Next to Jesus the principal character that moves before us in the pages of the New Testament is the apostle Paul. Who was he? A brilliant young Jew, a native of Tarsus, a considerable city, in southeastern Asia Minor. His Jewish name was Saul, but its gentile equivalent or substitute was Paul. It is not likely that he ever saw Jesus in the flesh. But he was in Jerusalem not long after the Crucifixion; and, being zealous for the traditions of his fathers, he joined his fellow-religionists in an energetic persecution of those who embraced the new “heresy.” In a short timeit may have been two or three years, and it may have been five or six from the Master’s death occurred the murder of Stephen. The witnesses to this crime “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul” our Saul ; who straightway obtained official sanction to continue the persecutions, and set out for Damascus on the terrible errand. While journeying thither he experienced a conversion which was the turning-point of his life. Upon arriving in Damascus he espoused the new faith, and publicly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah.
Paul’s life subsequent to his conversion lasted about thirty yearsit is impossible to speak with precision, partly because we do not know the date of his death, and partly because the rest of the chronology has not been made out with certainty. In a general way it may be said that his public career divides itself roughly into three main periods : first, a preliminary period of fourteen or seventeen years (according to the reckoning which may be adopted), covering his retirement at first and his early labors in Syria and Cilicia; second, a missionary period of nine or ten years, comprising his extended journeys in Asia Minor and southeastern Europe; and third, a period of captivity, at Caesarea and Rome, occupying four years.
Thus the apostle rapidly sketches the events of these early, formative years; and not much information can be gleaned from other sources to help us fill in the outline with details. We have no letters from him which date from this period.
2. It was in the second or missionary period that Paul’s literary activity commenced, so far as his preserved writings enable us to judge. In this period were produced his principal letters, namely : Thessalonians, Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans. The genuineness of II Thessalonians is disputed, and, as already stated, the chronology is somewhat uncertain; but, allowing for differences of opinion respecting these points and also respecting the date and place of Galatians, we may recall the circumstances under which the documents just named were produced.
Paul made three missionary journeys. On the first of these, in about the year 47, he set out from Antioch, Syria, in company with Barnabas and John Mark, the latter’s nephew, for a visit to Cyprus, the native home of Barnabas. After a tour of the island, in the course of which they met with a signal success, at Paphos, in the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the proconsul or governor of Cyprus, they sailed thence to the southern coast of Asia Minor. Stopping at Perga, in Pamphylia, they next visited such places as Antioch in Pisidia, Derbe, Lystra, and Iconium in South Galatia; then, returning through Pamphylia to the seaport town of Attalia, they sailed back home to Antioch in Syria. This first journey seems to have occupied between one and two years.” Quickly following it trouble arose in the form of bitter opposition from the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who sought to undo Paul’s work among the churches which he had just established. To counteract this antagonistic influence and to recover his converts from a reactionary tendency, the apostle soon wrote his letter to the Galatians that is, to the churches that he had so recently founded in the above-named cities of the southern part of the Province of Galatia.
Within a few months Paul undertook his second missionary journey. Passing rapidly through Asia Minor to the northwest, he at length reached Troas, whence he felt himself summoned to go over into Europe ; for the great longing of his heart to carry the gospel to the gentiles steadily increased, and the vision of the Gr Graeco-Roman-world won to Christ, and to the worship of the God and Father whom Christ had revealed, be-came his growing inspiration. So, crossing the ;Aegean Sea, he began at once to preach in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Bercea, meeting with gratifying success along with many difficulties; and soon he went on southward to Athens and Corinth. While at Corinth he learned that some of his teachings at Thessalonica had been misunderstood by the friends there, who were anxious over certain matters; and to explain these things to them and to counsel them in love, as was his wont, he wrote his First Letter to the Thessalonians, perhaps in the early summer of 50. This letter did not fully accomplish its purpose, and was soon followed by at least a part of our present Second Letter to the Thessalonians. If, as held by some, Galatians was written at this same place (Corinth) and at about the same time, or a little earlier, its purpose was, as stated above, to protest against the Judaizing influence of Paul’s enemies and against the backsliding of his Galatian converts.
