Paul’s Experience on the Damascus Road

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” 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.

Road to DamascusLike 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 (Rom 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.  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.

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 built on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.

In the end, Polhill is correct when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (p. 55).  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 and what he claimed to be.

If the New Perspective is correct about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, how would this change our understanding of Paul? What are the ramifications of Paul as called” to a prophetic mission rather than converted to a new religion?

10 thoughts on “Paul’s Experience on the Damascus Road

  1. guilt – I assume I should read built or gilt 🙂

    I forget when I first read about the NP – but it was ‘obvious’ to me on reading about it and it was a relief also that a scholar recognized that we needed something other than the dark and distorted lenses of traditional confessions in Christianity. Christianity in Christendom had failed, internationally, nationally,and personally. There is still much failure as people seek to protect their parochialism rather than enter into the cost of healing.

    I think Paul as ‘prophet’ still runs the risk of boxing him in. Do we somehow ‘understand’ what it means to be a prophet better than we get the idea of ‘conversion’? Certainly he was called – I am intrigued at the way he phrases it. It is a process of obedience and of conforming – but not narrow or exclusive. Galatians 1:16 is the phrase I was thinking of – to reveal his son in me. This is the end of the process and Paul is set apart for this calling but also inviting all who hear him to the same obedience of faith. He describes the growth and goal in Philippians 3:12-14. Faith is neither a cheap deception nor a blunt weapon.

    The Christian difficulty is a fear of openness, a fear that if the other is allowed in that somehow purity will be compromised. This is an unhealthy fear yet many would read it as supported by 2 Cor 7:1. I consider that Paul appeals to the ‘fear of God’ in much the same way as the poets of the Psalms do. What does this fear do for each of us – and for national and international governments? I think of Psalm 2:10-12 – a crux I know – but its hard to put a book into a comment.

  2. Looking at the New Perspective of Paul would change our understanding of him by not just looking at his encounter with the Lord as a conversion, but also as a prophetic call. I know churches who only look at Paul’s journey on the way to Damascus as just a conversion. By looking at his encounter as just a conversion I believe that there are things that are being missed in the story. Talking about Paul and a “conversion” I feel that we look at it as he dropped his Jewish ways, and completely came to a new religion. I think that looking at the New Perspective might be the better way of looking at this event in the Scriptures in Acts 9.
    The ramification of Paul’s encounter with the Lord being looked at as just a prophetic call would make him seem less unique than what he would be seen as when you look at the encounter as a conversion to a new religion. This is because if he was converted to a whole new religion, his letters would stand out from the rest of the Scriptures. But, if his encounter is seen as a prophetic call then his letters would stand in unity with the entirety of Scripture. However, it may not just be one or the other, rather a combination of the two perspectives as Polhill suggests, “It is likely that his missionary experience over these years and his reflection over his life both past and present contributed to his subsequent understanding of his encounter on the Damascus road” (Polhill 56).

  3. With Paul’s conversation yes there was many of changes to come, but if a man of that day could do it; it would be Paul. Though Paul a Jew, was still indeed a Roman, a citizen of the Rome; living and breathing in a culture different then the Jewish culture he lived in. Yes Paul had to change everything but he had a bit of living a different life when he switched from his Hebrew friends and the people in the work place. Paul seems to me as one who would have adapted faster than most. For paul this was indeed a world changer, and as a pharisee he of all people would understand with his background how much of a sinner he and everyone is.

  4. The new perspective of Paul’s conversion would drastically change our original viewpoint on Paul. We seem to think that because God had confronted Paul in such a radical and triumphant way, that Paul must have instantly became submissive to God’s plan. But having the upbringing that he did, it seems that the new perspective does shed quite a bit of light on why Paul decides to change his ways. It certainly would have had to take more reasoning than a confrontation from God to get this zealous persecutor to fulfill his original purpose. I agree with the fact that it was more of a prophetic call rather than a conversion. It does seem more logical to believe that Paul’s opinions on Jesus and Christianity had become favorable, rather than him completely converting to a new religion because of a surprise blind date (literally) with Jesus. Paul had asked “who are you, Lord?” and the reply was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” After that, Paul shuts up and humility and shame sets in. Who is he to question the Messiah who had supposedly been dead all this time? He then, willing or not, begins to act upon Jesus’ desires. Perhaps in his heart, Paul didn’t want to fulfill Jesus’ intentions right away. Maybe his true conversion had occurred during his absence of vision, while fasting, meditating, and praying.

