Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: Introduction to the Letters of Paul

John Kubasak

Sacred Scripture Deep Dive: Introduction to the Letters of Paul

Few people in the history of the world have changed it so much as St. Paul.  His conversion to Christianity was the start of an avalanche that spanned the pagan Roman Empire within three centuries. God blessed Paul with extraordinary gifts. Paul led an extraordinary life and gave us the majority of the books in the New Testament.  

Throughout the course of the year on this blog, the “Scripture Deep Dive” series will focus on St. Paul’s letters. The issues he addressed in his epistles still apply to us today: who is Jesus? What is the Church? What is the Body of Christ? How are we saved? With the assistance of the Apostle to the Gentiles, we will cast our nets into the deep.   


St. Paul the Author

St. Paul is a major figure for most of Acts of the Apostles and left the Church a number of letters, or epistles. Scholars collect the epistles in a few groups. 

Romans and Galatians deal with similar topics, with Romans being more fully (and lengthily) developed. The letter to the Romans is Paul’s great tome that covers many topics vital to the faith: morality, baptism, union with Christ, and salvation. 

The Pastoral Letters are 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus. These two saints were some of Paul’s close coworkers in the Lord’s vineyard, and gain mention in many books of the New Testament. The Captivity Letters are so called because Paul wrote them while imprisoned. Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and the letter to Philemon fall in this category. We have the most content of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians—29 chapters—than any of his other letters. We owe a debt of gratitude to the community at Corinth for its problems! Finally, the two letters to the Thessalonians share some themes as the others, but do not fall neatly into any of the previously-mentioned categories.

Throughout Church history, the Letter to the Hebrews has been lumped into Paul’s letters. Unfortunately, no author names himself in the letter. The linguistic style of the letter is markedly different than Paul’s other letters but retains many of Paul’s themes. Without much concrete evidence one way or the other, it’s impossible to assign authorship.  


St. Paul the Man

I look at St. Paul and marvel at all the gifts he had. His erudition coupled with a burning passion is a rare combination. He not only spoke to anyone who would listen, but he stepped right into difficult situations. Paul had to know that preaching the Gospel in a synagogue could result in conversion, getting run out of town, or being stoned to death.  

We get a very privileged glimpse into his personality through all his letters. To the Galatians, he shows his willingness to step into the ring (or colosseum) to fight for the truth. He baptized whole households.  With Timothy, he had the strong yet gentle hand of a father. In writing to Titus, he stuck to practical advice. Paul advised, exhorted, and tailored his message to what each person/community needed to hear.  He knew how to talk to people right where they were at. 

One of his most remarkable aspects was humility. To go from a 100% Pharisee, persecuting Christians, to have an open enough heart to leave his entire past life behind? To lose everything he had? Some of his contemporaries knew the same scriptures, the same prophetic texts, and were not convinced of Jesus’ authenticity as Messiah.  

Yet if Paul were here, he would correct me on the gifts. His strength did not come from himself.  

“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

“‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

He would also say, Jesus is everything!  

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:19-20)

“More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

And for all his zeal preaching, his fellow apostle called him difficult to understand sometimes (2 Peter 3:15-16).  Not to mention Paul talked so long one night, that one of his listeners fell asleep and out the window (Acts 20:9).  

It is far more accurate to say: God blessed Paul with many gifts, that Jesus used to spread the Gospel to the Gentile world.  

Now, some more regular biographical details about Paul’s life.  


Paul’s Life

Thanks to Paul’s letters and St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, we have a good amount of background information on St. Paul; more so than any other apostle. Born as Saul in the city of Tarsus, he grew up in the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia. The city had a heavy Greek cultural influence. The flow of St. Paul’s written Greek indicates a great familiarity with the ancient Greek language. Because Tarsus was the Roman capital, this is how Saul obtained Roman citizenship. He trained under the Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and was “a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). Tarsus was known for its tentmaking materials, and Paul learned the trade to help support his ministerial positions (Acts 18:1-3).  

Despite the difference in names, Saul/Paul did not have a divinely-given new name like Simon who became Peter. It was common in those times for Jews to use a name more common in Greek (or Latin) for purposes of business. The apostle dealt with Jews under his given name, Saul, and with Greeks under his “pagan” name, Paul. Interestingly, the Navarre Bible commentary points out that the Apostle went by Saul from his introduction in Acts of the Apostles for the first 13 chapters. After that, he went exclusively by Paul (Romans & Galatians, pg. 13).

The next events of Paul’s life are the most famous: his persecution of Christians, especially his consenting to the stoning of St. Stephen (Acts 7:54 – 8:1), and his vision of the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9). That encounter with the Risen Jesus changed Saul’s life, altered the course of Christianity, and changed the world.  

Paul traveled throughout the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. He founded churches, corresponded with them, and worked with a team of trusted disciples to continue the mission.   

St. Paul died a martyr’s death during the end of the reign of Nero (around 64-68 A.D.). Ancient sources aren’t in agreement on when he died in relation to St. Peter, though both apostles died during Nero’s persecution of Christians.  


Four Missionary Journeys

Biblical scholars have pieced together four of St. Paul’s missionary journeys based on Acts & the epistles. I find it helpful to have a visual—if there are no maps in your Bible, I encourage you to look at these links or something similar. Then imagine walking or sailing everywhere!  

The first journey started in Antioch (see beginning of Acts 13) and took him to the southern parts of modern-day Turkey. The second journey started with a bang with the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15: ), discussing whether Gentile Christians had to keep the Jewish Law to become Christians. St. Luke joins Paul in Troas (Acts 16:10) which we can see from the shift from the third-person narrative (“he”, “they”) to a plural, first person narrative (“we”). The third journey was lengthier, with a three-year stay in Ephesus. The fourth journey features Paul’s imprisonment by the Romans, and his appeal to the emperor.  

St. Luke concludes the Acts of the Apostles with Paul awaiting his trial at the emperor’s court. In his letter to the Romans, Paul alludes to his desire to go to Spain (see 15:24, 28), but we don’t have any hard evidence. Some of the early Church Fathers think that Paul’s appeal to Rome was successful, and that he took advantage of his Roman “holiday” to head over to nearby Spain.  


St. Paul’s spreading of the Gospel changed the world. That is: he threw himself into his vocation as an apostle and depended on Jesus for everything. Let us follow in St. Paul’s example by throwing ourselves into our vocations, and by grace, becoming the saints that God calls us to be!