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  • Brian Chilcote

Paul the Persecuted: Why did he make so many enemies?

Updated: Apr 18

Once upon a time in a certain town, a preacher from down south set up shop at the Free Speech Corner. His blend of traditionalism and radical apocalyptic fervor started to catch on and large crowds started to take him seriously. It didn't take long for the municipal government to notice the preacher's advocacy of policies that would definitely upend the status quo. If his ideas caught on, they observed, there would be chaos and deep division at the polls in the next election season. What could be done to keep the peace?


Fundamentalist groups began to embrace and support the preacher's agenda. The city considered curtailing of advantages enjoyed by local houses of worship, now that there was a political element involved. Threatened with legal action to rescind their tax-exempt status, a majority of the town's more moderate churches decided they had had enough of the Preacher and his followers and began to look for ways to oust him. These leaders had worked too hard to achieve a modicum of respect and even influence in town to have it swept away by this imposter.


Church discipline didn't work. Excommunication didn't work. Editorials, blogs, podcasts, attendance at township meetings, and interviews on the local news didn't work.


What to do with this troublemaker? Expel him? Arrest him? He wouldn't be ignored so that didn't work either.

We find other versions of this story in the writings of the New Testament as various communities were confronted with a tiny but influential sect of zealous missionaries called "The Way," or "The Poor" and eventually "Little Christs." By now you've figured out that we're talking about the Apostle Paul and his confrontations on numerous fronts with those who had a vested interest in maintaining their position in the status quo.

One example is in Luke's take on Paul's first meeting with the Jewish leaders in Rome in Acts 28. Notice how conciliatory Luke is toward both Roman and Jewish authorities:

...[H]e called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, 'Brothers though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor—even though I had no charge to bring against my people. For this reason therefore I asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.' They replied, 'We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.'"


Why did Paul encounter such resistance from the synagogue and city hall wherever he went? Why did he find it necessary to write so many pages to his followers defending his authority?  In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul appeals to an ultimate authority to defend himself: "The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying." 


John chapter 16 has Jesus warning his followers about expulsions from synagogues, a phenomenon that likely did not occur in Jesus' day, but definitely occurred later in the 90's CE when the author of John was composing his narrative. Paul encountered his own trouble with synagogues around Asia Minor which often boiled over into conflict with civic authorities. Acts 17 records tales of multi-lateral persecutions in Thessalonica, Berea and Athens, followed by Corinth and Ephesus in later chapters. Galatians 2 even records Paul's argument with Peter!


Social and political collisions followed Paul around the Mediterranean. What was it about his message that simultaneously attracted God-fearing Greeks and repulsed traditional Jews (which in turn triggered opposition from local and regional governmental leaders)?


The fable that began this article illustrates a modern analogy. Let's dive a little deeper and explore some reasons behind Paul's difficulties and some possible motivations behind some of his defensive writings.


Let's first go back to the time when Paul was still Saul, whose specialty was cracking down on a small deviant Jewish faction. At this early point in the complicated relationship between this messianic splinter group and its mother tradition, adherents would not have imagined themselves as a reform or a separatist movement. The entire reason for Saul's threats would have been to coerce a reconciliation between arguing Jews. Had the people of "The Way" severed their ties with Judaism and gone a separate way, there would have been no need for Saul's mission to Damascus.


At this point in time, there were no Christians as we know them. Arland J. Hultgren explains:


"It is not likely, however, that Paul the persecutor would have opposed Christianity because he saw it as a religion outside of Judaism, a competitor. The Christian movement would have been seen by him and others as subject yet to Jewish authority. This is confirmed by what Paul says concerning Jewish persecutions against himself. In 2 Cor 11:24 he refers to the forty lashes less one which he, since his conversion and work as an apostle, had received from the Jews five times. Such a punishment was meted out as a disciplinary measure against him, and it was administered by Jewish courts; the 39 lashes, received five times, was not merely an impromptu act of violence against him by hostile opponents." [emphasis mine]*


We already know quite a lot about how Paul saw things; we even see him struggling with the idea of dual pathways to avoid "the wrath to come" and taking one's place in a platonically ideal eternity in the heavens. For Gentiles, it was a straightforward matter of declaring your allegiance to a set of beliefs, marked by joining a community of faith, jettisoning one's former traditions of polytheism, and adopting a generally Jewish social ethic of sexual purity and virtuous behavior. For observant Jews, it was adding an "Abrahamic" style faith (Galatians 3- see below) in the apparent Messiah, Jesus.


