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The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But the idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books.

Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

If Luke has carefully designed his two-volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such lengthy description of the journey to Rome. This must be more than an exciting story (did he think readers were getting bored?), nor was Luke trying to fill out a scroll (as if he was a student trying to make it to 10 pages for a paper). There are literary and theological reasons for Luke’s inclusion of Paul’s shipwreck.

First, Luke is traveling with Paul. On the one hand, this accounts for the details. But often ancient historians narrate a story up to the time in which they are living and then include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Josephus summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt and included himself in the story as a lost-intro-oleader in Galilee. Thucydidies wrote a history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

Second, there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Third, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”

Fourth, some scholars question the historicity of the shipwreck based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels and it may be Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship. It is entirely plausible Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is that nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.

In his defense before Festus, Paul offers a his view on the Servant in Isaiah: The Servant is Jesus, who suffered for our sins (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1). There seems to have been some discussion of who the servant was; recall that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading this text in Acts 8 and the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah appears at several points in the book of Acts.  This is anticipated as early as Luke 2:32, Simeon’s blessing on Jesus cites Isaiah and proclaims that this salvation has come to Israel.

But the “Light to the Gentiles” in Acts 26 refers to Paul and his ministry. This is a rather bold statement since it might appear the Servant is the light to the Gentiles. Luke 2:32 has already applied Isaiah 42:6 to Jesus, but here Paul sees his ministry as a participation in Jesus’ messianic office as delivering the “light to the Gentiles.”

Paul describes salvation as “turning to God” and “opening eyes,” are both drawn from Isaiah 42:6, but may allude back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus (13:4-11).  Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, both literal and spiritual blindness. The disciples, for example, were in need of healing in their understanding, so they might believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah.  Paul is sent to preach repentance to both the Jews and the Gentiles (recalling Romans 1:16-17, to the Jew first).

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!”  It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.

Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational (σωφροσύνη) words.”  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, which he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel.  What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate.  This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).

CrayCraySo Paul sees himself as engaged in messianic ministry (although he is a servant of Messiah Jesus; Paul does not see himself as a messiah!) This claim is rational, based on evidence and is both truthful and rational. Festus recognizes Paul’s “great learning” but thinks Paul has gone out of his mind-the opposite of rational. The Greek μανία can refer to madness or even delirium. This was an accusation against a political or philosophical opponent, or as BDAG says, “eccentric or bizarre behavior in word or action.”

For a Roman official like Festus, Paul presents strange ideas in rational manner, and he is impressed but unconvinced. To what extent can Paul claim to be rational in his arguments that Jesus is the Messiah or that he has been called by God to this particular mission? Is there a way to use Paul’s defense before Agrippa and Festus as a model for ministry in a post-modern world?

In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.

Paul on TrialThe group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).

It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.

Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.”

Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.

As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!

It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James or his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.

Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?

Before-the-sanhedrinIn Acts 23:1 Paul claims to have “lived his life in good conscience up to this day.”  In the context of a hearing before the Sanhedrin, it is possible to read this as a statement that he has been faithful to the Jewish Law.   This is very similar to what Paul says in Acts 24:16 when he describes his entry into the Temple as “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.”  He even points out that he was giving alms to the poor (the collection) and participating in a purification ritual when he was unjustly attacked.

In fact, Paul was in the temple “purifying himself” (ἁγνίζω, Acts 21:24, 24:18).  The verb is not normally associated with the Nazarite vow (which took thirty days, not the seven mentioned in Acts 21).  The verb is used in John 11:55 for Jews purifying themselves prior to the Passover (cf., JW 6, 425, Ant. 12, 145). Pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem from Gentile territory purified themselves in the Temple. In Num 19:12 the verb is used to purify oneself after touching a corpse.  That Paul was willing to undergo this level of purity ritual at this point in his career indicates that he is still willing to “be a Jew among the Jews” (1 Cor 9:20).

Paul goes a bit further and claims to be a Pharisee.  After his exchange with the High Priest in Acts 23:2-5, Paul shifts the focus to the controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees (23:6-10). This maneuver has caused some commentators to criticize Paul. It is not an honest argument by Paul, he instigates a near riot between the two factions of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were a minority in the Sanhedrin, but a popular and vocal minority. They believed in the resurrection of the dead as well as angels and spirits.

Is this true? Can Paul be considered a “practicing Pharisee” at this point in his ministry?  For some interpreters, this is not at all the historical Paul who wrote Galatians.  At the very least, he has broken purity traditions by eating with Gentiles. Yet with regard to the issue of the resurrection, he was a Pharisee.  Paul is simply stating that he agrees on this major point, and for the Pharisees, at this moment, it is enough for them to defend Paul.

