The New Perspective on Paul: Did Paul Convert to Christianity?

Critics of the traditional view of Paul’s theology often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s struggle against the Roman church. Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt.

Conversion of Saint Paul (Caravaggio)For many readers, this might sound like a foolish question.  Acts 9 describes Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus as a dramatic conversion from chief persecutor of the church to evangelist for the Church. In Phil 3:4-11 Pau describes his previous way of life in Judaism as worthless in comparison to his new life in Christ. That seems like a “conversion” experience from “being Jewish” to “being Christian.”

Another classic text that seems to describe a conversion experience is Romans 7:7-25. In this text Paul describes his struggle as the Wretched Man who tried to keep the Law but failed, and only found salvation in the freedom that comes through Jesus Christ. The traditional view reads this text as referring to Paul’s own spiritual and psychological conversion. If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion. Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law. His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

The New Perspective on Paul calls this traditional view into question. James Dunn has built on the work of Krister Stendhal to argue that Paul did not experience a conversion from one religion to another. Rather, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Hebrew Bible, especially that of Jeremiah. The Damascus Road experience was 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. (Not all scholars who are associated with the New Perspective agree, N. T. Wright still talks about “Paul’s Conversion” in What Saint Paul Really Said.)

Dunn points out that Paul stayed “zealous,” but instead of zealous for the Law, he because zealous as the “light to the Gentiles” (“Paul’s Conversion,” 90). This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “found a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism. Paul may not have changed parties within Judaism: he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.

Young LutherThe 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. His Law-free gospel for the Gentiles was a radical change, and a change that was wholly unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is the key for grasping how radical Paul’s gospel was. When Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without being circumcised, the Jews vigorously oppose Paul, attempt to have him arrested and (later in Acts) they attempt to kill him for what they see as a radically blasphemous revision of the basics of the Jewish faith.

I think that Phil 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 significant radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century. While it is possible Paul thought he was staying within Judaism, his contemporaries disagreed. (I suspect that includes not a few Christians Jews who disagreed with his view of the Law for Gentiles.)

But it is also 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 and in Ephesians 3 he is quite clear that he has a special commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul never “joins the Jerusalem church” nor does he receive his commission from them (again, see Gal 2). 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 therefore probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. I agree that Luther and others hear their own conversion in Paul’s Damascus Road experience. 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.

Bibliography: There is a huge bibliography of essays and monographs on this issue; the critical articles include: J. D. G. Dunn, “‘A Light To the Gentiles’ or ‘The End of the Law’? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul” in Dunn, Paul, Jesus, and the Law, 89-107. See also Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982); After Kim was critiqued by J. D. G. Dunn and others, he responded in a number of articles that are collected in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

8 thoughts on “The New Perspective on Paul: Did Paul Convert to Christianity?

  1. Thanks for this next installment, Phillip. With as many readers as you have, I’m wondering why no one else so far is commenting. (Of course, I can’t get readers of my blog to comment either… I guess neither of our blogs are pertinent enough to the daily lives of most to prompt commenting more.)

    HOWEVER, the topic is a crucial and I think fascinating one. Certainly the pretty sizable “movement” (or whatever to call it) of Emerging Christianity has been rooted heavily in the “gospel” of Paul vis-a-vis that of Jesus… hard as it is to get at the real “gospel of the Kingdom” OF Jesus over against the gospel ABOUT Jesus. And for progressives like me who have gone even further from orthodoxy than the Emerging folks, the issue of Paul is still a critical one. It’s not “fair” or “right” to still claim the Christian label and deal only with what one finds appealing about Jesus in the Gospels.

    I like your concluding comment about not projecting back onto Paul our senses of either “conversion” or (implied earlier) what is the real distinction between “religions” of Judaism and Christianity. When Paul “converted” I’m convinced there WAS no “Christianity” in anything similar to what later developed, and with his major input.

    We have to remember (and few, even scholars, do) that there are small but very significant indicators, even in Acts, plus Paul, plus the early non-canonical lit, that pre-Christian forms of Judaism, John the Baptist followings, and Jesus-as-messiah belief had spread AHEAD of Paul, and also of Peter (and in addition to these two and others from Jerusalem). Acts gives us a very partial and selective history… one that is clearly theologically driven, and in support of social cohesion and the appearance of Christian unity and harmony (which is a major distortion, even when comparing just to Paul’s writing). Because of this, I think we have to be much more careful in drawing conclusions about the nature and effects of Paul’s conversion…. I’m not even sure, from his own writings, that we can know it was on “the road to Damascus” (correct me if I’m forgetting something Paul said to that effect… as I recall, his descriptions are much more vague and not tied to any time or place). I frankly don’t “get” why so many biblical scholars back up Luke’s accuracy and veracity so heavily, and don’t squarely face the other evidences or his distortions, nature of his genre, etc… I guess they sense the major can of worms it opens up when his accurate “history” is not affirmed.

    • Howard, You said, “When Paul “converted” I’m convinced there WAS no “Christianity” in anything similar to what later developed, and with his major input.” This is the point that I think the NPP helps with, Dunn especially has written on the “parting of the ways” between Christianity and Judaism. It happened much later than most people are willing to accept. Systematic theologians creating doctrinal statements, even the ones I agree with, assume that someone Paul is in complete agreement with their confession of faith from the 17th century.

      As for history in Luke….that is for another day! I am more toward the accuracy side than you are, but I am fully aware that it is a theological history rather than a straightforward modern history.

