SHORT INTRODUCTION TO THE BIBLE
1. A Book in the Making
A unique volume
The Bible is the most remarkable piece of literature this
world has ever seen. It has outsold every other publication, it
has been translated into more languages than any other, and has
become part of the fabric of society in the English-speaking
world. You will find it in someone's hands almost every time you
see a christening, a wedding or a funeral; and the authorities
make people swear by it in almost every Western law court.
Humanly speaking, it took more than 1,500 years to compile
the Bible. About forty authors contributed, and they wrote
primarily in Greek and Hebrew, with occasional Aramaic. Some used
poetry, others wrote history, and yet others biography. Some were
kings, but others peasants; some were warriors and others
priests; some were devoted patriots, and others members of an
outlawed underground organization. What they produced has come to
us in two Testaments, with their 66 books, broken into 1,189
chapters and 31,173 verses.
Some people were so committed to the belief that this is
God's book that they were even willing to die for that
proposition. And strangely, others have been willing to put them
to death. The bitterness and resent ment against this book are
difficult to explain. The cruelest of instruments have been used
in an effort to prevent its propagation. Body racks, tongue
pinchers, thumb screws, iron boots and whipping trees have all
been used in attempts to turn supporters against the Bible. Such
supporters have been hung, drawn and quartered; they have been
burned, boiled and beheaded. Even in the twentieth century in
some countries men and women have been imprisoned and tortured
for reading this forbidden book.
How are we to classify the Bible? Each of us must make up
our own mind about this extraordinary book.
One inescapable conclusion is that this book is
The Old Testament opens like an old weather-beaten chart.
People who foreshadow Christ walk across its pages: people such
as Adam, Melchizedek, Joseph, Moses and David. Bethlehem - the
little town in the Judean hills which has become central to the
Similarly, structures and rituals foreshadow Christ.
Unfamiliar structures were erected, such as the Tabernacle,
its altar protected by a veil; or a strange ship, called the Ark,
which weathered the world's worst storm. Equally strange rituals
were observed. The Passover required a slaughtered lamb, the Day
of Atonement needed an exiled goat, a leper's cleansing was
celebrated with the killing of two birds. Then there were typical
offices like those of the prophet, the priest and the king, all
roles later ascribed to Jesus.
When all these blurry pictures come into focus, the entire
Old Testament can be seen as a picture of the Jewish Messiah. To
the writers of the New Testament, this Jewish Messiah was none
other than Jesus of Nazareth. To the leaders of the synagogues,
this Nazarene was but the son of a carpenter, and therefore a
fraud. They did not deny His supernatural abilities, but they
concluded that His miracles were actually empowered by Satan. To
the Roman government, He could have posed a serious threat. He
accepted the title of "king," as an heir to the throne of
Israel's great king David. His talk about the building of a
kingdom, even misunderstood by some of His disciples, seemed to
threaten the relative peace of the worldwide Roman empire.
The opening pages of the New Testament put a spotlight on
this person of Christ. Jesus taught that the Jewish scriptures
were but a foreword, written to prepare for His coming. Jesus
said, "Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have
eternal life: and they are they which testify of me" (John 5:39).
Even the apostles said, "To him give all the prophets witness"
Dr. Luke first wrote his Gospel of the life of Christ, then
wrote the book of Acts. While it might be assumed that his Acts
was merely a postscript to his Gospel, he carefully defined it
otherwise: "The former treatise have I made ... of all that Jesus
began to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up"
(Acts 1:1). Luke was suggesting that Jesus invaded all subsequent
history. He implied that the history of the early church,
recorded in the book of Acts, was but the continuation of the
work and teaching of Jesus.
This New Testament teaching about Christ's entrance into the
world became so commonly accepted that even the calendars were
changed. All previous history was now dated "before Christ" (BC),
and all sub sequent history dated Anno Domini (AD), a Latin
description meaning "in the year of the Lord."
