The Apostle Paul was the most prolific writer of the New Testament, and his travels took him all over the Mediterranean. His background was of Jewish descent, and yet he was a Roman citizen. As one of the more fascinating characters of the Bible, here are five things you may not know about his life and writings:
1. Paul may have been the first to write among New Testament authors.
Those critical of historic orthodox Christianity have long asserted significant discontinuity between the teachings of Jesus and the Apostle Paul. This criticism, in large part, arises from the fact that Paul only became part of the Christian movement after Jesus’ resurrection and the initial period of the church’s evangelical ministry after Pentecost. However, a good portion of Paul’s letters predate the earliest proposed dates for the Gospels, and some of Paul’s earliest letters may even predate James’ letter according to some proposals. Paul was not only influential in shaping the faith of the early church due to the amount he wrote, but also because his writings are possibly the earliest historical witness we have to Jesus Christ and His gospel.
2. Paul often wrote with a degree of collaboration with others.
Many books have been written about Pauline theology. This is not surprising, given the incredible literary legacy he produced under the inspiration of the Spirit as the New Testament canon took shape. Masterpieces like Romans clearly demonstrate the genius of Paul’s theological mind. Even so, though Paul was undoubtedly the principal author of all his letters, his salutations clearly indicate that roughly half of his letters involved collaboration with fellow missionaries and ministers of the gospel. Paul was not a maverick or an ivory tower theologian; he often worked out his teaching and instruction to the churches in partnership with fellow believers.
3. Not everything Paul wrote was Scripture.
God used Paul in a remarkable fashion to provide the church with thirteen inspired, infallible, and inerrant letters of teaching and instruction. However, it was not the case that Holy Scripture was produced every time Paul set ink to papyrus. Indeed, there are several places in Paul’s letters that mention other letters of his that were neither preserved nor ever recognized as Scripture by the early church. There were likely at least two other letters sent by Paul to the church in Corinth during his missionary work (1 Cor. 5:9; 2 Cor. 2:3–4, 9; 7:12). The Apostle also makes mention of a letter he wrote to the Laodicean church when he wrote to the church at Colossae (Col. 4:15–16). His intention was for the two churches to exchange the letters they had both received from him for their mutual benefit. Only Paul’s letter to the Colossians, however, would be recognized and received by the early church as Scripture.
4. Paul was probably not the most impressive individual when in person.
Many notable Christian figures tend to possess certain natural gifts that commend them to positions of leadership. Regrettably, polished speech, infectious charisma, and a pleasant appearance can often conceal a significant amount of theological and ethical deficit for the less-than-faithful ones. Given the prominence of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, we might assume that this greatness corresponded with Paul’s persona and raw abilities. Yet, we find evidence in Scripture that Paul often wasn’t very impressive, appealing, or polished in person (e.g., 2 Cor. 10:10). This should remind us that Christ is magnified in our weakness, and that the advancement of the gospel is not dependent on earthly wisdom or natural ability.
5. Paul was probably in poor health throughout his ministry.
Although extremely active and productive as a missionary, Paul likely suffered from chronic illness and pain throughout his ministry. His first visit to Galatia was occasioned by a physical ailment (Gal. 4:13–14). We also know from his letter to the Galatians that Paul likely suffered from an eye condition that drew great empathy from the believers there (Gal. 4:15) and caused him to write in large print when certifying his letter to them (Gal. 6:11). This condition may have been what was behind Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7–9). Aside from this, it’s not hard to imagine that the severe trauma Paul recounts in 2 Cor. 11:23–28 likely left permanent marks upon his physical health as well. For Christians today who experience chronic pain and trauma, Paul’s legacy can be a welcome encouragement.
The Apostle Paul has much to tell us about God and the salvation He accomplishes for us in Jesus Christ. God used the Apostle Paul to disciple His people both in his time and in ours. It’s well worth knowing more about him as you study the Bible, because knowing more about the Apostle Paul helps us understand Scripture better, and understanding Scripture better helps us grow in our faith.
This article is part of the 5 Things You Should Know collection.