The Problem of Paul’s Conversion

For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9) is the classic story of the conversion of the chief of sinners. Jesus himself appears to Rabbi Saul and confronts him with the truth of the resurrection and completely turns him around. For many preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. His conversion is therefore an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.

Yet there is a great deal about Paul’s experience which is open for discussion. Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road in Acts 9 (TTP 31). First, the terminology use to describe Paul’s experience varies within Acts and even within the Letters of Paul. Did Paul experience a vision in Acts 9? How is that vision related to his 2 Corinthians 12?

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A second problem is the chronological relationship between Paul’s “conversion” and his “mission.” Perhaps it is inappropriate to describe Paul as converting from Judaism to Christianity in the modern sense of the word. Did Paul experience a conversion experience similar to a person who attends a modern evangelistic meeting, raises their hand and walks forward to “accept Jesus”? Or was his experience more of a calling to a particular mode of ministry, the mission to the Gentiles?

The relationship between conversion and mission raises a third problem for Longenecker and Still, how should Acts be used to unpack what happened to Paul? For some scholars, Luke’s story of the early church is suspect: he is a later writer trying to emphasize the unity of the church and (perhaps) promote Paul as a more significant leader than he really was. For other more conservative interpreters of Acts, Luke tells his story with a theological agenda but he does not create events out of nothing. He tells the story of Paul’s conversion three times in order to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.

Yet it seems clear Paul had some kind of experience that really did cause him to rethink everything, even if he did not reject all aspects of Judaism in favor of Christianity. 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.

Over the next few posts I will take up these topics and examine a few of the texts in which Paul describes his own calling to ministry. Perhaps this is a discussion that ought to stay in the academy, but I wonder if it is surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do?

26 thoughts on “The Problem of Paul’s Conversion

  1. Is there actually a specific way that modern Christians “experience conversion”? I suspect that there is so much variety that there is no standard experience. Often, in fact, it is a process, though there might be one or more crucial moments recognized in hindsight. I’m not sure it was that different for Paul.

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    • Thanks, Fernando, for this clarification. I agree there is a wide range of experiences, from a dramatic, psychological conversion experience to a non-emotional shift from one political party to another. On the one hand, I am warning against reading our own personal experience into Paul’s, but also questioning whether Paul could have converted “from Judaism to Christianity,” as if those categories existed in the early 30s AD.

      It is at least possible Paul did not convert to “something else” as much as shift within Judaism to a belief Jesus was the Messiah and that Jesus did in some way inaugurate the eschatological age. I am not sure I am happy with the phrase “within Judaism,” but at least from the perspective of his contemporaries, it is possible to think of Paul in this way.

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      • Well, of course Paul did not “convert from Judaism to Christianity”, since neither thing existed yet. But he seems to have had a fundamental change of mind about this Jesus fellow. What else do we mean by “conversion”?

        Sometimes I worry that the argument here relies on first reading a modern sense into “conversion” and then rejecting that. So sure, Paul’s conversion did not involve ceasing to be Jewish, nor some formal process of leaving one congregation for another, nor reciting the Nicene Creed. So what?

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  2. I think the question, “Did Paul convert from something to something else” is of central importance in modern re-thinkings of Paul’s writing. A book I read this summer, The Jewish Lives of the Apostle Paul by John Gager (of Princeton U) was most illuminating. Gager details the relationship and role of gentiles to and within the synagogue, which was not insignificant, and how that relates back to Paul’s mission, post “conversion” and to his many contradictory pro and anti-Jewish statements. Gager is able to make rational sense of these statements within a context of a very active community of gentile-jews populating synagogues (which explains why Paul always went there first. That’s where the gentiles were) I also think Robert Jewitt’s explanation of Paul’s title “Slave of Jesus Christ” in his opening of Romans convincingly demonstrates how Paul can indeed represent Christ while remaining fully Jewish.

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    • Good, Gager is always provocative, and i have enjoyed his work even if some of the details “go to far.” He is one of several writers who have tried to deal with Paul as independent from Jerusalem (as I do here, although not as spectacularly as Gager!)

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  3. I agree with robwaltoon that “Paul can indeed represent Christ while remaining fully Jewish.” Within that context, it is improper to say that Paul converted. He did become a Jew who believed that Yeshua was the promised Messiah.
    We also tend to overlook the years he spent in near obscurity as he came to fully understand what all that meant and for him to practice his new rabbinic role.

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  4. I’m glad you’re taking on this topic and raising these kinds of questions. They are important ones. We (Christians of various types and non-Christians) tend to come to “Paul” and to the NT with many unwarranted presumptions and often distortions… our “lenses” of culture, history, personal experience, theology, etc. I’ve been working for many decades on correcting and updating mine… still just scratching the surface I believe.

