Gospel, are so intimately connected with the early trials and triumphs of the Church in Palestine, was born in the first years of the Christian era. Although this is only an approximate date, and one inferred from indirect statements of Holy Writ, yet, owing to the extensive information we possess about the history of the time, it is close and certain enough to allow us a distinct insight into the features of the period and the circumstances of the world at the beginning of St. Paul’s life.

The place of his birth is known with greater accuracy, for we have his own explicit statement that he was “born at Tarsus in Cilicia.” This was, as St. Paul says, “no mean city.” It had already given birth to several illustrious men, and had been made by Augustus the capital of Cilicia, one of the most important Roman provinces in the southeast of Asia Minor. It was situated in a wide and fertile plain, and was, in the time of St. Paul, a large commercial centre which communicated on the south with the Mediterranean Sea, by the navigable river Cydnus, while on the north it was connected with the central districts of the Asiatic peninsula, by two important roads which passed through the defiles of the Taurus range. It was a free city, possessed a Roman stadium and gymnasium, and one of the three great universities of the pagan world, ranking next to Athens and Alexandria in respect of literary fame. Unfortunately for its numerous and thriving population, Tarsus was also noted for its moral and religious corruption, its tutelary god being no other than the infamous Sardanapalus, its supposed Assyrian founder.

2. Parentage and Home Training. Like all the large and flourishing cities of the Roman Empire, the capital of Cilicia counted among its citizens a multitude of Jews, who gloried in their title of members of God’s chosen people. To these dispersed children of Israel belonged both the father and the mother of the future Apostle of the Gentiles. His father claimed descent from the tribe of Benjamin, and, although a Roman citizen, was a strict Pharisee, who faithfully circumcised his child on the eighth day and trained him early in the customs and prejudices of the Pharisaic party. From infancy the young Saul—called also Paul, a Latin name given him for public use and very proper in a Roman citizen—repeated the words of the Shemaʿ and of the Hallel, and when six years old became a day-scholar at the school of some Jewish master. From a few quotations from Greek authors which are found in his later speeches and epistles, some have inferred that Paul received his early education and acquired his knowledge of Greek literature in the flourishing pagan schools of Tarsus. But this is highly improbable, for his father, a strict Pharisee, would not have allowed it.

In conformity with the custom of the time and the recommendations of the Jewish rabbis, Saul learned a trade. That chosen for him by his parents was naturally connected with the circumstances of the country where they dwelt. viz., that of tent-making. The term denotes the art of making, from the hair of the Cilician goats, a coarse cloth used in preference to every other kind for tent covers.

3. Education in Jerusalem. It was apparently when still quite a youth that Paul repaired to Jerusalem, where his sister seems to have been settled, and where he could easily follow the course of instruction given to future rabbis; for he perhaps purposed from that early age to pursue their avocation in life. There sacred learning had ever been imparted by great masters, and at this particular time none taught the Law of Moses and the traditions of the fathers with greater success than Gamaliel, a Pharisee of unquestioned orthodoxy, although he was well known as a student of Gentile literature. Under this great teacher, Saul became intimately acquainted with Holy Writ and with the interpretations of the Jewish schools, as is evidenced by his frequent and characteristic use of the sacred text in his various epistles. It was also at this time, and not unlikely at the school of Gamaliel, that he acquired some knowledge of the Greek language and literature. But while his mind thus underwent the influence of the great Jewish teacher, his natural character was in no way affected by what seems to have been the liberal and tolerant spirit of Gamaliel. Saul gradually became a stern and impetuous zealot of the Mosaic Law, and it is likely enough that after having finished his studies at Jerusalem and returned to Tarsus, he soon began some extensive missionary journeys, after the example of the Scribes mentioned by St. Matthew (23:15).

4. St. Paul’s Celibacy. St. Paul was all the more free to pursue such missionary journeys because he does not seem to have ever been married. This fact has indeed been denied by many Protestants desirous to draw therefrom an argument against sacerdotal and religious celibacy. But an impartial study of history clearly proves that outside two or three early ecclesiastical writers, who based their view on a wrong interpretation of such passages as Philip. 4:3, 1 Cor. 7:8, the opinion that St. Paul ever married has no ground in tradition. As to the reason more recently advanced, that he must have married because he was a member of the Sanhedrim, it can easily be disposed of. It is only an inference from a passage of the book of the Acts (26:10), which may, and in fact must, be understood differently because of the little likelihood that “a Tarsian Jew, a Hellenist by birth and a comparative stranger in Jerusalem, would be admitted into the august body of the Sanhedrim.”

§ 2. St. Paul’s Conversion (31 or 32 A.D.)

