Catching up with Saul

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, by Valentin de Boulogne

Beyond Jesus himself, the apostle Paul was the most important influence on the early Christian church. We know him through Luke’s story in the book of Acts. Even more importantly, we know him through his letters, where he reveals himself to be a man of great passion, erudition, humility, and depth. He could be delicate in his handling of difficult situations, or startlingly blunt. One letter might ooze with affection, but the next with sarcasm. And through it all, we see a man utterly devoted to the Jesus who met and commissioned him on the Damascus road, and to the churches he planted and mentored.

In the book of Acts, we last saw Paul — then still known as Saul of Tarsus — in the middle of chapter 9. Having returned to Jerusalem from Damascus, he created a ruckus by debating with the Hellenistic Jews. The situation deteriorated to the point where he had to be taken to Caesarea and shipped back to his hometown of Tarsus.

Then, two chapters later, Luke drops Saul back into the story:

Barnabas went to Tarsus in search of Saul. When he found him, he brought him to Antioch. They were there for a whole year, meeting with the church and teaching large numbers of people. (Acts 11:25-26a, CEB)

Under Barnabas’ encouragement, the church in Antioch (note: this is the first time in Acts the word “church” — ekklesia — is used of the Gentiles) had grown by leaps and bounds. Barnabas needed help, and thought of Saul.

He had previously advocated for Saul in Jerusalem when the other believers were suspicious of him (Acts 9:27). But all we know of Saul’s preaching ministry in Damascus and Jerusalem was that people kept wanting to kill him. Why recruit him to the church in Antioch? Might that not be asking for trouble?

Here’s where scholars are forced to speculate a bit, to fill in the gaps in Luke’s story. The verb Luke uses for Barnabas’ quest may suggest a difficult search. It wasn’t just a matter of knocking on the door of Saul’s family home in Tarsus. Why?

It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Saul had been disowned by his family for devoting himself to Jesus. They had, after all, seen his youthful zeal and intellectual potential and sent him to Jerusalem as a teenager to study under the renowned Gamaliel. His turn to Jesus may have been interpreted as a betrayal. If so, this may be part of what Paul meant by counting his sterling Jewish heritage as “a loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil 3:7). 

Moreover, the first two chapters of Galatians suggests a timeline that’s nearly invisible in Luke’s account. In Galatians 1, Paul says that it had been a full three years after his conversion on the Damascus road when he finally returned to Jerusalem (vs. 18). After that, apparently, he preached in “the regions of Syria and Cilicia” (vs. 21), where the cities of Antioch and Tarsus reside, respectively.

Then, according to Galatians 2:1, he may not have returned to Jerusalem until fourteen years after his conversion. If, therefore, as some scholars believe, that delayed return to Jerusalem is the same trip mentioned in Acts 11:30, that means Saul/Paul had been preaching in Syria and Cilicia for over a decade when Barnabas went looking for him. Chances are, he knew of Saul’s ministry, and Saul’s experience in Syria made him the right man for the job.

If Luke had been writing a biography of Paul, of course, a gap of eleven years would have been inexcusable. But he wasn’t; he was writing the story of how the gospel came to flourish among the Gentiles. For all his importance to Christian history, the story of Paul is far less important than the story of the gospel itself.

Paul would have agreed wholeheartedly.