Have you ever explored the "silent" or "unknown" years of Paul the Apostle? Most people remember three things about Paul:
1. Before he became an Apostle of Jesus Christ, Saul--his Jewish name--was a persecutor of Christianity.
2. But, while Saul was going to Damascus to arrest Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners, he was confronted by the exalted Jesus Christ.
3. Later, he went on three long mission trips, traveling around the Mediterranean world, preaching the gospel and planting churches. Eventually, he was taken to Rome because he had appealed his case to Caesar.
But what happened during the ten years or more in between events 2 and 3? . . . (I'm currently teaching the "Life of Paul' class. Can you tell?)
By comparing Acts 9:1-31 with Galatians 1:11-24, we can piece together a rough outline of those years. Here's what it looks like:
1. Following his baptism, Paul preached the gospel in the synagogues of Damascus. He taught and proved that Jesus is the Son of God (Acts 9:20-22).
2. Next, Paul traveled to Arabia (Gal. 1:17). Exactly what he means by Arabia has been debated. There's also a question of how long he was there and what he was doing then.
3. He returned to Damascus (Gal. 1:17). Once again, he proclaimed the gospel there, which aggravated the unbelieving Jews to the point that they conspired to kill him (Acts 9:23). In another of his letters, Paul reflects on that event: In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands (2 Cor. 11:32-33). Paul's reference to King Aretas provides a clue (although debated) about when this must have happened. Luke seems to indicate Paul's charisma and effectiveness when he says that the Apostle was lowered through the opening in the wall by his disciples or followers (Acts 9:25).
4. From Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:26; Gal. 1:18), where he stayed for at least fifteen days and became acquainted with Peter and also with James, the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:18-19). During this time Paul attempted to convert Hellenistic, Greek-ish Jews. But they also tried to kill him (Acts 9:29).
5. This led the Christians in Jerusalem to insist that Paul leave the city before he was murdered (like Stephen): [T]hey took him down to Caesarea, a seaport, and sent him off to Tarsus, his hometown (Acts 9:30). The information from Acts matches up with Paul's own statement that, after Jerusalem, he went to Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21). Tarsus was located in Cilicia. Often the two provinces Paul speaks of are mentioned together and are regarded as one.
This is where the picture starts to get hazy. Quite a bit of time passes before Barnabas, dispatched by the Jerusalem church, sees the great work going on among Jews and Gentiles in Syrian Antioch and goes to Tarsus in order to find Paul and bring him back to Antioch (Acts 11:19-26). What was Paul doing all of that time he spent in Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21)?
An answer to that question must take into account that, during the first few years after his call and commission, Paul was an energetic and successful Christian evangelist. So, during the silent years did Paul preach and teach the gospel in Tarsus and in other parts of Syria-Cilicia? It would seem very strange if he didn't.
Are there any clues that Paul, in fact, evangelized Syria-Cilicia with a good bit of success? It seems so. It might be significant that when the leaders of the so-called Council at Jerusalem issued the decision letter, they addressed it to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23). The story of Antioch we know well. But when had Gentiles been baptized in Syria and Cilicia? It wasn't during the mission trip taken by Paul and Barnabas ("the first missionary journey"). According to Acts 13 and 14, that trip took the missionaries to Cyprus and to the regions called Pamphylia, Psidia, and Lyconia, but not to the region in question.
Furthermore, after Paul chose Silas as his partner for the second missionary journey, he went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches (Acts 15:41). That Luke mentions Paul doing this, while seeming to leave out Silas, may indicated that these particular churches knew the Apostle but not his traveling companion. Note that later in the chapter, Luke describes what they-- meaning Paul, Silas, and Timothy--did (Acts 16:7).
Of course, it is entirely possible that the churches in Syria-Cilicia were planted in much the same way that the church(es) in other areas were: Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:19-21).
However, it might have been that Paul himself was largely responsible for the planting of the Christian communities north of Antioch. If so, that may help to explain 2 Corinthians 11, where included in Paul's boasting about his hardships we read, Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one (verses 24-25). None of the Apostle's synagogue whippings are mentioned by Luke in the Book of Acts. It could very well be that those sad events date to Paul's time in Syria-Cilicia.
Now, what are some of your observations about this period in the life of Paul? What other texts or information might add a piece to the puzzle?
Note: Naturally, books dealing with the life and letters of Paul take up this question, if briefly. See, for example, F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, pp. 126-28. At least one book-length treatment has been written, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: The Unknown Years, by Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer. I'd be interested to hear of some of the better things others have come across.