1. Share of Paul in the Martyrdom of St. Stephen. When Paul returned to Jerusalem the disciples of Jesus had greatly multiplied, and Stephen, the first and foremost of the newly ordained deacons, was boldly sustaining a series of disputations with the Hellenistic Jews of different synagogues, among which was reckoned that “of them of Cilicia.” In this synagogue Saul of Tarsus would certainly be told the words of the holy deacon—if indeed he did not hear them himself—which could be construed into blasphemous expressions against Moses and against God, and with his burning zeal for the authority of the one and for the glory of the other, he openly rejoiced at, and probably shared in, the arrest of St. Stephen. Although it does not appear, as some authors affirm, that Saul was one of the judges who sentenced Stephen to death, yet it cannot be denied that he was one of the most prominent instigators of the attack against him, and that he heartily consented to his execution, for we read in the book of the Acts that “the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, whose name was Saul,” and again, that “Saul was consenting to the death of St. Stephen.”

2. Paul’s Commission to Damascus. In the severe persecution which followed St. Stephen’s death, the fiery zeal of Saul against the disciples of Christ made of him the very best instrument which the Jewish chief priests could desire. Armed with their authority “he made havoc with the Church, entering in from house to house, and dragging away men and women, committed them to prison.” “Oftentimes he punished the believers in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme” the holy name of Jesus. It was in the midst of such cruel deeds, perpetrated, however, with the most sincere desire to do what was right, that Saul heard that the so-called sect he hoped utterly to exterminate had actually gained a footing in the great city of Damascus, some 135 miles north of Jerusalem. At this news his rage knew no bounds, and he resolved at once to leave the Holy City, where many others could continue the persecution, and to repair to a place where there was as yet no one to carry on the work of destruction. He therefore went to the high priest, whose authority as the head of the Sanhedrim would certainly be recognized by the numerous Jews of Damascus, and easily got letters empowering him “to bring bound to Jerusalem” any men or women belonging to what he considered a most hateful sect.|

3. Conversion of St. Paul. It was on his way to Damascus and when very near the city—perhaps on the spot now occupied by ancient Christian tombs, to the southeast of Damascus—that Saul was favored with that wonderful apparition of Jesus, which transformed him from the deadliest enemy of Christ into His most fervent disciple. As he and his companions hastened on, suddenly at mid-day there shone round about him a great light from heaven, and Saul fell to the earth in terror, while a voice sounded in his ears: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” Whereupon followed the well-known dialogue between Jesus of Nazareth and His fear-stricken persecutor, which convinced Saul of the Messiahship of Jesus and of his own mistaken zeal against the followers of Christ. Blinded by the dazzling light, he was led by his companions into Damascus, where “he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.” Ananias, a disciple who lived in the city, was informed in a vision of what had happened to Saul, and was sent to restore his sight and admit him by baptism into the Christian Church.

Of this wonderful event we have a threefold account in the book of the Acts: the first is given by the sacred historian himself; the second is found in an address of St. Paul to the people;| the third is also recorded in St. Paul’s words, in his speech before King Agrippa II. A careful comparison of this threefold account discloses differences, which several rationalists have magnified and made out to be contradictions impairing the very substance of the facts narrated. But unbiased critics, both within and without the Church, while admitting important differences in the line of additions, omissions or even discrepancies,* have clearly shown that these differences cannot be supposed to “constitute a valid argument against the general truth of the narrative.”†

Rationalists have also done their utmost to do away with the miraculous element which is clearly implied in the sacred narrative. They do not, indeed, deny that Paul believed that he had actually seen the Lord, but they suggest many “explanations of the possible ways by which he may have mistaken an inward impression for an objective fact.” Perhaps the least fanciful of these explanations is that which represents Saul as a man of exalted and enthusiastic temperament, who, even after his conversion, was in the habit of seeing visions and falling into trances, and who consequently was most liable to confound the subjective impression for the objective reality, in connection with the first vision which befell him on his way to Damascus, when in a state of approaching frenzy. His excited imagination, we are told, created the image of Jesus, and made him fancy that he heard His voice saying: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” the voice which he heard being nothing but the echo of his own conscience, which on the occasion of a natural phenomenon, such as a thunder-storm and a flash of lightning, upbraided him with all his past cruelty towards the followers of Christ.

The best refutation of this supposed explanation will ever be the simple perusal of the sources of information regarding the apparition of Jesus to Saul, for such a perusal is amply sufficient to convince any unprejudiced mind that the theory in question, far from accounting for, really distorts, the best ascertained facts of the case.