To find out more about the significance of Jesus, let us go to
THIS BOOK IS ALIVE
Bethlehem is a sleepy little town whose history goes all the
way back to Genesis. It has been associated with both sadness and
gladness. It was here that Abraham's grandson Jacob buried his
beloved wife Rachel. The prophet Jeremiah later said that if you
sit quietly by her grave, you could still hear her weeping for
her children. Perhaps most infamous of all the tragic events took
place after Herod the king called in his wise men to instruct him
where the Messiah was to be born. They quoted Micah: "But thou,
Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of
Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be
ruler in Israel...." (Micah 5:2). Herod "slew all the children
that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two
years old and under" (Matthew 2:16).
But tragedies gave place to triumphs. Very happy memories
are also associated with this town of Bethlehem. It was on these
hills that the courtship between Ruth and Boaz matured (Ruth
chapters 2-4). An entire book of the Bible is given over to
telling their story. And it was to these hills that the prophet
Samuel came to find their great grandson, a shepherd boy named
David. He was tending his sheep on these hills when Samuel
anointed him to be the next king of Israel. That boy loved this
place so dearly that, when it was taken by the Philistines, he
"Oh that one would give me drink of the water of the well of
Bethlehem, which is by the gate!" (2 Samuel 23:15).
Great warriors risked their lives to bring that refreshing
drink to David, and he poured it out as a thankoffering unto the
Later, the most stupendous event of Christian history
happened here. It was here that Jesus Christ was born. He is not
simply a picture on a card; He is not a fairy-tale character in a
children's story book. There is no question that he lived;
contemporary Jewish and secular historians refer to His miracles,
His death, and His enormous influence.
Jesus made some fantastic claims about Himself. He claimed
to be the Son of God. He said that He was sent by the Father to
lead humanity into salvation. He also claimed that he was "the
way, the truth, and the life," and that no man could come to the
Father except through Him (John 14:6). Confucius, Buddha, and
even Muhammad never made such claims. But Jesus' greatest
prediction related to His sacrificial death, to be followed by a
resurrection from the dead, three days later.
To the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus' claims were
preposterous, in fact blasphemous; so one bitter morning He was
taken to the rock shaped like a skull and nailed to a "tree," in
crucifixion. Many students of the Bible believe they can identify
the actual location of that crucifixion. But the hilltop did not
end His story. In the same rock formation there was a hewn tomb,
which many historians believe was the place where they laid His
lifeless body. To make sure there was no tampering, an enormous
stone was rolled against the mouth of the tomb. It was sealed and
soldiers were posted to guard it. Early the following Sunday,
women came to embalm His body, only to find the stone rolled
away. Although the wrappings were still there, His body was
Every conceivable explanation has been put forward to
discredit the possibility of a resurrection. The disciples were
accused of "stealing" the body, though no explanation was given
as to how they could have accomplished this, nor was a warrant
ever issued for their arrest. The guards confessed to falling
asleep, though no disciplinary measures were ever taken against
them. How could a sleeping guard know what actually happened?
To the writers of the New Testament, and Christians throughout
history, Jesus was not merely a man. They believed His
resurrection proved that He was the incarnation of God, the
Messiah, the Savior of human kind. So the apostle Paul wrote to
the church at Corinth arguing that if Christ be not risen from
the dead, preaching is useless, faith is futile and we are still
in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:14-17). To all true believers, His
resurrection is cardinal, pivotal, and fundamental.
The Jewish religious leaders and the Roman officials
considered Jesus' death to be the closing of an unpleasant
chapter in the brief tale of an upstart religious sect. In fact
it proved to be the opening chapter in the story of a mighty, and
sometimes militant, force known as the Christian church. This new
movement infiltrated the fabric of Rome's imperial power....
To understand the impact of this event, we must first
analyze the age iii which the first Christians lived. That will,
in turn, require an understanding of the years preceding the
coming of the New Testament. The Jews had a Bible which Jesus
knew thoroughly, quoted frequently, and about which He argued
continuously with the religious leaders of His day. What was the
Bible which Jesus and His disciples knew?