These three letters, then, are the earliest Christian writings that we have. They were undoubtedly read in the assemblies of the churches to which they were addressed, and probably more than once. They were cherished alike for the instruction which they contained and for the loving appeals which they made; and they were all the more valuable inasmuch as there were no other Christian documents then in circulation. The story of the gospel had been repeated orally, and was spreading far and wide; but the written narrative of Christ’s life and teaching was not yet in existence, and our present four gospels came a generation later.
Within a year or two Paul returned from Corinth to Jerusalem and Antioch, and then started on his third missionary journey. Again passing through Asia Minor, and preaching in the western “Povince of Asia,” he took up his abode for two or three years in Ephesus. From this place he wrote his Letters to the Corinthians, about 53 or 54; although a portion of II Corinthians may have been written a little later, from Macedonia.
Subsequently Paul visited Corinth a second time, and while there, perhaps early in 55, wrote his Letter to the Romans, one of the longest and strongest of his productions. His missionary tours were now over. Soon he left Corinth, and shortly sailed from Philippi for Jerusalem, where he was arrested and taken a prisoner to Caesarea.
Now from this brief sketch we plainly see how the first Christian writings came into existence. They sprang out of the earnest life-work of the Apostle to the gentiles, to whom Christendom is immeasurably indebted ; they were issued as a perfectly natural means of instruction and exhortation to meet the peculiar exigencies of the time; and their great author never dreamed that they would circulate throughout the world two thousand years later, and be almost worshiped by the followers of Jesus Christ, for it is certain that he did not expect the world to stand two thousand years, or even a hundred years : he expected rather a speedy personal return of the Savior, with a simultaneous cataclysm in the realm of nature, accompanied by the resurrection of those that had “fallen asleep,” the “change” of them that “remained,” and the miraculous inauguration thus of the kingdom of God.
3. The third period of Paul’s ministry succeeding his final visit to Jerusalem, and including his detention at Cæsarea and his imprisonment at Rome, gave rise to a second group of letters, called “Epistles of the Captivity,” from their frequent mention of his “bonds” and of himself as the “prisoner of the Lord.” These are the short letters known as Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Concerning at least two of these, Ephesians and Colossians, there has been much dispute whether Paul was really their author, or to what extent they emanated from him ; and likewise there have been different opinions regarding the localities from which and the dates at which the several letters in the group were written.” However these open questions may be answered, we may see, if we grant only that the documents contain largely a genuine Pauline element, that, like the former group, they sprang out of the great apostle’s life of labor and thought. They were born in the soul of a profound spiritual thinker and a devoted Christian toiler. Behind them there stands a living, ardent human friend and counselor; in them there are dominant certain central, sublime ideas, held with the strength and joy with which any thoughtful man grasps a grand and vital truth; and through them throbs the spirit of a noble love, an unshaken faith, and a victorious hope, which only a great and good man could cherish. Thus the human element in them is perfectly real and perfectly natural; time and circumstance have left their indelible impress upon them ; and there is no more mystery about their origin than there is about the ultimate source of any other form of exalted thought, unselfish love, and high devotion. One of the most inspiring spectacles in this world is that of a great soul absolutely consecrated to truth, righteousness, liberty, and love. Paul was such a one; and out of his brave life-work, led and blessed of God, came those glowing letters which have given spiritual light and warmth to all succeeding generations.
Because it is not necessary to the main purpose of this chapter to take up all the books of the New Testament, the remaining epistles, as well as Acts and Revelation, are passed by, and the most important works in the whole Bible will now claim our attention. Yet the consideration of them must be brief and suggestive, while for a more extended discussion of the many points of interest which they present the reader must look to Introductions, Lives of Christ, and kindred books.