Apostle Paul was convinced that faith in Jesus alone brought salvation, and that it did not require adherence to the Jewish law. He believed that God had chosen him to bring about salvation to the Gentiles, in other words, to the world. He believed he was a fulfillment of divine prophecy.
The ‘Book of Acts’
Even though Paul obviously traveled as an evangelist, he never mentions three distinct missionary journeys as described in the book of Acts, and he confirms few of the details found in Luke’s account. Paul himself rarely speaks about how his missionary strategy worked because his letters were written for other reasons—almost always to reconnect with the Christians of churches he had left behind as he tried to address the problems they were having.
And so, in the writings that we have from him, he had no reason for the most part to remind these people how he had converted them. They knew that part full well.
Paul’s procedure is the same time after time in the book of Acts. In this account, Paul travels to a major urban area, either alone or more commonly with other Christians who are with him and supporting him. Since he knows no one else in the city, he starts in the synagogue where he can make obvious connections with fellow Jews. But in every instance in Acts, even if Paul makes a few converts, he’s always rejected by the Jewish authorities and time and again he’s driven out of the synagogue. He’s then forced to focus on Gentiles with whom he had established some contact.
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Letters by Paul
In his letters, Paul does mention being persecuted by Jews; that would seem to presuppose that he was active in their midst. However, he never says anything about starting his mission in the synagogue in town, and he never says anything about preaching to Jews.
In addition, in these letters, he frequently addresses the converts that he had made. Sometimes, he addresses them directly, actually names them. He says nothing about them to suggest they were Jews.
On the contrary, when Paul refers to the lives of his members of his congregation, when he says something about their past, before becoming followers of Jesus, it’s always to indicate that they used to worship idols. The converts of Paul had been pagans.
Apostle to Gentiles
So, did he start in the synagogue and convert Jews? It’s worth pointing out that Paul regularly calls himself the Apostle to Gentiles, not to both Jews and Gentiles. He explicitly indicates in Galatians 2:7-8 that he was charged to take the mission to Gentiles and that Peter would take the mission to Jews.
So, the general conclusion is that Paul maybe didn’t preach much, if at all, in synagogues. So, if he didn’t start out in a synagogue in the city, how did he proceed?
Preaching on the Job
Over the past 40 years, the solution scholars have generally preferred was most vigorously promoted in a book written by New Testament scholar Ron Hawk. He argued that Paul met and converted people by preaching on the job.
A key verse for this argument comes in Paul’s very earliest letter in which he reminds his paying converts in Thessalonica how he spent his time with them. This is the letter of First Thessalonians, written possibly in the year 49 or the year 50—first letter of Paul—and he reminds the Thessalonians that when he was with them, he and his companions worked day and night preaching the gospel to them.
Scholars for a long time took that to mean that he was actually spending day and night preaching. And in a sense, he was. But what Hawk and others have shown is that when Paul was working among them, it was not as a minister, but he literally means he was working in their midst as a day laborer. He was working, and at his work, he preached. In other words, Paul was employed as an artisan. It’s usually thought that Paul was a leather worker.
As a leather worker, he could load his tools in his pack and easily move to a new city where he would set up shop. As customers would come in for business, Paul would talk with them. He would eventually bring the discussion around to religion, and he would explain to his potential customers his own deeply held religious views and the reason he had to believe them.
Some customers would return to hear more, and over the course of weeks or months, Paul would make a few converts. These few converts might convert a few family members, possibly a neighbor or a friend. There would not be masses of conversions, just a few at a time.
After some long months or perhaps even years, Paul would consider the church established enough to continue on its own. There’d be enough people who understood things well, and Paul could then move on to a new location. And so, he went from Thessalonica to Athens to Corinth to Ephesus and so on.
Common Questions about Apostle Paul’s Mission for the Salvation of Gentiles
Paul regularly calls himself the Apostle to Gentiles. He explicitly indicates in Galatians 2:7-8 that he was charged to take the mission to Gentiles and that Peter would take the mission to Jews.
In his book, New Testament scholar Ron Hawk argues that Paul met and converted people by preaching on the job. A key verse for this argument comes in Paul’s very earliest letter in which he reminds his paying converts in Thessalonica how he spent his time with them. He reminds the Thessalonians that when he was with them, he and his companions worked day and night preaching the gospel to them.
Paul was employed as an artisan. It’s usually thought that Paul was a leather worker. As a leather worker, the tools of Paul’s trade would have been completely mobile. He could load them up in his pack and easily move to a new city to carry out his mission.