The Adventures of Saint Paul as Told in the "Acts of the Apostles"
The Travels of Paul
Two Thousand Years Ago
When Christianity began it was considered a new religion that did not adhere to the traditional practices of the organized religion where it began. Those who followed Christianity were treated like radical troublemakers by mainstream society. People who controlled the primary religion were the same as the powerful people who now hold governmental office. Religion was part of the law and the government of people. Separation of church and state was not really invented yet. Thus, those who were not traditional Jews were viewed by many as weirdos hallucinating and ranting about things that didn't really exist. Two thousand years later, this view is still held by some non-Christians.
Surprisingly little is known about occurrences that took place at the time when the most influential Person in human history lived (or was supposed to have lived). The atheist is right when he says that very little can be proven about the one Person on whom most of the educated, progressive societies in the world have placed their entire faith and trust.
After Jesus died, and was resurrected (according to the teachings of Christianity and the part of the Bible that follows the four gospels and is called the Acts of the Apostles) the apostles and disciples gathered together, inspired by knowing Jesus first-hand, and resolved to spread the teachings of Jesus throughout the world, beginning with Jerusalem, just as Jesus had told them to do. To them, the "world" was the land within a distance of about one thousand miles of the Mediterranean Sea in all directions, most of which was controlled by Rome.
Christians were regarded by the ruling class (high-ranking Jewish clergy in and around Israel) as outlaws who were trying to tell people to believe something that was false and not part of the laws established for the Jewish people by Moses. In those times, to put it into modern legal terms, they were guilty of soliciting felonious crimes.
Freedom of speech and association were unheard-of back then. Because in America we have personal freedom of religion and separation of church and state, it's hard for us to imagine people being put in jail just because they have a way of worshiping God that happens to be different from the normal way in vogue at the time. But two thousand years ago, in Jerusalem, the rules established by Moses, who received these rules directly from God, were the law of the land.
Superimposed on this was Roman law, which more closely resembled our own thinking today. Roman rulers often treated arguments between Jewish clergy and Christians as internal matters that should not take up the time of the Roman government, Israel having been occupied and subjected to Roman rule during that period in history.
Some think that the Acts of the Apostles might better have been titled The Adventures of Saint Paul. This part of the New Testament was written by Luke, the doctor who wrote one of the four gospels. Luke accompanied Paul during many of Paul's travels.
Against this backdrop we must consider the opinions of atheists and non-Christians who question not only whether these biblical stories are true, but whether Luke, Paul, or even Jesus Himself really lived, or were perhaps just make-believe characters invented for the entertainment of readers and listeners to tales, who thrived on such stories before the days of literacy, books, and Hollywood movies.
No historical proof has been established one way or the other. This is why faith, in the religious sense, is still considered by many to require belief in the unseen.
Acts opens with a description of 120 apostles and disciples meeting and choosing a replacement for Judas, the apostle who had betrayed Christ. Matthias was chosen.
A miracle occurred shortly thereafter when a gathering of these faithful followers of Jesus received a miraculous spirit that came over them all at once. They suddenly spoke together in tongues of many languages. People outside on the streets in Jerusalem, being immigrants from other nations, heard the Christians speaking in these foreign languages, which they recognized as their native tongues. Many people in the city and beyond were converted through this advantageous gift of language.
Other miracles occurred. Peter, with John present, made a lame beggar well at the temple gate by asking for this healing in Jesus' name. But the high priests were enraged at being upstaged by something they considered a Christian challenge. They threatened Peter. He refused to stop preaching however, because Christ had taught him never to fear death.
Christians sold their property and united together, sharing everything they had. Some disciples who sold property but gave less than 100% of the proceeds to Peter magically were struck dead just for holding back. This might impress us as unfair, or a symbolic directive to give all we have to our faith. But according to the Acts, it literally happened.
The Jewish ruling class had the apostles beaten and told not to preach in the temple. They really meant business. Christianity was a heresy.
After seven disciples, including Stephen, were chosen to help certain widows, rivals of Christians falsely accused Stephen of blasphemy. At his trial, Stephen recited the history of his own Jewish people from Abraham through Jesus, accused the high priests of murdering Jesus, and then was stoned to death for this. Today we would consider Stephen's words to be only an exercise of free speech or religious freedom. But back then, single-minded religion was the law.
