The Conversion and Early Ministry of Paul1

Acts 9:1-31; 11:25-30; 13:1-14:28; GAL. 1:15-24

Clyde Weber Votaw

The University of Chicago


The apostle Paul, unquestionably the greatest figure of the Apostolic Age, was a Jew of the Dispersion, whose home was at Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 9:11; 11:25; 21:39; 22:3). He grew up in this university town famous for its Greek learning. His father was a Roman citizen, and he inherited this citizenship; but in religion he was brought up strictly as a Jew, and so continued until his conversion to Christianity in the year 34 A. D. (or thereabout), at the age of thirty (more or less). He probably received his early training in the synagogue at Tarsus, as a Jewish boy naturally would. It is not likely that he attended the gentile schools, or that in any other way he became versed in Greek philosophy or literature. He learned the trade of making the hair cloth which was customarily used for tents and similar purposes. It is difficult to tell the financial status of his parents, but the facts seem to suggest that they were not wealthy, for he learned his trade, and during his missionary journeys he was dependent for his support upon what he could himself earn, together with such contributions as could be made to him by his churches. He went to Jerusalem at some time in his youth, perhaps at the age of thirteen or fourteen, and received the regular rabbinical training, becoming (as we may infer) a duly trained rabbi of Judaism.

We lack information as to his career between the time when he became a rabbi and the time when he appears in connection with the death of Stephen. It is probable that during this interval he was working as a rabbi at Tarsus, or in some other place outside of Palestine. He was not in Palestine during the public ministry of Jesus, arriving there the second time only after that ministry had closed. When in Acts, chap. 7, we see Paul (Saul) standing by while Stephen is stoned he is a young man of about thirty years (Acts 7:58), a Pharisee as he describes himself (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Phil. 3:5), and actively engaged in the persecution of the Christians (Acts 8:3; 22:4; 26:11; I Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23; Phil. 3:6).

This attitude of Paul toward the disciples of Jesus was in direct pursuance of what he regarded as his duty. He believed fully in the Jewish faith, and would defend it strenuously against its opponents. It would seem that, coming into Palestine while the first Christians were multiplying at Jerusalem and increasing their hold upon the people, the rabbi Paul adopted the attitude which the Pharisees as a class had assumed toward the Christians. Without having opportunity to know Jesus, or to consider intelligently and deliberately the gospel teaching, he entered vigorously into the Pharisaic campaign against them. As he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees he easily became a persecutor of the persecutors. He approved the execution of Stephen, and took part in the imprisonment of many other Christians. The zeal which had marked the Pharisaic persecution of Jesus during his ministry later manifested itself in the persecution which Paul associated himself with against the followers of Jesus, and Paul for a time stood forth as the leader of this persecution.


However, his career as a persecutor of the Christians did not long continue. As he approached the city of Damascus for the purpose of arresting there any Christians whom he might find (Acts 9:2), he passed through a sudden and remarkable experience which carried him over from Judaism into Christianity. The book of Acts furnishes three accounts of this experience (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:2-18), and Paul himself writes of it in his letter to the Galatians (1:13-16). With regard to the external accompaniments of the experience the Acts narratives are in some uncertainty, while Paul's own narrative says nothing about them. The essential thing in the experience was the conviction at which Paul arrived that Jesus, whose disciples these Christians were, was in fact the long-promised Messiah. This being the case it was at once clear that he must accept him as such, and must work for him instead of against him. Included in the experience as a necessary corollary of it Paul saw that his work as a believer in the Messiah would be to proclaim Jesus and his gospel to the gentile world.

