Did Paul Convert From Judaism to Christianity?

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 example of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy.

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 Paul experienced an existential crisis of faith, do the terms Judaism and Christianity really 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!

Billy Sunday, Evangelist 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?

8 thoughts on “Did Paul Convert From Judaism to Christianity?

  1. I guess I don’t quite understand the idea of Paul on the road to Damascus as a “calling” or a “conversion.” The way I think of his experience is Jesus speaking Paul and Paul realizing the reality of Jesus. At that point it was Paul’s choice to follow Jesus or not, just like anyone today who surrenders their life to Jesus. I don’t think I would necessarily think of it was a conversion because if he wasn’t fully surrendered to God, then he wasn’t saved. That remains the same today, that if we don’t believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins then we will not be saved. Salvation remains the same as it did at this point in Paul’s journey. You could say it was a calling by Jesus because Jesus initiated the circumstance, but overall it was Paul’s choice to follow Him. Today, Jesus may appear distinctly in our lives with a sense of calling towards us, then by which we accept or deny. However, we also might just hear about Jesus in a church service and decide that we believe what we are hearing. As you said, it wasn’t the same concept for Paul as hearing about Jesus and deciding to follow Him necessarily. A big difference is that Jesus spoke to Paul, literally spoke, so that Paul could hear Him. We cannot hear the literal voice of Jesus here on earth today. Now that I have typed all of this out, if I had to say which description I thought was more applicable to the situation of Paul on the road to Damascus, I suppose I would choose the word “calling.” Jesus was calling Paul to follow him, and it was all up to Paul to decide.

  2. I think Paul’s experience with the risen Jesus was a calling rather than a “conversion experience.” According to Paul’s own words he was Torah obedient, practicing the faith of his fathers and desiring the coming of the Messiah. Paul didn’t “convert” to Christianity because there was no such religion in his day. He continued to practice Second Temple Judaism as a follower of the Messiah Jesus. Paul’s encounter with the risen Messiah and his call was similar to Jeremiah’s call (Jer. 1:5) and Isaiah’s call (Is. 6:8-9) to Israel, except his calling was more to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15-16). Maybe this is why Paul spent some time in Arabia after his encounter with the risen Jesus, possibly searching the Hebrew Scriptures to better understand what the Prophets wrote concerning the Messiah and how the Gentiles could come to the God of Israel through Him?

  3. As with many arguments, I think that you can easily let the pendulum swing too far to either end. Although, that being said, I do tend to lean more toward the “conversion” viewpoint. It is true that both before and after Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus he was trying to live obediently to God. However, after this experience, both his understanding of what obedience to God meant as well as his interpretation of scripture would have changed dramatically whether through conversion or merely through new revelation and calling.

    I find little reason to believe that Paul abandoned all of the practices that he was used to as a pharisee. For example, Acts 20:6 seems to imply that Paul participated in the feast of Unleavened Bread with the believers at Philippi. However, those practices would have held a slightly different meaning and valuation than they did before (Phil. 3, 1 Cor. 9:20). As far as interpretation of Scripture, Paul started to use scripture to convince Jews that Christ was the Messiah such as in Acts 18:28, something that I am sure that he would never have dreamed of doing in Acts 8. A final evidence for a “conversion” of sorts would be Paul’s comparison of himself with his former self. Again, Philippians 3 is an example of this where Paul demonstrates how much of a different mindset, he now has compared to what he had before his “conversion.”

  4. Throughout my upbringing, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus has always been described as a conversion, while Dr. Long and authors such as Longenecker and Still discuss this as an idea not set in stone. In fact, Dr. Long disagrees with the use of the term altogether in this context. While I can understand where both sources are coming from, I must disagree, and believe that what happened to Paul was a conversion. My perspective is drawn from an idea within Saul’s drastic change in the idea of salvation that wasn’t specifically discussed in Longenecker or the post by Dr. Long. However, the idea of change in religion was discussed when Dr. Long posed a question, “Aside from the assumption Paul experienced an existential crisis of faith, do the terms Judaism and Christianity really mean two different things in the mid-30s AD?” (Long, 2019). Longenecker and Still also question whether Saul’s switch from Judaism to Christianity within a Biblical context would be a conversion considering the close association of the religions at that time (Longenecker & Still, 2014). Despite the great points made regarding these topics, there is something vital missing when discussing the differences between Judaism and Christianity during this time period: the idea of salvation.
    On the road to Damascus, Saul’s life was drastically changed – there are few who would dispute that fact. However, the largest change that occurred in Saul’s worldview when switching from Judaism to Christianity was his perception of what it meant to be “saved” and who was able to receive salvation and enter the kingdom of heaven. Prior to this, Paul was a Jew and a Pharisee, believing that if Jews followed the Laws of Moses (as described in Exodus and Leviticus), they could find atonement for their sins, and enter the kingdom of heaven. Conversely, after Saul’s conversion, he mainly speaks on the idea of salvation by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV), that it was not of works, (Romans 3:27, ESV), and that it was available to the Jews and Gentiles alike (Romans 3:29-30, ESV). This is the main reason I believe that Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus was a conversion, and that it could be expanded on in greater detail.

