Paul and His Damascus Road Experience

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?

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? If Paul did not experience a “conversion,” does this change the way we think about his mission? Or to put it another way, if he was converted from Judaism to Christianity,  what should we do with the many Jewish elements of Paul’s theology and practice?

15 thoughts on “Paul and His Damascus Road Experience

  1. Glad that you, Phillip, from a “conservative” academic institution, are taking on this subject, and with openness (at least to a degree:)). Lots of things of importance here.

    And even undergrads can/should be “brought up to speed” as much as possible. The issues are more than just “academic”. Views and understanding of conversion experiences and processes are vital, for example. And generally poorly understood.

    Careful comparison of Paul’s own self-descriptive accounts and sense of calling, development of his experience of mission and his theology are important. Clearly NOT all “revealed” to him in one conversion experience. And yes, there clearly are a number of good reasons to prioritize his own statements over those of “Luke”.

    I don’t think the case that he was, even for a brief time, a companion of Paul has much credibility. Lots of evidence, however, that he wrote much later and with a strong agenda involving both theological points and the survival/future of a Pauline-type Christianity (over against the much-weakened Jerusalem/observant-Jewish type, post 70 AD and destruction of the city and Temple). Luke, more than any single writer/leader seems to have revived and promoted Paul and the “Pauline school”. But he did it by often distorting Paul as well!

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    • I touch on Galatians 1 in the next post. And while I agree Paul did not receive a bolt of pink light that beamed all his theology into his head fully formed in the Damascus Road event, meeting the resurrected Jesus was so jarring that it did cause him to re-think what he knew about God and his relationship with Israel. Specifically, everything he thought about *how* God would accomplish his plan to restore Israel had to change because of what God has done through Jesus. More of this as we pick through the letters, especially on Romans 9-11.

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  2. I hope we do not over interpret or over simplify the story of Luke. There could be many sides to the understanding and interpretation. But at the bottom line is the interaction between human and divine. Conversion whether in the so-called modern or conservative understanding does not entail the destruction of human personality. In every process of conversion or transformation, something is transformed, something remains, and some others acquired. So one should not be surprise to read from paul many Jewish elements. Paul is Paul the Jew, and no one could take it away from him.

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    • I usually get accused of over-complicating things! The question here is not that (Christian) Paul would have some Jewish elements in his theology, but rather how much that heritage continued to influence him throughout his mission. I am trying to push back at the anachronistic reading of Paul that seems to think he jettisoned every Jewish thought and became a good Lutheran the moment he accepted Jesus as savior.

      I think I read your paper on non-violence in Luke 22:35-38, your name seems very familiar to me.

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  3. Any and all wording describing any of the “early church” converting from Judaism to Christianity is incorrect. All they who believed in the Lord Jesus did so because they were Jews and believed in the fulfilment of all that their prophets foretold. They did not stop being Jews because they believed in the promises to their Nation. They were the only ones of their Nation who could say that they were “circumcised in hearts and ears”. They were Jews every whit, and what separated them from the rest of the nation was that the rest of the nation rejected their only hope, as Peter told the Sanhedrin:
    Acts 4:8–12 — “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the Name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Whom ye crucified, Whom God raised from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other Name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.”
    Paul’s conversion was also not a change of religion, but it was first truly converting from disbelief in the Lord Jesus as the Messiah and thereby the hope of his nation, to belief in Him as Lord and Christ (Messiah), and he was also called into the ministry that day. Paul’s own words to Timothy about this:
    1 Timothy 1:12–17 — “And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

