Old and New Perspectives on Paul’s Conversion

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.” Romans 7:25 is a key part of the classic account of Paul’s conversion: Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death. Acts 26:14 describes Paul as “kicking against the goads” prior to his conversion, as if he knew the truth about Jesus but he refused to believe.

Saul DamascusThis reconstruction of Paul’s pre-Christian spiritual state is popular and makes for good preaching. It has, however, been challenged by the New Perspective on Paul, especially by Krister Stendahl and E. P. Sanders. Sanders challenged what he saw as the Lutheran domination of Pauline studies on justification. In the twentieth century (primarily Lutheran) scholars made justification by faith the “center” Pauline theology leading to the unfortunate result of anti-Judaism. For many students of Paul, Jews were proto-Pelagians akin to Catholicism in the early sixteenth century. Paul sounds more like Luther bashing his Catholic opponents than a Jewish rabbi hoping to bring the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles with the culture of the first century.

In the traditional view of Paul and his letters, Judaism was the antithesis of Paul’s Christianity. Paul’s theology develops out of a struggle against Judaism, freeing Christians from the restrictions of the Jewish Law. Sanders challenged this as a mischaracterization by arguing the questions posed by the Protestantism in the Reformation have nothing at all to do with Judaism of the Second Temple period. For Sanders, the Protestant version of Paul obscures what was actually happening in the first century and misses how Christianity developed out of Judaism. In addition, Sanders points out that the traditional Protestant Paul was never recognized by Jewish scholars (Samuel Sandmel, for example). The traditional Paul was either incoherent or inconsistent for them because they understood Second Temple Judaism better than Post-Reformation scholarship.

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.

What difference will it make in our reading of Paul if we think of him as a “reform movement” within Judaism? I am not saying this is the case, but if Paul has more roots in the Hebrew Bible than are usually recognized, what is “radical” about Paul?

18 thoughts on “Old and New Perspectives on Paul’s Conversion

  1. I think Paul considered himself to be a rabbi to Gentiles while being an offshoot of the reform of Judaism that Rabbi Yeshua began. Jesus fulfilled the Law by being the Messiah and by preaching the Justice that God insisted on, the justice of caring about other people. Paul could do no less.

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  2. Fairly light treatment. Generally I think Conversion and Calling. I agree with Stendal that Paul was not labouring under an introspective conscience. I think its hard to prove Luther imported his context into Romans and Galatians.

    You got me a little interested in reading Sanders though. I probably should get Paul and Palestinian Judaism under my belt. Its sooooo long though. Will it be worth the while?

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    • Light, sure. It is a blog post, after all. There is a great deal more to be said about the psychology of conversion, especially as it relates to Paul’s experience.

      I think people who are serious about studying Paul ought to actually read Paul and Palestinian Judaism since it is the primary foundation to Dunn and Wright, both of whom develop their work differently than Sanders. But all of the response literature (the two volumes on Varigated Nomism from Baker, for example) are based on answering Sanders more than anyone else.

      The book is also very good, and shorter than Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If you are able to find it, Sanders wrote one of those “Very Short Introductions” for Oxford on Paul, Mine is ISBN 0192854518, and was retail $10. At about 150 pages (and small pages at that) it is a reasonable intro to Sander’s views.

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  3. I enjoyed reading this post and learning more about Paul’s encouter on the road to Damascus. You talked about how Christianity developed out of Judaism, and I think this is a great point to make. If Christianity developed out of Judaism, then Paul would not have been totally abandoning the way of the Jews, but just changing his view on it. However, in your article about the New Perspective, it says “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” (Long, 9). So was he totally rejecting Judaism, or just changing his perspective to show that the interpretation of Judaism was a works based salvation?
    If we think of Paul as a ‘reform movement’ within Judaism, I think that would support your idea at the beginning of, ‘he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah’ (Long, 9).
    Paul is radical because he went from a life of persecuting those who believed Jesus was the messiah, to preaching it. He was called by God to preach to the Gentiles, and I would say that was pretty radical of him to do. Totally switching his entire perspective and doing just the opposite of what he had been doing for years prior to his encounter.

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    • It is interesting to think of Paul as not leaving Judaism all together but as a reformer that changed Judaism. It is possible that Paul did not look at himself as a Christian, but as a Jew who now was reforming and changing what he first believed. Paul still identified himself as a Jew as a way to gain favor when addressing a crowd (Acts 21:39, Acts 22:3), and acknowledges the importance of of the law (Romans 7:12,22). Paul also identifies and serves with the different groups in order to communicate with them, such as those under the law (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). As Allyssa states, Paul’s transformation is radical in that he switched his entire life and his beliefs after one day, but that does not mean he believed he was no longer a Jew.

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  4. The more I give thought to it the more I find that “reformer” is a much better word to describe what Paul did for Christianity. I think that alongside historic evidence and the basic observation that Paul was a zealous pharisee it is easy to accept the idea that his teachings were grounded in jewish things. It does however paint a picture of Paul that is less radical and more of a intellectual character playing devil’s advocate with the jewish culture. I think that while he did his best to keep the law he was given the burden of preaching to the gentiles, which gives us reason to see him more like a modern Shane Claiborne and less like Brian McLaren.

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  5. If Paul was in fact a reformer of Judaism then Paul’s radical declarations about the traditional boundary markers of Food laws and circumcision would have caused a rift between the two ideas. The coming of the messiah is the natural next step in Judaism. For a Jew to accept someone as the messiah was not uncommon; Acts 5:36 and 37 mentions two false messiahs and their followers. What I think was radical about Paul should we call him a reformer of Judaism rather than a convert Christianity is that he did not push the boundary markers described in the article such as Sabbath, circumcision and the food laws (NPP 11). Galatians 5:2-6 seem to promote this idea that Paul was not reforming Judaism since he tells them that circumcision has no value.

