Why did Saul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

In the book of Acts, Luke introduces Saul dramatically as the someone who not only participated in the stoning of Stephen, but as an authority who gave approval for the execution. After Stephen delivers a prophetic speech in Acts 7 and describes his fellow Jews as a stiff-necked generation, like the tribes of Israel in the wilderness. 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 (see, for example, 1 Maccabees 1:57). Luke describes Saul as “ravaging the church” (λυμαίνω, Acts 8:3), a word which is used of violent actions in war (Josephus, JW 4.534). Much later Paul described his persecution of the church as being zealous for the traditions of his Fathers (Gal 1:14). Like Elijah against the priests of baal, Paul burned with zeal and tried to destroy the church (Gal 1:22-23, Phil 3:6).

One problem for modern readers is a misunderstanding about what Saul was doing. We tend to read modern persecution of Christians into the passage, or maybe lurid scenes from old movies of Nero throwing the saints to the lions. Nor should we think of rabbi Saul like a Puritan going going door-to-door to root out the heretics. Stephen was teaching Jesus was the messiah and in some way replaces worship in the Temple. The High Priest executed Jesus unjustly but God raised Jesus from the dead, proving he was in fact the messiah. Saul saw all this as a dangerous defection from the Law and could result in the judgment of God.

What was it about Stephen’s speech that pushed Saul to such a violent response?

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

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

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. Jewish and Gentiles sharing meals is a problem in the book of Galatians, but that is as many as fifteen years after the stoning of Stephen.

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

It is best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as a false and potentially dangerous teaching about the messiah. For Rabbi Saul, the very idea Jesus was the Messiah was absurd. Because Jesus was crucified (“hung on a tree”) he was under the curse of the Law. Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself. Paul sees himself as a reformer within Second Temple Judaism. He represents the high priest (who approved of the execution of Jesus) and reacted with violence against those who argued this the condemned rabbi Jesus was the Messiah and that worship of Jesus is superior to worship in the Temple.

Basics of the New Perspective: Was Paul “Converted” to Christianity?

Critics of the traditional view of Paul’s theology often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s struggle against the Roman church.  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.  This traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual an psychological conversion.  If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion.  Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of 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 New Perspective on Paul calls this traditional view into question.  James Dunn has built on the work of Krister Stendhal to argue that Paul did not experience a conversion from one religion to another.  Rather, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Hebrew Bible, especially that of Jeremiah. 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.  (Not all scholars who are associated with the New Perspective agree, N. T. Wright still talks about “Paul’s Conversion” in What Saint Paul Really Said.)

Dunn points out that Paul stayed “zealous,” but instead of zealous for the Law, he because zealous as the “light to the Gentiles” (“Paul’s Conversion,” 90).  This view of Paul’s conversion is that he does not “found a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law.  His gospel is a new interpretation of the Hebrew Bible and Judaism.  Paul may  not changed have even parties within Judaism: he went from a Pharisee who did not believe Jesus was the messiah to a Pharisee who did believe Jesus was the messiah.

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 significant radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.  While it is possible Paul thought he was staying within Judaism, his contemporaries disagreed. (I suspect that includes not a few Christians Jews who disagreed with his view of the Law for Gentiles.)

But it is also 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, in Ephesians 3 he is quite clear that he has a special commission as the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul never joins the Jerusalem church nor does he receive his commission from them (again, Gal 2) .  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.  I agree that Luther  and others hear their own conversion in Paul’s Damascus Road experience.  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.

Bibliography:  There is a huge bibliography of essays and monographs on this issue; the critical articles include: J. D. G. Dunn, “‘A Light To the Gentiles’ or ‘The End of the Law’? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul” in Dunn, Paul, Jesus, and the Law, 89-107.  See also  Seyoon Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982); After Kim was critiqued by J. D. G. Dunn and others, he responded in a number of articles that are collected in Paul and the New Perspective: Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).