Christianity is the most successful religion of all time, and arguably the most successful movement in human history. How did it spread so successfully - a legacy of over 2 billion followers and almost 1/3 of the world population today?
Paul: A Biography tells the story of Paul (formerly Saul of Tarsus), a man without whom Christianity would not have had the significance it now has. Paul’s story is a classic founder tale: a moment of insight, relentless evangelizing, & dedication to the mission.
Paul didn’t see Christianity as a different ‘religion’ - indeed, religion was a belief system far more infused into daily life in the ancient world than a separate set of activities. Paul saw Christian beliefs as the conclusion to loose ends at the end of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy speaks vaguely of a future restoration of Israel from Jewish exile initiated by the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE. Many Jews in the time of Jesus had returned to Israel, the Temple was rebuilt, but with Romans still ruling over the land many Jews were still waiting for more definitive deliverance.
The Book of Daniel (& others such as Isaiah) picked up on the promise in Deuteronomy, introducing the idea of restoration occuring in “seventy-sevens”, or 490 years. Many Jews believed this time was drawing near, which inspired a wave of zealous prophetic leaders (Reza Aslan’s book Zealot covers this topic thoroughly) to descend on Jerusalem and shake off the yoke of Roman rule for a new & restored Israel. Jesus was the most influential of those leaders.
Paul, who was brought up a Torah-fluent religious Pharisee, originally intended to chase down the original followers of Jesus and bring them to justice. Yet on the road to Damascus Jesus came to him in a vision, and he switched sides entirely to dedicate the rest of his life to spreading the news: the Messiah, descended from King David, in a story that began with Abraham, has reached its logical conclusion. The return of God would usher in an era of heaven and earth as one.
There were many ingredients that supported this message to succeed so wildly and change the course of history.
For certain Jews who studied the Torah, this was the conclusion they’ve been waiting for. Deuteronomy left the conclusion hanging, & there was plenty of evidence that the restoration hadn’t yet happened: Roman rule in the holy land, a large Jewish diaspora in Babylon and throughout the near east. Paul, a whip-smart, persuasive, and tireless orator, helped do the convincing. These Jews provided the early momentum to kickstart the movement.
The infrastructure laid by the Greeks & Romans paved the way for a quick spreading. Roman roads linked the far reaches of the eastern empire. Paul spoke Greek as did the broader area (Latin was the language of the elite Romans, Aramaic that of Jesus & the local Semitic population).
The legal infrastructure was conducive as well. The Jews had negotiated a carve-out with the Romans that allowed unique specialize privileges not to worship Caesar - provided that they prayed to their God for Rome & its emperor. Early Christian classification in Antioch as part of the Jewish religion allowed it to spread openly.
Paul was the perfect leader to spread the word. Outside of his personal qualities & tenacity, his deep knowledge of the Torah allowed him to weave together the narrative as few others could. His Roman citizenship allowed him to travel freely throughout the empire, and at least once saved him from persecution by Roman authorities (e.g. “I’m a Roman citizen - you can’t do this to me!”). And he was the most convincing salesperson, perhaps a skill learned from his family’s vocation as itinerant tent makers, comfortable with a wide variety of customers. As Paul says in Corinthians:
“I became like a Jew to the Jews, to win Jews. I became like someone under the law to the people who are under the law, even though I’m not myself under the law, so that I could win those under the law.”
As compared to Judaism at the time, Christianity was far more of a mass market proposition. The Jewish God was mysterious and vengeful - the flood, Abraham & Isaac. Not to mention a critical practical barrier for those drawn to the faith from the outside: you had to get circumsized. It was Paul who negotiated away this requirement to conversion with the inner circle Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem - his brother James & Peter. Without this concession, the proposition likely would not have worked.
As compared to Roman means of worship at the time, Christianity was far easier to follow (one God versus a lot of deities, as well as Caesar). Caesar and the emperors were also of a standard not easy for the masses to relate to - urban, Latin-speaking warrior-heroes. It was easier to relate to a simple man from a small town preaching messages of love and acceptance.
This for me was the major takeaway from Paul. Humans most fundamentally want to me loved, and a religious framework that operates on this basis is more appealing that more complicated ritualistic systems. Christianity was a killer proposition that also benefitted from the right place, right time & right leader following the death of Jesus.
Jewish-rooted ethics & a more scalable approach changed the world and certainly for the better. Christian values in the early centuries AD as initiated by Paul created a tremendous amount of good: more universal healthcare, education, & treatment of women (pagans at the time routinely practiced infanticide for unwanted children - especially girls). Paul’s legacy is largely what is referred to as Judeo-Christian values today - he is one of the great leaders and (co) founders of our history.