If Jesus founded the Jewish sect that after his demise became known as Christian, Paul of Tarsus was the leader of the sect's embrace of non-Jews, or Gentiles, who overran their Jewish brethren and their religious observances. This is his story.
Paul was born about the year 1 of our era in Tarsus, a 6,000-year-old city about 12 miles from the Mediterranean Sea that still exists in modern Turkey.
Growing up as a Hellenized Jew assimilated into the educated life of a renowned cultural center to whose natives Marc Antony awarded the status of Roman citizenship, Paul acquired there both his writing and rhetorical skills. However, as a youth he was drawn to Jewish religious traditions and left for Jerusalem, where he became a disciple of Rabbi Gamaliel, a grandson of the great Rabbi Hillel and a leading member of the Sanhedrin, or rabbinical court.
Gamaliel, according to the NT, was concerned and ambivalent concerning what to do with Jesus and his followers. Disputes had arisen between "Jesusites" and the more law-bound rabbis of Jerusalem—almost certainly concerning the claims that Jesus was the Messiah and, ambiguously, "the Son of God."
The conflict played out in Paul's life when he witnessed, around 33 CE, the death by stoning meted out for heresy by rabbinical sentence to Stephen, a deacon thereafter regarded by Christians as a martyred saint. A few years later, already a rabbi and a minor member of the Sanhedrin, yet one with authority to vote on cases and act as an enforcer, Paul was dispatched to Damascus to deal with Jesusites in that city.
During that trip, according to Paul, the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road, asking "Why do you persecute me?" He was thrown off his horse and left blinded. In Damascus, he found his way to Christians who fearfully took in the well-known persecutor, taking his account at face value. The disciple Ananias prayed with him and laying hands on him the scales that blinded his eyes fell off. Paul was converted to the Christian faith.
From then on, Paul began to preach the gospel, or good news, of Jesus the Christ, and notably made converts throughout Asia Minor, Greece and even Rome. His letters to various Christian communities he established were preserved and form a substantial part of the NT.
That would be the end of the story except that Paul was, in effect, the first leading Jesusite with a formal religious education, steeped in philosophy and rabbinical thought.
Paul ushered in changes in thinking and practice that confirmed the worst fears of his rabbinical colleagues in Jerusalem and put in a pickle the Jesusite Jews who although claiming to follow Messiah were otherwise observant of the Law of Moses. Notably, Paul baptized Gentiles into the faith, but released them from the Jewish Law's commands to become circumcised and observe certain dietary rules, such as abstaining from pork.
Predictably, the rabbinical authorities condemned him and plotted to get their hands on the wayward rebbe. No less predictably, the apostle Peter —in an event in Jerusalem often called the first council of the Church, sometime in the late 40s—engaged in what is recorded as a fierce argument against the new convert and his newfangled ideas. Yet Paul prevailed against both.
The distress caused by Paul by what amounted to abandonment of cherished observances rippled across the Roman world.
In Antioch, the Jesusites were first given that pejorative name Kristianoi, intending it to sound something like "Christies" while to the critics' horror the new sect adopted "Christian" as a name of honor. In Rome, meanwhile, street fights between rabbinical and Jesus-following Jews came to the point that in the year 49 the Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the city.
The third-century Christian historian Eusebius writes in a widely accepted statement that Paul was martyred during Nero's persecution. The story is that, in a version of urban planning suitable only for an insane emperor, the Emperor Nero set fire to Rome in the year 64, casting blame on the Christians, who were, of course, then sought out and fiercely punished.