Saint Paul: His Time, His World, Himself

[Review of The World of Saint Paul, by Joseph M. Callewaert, Ignatius Press, 2011]

This little volume of fewer than two hundred pages is a fascinating look at Saint Paul, the person, the many places he evangelized, and his times. It reads like an adventure story, which it surely is – the great adventure of the Apostle to the Gentiles bringing the Good News to much of the civilized world of the first century. It is, in the author’s words, “…a biography of Saint Paul addressed to a mainstream audience of Catholics and Christians as well as other people of good will, who want to walk with a man who was totally available to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in his missionary journeys through the Greco-Roman world.”

Callewaert has shown us the Paul of tradition and ignored the modern treatments of the great Apostle and the latest “biblical criticism” in order to flesh out the historical Paul as presented in his own writings and in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Greco-Roman World

Before beginning the story of Saint Paul, the author gives us a wonderful introductory chapter on the situation in the known civilized world at the time and why it was ripe for bringing the New Faith to both Jews and Gentiles. Some of these reasons are as follows: The Jewish Diaspora. There were several dispersions of the Jews from Judea, displacing them into many areas of the Greek-speaking Roman world (Saint Paul himself was from Tarsus in Anatolia, though his tribal roots were of Judea — the tribe of Benjamin). 2) The conquests of the Greek Macedonian, Alexander the Great, in the fourth century B.C. Before his death in 323 B.C. his empire extended from Greece to Egypt and east to the borders of India. It did not take long before the Greek language became the common tongue in the Near East. After the Romans conquered these diverse nations in the century before Christ, Greek became the language of communication and culture; it was understood by all. 3) The pagan religions had degenerated into debauchery and false mysticism, and the people were ready for news of salvation and the possibility of a happy afterlife. One of the common names given to their gods in these times was “Soter” which means “Savior.”

After this most interesting introductory chapter, Callewaert begins the story of Saul of Tarsus — birth between six and ten A.D., his family, his early education in the Pharisees’ school of Tarsus as a student of Gamaliel, and his journey to Jerusalem as a young man to study for the rabbinate. The author points out that Tarsus (“no mean city” in the words of Saint Paul) had ancient beginnings in the kingdom of the Hittites as early as 1900 B.C. He goes on to mention the many famous personages who visited or lived in the city, its many pagan gods throughout history and into the first century as well. He dwells on the daily life of the pious Jews in Tarsus, Saul’s schooling, emphasizing their celebration of the Sabbath. Here we learn that Saul had a sister.

The rest of the story tells in exciting and even poetic language of Paul’s conversion, his three missionary journeys, his many perils (of which he himself speaks in the Epistles), his lengthy imprisonment and his martyrdom. One of the features of this book that I really appreciate is the inclusion of the several maps of our saint’s journeys and the cities which he evangelized. The reader stands in awe of the great distances that Paul and his companions walked and traveled by sea to the greater part of the civilized world. Each place that Saint Paul stopped is spoken of in detail, its history and geography, its diverse population and the various gods that they worshiped. This brings home the antiquity of such places as Athens, Corinth, Rome, Cilicia (Paul’s home country), Jerusalem, Malta, Sicily, and all the other places he evangelized. It is filled with many details that are not generally known and that serve to make the story fascinating.

This little volume is a great introduction to the person of Saint Paul, his world, and his times. It easy reading and deserves wide circulation. I began reading it a second time, and found it just as interesting and intriguing as the first time around!