Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

3. St Paul the Christian Persecutor |
Exiled into Victory

St Paul the Apostle is drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 93, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

No longer the Christians’ chief enemy, Saul of Tarsus sets out with a new name on an unimaginable adventure

St Paul the Apostle - The conversion that changed history

St Paul the Apostle - The conversion that changed history
Bent on persecuting the Followers of the Way, Saul is nearing Damascus when he is suddenly overcome by a blinding light. Falling to the ground, he hears an accusing voice and fearfully asks, “Who are you, Lord?” The answer shakes him to the core, leaving Saul astonishingly transformed–as is the world he left behind.

The midday sun was almost directly overhead as the horsemen pounded north along the dusty road toward Damascus, now only a few miles away. At the head of the small band, the grim-faced Pharisee gritted his teeth and whipped his mount. Suddenly, blinding light stopped the riders in their tracks. Horses reared and bolted. Saul, the lead rider, was thrown. His companions also fell to the ground, where they lay trembling in fear, eyes squeezed shut against the overwhelming brightness. Slowly, they stood up. Each appeared to be listening to something.

Within moments, the scene reverted. All was again as it had been. But not so with Saul. Stunned and barely coherent, he was standing, staring ahead and stretching his arms out strangely. His eyes were open now, but uncomprehending. He could not see. Taking him by the hand, the others led him on foot the rest of the way into the city. They left him in a rented room, where he lay listless and seemingly dispirited.

What else could they do? They had been on a mission to harass and take prisoner the followers of the crucified Nazarene Jesus. But it was Saul’s idea. Saul had gained authority for it. Saul had organized it, and Saul was carrying it out. Now, blind, stunned, and incoherent, Saul could no longer lead anything. There was nothing to do but return to Jerusalem and report to the high priests. Let them decide the next move. The adventure was over.

In fact, the adventure had scarcely begun. But it would be an unimaginably different adventure from the one on which they had embarked.

The above is, of course, an attempted reconstruction of events of that fateful incident on the Damascus road. The three surviving accounts of it (in Acts 9, 22, and 26) do not fill in such detail. We don’t know whether Saul rode a horse, or a camel, or a mule, though given the official nature of his mission it was more probably a horse. What we do know is that something very like this must assuredly have happened. For the vision Saul saw and spoke to, he said, was the very man Jesus whose movement he was so fervidly seeking to destroy. That man would change the life of Saul and lead Saul to change the course of human history.

He had embarked on this mission, Saul later recalled, “breathing out threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord.” No doubt his passions were further inflamed along the way, as he rode across the Jordan, through Judea, through Galilee, the very countryside where Jesus had so stirred up the rabble with his infuriating public spectacles. If Saul himself had ever seen the man in those days, or heard him preach, he never said so. But he certainly knew the startling stories that the man’s alleged resurrection were keeping alive–repulsive stuff, dangerous, poisonous to the whole accepted mission of his people. By the time he neared Damascus and his quarry, he was seething.

Then it happened. The road had left the desert and now ran through verdant, garden-filled countryside. The city walls were in sight. “A great light from the sky suddenly blazed around me and my fellow travelers,” Saul recounted later.

We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew: “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against your own conscience.”

“Who are you, Lord?” I said.

And the Lord said to me, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

My companions naturally saw the light, but they did not hear the voice of the one who was talking to me.

“What am I to do, Lord?” I asked.

“I have shown myself to you for a reason–you are chosen to be my servant and a witness of what you have seen of me today, and of visions of me which you will see. I will rescue you both from your own people and from the Gentiles to whom I now send you. I send you to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, so that they may know forgiveness of their sins, and take their place with all those who are made holy by their faith in me.”

And I said, “What shall I do, Lord?”

And he said, “Get up and go into Damascus; and there you will be told everything which has been appointed for you to do.” Acts 22:9—10 and 26:13—14; 16—18

As Saul stumbled toward Damascus, the implications would have crashed into his mind. His whole world, his whole life, his whole crusade had been one calamitous mistake. He had been horribly, monstrously, catastrophically wrong. He was overcome by a searing, mind-numbing remorse. He had to rethink everything he had assumed, everything he had believed, everything he had done, everything that mattered to him most. For three days he lay in this pool of guilt-ridden darkness. Blind, enervated, and unable to eat, he prayed for forgiveness, for the restoration of his sight, and for instruction from God.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, a follower of Christ named Ananias had a vision. Jesus told him to go to the house of Judas in a street called Straight. There he would find a blind man called Saul of Tarsus. Lay your hands on him, Jesus said, and restore his sight.

