Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” 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 (Rom 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. 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.
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 built on Luther’s understanding of Paul, and there have been some fairly strenuous arguments against Sanders and the other more recent New Perspective writers.
In the end, Polhill is correct when he states that Paul’ encounter on the road to Damascus was a radical event for which he was totally unprepared (p. 55). 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.
If the New Perspective is correct about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus, how would this change our understanding of Paul? What are the ramifications of Paul as called” to a prophetic mission rather than converted to a new religion?