  5. In the discussion of Paul’s conversion or calling, the first question we need to ask ourselves is whether Christianity and Judaism could be considered two separate religions at the time. The definition of a convert is “to bring over from one belief, view, or party to another” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). For there to be a conversion there have to be distinct differences between the two. On one hand, as Dr. Long pointed out in his post, Jews and Christians were considered to be part of the same group. In the early years, most Christians were Jews. However, just because Judaism and Christianity were perceived by outsiders to be the same, does not mean they were the same theologically. The defining difference is whether Jesus is the Messiah.

    For Paul, before his encounter with Christ, Jesus was not God and anyone who said otherwise needed to be purged from the Jewish community (Acts 26:9-10). After Paul’s lifechanging event, he taught that Jesus was the Messiah and both Jews and Gentiles needed to believe in Him.

    I believe that Paul’s experience was both a conversion and a call. To label it as a “call” seems too modest for the dramatic change in his behavior and theology. However, he still was given a mission and calling from God to preach to the Gentiles (Eph 3:7-8).

  6. One of the most frequent question that is constantly asked is whether Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity. However, it is clear that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus was not a conversion from Judaism to Christianity, rather to serve the Lord. At the same time, 1 Corinthians 15: 8-11 makes it clear that the transformation of Paul’s life was not the result of seeing the Lord (NIV). The content from this piece of scripture is showing that Paul seeing the Lord was the reason for his ministry, not focusing on the switch between the religions. Ultimately, it is transparent that there could not have been a transformation because of the various backgrounds of people that he encountered during his ministry. Bruce Longenecker explains about the transformation of Paul’s life, “Additionally, overtime Paul would come to speak of his former life in Judaism and of the devaluation of the same in light of his desire to know Christ” (Longenecker, p. 32). In essence, Paul’s experience is more about his life being centered around Christ, not converting to Christianity. At the same time, Longenecker’s assertion showcases that Paul’s life was a transformation of his new life because of the change in his ways. At the end of the day, while Longenecker does point out that Paul disavowed his past views of Judaism, this does not mean that he changed to adopt a Christian worldview.

  7. On the topic of Paul’s experience on the Damascus road I think it is important to take a stance taking in evidence from both Rabbi Saul’s life and Paul the missionary to the gentiles’ life. P. Long makes it clear within his original post that certainly Paul did not convert to Christianity in the same way we might experience or think of now. This aspect of Paul’s conversion is important because I think Paul did convert but not in the sense that we as Christians think so today. And here’s why; first let us examine the way Rabbi Saul fulfills his Judaism. We can read both in Phillippians 3:6 and Galatians 1:14 that Paul describes himself as “zealous for the Law” so much so he is willing to persecute the Christians to the point of death. In our classroom textbook, Pauline Literature and Theology, P. Long states “Saul was therefore zealous for the Law, but not just for his own personal piety before God, but for the whole nation to keep the Law” (Long, Pg. 30) further in class P. Long touches upon the aspect that Paul views the Messiah’s coming to be very soon and desires the captivity to end and not continue. He fears that if the Messiah were to return and find these renegades of Judaism that the captivity would continue. My point in examining Rabbi Saul’s actions towards the Christians is help demonstrate the conversion Paul does experience on the Damascus road as a conversion not of religion but of knowledge. Paul states throughout his letters that the mystery was made known to him, that something new was revealed to him on the Damascus road. (Eph. 1:9, 3:3-10, Col. 1:26). The mystery or new knowledge made known to Paul was the concept of the body of Christ, which is the church, specifically Christians. Paul converts in the way by which his faith affects the way he lives life. Because of this revelation, Paul now recognizes that the Messiah has indeed come, and the way of glorifying God is to not persecute the Church but instead join it, add to it, and help lead it. Paul continues to keep his traditions of a Jewish Rabbi yes, but he converts in action, no longer killing Christians but spreading Christianity (the Gospel) across the known world. To be somewhat technical, Paul’s religion may not have changed but instead the way he goes about thinking and living out his religiousness does.

  8. To answer your question, “Is it surprising to hear Paul did not experience a conversion in quite the same way modern Christians do?”, my quick answer would be “no.” His conversion was a complete transformation of beliefs, thought, behavior, and attitude (Acts 9). He made a 180 degree turn from the life he was living as Saul to the life he began as Paul. As the textbook, Thinking Through Paul suggests, it may not have been immediate but it was powerful (Longenecker & Still, 2014). Paul lived a life different than modern Christians do. He lived far more radical than your average Christian today, and that would leave me to believe that his conversion was different too. I wonder if people today got the same visual that Saul did, if Christians would be different. If everyone saw a beam of light, heard God’s audible voice, and went miraculously blind for a few days (Acts 9) I wonder of they would take God as serious as Paul did. Since the beginning, people have always been looking for signs and wonders. They want a powerful visual to prove the existence and presence of God because it requires less faith. Paul got to witness God firsthand which created a life transformation and desire to serve his people rather than harm them. God reveals himself to different people in different ways, and clearly has a reason for everything he does. It just makes me wonder that if modern Christians experienced a conversion more like Paul’s, what would happen?

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