The Apostle Paul

‘Ottobrate Romane’, October in Rome when the light has a special magic and seems to give everything an orange glow. But not at Piazza del Popolo. One of Rome’s largest squares, Piazza del Popolo is vast and grey.  The most notable monument is the stolen Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the piazza followed by the twin churches, Santa Maria in Montesanto and Santa Maria dei Miracoli. Next to the doors of the piazza is the lacklustre entrance to the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, the home of Caravaggio’s painting The Conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.

Conversion of Paul the Apostle

Saul of Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem by a famous rabbi, was a zealous Pharisee who actively participated in the persecution of Jesus’ disciples. So much so that he was sent to Damascus to arrest, imprison, and execute followers of the Jesus movement who’d fled Jerusalem to avoid persecution. But on the road to Damascus, Saul was blinded by a big burst of sunlight and fell to the ground. He heard a voice coming from the Heavens asking “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you?” asked Saul. And the voice replied “I am Jesus.”

For three days Saul was unable to see but once he recovered his sight, he became Paul the Apostle and a protagonist in the Jesus movement.

Paul and Jesus

In Paul and Jesus, Biblical scholar James D. Tabor explains how Paul the Apostle radically transformed the Jesus movement and made it his own. The date for Paul’s conversion is given as AD 37, seven years after Jesus’ death. Although Paul had never known Jesus personally, he claimed that he and Jesus had frequent visionary encounters.

When Jesus died, his brother James assumed the role of leader of the Jesus movement. Nevertheless, the neo-converted Paul opposed many of the movement’s teachings and, basically, developed a movement of his own. He worked independently and preached his own gospels in Asia Minor for a number of years. It was only ten years after Jesus’ death that Paul finally met original apostles James and Peter. The meeting was not a pleasant one and basically divided the movement in two: the Jewish Jesus movement led by James and the Gentile Jesus movement led by Paul.

There were many differences between James’ and Paul’s interpretation of the Jesus movement. One of the big differences regarded circumcision. Traditionalist Jews who saw Jesus as Messiah continued to believe in circumcision as Jesus and his apostles had all been circumcised. But Paul felt that circumcision was no longer necessary as it would alienate Gentiles. For Paul, becoming a Christian didn’t mean being a Jew. So Paul focused on the rest of the Roman Empire leaving Jerusalem to James.

Probably one of the most interesting elements in Tabor’s book relates to how much of the New Testament was written and/or orchestrated by Paul. Written between 50 and 100 AD, way after Jesus’ death, the New Testament falls into two categories: the Gospels and the Letters. The Letters were written by Church leaders but mainly by Paul (who wrote many of his epistles while imprisoned in Rome). And of all the New Testaments 27 books, it seems Paul wrote about half of them thus determining much of the religious narrative. But what happens when there’s a leak in the narrative?

The last restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes took place in 1989. After seeing the makeover, a friend claimed that the removal of years of candle soot from the colors reminded him of Andy Warhol. Skeptical, I went to the Vatican to see for myself. A huge group of tourists and I were herded into the chapel and, after about 15 minutes with our necks stretched back looking at the ceiling, we were herded out. The exit hall was very crowded and the motion forward slow. Behind me were two women exchanging thoughts about the fresco. One woman remarked that the God she prayed to didn’t look anything at all like the God Michelangelo painted. It seemed such a peculiar thing to say and made me wondered how this image mix up could affect the outcome of one’s praying. The Bible says that God created man in his own image. But what kind of image can man create of something he’s never seen before?


Baigent, Michael; Leigh, Richard; Lincoln, Henry. The Messianic Legacy. Arrow Books. London. 1996.

Tabor, James D. Paul and Jesus. Simon & Schuster City. New York. 2013.

Related: St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy + St Paul’s temporal lobe epilepsy + How Nasty Was Nero, Really? + Paul and the Mystery Religions + The “Roman Ottobrata

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