[I wrote this post almost exactly six years ago, September 14, 2011. Howard Pepper asked some good questions in a recent post about the idea of conversion, so I thought I would re-publish this as part of the recent series of posts on Paul’s background.]
Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55). 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.
Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here. In fact, I recently summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post. Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.” Usually Romans 7 is the key text here. Paul himself 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. Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness. His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.
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, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not 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.
Is Polhill is correct in the end when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (55)?