Why Didn’t Paul Immediately Go to Jerusalem?

When Paul encounters the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately goes to the synagogues in Damascus  (Acts 9:19-25).  Other than a short time of recovery after his encounter, there is no indication that Paul spent any significant time “on retreat” thinking about his experience of Jesus.  The synagogues Paul visits are likely the very ones which informed the Sanhedrin that Hellenistic Jews were proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah and were expecting Paul to arrive and argue against the Hellenists who have recently arrived from Jerusalem with this new idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah.

The content of Paul’s message is that Jesus was in fact the Son of God (Acts 9).  This is a messianic title drawn from Psalm 2.  Jesus was the long awaited son of David, the ultimate heir of the Davidic Covenant.  That Paul preaches Jesus is as the Son of God is significant because it is the first time such language has appeared in Acts; it will appear a second time in Acts 13:3.  This is likely a clue that the synagogue speech in Acts 13 is intended as representative of Paul’s speech before Jews in a synagogue. Paul’s presentation in the synagogue was the exact opposite of expectations – It is little wonder that there was a strong reaction in the synagogues against Paul!

After his encounter with Jesus, we might have thought Paul would have returned to Jerusalem and immediately confronted the Sanhedrin and the High Priest, the very people approved of Paul’s mission to Damascus in the first place. But he does not return to Jerusalem for three years and, according to his own testimony on Gal 1:16-17, when he did go up to Jerusalem, it was only for a short visit of fifteen days.  As Martin Hengel points out, Jerusalem is where the apostles are to be found, not Galilee or elsewhere in Judea.  If Jerusalem was the focal point of the messianic preaching of the apostles, why did Paul not immediately go there and work with Peter and John in the Temple courts.  he could have gone back to the Synagogue of the Freedmen and reasoned with the Hellenists there.  But rather than go to Jerusalem, Paul goes into “Arabia” for three years.

Hengel and Schwemer suggest three reasons for Paul’s activities immediately after his conversion.  First, Paul was a zealous persecutor of the church and he transferred that zeal into  preaching the gospel.  He met a resurrected and glorified Jesus who commissioned him as the apostle to the Gentiles.  It is only natural that he would want to immediately begin this new task, given to him by his Savior.

Second, belief in an imminent return of Jesus mean that evangelistic activity needed to cover as wide an area as possible.  Evangelism in Jerusalem was already underway and the apostles were stationed there to continue their work.  Later in his career Paul will constantly move out into un-reached areas of the world, creating strategic bases in larger cities from which the local churches can continue the work of evangelism.  For Paul, Arabia was an unreached area and he was uniquely suited to the task as a Hellenistic Jew.

Third, it would have been extremely dangerous to return since he has “switched sides” and now was a passionate supported of Jesus as the Messiah.  While Paul is not described as avoiding persecution, he may have thought that it would be better to have success elsewhere rather than go and be executed by his former masters!

It is possible there are other reasons for Paul’s three years in Arabia.  I think that Hengel and Swchemer are certainly correct that Paul’s zeal was channeled from persecution to evangelism and that Arabia was an “unreached” area.  I think that Paul’s calling to be the “light to the Gentiles” is a motivating factor as well.   He immediately acted on that calling by attempting to do evangelism in the Nabatean kingdom.

What else may have motivated Paul to avoid Jerusalem for so long after his conversion?

Bibliography:  Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox, 1997), 94.

Acts 9:19-22 – Paul in Damascus

After Paul recovers from his blindness, we are told that he spends “some days” with the disciples in Damascus.  Paul immediately begins his attempts at evangelism in the Diaspora synagogues, proclaiming that Jesus is the “Son of God” (verse 20).  Notice that he immediately begins this preaching, there is no lengthy period of time after his experience before he announces to the synagogues that Jesus was in fact the Messiah.  Luke describes the content of Paul’s preaching as “Jesus is the Son of God” and “Jesus is the Messiah.”  That Jesus is the Son of God resonates with Psalm 2, a text which has already been used by Peter at Pentecost to show that Jesus is the Messiah.

This preaching “agitates” the synagogues.  The verb here (συγχέω) has the sense of amazement and surprise, but can be used to describe confusion of a crowd about to riot (Acts 19:29, variant text, 21:27).  What agitates the synagogues is that Paul is succeeding in proving Jesus is the Christ.  Paul is able to teach from the scripture, through the Holy Spirit, in such a way that convinces people.  This may not imply the believed, but it was impossible to argue against Paul’s evidence.

Where did Paul get this evidence?  On the one hand, boldness in preaching is one of Luke’s evidences that an individual is yielded to the Holy Spirit.  Like Peter before the Sanhedrin, Paul is filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly speaks the message of Jesus.  A second source for his preaching is likely the preaching of Peter, or better, Stephen in the Synagogue.  Undoubtedly Paul has been arguing with Stephen and other Hellenists in the Synagogue for some time, Paul now accepts their arguments and begins to extend them to other scripture.  A third source may be Paul’s own thinking about the Messiah and the Messianic age as a well-trained rabbi.  As observed in the last few posts, Paul does not go from totally ignorant of God to a faithful follower of Jesus.  He was already aware of messianic texts and methods of argument in rabbinic discussions as well as how to present scripture in a synagogue context.  Paul took what he already knew to be the truth and ran it through the filter of the resurrected Jesus and preached that Gospel in the synagogues in Damascus.

Once again, Luke presents powerful preaching and excellent scholarship working together to convince people of the truth of the Gospel.  Paul is extremely confrontational – he goes right to the people who likely wanted the Jesus Community to be silent and announces that he is one of them!   This is a boldness which is a direct result of the encounter with Jesus and the filling of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s Conversion and the New Perspective on Paul

The next question Polhill asks in his discussion of Paul’s conversion concerns Paul’s predisposition to conversion.  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.

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  Typically Paul has been viewed as struggling to keep the Law, perhaps in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is cited here; Paul is the “wretched man” who must be delivered from his body of death (Ro 7:25).  He has been “kicking against the goads” for some time, according to Acts 26:14.

But this reconstruction has been questioned by the New Perspective, especially by E. P. Sanders, following Krister Stendahl (who is cited by Polhill).  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.

So, according to Sanders, Paul was not a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself through the good works of the Law.  In fact, that was Luther. He was the guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, and he read all that angst back into 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.

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 (page55).  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.