Ananias was understandably aghast. Saul, the terror of Jerusalem, the man who had consented to the stoning of Stephen, the man who was dragging Jesus’ followers into jail, the most feared human name they knew, this horror figure was now in Damascus. And he, poor, undistinguished Ananias, was to go and touch this monster and somehow restore his sight. Across the ages one can guess the plaintive thought, felt and spoken by so many Christians in so many circumstances: Why me?

Jesus’ response was even more astounding: “Go and do it, for I have chosen Saul to carry my name to the Gentiles.”

Fearful but obedient, Ananias found the ailing rabbi and nervously greeted him as “Brother Saul.” Then, as directed, he placed his hands on him, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and instantly his vision was restored. Saul, Ananias said, Jesus has chosen you to bring his message to the Gentiles, and Saul the Pharisee was baptized. He would soon become Paul the Apostle, the Latin name he would shortly begin using.

Paul’s conversion would be the most important event in the history of Christianity after the resurrection of Christ. The incident on the road to Damascus, probably about a.d. 33, was to set the faith on a new course, as the events of the next thirty-five to forty years would show. Explaining that remarkable incident, rather, explaining it away, would tax the imaginations of the skeptical over the ages. It was sunstroke, it was guilt-driven self-hypnosis, it was brain fever, it was a blood clot, it was epilepsy-induced hysteria. By the twentieth century, psychology came forth with a whole cornucopia of possibilities. Wholesale reversal of attitude is not all that unusual, said psychologist Carl Jung. Paul may have fought so passionately against the movement because he was secretly drawn to it and was subconsciously wracked by guilt, a guilt made much worse when he saw the courage and serenity of Stephen as he died. Anglican Bishop Jeffrey Ellison thinks Paul had secretly envied the followers of Christ because he discerned in them a closeness to God that could not be achieved by even the most punctilious Pharisee.

What seems incontestable is the fact that Paul’s heart was wholly transformed. The former persecutor would become a living example of the power of grace. His arrogantly narrow obsession with the Law vanished. He was filled with love and an overwhelming need to share the wonders of the Holy Spirit. In the coming years, both men and women in cities over much of the eastern Mediterranean world would quickly discern this and work tirelessly beside him. In so doing they would make the gospel of Christ, hitherto the exclusive, parochial property of a small sect of Jews, into a universal faith for men, women, and children of every race and nation in the world.

That was Paul’s task. Across distant lands and raging seas, it would drive him onward, through emotional strife, heated conflict, and untold physical danger, until thirty-some years later, his life would end under the sword of a Roman executioner–a privileged death, as it happens. Roman citizens must not be crucified, and Paul was proud to have been born a Roman citizen, a birth that occurred about the same time as that of Jesus. Paul was born and grew up among other Diaspora Jews in a predominantly Greek culture. His family’s Roman citizenship was probably won by an ancestor; possibly his father had rendered a critical service to the empire.

Tarsus, his birthplace, was a fortified city on the river Cydnus, ten miles from the Mediterranean coast of southeastern Asia Minor in what would become Turkey. It controlled the intersection of several major overland trading routes and was capital of the province of Cilicia, whose fertile plain produced cereals, grapes, and, most importantly, flax for a thriving linen industry. The area was also known for a woven goat-hair cloth called cilicium.

With a rich two-thousand-year cultural history shaped mainly by Persians, Phoenicians, and Greeks, Tarsus was also a center of sophisticated Hellenistic culture. It was a university town in which education was revered and schools of rhetoric flourished. The sensuous rhythms of Phoenician music were heard often, but women in public were expected to cover themselves completely and wear veils. Absorbed into the Roman system when Pompey reorganized Asia Minor in 66 b.c., Tarsus had opposed Cassius, the murderer of its patron, Julius Caesar. Antony rewarded the city’s loyalty by granting a privilege of freedom, which Augustus renewed while exempting it from imperial taxation.

