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The Road to Damascus

Believed to be ten years younger than Jesus, ‘Saul of Tarsus’ was a Jew born in Turkey. It’s safe to say that perhaps there would be no Christianity today without his efforts and influence. A large chunk of the New Testament is attributed to him, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Jul 04, 2008 22:48 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Believed to be ten years younger than Jesus, ‘Saul of Tarsus’ was a Jew born in Turkey. It’s safe to say that perhaps there would be no Christianity today without his efforts and influence. A large chunk of the New Testament is attributed to him.

Paul is venerated by all Christian denominations as a pillar of the Christian faith. 2008-9 has been declared by official Christendom as the ‘Year of Paul’. He was put to death by the Romans in Rome, in 62 or 67. While the Vatican, Anglican and other West-centred churches have elaborate celebrations planned, it is in Syria that Paul’s life changed forever and led to important changes in world belief. <b1>

Called ‘Bulos’ in Arabic (the Syrian Christian name in Kerala is ‘Paulose’), Paul lived a life of adventure from start to finish, played out in the backdrop of the spectacular cities and thrones and powers of the ancient world of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, with seven-gated Damascus – the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city – as the turning point in this epic tale.

The incredible thing is that Paul was a dedicated Jew and set out to Syria around 36 CE with a letter of authorisation from the high priest of Jersualem to catch the followers of Jesus in Damascus and bring them captive to Jerusalem for questioning.

He was already reputed for being most zealous in his task, having had many Christians in Jersusalem persecuted, and in his own words, “laid waste to the Church, arresting the followers of Jesus, having them thrown into prison, and trying to get them to blaspheme" the name of Yahweh (Jehovah), god of the Jews. He even “watched over the robes” of those who stoned Stephen, the first official Chritian martyr, to death.

However, goes the story, on the road to Damascus, Paul was suddenly struck by a bolt of light from the sky and fell to the ground (centuries later, Italian masters painted a rearing horse in this scene to convey the high drama of the revelatory encounter).

He heard a bodiless voice, like the ashareeri that warned Kamsa of his doom, say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

The voice replied, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now go to Damascus, where you will be told what to do.”

Saul’s companions heard the voice too, and were horrified to discover when Saul stood up, that he had gone blind. They led him to Damascus and for three days he lay blind, without food and water.

Meanwhile, a Damascene Christian called Ananias had a vision in which he was told to go “to the house of Judas on Straight Street” and meet Paul. So Ananias went to Paul and greeted him and passed his hand over his sightless eyes. Something like “scales fell from my eyes” as Paul reported later and he regained his sight. He was then baptised by Ananias as a Christian, after which there was no stopping Saul, who became Paul and changed history.