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)?

10 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.

  3. The story of Paul’s radical conversion in Acts 9 has had a long-standing conversation about the details which culminated and resulted in his conversion. Was Paul’s conversion “predisposed” by his guilt-ridden and his despair over his inability to keep the law? It would make sense a man of such proclivities to remorse and shame would search for an outlet to relieve his psychological ailments. What better solution than to turn to the newly conceived Jewish community which claimed Jesus Christ was the Messiah? Its emphasis was on forgiveness and mercy for sins would help relieve him of his guilt. One might question why, then Saul, would approve of the killing of Stephen if he was so presupposed to Christianity? Maybe, he was not at a breaking point yet, it would not be unheard of someone reversing himself to reduce psychological stress.
    Regardless, one must understand how this perception of Paul came about? As Long notes, texts such as Romans 7:25 and Acts 26:14 are popular verses used to justify this view of Paul. Lutheranism’s interpretation of a “guilt-ridden” Paul has dominated the study of Pauline studies since at least the 20th century, with “justification by faith” being its central component. Traditionally, it was thought that Paul’s theology evolved through his struggle against Judaism, which could explain his emphasis on evangelizing to the gentiles.
    However, this is not the only perspective on Paul’s conversion. According to E.P. Sanders, the Lutheran interpretation of Paul results in anti-Judaism sentiments. Sanders argues that this perspective is inconsistent with what is known of the first century and Christianity’s ascend from Judaism. Firstly, Sanders argues that the protestant notions of Paul have never been recognized by Jewish Scholars. This leads to his conclusion that it was not Paul that was a guilt-ridden sinner, but rather it was Martin Luther who was projecting his own guilt upon the text. Paul was not converted along the road to Damascus, according to Sanders, which has enormous implications on our understanding of Paul and the New Testament. This theory, as expected, has had quite a few strong arguments against the theory, but it brings to question our modern interpretation of Paul.
    In summation, regardless of where one stands on the topic of Paul’s conversion and Christianity’s ascend from Judaism, one should understand the history behind the support for different views on Paul.

  4. I don’t think that Saul was expecting Jesus to meet him on the road to Damascus. My reason for thinking this is when Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5, ESV). It would be unusual for someone to ask who someone was if they knew who it was. Based on this, I think that it’s right for Polhill to say that Saul’s “encounter was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared for” (Phillip Long). At this point in Saul’s life, he didn’t see Jesus as the risen Messiah, he was persecuting His followers because he believed they were blasphemers who were going against the laws of Moses. I don’t see how anyone living under the laws and additions made to them wouldn’t be frustrated because they were unable to keep them, but even so Paul boasts in Philippians 3:5-6 that, “as to the law, a Pharisee, as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as righteousness under the law, blameless” (ESV). Among the Jews, he would’ve been considered blameless according to the law, however, as Paul continues that he left everything “in order that [he] may gain Christ and be found in [H]im, not having a righteousness of [his] own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8-9, ESV). To conclude this post, I do believe that Saul wasn’t expecting an encounter to happen, otherwise I don’t believe it would’ve been as meaningful or astounding nor world view changing for Saul or us.

  5. In my own personal opinion, I believe that Paul was converted on the Road to Damascus when he saw Jesus. Though some think that he was prepared for this encounter, I do not think that is entirely correct. Paul, as we know, was a Jew before his encounter with Jesus that we see in Acts 9. He did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah or that Jesus was alive after being killed on the cross. In fact, he persecuted Christians who believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. With all of that being said, it makes me believe that Paul would not have known that he would see Jesus on earth ever again. I think that it was a complete shock to Paul when he saw Jesus in front of him. Even as a Christian myself who knows that Jesus is alive, I personally would be surprised if Jesus just showed up in front of me one day on my way to class. I can only imagine how Paul must have felt seeing Jesus, especially since it was not too long after Jesus had died on the cross. I think that after this event, Paul felt a lot better about himself. He had committed a lot of sin and after this encounter with Jesus, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. That must have been a really good feeling and may have encouraged him to keep going and helping others learn about Jesus so that they can feel like he did.

  6. You asked the question “To what extent was Paul “Prepared” for his encounter on the Damascus Road?” Based off of what Paul’s response was “Who are you Lord?” (Acts 9:5). He was not prepared for his Encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road. In the post the words “Paul himself is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Rom 7:25)” are said, and I feel that this is a good way to describe Paul when he was a Pharisee who was persecuting people. He was a bad person who needed to be saved by Jesus. I feel that this post is doing a good job of describing who Paul was before he was saved by Jesus. Before he was met on the Damascus Road by Jesus, he was just ready to persecute some more people. “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!” I feel that this quote is doing a good job of telling us that it was Jesus himself who wanted to save Paul from his sins. Paul was not feeling guilty of sins to the point of wanting to be saved from them.

  7. I felt that this Acts post was very interesting, I honestly feel in my own opinion that Paul was on the Road to Damascus when Jesus came upon him. In the post it says that he was ready to see Jesus but we all can say we are ready to see Jesus but that’s not always the case we will never be ready to see Jesus because we would be star struck on everything that comes with seeing Jesus so I don’t believe Paul was ready to see Jesus. I don’t think that statement is accurate. Paul was a Jew it said before he linked up with Jesus. In the post it says that he didn’t believe that Jesus was still alive after dying on the cross for sins which is crazy to believe that someone died and came back to life because it is impossible for today’s life but that is why we are not Jesus.

  8. The story of Paul is interesting since he was a man who persecuted christians and was one of the men who was trying to take down God’s empire. In Damascus when Paul was blinded by the light and shortly became Gods apostle which shows how quickly God can turn things around but also puts a lot of pressure on Paul because he now has to lead and follow by example. If i was going about my business and out of know where I get blinded and I hear a voice coming from the sky you best believe I am going to become a believer as well because seeing God’s mighty in person is a different experience

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