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?

18 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?

  9. I think that Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus could be described as both a sort of conversion and a calling reminiscent of prophets in the Old Testament such as Isaiah and Jeremiah. It is apparent in Luke’s account in Acts 9 that Paul undergoes a radical shift in his view of who Jesus is when he has his vision of Jesus. Rather than condemning followers of the way as heretics, he begins to proclaim Jesus Christ as the son of God. Although Paul’s theology changes through his revelation of Jesus, he does not entirely abandon his Jewish beliefs but sees them through a different perspective. This does not parallel many modern-day conversion stories in that Paul does not go from a viewpoint which is totally false to becoming a “Christian.” After Paul encountered Jesus, the Lord spoke to Ananias about Paul’s calling to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. Additionally, in 1 Cor 1:16 Paul states in his own words that God revealed Jesus to him so that he might preach about Jesus among the Gentiles. It is clear that Paul not only changed his mind about Jesus but was given a mission to share his new understanding. I do not think that looking at Paul’s experience on the Damascus road as something different than a conversion lessens the significance of his life and ministry.

  10. There have been a variety of debates regarding the conversion of and what it really means. It is rather clear from several of Paul’s letters that he has no shame is saying he is a Jew and previously conformed to the teachings and restrictions of the Law (Romans 9:1-20; Phil. 3:3-6). However, for Paul, although he says we are no longer under the Law according to Romans 6:14, there is a still a question which remains. Does Paul himself still follow the Law, not in a religious sense, but due to his ethnic background?
    Paul’s conversion after seeing the risen Christ is one which he speaks about several times, although it is by no means the main point of his message. However, it is apparent that his loyal and devotion are truly to the risen Lord, as he makes this clear at the beginning of nearly every one of his letters (Romans 1:1-6; 1 Cor. 1:1-3; Phil. 1:1-2). Yet, he does not call his Jewish siblings in Christ to abandon their heritage or their past simply because they have found Christ (Romans 14:13-19). He does not call them to abandon the Law, but rather expresses that they do have the freedom to choose because of what Christ has done.
    Overall, one must conclude that Paul did truly convert, but maintained a great respect to the traditions of his heritage and teaching and therefore did not remove himself completely from the Law due to the fact that he desired to maintain and be in good regard with his Jewish brothers as well as Gentile converts.

  11. Just like any other believer, Paul started out as a sinner and did not accept Christ. On his Road to Damascus, Saul found God. Just like Professor Long says, Saul came to Jesus and conversed on the resurrection. This is where he turned his life around. There are many different beliefs on if Paul changed from Judaism to Christianity. I would say it was Paul’s calling to be on that “road” as God knew he was going to impact him. I do not think that he converted as he still practiced the Second Temple Judaism practices, but either side has its arguments. Paul was living a life to be faithful to God. It was just when he met Jesus, his perspective of “being faithful” completely changed. Whether you see it as a conversion or a calling, Paul still lived a life with the Lord that he dedicated every second to impacting other people to believe in him. As I was reading through Longenecker’s words, he wrote: “Paul did not imagine himself altering his loyalty to the God of Israel or abandoning key tenets of Jewish monotheistic belief as a result of the “appearance” of which he speaks.” (p. 32) It can be seen from so many different perspectives as we all have our own experiences and knowledge. It is important to understand that after his encounter with Jesus he lived an excellent life to God. His works were incredible and he was faithful. Acts 9:15 is a prime example that he was chosen to be a servant to the Lord. Just think of how different our testimonies would be if we all saw a light and out came Jesus to save us.

  12. I am not sure if Paul’s experience was a conversion or a call, but it has been referred to as a transformation in Longenecker and Still’s text. I will have to read more in-depth about the topic. I don’t know exactly if Paul transformed from Judaism to Christianity because, in Galatians 1:11-17 verse 13, he refers to this transformation as; “a former life in Judaism,” which could be interpreted in many ways. It could be interpreted as a calling, a conversion, or, as I am interpreting it, a new perspective. The calling of God to Paul was unlike the traditional modern-day acceptance of Jesus. Paul’s revelation was much more real in the sense that he had the revelation as he was destroying the church of God. I would say that it seems Paul had an existential crisis of faith that leads him to have so much hostility in his heart towards the church of God, but it was the revelation that helped him gain his grounds of where he stood in his faith. Having a crisis of faith is something that happens all of the time to Christians all over the world. In this case, not only did Paul transform his heart, but he lived his transformation and preached the word of God among the Gentiles. To answer one of the prompted questions in the post, I would say that Paul’s experience led him to the ministry of evangelism to the people that needed to hear the word of God.

  13. One of the questions that is debated among people and scholars is “Did Paul convert from Judaism to Christianity?” At first glance, I think the quick answer is Yes. Paul went from having one attitude towards people who followed Christ, to having another. He went from persecuting, to spreading the Gospel. Paul’s “conversion experience” is one that is much different than the rest. Jesus Himself showed himself to Paul on the road to Damascus (1 Corinthians 1:16). But did Paul really convert from one religion to another? He grew up learning the Jewish law from the teacher Gamaliel (Longenecker, p. 25), and still retained all this knowledge. His encounter with Jesus did not contradict every part of his previous learning. However, the main difference is with Jesus as the Messiah. This is what Christians base their religion on and is the turning point from Judaism. Because of this, some call Paul’s change a calling rather than a conversion. He changed his belief from Jesus not being God, to teaching that Jesus was God’s son and all that Jesus did. Paul’s conversion may not have been instantaneous much like our own conversions but was still powerful. His experience is not a conversion but seems more significant than a calling. Perhaps a word somewhere in the middle, yet true to both terms.

