For most Christians, Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus in 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 Saul completely changes everything about his life. For preachers, Paul’s experience is a clear example of what God can do in the life of every sinner. Paul refers to his experience as an example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy. Did Paul Convert to Christianity? Is that historically accurate? Is that even theologically helpful?
There are some real problems with this view of Paul’s experience. Whether Paul was converted or not generates heated discussions among scholars and puzzles some outside the academy who assume Paul had a conversion experience not unlike their own. Aside from the assumption that Paul experienced an existential crisis of faith, do the terms Judaism and Christianity mean two different things in the mid-30s AD? Does Paul shift from one form of Second Temple Judaism to another? Is it more like changing Christian denominations than converting paganism to Christianity?
In Thinking through Paul, Longenecker and Still offer three reasons for scholarly debate over Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road (TTP 31). First, the terminology used 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? If this was a vision, perhaps it is more like the prophetic calling of Isaiah or Ezekiel rather than a conversion experience. Does Romans 7:13-25 describe Paul’s struggle with keeping the Law as a Jew? All of these are open questions!
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 church’s unity 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 to highlight the theological significance of Paul’s mission.
Yet it seems clear Paul had some 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 that cannot really be described as “conversion” in the contemporary sense. It was a prophetic call like Isaiah or Ezekiel, which transformed 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 texts in which Paul describes his calling to ministry. Perhaps this discussion should 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.