The triumph of Christianity is inconceivable without the large-scale conversion of Gentiles to Christianity. However, at the time, the gentile mission was an uncertain and controversial outcome of first generation Christianity. The person at the center of that controversy is the Apostle Paul.
The Epistles of Paul
Think about four themes in Paul’s letters:
1. Paul as the interpreter of Jesus. The gospels are representations of the life of Jesus, proclaiming a new kingdom of God. Paul’s letters interpret that life in doctrinal terms; he is essential in describing the meaning of Jesus’ life.
2. The distinction between Jewish and Greek identity. Paul, although he is Jewish through and through, becomes the apostle to the Greeks, the Romans, and all the Gentiles.
3. We only have letters from Paul, written at particular times for particular purposes, and we must understand the letters as messages from a missionary to churches which he had, in all cases but one, visited himself. It is important to ask why he wrote these letters.
4. Paul was controversial. He was controversial within the Christian communities, and the letters of Paul are riven with controversy – especially the one question that, more than any other, gave birth to Christian doctrine: how can a Gentile be saved?
Paul was from the town of Tarsus. His Jewish name was Saul, but he went by the Greek name Paul. Most significantly, he was a Roman citizen. He was clearly educated in Greek philosophy and Greek letters, but he was also part of the Jewish diaspora. He was trained in the Law and the Prophets, and he was intimately familiar with the Septuagint translation of Jewish scripture.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is his most autobiographical letter. Paul set out from Jerusalem to Damascus, and he experienced a vision of Jesus Christ on the road. His conversion experience is accounted in First Corinthians and three times in Acts. Paul tells us that he was the last to see Jesus, and, in perhaps the most dramatic conversion of the New Testament, he goes from a persecutor of the Jesus movement to its chief missionary.