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Acts 15 concerns the first major controversy in the early church, although the issue seems strange to modern readers. Unlike later theological debate over the divinity of Jesus or the Trinity, or modern concerns over how to properly worship in church or who can (or cannot) be ordained as a minister, the earliest church struggled to know what to do with Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Are these Gentiles “converting” to a form of Judaism? If that is the case, should they keep the Law? Or are they like the “God fearers Gentiles,” people welcome in the synagogue without having to fully convert? If they are fully keeping the law, does this imply a secondary status for Gentile believers?

Primarily as a result of Paul’s Gentile mission, the percentage of Gentiles was growing in Christian communities. Some Jews thought that it was necessary for the Gentiles to keep the whole Law, starting with circumcision.

Based on Galatians, it appears that Paul had taught the Gentiles that they do not have to keep the Jewish Law, especially circumcision. Undoubtedly this also included food laws and Sabbath worship, the other major boundary markers for Jews living in the Diaspora. After Paul established these churches and re-visited them once to appoint leaders (Acts 14:21-28), he returned to Antioch and reported that God had “opened a door of faith” among the Gentiles.

Sometime after Acts 14, some teachers arrived in Paul’s Gentile churches and told the Gentiles that they were required to fully convert to Judaism in order to be fully a part of the people of God in the present age. I think that this teaching focused on the boundary markers of food and Sabbath as well, but Galatians and Acts 15 is concern only the practice of circumcision. If Gentiles are going to be considered full participants in the people of God in the present age, they must be Jews; this requires conversion and obedience with the law.

This is no small controversy for several reasons. First, circumcision was a major factor in Jewish identity. For many in the Greco-Roman world, it was circumcision which set the Jews apart, usually for ridicule. Marital, for example, seems to find a great deal of humor in the Jewish practice. Second, Paul argues in Galatians and other letters that the church is neither Jew nor Gentile (Gal 3:28). If Gentiles convert to Judaism, then the church is Jewish; if a Jew rejects the Law and acts like a Gentile, then the church is “Gentile.” Paul’s point is that there is something different than Judaism happening in the present age, the “church” is not a form of Judaism, nor is it a Gentile mystery religion. The church in Paul’s view transcends ethnicity (neither Jew nor Gentile), gender (neither male nor female) and social boundaries (neither slave nor free).

For Paul, if the Gentiles are forced to keep the Jewish boundary markers, then they have converted to Judaism and they are not “in Christ.” This view would have been radical in the first century, and it still is difficult for Christians two thousand years later. One does not “act like a Christian” to be right with God, any more than one “acted like a Jew” in the first century to be right with God.

To me, this is what makes Paul unique in the early church (or to use Michael Bird’s recent phrase, Paul is an “anomalous Jew”). Although Gentiles could convert to Judaism, and many did, no other Jewish writer in the Second Temple Period would have said Gentiles can be right with God without keeping any of the Law. In Acts 10, Cornelius was accepted without circumcision but he was already considered a righteous man because he was doing the sorts of things the Law commands. Yet Paul is teaching his Gentile converts to not submit to circumcision since it implies they are becoming Jews. The Church is not a new Israel, Paul’s churches are neither Jew nor Gentile.

There are many ramifications of this new teaching and we will return to many of these things when we get to Galatians. What is the practical benefit for Gentile believers if they are not expected to keep the Jewish Law? Does this help Paul’s evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles? Certainly he has success among the God-fearers who were already attracted to the ethical content of the Law, but would this Law-free gospel of Jesus attract Gentiles who were not already interested in Judaism?

[I wrote this post almost exactly six years ago, September 14, 2011. Howard Pepper asked some good questions in a recent post about the idea of conversion, so I thought I would re-publish this as part of the recent series of posts on Paul’s background.]

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  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.

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  In fact, I recently summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.  Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself 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.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

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, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not 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.

Is 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 (55)?

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  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.

The Wretched Man

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) has framed this discussion of Paul’s conversion in much different terms than the traditional view of Paul would have allowed. (I summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.) Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself 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.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

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, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not 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.

Is 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 (55)?

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.

Like most who write on the conversion of Paul, John Polhill asks if Paul was “predisposed” to conversion (Paul and His Letters, 55).  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.

The Wretched Man

Like the discussion of Paul’s conversion, the New Perspective on Paul has had quite a bit to say here.  In fact, I recently summarized the NPP’s thinking about Paul’s conversion in this post.  Traditionally, Paul is described as struggling to keep the Law perfectly and was in despair over his inability to do “the whole of the Law.”  Usually Romans 7 is the key text here.  Paul himself 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.  Paul knew that he was unable to live up to God’s righteous standards and lived in a state of perpetual wretchedness.  His encounter with Jesus on the Road to Damascus freed him from the weight of his sin and guilt and he became the apostle of the Grace of God.

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, it was Luther who was a guilt-ridden sinner trying to justify himself, not 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.

Is 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 (55)?

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.

The second 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.

