Was Paul “Converted”?

Commenting on Acts 9, Ben Witherington said, “Without question, the story of Saul’s ‘conversion’ is one of the most important events, if not the most important event, that Luke records in Acts (Acts, 303).  In Polhill’s third chapter, he poses a series of critically important questions about the nature of Paul’s conversion.  I plan on deal with these questions over the next few posts.

What is the nature of Paul’s conversion? Is it even correct to say that Paul “converted” to Christianity?  There is a problem with this description, since it implies he more from one religious belief to another (perhaps as a Catholic might “convert” to Protestant, or a pagan might convert to Christianity).  The possibility that Paul did not “convert” was first raised by Krister Stendahl in an article foundational to the New Perspective on Paul.  (I’ll return to this comment in the next post, right now it is only important to observe that no one before the mid-20th century bothered much to ask this kind of question).

We could, for example, draw evidence from the letters of Paul which demonstrate that he says nothing that might be read as a repudiation of Judaism.  While he does say that Gentiles ought not to be circumcised and follow the Law, he never states that the Jewish believer ought to break the Law.  He speaks out against the Works of the Law, those practices which are a sign of one’s Jewish commitment.  Gentiles, in Paul’s view, are not converting to Judaism so there is no need for these “boundary markers.”

What is more, Paul’s letters are filled with references to the Hebrew Bible. With the exception of 1 Thessalonians and perhaps Philippians, Paul’s letters refer to specific texts from the Hebrew Bible, often providing interpretations of those texts which would have resonated within a Jewish context.   Paul is not taking the Jewish Bible and twisting it to support is Christian doctrine, he is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible.

We could also use the book of Acts as evidence.  Paul is presented as a traveling teacher, turning up in Jewish synagogues and giving synagogue sermons based on the Hebrew Bible, reaching out to Jews right up until Acts 28.  He uses his status as Pharisee to open doors, and at least before the Sanhedrin, deflect criticism.  Nowhere in Acts is Paul described as repudiating the Jewish Law for Jews.

What the question really asks is – “how much of Paul’s worldview changed on the Road to Damascus?”  When we examine Paul’s own theology and compare it to Pharisaical Judaism, the status of his “conversion” is less obvious.  It is possible to describe Paul as a Pharisee who now believed Jesus was the Messiah.  Who was working out the implications of this new belief while doing an evangelistic ministry.  Yet there do seem to be major breaks with Judaism, especially in the treatment of Gentile converts.  What Paul is preaching is not really a sub-set of Judaism, whatever it may appear in the earliest years.

For this reason, some prefer to think of Paul’s experience as a “calling” to a prophetic ministry (“the light to the Gentiles”) rather than a conversion from Judaism to Christianity.   It is important to notice Paul’s description in the letters of his calling – he is given a commission by the Lord to do a specific ministry and some sort of revelation by the Lord directly which is unique to him.  Galatians 1-2 makes this quite clear – he is called an Apostle because of a revelation from God, not by the appointment of men.

What difference does this make?  If Paul is “converted,” what was he converted to? Or from?  How will a decision here effect the way read Paul’s letters later?

16 thoughts on “Was Paul “Converted”?

  1. “What difference does this make?”
    I suppose the real difference would be how we understand what is happening in the ‘pre-Church’ and ‘Church’ dispensations. If Paul’s conversion was more of an acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah, it would seem to allow for more of a continuity between the two periods. I would have to call this a conversion, because it’s obvious from reading Acts and Paul’s letters that a pretty radical worldview shift occurred for him. But this would probably be true for any Jewish person coming to accept a crucified man as Messiah (compare Peter’s initial response to Jesus’ proclamation of his coming death to what he writes about the cross in 1 Peter). However, I don’t think Paul would have referred to the event on the road as a conversion, or seen himself as joining a new religion (much less starting one…). He would probably say that his response to the realization that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, should be the response of any good Jew who realized the same.