    I think the biggest help (both spiritually and toward “truth”) has been a gradual and eventually major “paradigm shift” a good 20 yrs ago… Basically from traditional Christian theism and its view of revelation/authority to a “Process” (pan-en-theism) perspective. (This is NOT a “classic liberal” – too naturalistic – viewpoint, for those not familiar.) Interpretive paradigms are highly pertinent to a topic like Paul’s conversion/calling/theology and how it was incorporated into the eventual NT canon.

    A process kind of paradigm (aided by the breadth of my studies and work in psychology/therapy and anthropology/sociology) enables me to take Paul’s experience seriously, and as of the “revelatory” kind… and the contributions resulting. At the same time it does not at all require me to try to make his theology fit every (or any) other biblical author as “systematic” theology (or supposedly “special revelation” to them and only them, all fitting harmoniously). And yes, after extensive study I’ve become a “lay scholar” among the majority of professionals who prioritize Paul’s accounts over Acts’ when they appear to conflict, as they do on some key points. I see much of the conflict as actual. It resulted from, as you say, a clear and strong agenda/purpose of Luke. (In today’s parlance, his “spin”.) They don’t HAVE to be reconciled, altho if they could be, things would be clearer, of course.

    I also, like you, continue to ask lots of q’s about Paul’s experiences, beliefs, and “conversion”. Prior to it, he clearly was passionate/conflicted, even as he was afterward… still burdened by guilt tho at some level he did accept God’s forgiveness I believe. The “conversion/revelation” was a “180” in some regards, particularly in terms of joining the Jesus-followers vs. persecuting them… a reversal not uncommon in passionate people under either self-imposed or external stress, wrestling with an issue(s).

    I think the Damascus road vision was just that, per BOTH Acts and Paul… not shared by those in his company (if it even was “on the road…”) And according to him (1 Cor. 15, particularly), this appearance by Jesus to him was very akin to that of the Apostles (and women) before him. For that and other reasons, I believe in “post-resurrection” appearances, tho not particularly as described in the Gospels… clearly embellished and partially concocted as those accounts are. And I don’t see any real evidence that even the Apostles/disciples at the time claimed or believed their “encounters” were with the physically reconstituted body of Jesus which had left a supposedly “empty tomb.” (You CAN have your cake and eat it too!).

    But clearly there was a faith-creating effect of such appearances for both the original disciples and for Paul. (But it didn’t lead particularly the former to all the varying theology written later in their names or as supposedly spoken by them — speeches in Acts, e.g. And Paul’s own theology developed, apart from them mostly, over time as well.)

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    • Thanks Howard, always thoughtful and detailed. I think the “psychology” angle is good, since his basic personality remained more or less the same. The same intense passion that led Paul to persecute the church was more or less the same, although focused on the Gospel and evangelism. I think his foundation on the Hebrew Bible is another, but that will play out in a later post.

      I think the “faith creating effect” of the resurrection cannot be stressed enough, without resurrection of Jesus, the Twelve do not do what they do around Jerusalem, nor would Paul ever have some to a belief Jesus was Messiah. let alone all of the other theology developed from that insight.

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  5. There are many different opinions about whether or not Paul was “converted”, or not. In reality, it seems as though no one really knows except for Paul. And maybe he doesn’t know what to call it. Paul used to persecute the people he soon began to preach to and teach what God was telling him. Paul is telling these people the importance of the Christ and his resurrection because he knows what that can do. He experienced it. (TTP, 30). Whether or not it was a conversion or call, we don’t know. Or was it both? It seems as though both of these things happened and maybe not at the same time. The way that Paul writes, it seems that his “call” and his “conversion” happened at the same time.

    This is where it would be different, for most people who have a salvation experience today. Many times, people who become saved are just that. Saved. They don’t know what to do after that, let alone be able to understand a calling on there life at that moment. God will give them a calling at some point and maybe at that time, but not the same way that Paul did.

    When Paul had his encounter with Christ, his mind changed instantaneously. One day he was persecuting the church, and the next, he was spreading the good news to all the people he could reach. Paul saw the church as a rapid growing cancer. (TTP, 29). He wanted it removed until he encountered Christ and wanted people to know the news.

    Paul had a unique encounter with Christ, and we may never know if it was technically a conversion or not. All we know is that something radically shifted in Paul’s mind to make him stop persecuting the church, and begin following after Jesus teaching, and spreading the news of the Gospel.

