National Geographic on Apostle Paul: Christianity struggled to grow—until one man’s heart went from unbelief to believer
The conversion of Paul the Apostle was a watershed moment in Christianity. Here’s how his efforts to spread the faith jumpstarted what is now the world’s largest religion.
After Jesus’ death in A.D. 33 , his early followers began slowly spreading out from Jerusalem to find sanctuary in places such as Cyrus, Phoenicia, Damascus, and Antioch. The authors of the New Testament, like St. Luke the Evangelist who is believed to have penned the book Acts of the Apostles around A.D. 80, tell the struggles believers and the early church faced in their nascent days. In Acts, Luke tells the story of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr to be gruesomely executed in A.D. 36. Stephen’s stoning, Luke says, prompted other followers to flee so as not to fall victim to similar persecutions. So, what does the Bible say about how this vulnerable faith got jumpstarted, eventually evolving into the world’s most populous religion with some 2.3 billion followers today?
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Acts of the Apostles tells the story of one man, Saul of Tarsus, who played a huge role in spreading early Christianity. Devoutly Jewish and a Roman citizen, he was an unlikely proponent of this new faith. It describes how he witnessed the mob scene around Stephen’s death, and came to believe it was his solemn duty to persecute Christians, going so far as to drag Christian men and women to prison, punishing them to deny their faith. He obtained permission from the high priest in Jerusalem to pursue and arrest fleeing Christians. On his way to Damascus, Syria, however, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard the voice of the resurrected Jesus saying, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). From that moment on, Saul (later called Paul) devoted himself to the Apostolic mission.
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Among the places where early Christians fled for safety from persecution was Antioch, capital of Roman Syria. The newly converted Paul found himself there and, with the apostle Barnabas, spent a year preaching the gospel and establishing the first Christian church. It was there that the term “Christians”—”followers of Christ”—was coined (Acts 11:21).
It was also from Antioch that Paul embarked on three separate journeys, detailed in Acts, traveling over 10,000 miles between A.D. 46 and 57. It tells of Paul’s visits to present-day Israel, Syria, Greece, and Turkey, walking roads that Romans built to facilitate control over the empire and enduring uncomfortable passages on weather-exposed decks of boats. Along the way, he argued “persuasively about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8), and performed “extraordinary miracles” (Acts 19:11), such as curing the sick. In Cyprus, he baptized a Roman consul, Paulus Sergius. He shared Jesus’ gospel and established churches throughout the Roman Empire, communities of faith that featured confessions, liturgies, bishops, priests, and deacons.
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Everywhere he went, however, Paul also encountered Jewish followers, who called him a heretic. He endured beatings, stoning, and arrests for preaching the gospel.
In Athens, Acts recounts how Paul became distressed over the preponderance of idols. He tried to reason with the citizens: “As I walked around and looked at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship” (Acts 17:23). He debated that this “unknown god” was the biblical God, the creator of heaven and earth. Some sneered, but others said they wanted to hear more from Paul (Acts 17:32). Just by talking to people, he successfully made converts, one by one.
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Acts records that Paul was arrested several times by the Romans and imprisoned twice in Rome. The first time, between A.D. 60 and 62, he was arrested for causing a riot in a Jewish temple in Jerusalem. He was allowed to live in a house, where it’s said he converted his Roman guards.
The Romans arrested him again sometime between A.D. 62 and 67. This time, he was confined to Tullianum, a maximum security prison. Soon after, Paul is said to have been martyred. His end is unclear, but the most common account claims he was beheaded at the order of the Roman emperor Nero, who blamed him as a Christian leader for Rome’s burning.
Many other apostles and missionaries evangelized Christianity at the same time as Paul.