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?