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  6. Many Pauline interpreters have said it is not “appropriate nor accurate to refer to what Paul describes as an “appearance” or “revelation” as a “conversion”” (TTP, 35). They would prefer to see it as a call, as would I. He didn’t completely abandon his Jewish beliefs. Jesus just revealed the truth to him. I believe he held to some morals and/or laws because of his convictions. To follow the Law was neither right, nor wrong, but Paul held to them because they were “the commandments of God” (1 Cor 7:19). That is also probably why he says, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor 8:13). People converting to Christianity or simply changing their beliefs based on a prophesy being fulfilled (the Messianic promise) made it a little hard to give up their traditions of following the Law. I believe Paul, as well as the Jews who finally realized that Jesus was the Messiah were not converted, but just simply realized the truth.

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  7. Whether or not Paul’s experience with the Lord was a conversion or just a calling to evangelism for the kingdom of God is quite obvious. God’s plan was to use Paul to reach the Gentiles as stated in Acts 9:15-16. God called him, and he responded to the calling. If that doesn’t count as a conversion, or even in the very least repentance, then do we have the right to call ourselves Christians? We are also called to share the Gospel in Matthew 28:19-20 to all of the nations, as God’s word transcends all time. The word repentance means to turn around or turn away, which Paul did turn away from his ways of persecution. As stated in the blog post, “His conversion is therefore an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy”, Paul is an example of God’s forgiveness through Jesus for his previous ways. “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” (NPP, 9). After his Damascus road experience, Paul’s actions did change, and definitely had a less Jewish approach, with a desire to serve Christ as Lord, as shown in Philippians 3:7-8. If Paul did not believe in Christ as Lord, there would have been no reason for him to have spent a large portion of his life sharing just that news. It is my opinion that Paul indeed did convert to Christianity.

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  8. In the blog post you ask the question if there is a difference between what we today consider a conversion in modern Christianity and what Paul’s calling/ conversion was (Longenecker refers to it both as a conversion and a calling, 32,33). I think there are some similarities and comparisons one could make, such as a new life in Christ. Paul does not state that he was converted, but he does refer to his life before his calling as another life. In Galatians 1:11-17, Paul calls his experience on Damascus road a revelation, and states that in his former life in Judaism he persecuted the church. God revealed himself to Paul, just as He does in scripture to us. Paul states that God set him apart, called him by grace, and revealed His son to him (Galatians 1:15-16). We are all set apart as part of God’s plan (Jeremiah 29:11), as He has a plan for every one of us, just as God had a plan for Paul (Acts 9:15). Today our conversion or calling stories are all different; but we are made new in Christ and changed because of it, a similarity to Paul’s changed life.

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  9. I definitely agree with Natalie when she talked about the similarities you can draw from what we see as a “conversion” in the modern sense of the word and how Paul recounted his Damascus road experience and how he acted after it. To me, it doesn’t seem to matter if he was called or converted because the simple fact that his thinking and life was changed by his experience is all that matters. If Paul did not “convert” from Judaism, his mind was still changed by Jesus presenting Himself as the Messiah which had a major influence on Paul and the life he led from then on. I think that Paul was led by Jesus to be the light to the disciples and similar to us in our salvation, we are “converted” and called to glorify God and make disciples in the same breath. We are all made into a different person just as Paul was on the road to Damascus in Acts 9.

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  10. Since Saul was persecuting the followers of “the way,” it seems he was not a “Christian” but a practicing Old Testament Jew. Also, for Longenecker and still to say that “Luke’s story of the early church” is suspect because in reality it is the Holy Spirit’s “story since it was inspired by God…….unless they don’t believe that. Why do we always have to make things so difficult.

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    • Longenecker and Still are both evangelicals and would agree Luke /Acts is inspired, so no problem there.

      My point here is that Jewish Saul could not really “convert” to Christian Paul since Christianity as such did not really exist yet. But I am not happy with the suggestion he merely shifted from one Jewish sect (Pharisee) to another (Nazarene? Pharisee who believes in Jesus as messiah?) I think Paul’s gospel is more radical than that!

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    • Timothy, I don’t know how old you are or how experienced in studying the Bible and related ancient literature, history, etc. What I’m getting to is that if you’ve spent much time and dug in much depth you may realize that it isn’t “us” that makes things difficult as to the Bible… how to “take” it, understand it. By its very nature, it just IS difficult; very complex. And don’t forget: the Bible is a diverse LIBRARY covering many hundreds of years… not really a “book” at all. Taking the Bible seriously without either haphazard “cherry picking” or a forced creation of supposedly “systematic” theology is indeed a major and lifelong challenge. (Counting from about age 15… not my start at it, but when I got pretty serious… I’ve been at it fully half a century, including several years of formal schooling! Always fascinating, but not for the weak of heart or mind.)