Paul’s parents had probably emigrated from Judea. His father was perhaps a prosperous tent-maker in the import-export business. Paul studied the Greek Septuagint version of Jewish scriptures. His Roman citizenship was a lifelong point of pride, though Paul took the most pride in his Jewish heritage: “Circumcised on my eighth day, Israelite by race, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born and bred,” he would write proudly.

A superior student, Paul eventually went to Jerusalem to learn from the renowned Jewish teacher Gamaliel. There he was “taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God. . . . I was thoroughly trained in every point of our ancestral law,” he later recalled. From his rabbinical studies, Paul acquired mental agility, subtlety of scriptural interpretation, and a sense of complete religious dedication to God. He became a rabbi, a Pharisee, and a rising star in the synagogue. “In the practice of our national religion, I was outstripping many of my Jewish contemporaries in my boundless devotion to the traditions of my ancestors.”

And yet, just when Paul was proving his superiority as a Pharisee through his meticulous observance and detailed knowledge of the sacred Jewish law, something most disturbing–something downright infuriating–had begun to happen. People in this Jesus phenomenon, whatever it was, were in effect saying that Paul was missing the point. Oh, they didn’t mock him by name. But they seemed to question the sufficiency of the Law, to which Paul was devoting his life. They represented a sort of personal threat. After all, he was gaining elite status and recognition among Jews. He was a Roman citizen, he had a future in the larger world. These people were casting doubt on it all.

But mainly Paul’s fury was fueled by a relentless spiritual zeal. He took his religion very seriously and his own performance of it more seriously still. God required that Jews live the most righteous life possible and the Law showed them the way. He had spent years training himself to do this. In addition to his keen intelligence, he possessed extraordinary self-discipline and power of will. That, no doubt, is why he had broken with Gamaliel over the question of how best to contend with these Jesus people who called themselves the Followers of the Way. Just let them run their course, said his teacher. Time will reveal the truth. But the fiery Paul had dismissed this as foolhardy. These people posed a mortal threat. What they taught and what the Jewish tradition taught were utterly incompatible.

Of that he was positive. Wholeheartedly he believed in the Hebrews’ sacred ancestral traditions, in the importance of ancient dietary rules, of ritual purifications, of tithing, of Sabbath restrictions and the whole magnificent structure, preserved through the ages. Genuine piety must be equated with knowledge of the Law and the meticulous observance of it.

Yet, in his heart of hearts something gnawed at him, something he could barely bring himself to face, but a reality that he could not escape either. The fact was–dare he even think it?–that the Law, instead of bringing man closer to God, was setting up a hopeless barrier. One might go a long way to meet its demands and requirements, but no one went the whole way, himself included. Giving it your best effort was fine but ultimately pointless. The Law was there to be obeyed. If you didn’t obey it–all of it–you were doomed, Jewry was doomed, humanity was doomed. It was an ugly thought but irrepressible, and it pursued him, pursued him all the way down to the Damascus Road.

As his sight returned and he looked about Damascus, he saw the city for what it was, a beautiful place, in fact, the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. About 170 miles north of Jerusalem, it was a great crossroads where trade routes from Asia Minor and Mesopotamia joined before splitting to run across the plateau into Arabia or down the coast to Egypt. Flanked by foothills at the edge of the desert, for centuries the city had been encircled by lush, irrigated flower and vegetable gardens.

It was a place where Paul could feel at home­–a former Greek city whose culture remained strongly Hellenized, despite periodic absorption by Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires. In the first century B.C., Nabatean Arabs, who controlled the neighboring territory to the east, had seized it. But they lost it to the Armenians, who in 66 B.C. lost it to the Romans, who placed it under the control of the governor of Syria.

The language of the streets was Greek, but there was a large Jewish community of perhaps twenty thousand who spoke Aramaic, the language of the Semitic desert dwellers to the east. Paul had targeted Damascus in part because Jesus’ followers had been coexisting too peacefully with other Jews in the Damascus synagogues. “The Way,” as they termed it, had taken root here even before Stephen’s death, and membership had expanded with the influx of the refugees Paul had driven out of Jerusalem.