  2. Well, according to Dictionary.com a conversion can be, “spiritual change from sinfulness to righteousness.” If we can agree on this definition and, as Gary put it, “how we understand what is happening in the ‘pre-Church’ and ‘Church’ dispensations” we can hopefully agree that Paul must have been converted from a life of sin, over to a life a righteousness through faith in Jesus as Christ. Whether we begin the dispensation at Acts 2 or Acts 9 and Paul’s call to ministry doesn’t change this opinion one way or another, but if we begin the dispensation after Acts 9, we get a huge hole in our theory because Paul would have been under the law, making constant sacrifices to atone for his innumerable failings and would have to have been converted later on once the new dispensation began. Not with the fulfilled promise of the Holy Spirit (Joel 2.28-32), or the death of Christ at the Cross for all of mankind (John 3.16), but when Paul received his understanding of “the mystery”, aka the church, at some disclosed point. Meaning the apostles had yet to become Christian as well and were still living under The Law. (Note: I understand that GBC stands on Acts 9 (ish), but I still don’t know why)

    • What difference does this make? Was Paul “converted?” I know in the Acts class, we talked about his conversion and in that class we discussed pretty heavily about Paul and his conversion. I’m in agreement with Gary on the issue that I don’t think it was a big concern to Paul whether he was a Pharisee or a Christian. In Polhill, the author talks points specifically to why he believes Paul messed up. His pride and zeal were misguided [Polhill 47]. In Corinthians 13, Paul talks about how if you have all the zeal in the world, but not love, you are just a resounding gong or clanging symbol – one with no purpose. I can’t help but think he was referring to his own life and how he was the one who was extremely zealous, but without love, he persecuted the Messiah, Jesus Christ! [Polhill, 48]. Paul, I think expects any good Jewish person who has recognized that Jesus was/is the Messiah would do exactly the same as he did… preach Christ death, burial, and resurrection and his coming return!

  3. If we were to go with dictionary.com’s definition of “conversion,” to have a “spiritual change from sinfulness to righteousness,” I think that we would be able to say that the kids in youth group have a conversion when they decide to give God there lives and stop doing whatever it is they are in to. I do agree that Paul did “change from sinfulness to righteousness,” and that that part of the definiton would fit perfectly, but I am having a hard time with the “spiritual change.” What is a spiritual change? I feel like “spiritual” is such a vague term, and like I said above, a youth kid might feel like they are having a spiritual change at summer camp.

    “How will a decision here effect the way read Paul’s letters later?”

    Polhill writes “many today would prefer to label Paul’s experience a “call” rather than a “conversion” (54). Today we hear of pastors, missionaries, youth workers, etc. being “called” to the ministry. I think that God does call us to do specific things in our lives. But what Paul went through was obviously different then what we understand as a “calling.” Paul is special in one way, that he was revealed the mystery. So I think that calling Paul’s experience a conversion, rather than a calling, is more accurate. Having said all this, when we read Paul’s letters, we now have a seperation between Paul and anyone who wants to write. If Paul went through a calling, why can’t my local Pastor, who was called into ministry, write a book and add it to the Bible? If we do not understand that Paul went through an experience that was different/special, then a “calling,” then I think that we “water down” the effectivness of this change that went on in his life.

  4. I would agree with the thought that Paul does not write as if he is being converted from Judiasm to Christianity. I can not think of a single time in any of his writings that Paul denounces his Jewish beliefs. However, places where Paul wishes to unite the Jewish and Christian seems countless. If we take note of this and remember the previous chapter in which we can learn that Paul had a theology very close to that of the Pharisees, it seems to me that it would not be a conversion from being a Jewish Pharisee to a Christian messenger, but rather a Jewish Pharisee who believes in Christ and has been called. As I said Paul spends a great deal of time demonstrating unity between Jew and Gentile, all the while not trying to eliminate the practice of the Law from Jews but the bring both to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. I feel if Paul was to be converted from Judiasm he would not still be accepting of the practice of the Law. The event that happened on Demascus was not a mild experience. If during this he was converted, why then would he not preach to others about how they need to convert as well. He doesn’t, he simply urges them to unite and become one under Christ.

    • >I can not think of a single time in any of his writings that Paul denounces his Jewish beliefs.

      Good observation, Jarrod. In fact, he goes out of his way to say that the Law was good. In Acts, he tries very hard to keep open communication with Jerusalem, bringing a collection of funds to aid the poor who were still living in common even by Acts 22. But does he stay within Judaism? I like the observation that Pauline theology has alot in common with the Pharisees, but the fact that Jesus is Messiah clearly important, and that Jesus’ death is the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible and the New Covenant is rather unique.

