Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon actually throw out tons of biographical details about Paul—quite a bit more than any of his other letters. From these three epistles we know the following deets:
• Paul's an apostle. Naturally. (Galatians 1:1)
• He's had some health problems. But no biggie. (Galatians 4:13)
• He's got really bad handwriting. (Galatians 6:11)
• If you need him to, he will pay your debts. (Philemon 1:19)
• He will totally crash in your guest room. Uninvited. (Philemon 1:22)
Yup. That's Paul in a nutshell.
But that's not the whole deal. Paul also drops lots of juicy tidbits about his origin story. No, it doesn't involve a radioactive spider bite, but it's still pretty darn good.
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:13-17)
Paul's account pretty much jibes with the details that Luke gives us in Acts of the Apostles. In that book, we learn that 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 traveling 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. The rest is history. The history of the western world, that is.
Where Paul's story does take a little left turn from Acts is in his description of his meetings with the twelve apostles in Jerusalem. You know, those guys who actually met Jesus during his lifetime. See, even though Paul would spend the majority of his life writing, preaching, and teaching about Jesus, he never actually saw the guy while he was alive. Weird, huh?
But that's no problem for Paul. After all, he saw a vision of Jesus. A revelation from Christ himself. In fact, this whole divine revelation thing is like a feather in Paul's cap. He didn't learn about Jesus from other people. He heard it straight from the Savior's mouth:
• "[I was] sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father." (Galatians 1:1)
• "Am I now seeking human approval, or God's approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:7)
• "The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." (Galatians 1:11-12)
So what does that mean? For Paul, it means he has authority. No human can tell him where to go or how to preach, since he's got the direct line to God going. Also, no one can tell him he's wrong about the whole Gentiles-don't-need-to-follow-Jewish-law thing. After all, Jesus is down with it and everyone knows Jesus is Paul's homeboy.
Paul's so anxious to let everyone know that's he's a lone wolf that he goes out of his way to tell us just how little he had to do with the church in Jerusalem:
Three years [after my conversion] I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother[…] I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, "The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy." And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:18-24).
Basically, they all love him there in Judea. But Paul ain't got time for that. It took another fourteen years before he bothered to come back. This time it's to present God's case for the Gentiles:
I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain[…] And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. (Galatians 2:3, 6-9)
You got all that? First, Paul doesn't head to Jerusalem to get anyone's approval. He just comes to bring the truth. Naturally, the leaders in the church listen to him—he is from God, after all. But their approval doesn't really mean anything. Just because you're "acknowledged" by the people doesn't mean God endorses you, too. But of course, they saw how authoritative and filled with grace he was.
Geez, Paul. Is your head swelling a little?
Why does Paul go through all this trouble to make sure that everyone knows he's not learning from humans? Probably because he's trying to set himself apart from the pro-law disciples in town. These guys might have claimed to have been taught by some of the elders in Jerusalem personally; Paul, however, appeals to a higher authority.
After he saw his vision of Jesus, Paul spent about thirty years traveling around the eastern half of the Roman Empire and spreading the good news. He was pretty successful, too. Not only did he set up churches in places like Corinth, Philippi, Galatia, and Thessalonica, he also wrote some pretty kick-butt letters every once in a while.
Paul kind of made it his life's mission to bring the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews). He really had a knack for it, which is why he called himself the "apostle to the Gentiles." In these letters, he maintains that people who follow Christ don't also have to follow every single Jewish law (like being circumcised).
Why did Paul dig Gentiles so much? Well, 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, but would have been exposed to Greek universities in the area as well (source). That means he would have been pretty used to mixing with non-Jews.
But don't get Paul wrong. He was way into Judaism, too. Paul was raised to be a nice Jewish boy and states his proud Jewish credentials over and over:
• "We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners." (Galatians 2:15)
• "[I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." (Philippians 3:5-6)
Translation: he was a real mensch.
Paul was born a Jew and remained a Jew his entire life. It wouldn't really 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 offshoot 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.
So Paul was a lot of things. An apostle. A Jew. A world traveler. But he was also a convict. That's right. Saint Paul himself spent tons of time behind bars. According to Acts, he got locked up at least three times. And both Philippians and Philemon were both written from inside the Big House.
His main trouble was the way he worked. Usually Paul would stroll into a new town and immediately start talking up Jesus. He might manage to convert a few people, but it wouldn't be too long before he upset a how bunch of folks, too. He might annoy the Jews in town by saying that Jesus did away with Jewish law. He also might get on some of the pagans' nerves by calling their gods demons. Pretty soon, Paul would find himself in chains in one dark, damp prison cell or another.
For his part, Paul is pretty cool with the whole prison thing. He believes he's fighting for a just cause, so he's willing to spend some time on the inside if that's what it takes to spread the message of Jesus. He tells his friends in Philippi:
What has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14)
See, silver linings all over the place.
Paul's also never been one to shy away from suffering, so he's more than willing to endure some hardships for his Lord and Savior:
See? Prison's like a vacation for Paul.
You probably won't be surprised to hear that at the end of Paul's life, he wound up in a jail cell once again. This time, he's shipped off to Rome to stand trial in front of the Emperor. So what happened there? Was Paul executed in Rome? Was he released to make his way west? 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.