Now, amazingly, the man responsible for this had arrived to join them here in worship. At first they tolerated him only because of the enormous respect everyone held for Ananias. But Paul quickly emerged as a bright new force, eager to describe his astounding encounter and the “good news” of the risen Messiah. Penitent but proud, he preached in the synagogues, where congregations included numerous Gentile God-fearers. Soon thereafter he left Damascus on a one-man mission to the deserts of Arabia in the kingdom of Nabatea, which began almost at the walls of Damascus and extended east and south of the Dead Sea. How long Paul spent there is not recorded. However, the trip appears to have sparked a nasty ruckus.1

Tensions between Arabs and Jews always ran high in these parts due to a long history of territorial rivalry. But the immediate problem was Nabatean King Aretas IV, who enjoyed his power at the sufferance of Rome and who feared the imperial wrath. The Emperor Tiberius, like his predecessors and successors, was not pleased by popular enthusiasm for any religious novelty. A new religion meant new problems, especially one whose preachers spouted off about women, slaves, and all races of mankind being equal in the eyes of God. What kind of chaos might erupt if listeners took him seriously? Thus Paul probably had to run for his life as armed Nabateans chased him back behind the protective walls of Damascus. He returned to preaching in the local synagogues. At this point, he also discovered that he would have to support himself because, some historians speculate, when word of his bizarre conversion reached Tarsus, his family disinherited him.

As a young rabbi of that time, Paul had not actually been expected to learn a trade (a tradition that was reversed after a.d. 70, when Jews fell on much harder times). So, even if his family were tent-makers, only now did he learn the skills of the family business. However, tent-making was a very practical trade for an itinerant missionary. Cities were filled with awnings, while tents, pavilions, and sails were in demand throughout the Mediterranean world. There were jobs along every road and by every sea. Usually the fabric was linen, sometimes leather. The trade brought contact with all levels of society and was entirely portable. Paul needed to carry only a moon-shaped knife, awl, needles, and waxed thread. Also, the business was quiet and sedentary, so he could preach and work at the same time. But there were two disadvantages: Both the pay and the social status were relatively low. (And Paul was not above mentioning this periodically for the rest of his life.)

Paul spent the next three years learning his trade and preaching–until his mission in Damascus came to an abrupt and dramatic end. The Nabateans regained control of the city and they still wanted to arrest him. Assuming, rightly, that he would try to flee, the Arabs decided to grab him when he passed through a city gate. So they set up guards at all seven of them. Then, in a daring scenario that became legend in the early church, Paul escaped. He simply climbed into a large wicker basket that friends lowered over the wall where the guards couldn’t see it. Once safely outside, he headed to Jerusalem, where Jesus’ apostles were still headquartered. He wanted to learn firsthand what Jesus did and said before the Crucifixion and what these men knew about the Resurrection. He also wanted to establish the legitimacy of his own ministry.

Although the news of Paul’s improbable conversion had long since come to Jerusalem, Jesus’ followers were naturally suspicious and fearful of him, especially because tensions with the Temple authorities were running so high. Once again, a trusted intermediary paved the way. In this case, it was the Cypriot Jew named Barnabas, the cousin of Mary, in whose house Peter’s group met. Barnabas had made that generous contribution to the church’s common fund for the needy after the first Pentecost. Highly regarded in Jerusalem, he was also active among the faithful at Damascus and Antioch. Paul “had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus,” said Barnabas. This reassured them.

Not that Paul felt the obligation to reassure them. In no sense did he believe he had less authority than those disciples whom Jesus chose before the Crucifixion. But he was a practical man. He needed to establish bonds with Peter (whom he always called by his Aramaic name, Cephas) and James, the kinsman of Jesus, and he wanted them to endorse his work. He hungered for facts he could get nowhere else–an account of Christ’s words and actions, and what had actually happened at the Last Supper.

Paul described how he had received his apostolic commission from the risen Jesus himself. The gospel he preached came down to two points, he said: Salvation comes only by God’s grace; and by God’s mercy you obtain that grace through an expression of faith. Peter and James agreed that Jesus also stressed these points. The three met for fourteen days, and Paul received their blessing for his mission to the Gentiles.2

But his visit came to a quick conclusion for what would soon become a familiar reason: His life was threatened. This time the danger came from his old associates, who now saw him as a dangerous traitor. One day his proselytizing zeal and a streak of combativeness drove him to a reckless confrontation in a Jerusalem synagogue. There he attempted to convert the Hellenistic Jews in a debate. Arguments flew back and forth. Paul finally walked out with no converts. He went off to pray, fell into a trance, and was warned by Jesus to get out of the city fast, because the Jews were coming after him. He should resume his mission to the Gentiles forthwith.

