Beginning with Krister Stendahl, a new view of Paul’s experience has emerged. Rather than a conversion from one religion to another, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament, especially that of Jeremiah. This view sees the Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.
Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah. In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God. He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah. Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism.
The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets.
The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key. Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul. Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.
However, I do think that it is problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.
It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.
8 thoughts on “Acts 9 – Paul’s Encounter with the Resurrected Jesus (Part 2)”
Stendhal’s view of Paul’s Judaism is interesting. He believes that Paul did not leave Judaism, but just “changed parties within Judaism” (“Acts 9 – Paul’s Encounter with the Resurrected Jesus (Part 2)” post). However, Paul completely left his Jewish past. He told the Gentiles that they no longer had to keep the law, be circumcised, have a special diet, or perform animal sacrifices to cover sin. All of these things were necessary for Jews to be in relation with God. Paul preached that it was no longer necessary to perform these rituals to have a relationship with God. Paul was completely converted from desiring to persecute the Jewish Church to wanting to know Christ, and he was called by God to minister to the Gentiles by sharing the gospel with them (“Acts 9 – Paul’s Encounter with the Resurrected Jesus (Part 2)” post). In Romans 15:16, Paul states that he is “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.” He says that God had appointed him to share the gospel to the Gentiles so that they may be made righteous before God (Romans 15:16). Paul’s salvation on the road to Damascus was a spectacular pivotal point in the salvation of the whole world.
It’s hard to say whether or not Paul was “converted” or “called”. I can see how Stendhal’s view is applicable. Paul was still a Jew, and he admitted to it (Philippians 3:5). This is certainly supportive of a “called” viewpoint. However, there is a change in Paul that seems to scream “conversion.” A definition for “conversion” is “a spiritual and moral change attending a change of belief with conviction.” I would say that, after reading Acts 9, Paul did have a great spiritual change. He was truly converted from the way he used to be. I can see how both terms are applicable.
Personally, because his view on the Messiah changed, I would say that he was converted. If an Orthodox Jew were to believe in Christ today, would we not say that he was converted? He wouldn’t necessarily convert to Christianity, but to Messianic Judaism. He would be a Jew that believes in Jesus as Messiah. I would say that this is what happened to Paul. Though he remained a Jew through and through, his opinion on who the Messiah is changed, and I would say that is enough to call it a conversion.
The definition of conversion means ‘a change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of indifference, disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, faith, or enthusiastic support, especially such a change in a person’s religion.’ I would say that Saul had a very antagonistic view towards those who proclaimed the name of Jesus. No matter what definitive religion he had, he felt the need to kill and destroy the Jesus movement. Then when he had an experience with the Risen Lord, he felt an overwhelming call to the life of proclaiming His name to the gentiles; transforming Paul to a life having faith and zeal for Jesus. I would call that a conversion if only by definition. Although Paul left the idea that the Jewish laws were necessary to have a relationship with God, he did agree that the law was not sinful but simply no longer necessary. Hopefully I’m not being too bold by saying, I think we would all agree that violence is not a good thing. Islams also believe this, but that does not make us Islam. This is related to Paul’s view on the Law after his conversion. He believes in the Law and thinks of it as a good thing but no longer believes it is necessary for a relationship with the Lord.
Stendhel’s explanation of Paul’s theology is rather interesting. At first I was confused because you mentioned that Paul did not “found a new religion but gave a new understanding the Jewish Law. My question then is that while it is plausible for Paul to be a Jew and fulfill his calling to be a “light until the Gentiles” was syncretism not as common in Paul’s day? After his conversion, I would speculate that Paul would come away with a greater understanding of mercy and grace after encountering the Risen Lord on his journey along the Damascus Road. There was certainly a notable difference in Paul’s life after his conversion. It makes me wonder if there was anything within the Jewish Law that was contrary to Pauls calling to preach the Gospel across Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the of the earth, or as I mentioned previously, maybe syncretism was not as prominent in Paul’s day as it is in our world.
It seems like Paul and Peter had quite the rivalry between the two of them if they were marking the boundaries on who could spread the gospel to who. I suppose we do similar things in today’s church though. We try not to step on the heel of churches in our same city. Anywho, I would argue that while Paul may not have been trying to start a new religion, he did anyway. as a Christian I do not look at my faith as another “way” to do Judaism. In fact, I see it as distinctly different than Judaism. Some people see a distinction so thick that they believe that following Judaism is grounds for damnation! So you need to be careful thats for sure!
I really like this post, especially because this was a big issue I wrote my conversion paper. From my perspective, and after Schabel, it is hard for me to believe that Paul was a convert to Christianity. However, it is equally hard for me to see Paul as being merely called as a light to the Gentiles. I do not believe that Paul’s conversion can truly be put into a category. Paul’s conversion was so extroadinary and instant that few know what to make of it. One thing is for sure, Paul was not merely “called” to witness, while maintaining his Jewish practices. Schabel points out that Paul was raised in the Jewish faith, and a key aspect of this faith was to, “avoid contact with Gentile customs (Schabel 41).” For Paul to maintain his Jewish customs is impossible because his preaching of the Gospel for everyone, including Gentiles, directly violates Jewish customs. However, pointing to the fact that Paul did not force Gentiles to be baptised, I would point to Galatians 5:6 and 6:15. In both these verses Paul is quoted saying, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.” Clearly, Paul does not believe that circumcision has direct implications in salvation.
From all this, I have gathered the idea that Paul was specifically “called” to preach the Gospel to not only the Gentiles, but all the world. Paul was a convert to Christianity in that he preached th Gospel, that Christ was God’s Son and the resurrected Messiah. This directly countered the stance of the Jewish religious officials, and shows not only that Paul converted from a traditional strain of Judaism to a more free and radical Christianity, but that he was devoted to the calling of spreading the Gospel.
It is good to read about the issue of Paul’s transformation, unfortunately I did not read this before I wrote my paper! It seems to me that the issue is mainly in the semantics of the word conversion. Paul converted his thinking but not entirely! I would have to agree with the summary at the end of the post, “Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians.” (Long) As a gentile I cannot fully understand the conversion of Paul, as I have grown up in a Christian home. Like Paul I guess I am a “Christian of Christians” but I am still the worst of sinners, which gives proof the fact that only by the grace of God I am saved. I see Paul’s transformation as more of a fulfillment of his Jewish faith. It was not a complete switch in theology but a shift in what Paul already knew. After all the Messiah did come to save the Jewish people.
I agree with every thing said in this post. I certainly wouldn’t say that Paul “converted” to something completely new. It has become very clear that he really doesn’t change that much as a result of his experience. At least in personality and nature. However I also wouldn’t say that Paul was simply “called” and nothing about his beliefs in Judaism change at all. Christianity is a very different than Judaism and today, while there are some, there aren’t a ton of things that Christians agree on. In Paul’s day Christian theology was underdeveloped but as was pointed Paul still had some radical differences after seeing Jesus on the Damascus road. Not to mention that believing Jesus is the Messiah is a huge detail and difference even though the Jews were expecting a Messiah. So though Paul didn’t have some dramatic change as we often perceive it to be, there is a significant difference in Paul’s belief after encountering Jesus.