  5. Polhill seems to indicate that Paul grew up in Tarsus with both Gentile and Jewish heritages. (Polhill 11-12) However, we know from scripture that Paul was “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:14b) This indicates that Paul had fiercely reject all of his Gentilian influences to be a better Jew. If true, this makes Paul’s Damascus Road event even more astounding! A barrier was broken on the road that day and Paul chose God’s way. A conversion or calling- I don’t think it really does matter because both a point. “Do I go my way or God’s way?” This is the critical question.
    All who are saved can be said to have chosen a calling. In Romans 8:29 Paul says: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son.” God foreknew and predestined Paul. Paul chose to follow that calling instead of any other path. Paul had all the choice and no choice, he was both converted and called.
    Said another way, Paul was converted to a calling and called to a conversion. And this is true for all of us. Ephesians 4:1 “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” We have all received a calling, a calling to follow Jesus Christ. For Paul it was the same. So then why would one call Paul’s experience a ‘calling’ and yet call any other Christians experience a ‘conversion’?

    The circumstances surrounding a calling/conversion don’t really matter. They seem to, however, blurred the black and white line I’m trying to paint. So to make sure I come across strong my point I’m trying to make is that a conversion is a calling because the conversion changes the rest of a persons life story- their calling. A calling is a conversion because it is a life story that differs from the other possible life stories.

  6. After reading this post and the two comments on it there does not seem to be a whole lot to add. Gary and PJ cover things pretty well in their remarks and I would say I agree with them. I would say Paul was “converted”, because of the radical shift that happened after it. But as Gary points out any jew who came to realize Christ as the Messiah probably would expect all the other jews the come to the same “obvious” conclusion. Since they were all looking for a Messiah the only thing that really changed about Paul’s outlook and worldview was who the Messiah was. So once again as Gary states I doubt Paul would have considered it a “conversion” because to him it would just have been a continuation of what he already believed.

  7. PJ–way to bring up the date of the dispensation of Grace before class even starts. I am not going to go too much into my personal beliefs at this point or where I think more evidence is because I am sure I am the least learned in the class on these points. I would like to make one observation from Polhill about this topic though. I would wager to guess he is not a mid-Acts dispensationalist. At least not in the GGF sense due to his conjectures about Stephen and Phillip on pages 36-37. “Stephen had a vision of a wider mission; at least his defense before the Sanhedrin would indicate that he did. Philip definitely reaced beyond the Jews in Jerusalemm conducting a successful mission among the Samaritans and leading a Gentile, an Ehtiopian, to Christ (Acts 8:4-40). Fellow Hellenists took the gospel to the coastal citiesm bitabky to Antioch where they conducted successful outreach to Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21) And “…Stephen’s point was that God could not be tied down to a single place or people; ‘heaven is [his] throne and earth is [his] footstool’ (v. 49). God is God of all the world. This ‘universal’ note was an essential assumption for out-reach to the Gentiles. Stephen enunciated it. His fellow Hellenists carried it out.” (Polhill 36-37)

    I have heard of placing the beginning of the dispensation at the cross. I have heard of it starting with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. I have heard of it starting with Paul in anywhere from Acts 9-28. But Stephen, Philip and Hellenists. I have not heard that before…any thoughts?

    • >But Stephen, Philip and Hellenists.

      Josh, this is not as unusual as you might think, since the speech of Stephen is a dramatic turning point in the story; Jews have rejected the teaching of the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking apostles in the Temple (Peter and John) and the Greek-speaking deacons in the synagogue (Stephen and Philip), therefore God calls Paul to be the light to the gentiles. The only thing separating Stephen’s death and Paul’s conversion is the chapter on Philip’s ministry in Samaria. Chronologically, this might not even count, those stories could have happened well after Acts 9 did. The sequence is: Saul approves of Stephen’s death, then obtains letters to follow the Hellenistic Jews to Damascus. There is virtually no time required between those two events, one leads to the other.

