The public life of Paul, from the third year after his conversion to his martyrdom, A.D. 40–64, embraces a quarter of a century, three great missionary campaigns with minor expeditions, five visits to Jerusalem, and at least four years of captivity in Caesarea and Rome. Some extend this period to A.D. 67 or 68. It may be divided into periods, as follows:
The period of preparatory labors in Syria and his native Cilicia, partly alone, partly in connection with Barnabas, his senior fellow-apostle among the Gentiles.
On his return from the Arabian retreat Paul began his public ministry in earnest at Damascus, preaching Christ on the very spot where he had been converted and called. His testimony enraged the Jews, who stirred up the deputy of the king of Arabia against him, but he was saved for future usefulness and let down by the brethren in a basket through a window in the wall of the city. Three years after his conversion he went up to Jerusalem to make the acquaintance of Peter and spent a fortnight with him. Besides him he saw James the brother of the Lord. Barnabas introduced him to the disciples, who at first were afraid of him, but when they heard of his marvellous conversion they “glorified God” that their persecutor was now preaching the faith he had once been laboring to destroy. He did not come to learn the gospel, having received it already by revelation, nor to be confirmed or ordained, having been called “not from men, or through man, but through Jesus Christ.” Yet his interview with Peter and James, though barely mentioned, must have been fraught with the deepest interest. Peter, kind-hearted and generous as he was, would naturally receive him with joy and thanksgiving. He had himself once denied the Lord—not malignantly but from weakness—as Paul had persecuted the disciples—ignorantly in unbelief. Both had been mercifully pardoned, both had seen the Lord, both were called to the highest dignity, both could say from the bottom of the heart: “Lord thou knowest all things; thou knowest that I love thee.” No doubt they would exchange their experiences and confirm each other in their common faith.
It was probably on this visit that Paul received in a vision in the temple the express command of the Lord to go quickly unto the Gentiles. Had he stayed longer at the seat of the Sanhedrin, he would undoubtedly have met the fate of the martyr Stephen.
He visited Jerusalem a second time during the famine under Claudius, in the year 44, accompanied by Barnabas, on a benevolent mission, bearing a collection of the Christians at Antioch for the relief of the brethren in Judaea. On that occasion he probably saw none of the apostles on account of the persecution in which James was beheaded, and Peter imprisoned.
The greater part of these four years was spent in missionary work at Tarsus and Antioch.
First missionary journey. In the year 45 Paul entered upon the first great missionary journey, in company with Barnabas and Mark, by the direction of the Holy Spirit through the prophets of the congregation at Antioch. He traversed the island of Cyprus and several provinces of Asia Minor. The conversion of the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, at Paphos; the rebuke and punishment of the Jewish sorcerer, Elymas; the marked success of the gospel in Pisidia, and the bitter opposition of the unbelieving Jews; the miraculous healing of a cripple at Lystra; the idolatrous worship there offered to Paul and Barnabas by the superstitious heathen, and its sudden change into hatred against them as enemies of the gods; the stoning of the missionaries, their escape from death, and their successful return to Antioch, are the leading incidents of this tour, which is fully described in Acts 13 and 14.
This period closes with the important apostolic conference at Jerusalem, A.D. 50, which will require separate consideration in the next section.
Second missionary journey. After the council at Jerusalem and the temporary adjustment of the difference between the Jewish and Gentile branches of the church, Paul undertook, in the year 51, a second great journey, which decided the Christianization of Greece. He took Silas for his companion. Having first visited his old churches, he proceeded, with the help of Silas and the young convert, Timothy, to establish new ones through the provinces of Phrygia and Galatia, where, notwithstanding his bodily infirmity, he was received with open arms like an angel of God.
From Troas, a few miles south of the Homeric Troy and the entrance to the Hellespont, he crossed over to Greece in answer to the Macedonian cry: “Come over and help us!” He preached the gospel with great success, first in Philippi, where he converted the purple dealer, Lydia, and the jailor, and was imprisoned with Silas, but miraculously delivered and honorably released; then in Thessalonica, where he was persecuted by the Jews, but left a flourishing church; in Beraea, where the converts showed exemplary zeal in searching the Scriptures. In Athens, the metropolis of classical literature, he reasoned with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers, and unveiled to them on Mars’ Hill (Areopagus), with consummate tact and wisdom, though without much immediate success, the “unknown God,” to whom the Athenians, in their superstitious anxiety to do justice to all possible divinities, had unconsciously erected an altar, and Jesus Christ, through whom God will judge the world in righteousness. In Corinth, the commercial bridge between the East and the West, a flourishing centre of wealth and culture, but also a sink of vice and corruption, the apostle spent eighteen months, and under almost insurmountable difficulties he built up a church, which exhibited all the virtues and all the faults of the Grecian character under the influence of the gospel, and which he honored with two of his most important Epistles.
