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?