Assisted by Peter and James, he escaped to Caesarea, then took a ship for Tarsus, where he began an independent, largely undocumented mission in Cilicia and Syria for the next eight or so years. Historians refer to this period as the “missing years” because details are sketchy and unrecorded. Paul was apparently a lone operator, preaching and teaching at the northeastern end of the Mediterranean.

Syria, on the east coast of the great sea, had served as the bridge between Egypt and Mesopotamia, the two major centers of civilization for thousands of years. Bounded by the sea on the west, Syria extended south to Palestine and east to the Arabian desert and the Euphrates River. Populated mainly by Semitic peoples, it comprised a coastal plain, a few mountain crags, and an interior tableland. It was separated from Cilicia to the west by the Amanus Mountains, where several passes, the Syrian Gates, permitted travel, though they were always dangerous due to cave-dwelling thieves.

Paul, some historians believe, spent three or four years founding churches in Tarsus, then expanded to the neighboring cities of Cilicia Pedias, and then into Syria and its chief city, Antioch. Congregations in Judea heard accounts of his evangelistic ardor, he later wrote, and praised God for it. Once Christianity’s most relentless persecutor, he was now its most consummate promoter. His sincerity and single-mindedness enveloped everyone he met. For all his energy, passion, and charisma, however, he was not an imposing figure. No contemporary description of his appearance has ever been found. The earliest attempt, in the late-second-century Acts of Paul and Thecla,3 is singularly unflattering, portraying him with somewhat bowed legs, thick, dark eyebrows that nearly met above his prominent nose, and a short, pointed beard. What is incontestable is that he radiated a warm, appealing aura. He endeared himself to both men and women, and many devoted their lives to the message he gave them.

He was as gregarious and engaging as he was earnest and strong-willed. He was also courageous, passionate, impulsive, bold, aggressive, argumentative, and determined. If he had a sense of humor, it was never noted. Neither is there evidence of any aesthetic sense. The “Isles of Greece” that so enchanted nineteenth-century poet and essayist Byron are lost on Paul. He passes through them for years, never once commenting on their mystical beauty. Yet, he had a deep understanding of human nature, a swift and intelligent mind, and a thorough knowledge of the Torah and its messianic prophecies. Although he claimed to be a lackluster orator, he was well schooled in rhetoric and moved listeners to conversion with his sermons.

The seriousness with which he approached spiritual matters was not changed on the Damascus road. But the transformation he underwent forever energized his ministry. The former arrogant, mechanistic, hairsplitting Pharisee who measured spirituality by legal degrees became an apostle of faith, a minister humbled by the power of grace, love, and the Holy Spirit, a missionary who lived only to share a divine gift that was available to anyone who would willingly embrace it. This ultimately made him a polarizing force. He attracted and retained converts in droves, but his enthusiasm, intensity, and exuberant conviction could also make people uncomfortable and spark opposition and even hatred.

Some time about a.d. 42 or 43, Paul was further inspired by a mysterious “ecstatic” revelation, which he recounts in his second letter to the Corinthians. What happened, he could not describe. “Whether in the body or out of the body,” he writes, he was transported to “paradise” or “the third heaven.” There he heard things impermissible to put into words. Though it elated him, the experience also left him with a humiliating physical disability. He termed it “a splinter in the flesh.”4 He prayed three times that it would go away. Instead, Christ told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Thus the experience deepened his sense of “life in the Spirit” as a life of committed action. It also affirmed the notion that it was good, even desirable, to endure suffering in the name of Christ. Thus Paul could write, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities; for when I am weak, I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10)

At the end of the eight “missing years,” Paul appears in Antioch, Syria, one of fifteen centers in that part of the world that bore the same name, all conferred by Seleucus I, Alexander the Great’s general. In the first century, it was a highly competitive spiritual marketplace. The first Jewish Christians probably arrived there about the same time Paul returned to Tarsus, and by the early 40s, the place was attracting as many Followers of the Way as Jerusalem had. Often these new people were Gentiles and tensions grew between those and the Jewish Followers. Meanwhile, other far more lethal conflicts were building between Jews and Gentiles generally in Antioch. The anti-Roman nationalist movement in Jerusalem, always simmering, was threatening to come to a boil in open rebellion. This was provoking the usual anti-Jewish demonstrations all over the empire. At Antioch, synagogues were being burned and Jews massacred.

