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Roman Empire: Persecution of Paul

Paul of Tarsus, or the Apostle to the Gentiles as he is perhaps better known, was one of the earliest Christians who along with Simon Peter is one of the most noteworthy as well. He has made an important impact on the evolution of the religion, and has affected many influential thinkers in a variety of Christian schools of thought, including Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jesuits, as well as those adhering to the philosophies of Jansenism, Thomism and Molinism.

In the New Testament, Paul’s first mention comes during the martyrdom or Stephen (Acts 7:57). Until his conversion to Christianity, Paul is a self-proclaimed persecutor of the Church, and more specifically of Judaism (Galatians 1:13). In Galatians (1:13-24), Paul himself recounts his first meeting with two of Jesus’ other apostles, James and Simon Peter. He states that though at first they were afraid of him, given his reputation as a persecutor of the Church, they eventually accepted him as a disciple. However, he was not so lucky with the Temple authorities, who criticized his disputes with “Hellenists” (Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles) and subsequently sent him into exile from Jerusalem.

When Barnabas brings him back to Jerusalem some 14 years later, Paul begins converting the first Christians to be named as such. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is described as attending the Council of Jerusalem, in which the matter of whether or not Gentiles should be able to convert to Christianity was discussed. At issue was the fact that Gentiles were not Jewish, and more specifically, not circumcised, which many Jewish Christians of the time held to be a necessary prerequisite prior to conversion.

Simon Peter and James the Just maintained that circumcision should be an enforced requirement for those wishing to convert. Paul at first acquiesces to this position, but later retracts, perceiving it to be hypocritical: “I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?’” (Gal. 2:14). The Council eventually sided with Paul, thus further reinforcing the separation of Judaism and Christianity.

After this, Paul endeavors on two more missionary journeys, in which he is credited with spreading the word of Jesus Christ as far as Asia Minor and Macedonia before returning to Jerusalem. Upon his return, he recounts to the other apostles how he was able to convert Gentiles to Christianity. This angers James, who accuses him of not being a law-abiding Jew. According to the Acts, James asks him to take a Nazarite vow – however, it is difficult to verify whether or not Paul did in fact do so. In Galatians, Paul himself says that the vow was not even upheld by Peter.

Regardless, about a week proceeding this, Paul was ridiculed by a group of Jews in Jerusalem who accuse him of antisemitism, amongst other things. The group nearly inspires the crowd to kill Paul on the spot, but a Roman guard intervenes and brings him to Caesarea, where he is imprisoned and held for two years – despite his appeals to be tried in Rome. After this he is sent to Rome by the new governor, Porcius Festus, although once there he spends another two years under house arrest.

In regards to his death, historical accounts on the matter have been inconclusive. For the most part they contradict Paul’s letter to the Romans, which suggests he died in Spain. Eusebius of Cesearea, a historian who wrote in the fourth century, said that Paul was beheaded by the Roman Emperor Nero in either 64 or 67 C.E. The Bible itself is silent on the matter, leading many to infer the assumption of his beheading to be the most accurate.


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