By making this statement, Paul gains the favor of the Pharisees while enraging the Sadducees. The argument that ensues was so fierce that the Roman official thought that Paul would be “torn to pieces,” so he takes him back to the barracks, leaving the Jews to their “theological dispute.”

While it was a crafty way of deflecting attention away from himself, it is possible that Paul was serious – with respect to the Law Paul has a clear conscience. James Dunn offers the suggestion that Paul’s statement was less for the Sanhedrin (which had probably already judged him as guilty), but for the Roman tribune and soldiers.  The word conscience (συνείδησις) is a concept that does not really appear in Hebrew (Dunn, Beginning at Jerusalem, 974, n. 73, the word is only found in the LXX in Eccl. 10:29 and Wisdom 17:10).  If he spoke Greek and used this particular expression, it is possible that he was claiming to the Romans that he was not guilty of any crime.

What do we do with this incident?  Is Paul playing both sides in order to gain converts?  Did he really “keep the Law” while telling Gentiles to “not keep the Law”?  I can think of a number of issues I might hold loosely so that I can reach both sides.  Perhaps there is an application to Christian involvement in politics or other social issues.

paul66Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law.  He required Timothy be circumcised (16:3) and he had made a vow while in Corinth (18:18). When he is before the Sanhedrin, Paul claims he has continued to keep the law (23:1). This is curious considering the reputation Paul has for preaching a “Law-Free” gospel among the Gentiles. To what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.

Paul claims to have a “good conscience” in 23:1. The verb Luke uses refers to living as a good citizen (πολιτεύομαι) and is the same work Paul uses in Phil 1:27 for having a “manner of life” worthy of the Gospel. In the Maccabean literature the verb refers to living one’s life in accordance with Jewish traditions (2 Macc 6:1, 11:25; 3 Macc 3:4, 4 Macc 2:8).

4 Macc 2:23“To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.”

Paul therefore claims loyalty to the Law while at the same time evangelizing the Gentiles and teaching them they are not under the Law. It is clear from Paul’s letters he does not advocate freedom from Law as a license to sin, but when people heard Paul teaches a law-free Gospel, they appear to have thought the very worst.

In order to prove to Paul’s detractors that he is stull loyal to the Law, James proposes Paul prove sponsor a Nazarite vow for a few you men (21:22-25).   Dunn rightly observes that James does not deny the rumor: “the advice of James and the elders is carefully calibrated.  They do not disown the rumors.  Instead they suggest that Paul disprove the rumors by his own action, by showing that he himself still lived in observance of the Law” (Dunn, Acts, 287).  The fact that James drops out of the story after Paul’s arrest is a mystery – why does James not come to the aid of Paul?  No Christians are willing to defend Paul when he goes before the Sanhedrin.  Why is this?  It seems as though Paul has less support in Jerusalem in A.D. 58 than we might have expected.

Does Paul make a mistake in sponsoring the vow in the Temple?  Some people think it would have been unlike Paul to “keep Law” at this point in his career.  What is his ultimate motivation for doing this?  Does he really need to “prove himself” to be faithful at this late date?

 

 

Collection PlatePaul leaves Ephesus with the intention of returning to Jerusalem for the purpose of delivering the collection to the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. The collection was a gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem believers.  Romans 15:26 states that “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” a text written from Corinth in the three-month period after Paul’s Ephesian ministry.

Paul has does this sort collection for Jerusalem before.  Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church.  This visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10.  In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.”  The “poor” in mind here are the members of the Jerusalem church, the very people the famine visit was intended to help.

The Jerusalem appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts.  Given a famine (and possibly a Jubilee year), the poor believers in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever.  Ben Witherington wonders if the handshake was an agreement to continue the financial arrangements between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church (Acts, 429). This is possible since the same sort of language appears in Acts 15 as well, although the collection is not mentioned.

The Collection was unique in the ancient world.  The Greco-Roman world has a system of public benefaction, but nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people are solicited for money which is then distributed to the poor.  Likewise, in Judaism the poor received Alms from individuals, but money was not collected in mass for re-distribution to the poor.  Which the exception of Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51), there are no other examples of this sort of collection of funds.

Since Paul is collecting this money in the Greek world, it would have been unprecedented and would have looked very suspicious. Likely as not, the inclusion of representatives of the churches was meant to give confidence to the churches that Paul was not going to steal the funds and disappear.  Notice that in Acts 20:4 there is a list of names traveling with Paul, all likely representatives of Paul’s churches in Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea) Asia Minor (Derbe) Paul was careful to separate his own ministry from the Collection for the Saints.  While he did not require churches to give to support him, he is adamant that churches “give what they can” to the Collection.