  2. Concerning your comment, “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,” a couple of qualifications might be needed. First, the book of Acts while commonly called “the Acts of the Apostles” do not really record the “acts” of the Twelve. Only Peter gets significant attention in Acts. So this may not be all the significant. Second, Peter appears to claim that at least part of the credit of taking the gospel to the Gentiles (see Acts 15:7 where most interpreters see a reference to Cornelius). Also, if one holds that 1 Peter is Petrine, then it seems almost certain that Peter had a significant ministerial influence among Gentiles (see also the hint of Peter’s influence in 1 Cor 1:12). One might also point to extra-biblical church tradition that seems to indicate that the Twelve had a significant ministry apart from the “house of Israel.”

    • Thanks Charles, What I wrote should probably be nuanced a bit. I of course understand Acts as representative history and the Twelve may very well have done mission to the Gentiles. Peter is the only one singled out as participating in Gentile mission, but he serves as something of a transition, Cornelius is a God Fearer and so particular in his “acts of righteousness” that God sends and Angel to him – hardly a typical Gentile!

      I am certainly willing to accept the standard view that Peter did ministry in Corinth; it is certainly a possibility. But that there was a segment of the Corinthian church that followed Peter cannot be taken as evidence for Peter’s presence, since there was also a “We Follow Jesus” group, despite the fact Jesus never ministered in Corinth. If he did minister in Corinth, it is possible he continued to do the same sort of ministry he is doing in Acts (and perhaps Antioch), reaching out to those on the fringes of Judaism, Hellenistic Jews, outsiders, and God-Fearing Gentiles.

      With the last point, again, it is entirely possible the Twelve did target Gentiles in the same general way Paul did. One reason I am hesitant to accept the extra-biblical traditions is that they are just that. They may reflect actual practice the original twelve, but they occasionally legendary and they do not often jive with the method we know other apostles followed. We know Peter went to Rome where there was a significant Jewish population, we assume John went to Ephesus where there was also a large Jewish population, best guesses are Matthew was in Antioch, where again there is a large Jewish population.

      • As to “large Jewish population”, ditto for Alexandria… perhaps more so than other large cities…. And Luke only obliquely refers to anything about forms of faith there or anywhere in N. Africa. Maybe he didn’t even gather many sources on it, despite important issues like Apollos hailing from there (per Luke), Philo (of Alexandria) on the “Therapeutae”, etc., as it wasn’t part of his theme or focus. As it is, he wrote a relatively long book to make his few major points, with engaging drama, etc.

  3. Thanks for your responses Phillip.

    While Cornelius may not have been a typical Gentile in some sense, Peter seems to treat him as a prototypical Gentile in his speech in Acts 15 (“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe, 15:7). In fact, Peter’s argument works much better if Cornelius’ piety is downplayed. Otherwise, those arguing for Gentiles needing to be circumcised and keep the Law (15:1, 5) could say look at Cornelius who kept the Law as it were. One might also argue that the sheet vision suggests that Cornelus’ piety was not particularly relevant as it relates to Gentile salvation since the sheet vision apparently had only two categories (clean and unclean). Most assume that Cornelius would fall into the unclean category and not the clean category.

    I agree that one needs to exercise caution in dealing with extra-biblical material, but do note that when you state that, “We know Peter went to Rome” your confidence I suspect rests in large part on extra-biblical tradition (and maybe the reference to “Babylon” in 1 Pet 5:13). Furthermore, if the New Perspective teaches us anything, it is that one has needs to consider the extra-biblical material.

  4. I would agree that the modern definitions of “conversion” and “call” do not adequately describe what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. It is also tough to classify the event using modern terms which are often used differently by different people. The Lexham Bible Dictionary notes that conversion to Christianity refers to the initiation into the Church which is often displayed through baptism*. Essentially, the LBD defines conversion as joining the church rather than changing your beliefs. Using this definition, Paul did not experience a conversion until he was baptized, which occurred shortly after he was healed by Ananias. However, not everyone would define conversion in this way.

    I think that what Paul experienced did indeed have some similarities to Old Testament prophets and disciples of Jesus, as was mentioned in the post. The job of OT prophets was often to proclaim the coming judgement of God upon those who refused to repent and worship Him, and the job given to the Apostles was a mix of teaching and missionary work. Because Paul was called to perform all these tasks, his story can be compared to the others.

    Ultimately Paul’s experience displayed aspects of conversion (by some definitions) and prophetic calling, but at the end of the day the disagreement is merely over how we as modern-day english speakers define the event. How we define the event perhaps changes our own views on it, but the event itself remains the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

    Perhaps the best way to define the event in terms of what happened to Paul, but in terms of what God did to Paul. After all, Paul himself in Galatians takes great care to emphasize that his mission and message comes from God and not from himself**. Paul didn’t experience a conversion or realization of his own, but rather Christ provided revelation to Paul regarding Christ’s messiahship and Paul’s future. Christ also used the missionary as a means to unfold the next step of God’s ultimate plan for the redemption of mankind. I would use this perspective to define Paul’s experience not as a conversion or a call, but as a command. Paul was never told that he could participate in this mission if he felt like it; rather Christ instructs him to “stand up and enter the city” so he can be told what he MUST do (Acts 9:6).

    God had a plan that involved Paul, and He enacted His will neither through waiting nor causing Paul’s heart to soften, but rather He delivered His command to Paul and let the change of heart happen later. I would argue that – if we are going to take the time and energy to define Paul’s religious upheaval, the command (to go into the city) came on the Damascus road, the call came from God through Ananias after Paul’s healing, and the conversion came when Paul was baptized following his healing.

    *Espinoza, Benjamin. “Conversion,” Lexham Bible Dictionary. Edited by J. Barry, et al. (Bellingham: Lexham Press, 2016).

    ** Longenecker, Bruce W, and Still, Todd D. “Thinking Through Paul.” Zondervan, 2014.

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