4. Sojourn in Arabia. As we learn from his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul withdrew from Damascus soon after his conversion. He went to Arabia, whereby is meant, not the peninsula of Sinai, but rather the country to the east of the Jordan and not far from Damascus, a city which, in St. Paul’s time, bordered on Arabian territory and was under the government of an Arabian king. The exact length of his sojourn is unknown. “He himself tells us that it was not until three years after his conversion that he went up to Jerusalem; and the probability is that the greater part of these three years was spent in Arabia.” Nor do we know for sure the kind of occupation to which he devoted his time, although it is most likely that this was not for him a period of missionary activity, but rather a season of seclusion and prayer, during which the risen Saviour favored his new and fervent disciple with further light concerning his future mission and the deep mysteries of faith he was soon to preach to the world.

§ 3. St. Paul’s Work before his First Missionary Journey

1. In Damascus. Few cities of the Roman Empire had a finer location than the city of Damascus, to which St. Paul first preached the Gospel on his return from Arabia. Situated at the base of the Anti-Lebanon range, in a circular plain about 30 miles in diameter, and rendered most fertile by the waters of the Barada river, which runs directly through the city, Damascus ever was a great centre of trade between Assyria and the East generally, and Phenicia, Palestine and Egypt on the west. “The old city—the nucleus of the present Damascus—is oval in shape, and surrounded by a wall, the foundations of which are Roman, if not earlier, and the upper part a patch-work of all subsequent ages. Its greater diameter is marked by the Straight Street, which is an English mile in length. At its east end is Bab Shurkey, ‘the East Gate,’ a fine Roman portal, having a central and two side arches. The central and southern arches have been walled up for more than eight centuries, and the northern now forms the only entrance to the city.… In the Roman age, and down to the time of the Mohammedan conquest (A.D. 634), a noble street ran in a straight line from the gate westward through the city. It was divided by Corinthian colonnades into three avenues, opposite to the three portals. A modern street runs in the line of the old one, but it is narrow and irregular. Though many of the columns remain, they are mostly hidden by the houses and the shops.”

In St. Paul’s time there were probably no less than 50,000 Jews in Damascus, and it is to them that the great Apostle fearlessly preached Jesus as “the Son of God,” and “the Christ.” It is easy to imagine the utter amazement of his hearers when for the first time they heard such declarations from the lips of one who, not long before, “had come hither for that intent that he might carry bound to the chief priests, those that called upon the name of Jesus.” Next they argued with him, but they were clearly and repeatedly unable to withstand the powerful affirmations of Saul, who joined to a rabbinical learning far superior to theirs, the strong conviction of a recent eye-witness of Christ’s glory. As time went on and simply brought the confusion of their defeats into stronger light, they resolved to take away his life. Using their influence with the governor of Damascus, under Aretas the king, they obtained from him soldiers whom they set at the gates, watching day and night lest Paul should escape. But their rage proved less successful than the devotion of the disciples, who, during the night, let him down the wall in a basket through a window of one of those houses which in Eastern cities overhang the city wall.

2. In Jerusalem. Driven from Damascus, St. Paul betook himself to Jerusalem in order “to see Peter,” the head of the Church. His arrival in the Holy City caused much terror to the faithful, who still remembered his persecuting fury, and could not bring themselves to believe in the sincerity of his conversion. One of them, however, better informed about the events of the last three years, “took him and brought him to the apostles,” that is, to Peter and James, as we learn from the Epistle to the Galatians. This was Barnabas, whose generosity in selling his possessions had formerly edified the faithful of Jerusalem, and whose influence in the Church contributed now largely to remove the popular prejudice against St. Paul.

We have no means of knowing what took place in this first interview between Paul and the apostles Peter and James. From both, the future Apostle of the Gentiles naturally learned much about the person of Christ, whom he had never seen in the flesh, and about His teachings as they were then understood and preached; while they in turn heard with joy and profit from the mouth of this “vessel of election” the account of his conversion and of all that had followed on it. Whether the great question of the exact relation of Christianity to the Gentile world was one of the topics spoken of on this occasion, does not appear. Of course it had not yet assumed the distinct importance which we know it possessed at the time of a later visit of St. Paul to Jerusalem; yet even at this early stage of his work this great question had perhaps already confronted the mind of the great Apostle of the Gentiles, for we read that during his first sojourn in the Holy City he spoke not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

The Jewish synagogues to which St. Paul had access in Jerusalem were naturally those of the Hellenistic Jews, his companions in race and birthplace, and in them the former persecutor of the followers of Christ did not fear to proclaim the Messiahship of Jesus. His opponents were worsted by his arguments in Jerusalem, as they had been in Damascus, and in their wrath against one whom they considered a dangerous apostate, “they sought to kill him.” Whereupon the brethren, most anxious to preserve the life of one whose testimony to Christ was of such importance, “brought Paul to Cæsarea, and sent him away to Tarsus.”

