Nearly two thousand years after Paul’s death, books about the apostle continue to proliferate at an astonishing rate. Where does one begin exploring the life of the most important person (aside from Jesus) in the history of the church?

Reference Points

Aside from the New Testament itself, the place to begin is F.F. Bruce’s now classic Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans, 1977)—the most readable and engaging biography of Paul. A classic from a previous era that still gives insights is William Ramsay’s St. Paul, the Traveler and the Roman Citizen (18th ed., 1935).

Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid have edited the definitive reference on Paul’s writings in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (InterVarsity, 1993). Though mostly about Paul’s thought, it contains enough history to justify a recommendation!

In addition, any one of the many Bible dictionaries on the market are a gold mine of information on Paul and his times.

Exploring the Era

We live in the best of times in terms of books about Paul’s times. Specialized studies on nearly every aspect of first-century life are now available. A few I like are these:

Everett Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition (Eerdmans, 1993) is perhaps the most accessible and thorough overview of the era, covering history, religion, and culture.

Joachim Jeremias’s detailed Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period (Fortress, 1969) rewards the patient reader with numerous insights into the city and culture in which Paul was raised.

Westminster Press has recently (1986) published an 8-volume Library of Early Christianity (Wayne Meeks, general editor) that explores various aspects of first-century Christianity. For example, Robert M. Grant examines the religious and philosophical world in Gods and the One God, and Joseph E. Stambaugh and David L. Balch look at everyday life in The New Testament in Its Social Environment.

F.F. Bruce’s New Testament History (Anchor, 1972) is a painless way to get introduced to the political history of the times.

Paul spent most of his time in cities, and Wayne Meeks’s already classic, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale 1983), explores that setting.

Two atlases that help one get some geographical bearings are Yohanan Aharoni’s and Michael Avi-Yonah’s, The Macmillan Bible Atlas (Macmillan, 1977) and Tim Cornell’s and John Matthews’s, Atlas of the Roman World (Facts on File, 1982).

In the Original

Paul is an unusual historical figure because all his writings and the earliest accounts of his life are readily available in modern English! Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s New Testament letters are by far and away the principle sources of the thousands of books on Paul’s life and thought. Reading especially Romans, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians with a commentary in hand will reward the diligent reader. Check with your pastor, local bookstore, or librarian to sort through the dizzying array of commentaries available.

Finally, C.K. Barrett’s The New Testament Background: Selected Documents, revised and expanded edition (Harper & Row, 1987) is my favorite resource to scan writings that give a feel for the first-century Mediterranean world.