So the Jerusalem church dispatched Barnabas as a representative to the city. This has sometimes been described as a sort of reconnaissance mission to determine if Christians there were following the true gospel. However, it is more probable that Barnabas was sent to be a stabilizing force in these tense times. A big man, a sturdy, imposing figure, the Cyprus-born Levite spoke Greek and Aramaic. His name meant “Encourager” and it was appropriate. He knew how to give a pat on the back when it was most needed. The Antioch church welcomed him warmly and treated him like an apostle, a status he would never have enjoyed in Jerusalem.

By the winter of a.d. 45—46, Barnabas realized that he needed a knowledgeable partner. Taking the road around the end of the Mediterranean to Tarsus, only eighty miles away, he found his old friend Paul. He found that Paul, too, had gained enthusiasm for spreading the good news to more distant peoples. The pair formed a teaching-preaching team in the Syrian capital. Barnabas wanted to find more converts in his native Cyprus. So in A.D. 47, the pair launched what became Christianity’s first-recorded missionary expedition. They did not seek authorization from the church in Jerusalem. With them when they embarked from Seleucia, the commercial port of Antioch, was a cousin whom Barnabas had invited named John Mark, who would best be remembered in Christian tradition as the author of the New Testament’s Second Gospel. He was a young man from Jerusalem, well known by the original apostles because Peter’s group met in his mother’s house.

The easternmost point of Cyprus lay only about eighty miles off the Syrian coast. The largest island in the eastern Mediterranean, it was relatively arid and was known for its rich copper mines. After Herod the Great leased the mines, many Jews had moved there. Now Christian communities were also scattered across the island, settled by refugees from Jerusalem. Presumably the trio sailed about the second week of March to avoid the strong westerlies that blow later in the spring. Landing at Salamis in the southeast, they walked 160 winding miles to Paphos, the capital, on the west end.

The governor, a proconsul named Sergius Paulus, greeted the missionaries in person. Paul took charge and began to preach. The proconsul was enthralled. Others were not, among them a Jew named Elymas, who dabbled in the occult crafts associated with the Simon Magus. Elymas, who had been ingratiating himself with the governor as an adviser, feared losing his influence if the governor became a Christian. So he tried to interrupt Paul’s sermon. Paul was livid. “You son of the Devil!” he shouted. “Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for awhile.” Immediately Elymas lost his sight, and Sergius Paulus was even more impressed. He became a convert–the highest official Paul had so far won over.5

From Paphos, the threesome now sailed to the coast of Asia Minor. But after they landed near Perga, some 220 miles west of Tarsus, John Mark quit. Instead of heading inland with the others, he returned to Jerusalem, perhaps simply fearful of the wild, rugged interior of Asia Minor and the fierce people said to live there. Paul and Barnabas continued on foot without him to the southern part of Galatia, which had been declared an imperial province by Augustus in 25 b.c. About one hundred miles inland, they arrived at a city named Antioch in Pisidia (not to be confused with the Syrian capital). A Roman army center sitting at some 3,600 feet above sea level in the lofty tablelands and lake district, the place was highly cosmopolitan, filled with Galatians, Phrygians, Greeks, Jews, Celts, and also Roman army veterans of the Alauda Legion, raised in Gaul by Julius Caesar and known as “the Lark whose regimental badge was a skylark.”6

Paul and Barnabas promptly went to the synagogue and began preaching, always their modus operandi. The congregations included not only Jews, whom they would willingly convert, but also the God-fearers, who were open to his gospel and were a link to other Gentiles. In his sermon, Paul connected Jesus to scriptural prophecy and messianic descent from David. “Through this man, forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you,” he said. “By him every one of you that believes is justified from all things, from which you could not be justified by the Law of Moses.”

His words caused a sensation. On the next Sabbath, it seemed as if the whole city turned out. Outnumbered by Gentiles, the local orthodox Jews challenged him and rejected his message. “It was necessary that the word of God first be spoken to you,” he responded. “Since you reject it, and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles.” He then echoed the prophet Isaiah, saying, “‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” That was enough for the Jews, who angrily escorted Paul and Barnabas to the town limits and told them to stay out. By then, however, the pair had recruited enough Gentiles to organize a purely Gentile congregation, separate from the synagogue, the first of the churches in Galatia.