    The only ramification I can think of to contrast the new perspective would be that if it was a prophetic call, that there would be more evidence of that in his letters. Although in Galatians 1, Paul refers to his encounter with Jesus as a “revelation”, then later says that God “revealed His Son in me”. This justifies more of a prophetic call than a conversion.

  5. Our understanding about Paul changes if we believe that the New Perspective is correct. Our perspective is changed from believing that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was merely a conversion, to the perspective that it was more of a prophetic call. If we see Paul’s encounter with the Lord as a conversion, then it is easy to believe that Paul completely went against his Jewish practices and beliefs and became like a Gentile taking on a whole new religion. However, if we view his encounter as more of a prophetic call or a revelation, than we can see that God “radically changed Paul’s thinking”, like you said in the post. Polhill suggests that scholars still disagree on whether Paul’s theology changed immediately after his conversion, or if it was something gradually learned from living as a Christ follower. He says, “The truth probably lies somewhere between these extremes” (pg 56). There is evidence that suggests both, in his epistles and also later in his letters. Ultimately, it was most likely a combination of experiences that “contributed to his subsequent understanding of his encounter on the Damascus road” (Polhill, 56).

  6. Perhaps I am straying too far from topic here, but this discussion leaves me thinking about the more general point of how the truth of Jesus would break through into a Jewish person’s theological framework.

    Are we saying that since Jesus was revealed to Paul as a faithful God fearing Jew, it was therefore less a conversion and more a re-thinking of his theology which now incorporated Jesus as his long-awaited messiah?

    and if that’s what we’re pointing at then can we say that this is the process for all Jews. That every Jewish person is not really converted – but more ‘enlightened’?

    • I am not sure I would make this point, no. I do think that there is continuity between Paul’s pre-Damascus Road theology and the theology we find in his letters. Obviously elements are Scripture (the OT) and his view of God (monotheism).

      The big difference is Jesus as the Messiah who suffers on behalf of his people, dies and rises again. And that is a very big difference! Paul’s “contribution” is how the atonement of the Cross is applied to Gentiles apart from the Law. I plan on detail this a bit later, but for now I will say simply that Gentiles as “not under Law” is something that was not anticipated in the OT at all, and (I think) revealed to him by Jesus/God after the Damascus Road experience (or at it, I suppose).

      Could any Jewish person in the first century have “thought their way” to Pauline theology? Probably not, because the encounter with Jesus was so foundational to his thinking, something he can call a “revelation” later in his letters.

  7. There does seem to be a bit of a stigma attached to the word “conversion”, but i believe the word is still fitting to what Paul experienced. Paul still built off of his Jewish roots when he began his road to proclaiming Christ (I think many christian converts of today would do the same, we tend to stick with what we know and then build off of it). Paul also had some new revelations though, which has been pointed out, so he was now paving the way in his Christianity, though he didn’t fully separate himself from his Jewish roots, which would point to a more prophetic call. I think there has to be a mixture of both understandings. On one hand, Paul was “Converted” and began to follow the way of Christ, rather than the way of the Law, and on the other hand Paul still held to some of his Jewish practices, traditions, and upbringing, while bringing the word of God to the people through his revelations in the Holy Spirit.

  8. Paul, in Acts, says that Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road and said, “…., why do you kick against the goads?”

    Approximately 450 years earlier, another man used this exact same expression. His name was Euripides, a Greek author of mythology. He used this phrase in his book, “The Bacchae”, involving a fictional conversation between a man/god, Dionysus, and the king of Thebes. The theme of “The Bacchae” is the struggle between a man/god and his persecutor.

    Sound familiar?

    Isn’t it odd that Jesus would use an expression from Greek mythology during his appearance to the self proclaimed, “Thirteenth Apostle”?

    • The phrase appears to be common: see also Pindar, Pythian Odes 2, “Follow God’s leading, bear his yoke. Kick not against the pricks. There lies the only safety. May such men admit me to their friendship” (tr. Basil L. Gildersleeve), or Aeschylus, Agamemnon, “Do you have eyes and lack understanding? Do not kick against the goads lest you strike to your own hurt.” (Ag. 1620–1624, tr. H. W. Smyth, 1926). You are citing Euripides, Bacchae 790–794, “I would sacrifice to the god rather than kick against his spurs in anger, a mortal against a god” (tr. T. A. Buckley). There are more references like this (check BDAG under κέντρον, goad/prick), including Philo (a near-contemporary of Luke) and several inscriptions.

      Why is it strange that Jesus would use a rather common and clear metaphor for being hard-headed?

      I would also point out that you are the one calling Paul a self proclaimed “Thirteenth Apostle,” not Luke (or me, for that matter!)

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