The two main sources of information about Paul’s career are the Acts of the Apostles and the autobiographical elements of Paul’s letters to the early Christian communities. Paul was likely born between the years of 5 BC and 5 AD and was from a devout Jewish family based in the city of Tarsus. He was an artisan involved in the leather crafting or tent-making profession and was sent to Jerusalem to receive his education at the school of Gamaliel, one of the most noted teachers of Jewish law in history. Paul referred to himself as being “of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee”. The Bible reveals very little about Paul’s family, but his nephew, his sister’s son, and his relatives, Andronicus and Junia, were Christians before he was and were prominent among the Apostles. Nothing more is known of his biography until he takes an active part in the martyrdom of Stephen, a Hellenised diaspora Jew.
Paul’s conversion to Christianity was dated to 31-36 AD and was based on his knowledge of Stoic philosophy and his use of Stoic terms and metaphors to help his new Gentile converts understand the Gospel and explain his Christology. Prior to his conversion, he persecuted early Christians “beyond measure”, specifically Hellenised diaspora Jewish members who had returned to the area of Jerusalem. Paul’s initial persecution of Christians was directed against these Greek-speaking “Hellenists” due to their anti-Temple attitude, which set them apart from the “Hebrews” and their continuing participation in the Temple cult. Paul’s conversion can be dated to 31–36 AD by his reference to it in one of his letters and the account in the Acts of the Apostles, where he reported having experienced a vision of the ascended Jesus. The author of the Acts of the Apostles may have learned of Paul’s conversion from the church in Jerusalem, Antioch, or possibly from Paul himself.
According to the account in Acts 9:1–22, he was blinded for three days and had to be led into Damascus by the hand. When Ananias of Damascus arrived, he laid his hands on him and said “Brother Saul, the Lord, Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” His sight was restored, he got up and was baptized. This story occurs only in Acts, not in the Pauline epistles. According to Timo Eskola, early Christian theology and discourse was influenced by the Jewish Merkabah tradition, and Paul’s accounts of his conversion experience and his ascent to the heavens (in 2 Corinthians 12) are the earliest first-person accounts that are extant of a merkabah mystic in Jewish or Christian literature.