Now they walked southeast about sixty miles to Iconium, on a fertile grain-producing plain, where events followed a similar pattern–first a sermon to the Jews, followed by a near-riot, but attracting enough Gentile converts to form a congregation, so that by the time they were run out of town they had founded a church.

About twenty miles to the southwest in an unsophisticated country town called Lystra, however, things took a different turn. When he began preaching here, Paul took the crowd by surprise with a sign. Locking eyes with a crippled man sitting on the ground, he barked a command: “Stand upright on your feet!” When the fellow sprang up and began to walk, the crowd went wild. This was the best show the place had seen in a long time. Abandoning Greek, people started yelling in their native Lycaonian tongue: “The gods have come down to us in human form!” They called the taller Barnabas by the name Zeus, the father of the gods. Paul became Hermes, god of communication.

At first the two didn’t grasp what all the commotion was about. But when they saw the chief priest of Zeus heading toward his temple with oxen and garlands, they figured it out fast. They had been drawn into a pagan sacrifice, an outright blasphemy. Appalled, the two started ripping off their clothes to show their mortality. “Why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you,” shouted Paul, “and we bring you good news that you should turn away from these worthless things to the living God.” His rebuke turned the fevered crowd against them. Angered, insulted, and egged on by Jews who had arrived from Pisidian Antioch, the mob grew violent. They stoned Paul unconscious, dragged him outside the town, and left him for dead. Later, as Barnabas and a few sympathizers were puzzling over what to do with his limp and apparently lifeless body, he slowly stirred and began to recover. The next day, Barnabas and Paul left for Derbe, the last town on their itinerary, about sixty miles southeast. Here they preached and “made many disciples”–and for the first time encountered no opposition.

At this point, it would have been most direct to return to Syrian Antioch by way of Tarsus. Instead, the pair retraced their entire journey, met again with the new Christians, and appointed elders in each community. As a result, they were able to establish permanent churches in all these places. They then sailed back to Antioch, ebullient over their mission’s success.

The exuberance of the two returning missionaries was deflated as soon as they arrived in Antioch. Big trouble greeted them. Hard-liners from Jerusalem had appeared in the city to insist that all converts adhere to Jewish law and tradition–including, for males, the blood and pain of circumcision. Plainly, therefore, the evangelization of Gentiles had continued to raise both religious and political problems for the Jerusalem church. Most Jews held a low opinion of Gentile morality and the influx of these converts sullied a vision of the church as the ultimate “flowering of Judaism.” Jewish converts resented Gentiles, who could join on what seemed too-easy terms. Zealots opposed anyone building bridges to non-Hebrew peoples. And persecution increased pressure to affirm Jewish identity and values wherever possible. Thus, many Jewish Christians wanted Gentile converts to comply with the same requirements as Jews: Be circumcised. Keep the Law of Moses.

The effect of such a severe requirement, broached to Paul’s and Barnabas’s new converts as a seeming “by-the-way” afterthought, would have been to destroy everything the two had accomplished. But the hardliners right along had opposed what they considered casual conversions. Gentiles weren’t the problem, they said. Lax church leaders had been too compromising. It had to stop.

This began an escalating crisis that unfolded like a three-act play. Act I took place immediately in Antioch. Barnabas confronted the “false brethren” who, Paul said, “slipped in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage” (Gal. 2:4). The Antioch church members decided to send the two missionaries to the elders in Jerusalem to straighten things out.

Act II began in Jerusalem, where the arrival of Paul and Barnabas became the occasion of a momentous event: the first official council in the history of the church. The historian Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (Paul: A Critical Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996) points out that it is impossible to tell if just one large, stormy meeting took place or whether, as appears likely, there were smaller separate discussions between the Antioch emissaries and Peter, James, and John.

“I laid before them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain,” Paul later recalled, and the Jerusalem leaders endorsed his work (once again). “They saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised. . . . So, when they perceived that grace was given to me, James and Cephas [Peter] and John, the men of repute as pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and the uncircumcised.” In fact, the two had brought with them an uncircumcised Greek convert named Titus, as a living, breathing, walking test case. Nowhere during the meeting, Paul noted, was Titus “compelled to be circumcised” by these Jerusalem authorities.