The next question is the extent to which Paul’s theology was transformed by that encounter.  Was there a total revision of Paul’s Judaism, or did Paul remain a faithful Jew who also believed Jesus was the Messiah?

Commenting on Acts 9, Ben Witherington said, “Without question, the story of Saul’s ‘conversion’ is one of the most important events, if not the most important event, that Luke records in Acts (Acts, 303).  In Polhill’s third chapter, he poses a series of critically important questions about the nature of Paul’s conversion.  I plan on deal with these questions over the next few posts.

What is the nature of Paul’s conversion? Is it even correct to say that Paul “converted” to Christianity?  There is a problem with this description, 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).  The possibility that Paul did not “convert” was first raised by Krister Stendahl in an article foundational to the New Perspective on Paul.  (I’ll return to this comment in the next post, right now it is only important to observe that no one before the mid-20th century bothered much to ask this kind of question).

We could, for example, draw evidence from the letters of Paul which demonstrate that he says nothing that might be read as a repudiation of Judaism.  While he does say that Gentiles ought not to be circumcised and follow the Law, he never states that the Jewish believer ought to break the Law.  He speaks out against the Works of the Law, those practices which are a sign of one’s Jewish commitment.  Gentiles, in Paul’s view, are not converting to Judaism so there is no need for these “boundary markers.”

What is more, Paul’s letters are filled with references to the Hebrew Bible. With the exception of 1 Thessalonians and perhaps Philippians, Paul’s letters refer to specific texts from the Hebrew Bible, often providing interpretations of those texts which would have resonated within a Jewish context.   Paul is not taking the Jewish Bible and twisting it to support is Christian doctrine, he is presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible.

We could also use the book of Acts as evidence.  Paul is presented as a traveling teacher, turning up in Jewish synagogues and giving synagogue sermons based on the Hebrew Bible, reaching out to Jews right up until Acts 28.  He uses his status as Pharisee to open doors, and at least before the Sanhedrin, deflect criticism.  Nowhere in Acts is Paul described as repudiating the Jewish Law for Jews.

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.

For this reason, some 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.

What difference does this make?  If Paul is “converted,” what was he converted to? Or from?  How will a decision here effect the way read Paul’s letters later?

I promised to post this a bit earlier in the week. I recently received a copy of Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Missionary Work of Paul (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2008)which as a good section on Paul’s Arabian period (pages 60-64).  I cannot recommend this text enough.  It is a slimmed down version of Schnabel’s epic 2-volume Early Christian Mission, if one can consider a 500 page book “slimmed.”   For this period in Paul’s career, see also Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Paul in Arabia,” CBQ 55 (1993): 732-737 and Hengel and Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch.

After the initial ministry in Damascus, Paul spends a period of time in Arabia. The location of these three years is not modern Saudi Arabia, but rather Syrian Arabia (Edom and Moab), likely within the Nabatean kingdom of Aretas IV. It is possible that the ministry in Arabia is not limited to Arabia, but rather that Paul used Damascus as a base of operations for ministry in Arabia over the three year period. Aretas IV wanted to arrest Paul according to 2 Cor 11:32-33, compare Acts 9:23-25. We know Aretas IV ruled Nabatea from 9 B.C. until A.D. 40.

Nabateans were believed to be descended from Ishmael, while the Idumeans were descended from Esau. The Idumeans were forcibly converted in the late second century by John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean king of Judea. Herod the Great’s mother was a Nabatean princess (Kypros), and Herod Antipas married the daughter of Aretas IV (Syllaios). This was the woman he divorced in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. This marriage was condemned by John the Baptist (leading to his death) and lead to tensions between the Nabatean kingdom and Judea in the mid-thirties. Aretas and Herod Antipas in fact met in battle, Aretas was victorious.

Schnabel has an excellent map of the Nabatean kingdom (62). The northern limit is just short of Damascus and included the ten cities of the Decaopolis all of the territory on the east of the Dead Sea, and included the Sinai Peninsula. Aretas’ territory covered the north-east portion of the modern Saudi Arabian peninsula. Paul’s ministry likely was to the most northern portion of this region, the modern country of Jordan. For details on the Nabatean / Judean conflicts, see Josephus, War, 1.181; Antiquities 14.7.3 (121) 15.6.5 (184); on Salome see 16.7.6 (220).

Paul must have engaged in gentile ministry at this time since he states in Ga. 1:15-17 that he was obedient to the calling of God to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. This ministry must date to about A.D. 32/33, a time when Jew-Nabatean tensions were at their height. It is little wonder that Aretas IV sought to arrest Paul. His ministry would be seen as trying to win Nabateans to a Jewish religious sect

The audio for this week’s evening service will be available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer.

Was Paul “converted” to Christianity?  There is a problem with this description, since i 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.

The traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual and 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.

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.

Beginning with Krister Stendhal, 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 Old Testament 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.

It is, however, 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. Ephesians 3:1-6 seems to be the clearest statement of the uniqueness of Paul’s ministry.

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.

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