THE MAKING OF THE OLD TESTAMENT
If there is one word which you need to put into your vocabulary
when thinking about the origins of the Bible, it is the word
"canon." This word reters to the books which together compose
Holy Scripture. They were communicated to us by God, through
special men, and became authoritative, distinct from all other
writings. The Jewish canon, which is limited to the Old
Testament, was publicly acknowledged long before the birth of
Christ, but the official closing of the canon took place in AD
100 at a rabbinical assembly in Jamnia, thirteen miles south of
modern Tel Aviv. None of the books that were written between the
end of our Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament -
known as the Apocrypha - were considered by the Jews to be
But any Jewish religious scholar would explain to you that
the canon was not decided by a single act of man, but done
"gradually from God." In the days of Jesus, the Scriptures
consisted of the Law, or Torah; followed by the Prophets; and
then the "Hagiographa," or the Writings. This was the division
that Jesus used in Luke 24:44.
The Old Testament was first written in Hebrew. The Hebrew
language did not distinguish between capital and small letters.
It had no vowels or punctuation marks, and writing was from right
to left. There were 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and 22
books in the Jewish Bible. It contained, nevertheless, the same
material that we have in the 39 books of our Old Testament. We
divide First and Second Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, while the
Jews did not. Jeremiah's Lamentations they considered one with
his prophecy, and so on.
How did the Old Testament come together? In Exodus 24:4 we
read: "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord." These were
placed "in the side of the Ark of the Covenant," according to
Deuteronomy 31:26. Joshua later added to them; and still later
Samuel "told the people the manner of the kingdom, and wrote it
in a book, and laid it up before the Lord" (1 Samuel 10:25). Much
later "Hilkiah the high priest said unto Shaphan the scribe, I
have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord ...." (2
Kings 22:8). These passages show that the records gradually grew,
and were safely protected.
It was long assumed that the claims of Moses to have written
down the law were groundless, because nobody was supposed to have
known anything about the art of writing until a much later
period. However, at the end of the last century, something
happened which helped scholars to change their minds about the
origin of writing. In 1887 an Egyptian peasant woman was walking
among the ruins of Tel el-Amarna looking for something to sell
when her foot hit a hard object in the sand: it was a piece of
hardened clay, covered with unusual markings. She invited a
friend to help her dig, and they did not give up until they had a
bag full of these baked clay tablets.
What she had stumbled upon was the Egyptian Foreign Office
archive of that ancient period. We now know that long before the
days of Moses, ambassadors had an active postal service,
regularly reporting affairs from distant regions of Palestine.
Not only would Moses have known how to write, 1,500 years before
Christ, but some who study the science of paleography believe
that the book of job perhaps predates Moses by more than 400
In 586 Bc a devastating event occurred: Jerusalem was
captured by the Babylonians. The Temple was looted and then
destroyed by fire, and hundreds of prisoners were taken off to be
settled in faraway Babylon. There they met in small groups,
probably in each other's houses, for worship and instruction. It
is thought that this marked the beginning of the synagogue
movement-the word "synagogue" means "meeting together." In later
years small buildings were built in any town where there was a
community of Jews. These were also called "synagogues," and
served as community center, town hall, school, law court, and,
above all, chapel.
When the majority of Jewish captives returned to Palestine
from Babylon, about seventy years later, tradition holds that
Ezra collected together the books of the Old Testament which had
been miraculously preserved through the turmoil of the Exile.
From the earliest times careful and exact copies of the holy
writings had been made by Jewish scholars called "scribes." But
after the Exile the role of scribe took on an added importance.
Scribes were also priests, and they had the great responsibility
of preserving, copying and interpreting the Law. When we meet
them in the New Testament, we find that these scribes actively
opposed the ministry of Jesus. But this much must be said to
their credit: they were fastidious. They regulated their
profession as writers as follows:
1. They could use only clean animal skins, both to write on, and
even to bind manuscripts.
2. Each column of writing could have no less than forty-eight,
and no more than sixty lines.