The meeting began with Paul and Barnabas describing the success of their foray into southern Galatia. Surely, they contended, God would allow such wondrous results only if they preached the true gospel. The hardliners ignored that point. They wanted to talk about laws and circumcision. Adherence to Jewish law must be required of all converts, they argued. There must be no compromise. Finally, Peter took the floor. He reiterated his “anti-circumcision” position from the conversion of the centurion Cornelius. God “put no difference between them [Gentiles] and us [Jews], purifying their hearts by faith . . . through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.”

In the end, James the Just settled the matter. He cited Hebrew prophets who said that God would rebuild the tabernacle of David so “that the residue of men might seek after the Lord, and all the Gentiles, upon whom my name is called.” Therefore, he concluded, “Trouble them not, which from among Gentiles are turned to God.”

He would place upon converts only minimal restrictions. These were carried to Antioch in the first written “apostolic decree” as follows: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what is strangled, and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell” (Acts 15:28—29). Thus the official doctrine of the church was defined.

It was a huge victory for Paul and Barnabas and a startling defeat for the legalist faction, a purposeful and well organized movement that insisted on the full burden of the Law for both Gentiles and Jews. They had counted on the legalistic sympathies of James, along with his political awareness of the need for Jewish solidarity. But James may well have felt that such shallowly formed Christian “Jews” would only weaken the new faith in the long run. In any case, Act II ended with the triumphant return of Paul and Barnabas to Antioch. The pair planned another mission further into Asia Minor. But since it was now November, they would spend the winter in the city before heading out. It was a trip they would never make together, however, because the curtain was about to rise on Act III.

This final drama took place some weeks later. Peter had been visiting Antioch and all was going smoothly until a Jerusalem delegation arrived, purportedly from James. Up until then, Peter had been eating with the church’s Gentiles. But now, under pressure from this Jewish clique, he abandoned the Gentiles’ table to sit only with his fellow Jews. Then Barnabas did the same. Such table fellowship was no small matter. Throughout the Near East, formal meals were a prime social event. In house churches such as those in Antioch, this fellowship forged a vital link between the Jews and Gentiles.

Paul was stunned, furious, and bitterly disappointed at such a betrayal, and thoroughly disgusted by the apparent “fear of the circumcision party.” Peter’s behavior was blatantly offensive to Gentile converts and ran counter to his own recently re-avowed principles. “I said to Cephas in front of them all,” Paul wrote later, “‘If you, Jew as you are, live in the Gentile and not the Jewish way, how is it you try to compel Gentiles to live like Jews?’”

Here was indeed a spectacle to behold–one of the two greatest apostles in the history of the church publicly dressing down the other on a matter of moral principle! But Paul, possessed of the mission with which he was entrusted, was adamant. He simply would not tolerate any suggestion that Gentiles were second-class Christians. The Council in Jerusalem had officially demolished the partition between Jews and Gentiles. He did not want it rebuilt. And the only logical reason he saw for preserving the social barrier7 was to keep it as a religious barrier.

The immediate outcome of this confrontation is lost to history, but some historians, not all, view the church at Antioch thereafter divided along Jewish-Gentile lines. Between Paul and Barnabas, another issue had arisen. Barnabas again wanted to bring along John Mark. “Are you serious?” Paul would have asked. “After he quit the last time?” This was too much.

With Barnabas now, for the moment at least, aligned with the Jerusalem faction, Paul found himself almost alone and surrounded by opponents: by hard-line Temple Jews who saw him as a danger; by the Christian legalists, both Gentiles and Jews, ostensibly backed by the Church authorities in Jerusalem, who considered him reckless and misguided; by pagans, who regarded him as an unpleasant rival and annoying threat; by Greek intellectuals, who viewed him as unbalanced, if not deranged; and, increasingly, by Roman authorities, who viewed him as a disruptive nuisance.

Nevertheless, more resolved than ever in his faith and purpose, he embarked that spring on a new mission. And he was not quite alone. Beside him was a man named Silas.

This is the end of the St Paul the Apostle category article drawn from Chapter Four, beginning on page 93, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about St Paul the Apostle from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at