Some commentators have noted that once St. Paul becomes a Christian he seems much more aggressive and bold about taking the Christian message to the Gentiles than are the apostles from among the Twelve. St. Paul embraces the mission to the world in a way which the original disciples seem reluctant to do. Additionally, some have accused St. Paul of having changed both the message and the method of the early Church. Muslims in fact accuse St. Paul of preaching a Gospel different than the one that the rest of the apostles were teaching.
However Christian tradition accepts the writings of St. Paul as inspired by God and belonging to the authentic Scriptures containing God’s full revelation. The epistles of St. Paul were used by the early Christians to combat false teachings about Jesus.
In defense of St. Paul, we need to keep in mind that his experience of Christ and of Christianity differed from the original apostles. Paul is the first Christian leader to emerge from outside of the original inner circle of disciples (the Twelve or the Seventy). He didn’t experience the initial fear that those first disciples felt immediately on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. The first disciples hid behind closed doors in terror of themselves being persecuted or killed because of being the followers of Christ. The first disciples had reason to fear not only their fellow Jewish compatriots, but also the Roman government which had carried out the execution of Jesus.
St. Paul on the other hand claimed to be a Roman citizen and so unlike the original disciples he may have felt some protection by the Romans, not just threatened by them. St. Paul does not in his writing express the hatred for Rome that is an undercurrent in the Gospels. Additionally St. Paul was part of the Jewish authority persecuting the Christians, so he wouldn’t have felt threatened by the Jews in the way the original disciples did.
St. Paul represented a new generation of leadership – one which felt emboldened by the Resurrection and not so threatened by being a bearer of the Gospel. St. Paul would soon experience the rejection of and persecution by both his fellow Jews and by his fellow Roman citizens. But Paul’s early embrace of Christ was shaped by his sudden encounter with the Risen Lord, not by three years of slow discipling that abruptly ended with the execution of the Master. As one who received the Gospel of the Risen Lord and was converted by it, rather than as one who had been a disciple who experienced the death of Christ before His Resurrection, Paul’s path to becoming a Christian was different than that of the original disciples. Remember, the original disciples were reluctant at first to receive Paul. St. Paul experienced and valued the notion of grace, of having received undeservedly the favor of God, and so was eager to share his received faith with others – he understood himself as having been grafted onto the original branch. His life as a Christian came only sometime after the Resurrection of Christ and after Pentecost. The disciples still were working through their own experience of the crucifixion of their Master, their own failure to believe, and the change that the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost had meant for them.
St. Paul did not alter the Gospel message, but he seems to have grasped its implication for the world and for Jews who embraced Christ, and was willing to challenge the pre-Christian worldview which was still in play among the first Jewish Christians. He was a true Apostle of the Lord who received the hand of fellowship from Christ’s own chosen disciples.