3. The ink must be black, and of a special recipe.
4. They must "verbalize" each word aloud while they were writing.
5. They must wipe the pen, and wash their entire bodies, before
writing the word "Jehovah," every time they wrote it.
6. There must be a "review" within thirty days, and if as many as
three pages required correction, the entire document had to be
7. The letters, words and paragraphs had to be counted, and the
document became invalid if two letters touched each other. The
middle paragraph, word and letter must correspond to those of the
8. All old and worn documents had to be "buried" with ceremonial
pomp. (This is why we have none of the original documents today.)
9. The documents could be stored only in sacred places.
10. As no document containing God's Word could be destroyed, they
were stored, or buried, in a genizah, a Hebrew term meaning
"hiding place." These were usually kept in a synagogue, or
sometimes in a Jewish cemetery.
THE GREEKS HAVE A WORD FOR IT
The celebrated Greek thinker and debater, Socrates.
The prophet Isaiah, looking forward to the time when the Messiah
would come, said that He would be "as a root out of a dry ground"
(Isaiah 53:2). The "dry ground" referred to was the corrupt
character of the age into which the Messiah was to come. The
Apostle Paul, looking back at the timing of Jesus' entrance into
the world, stated: "When the fullness of the time was come, God
sent forth his Son" (Galatians 4:4). Jesus was aware of the
timing of His arrival. He said: "The time is fulfilled, and the
kingdom of God is at hand" (Mark 1:15).
Both the Greeks and the Romans played a significant role in
preparing the world for the entrance of Jesus Christ. When
Alexander the Great conquered the world, around 330 BC, he
brought the Greek way of life to the east, and with it the
thinking of the great Greek philosophers. The world was
challenged by the questions of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who
mentally probed the unknown spirit world. They taught people how
to ask questions which provoked them to think; but they could not
supply the answers to those questions. They succeeded in putting
basic problems into focus, but left a world waiting for someone
to come who could provide authoritative answers.
The second major Greek contribution was to provide the world
with a single language, known as koine, or "common Greek." By the
time Alexander died, in 323 BC, the world had become bilingual,
and Greek was the second language everybody used. This becomes
important for our story of the Bible.
Though the origins of the Greek translation of the Old
Testament are veiled in romance and conjecture, the most common
version is as follows. Around the year 285 BC, Demetrius of
Phalerum was custodian of a world-famous library in Alexandria.
Many Jews were living in Egypt, so Demetrius asked King Ptolemy
Philadelphus if he could arrange to have a Greek translation of
the Jewish Law made for the library.
As a goodwill gesture, the king released 100,000 Jewish
slaves, and sent an embassy with rich presents to Eleazar, the
high priest in Jerusalem, requesting six able scholars from each
of the twelve tribes, totaling seventy-two men, to undertake this
task. The scholars were honorably received at the court of
Alexandria, and taken to the island of Pharos, so they might work
silently and undisturbed. It is reputed that they lived in
seventy-two cells, finished their task of translating the Torah
in seventy-two days, and were in total agreement over the results
of their labour. Because of the number of scholars, this work
became known as the Septuagint, the Greek word for "seventy."
I have two important observations about this scholarly work.
The seventy-two men apparently continued their translation until
they had finished the entire Old Testament canon; then they
appended the Apocryphal writings. Jerome, and other early Church
Fathers who translated the Bible into Latin, worked from the
Septuagint version of the Old Testament--and therefore included
the Apocryphal writings. Roman Catholic Bibles were based on
these Latin translations, and consequently Roman Catholics accept
the inspiration of the Apocrypha. Until the sixteenth century the
Eastern churches used the Apocryphal writings. After Luther
opposed the Council of Trent, which included the Apocrypha in the
canon, Protestants increasingly removed the Apocrypha from the
canon, but allowed it for private edification.
