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St. Paul Expands the Faith

c. A.D. 68

The conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus is depicted in this painting by Caravaggio.
The conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus is depicted in this painting by Caravaggio.
Photograph copyright Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis

Paul is one of the people most responsible for Christianity's early transformation from an insular Jewish sect into a global religion.

His missionary efforts, prominently chronicled in the New Testament book of Acts, were widespread during the first century A.D. when the church began to diverge from Jewish tradition.

Before his own conversion, Paul was a rabbi and a member of the Pharisees—a Jewish sect dedicated to the Laws of Moses distinctly at odds with the new Christian faith. Paul describes his conversion in Galatians. It was the result of a vision he experienced on the road to Damascus. Convinced of Jesus' divinity, he thereafter devoted himself to spreading that good news. As a Greek-speaking Roman citizen familiar with gentile life, he was particularly well suited for his calling—spreading the word of Jesus to non-Jews, or Gentiles.

Paul believed that new followers of Jesus need not become Jews before they became Christians. This caused a dilemma for those steeped in the traditions of Jewish law. The problem was particularly thorny at the dinner table, where Jews were hesitant to share even a Eucharistic meal with non-observers. Circumcision was another major impediment to Christian unity. The situation caused a rift between Paul and other Apostles, like Peter and James, and eventually led Paul to concentrate his efforts among the Gentiles.

Paul's mission had a cosmopolitan focus. He took the faith to the non-Jewish communities in Antioch, Syria, as well as Turkish and Greek cities including Phillipi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus. He believed that these bustling hives of trade and travel were the key to widely disseminating the faith in Jesus' divinity.

Paul's extensive letters are among the earliest Christian writings, penned some 20 or 30 years after the Crucifixion. They were intended to be read aloud at services and to answer the questions of new Christians. They formed the beginning of the New Testament and have also provided scholars with a wealth of material about Paul himself.

Romans I and II, Galatians, Corinthians and most likely Philippians, I Thessalonians, and Philemon were written by Paul. Other letters have also been attributed to his hand, but their true authors are a matter of scholarly debate. Paul's fate is unclear. He was arrested in Jerusalem, possibly to protect him from hostile Jews who believed that he had violated the Temple by bringing Gentiles inside.

He had also stressed repeatedly that the new kingdom of God, as promised by Jesus, would begin very soon. This message was no doubt unsettling to both Roman and Jewish authorities.

As a prisoner Paul eventually was taken to Rome. Though it is likely that he died in the city, we cannot be sure how. Some traditions suggest that he was martyred in Rome, perhaps in persecutions by Nero following the great Roman fire of A.D. 64.