Study Guide

Paul of Tarsus in Corinthians

Paul of Tarsus

Wait a second. We thought the New Testament was all about Jesus. But 15 of the 27 New Testament books are said to be written by or about Paul—so how about them apples, Jesus?

And in Corinthians, Paul's not just a biblical character; he's also our author. With letters like these two to the Corinthians, Paul was able to shape the early Christian church into what it is today—a powerhouse with 2.1 billion followers (source). His theology has been majorly influential and his writings have inspired billions around the world. Not too shabby.

So yeah, we'd say he's worth a closer look.

Paul in Corinthians

Both 1 and 2 Corinthians actually throw out quite a few random biographical details for Paul. Here are a boatload of facts we know from the text:

  • He's "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God" (1 Corinthians 1:1). Nice to meet you, too.
  • He comes from a Jewish background (2 Corinthians 11:22). He's definitely an NJB.
  • He's the one who founded the whole church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:10). That's no small accomplishment.
  • As far as spiritual gifts go, he actually speaks in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:18).
  • He once saw Jesus. After he had died and rose again (1 Corinthians 15:8). Yup, very impressive indeed.
  • And there was that time he was "caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told" (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Um, awesome.
  • He doesn't take charity… for himself, that is (2 Corinthians 11:7-9).
  • But he is collecting money for Christians in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). Give generously, y'all!
  • Paul's also been in some sticky situations before (2 Corinthians 6:4-10). Actually, many, many times before (2 Corinthians 11:23-33).
  • Once, God gave him a super painful "thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7), which could refer to some kind of illness.
  • He's not "trying to frighten [anyone] with [his] letters" (2 Corinthians 10:9). Could have fooled us.

Okay, so what does all that mean?

First, it's important to point out that the Corinthian Christians reading Paul's letter wouldn't have needed any other background information because they would have already had it. Paul visited Corinth a total of three times, and he wrote them pretty regularly (he's a good pen pal). So they knew their apostle like the back of their hand.

But, we're not the Corinthians, so let's delve into some backstory.

Nice Jewish Boy

Paul was actually born with the name Saul. Scholars figure 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, were contemporaries. And even though Paul would spend the majority of his life writing, preaching, and teaching about Jesus, he never actually met the guy (source). Weird, huh?

Unlike Jesus, Paul grew up in a big city called Tarsus—nowadays, we call that neck of the woods Turkey. While Jesus spent his whole life in the Jewish homeland, Judea, Paul wasn't a homeboy. Instead, he was part of the Jewish Diaspora around the Empire. He would have had access not only to a stellar Jewish religious education (he eventually joined up with the Pharisees—those dreaded baddies from the Gospels), but would have been exposed to Greek learning in the area, too (source).

Act Like An Apostle Already

Acts of the Apostles lays out Paul's story most fully, so we'd recommend taking a minute to cruise over there and get the full scoop (okay, it'll take more than a minute). But we'll give you the nutshell. Paul (or Saul as he was still known then) was a devout Jew who actually wasn't too nice to Christians. Acts says that he was present when Stephen, one of Jesus's followers, was martyred. (That's just a nicer way of saying he was bludgeoned to death by big freakin' rocks.) Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians 15:9—"I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God." Nice going, Paul.

Then, one day, as Saul was on his way to Damascus to go terrorize some more Christians, he was blinded by a light on the road. Paul's ears perked up when he heard Jesus's voice say: "Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 22:7). Um, good question. Anyway, later Saul got his sight back, changed his name, and became a devoted follower of Jesus. This is why when Paul asks, "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1), you're supposed to answer, "Yes. Yes, you have."

Man on a Mission

For the next thirty years, Paul traveled around the eastern half of the Roman Empire telling everyone what he'd heard about Jesus. By all accounts, he was pretty successful. He arrived in Corinth to set up shop sometime between 50 CE and 51 CE. He also started churches in ancient cities like Phillipi, Galatia, and Thessalonica, too. These guys are the recipients of some pretty lovely letters, too. And bonus: you can find them in the New Testament, too. Thanks, Bible compilers.

In total, Paul visited Corinth three times and wrote at least five different letters that we know about (the back and forth between them probably contained a lot more correspondence). Things didn't always go smoothly, though. After the church was established, lots of doubting apostles came to town to stir up trouble.