Secondly, the influence of the Septuagint was enormous. In
the intertestamental period, persecution dispersed the Jews into
"every nation under heaven," as Luke puts it in Acts. Jews spoke
every known language, and many did not understand the old Hebrew
of their Bible. However, everyone knew Greek. So the Septuagint
met a very great need, providing the books of Moses for Jews
scattered around the world. In fact, it became the Bible. It was
this book that the apostles referred to as the Word of God.
THE BEGINNING OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
If we were to take the first century, and analyze it
according to how God's truth was communicated, we might divide it
During the period until AD 30 Jesus was living on earth, so
we could call it the time of living truth. Jesus was the center
of authority. He never wrote a book, He simply said: "Learn of
Me," "I am the truth" (Matthew 11:29; John 14:6). He placed
Himself in the gravitational center of the spiritual universe and
said: "Come unto me, all ye that labor" (Matthew 11:28). It was
Christ, and not a creed, which was important.
A second period, until AD 50, might be called the time of
oral tradition. Following Jesus' death, accounts of His words and
deeds were passed on by word of mouth.
The final period, from AD 50 onwards, is the time of written
communication. The apostles could not be everywhere, and they
often taught new churches by writing letters. Some of those
letters form part of our New Testament.
At this point in our story, we are interested in the days in
which Jesus lived, when His life, His actions and His words
became the embodiment of truth.
Jesus grew up in the market town of Nazareth. Like all
Jewish boys, each morning He went to school in the synagogue,
where His only textbook was the Bible. From the age of twelve to
about thirty, He probably worked in Nazareth, at Joseph's
carpenter's bench. He returned to Nazareth after His baptism, and
in the synagogue there He outlined His intended ministry. The
people of Nazareth were outraged by His words. They rejected Him
and took Him to the edge of a cliff, intending to throw Him over
and end His life.
Later Jesus came to the shores of Galilee and made the
ancient town of Capernaum the center of His public ministry. He
only went to Jerusalem for the great religious festivals.
Lake Galilee is 685 feet below sea-level, about 6 miles
wide, 16 miles long, and approximately 130 feet at its maximum
depth. Its water provided work for hundreds of fishermen in the
many busy fishing villages along its shores. Of the thirty-six
miracles which are recorded in the Gospels, nineteen were
performed in and around this lake. It was down by the water's
edge that Peter caught a fish with a coin in its mouth. On the
hillside overlooking the north-east shore of the lake, Jesus
preached His famous Sermon on the Mount. In this area, too, He
fed 5,000 "men, beside women and children" (Matthew 14:21). A
little to the south you can see the steep slope and caves which
may be where He calmed the man with a "legion" of demons
mastering him (Mark 5). Of the twelve men Jesus selected to
become His apostles, eleven came from this region. Only one came
from the area of Judea, and he proved to be a traitor and a
It was on the surface of this lake that Jesus walked; and,
on another occasion, stood up in the prow of a ship and commanded
the angry, turbulent waves to lie at peace.
Because Lake Galilee was where Jesus spent most of His
ministry, this was where the seeds were sown that would flower as
the New Testament. Jesus taught in parables; but examine their
teaching. Every truth preached by Paul had been previously
planted as a seedling in the parables of Jesus. Look at His
miracles. They were "parables in action." They showed that He was
Lord over death, disease and demons. These conditions express the
general human malady. Death is our spiritual condition; leprosy
our defilement by sin; blindness our indifference to spiritual
realities; and fever shows us the contagious and restless nature
For three and a half years Jesus lived with His disciples,
ate with them, walked and rested with them. He guided them
through long journeys, tedious pressures and restless nights. By
words and actions He followed the instructions of Isaiah, and
taught them: "precept must be upon precept; line upon line; here
a little, and there a little" (Isaiah 28:10). Before He left
them, He even promised them that He would send them "another
Comforter," who would "bring all things to your remembrance"
(John 14:16, 26).
While Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians, Peter wrote to
the Hebrew Christians. They were scattered throughout the Roman
provinces of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia (1
Peter 1:1), after severe persecution for which they needed the
strongest encouragement. Though Peter fades from the pages of
Acts after the first twelve chapters, he was faithful to the end
of his days. Tradition has it that he died in Rome, crucified
upside down because he felt he was unworthy to die upright as his
Master had died.