  14. It sounds like Paul knew who Jesus was and radically changed him from the beginning. Regardless of whether he was a part of Judiasm or christianity he still was called by the Lord, and just wanted to serve him. I can relate to his story a little bit. I grew up in the catholic church and always knew who the Lord was just that relationship didn’t stem till later on. I get what is happening here though and in my case. It’s more about a relationship with God rather than putting a title on Paul’s or mine religion.

  15. Having grown up in church and Sunday School, I was very familiar with Paul’s story and the road to Damascus. Recently, I have been challenged while thinking about many different aspects of Paul’s life. I had never even considered the question, ‘Did Paul convert?’. I think this is partially due to questions like this not being brought up among the average Christians, but rather only debated by scholars. This is also due to the heading in most Bibles over Acts 9, “Saul’s Conversion.” Thus for the average Christian just reading their Bible, or the Sunday School class introducing who Paul is, recognizing the question of “Did Paul convert?” is not particularly relevant. My personal view of Paul has changed in recent years. Formerly, I would have said that as Saul he was a “bad guy” and after his encounter with Jesus he became a “good guy.” In order to explain the transformation, I would have said that he had a conversion experience. Even in saying that, I would not think of it in the same manner I think of a modern conversion since most Christians do not have an experience where they meet Jesus on a road. However, my view of Paul has changed, which also changes my answer to the question. To explain how my view has changed, I think we must first go back to my original answer, Saul was a bad guy. Saul was zealously persecuting the church, earning him the title of “bad guy.” However, there is more to it than that. Saul persecuted the church because he genuinely believed that was how he was supposed to serve God. His focus was on following the law and he believed the church was leading people astray. He was so committed to following God that he wanted to destroy that which he thought was leading people astray. His encounter on the road to Damascus was not a conversion, but rather a change in direction. The reason he went from persecuting Christians to preaching in the name of Jesus so quickly was because he was 100% committed to serving God. He was committed to serving God when he was persecuting Christians, but he did not have the right way. The road to Damascus was God revealing how he wanted Saul to serve him. And Saul jumped wholeheartedly into it, that why Acts 9:20 says “At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.” In many ways, his experience was more of a calling than a conversion, however, I am unsure if that is even the best description of it. Regardless, his experience prompted a change in direction. Saul was still “all in” serving God, he just needed some direction on how to do it.

  16. I truly do believe that Paul is one of the best examples of God’s love and mercy. He was literally trying to persecute Christians and God helped turn him into one of the most well known missionaries of all time.

    I believe that in Paul’s time there was not that big of a difference for him because of what Judaism was. God did not tell anyone that if you believe that Jesus was the Savior you no longer have to follow any Jewish laws. Jesus Himself followed the Jewish law. So to be Christian, just meant that you were a person of the Jewish faith who realized that the Messiah came and rose from the grave.

    When Paul became a Christian his whole mission just changed. He went from just thinking about following the Jewish laws to thinking about how he needs to go out into the world and share the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles.

    At first I found the thought of Paul not having a normal conversion weird because all I could picture Paul’s story as was the Sunday school version. I was picturing this evil guy with bad intentions who God turned around completely, but after studying more I now know that Paul was a Pharisee and had good intentions. He was just doing the wrong things.

  17. This post was very insightful when looking into whether or not Paul converted after his encounter with Christ on his way to Damascus. Maybe it is because of the Westernized view I have of Paul and his encounter with Christ, but I guess I never gave much thought as to whether or not Paul left Judaism and converted to Christianity as many think. When looking at this account from a biblical and non-westernized point of view, “Christianity” as we know it today is quite different from what it was back in the time of Paul. Paul did not have to abandon his Jewish beliefs and life when he became a Christian, as it was not like converting to Buddhism or another completely different religion. As is brought up in this post, it was more like changing one’s denomination. I find it quite interesting that Paul’s conversion is spoken about, even in passing, three different times. Each time it is brought up in scripture, it was brought up for vastly different reasons, none of these directed towards the reader. The first time it is brought up it is a retelling from Luke, the second was written by Paul when put up against a crowd of angry Jews, and the third was of Paul telling Agrippa II his divine encounter while under protective custody. Paul’s conversion/call is truly a fascinating account that we are blessed to have accounts of. Even more so we are blessed to have many of his letters and writings.

  18. Paul’s “conversion” has been a topic of debate for many scholars in recent years, primarily whether or not he actually had a conversion experience. Some claim that he did in fact have a conversion, that he left behind Judaism for Christianity. There is clear evidence that Paul experienced change, seen in his letters and in Acts. He proclaimed the truth that he found in Jesus, spoke of a “former life” he had, and had a development of Christocentric theology that shows how different he was from before encountering Jesus (Longenecker, 32). But lately, there has been a movement that believes that Paul did not actually experience a conversion, but rather a calling into something greater. Longenecker says that scholars “maintain that Paul did not imagine himself altering his loyalty to the God of Israel or abandoning key tenets of Jewish monotheistic belief” because of his encounter with Jesus (Longenecker, 32). Because there is not an actual change in how Paul practices his religion or his allegiance, there is not actually a conversion that takes place. Rather, he has what scholars describe as a “call” where he is given a new purpose through his encounter. Understanding the nuances of Paul’s experience with Jesus helps us to understand the rest of Paul’s life and the letters that he wrote to the churches in a better light.

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