Saul (the Jewish name for the Roman name Paul) persecuted Christians in Jerusalem and surrounding areas. Saul was raised a strict Jew. He was a high-ranking, educated pharisee. He hated Christians and drove the disciples away, including Philip who brought Christianity to Samaria (located between Jerusalem and Galilee).
But one day, Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus and converted him. Back in Jerusalem, Saul joined the apostles in converting many people to Christianity.
Miracles continued to happen, as Peter brought a dead woman back to life one day in an outlying town. Jesus had taught his apostles that miracles could happen, if they asked in His name.
Peter accepted non-Jews (called Gentiles) into Christianity, after he had a vision of a huge fabric holding many animals, including beasts and creeping things, suspended in the air, along with a message from God that "what God has cleansed, you must not call common." These lowly animals symbolized the rest of the world, besides the Hebrews. It's strange that a small group of people in the world would be considered superior to every other human alive, but again, such was the thinking at the time of the Acts of the Apostles.
Today, we'd consider this a rather arrogant approach, but the Old Testament describing Moses and the original struggles of the Hebrew people, has many passages that state very clearly that these people were God's chosen people, and superior to all others on earth.
In fact the apostles themselves had a lot of difficulty with the idea of Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) being worthy of becoming Christians. The general thinking of many was that Christ was only for the Jews. Just about every one of the original apostles and disciples was Jewish.
Herod was a Jewish family name of various Jewish rulers used throughout the years by the Romans during this period to keep peace among the native people in occupied Israel. The Herod in charge during the Acts of the Apostles hated the Christians for stirring up so much trouble. This Herod had John's brother James killed, and had Peter put into jail. But divine intervention in the form of an angel came and set Peter free. Soon thereafter, another angel killed Herod.
The conservative Jews refused the Christian teachings of Paul (Saul) but the Gentiles (that is, everyone else besides Hebrews) delighted in it. Paul preached against offering sacrifices, a cornerstone of Mosaic law given to the Hebrews by God through Moses. For such outrageous things, Paul was stoned and dragged out of the town where he was preaching. But he got up off the ground, walked back into town, and the next day continued preaching, convincing many people, both Jews and Gentiles, of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Nowadays, circumcision is something usually not discussed in polite company. But we do recognize that in religions (such as the Jewish and Muslim faiths) founded in desert areas where bathing with sufficient water is difficult, some parts of the male body might be cleaned more easily if this surgical procedure is performed. Therefore, not only was this a directive from God to Moses and his people, but it made common sense as good hygiene as well.
Two thousand years ago in Israel, it was a major event. God told the Hebrews that all of the males must be circumcised. Therefore, when Paul and others converted Gentiles without requiring them to be circumcised, major arguments arose. Perhaps this had some connection with the vision sent to Paul earlier by God, comparing Gentiles to animals and creeping things, but stressing that even such creatures shouldn't be considered unclean, just because they weren't Hebrews.
In the end, it was decided that Gentiles wouldn't have to be circumcised, but should be told just to adhere to the basics of Mosaic laws, such as avoiding the consumption of strangled animals and blood. We can't help but digress into a modern comparison to Christian holidays with meat and gravy being passed around, but it seems God wanted different things from us at different times in history.
Paul had many adventures. In the city of Philippi, in Macedonia, he was thrown into jail, but they found out that he had been born a Roman citizen in a very highly esteemed town within the occupied territories under Roman control. This had a lot of clout back then. Today, it would be like the sudden realization petty officials had just thrown a senator's son into prison.
Paul preached and reasoned with people throughout Greece, both Greeks and Jews alike, even in Athens itself. Paul traveled to Corinth and many other towns, constantly arguing with the conservative Jews who denied that Jesus was someone sent to earth by God. To the limited knowledge of people back then, this was like traveling the whole world. Very little or nothing was known of places like Australia, China, and America.
There was resistance from Gentiles too. For example, Paul's teachings threatened to put out of business the craftsmen who made and sold images of the goddess Diana.
But once when Paul was preaching on the third floor of a building, a young man accidentally fell out of the window. He was assumed to be dead, but Paul went down and threw himself on top of the man, who then miraculously came back to life.