John, the youngest of the apostles, outlived them all. He
wrote three letters which inspired holy living, and a Gospel
which highlighted themes which the other three writers had
omitted. His visionary work, the book of Revelation, was written
while he was an exile on the isle of Patmos. John lifted the veil
and allowed us to look into the future "Day of the Lord."
By the end of the first century, the foundation for the New
Testament was laid. For the next stage, we must turn to Rome.
THE ROMAN CONTRIBUTION
The beautiful marble seaport of Caesarea Maritima stood on
the Mediterranean coast, sixty-five miles by road from Jerusalem.
It was a new town, built by Herod the Great on the site of a
Phoenician fort which Caesar had captured in 22 BC. Engineers
constructed a magnificent semicircular artificial harbor which
could accommodate 300 ships. Herod also built an amphitheater, a
hippodrome, and amazing aqueducts to channel water to the city
from underground springs some distance away. Herod honored Caesar
by naming the city for him, and the Romans quickly made it their
The succeeding king, Herod Agrippa, often used Caesarea as
his capital. It was here, during a time of political unrest, that
one day he dressed himself in royal apparel and gave an oration
which so overpowered his audience that, according to Luke, they
shouted: "It is the voice of a god, and not of a man" (Acts
12:22). But, Luke adds, because Herod did not ascribe credit to
God, he fell to the floor and was eaten by intestinal roundworms
before his adoring audience (Acts 12:21-23).
In AD 66, the Jews rebelled against the Romans, and were
finally crushed four years later. Jerusalem was razed to the
ground, and it has been claimed that more than one million people
may have been put to death. Many were taken to Caesarea's
amphitheater, where they were killed for sport.
Yet Rome played a very important role in preparing the way
for the expansion of the early church. The first major
contribution was in administrative law. Roman law had been
developing ever since the "Twelve Tablets" of 450 BC, which
classified the law code in order to clarify the rights of its
The second major Roman contribution came from their skill as
engineers and builders. Whereas the Greeks broke down barriers
created by language, the Romans were concerned to eradicate
geographical boundaries. They built roads and bridges to make it
easier to move an army. They also built strong walls as defensive
barriers against barbarian attack, such as Hadrian's Wall in
northern England. In many countries these barriers have survived
the ravages and cataclysmic changes of the last 2,000 years.
I have in my library a copy of the classic Morgan Lectures of
1894, given at the Theological Seminary in Auburn, New York, by
Dr.James Orr and entitled "The Neglected Factors of Church"
History. Dr.Orr's pur pose is to demonstrate the phenomenally
rapid expansion of Christianity in Caesar's world. Let me share
some of his findings.
First Dr.Orr traced the geographical expansion of
Christianity. Everyone has heard of the catacombs under the city
of Rome. They form a circle about three miles from the center of
Rome. About forty chambers are known, connected to each other by
a network of tunnels and secret passages. They were used as a
Christian burial ground, and contain vast numbers of graves.
According to Dr.Orr, forty separate Christian congregations were
meeting in Rome just before the last persecution broke out. In
Antioch, Syria, the church was estimated at 100,000 strong; in
Asia Minor, it was estimated at one million, out of a total
population of nineteen million.
Secondly, Orr investigated the influence of Christianity
through the different levels of society. We know that the "common
people heard him gladly" (Mark 12:37), but so did many of the
wealthy, who attached themselves to the church, even in New
Testament days. Jesus warned the rich against the dangers of
relying on their wealth; James spoke of the man coming into the
congregation wearing a gold ring; Luke spoke about those who were
"possessors of lands or houses"; and Paul told Timothy to "charge
them that are rich in this world" (Luke 6:24; James 2:2; Acts
4:34; 1 Timothy 6:17).
The church ministered to the needs of "widows," meaning
women without financial support (Acts 6:1). Paul spoke about a
salutation from "Caesar's household" (Philippians 4:22).