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  6. Sanders might be on to something by trying to think through Paul being ‘converted’ or not. The word ‘conversion’ doesn’t appear in the account. To speak to Sanders thought on Paul and his ‘conversion/ fight against Judaism”, Paul said in Phil. 3:3-4 “For we are the circumcision (Jews), who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus (Converted? Revelation?) and put no confidence in the flesh- though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also…as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Was Paul talking about his “former life in Judaism”? (Gal. 1:13). It seems that he was. Did Paul think he was serving God during his persecution of the Church? If so, his ‘conversion’ should be thought of as he himself puts it in Galatians; a revelation of the true identity of Jesus Christ. His knowledge of the law and training as a Pharisee came into play when he uses it to speak of what changed in himself (Rom. 1:16). To say that Paul was not converted is a stretch though, because of the way he describes himself as leaving Judaism. (Gal 1:13). In that light, Paul should not be thought of as a reformer of Judaism (which I know you did not advocate), but one called to preach the truth of Christ to the Gentiles, who used (as God knew he would) his former life in Judaism as a means to do so.

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  7. I haven’t read either Sanders or much else within “New Perspective” per se. But I tend to be in agreement from what I do know. What we have to factor in that is often overlooked or diminished is the apocalyptic perspective of Paul. He seemed certain that Jesus, in his or his contemporaries’ lifetime, was coming with departed saints to snatch up (“rapture”) living believers. And coming not just to implement a Jerusalem-centered Kingdom but a new age… as Cosmic, not just Jewish Messiah.

    A key addition, probably building on the 2nd-century B.C. apocalypse of Daniel, was his conviction that God had, via the crucifixion/resurrection, won the HEAVENLY battle miscalculated by “rulers of this world.” He believed this would be expressed and culminated, earthly, VERY soon, in the appearing of Christ. In this, all living and dead believers, whether Jewish or Gentile, would be raised to be and live with the Lord (1 Thes. 4). This seems to push into the background much of his concern about what Judaism (“reformed”, revised or whatever) was now to be. I can’t think, in quick mental review, of whether/where he elaborates any post-appearing-of-Christ vision of a Kingdom on earth centered in Jerusalem, as is prominent in some of the Hebrew prophets and the end of Revelation. His focus seemed to be that God, via Christ, would be all-in-all.

    So is not this perhaps the most “radical” thinking of Paul… which would ultimately color a great deal of subsequent Christianity (along with other of his concepts)?

    As a related side issue: being a good bit earlier, I don’t know if Schweitzer can be placed with “New Perspective” thinking, nor how well it lines up. But he wrote a great book, lesser known than his “historical Jesus” work, on the apocalypticism of Paul. Any thoughts, if you’ve read it, Phillip?

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  8. This post was really interesting for me to read, still trying to understand a lot of information as I go on through classes at GBC. The Blog post talked about how Christianity was developed out of Judaism, then in the next part of the blog it says that Paul was not trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law. He was introducing his point of view on the Judaism. He was restructuring the way that he thought of it, and what he believed and how he believed. I think it would be very easy to say that Paul was very radical, because at one point he was persecuting people who thought and believed that Jesus was the savior. Then he started preaching it? It would be hard not to think of this as radical, making a complete 180 in his way of thinking and preaching. Even though he may have turned what he believed and preached in a different direction, he could still of thought of himself as a Jew.

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  9. Thinking of Paul as a “reform movement” within Judaism does not really make much sense for the mission Paul felt he had before him. He knew God had ordained him to be a light to the Gentiles, not to convert, or reform, Jews. This is obvious when God Himself speaks of His mission for Paul (“to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15)), and of how Paul speaks of his own mission (“to be a minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles” (Romans 15:16)). Not only that, but Paul never calls for the Jews to reform, simply to see the fulfillment of the prophecies through Jesus. Reform would suggest changing what is wrong with Judaism, which is not Paul’s goal at all. Longenecker and Still define Paul’s “plan” as “carrying the gospel primarily to Gentile city dwellers” (TTP 39). Taking the gospel to Gentiles in order to reform Judaism makes absolutely no sense.

    With all this being said, thinking of Paul as a “reform movement” within Judaism would make all the difference. It would give us a completely misconstrued perception of Paul, his letters, and his intentions in writing. In order to grasp what Paul is truly attempting to say in his letters, we must see him as simply bringing the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.

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  10. I think that if we view Paul as a reformer, that would change a lot of things. It would mean that Paul may not have converted to Christianity. That being said, if he was a reformist, then why was he writing letters to Gentile churches of Christians? Why would he call all people saints? I think Paul had a lot of Hebrew roots and knowledge, but if he was a reformist, then I think that he would just preach to Jewish synagogues and temples and try to reform just the Jews. But Paul was Called by the Holy Spirit to preach the Good News to Gentiles, not Jews. If Paul was trying to reform Judaism, then he would not have even thought of talking to the Gentiles.

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  11. I believe Paul was radical because of his experience. He came from an aggressive background of persecuting Christians to a proclaimer of Jesus Christ. His theology was not to the Jews, he was called to preach to the Gentiles, which doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t preach to a Jew. I also believe that Paul was not just a pharisee that believed in Jesus as a Messiah, and he abandoned his cultural background to become fully Christian.

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