The New Testament is all about Jesus, right? Well, when you consider that 15 of the 27 New Testament books are said to be written by or about Paul, then you've got a serious contender for second most important guy in the Bible.
But Paul's not just a biblical character, he's also our author. With letters like this one to the Romans, Paul was able to shape the early Christian church into what it is today—a powerhouse with 2.1 billion followers. His theology has been unbelievably influential and his writings have inspired billions around the world. Pretty impressive, right?
So, just who the heck is this guy?
Romans actually throws out quite a few random biographical details for Paul. We know from his letter that
• he's "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God" (1:1). No biggie;
• he's never been to visit the church in Rome, but definitely wants to get there real soon (1:13). The guy loves to travel;
• he considers himself a Jew above all. A Jew who just happens to accept Jesus as Lord (11:1). Other Jews are not pleased;
• some people have called him "an apostle to the Gentiles" (11:13). Not that he's bragging or anything;
• he has spread the word about Jesus "from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum" (15:19). In other words, the eastern part of the Roman Empire;
• he's done with evangelizing in the east and wants to move west to Spain (15:23-24). Paul gets around;
• he has to first drop off a collection in Jerusalem that he's been gathering for quite a while (15:25-26). Small road trip;
• he's also a tiny bit worried about what's going to happen when he gets to Jerusalem (15:30-33). Spoiler alert: he should be;
• he's also been in sticky situations before (16:4). Actually many times before.
Okay, so what does all that mean?
First, it's important to point out that the Roman Christians reading Paul's letter wouldn't have needed any other background information because they would have already had it. These guys and gals would have known Paul by reputation, because, believe us, he had quite a reputation.
But we're not the Romans, so let's delve into some back story.
Paul was actually born Saul. Scholars think he was probably a few years younger than Jesus, so the two men, who were both raised in the Roman Empire around the same time in Jewish homes, would have been contemporaries. And even though Paul would spend the majority of his life writing, preaching, and teaching about Jesus, he never actually met the guy while he was alive (source). Weird, huh?
Unlike Jesus, Paul grew up in a big city called Tarsus, which is located in modern day Turkey. While Jesus spent his whole life in the Jewish homeland, Judea, Paul was part of the Jewish Diaspora around the Empire. He would have had access not only to a great Jewish religious education (he eventually joined up with the Pharisees—those dreaded baddies from the Gospels), but would have been exposed to Greek universities in the area as well (source.)
It's really, really, really, really, super important to note this: Paul was born a Jew and remained a Jew his entire life. It wouldn't be correct to say that Paul "converted" to Christianity, because there was no Christianity to convert to (even though, yes, Shmoop and other folks use that term all the time to describe this group of early believers. It just makes life a little easier).
The earliest followers of Jesus would have considered themselves Jews and their message an off-shoot of the Jewish religion. Paul lived and died believing he was leading the Jewish faith in the right direction. The Jews of his day didn't really agree.
Act Like An Apostle Already
Acts of the Apostles tells Paul's story most fully and we suggest taking a minute to cruise over there and get the full scoop (okay, it'll take more than a minute). But here's his deal in a nutshell. Paul (or Saul, as he was still known then) was a devout Jew who actually persecuted Christians. Acts says that he was present when Stephen, one of the followers of Jesus, was martyred. (That's just a fancy way of saying he was bludgeoned to death by big freakin' rocks.)
Then, one day, as Saul was travelling to Damascus to go terrorize some more Christians, he was blinded by a light on the road. He heard Jesus's voice say: "Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 22:7) Um, good question. Anyway, later Saul regained his sight, changed his name, and became a devoted follower of Jesus.
Man on a Mission
For the next thirty years Paul traveled around the eastern half of the Roman Empire spreading the good news about Jesus Christ and trying to convince people that Jesus was the Messiah. By all accounts, he was pretty successful. He set up churches in Corinth, Phillipi, Galatia, and Thessalonica (and also wrote some pretty fabulous letters to them every once in a while). It's worth noting that he did not start the church in Rome. He's actually just being a good pen pal to those lucky letter recipients.
Unlike the other main apostles, such as Peter and James, Paul is a lot more interested in spreading the good word about Jesus to the Gentiles (or non-Jewish folks). He kind of has a knack for it, which is why he calls himself the "apostle to the Gentiles." He also prides himself on working to improve Jewish-Gentile relations within the churches he writes to. In Romans, he maintains that people who follow Christ don't also have to follow every single Jewish law (like being circumcised or keeping kosher). Male converts and bacon lovers rejoice.
Paul's plan at the end of Romans is to move westward toward Rome and Spain after he brings the collection to Jerusalem. He's been collecting money from the churches around the eastern part of the Empire and is now looking to deliver it to the center of it all—the church in Jerusalem. Just a quick drop off and then onto bigger and better things, right?
But Paul's letter also contains a little foreshadowing. He's a teeny bit worried about what's gonna happen when he goes to Jerusalem. He asks the Romans to pray that not only will he not fall victim to some of the anti-Christian forces in the city (he knows they're nasty—he used to be one, after all). Paul's also nervous that the Christians there won't take too kindly to his offering because it comes from some of the Gentile churches.
Acts tells us that when he does visit Jerusalem, the Christians there do question his Jewish credentials a bit and insist he perform a ritual in the temple to prove to everyone that he loves and upholds Jewish law. While he's at the temple, the anti-Christian folks spot him and—bam—within a few days he's been arrested.
Paul eventually makes his way to Rome… as a prisoner. Not exactly traveling in style. Acts ends with Paul preaching in Rome while awaiting trial. And that's the end… or is it?
So, what happened in Rome? Was Paul executed there? Was he released to make his way toward Spain? Did he live to a ripe old age playing pinochle in his living room with other disciples of Christ?
No one actually knows. The Bible is silent on the subject and church tradition says that Paul was beheaded in Rome in 64 CE when Nero decided to start persecuting him some Christians. Lots of religious icons and paintings will show him holding a sword, even though we can't imagine he would have been too excited about carrying that around. That's because, if Paul was a Roman citizen, like it says in Acts 22:25, then he would have been entitled to a quick and (relatively) painless end by having his head chopped off.
Of course, it's also possible he wasn't a Roman citizen (Paul never says so in any of his letters). If he were an average Joe, he could have died like the other Christians in that persecution. According to the Roman historian, Tacitus, the Christians were "covered with the skins of beasts […] torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired" (Annals 15.44.4). The sword thing is looking pretty good right now.
Little did Paul know that his letter to the Romans would be his final hurrah. Written in the mid-late 50s CE, Romans is the last piece of correspondence we have from him. It's also the longest. What can we say? Paul knew how to end on a strong note.
Though Romans doesn't contain each and every thought Paul had about Jesus, it's probably the most influential of his letters and generally considered to be a masterpiece of theological awesomeness. Here's a quick breakdown of some of Paul's most important points:
• Don't get cocky: Paul hates it when anyone thinks too highly of themselves and starts to put down others. Braggers beware! (3:27)
• Justification through faith: Basically Paul is saying that just going through the motions of doing good things won't get you in good with God. He's tough to please. (3:28)
• Jewish law: It's true—the law is amazing… but, we shouldn't worry about following every little detail. The most important thing is that our hearts are directed towards God. (8:4)
• Togetherness: Paul is big on Christians living in harmony with each other. If this means some people are kosher and some people aren't, no big deal, right? (12:6)
• Obey!: You should listen to people in positions of authority because God put them there. This teaching would go on to cause no trouble whatsoever throughout the course of history. Not. (13:1)
Whew. That's a pretty long list. And, remember, that's just the stuff he wrote about in Romans.