In the spring of 54 he returned by way of Ephesus, Caesarea, and Jerusalem to Antioch.
During this period he composed the two Epistles to the Thessalonians, which are the earliest of his literary remains excepting his missionary addresses preserved in the Acts.
Third missionary tour. Towards the close of the year 54 Paul went to Ephesus, and in this renowned capital of proconsular Asia and of the worship of Diana, he fixed for three years the centre of his missionary work. He then revisited his churches in Macedonia and Achaia, and remained three months more in Corinth and the vicinity.
During this period he wrote the great doctrinal Epistles to the Galatians, Corinthians, and Romans, which mark the height of his activity and usefulness.
The period of his two imprisonments, with the intervening winter voyage from Caesarea to Rome. In the spring of 58 he journeyed, for the fifth and last time, to Jerusalem, by way of Philippi, Troas, Miletus (where he delivered his affecting valedictory to the Ephesian presbyter-bishops), Tyre, and Caesarea, to carry again to the poor brethren in Judaea a contribution from the Christians of Greece, and by this token of gratitude and love to cement the two branches of the apostolic church more firmly together.
But some fanatical Jews, who bitterly bated him as an apostate and a seducer of the people, raised an uproar against him at Pentecost; charged him with profaning the temple, because he had taken into it an uncircumcised Greek, Trophimus; dragged him out of the sanctuary, lest they should defile it with blood, and would undoubtedly have killed him had not Claudius Lysias, the Roman tribune, who lived near by, come promptly with his soldiers to the spot. This officer rescued Paul, out of respect for his Roman citizenship, from the fury of the mob, set him the next day before the Sanhedrin, and after a tumultuous and fruitless session of the council, and the discovery of a plot against his life, sent him, with a strong military guard and a certificate of innocence, to the procurator Felix in Caesarea.
Here the apostle was confined two whole years (58–60), awaiting his trial before the Sanhedrin, uncondemned, occasionally speaking before Felix, apparently treated with comparative mildness, visited by the Christians, and in some way not known to us promoting the kingdom of God.
After the accession of the new and better procurator, Festus, who is known to have succeeded Felix in the year 60, Paul, as a Roman citizen, appealed to the tribunal of Caesar and thus opened the way to the fulfilment of his long-cherished desire to preach the Saviour of the world in the metropolis of the world. Having once more testified his innocence, and spoken for Christ in a masterly defence before Festus, King Herod Agrippa II. (the last of the Herods), his sister Bernice, and the most distinguished men of Caesarea, he was sent in the autumn of the year 60 to the emperor. He had a stormy voyage and suffered shipwreck, which detained him over winter at Malta. The voyage is described with singular minuteness and nautical accuracy by Luke as an eye-witness. In the month of March of the year 61, the apostle, with a few faithful companions, reached Rome, a prisoner of Christ, and yet freer and mightier than the emperor on the throne. It was the seventh year of Nero’s reign, when he had already shown his infamous character by the murder of Agrippina, his mother, in the previous year, and other acts of cruelty.
In Rome Paul spent at least two years till the spring of 63, in easy confinement, awaiting the decision of his case, and surrounded by friends and fellow-laborers “in his own hired dwelling.” He preached the gospel to the soldiers of the imperial body-guard, who attended him; sent letters and messages to his distant churches in Asia Minor and Greece; watched over all their spiritual affairs, and completed in bonds his apostolic fidelity to the Lord and his church.
In the Roman prison he wrote the Epistles to the Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Philemon.
With the second year of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome the account of Luke breaks off, rather abruptly, yet appropriately and grandly. Paul’s arrival in Rome secured the triumph of Christianity. In this sense it was true, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.” And he who spoke at Rome is not dead; he is still “preaching (everywhere) the kingdom of God and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, with all boldness, none forbidding him.”
But what became of him after the termination of those two years in the spring of 63? What was the result of the trial so long delayed? Was he condemned to death? or was he released by Nero’s tribunal, and thus permitted to labor for another season? This question is still unsettled among scholars. A vague tradition says that Paul was acquitted of the charge of the Sanhedrin, and after travelling again in the East, perhaps also into Spain, was a second time imprisoned in Rome and condemned to death. The assumption of a second Roman captivity relieves certain difficulties in the Pastoral Epistles; for they seem to require a short period of freedom between the first and a second Roman captivity, and a visit to the East, which is not recorded in the Acts, but which the apostle contemplated in case of his release. A visit to Spain, which he intended, is possible, though less probable. If he was set at liberty, it must have been before the terrible persecution in July, 64, which would not have spared the great leader of the Christian sect. It is a remarkable coincidence that just about the close of the second year of Paul’s confinement, the celebrated Jewish historian, Josephus, then in his 27th year, came to Rome (after a tempestuous voyage and shipwreck), and effected through the influence of Poppaea (the wife of Nero and a half proselyte of Judaism) the release of certain Jewish priests who had been sent to Rome by Felix as prisoners. It is not impossible that Paul may have reaped the benefit of a general release of Jewish prisoners.
