After his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and baptism at the hands of Ananias, Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that he “went away at once into Arabia,” spending time in the desert wastes before returning to Damascus, where he remained for three years (1:17-18). By the time of his return to Damascus, the essentials of his teaching were crystal clear: God’s promise to Abraham has been fulfilled in the resurrection of Jesus. The risen Jesus is the climax of history for He is both the Messiah, the Christ, and “the power and wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24). Teaching in the synagogues in Damascus that Jesus “is the Son of God,” his preaching proved so controversial that there were plots to kill him. He escaped Damascus by being lowered over the city walls in a basket at night (Acts 9:19-25).
Three years after his conversion, Paul journeyed to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and stayed with him for fifteen days. “But I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19). In Acts 9:26-30 Luke describes the suspicion with which the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem greeted Paul and that it was Barnabas who secured Paul’s acceptance. From Jerusalem, Paul returned to Syria and ultimately went to its capital, Antioch, the third city in the empire after Rome itself and Alexandria in Egypt.
It had been in Antioch of Syria that followers of the Way had first been called Christians (Acts 11:26) and it was this community that would commission Paul and Barnabas as missionaries (Acts 13:1-3).
Luke organizes Paul’s missionary activity into three segments or journeys. Paul’s missionary journeys cover roughly 46-58AD, the most active years of his life, as he evangelized Greece and Asia Minor. Paul’s first missionary journey is recounted by Luke in Acts 13:3-14:28 and lasted for three years, probably from 46 to 49AD.
However, Paul’s message created controversy wherever he went. Initially preaching and teaching in the synagogues of the various cities they visited, it was in Antioch of Pisidia that the conflict led Paul and Barnabas to declare that they were now “turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). This decision, to preach not only to the Jews but to all peoples, marks a decisive turning point in the history of Christianity. From that moment on the message of Jesus, the crucified yet risen Messiah, was clearly open to everyone and this was understood by Paul and Barnabas to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures (Acts 13:47-48). God had “opened the door of faith for the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
But it was in Antioch of Pisidia that Paul and Barnabas soon found themselves in conflict with other teachers in the Church, “believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees” (Acts 15:5), men “from Judea” who were teaching that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). When this leads to “no small dissension and debate, Paul, Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem” to consult “the apostles and presbyters” about the status of Gentile converts and whether or not it was necessary for them to conform to the Mosaic covenant (Acts 15:1-5). This visit leads to the council of Jerusalem (circa 49-50AD). This council was to be a paradigmatic event in the life of the Church, the pattern for ecumenical councils yet to be called in the centuries to come. At this council there was “much debate” as Paul and Barnabas presented their Gospel before the assembled community, which included “James, Peter and John” who were “acknowledged” as “leaders” and “pillars” of the Church (Galatians 2:1-10). According to Acts 15:6-21, it was Peter’s voice that carried the day in favor of Paul and Barnabas. But it was James, speaking on behalf of all, who announced the decision of the council: circumcision is not obligatory for salvation.
After the council of Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas go their separate ways: Barnabas taking John Mark and sailing to Cyprus, Paul choosing Silas and traveling throughout Syria and Cilicia “strengthening the churches” (Acts 15:36-41).
In the decade to come, Paul was to embark on two more missionary journeys, the second one from 50 to 53AD and the third and final missionary journey lasting six years, from 53 to 59 AD. During these journeys Paul would travel throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, preaching and teaching, establishing new churches everywhere he went. His Letters leave a trail of churches founded and/or nurtured by him: Ephesus, Corinth, Thessaloniki, Philippi. He preached in Athens and was to die in Rome, the intellectual and political centers of the Empire.
To view maps of St. Paul’s missionary journeys throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, click below:
St. Paul’s First Missionary Journey
St. Paul’s Second Missionary Journey
St. Paul’s Third Missionary Journey
St. Paul’s Letters
St. Pauls letter to the Romans c. AD 180-200 Greek text on papyrus
Paul’s letters are the oldest Christian documents that we have. Most modern scholars believe that Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the first book of the New Testament to be written, sometime in 52AD. His letters are also the largest collection of writings by any one person in the New Testament. In modern Bibles, they are placed in order of their length, with the longest letter, that to the Romans, being first and then followed by letters to individuals (Timothy, Titus and Philemon) last. Paul’s letters are exactly that: letters, occasional writings meant to deal with specific issues in the churches to which he addressed them. They are not systematic theological treatises in the modern sense. And yet, they have provided rich and deep theological insights that have never been surpassed in the Church’s history.