THE APOSTLE OF THE GENTILES
Paul of Tarsus (originally Saul) canonised as St Paul the Apostle (died 67 AD) did not know Jesus during his lifetime like the other Twelve Apostles but was the first to have as his only experience that of the Risen Christ.
Born in Tarsus, he was sent as a young man to Jerusalem where he was given a strict training in the Law at the school of Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder.
After several years there he returned to Tarsus and so was not present in Jerusalem during Jesus’ preaching ministry but only returned to the city a few years after Christ’s passion.
During this phase of his life Saul was a fervent Pharisee: he witnessed the stoning of Stephen, holding the cloaks of his murderers as described in the Acts of the Apostles (8: 1-3). Soon afterwards he was given the task of going to Damascus to imprison the Christians there (Acts 9:2) since he was zealous and firmly against the religion of Jesus which was beginning to spread and establish itself.
His conversion took place on the road to Damascus when a light from heaven suddenly surrounded him and falling from his horse, he heard a voice saying ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
Saul was blinded and groped around, stunned by what had happened: then for three days he waited without eating or drinking for someone to come and at that moment we could say that Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, was born. He decided to withdraw into the desert and spent three years there rethinking his life and meditating at length on the gift he had received.
Comforted by this light of truth, he returned to Damascus and began preaching with enthusiasm, provoking anger amongst the pagans who considered him a renegade and tried to kill him with the result that he was forced to flee the city.
He took refuge in Jerusalem and stayed a couple of weeks there meeting Peter, the leader of the Apostles and James to whom he explained his new life.
The Apostles understood and stayed with him for many hours each day, talking to him about Jesus. But the Christian community in Jerusalem did not trust him, mindful of the vicious persecutions he had inflicted on them, and it was only through the guarantees given by Barnabas, a formerly influential Levite, that their doubts were removed and he was accepted.
During the two weeks he spent in Jerusalem Paul tried to convert others to Christ, but this missionary activity annoyed the Jews and bothered the Christians so in the end, feeling ill at ease, Paul went first to Caesarea and then returned to his own city, Tarsus in Cilicia, where he returned to his job as a tent maker.
From 39 AD to 43 AD we have no news of him until Barnabas, invited by the Apostles to organise the emerging Christian community in Antioch, came to Paul and asked him to come too. It is at this point that Paul abandons forever the name Saul because he was convinced that his mission was not so much among the Jews as among those other peoples whom the Jews referred to as ‘Gentiles.’ It was in Antioch that the disciples of Christ were first known by the name ‘Christians.’
Thanks to Paul’s zeal, in a few years time ‘the Word went out from Jerusalem and the Law from Zion,’ as the prophet had predicted.