Respect His Authority

These guys made things tough for Paul and forced him to defend his authenticity as an apostle:

  • "Our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant" (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). Straight from the Lord's mouth.
  • "Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized" (1 Corinthians 14:37-38). So step off.
  • "If you are confident that you belong to Christ, remind yourself of this, that just as you belong to Christ, so also do we. Now, even if I boast a little too much of our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for tearing you down, I will not be ashamed of it" (2 Corinthians 10:7-8). But isn't boasting bad?
  • "I will not be lenient—since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me" (2 Corinthians 13:2-3). Watch out, Corinthians!

The takeaway? Paul is large and in charge, and the Corinthians best recognize. Yes, he has been called by God. Yes, he's got the credentials to prove it. Yes, he is the real deal.

Paul is pretty ticked about having to defend himself. This must be partly because the charges are pretty tough to refute (how can you "prove" that you've seen Christ and been called to spread his gospel throughout the world?). Still, the Corinthians are looking for signs… so Paul will indulge them.

He's Been Through Some Stuff

So what makes an authentic apostle? How can you tell if someone really has what it takes to spread the good news of Christ? Well, if you ask Paul, he'd tell you one word—weakness. Huh?

Paul constantly brags about how terrible he is at evangelizing (we find that kind of hard to believe, Mr. Setting-Up-Churches-All-Over-the-Empire):

  • "Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power" (1 Corinthians 1:17).
  • "I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God" (1 Corinthians 2:3-5).
  • "Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness" (2 Corinthians 11:29-30).

We get it already. You suck. And when it comes to suffering? Yeah, he's done it:

  • "Are they ministers of Christ? […] I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death" (2 Corinthians 11:23).
  • "As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger" (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).
  • "He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again" (2 Corinthians 1:10).

Paul's basic take on all this is that a true apostle is one who is willing to go to bat for God. This job would be a piece of cake if it were all life-changing prophecies and visions of God in Heaven. Sure, Paul's experienced this good stuff, too. But, if you've never had your faith tested with trials and near-death experiences, then you're probably not a very good apostle. Amateurs!

He Will Have Order

Throughout his letters to the Corinthians, Paul is big on two things: living in harmony and keeping the peace. Think of Paul as the president of the Get Along Gang. He wants everyone holding hands while skipping down the street together. His suggestions for achieving this:

  • If you can help it, don't sue other Christians (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). Paul thinks it's better just to lose a little money in a deal gone bad than to bother Judge Wapner.
  • Don't eat foods that have been sacrificed to idols if it bothers other people (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). Sure, you know it's no big deal. But if it hurts someone's feelings, why do it?
  • When it comes to communion, make sure everyone gets a share (1 Corinthians 11:18-22-34). No hogging the bread and wine!
  • Ladies should also not be talking in church—that'll keep order for sure (1 Corinthians 14:33-36).
  • Take turns speaking in tongues while in church (1 Corinthians 14:26-31). No one wants to try to listen to five different people rambling at the same time.

Paul's really concerned about any divisions that crop up, so he wants to nip those in the bud right away. And if individuals have to compromise a little? Don't worry. It's all for the greater good.

Next Year in Jerusalem

Speaking of the greater good, one of the big overarching concerns in Paul's letters to the Corinthians is the collection of money he is taking up for Christians in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16 and 2 Corinthians 8). He's been running all around the Empire asking his churches to give a little. His big plan is to take the money himself to Jerusalem and visit with the Christian leaders there. Sounds like a good plan.

But things don't really turn out as rosy as expected. When he eventually does get the cash together and makes a trip to the Holy Land, Paul isn't exactly welcomed with open arms (even though his arms contain basketfuls of cash). Acts 21 tells us that when he arrives, the Christians there 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. Not good.

Paul Is Dead

Paul is eventually shipped to Rome to stand trial and face yet another possible death sentence. But that's where his trail of letters dries up. We don't know for sure if Paul was executed or if he lived to a ripe old age playing pinochle in his living room with other disciples of Christ.

Church tradition says that our guy was beheaded in Rome in 64 CE when the Emperor Nero decided to start persecuting him some Christians. Lots of religious icons and paintings show Paul holding a sword, although we can't imagine he would have been too thrilled about carrying that around. Why? Because if Paul was a Roman citizen, like it says in Acts 22:25, 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 (after all, Paul never says so in any of his letters). If he were just Joe Shmoe, 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).

Yeah, that sword thing is looking pretty good right now.