The martyrdom of Paul under Nero is established by the unanimous testimony of antiquity. As a Roman citizen, he was not crucified, like Peter, but put to death by the sword. The scene of his martyrdom is laid by tradition about three miles from Rome, near the Ostian way, on a green spot, formerly called Aquae Salviae, afterwards Tre Fontane, from the three fountains which are said to have miraculously gushed forth from the blood of the apostolic martyr. His relics were ultimately removed to the basilica of San Paolo-fuori-le-Mura, built by Theodosius and Valentinian in 388, and recently reconstructed. He lies outside of Rome, Peter inside. His memory is celebrated, together with that of Peter, on the 29th and 30th of June. As to the year of his death, the views vary from A.D. 64 to 69. The difference of the place and manner of his martyrdom suggests that he was condemned by a regular judicial trial, either shortly before, or more probably a year or two after the horrible wholesale massacre of Christians on the Vatican hill, in which his Roman citizenship would not have been regarded. If he was released in the spring of 63, he had a year and a half for another visit to the East and to Spain before the outbreak of the Neronian persecution (after July, 64); but tradition favors a later date. Prudentius separates the martyrdom of Peter from that of Paul by one year. After that persecution the Christians were everywhere exposed to danger.
Assuming the release of Paul and another visit to the East, we must locate the First Epistle to Timothy and the Epistle to Titus between the first and second Roman captivity, and the Second Epistle to Timothy in the second captivity. The last was evidently written in the certain view of approaching martyrdom; it is the affectionate farewell of the aged apostle to his beloved Timothy, and his last will and testament to the militant church below in the bright prospect of the unfading crown in the church triumphant above.
Thus ended the earthly course of this great teacher of nations, this apostle of victorious faith, of evangelical freedom, of Christian progress. It was the heroic career of a spiritual conqueror of immortal souls for Christ, converting them from the service of sin and Satan to the service of the living God, from the bondage of the law to the freedom of the gospel, and leading them to the fountain of life eternal. He labored more abundantly than all the other apostles; and yet, in sincere humility, he considered himself “the least of the apostles,” and “not meet to be called an apostle,” because he persecuted the church of God; a few years later he confessed: “I am less than the least of all saints,” and shortly before his death: “I am the chief of sinners.” His humility grew as he experienced God’s mercy and ripened for heaven. Paul passed a stranger and pilgrim through this world, hardly observed by the mighty and the wise of his age. And yet how infinitely more noble, beneficial, and enduring was his life and work than the dazzling march of military conquerors, who, prompted by ambitions absorbed millions of treasure and myriads of lives, only to die at last in a drunken fit at Babylon, or of a broken heart on the rocks of St. Helena! Their empires have long since crumbled into dust, but St. Paul still remains one of the foremost benefactors of the human race, and the pulses of his mighty heart are beating with stronger force than ever throughout the Christian world.
The question of a second Roman captivity of Paul is a purely historical and critical problem, and has no doctrinal or ethical bearing, except that it facilitates the defence of the genuineness of the Pastoral Epistles. The best scholars are still divided on the subject. Neander, Gieseler, Bleek, Ewald, Lange, Sabatier, Godet, also Renan (Saint Paul, p. 560, and L’Antechrist, p. 106), and nearly all English biographers and commentators, as Alford, Wordsworth, Howson, Lewin, Farrar, Plumptre, Ellicott, Lightfoot, defend the second captivity, and thus prolong the labors of Paul for a few years. On the other hand not only radical and skeptical critics, as Baur, Zeller, Schenkel, Reuss, Holtzmann, and all who reject the Pastoral Epistles (except Renan), but also conservative exegetes and historians, as Niedner, Thiersch, Meyer, Wieseler, Ebrard, Otto, Beck, Pressensé, deny the second captivity. I have discussed the problem at length in my Hist. of the Apost. Church, § 87, pp. 328–347, and spin in my annotations to Lange on Romans, pp. 10–12. I will restate the chief arguments in favor of a second captivity, partly in rectification of my former opinion.