  8. When I see a question like, “Was Paul really ‘converted’?” I immediately enter into the state of take the term and figuring out what it literally means, then answering the question. It seems to me that the people who are asking this question are defining conversion as changing from one religion to another, or even from one major mindset to another. That being said, I would like to make a couple observations.
    My first observation is illustrated in the second chapter of Polhill’s book when he discusses Paul’s role as a Jew. Particularly his discussion about what it meant to be a Pharisee. “Particularly important to them [the pharisees] were laws maintaining separateness and Jewish distinctiveness–purity laws, Sabbath laws, food laws, tithe laws.” (29) So, his mindset had to undergo a drastic change when he encountered Christ. As his future ministry shows, he now was focusing on saving those who he had prided himself on being set apart from. He now considered himself unworthy to be used by God for the purpose he was called to.
    My second observation is based solely on what it means to be a Christian. As far as I can tell, the Jewish religion maintains that Christ was not the messiah, he did not rise from the dead, and he was not the savior of the world. These are the things that are essential to being a Christian. As a Jew, Paul points out that he was as perfect as possible. However, in order for him to be used as the instrument God chose to use, he needed to change his thinking. He had to decide that Christ was not a blasphemer and that His followers were not blaspheming. He had to decide that Christ came and died in order that the world might be saved.
    So, whether or not he denounced the Jewish religion, whether or not he said it was right or wrong to continue to practice the law or circumcision, when it comes down to the pure definition of conversion, Paul was definitely converted.

    • Casey said “it comes down to the pure definition of conversion, Paul was definitely converted.” OK, but I might still ask what was he converted into? In a modern use of the word, you convert from Pagan to Christian, or Catholic from Protestant, etc. There is an origin and a destination — to what extent does Paul leave Judaism and enter something we might call Christianity? The New Perspective is simply saying that the change was not as radical as Luther made it out to be.

  9. What results from the outcome of this debate? And why does it matter? Can the two not be reconciled? That is what I meant to do in my post, but in re-reading it I see it was poorly written.

    P.S. Are there any comparisons that can be made between the reaction of Paul to his calling and the reactions of Jonah and his calling?

  10. I was really confused when I first saw the question. Why would someone even consider the thought that Paul had not been converted? That does not make any sense to question that. I really do not think that it makes that big of a difference. He may not have been “converted”, we will never know for sure. So why bring it up. No one but God knows now. We can question it all we like, but that does not mean that we will know. You can dig around looking for the answer, but you will not find it. I think that Paul must have been if he was going around risking his life to preach about God. No one would go through what he went through unless there was a change in his life. He was committed to serve God with all of his heart. I think that is all that matters. He wanted to live/die for Christ. He was able to lead many to the Lord. That is all that matters in life anyways. Us becoming saved and living for the Lord so than we can in turn, lead others to the Lord.

  11. Interesting read… I believe Paul was converted. It wasn’t so much a going from one set of religious beliefs to another so much as going from the group of people that was persecuting people who believed Christ was the Messiah to becoming one who also believed Christ was the Messiah. With Paul the conversion and calling came at the same time. God perhaps chose him specifically because of his zealousness for whatever cause he embraces and his position within Judaism.

  12. “What difference does this make? If Paul is “converted,” what was he converted to? Or from? How will a decision here effect the way read Paul’s letters later?”

    I didn’t get this at all when I first read it. Paul himself makes it pretty clear that he was converted from a state of sin to a state of grace by the blood of Christ and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit – which is the only sense in which I have ever understood the word “conversion” to have any validity.

    But if we accept that this is true:
    “In a modern use of the word, you convert from Pagan to Christian, or Catholic from Protestant, etc. There is an origin and a destination”
    then I guess it makes sense to ask:
    ” — to what extent does Paul leave Judaism and enter something we might call Christianity? The New Perspective is simply saying that the change was not as radical as Luther made it out to be.”

    I would say that the answer still goes back to what conversion actually is. Paul changed from depending on himself to depending on Christ. Whether that involved a “leaving” of Judaism is up for dispute…but I don’t think the basic truth is changed, whether Paul continued to practice Judaism or not. His writings make it clear that there was a shift – even a radical shift – in his thinking and in his understanding of his own spiritual standing before God. That’s something that only comes through conversion.

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