Paul’s Conversion and the New Perspective

The second question Polhill asks in his discussion of Paul’s conversion concerns Paul’s predisposition to conversion.  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.

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is cited here; Paul is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Ro 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl (who is cited by Polhill).  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.

So, according to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into 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.

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 (page55).  By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense.  It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is.

The next question is the extent to which Paul’s theology was transformed by that encounter.  Was there a total revision of Paul’s Judaism, or did Paul remain a faithful Jew who also believed Jesus was the Messiah?

4 thoughts on “Paul’s Conversion and the New Perspective

  1. Paul’s theology was totally transformed by his conversion. I do not think however that there was a total transformation in Paul’s piety besides an obvious end to his persecution of believers. Paul claims in Philippians 3 to have a “legalistic righteousness.” “He spoke of his own Jewish pedigree and how he once had prided himself on such things. But now he had given all that up in order to be found in Christ Jesus” (Polhill 53). He no longer depended on himself and his actions for his righteousness, but he now considered all his efforts as loss. Paul then put his faith in Christ for a sacrificial atonement which provides a righteousness not possible by Paul’s own efforts. There is a total transformation in Paul’s Judaism because the object of his faith has changed. He now trust Christ for his salvation. This is the marking point between Judaism and Christianity. Paul was converted.

  2. An interesting question, regarding Paul’s theological conversion at the time of his conversion to Christianity. Consider this. Polhill discusses Paul’s referencing his Hebrew background in regard to many different facets of his ministry. One that I would like to mention in particular is the topic of circumcision. Paul mentions his being circumcised on the eigth day, and encourages Timothy to be circumcised because he was a Jew. But as Polhill says on page 25 “In fact, he insisted that they not do so.” Polhill says that Paul had seen that external display is not necessary to being a Christian but that “True circumcision for the Christian is not a mark of the flesh but a spiritual dedication of the heart to God (Rom. 2:28-29.
    If Paul was willing to state that the circumcision established in a covenant between God and man was not necessary for Judeo-Christianity, that his theology was indeed changed by a large margin, given the current religious-political environment of his time.

    • Mat – I’ll just observe here that Timothy was a Jew on his mother’s side, so traditionally he would have been considered Jewish according to the Law. Acts also tells us that Paul had him circumcised because there were Jews who knew Timothy was Jewish and uncircumcised. I assume this means Paul was showing that he was not “Against the Law” for Jews. Titus, a gentile, was not compelled to be circumcised.

  3. “By appearing to Paul in his resurrection glory, Jesus radically changed Paul’s thinking in a way which cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense. It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel which resulted in a transformation of Paul’s thinking about who Jesus is.”

    – radically changed thinking
    – prophetic call
    – transformed thinking about who Jesus is

    I’m not seeing how these are incompatible with a contemporary understanding of conversion.

    I get that the Damascus road encounter bears obvious physical similarities to an OT theophany, but those mentioned here are spiritual similarities and I would submit that every NT conversion, ancient or contemporary, has these same spiritual attributes to some degree. Paul makes it pretty clear that it’s spiritual realities we want to focus on as a general rule; seems to me it would be helpful to do so here as well…

    That said, I love exploring the tension of transferral between OT and NT – and the Damascus road encounter seems to me to be one of the most powerful moments of transition. Even if the transition was already final at Christ’s birth/death/resurrection, it was still being understood by those living through those times. The theophanic (is that a word) elements on the Damascus road always read to me like Jesus making it r e a l l y clear to Paul that yes, He is THAT God, Jehovah, the one Paul’s read so much about in the prophetic accounts.

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