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  11. Ephesians 2:8-10 describes how we are saved but it does not stop there. Verse 10 describes us as created to do good works. Perhaps Paul could have been converted and called simultaneously. Paul was saved and was now in a place to begin the good works that God had for him. In Paul’s case he would be called to be the minister to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit sets Paul and Barnabas apart for this work when they are in Antioch (Acts 13:2). Because of the verses in Ephesians I think that it is reasonable to say that Paul could have been both converted and called during that time.

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  12. In our modern sense of the term (conversion) we have this idea, like you mentioned, where we go to the front raise a hand leave and somehow became a Christian. This didn’t happen for Paul as we think of it. In my opinion though it is still a conversion. This man went from persecuting followers of Christ, to being a writer of most of the new testament, a starter of churches, and so much more all for the sake of Christ. A true conversion isn’t an even that happens rather it is a change in actions, beliefs, or even attitude. Paul truly had this experience. Maybe the question isn’t whether Paul had a conversion, rather do ‘christians” today truly experience conversion?

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  13. Up until this school year, I really didn’t think much of whether Paul was converted or called. But now, with this post and the textbook and a few other inputs, I see that it does make a difference when considering what Paul meant in other places based on the nature of this “experience.” That being said, I don’t think it makes sense to just call this a vision. Although the passage in 2 Corinthians 12 doesn’t seem focused on explaining what a vision was like–and also Paul wrote it and had different styles than Luke (who wrote Acts)–Paul’s explanation of a man he “knew in Christ” and that guy’s vision didn’t use very similar wording to get the points across. In Acts 9, more ‘action-y’ verbs are used to describe the events. “…suddenly a light flashed” and “He fell to the ground and heard…” (Acts 9:3 and 4). These words kind of make it more of a “happening” than a trance.

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  14. I would definitely say the idea that Paul did not experience a ‘conversion’ is surprising to me. As a kid especially, you hear Paul’s story and the central theme is conversion. Although I would not call Paul’s experience a conversion of religion, I would most definitely consider it a “change in character”, “from sinfulness to righteousness”, “of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of…disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, faith, or enthusiastic support” (“Conversion”), which are all also definitions of “conversion.” Are people simply taking the idea of conversion wrong? Why does it have to be a change in religion? Why can’t it mean the variety of other things “conversion” can be defined as? Longenecker and Still recognize this–”it seems unnecessarily restrictive to deny the suitability of the term “conversion” to depict the transformation in Paul’s life as a result of his encounter with the risen Christ” (TTP 32). The ESV describes Paul as being “converted, called, and commissioned” (ESV 2100). In conclusion, I would appeal to the fact that Paul’s experience was in fact a conversion experience, just not one of changing religions.

    WORKS CITED
    “Conversion” Def. 2-5. Dictionary.com. Web. 17 September 2015.

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  15. I would definitely agree with those that say that Paul’s conversion occurred when he met the Lord. When Paul encountered the Lord he was known as Saul. Afterwards he became known as Paul. There is a reason that Paul decided to change his name and I think it has to do with his new faith. Also another important thing to consider was that when Paul was confronted he was the only one that saw Christ from his group. I think there was a special reason why the Lord wanted only Paul to witness him.

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  16. I would not think of Paul’s conversion as being “from Judaism to Christianity” because Christianity as we know it did not exist yet; the term Christian was a derogatory reference to followers of the Way. I think of his conversion experience as rather an expansion or opening up of his understanding of Judaism. I, in my Western way of thinking, often forget that Jesus is first and foremost a Jew who was the savior of the Jews. It was not until Paul was given his Divine Mission to bring the Savior of the Jews to the Gentiles. I don’t think that Paul changed religion at all, but rather that the mystery of his mother faith had been made manifest to him in the person of Jesus. Paul references this mystery in Ephesians 1:9 when he says, “And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ.” We as Gentiles are called to participate in a Jewish savior. I don’t even know if conversion is a good word to describe what happened to Paul. I don’t think that he changed religions at all. I think that in his literal come to Jesus moment, all of Judaism finally began to make real sense to Paul because Jesus opened his understanding. Paul himself even understood Jesus to be a fulfillment of the Law (Romans 10:4). Paul, I think, would view and interact with the Messiah through his Jewish faith.

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  17. Based on the variety of terminology used throughout these passages, I think that this was most definitely more than just a vision. In Acts 9:7, it says that the people with Saul, heard a voice. That means that it could not have been just a vision because others around him also experienced it although they did not see it with him.

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  18. No one knows what actually happened to Paul except for Paul. it isn’t so hard to know because times where so different then. Things that happened then a different then what happens now. I think that the Bible clearly states that Paul had visions, and it states it more then once. 2 Corinthians 12 is another example of clearly stating that Paul had visions. Sometimes it is so hard to understand what things really actually mean. Everyone is never going to agree on them either. Everyone has their own thought and everyone thinks they are right. I am just going to go with what the Bible says.

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