Acts 9 – Introducing Rabbi Saul

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.

The Wretched Man

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has framed this discussion of Paul’s conversion in much different terms than the traditional view of Paul would have allowed. (I 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)?

3 thoughts on “Acts 9 – Introducing Rabbi Saul

  1. I really like the points that Jess made in her post. I think it is an interesting idea that makes sense that Paul’s conversion was more of a process that did not just happen instantly when he talked with Jesus. Paul had the initial experience where he talked with Jesus and he did not know who was talking to him until Jesus told him who it was. After the conversation and on the road to Damascus, Paul had some time to pray and think about his experience that he had not been prepared for. You made the point that this was Paul seeking God’s grace because Paul could not explain what had happened in that moment or why he was unable to see. I believe that God used Ananias to show Paul the grace that he was seeking. I also agree that when Paul had his eyesight back and was filled with the Holy Spirit was when his conversion was complete or done. He was now living in the light of knowing Jesus as his Savior rather living in the darkness before his conversion.


  2. Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus was one that changes his life for the better. He met Jesus and his life was turned around completely. When looking at whether of not he was truly ready be changed one does not know yet when God takes a hold of our lives He will help us and fill us enough to be ready for His will. He will fill us with his Holy Spirit who will guide and direct us on the path of life. I like how in Romans 7 it talks about the Law and the difficulty it is to be able to follow it. “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” (Romans7: 21-23) God was working closely with Paul and even still he felt the difficulties and temptations of life around him. Paul was not teaching about following the law as the guide (even though it was important) he was preaching of something more important and that is of accepting Jesus. He did not try to justify himself in any means he was simply trying to help those around him understand God’s new plan that did not involve following the law to be saved.


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