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?

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.

Damascus-Wall

A Damascus Wall, 1890-1900

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.

There other elements of a “boldness” theme in Acts and clearly Luke is presenting the ministers of the Gospel as unusually bold in their confrontation with authority.  By way of application, should we use Paul’s boldness as a model for modern mission, and if so, what would that look like?  Does this sort of “boldness” work in a pluralistic society like modern America?

Acts 9 – Conversion or Call?

As I stated in the previous post, many Pauline scholars prefer to call Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus a “call” rather than a conversion from one religion to another. This events similar to a prophetic call of an Old Testament prophet similar to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.

Stendahl, for example, argued Paul never left Judaism. He remained a faithful Jew, fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles.” In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God. He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah. Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism.

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets.

The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key. Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul. Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.

However, I do think that it is problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

Using modern Christian categories like “conversion” and “call” to describe Paul’s experience is a mistake. Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history. As we read the story in Acts, what is radical about Saul’s conversion at this point in the story? If you bracket out what we know Paul is going to say later in Galatians, to what extent is Acts 9 a calling or a conversion?

Acts 9 – Paul in Arabia

Bronze_Coin_of_Aretas_IV

Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys.

But this is far from a period of monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

Acts 9 – Paul in Arabia

Bronze_Coin_of_Aretas_IV

Bronze Coin of Aretas IV

Luke tells us that Paul spent some time in Damascus proclaiming Jesus in the Synagogue, but was forced to leave the city because there was a plot to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).  Paul mentions these events in Galatians and 2 Corinthians in far more detail.  Luke compresses three years of ministry into a few lines!

How long was Paul in Damascus and the Nabatean kingdom? According to Gal 1:17 three years pass between the Damascus Road experience and Paul’s meeting in Jerusalem with Peter and James (Acts 9:26-30). Since the story of the escape over the wall is a unique event, it seems reasonable that Luke’s “many days” (9:23) extends a full three years. Since Aretas IV died in 39, the latest date for Paul’s conversion is 36, if not earlier.

After the initial confrontational ministry in Damascus, it is possible that Paul traveled from Damascus to other major cities in Nabatean territory. This likely included cities of the Decapolis, perhaps, Geresa and Philadelphia (modern Jeresh).  Philadelphia was a large Roman city, the type of city Paul will target later in his ministry. It is possible he visited Petra since it was a major trading center at the time. He may have used Damascus as a “base” since there was already a community of believers there. We simply have no real facts to deal with for this three year period, other than he was living in that territory for three years and that he did not consult the other apostles until three years after his experience n the road to Damascus.

As James Dunn observes, the more difficult question is why Paul spent three years in the Arabia. Paul makes an emphatic statement that after receiving a commission from the resurrected Jesus to be the “light to the Gentiles,” he did not “consult flesh and blood” but went to Arabia (Gal 1:7). Like Dunn, I think that Paul is simply following through on the commission he was given, to take the message of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles. The Nabatean kingdom provided him with ample opportunity to do just that.

Sometimes this period is described as a spiritual retreat into the desert, to work out the implications of his encounter with Jesus. I think that it is certain that Paul begins working through what “Jesus as Messiah” means, and what his role as the ‘light to the Gentiles” should be. He likely spent a great deal of time reading the scripture developing the material that he will use later in Antioch, then on the missionary journeys. But this period is not a monastic retreat! Paul is preaching Jesus and being faithful to his calling as the light to the Gentiles.

Acts 9 – Paul’s Encounter with the Resurrected Jesus (Part 2)

Conversion SaulBeginning with Krister Stendahl, a new view of Paul’s experience has emerged. Rather than a conversion from one religion to another, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament, especially that of Jeremiah. This view sees the Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6. Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry.

Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah. In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God. He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah. Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law. His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism.

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets.

The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key. Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul. Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely. He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology. While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.

However, I do think that it is problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus. He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel. Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory. Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews.

It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call. But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.

Acts 9 – Paul’s Encounter with the Resurrected Jesus (Part 1)

Was Paul “converted” to Christianity? There is a problem with this question, since it implies he more from one religious belief to another (perhaps as a Catholic might “convert” to Protestant, or a pagan might convert to Christianity.) What the question really asks is – “how much of Paul’s worldview changed on the Road to Damascus?” When we examine Paul’s own theology and compare it to Pharisaical Judaism, the status of his “conversion” is less obvious. It is possible to describe Paul as a Pharisee who now believed Jesus was the Messiah. Who was working out the implications of this new belief while doing an evangelistic ministry. Yet there do seem to be major breaks with Judaism, especially in the treatment of Gentile converts. What Paul is preaching is not really a sub-set of Judaism, whatever it may appear in the earliest years.

Michelangelo ConversionFor this reason, many prefer to think of Paul’s experience as a “calling” to a prophetic ministry (“the light to the Gentiles”) rather than a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. It is important to notice Paul’s description in the letters of his calling – he is given a commission by the Lord to do a specific ministry and some sort of revelation by the Lord directly which is unique to him. Galatians 1-2 makes this quite clear – he is called an Apostle because of a revelation from God, not by the appointment of men.

The traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual and psychological conversion. Paul’s description of the “wretched man” in Romans 7:7-25 is important here. Does this text describe Paul’s struggle with sin prior to his conversion? Is this a recollection of his own spiritual and psychological reversal at conversion? If the answer is yes, the Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee who struggled with his sin and the guilt from not being able to keep the Law. His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

The traditional view that Paul struggled with keeping the Law for a long time before meeting the Resurrected Jesus is rightly criticized for important later theological questions into Paul’s conversion. Critics of the traditional view often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s. Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt. Their conversion experience colored their theology of salvation. Since Augustine and Luther are massively influential theologians, their view of Paul’s conversion has influenced later theology.

While I believe Paul was a sinner, is there any real evidence that Paul struggled with legalism other than the very difficult text in Romans 7?  Not really, he seems to be fairly confident in the standing before God prior to his encounter with Jesus in Acts 9.  Are there other elements of the story in Acts 9 which might help us understand Paul’s “conversion”?