This immediate and complete change in Paul from a persecutor to an adherent of Christianity is not wholly unintelligible; the psychological process can be at least in part discovered. Paul does not give evidence of a conscious wavering toward Christianity, away from Pharisaism, over a prolonged period; he seems rather to have given an unquestioning, almost fanatical, support to Judaism against Christianity. His conversion came to him as a surprise and as a reversal of conscious purposes. At the same time, subconscious preparation for the change had been going on within him. He was in fact greatly disappointed and disheartened at Judaism in that it did not furnish him spiritual rest and satisfaction. He has given an intensely vivid description of his spiritual unrest in the Epistle to the Romans (chap. 7). He was therefore in a position to welcome another belief which could bring him the rest and satisfaction which he sought. Further, he was a man profoundly moral and religious, living according to the best light that he had, loyal to truth and certain to weigh new light. Also, the brutal bloodshed and persecution into which his Pharisaic zeal had drawn him must have been repugnant to his humane feelings; he was a man of sympathy, highly sensitive, and thoughtful for others. These qualities in him might be overridden for a time in a blind determination to defend the faith of the Fathers, but later they must surely assert themselves against such action. Also, it is reasonable to think that the faith, courage, forgiveness, and even joy in suffering which the Christians manifested under persecution would have a deep effect upon him. Finally, he must have gained essential knowledge of the Christian teachings from Stephen's words, and from the Christians with whom as persecutor he came in contact; so that the Christian ideas and faith gradually established themselves in his mind and feeling, taking possession of him and driving out his Pharisaism. That the change came suddenly into his consciousness was due to the type of man he was-one full of intensity, activity, ardor, and subject to catastrophic experience.


Paul's first work as a preacher of the gospel was at Damascus where he had been converted. He at once began to proclaim the messiahship of Jesus, and to seek to win other Jews to the same faith (Acts 9:20-22). This aroused the hostility of the Damascus Jews, and Paul found it necessary for a time to withdraw from Damascus (Acts. 9:23-25). He went into Arabia, and returned to preach again in the same city (Gal. 1:17). But his Jewish enemies made this impracticable for him, threatening his life, so he departed from Damascus (II Cor. 11:31-33).

He then went to Jerusalem. This visit was not for the purpose of entering upon a general ministry, but to confer with Peter (Gal. 1:18). The visit lasted for fifteen days. He does not tell us what he wished of Peter. Perhaps, since Paul now considered himself set apart to preach the gospel to the gentiles, he wished to have an understanding with the leading apostles at Jerusalem in order that the work which he did might be joined with the Palestinian Christian movement. It has often been conjectured, and the surmise seems probable, that Paul also wished to learn from Peter the chief things Jesus had said and done during his public ministry.

Having accomplished his purpose at Jerusalem, Paul went back to Tarsus, his home city (Gal. 1:18-21; Acts 9:28-30 is perhaps less exact in some respects). We are not told of Paul's activities during the next several years. It seems quite clear, however, that he continued the preaching of Jesus as Messiah and the spread of the gospel in the province of Syria-Cilicia (Gal. 1:21). Paul was certainly not one who would choose inaction. As he had begun at once in Damascus to preach, so he quite surely continued to preach during these early years of his Christian career. There is evidence also that his work in Syria-Cilicia was largely successful, for later we read (Acts 15:41) of churches in this province (unquestionably of his own founding; cf. Rom. 15:18-20) which Paul visited and strengthened. They were the churches which he succeeded in establishing during the years before he was called to Antioch.


Eight or ten years after his conversion, and following this long period of active Christian ministry, Paul located himself at the city of Antioch, as one of the chief workers in that important church-second in importance only to the church at Jerusalem. The Book of Acts reports that this invitation came to him through Barnabas, who had known of Paul's conversion and was a personal friend of his (Acts 11:22-26; 9:27). Barnabas, being sent from Jerusalem to witness and promote the growth of Christianity in Antioch, thought of Paul as the best man to promote this remarkable growth. According to the Acts, therefore, Paul came to the Antioch church about the year 43 A. D., and for two or three years continued resident there as a minister of the gospel. He seems to have regarded Antioch as the center of his activities, even after he began his missionary journeys which required most of his time to be spent elsewhere.

