The Apostle Paul has been the subject of movies, books, and too many sermons and Sunday School lessons to count. But if you think you know everything there is to know about this influential missionary and writer of half of the New Testament, think again. We hope this article makes for some fascinating reading for you and a provided new perspective on the man who “saw the light” (Acts 9:3) and went on to play a huge role in giving us the Word of God that is a lamp and light in lives today. (Psalm 119:105).
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Paul and Cleopatra had something in common.
Paul was born in the Roman city of Tarsus, the same city where Cleopatra staged a colorful and seductive first meeting with Marc Antony. Hoping to become military allies, he had invited the Queen to meet with him in Tarsus. She responded by sailing into the city on a golden barge equipped with silver oars, purple sails, and adorned with flowers and exotic perfumes. She herself was dressed as Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Roughly 50 years later, Paul was born in the same city, located in what is today southern Turkey. He speaks of his native city to a Roman soldier, saying, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city.” (Acts 21:39).
2. Paul had a good reason for becoming a tentmaker.
When it came time for the youthful Paul to learn a trade, he learned how to make tents—and for good reason! Paul’s native province of Cilicia was well known for producing and exporting a goat-hair cloth sought after for making tents. The cloth was woven from the long-hair of a peculiar breed of goats native to the area.
3. Paul was a couple of years younger than Jesus.
Scholars put the birth year of Paul between 2 to 6 years after the birth of Christ.
4. Some of Paul’s relatives are mentioned in the Bible.
In Acts 23 we have mention of Paul’s father who was a Pharisee (v 6), his sister, and his nephew (v16) who saves him from a plot against his life. We learn more about his distant relatives when he writes, in Romans 11:1, “I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin.” And we know that Benjamin was the second son of Rachel and Jacob (Genesis 35: 16-18) so there are a couple more relatives right there. Finally, some scholars think he was named after King Saul, another distant relative since Paul came from a devout Jewish family and was of the lineage of Benjamin, as was King Saul, the first king of Israel.
5. You’ve heard of Nero fiddling while Rome burned? It’s likely that Paul was beheaded by Nero, and that the burning of Rome had something to do with it.
No one knows if Nero actually played the lyre while Rome burned, but we do know that many Romans blamed him for the near destruction of their city and that, following the fire, Nero staged fierce and brutal persecutions of Christians. Many scholars say the reason he lashed out at Christians was to draw blame and attention away from himself for the negative press he was getting over the fire.
So what does this have to do with Paul? While the Bible does not specify when and how Paul died, we know that 2nd Timothy was written while Paul was in a Roman prison from 66-67 AD—not long after the burning of Rome in 64—and that during this time Paul was anticipating his death: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:6-8). Furthermore, an early church historian Eusebius wrote that Paul was, indeed, beheaded at the order of the Roman emperor Nero.
6. Paul gets the award for writing the biggest chunk of the Bible in the shortest period of time.
He wrote more than half of the New Testament over a period of 17 years—and about half of that was written over a period of three years, from 61 to 63 A.D. During this time, he wrote Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 Timothy, and Titus. He wrote four of these letters in prison, which might explain why he was so prolific!
7. Jesus didn’t change Saul’s name to Paul after his conversion.
It’s not uncommon to hear the story of how the Pharisee known Saul was traveling to Damascus to find and imprison Christians when a light from heaven flashed around him and he heard the voice of Jesus say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4, 22:7). The man had a miraculous conversion experience and began preaching that Jesus is the Messiah with a boldness that changed history—and somewhere in the process Jesus renamed him Paul to represent his conversion and rebirth. Except that last part isn’t exactly in the Bible.
What really happened is that after his miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul continues to be called, well, Saul, by the Holy Spirit and others long after his conversion. (You can see it happen here: Acts 9:17, 11:25, 11:30, 12:25, 13:2, 13:7)
Then in Acts 13:9, as he is getting ready to launch his ministry to largely Greek-speaking Gentiles on Cypress, we read these words: “Then Saul, who was also called Paul…” And from then on Luke, the author of Acts, continues to call him Paul. One idea is that “Saul” is his Hebrew name, while as a Roman citizen he also bore the biblical Greek name of Paul. It was not uncommon for people in that day to have two names. The theory is that Luke began calling his fellow missionary “Paul” because that would be the more familiar name to the Gentiles to which they were ministering.
Regardless of how and why Saul came to be better known as Paul, nothing diminishes the importance of the transforming encounter he had with Jesus on the road to Damascus. It was an encounter that altered the course of history, resulted in untold generations throughout the world meeting Jesus as their Savior, and made it possible for us to receive half of the New Testament through the writings of this rock star of an Apostle of Christ.