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  4. When looking at Paul’s conversion, or eye opening experience or whatever we should call it, I wouldn’t expect his theology to change per se. I think elements of who we are before we encounter Christ are supposed to transfer over into our lives. I look at my own testimony, and I went through a lot of things, many of which have become means by which to be able to witness to others. Paul talks a lot about what being a Christian looks like in Romans 14. Some Jews weren’t able to give up certain aspects of their faith, and that was okay. Paul tells the reader to stop judging other believers or treating them with contempt, “For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” (Rom 14:10b). It was so different, because for the Jews Jesus is the fulfillment of their religion. Christianity is just the culmination of Judaism, not entirely a different religion. Longenecker has this to say: “Some scholars prefer to describe Paul’s revelatory encounter with Christ not as a ‘conversion’ but as a ‘call’ experience.” (TTP 32). However you want to look at it, I see that Paul was living his life one way, encountered Christ, and chose to live his life a different way. That way may have been similar to the way he was living before, but it was different. Much as a person living a “good” life needs to still change and grow when they accept Jesus, so too did Paul. I think that is the important take away from the Damascus Road encounter.

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  5. Whenever someone has an encounter with Christ, it will look completely different from the person who is sitting next to them. So often in modern Christianity, we seem to put our “conversions” into boxes. The people with tough lives and heartbreaking stories who rise up from the ashes and their whole life is flipped upside down are somehow more valid than a person who accepted Christ when they were 3 and have never “gone through anything”. We have twisted this way of thinking into our modern norm. We want to believe that God blinded and struck Paul down and then immediately his thought patterns were completely different and his old ways went out the window. Whether or not he was converted in the “normal” sense or not, we can look at his life, post-conversion, and come to the conclusion that he lived for Christ faithfully. Personally, he seems more relatable because he still maintained some of his old theology and pattern of thinking. No one can completely unlearn what he or she knows and Paul is a perfect example of this. His old life seeped into his new life and this caused his teachings to be unique to him, while still spreading the good news of Christ and living his life for Him.

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  6. I personally would say that the way Paul encountered Christ would be different than how a modern person who raises their hands and steps forward to receive Christ does. However, that does not mean that those who accept Jesus or the way that Saul (Paul) received Christ and how God encountered Him. Everyone’s personal conversion experience is unique to them so there is no way to categorize how people accept Christ and how it is different. If Paul never received a conversion it would definitely change the way I think about his mission. Before he was “converted” the mission he was doing was persecuting Christians and if he never was “converted” then he never would have been able to go forth and do the mission that God called Paul to do. Also we would be missing a decent amount of scriptures. So if Paul never was converted it would be very easy to view the mission he was doing differently. Also I don’t want to say that we should ignore the Jewish theology and practice in the elements of his writing, but we should pay attention to the context of what he is writing and the times that he is writing. Many of the Jewish practices are not applicable to our Christian values, but they were applicable for Paul so instead of ignoring the jewish elements of Paul’s theology we just need to pay attention to the context of what he is writing in his letters.

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  7. I agree with bjohnston7415 in that everyone’s conversion story is very different. In our A-term class on the theologians, we discussed Augustine’s conversion story as one which was very unique but was a process. Not all people will have a light-switch change in their lives like Paul did, but when true understanding happens, our lives are transformed, never the same as they once were. When I looked up conversion in the dictionary, phrases such as rebirth, transformation, and reformation were used to describe it. When we look at Paul’s experience, his mission and actions appear to be of a total transformation. Of course, we are not Paul and did not live his life, but that is how it appears, one day killing Christians, the other spreading the gospel. Since he was Jewish, he already knew who God was and knew the Torah, but the change happened in changing his belief on who Jesus is. When discerning between the “call” or “conversion” I think in Paul’s unique experience, those are both lumped together. Paul’s mission after conversion was very clear, not only because Jesus told him, but because Christianity was not spread yet. He specific mission was revealed right away because that was clearly what needed to happen. I don’t think many people realize their specific call on their life until later. On a more specific level, Paul didn’t know right at that moment who to preach to, but his mission was revealed to him later to be a herald of the gospel to the gentiles (Galatians 2, Rom 15, Eph 3) (TTP, 33).