Professor Harnack comments: "Between 50 and 60 years after
Christianity reached Rome, a daughter of the Emperor (Vespasian)
embraced the faith, and 30 years after the fearful persecutions
of Nero, the presumptive heirs to the throne were brought up in a
....These, then, are some of the external factors leading to the
rapid expansion of the Christian faith. But what of Christianity
itself? What internal preparations did God make for the spread of
THE APOSTLES ACHIEVEMENT
After the ascension of Christ, the small Christian church in
Jerusalem grew rapidly. But its success led to problems. After a
few years, to avoid a possible breakaway by the Greek-speaking
members of the church, seven deacons were appointed, all of whom
had Greek names. Fragments survive of the story of only two:
Philip and Stephen.
Philip preached and healed people in Samaria, and explained
the Gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27-39).
Stephen preached with such power that he was taken prisoner
and put on trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council, where
he accused the Jewish leaders of the murder of the Messiah.
Quoting from comments made by Isaiah about the Temple, he argued
that God dwells in no specific place on earth. The Pharisees, a
fundamentalist group of strict legalists, acknowledged Isaiah as
inspired, and Stephen's interpretations enraged them. Dragging
him outside the city walls, they stoned him to death, the first
martyr of the Christian church.
A Pharisee, described as a "young man" in Acts 7:58, stood
by and watched the killing, guarding the garments of the
executioners. His name was Saul. For the rest of his life Saul
was never able to escape the memory of the things he saw, heard
and felt on that day. It was one of the goads which turned him
towards Jesus, so that this most zealous of all persecutors of
the church became the most impassioned of all followers of
Christ. The church owes an everlasting debt of gratitude to that
man, not only for his missionary activity but because, as "Paul,"
he wrote a large part of the New Testament. Who was he?
Paul's home was Tarsus in the Greek province of Cilicia.
Tarsus was a university town, the home of philosophers,
grammarians and poets. To have grown up in such a city must have
contributed to his knowledge of the world and its thinking. His
family, however, as he later told the Roman governor Agrippa,
were the strictest Jews. Both Paul and his father were Pharisees,
and he was fluent in the Hebrew language. He went to the
Rabbinical College at Jerusalem for his training, and studied
under the highly esteemed Gamaliel.
When Roman soldiers later put him in chains after a riot in
the Temple in Jerusalem, Paul informed them that he was "a
Roman," meaning that he held Roman citizenship. Their reaction to
that information testifies to its value (Acts 22:25-29). This
citizenship exempted Paul from slavery and excused him from
degrading punishments such as scourging and crucifixion; it gave
him the right to appeal to the Emperor against any lower court's
decision; and, most important of all, it gave him the freedom to
roam the world. He was, in every respect, the international man:
Roman in his privileges, Jewish in his world view, and Greek in
his thought patterns.
Paul became possessed of a passion to persecute Christians.
After the death of Stephen, that thirst became insatiable. His
hatred of Christians took him on a mission to Damascus, and on
that journey he was dramati cally converted to Christ. His
passion never subsided; it was merely redirected.
Paul next spent some time - possibly as much as three years
- in Arabia, pondering the issues involved in his conversion.
Then he returned to Damascus and preached in the synagogue. His
preaching infuriated the congregation, and they put a price on
his head and a guard at every gate; but he escaped over the wall
in a basket. With Barnabas, Paul spent a year in Antioch, a major
provincial center, teaching the Christians there. It was the
Christian church in Antioch which, under the direction of the
Holy Spirit, sent off Paul and Barnabas to be pioneer
Paul became a legend in his own day. He pioneered Gentile
churches on two continents in the course of three if not four
missionary journeys. He worked tirelessly for thirty years. His
health was broken, his speech impeded, and it is probable that he
had trouble with his eyes so that someone else had to write his
letters for him. He traveled thousands of miles on both land and
sea, in a day without the convenience of modern transportation.
