Paul, originally called Saul, was a Jew born in Tarsus, at the eastern end of the north coast of the Mediterranean. Brought up a strict Pharisee, he studied under the celebrated Rabbi Gamaliel. A tent-maker by trade, he possessed Roman citizenship.
“Zealous in the traditions of my forefathers,” as he described his youthful self, Saul first appears in Acts
at the stoning of Stephen, whose Hellenistic notions doubtless offended his Jewish orthodoxy. Yet it was precisely Stephen’s conviction that the Jewish religious experience should be open to the whole world which Paul would bring to fruition.
Perhaps Stephen’s martyrdom was the critical turning point for Saul. Nevertheless, he continued “making havoc of the Church”, and even asked the high priest for letters of introduction to Damascus, so that he might bring back members of the Jesus cult as prisoners to Jerusalem.
St Luke records (Acts 9) that, as this zealot approached Damascus in 33 or 34 AD, “a light from heaven shone suddenly about him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?’ He asked: ‘Who art thou, Lord?’ The reply came: ‘I am Jesus, whom Saul persecutes. It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.’”
Struck blind, Saul was led by his companions into Damascus, where after three days a disciple named Ananias restored his sight. When he preached in the synagogue that Jesus was the son of God, the Jews plotted against his life. He escaped to Jerusalem, where the followers of Jesus were hardly less suspicious of their former persecutor.
In his Epistle to the Galatians (c AD 55), Paul gives a different and decidedly less dramatic account of his conversion: “God saw fit to make his Son known in me, so that I could preach his gospel among the Gentiles. My first thought was not to hold any consultations with any human creature. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who had been apostles longer than myself; no, I went off into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.”
Paul goes on to explain that it was not until three years after his conversion that he re-entered Jerusalem and visited Peter. Moreover, some further eight years passed before, in 43 or 44, Barnabas sought out Paul at Tarsus and brought him to Antioch. Two years later, the missionary journeys began.
Since Paul is sometimes regarded almost as an independent founder of Christianity, it is important to emphasise that both Acts and St Paul himself present his conversion as a revelation of the risen Christ. The vision inspired the rest of his life. “If Christ is not risen,” Paul would tell the Corinthians, “then our preaching is groundless, and your faith, too, is groundless.”