It may be that if we knew all the facts concerning Paul's early relation to the Antioch church, it would appear that he had more to do with the beginnings of it than is generally supposed. Paul gives us to understand (Gal. 1:21) that Syria-Cilicia was the field of his activity after leaving Damascus. Antioch was the capital city of this Roman province. One of the chief methods of Paul's ministry was to work in the great cities, whence the Christianity he introduced would radiate rapidly and widely. It would not be strange if Paul had been instrumental, even largely instrumental, for setting in motion at Antioch the preaching of a gentile Christianity, because he considered this his especial mission and Antioch was the capital city of the district in which his evangelization during these several years was carried on. If he had been connected from the first with the planting and growth of the Antioch church, his permanent residence there for a few years, and later his repeated return to the city as a kind of headquarters during his missionary journeys, would be well explained.


When the church at Antioch had grown large and strong, in part or chiefly through the activities of Paul there, a plan was made for the extension of Christianity westward by the sending of missionaries from Antioch to Cyprus (Acts 13:1-5). Barnabas, whose home was in Cyprus, and Paul, the two men of greatest prominence in the Antioch church, were obviously the ones to undertake this mission. The young Jewish Christian from Jerusalem, Mark, a cousin of Barnabas, accompanied them (Acts 13:5; Col. 4:10). They went through the island of Cyprus preaching in the Jewish synagogues and making converts to the gospel. Little is told of their work until they reached Paphos, at the end of their journey through Cyprus. Here the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a Roman official, was attracted by the gospel and asked Barnabas and Paul to instruct him concerning it (Acts 13:6-12). He became a Christian, though nothing further is known regarding him. The Acts regards it as a notable fact that a Roman official of such high standing and influence should have become interested in, even an adherent of, the gospel.

After Cyprus had been evangelized, the question arose whether the party should return to Antioch or should go forward into new territory. Probably no more extended tour than Cyprus had been contemplated by Barnabas and Mark when they set out at first. Paul may have secretly cherished the plan of going beyond Cyprus into south central Asia Minor. The time having come to proceed or to return, Paul urged that they proceed. The party went therefore across to the Asian coast (Acts 13:13), but Mark thought it not wise for him to spend the longer time or to engage in the more difficult undertaking of this new expedition, and so returned to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13; 15:38).

Barnabas however went forward with Paul. They made their way to the interior, visiting the cities on the great Roman road through the southern portion of the province of Galatia. First at Antioch, then at Iconium, then at Lystra, and finally at Derbe, the Christian missionaries preached the gospel, secured converts, and established churches. Their method was to go first into the synagogues and make converts of as many Jews as possible. Then, when the Jews would no longer hear them and became hostile to their message, they worked among the gentiles. The gentile converts were largely in the majority. Finally, when they were driven out of each city in turn by their Jewish enemies, who aroused the populace against them, they moved on through the district until they reached the eastern edge of the province.

Instead of returning to Antioch through the Cilician Gates and overland by the great Roman highway through Cilicia and Syria, Paul and Barnabas chose to return through the cities where they had worked, to encourage the new converts and to establish more firmly the churches they had started. This they did and after passing westward through the district, they went again to the southern seaport, preaching the gospel at Attalia. From there they sailed back to Antioch, having completed their first missionary journey.

The church at Antioch welcomed with rejoicing the news of the splendid work that had been done, and of the new churches which had been founded. One thing above all others had become clear on this journey, namely, that the gospel needed to be given to the gentiles without Judaism. It became clear that the gospel was a spiritual and independent religion, complete without Jewish rites and ceremonies, and would be accepted by the gentiles only when free from Judaism. This great truth, which was the peculiar feature of gentile Christianity, became gradually clear to the first generation of Christians, chiefly through the actual experience of preaching the gospel among the gentiles.



1) This study covers the period included in the International Sunday School Lessons for April 18 and 25; May 2, 9, and 16.