For both Jews and Gentiles, Paul appears to call for separate but equal pathways into the true family of God. His message in a nutshell is this: Are you Jewish? Keep on being Jewish, just add belief in what I teach about Jesus as a universal Messiah. And don't insist on Gentiles becoming Jews. Continue to engage in Jewish piety, attitudes and behaviors. These are right and good, but won't do anything to rescue you from God's wrath in the last day.


Are you a Gentile God-fearer? Be thankful that God has revealed a way for you to join a new, unified group of righteous people- a way that does not include circumcision, keeping certain dietary laws, or any other means of becoming Jewish. Paul then looks right back at his own people, the Jews, and reminds them that "Theirs (Israel's) is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen." (Romans 9)


Paul does not condemn any of these Jewish identifiers. In fact, he uses his own Jewish piety to defend his own authority in both Romans and 2 Corinthians.


"I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin." (Rom 11:1)


"Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more." (2 Corinthians 11)


But he adds fuel to the accusation that he's not speaking for Jewish people, and probably apostate. He claims that the proper observance of Jewish laws and customs wasn't quite enough to make anyone righteous or see one through to heaven:


"Since they (the Jews) did not know the righteousness of God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes..." (Romans 10)


Paul proposes that God's secret plan then, is to forge a new route to heaven that lies above and beyond the Law. Jews were generally certain that Gentiles were substantially different, being outside the promises and future hope that belonged to Israel. Later, around the turn of the first century, an early church author develops this further in Ephesians 2:


" who are Gentiles by birth and called 'uncircumcised' by those who call themselves 'the circumcision' (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ."


 And back in Romans chapter 10:

"As Scripture says, 'Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.' For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'"


Paul gets himself in even hotter water with traditional Jews:


"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law." (1 Cor 9)

Paul insists that the law given to Israel is ultimately rather inconsequential. He keeps the law if it helps persuade Jews, but feels free to suspend his obedience to it if that will persuade pagans of his message. He goes further when he writes to the Galatians:

"Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3)


And later in Chapter 3: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise."


And in Chapter 5: "Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."


To understate things, mainstream synagogue members scattered throughout the Mediterranean saw things differently than Paul. There were many reasons for concern, not the least of which was the likelihood of infecting a local congregation with a dangerous heresy that spurned living by the Torah and opened the gates to Gentile "sinners."


When read Paul is read in the western church today, Christians imagine that they are in the very presence of the miraculous founding documents of a powerful tradition that conquered the world and are actually the very words of God. First century synagogue leaders around the Mediterranean strenuously disagreed with our modern conclusions about Paul.


To them, Paul's brand of super-Judaism featured a crucified Messiah who did not appear to have fulfilled any interpretations of ancient prophecy. Crucifixion itself marked one as unequivocally cursed by God himself. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin had already pronounced the verdict on this so-called Messiah and found him guilty.


Paul announced the onset of the "Age to Come," formerly understood by Jews as a definite historical boundary- an actual last day marked by God's wrath on unbelievers (translation: non-Jews) and the final establishment of a world government led by Israel. Breaking with the traditional view, Paul insisted that the last days were already upon them, breaking in with Jesus and sustained by the Holy Spirit for as long as it took to bring in the Gentiles before the imminent grand finale.


The litmus test that determined one's faithfulness to the God of Israel- and thus the avoidance of his wrath on the unbelieving world- could include fidelity to Torah, but ultimately came down to trust in Jesus as the universal Messiah. And yes, Gentiles were to be included in this "chosen people" group. Paul was convinced that Gentile men need not convert to full-on Judaism through circumcision.

The Jerusalem Apostles weren't entirely persuaded.


Paul went further. When synagogue Jews didn't respond well, he dared to portray them as hard-hearted and unresponsive to what God was doing in the world. Unless Jesus was part of your religious equation, you were apostate. Ouch.


To the pagan neighbors of the Jewish neighborhoods who were part of the multicultural mix common to Hellenized Roman towns, all of this was perceived as originating from Jewish sources, coming out of the local synagogue. Paul's message was most attractive to "god fearers," regular old pagans who were intrigued and inspired by the ancient traditions of Judaism. These fringe members could participate in Jewish life in a limited way but could never achieve insider status. That is, until Paul gave them a way in.

The Roman Response

Rome usually permitted and even embraced the religions of its provinces, including foreign gods of conquered peoples in their pantheon. People were expected to keep on worshiping their own gods as long as they added the Emperor to their worship rituals.