Thus ended this short sojourn of St. Paul near St. Peter and St. James, false reports of which were later circulated by his enemies, and which compelled him to conclude his brief account of it to the Galatians with the solemn attestation: “Now the things which I wrote to you behold, before God, I lie not.”

3. In Tarsus. It may be inferred from his Epistle to the Galatians that in repairing to his native city, St. Paul, sailing from Cæsarea of Palestine, stopped at Seleucia, the port of Antioch, and there went on by land to Tarsus. This gave him an opportunity to preach Christ and to make in those parts of Syria and Cilicia which he then traversed, many converts, whom he revisited later on.

This was the first time that St. Paul returned to his native town since he had become a follower of Christ, and it would be interesting for us to know the impression which his arrival and prolonged sojourn produced upon his family and upon his fellow countrymen. It has been surmised—and indeed not without probability—that he spent his time preaching the Gospel and preparing in various ways, notably by the culture of Greek language and philosophy, for his future labors among the Gentiles; yet it must be confessed that we have no positive evidence to that effect.

4. In Antioch. The next time we hear explicitly of St. Paul’s work before his first great missionary journey is in connection with Barnabas, whom the church of Jerusalem had lately deputed to Antioch, and who, being desirous to secure for himself effective help in the great work to be accomplished in the capital of Syria, “went to Tarsus to seek Saul; whom, when he had found, he brought to Antioch.” Barnabas had judged rightly in selecting St. Paul as his co-worker in what was at the time the largest as well as the most important city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. The population of Antioch was no less mixed than that of Tarsus, and its most numerous elements, the Syrians and the Greeks, while hardly less cultivated than those of the capital of Cilicia, even surpassed them in religious and moral degradation. Like Tarsus, also, Antioch counted many and influential Jews among its inhabitants, and their faithfulness to monotheism, combined with their highly moral character, had made many proselytes to Judaism long before Christ’s religion was preached within the walls of the Syrian capital. It thus appears that the commercial, political, religious and moral condition of Antioch was pretty much, although, of course, on a larger scale, of the same character as that of Tarsus, so that from his very arrival in the great metropolis of the East, St. Paul was able to realize the various needs and aspirations of its citizens, and to pursue for their conversion the same course of action which he had already employed with success in his own native city. In point of fact, during the whole year which Paul and Barnabas “spent there in the church, they taught a great multitude.”

Thus did it come to pass that the faithful of Antioch, rapidly increasing in numbers chiefly drawn from the ranks of the Gentiles and clearly distinguished from the Jews by their non-reception of the circumcision, could no longer be considered either by the civil authorities or by the public at large, simply as one of the many sects of the Jewish religion. A new name was therefore invented to designate a party so important in the Syrian capital, and as many other names given to the political or religious parties of the time (such as, for instance, the Cæsariani, the Pompeiani, the Herodiani, etc.), the new designation was formed by adding the Latin termination “anus” to the name which the believers frequently called upon, and which outsiders naturally considered as the founder or author of the new party, “so that at Antioch the disciples were first named Christians,” (in Latin “Christianie”).

5. In Jerusalem again. While Paul and Barnabas were thus busily and successfully preaching the Gospel in Syria, “there came prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch,” that is, men endowed not only with the gift of foretelling the future, but also with that of adapting their exhortations to the needs of their hearers. Their precise object in coming to so distant a city—Antioch is some 300 miles north of Jerusalem—is not expressly stated in the sacred narrative. It may be supposed, however, that the constant and pressing needs of the Christians of the Holy City had induced them to go and solicit in behalf of their fellow-citizens the charity of the wealthy believers of the Syrian capital, who, differently from those of Jerusalem, had retained the ownership of their estates.

Be this as it may, one of these prophets foretold to the Antiochian church “that there should be a great famine over the whole world, which came to pass under Claudius.” Moved to compassion by this painful intelligence, the Christians of Antioch contributed generously towards the funds, which the coming famine would render so much the more necessary for the relief of the poor of Judæa, and the sums thus collected were entrusted to no others than “Barnabas and Saul.”

Thus was St. Paul brought back to Jerusalem, where he remained, together with Barnabas, till “they had fulfilled their ministry”; after which, bidding farewell to the much-tried church of Judæa, and “taking with them John, who was surnamed Mark,” they returned to Antioch.

Copyright 1999-2023 Catholic Support Services all rights reserved