As we move through the narrative of the book of Acts, one central character emerges to the forefront, namely the Apostle Paul. After just a brief perusal of the New Testament, one can tell that Paul had a tremendous influence on the development of early Christianity. Nearly one-fourth of the New Testament canon was authored by Paul and his associates. Therefore, it is imperative that we know something about this central figure in the early Christian movement.
Paul was born around 5 AD in the city of Tarsus, which was located outside the region of Palestine. Therefore, Paul would have been exposed not only to Jewish history and tradition, but also to the world of Greek culture and philosophy. During his childhood, Paul likely received formal training in Greek rhetoric, which is evident in his letter writing style. As a young man, Paul was also trained as a Pharisee. The Pharisees emphasized the importance of keeping the Torah (the Law of God).
Prior to his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian movement. In fact, he was sent to Damascus to identify and arrest those who claimed to follow the Way (the earliest Christians were often referred to as followers of the Way). It was during this journey that Paul encounter the presence of Jesus and was dramatically transformed. After this experience, those who knew Paul before his encounter with Jesus remained suspicious of the sincerity of his conversion. The date of Paul's conversion is difficult to determine, but most scholar believe it occurred in the mid-late 30's AD.
It is difficult to overstate the influence of Paul on the life of the early Church. By the end of the first century, it seems clear that Paul's letter were already being circulated and read in the context of corporate worship. However, it is important to recognize that Paul did not write essays or treatises regarding Christian faith and practice; he wrote letters to particular communities dealing with local issues. Therefore, as we read the letters of Paul, we must be mindful that we are, in many ways, listening in on a conversation between Paul and his congregation. However, these conversations are rich and meaningful, because in them we see the struggle of the early Church to find its way in a vast world that was changing rapidly. As we read Paul's letter, we discover a man who knew his own brokenness and his subsequent need for God's amazing grace in his life.