Probably most of his journeys were on foot. He was frequently at
the center of riots, and at one of these his enemies stoned him
and left him for dead. After twenty years, he reviewed his
experiences in the following words:
In labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons
more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I
forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I
stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have
been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in
perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by
the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness,
in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in
weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and
thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those
things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the
care of all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
And when he wrote this he had at least ten more years of
ministry to endure. His traveling days ended when he was sent as
a prisoner to Rome. But his missionary work continued. Though his
body was manacled, his words could not be tied down.
Paul was a church planter and builder. On his first
missionary journey, which took two and a half years, he covered
1,200 miles and visited different cities. He left new churches
wherever he went. His ministry was so signally blessed that it
provoked a debate among the church leaders in Jerusalem. He was
required to appear before a Council presided over by James, the
Lord's brother. During the debate, which focused on racial
discrimination, truth was separated from prejudice, and the
verdict exonerated Paul.
Paul's second missionary tour took three years and covered
2,800 miles - 1,600 miles by land and another 1,200 miles by sea.
It touched sixteen major cities in Asia and Europe, and resulted
in the establishing of many new churches in Europe.
The third tour covered about 1,400 miles, and though it
brought Paul to only three major cities and four provinces, in
those provinces there were many cities through which he had
previously passed, whose churches he must have visited again.
The Jews had been the divinely appointed writers and custodians
of the Old Testament; now the church took over as custodians of
the New Testament. Paul was the most prolific writer of all the
New Testament authors, writing thirteen of the twenty-one New
Testament letters. (And the book of Hebrews has all the
scholastic work of being from Paul - Keith Hunt). At least two of
his letters were written during his second missionary journey,
and three on his third. The rest were written either in prison,
or between imprisonments. Towards the end of his life, Paul wrote
the "Pastoral Letters" (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus).
References in 2 Timothy and Titus suggest that Paul was
exonerated at his first trial in Rome and then released, but
later arrested and imprisoned again; so there were probably two
imprisonments. It seems unlikely that he was in Rome in AD 64,
when Nero set the city on fire and blamed the Christians, since,
had he been in Rome at that time, he would most probably have
suffered martyrdom with the other Christians. Perhaps he was in
Spain, as he had already written that he intended to go on to
Spain from Rome (Romans 15:24). Clement of Rome, Chrysostom and
Jerome all refer to his visit to Spain, though without giving
details. However, what we are sure about is that it was in Rome
that Paul's earthly pilgrimage ended.
Paul's final prison in Rome may have been the Mamertine
prison, a twenty-foot-deep hole in the ground into which the
Romans dropped their prisoners through a hole in the ceiling -
there were no stairs until medieval times. The Roman Senate met
only fifty yards away from this spot. Beyond that was the Roman
Forum, and Caesar's palace. The great imperial power transacted
business above his cell.
When he arrived, he was "Paul the aged," crippled by chains
and surrounded by soldiers. He was cold and asked for "the cloke
that I left at Troas" (2 Timothy 4:13). He remarked that "Demas
hath forsaken me" (2 Timothy 4:10) and he urged Timothy not to be
ashamed that Paul was a prisoner. He even informed Timothy, in
his last letter, written from that cell, "at my first answer no
man stood with me, but all men forsook me" (2 Timothy 4:16).
Added to all this was his intuitive knowledge that his time on
earth was finished: "I am now ready to be offered, and the time
of my departure is at hand" (2 Timothy 4:6).
You can take a spiritual barometer reading on Paul as you
read his last two letters, probably written from that dank, dark
hole. Question him. Then listen to his replies.
"How are you doing, Paul?"
"Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ [no fear in the presence of
imperial Caesar], by the will of God [no revaluations because of
adverse circumstances], according to the promise of life which is
in Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 1:1).
"Do you know that you are about to die?"
"I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to
keep that which I have committed unto him against that day ... I
have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept
the faith" (2 Timothy 1:12, 4:7)......
For in-depth information see the studies "How We Got the Bible"
and "Canonization of the Old Testament" "Canonization of the New
Testament" on this Website.