In the case of the stubbornly monotheistic Jews:


  • First century BCE Roman law began to address policy in a very general way. The free exercise of the Jewish religion was affirmed as a religio licita (legal religion) in the empire

  • Jews could gather in thiasoi**, observe the sabbath and festivals, and enjoy autonomy in their communal affairs

  • Jewish men were absolved from compulsory military service

  • Jews were not expected to participate in public worship of Roman gods, and for a time the religious authorities in Jerusalem negotiated a policy of offering sacrifices on behalf of Caesar but not to him


These Senatus consulta permissions were hard-won and applied unevenly. There was no definitive empire-wide legislation. Controversies were handled on a case by case basis when governors needed to keep a lid on local hostilities while keeping municipal constitutions intact. Precedent indicated that disputes were left to Roman magistrates, echoed in the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Emperor Trajan about those pesky Christians in 112 CE.***

Rome painted Paul with a Jewish brush. Maybe because the survival of his fledgling movement depended on peace with Roman law enforcement, he encouraged submission to their political power in passages like Romans 13: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment."

As difficult as it is to adopt an ancient frame of reference, think of Paul's activities as a major source of unrest, even among garden-variety pagans. His was a radical form of Judaism, open to Gentiles and "sinners," but requiring that pagans repudiate deeply held devotion to the gods and goddesses that had protected communities for centuries. It was also thoroughly apocalyptic, bringing a pressure-cooker urgency to his mission.


Abandoning traditional forms of worship could be taken as a catastrophic development for an ancient community. Protection from nature and hostile neighbors depended on robust cooperation between citizens and their ancient and powerful deities. This social contract depended on unanimity about the simple reality that survival depended on the intertwined package of social, religious and political harmony.


Enter Paul through Jewish thiasoi, persuading Jews and non-Jews alike to give up idol worship and adopt a posture that expected the end of world any day now.


Paula Fredricksen in her book When Christians Were Jews compares traditional forms of pagan worship as a form of Homeland Security. Behind every event in the physical world was some action originating in unseen realms of divine beings. Lose a battle? Someone was probably disloyal or offensive to the gods in some way. Crops failed? Take emergency measures to appease the proper divine powers. Everyone was born into a long line of ancestral obligations to participate. Failure to do so opened one up to blame for any general misfortune.


Having carefully negotiated a unique position in their communities, diaspora Jews maintained a fragile détente with their communities. Paul then shows up with an intensely destabilizing message. Civic leaders without a detailed knowledge of the nuances of Jewish practices and doctrines can't be blamed for pinning the unrest on the synagogue. Anxiety only increases as pagans respond to Paul's gospel- should they become circumcised Jews? What other options were there?


Paul mentions receiving the 39 lashes five times from "the Jews." This was a corrective measure used to reform a heretic, creating a path to restoration after they paid a price for their deviance. Synagogue leaders were responding the only way they knew how, pursuing an eventual repentance, reconciliation and a return to a manageable status quo. Incredibly, Paul also describes having been beaten with rods on three occasions, a Roman form of corporal punishment. Angering both Jewish and pagan authorities took some doing!


With this in the background, reading Paul's vehement defenses of his apostolic credentials makes more sense. He was indeed a firebrand, sparking major conflagrations among those he encountered. A large chunk of 2 Corinthians has Paul building layer upon layer of rebuttal against accusations that he's probably not even Jewish anymore, let alone able to call himself an Apostle like Peter and James back in Jerusalem.


In later writings including the John 16 passage, we find other traces of the "Paul problem." The story of the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7 illustrates a conflicted attitude toward non-Jewish participation in the Jesus movement. Matthew 10, many passages in Acts and this remarkable passage in 1 Thessalonians 2, our earliest example of Paul's developing stance toward the Jew-Gentile problem:


"You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to everyone in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last."


How ironic indeed that modern Christianity now speaks from a position of cultural power, and how far from Paul's struggle the church has come. Are we now the establishment that opposes anything new or radical, taught by energetic reformers with new ideas? Reading Paul in light of the fierce and completely understandable conflict he faced offers a bit more depth to our understanding of the early church and what Paul was trying to do.




What's your theory explaining how and why the Jesus movement caught on so rapidly?

How do you think Paul would have answered the question: "What does it mean to be Jewish?"

Compare and contrast Paul's reasoning with the later accounts of Jesus' message in the gospels.




*Hultgren, Arland J. “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church: Their Purpose, Locale, and Nature.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 95, no. 1, 1976, pp. 97–111.


**The Hellenistic Age was characterized by the rapid growth of private religious societies (thiasoi). Though some were organized according to national origin or trade, the majority were dedicated to the worship of a particular deity. In many instances these groups began as immigrant associations (e.g., an Egyptian association of devotees of Amon was chartered in Athens at the beginning of the 3rd century BC); but they often transcended these origins and became a new form of religious organization in which citizens of various countries, freemen and slaves, could be united by their common devotion and share in a common religious heritage. --



Fredericksen, Paula; When Christians were Jews






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