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”?

Why did Saul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

In the book of Acts, the Saul is introduced rather dramatically.  After Stephen delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7, he is seized by an angry crowd, taken outside the city and stoned.  This is not a legal action, it is a lynching!  Saul “approved” of this execution (Acts 8:1).  Whether Saul was a “legal representative” of the Sanhedrin is unclear, but the verb can be used for legal approval (1 Mac 1:57).  Saul is described as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534).  What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

It is important to observe that Stephen was speaking to Diaspora Jews living in Jerusalem, in the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 6:8-10). He is not in the Temple speaking Aramaic to the crowds worshiping there.  Stephen himself is a Hellenistic Jew attempting to prove that Jesus is the Messiah in a Hellenistic place of worship.  While we cannot know this for certain, it is not unlikely that Saul was worshiping in this Greek-speaking Synagogue because he was from Tarsus (Cilicia is specifically mentioned in Acts 6:9).  Stephen’s powerful argument that Israel rejected the Messiah and the Holy Spirit of the New Covenant (Acts 7:51-53) pushed the crowd to attack Stephen, Saul may have been the ranking Jewish leader who participated.

Some scholars explain this violent reaction by taking later issues and importing them into Acts 7.  For example, some have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.

Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were breaking food laws.  This is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  This is an issue in Galatians, but that is perhaps 15 years after the stoning of Stephen and concerned Jews and Gentiles eating together.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as heretical.  That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.  He likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.