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  8. I think most Christians go through two types of conversions. First is a conversion from being an unbeliever into a child God who has accepted God’s gift of eternal life through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ. Christians also experience a conversion during which they change from living a life of following their earthly desires to living a life dedicated to picking up their cross and serving the Lord. These two different conversions can happen at the same time, but will often happen years apart. For example, it seems pretty rare that an 5-year-olds who has accepted Christ into their hearts to immediately throw away their earthly life styles and dedicate themselves to God’s service. People who I have crossed path with usually pay most of their attention to the first type of conversion when people are saved. However, as Christians it is not only important that we are saved, but the conversion when we decide to leave our earthly comforts to full hearted pursue God’s calling for them is also incredibly important. When Paul was on the Road to Damascus, he experiences this second form of conversion as Paul rededicates his life to serving God.
    -Chloé P.

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    • I like when I see people thinking more deeply about both “conversion” and a life of dedication and service.

      I want to add in yet another type of “conversion” (maybe more properly called “growth step”…. One I went through a couple decades ago, as have many, many other Christians (one can find people with such journeys in their spiritual lives readily on the Internet on blogs and groups). Some even call this general type of thing “de-conversion” (not a term I favor). It is a common (not really unexpected, and not “backsliding”) kind of development: movement from a faith centered on personal salvation and usually an intervening, miracle-working kind of God-belief to one that is more widely other-centered and inclusive, with a view of a more broadly “gracious” God… often one who does not “break into” history with either one-time miracles or specialized judgment/punishment, but who is none-the-less quite “immanent” or involved in the world and people’s spirits.

      It is described well in the higher “stages” of the faith development concepts of James Fowler (and others). My own experiences of growth could broadly be labeled as from solidly “Evangelical” to now progressive (or more specifically, Process theology) Christian faith. In this, the core constant is seriousness about the priorities and style of Jesus of Nazareth, and seeking to follow him…. And no being longer concerned at all about my “personal salvation”, which is a misplaced and misleading emphasis in most of traditional Christianity, in my well-studied opinion.

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  9. I agree with bjonston7415 in that each person’s personal conversion story is unique to them. When I first started my freshman year at Grace, I heard at least five conversion stories a day; each was unique to the person. Before going to Grace, I only heard the occasional conversion story when my family and I were physically able to go to the Sunday service. How we live our lives after our conversion relies on our choices. For example, I technically accepted Jesus as my savior when I was seven, but it would not be until I was in a burn accident in eleventh grade that I would take Christianity seriously in my life. The life choices I made and the events in my life effected how I approached the Bible. Now I approach scriptures with both a personal and educational understanding.
    Paul (Saul) was brought up in a Jewish household in Tarsus (TTP, 20). Paul was a follower of the Law and of the Lord, “he became both a Pharisee and a persecutor of Jesus-followers” (TTP, 20). If I understand it correctly, Paul’s first approach to learning about God was from an educational perspective. Paul was tutored by the council member Gamaliel (Acts 5). When we first met Paul, he was persecuting Christians and denied Jesus as the savior (Acts 7-8). When Saul went to Damascus, he was stopped by Jesus and everything Paul knew was questioned (Acts 9:5). Each person’s individual conversion story may not be the blink-of-the-eye experience that Paul had, but Paul’s story is relatable and his theology should be understood from this perspective (Galatians 1:11-17). The journey that Paul had to Christianity should be considered when reading the scriptures just as the context and circumstances should be considered when reading the Bible. As Longnecker puts it, “Paul’s writings derive their character and content from their author” (TTP, 10).

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  10. The term “conversion” seems to hold a heavy definition—whether it be defined by biblical scholars or mathematicians. Myself, claiming to be far from a mathematician, view a conversion as something being transformed into something other than what it was originally. Take converting fractions to decimals: even though one number can be converted both into a fraction and a decimal, the fraction and decimal of that same number, will never look the same. Similarly, when an individual experiences a conversion, it is thought that they are becoming something completely new—usually making them appear differently in various ways such as modes of dressing, speaking, acting, and so on. Longenecker expressed similar thoughts in saying “…Paul did not image himself altering his loyalty to the God of Israel or abandoning key tenets of Jewish monotheistic belief…”(TTP 32). Interestingly enough, it still could be said that parts of Paul became new—not in a drastic aspect of losing his prior identity, but rather by receiving a more focused calling from the God he served.

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