The main argument are the Pastoral Epistles, if genuine, as I hold them to be, notwithstanding all the objections of the opponents from De Wette (1826) and Baur (1835) to Renan (1873) and Holtzmann (1880). It is, indeed, not impossible to assign them to any known period in Paul’s life before his captivity, as during his three years’ sojourn in Ephesus (54–57), or his eighteen months’ sojourn in Corinth (52–53), but it is very difficult to do so. The Epistles presuppose journeys of the apostle not mentioned in Acts, and belong apparently to an advanced period in his life, as well as in the history of truth and error in the apostolic church.
The release of Timothy from a captivity in Italy, probably in Rome, to which the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews 13:23 alludes, may have some connection with the release of Paul, who had probably a share in the inspiration, if not in the composition, of that remarkable production.
The oldest post-apostolic witness is Clement of Rome, who wrote about 95:, Paul … having come to the limit of the West (ἐπὶ τὸ τέρμα τη̂ς δύσεως ἐλθων) and borne witness before the magistrates (μαρτυρήσας επὶ τω̂ν ἡγουμένων, which others translate, “having suffered martyrdom under the rulers”), departed from the world and went to the holy place, having furnished the sublimest model of endurance" (Ad Corinth. c. 5). Considering that Clement wrote in Rome, the most natural interpretation of τέρμα τη̂ς δύσεως, “the extreme west,” is Spain or Britain; and as Paul intended to carry the gospel to Spain, one would first think of that country, which was in constant commercial intercourse with Rome, and had produced distinguished statesmen and writers like Seneca and Lucan. Strabo (II. 1) calls the pillars of Hercules πέρατα τη̂ς οἰκουμένης; and Velleius Paterc. calls Spain “extremus nostri orbis terminus.” See Lightfoot, St. Clement, p. 50. But the inference is weakened by the absence of any trace or tradition of Paul’s visit to Spain. Still less can he have suffered martyrdom there, as the logical order of the words would imply. And as Clement wrote to the Corinthians, he may, from their geographical standpoint, have called the Roman capital the end of the West. At all events the passage is rhetorical (it speaks of seven imprisonments, ἑπτάκις δεσμὰ φορέσας), and proves nothing for further labors in the East.
An incomplete passage in the fragmentary Muratorian canon (about A.D. 170): “Sed profectionem Pauli ab urbe ad Spaniam proficiscentis …” seems to imply a journey of Paul to Spain, which Luke has omitted; but this is merely a conjecture, as the verb has to be supplied. Comp., however, Westcott, The Canon of the N. Test., p. 189, and Append. C., p. 467, and Renan, L’Antechrist, p. 106 sq.
- Eusebius (d. 310) first clearly asserts that “there is a tradition (λόγος ἔχει) that the apostle, after his defence, again set forth to the ministry of his preaching and having entered a second time the same city [Rome], was perfected by his martyrdom before him [Nero].” Hist. Eccl.
- 22 (comp. ch. 25). But the force of this testimony is weakened first by its late date; secondly, by the vague expression λόγος ἔχει, “it is said,” and the absence of any reference to older authorities (usually quoted by Eusebius); thirdly, by his misunderstanding of 2 Tim. 4:16, 17, which he explains in the same connection of a deliverance from the first imprisonment (as if ἀπολογία were identical with αἰχμαλωσία); and lastly by his chronological mistake as to the time of the first imprisonment which, in his “Chronicle,” he misdates A.D. 58, that is, three years before the actual arrival of Paul in Rome. On the other hand he puts the conflagration of Rome two years too late, A.D. 66, instead of 64, and the Neronian persecution, and the martyrdom of Paul and Peter, in the year 70.
- Jerome (d. 419): “Paul was dismissed by Nero that he might preach Christ’s gospel also in the regions of the West (in Occidentis quoque partibus). De Vir. ill. sub Paulus. This echoes the τέρμα τη̂ς δύσεως of Clement. Chrysostom (d. 407), Theodoret, and other fathers assert that Paul went to Spain (Rom. 15:28), but without adducing any proof.
These post-apostolic testimonies, taken together, make it very probable, but not historically certain, that Paul was released after the spring of 63, and enjoyed an Indian summer of missionary work before his Martyrdom. The only remaining monuments, as well as the best proof, of this concluding work are the Pastoral Epistles, if we admit them to be genuine. To my mind the historical difficulties of the Pastoral Epistles are an argument for rather than against their Pauline origin. For why should a forger invent difficulties when he might so easily have fitted his fictions in the frame of the situation known from the Acts and the other Pauline Epistles? The linguistic and other objections are by no means insurmountable, and are overborne by the evidence of the Pauline spirit which animates these last productions of his pen.