What is unusual is that Luke does not mention the collection at all, although that seems to be the point of the large part traveling back to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. Why Luke would omit this collection is a mystery – some have speculated that the collection was not well-received by the Jerusalem church, perhaps even rejected.  The scene is rather tense in Jerusalem when Paul arrives with a large contingent of Gentiles to deliver the gift.

What was the “point” Paul was trying to make with this collection?  If the collection was rejected, why would James (or the Jerusalem Christians)  reject the generosity of the Gentile churches?

Bibliography: Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 932-947; S. McKnight, “The Collection for the Saints” in DPL, 143-147. The collection is mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8-9 and Rom 15:25-32.

Acts 13 contains the first of several “sermons” given by Paul. Luke is clearly summarizing since the sermon is a mere 25 verses long, taking no more than a couple of minutes to read. Since the sermon follows the blinding of Bar-Jesus, it is likely that the sermon serves as an explanation of the events on Cyprus, but it is also a representative “synagogue” sermon for Paul.

PaulusSchnabel points out that there are three movements in the sermon (Paul the Missionary, 158-9). Paul first reviews Israel’s history from the Patriarchs through John the Baptist (v. 16-25). In the second movement, Paul declares the importance of Jesus in the light of this history (v. 26-37). It is in this section that Paul carefully weaves several texts form the Hebrew Bible together to make the point that Jesus fulfils the promise made to Abraham. The final part of the sermon is the call to repentance (verse 29-41). Like Peter and Stephen, Paul calls his listeners to respond to the message that Jesus is the Christ, although the repentance here in Paul’s sermon is not related to the killing of Jesus, nor does he declare that the “times of refreshing will come.” Now repentance is connected with justification and forgiveness of sins (verses 38-39).

This is a significant development. In Acts 2 and 3, Peter’s sermon was directed at people who had themselves witnessed the events of the crucifixion and resurrection, and even participated in those events (cf. 2:23). No one in the synagogue at Antioch would have been at Jerusalem so they could not be accused of participating in the crucifixion. Paul’s sermon adds a new element – forgiveness of sins. But there is a radical element here:  Paul says that through Jesus one can have forgiveness of sins in a way that the Mosaic Law could not provide (37-38).

While the first parts of this sermon were quite similar to that of Peter and Stephen, Paul now calls for a much different response than Peter did. Peter declared that those who repent will be a part of the coming kingdom. In Acts 2 and 3 the repentance is of a sin of ignorance, the sin of killing the Messiah. Since the people acted in ignorance, they may repent and find forgiveness.

Now Paul says that the “one who believes is justified,” but in a way that the Law could never justify. There is a great deal of “Pauline theology” in this verse, since the Mosaic Law allowed for “sins of ignorance” to be forgiven through a sacrifice. If one sinned intentionally (“with a high hand”) then a sacrifice could not be made. Deliberate, premeditated breach of the Law could not find “justification” through a sacrifice. Paul is not talking about the sin of killing the Messiah, but rather of deliberate sins done with forethought and intention, and he is saying that one who believes is the one that receives justification.

Is this a development away from the Law? I think so, Paul is declaring that God granting forgiveness in a new way, one that might very well have been unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible.

Bronze_Coin_of_Aretas_IV

Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys.

But this is far from a period of monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  To what extent did was Paul “prepared” for his encounter on the road to Damascus?  Certainly Paul thought that God had prepared him to preach the grace of God (Gal 1:15), but this question usually is more interested in Paul’s psychological state of mind when he met Jesus.

The Wretched Man

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has framed this discussion of Paul’s conversion in much different terms than the traditional view of Paul would have allowed. (I summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.) Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Rom 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl.  Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification.  In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars have made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology. This leads to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism – Jews become proto-Pelagians, Paul is Luther bashing the RCC’s.

Judaism is thought to be the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity and Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism.  Sanders changed the debate by arguing that the questions posed by the protestant / RCC debate have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period.   For Sanders, this totally obscures what was actually happening in the first century and how Christianity developed out of Judaism.  In addition, Sanders points out that the protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Sandmel, for example), he was incoherent or inconsistent.

According to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not Paul!  Paul was therefore not converted on the road to Damascus.  Obviously this has huge implications, since the theological edifice of the reformation is guilt on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

Is Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (55)?

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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