The final adventure of Paul began when he returned to Jerusalem from Greece. Mobs of people tried to kill him for his abandonment of the Mosaic law requiring circumcision. Needless to say, in our modern day this would be considered ludicrous. But to the ancient Jews, it was sacrilegious and, in the absence of free exercise of religion, tantamount to a major felony.
Paul tried to defend himself by explaining Jesus' appearing to him on the road to Damascus, but the devout Jews hated him even more. Because Paul was a Roman citizen (as well as a Jewish pharisee) the Roman centurions, called to quell the mob, protected Paul.
He was kept as the captive of Roman leaders who occupied Israeli territory because they wanted to calm the Jewish people and avoid an uprising, but also because these Romans themselves wanted to learn more about Christianity from Paul, whom they suspected of being a highly intelligent, but insane, person.
Ultimately, Paul appealed his case directly to Caesar himself, saying he wanted to be judged by Romans in Rome and not Jews in Jerusalem. The Roman leaders in the Israel area thought Paul really had done nothing deserving of death. They simply took him for a religious fanatic. Still, they must have been relieved to have an excuse to be rid of this hot potato.
Sent off to Rome, Paul had a great adventure aboard a ship in a storm. His faith and leadership saved everyone on board from perishing.
The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul living in Rome and preaching, after telling Jews there that he would concentrate mostly on converting Gentiles because so many of the Jews were so very difficult to convert. Paul himself often made it clear that he believed in the original Jewish religion, just as Jesus had, but wanted to advance it one step further into Christianity.
One significance of the Acts of the Apostles is to explain why today we have mostly Christians who are not Jews by nationality, and vice versa. Although Jesus himself was devoutly Jewish, he constantly argued with clergy about the big difference between overt showings of ritual and what one feels deep down inside one's own heart.
Still, this was considered by conservative Jews two thousand years ago to be at odds with the Old Testament, in which Moses was given these rituals, such as burnt offerings, as law handed down directly from God.
The only way to reconcile all this logically is to conclude that what God wanted at one point in history was different than later on, or that God tells different people different things.
When Moses had it tough back in earlier days, God was strict. Sometimes God wanted Moses' men to kill everyone, women and children too, and take over certain territories. But later on, in Jesus' time, God spoke through Jesus and wanted us to love our enemies, not kill them.
Coming finally up to the present, as we must in order to make sense of a Tower of Babel of world religions with atheists to boot in our 21st Century, the practical approach seems to be a live-and-let-live philosophy which is the only hope of earning any respect. We try to be both correct morally and wise from a practical point of view.
Respect and tolerance for all religions, whether conservative, ultra modern, or atheistic, is a way to survive. Paul was an evangelist. We have many today. But thank goodness at least in America and most progressive nations, people have freedom of thought, decision, speech, assembly, and religion. Otherwise someone might be arrested for agreeing with, disagreeing with, flagging, or not flagging an Internet article about the Acts of the Apostles.
Proof of Saint Paul
Is Paul only a fictional character? If so, this greatly would weaken the Christian faith on which other faiths, notably Islam, also rely. Together these two faiths comprise almost 60% of world religions. (Wikipedia, World Religions)
It's pretty well established that the "Acts" of the Apostles was written during the First Century. But unfortunately, as is the case with so much of the Bible, the New Testament itself is self-serving in that evidence of so many things goes round in a circle and ends up being based on the New Testament itself, not that the Old Testament and its Torah are any exceptions either.
There isn't much proof about Paul that is "external" (that is, coming from sources other than the New Testament's "internal" declarations on which people can rely illogically to establish something as a fact that's undeniable).
The general backdrop of persecution of Jews who preached Christianity 2000 years ago is a matter of historically proven fact. Either "Paul" or others by other names definitely had to undergo the basic trials and tribulations that were described in the Acts of the Apostles.
Thus, even if someone doesn't believe the exact details of the Acts, they can be taken as a pretty accurate "historical novel" rendition of something that might very well have occurred, although atheists would discount the historical evidence of any alleged miracles.
Therefore, Paul, whether taken as an historical figure or a figment of the imagination of an allegorical writer of antiquity, exists as an example of faith, which allegedly and actually for many people, has produced major or minor miracles in a human lifetime. Also, Paul is the symbol of the spread of evangelical Christianity throughout the Roman Empire that existed in the Mediterranean area 2000 years ago.