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The Conversion of Paul


I. Paul the Jew

Paul the Apostle was a Jew. In fact, even after accepting Jesus as Lord and Messiah, he still referred to himself as a Jew. Paul considered the Jews as “[his] own people, [his] kindred according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). “I myself,” he says, using again the present tense, “am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham” (Romans 11:1). He still denoted time by reference to Jewish festivals, namely, Pentecost and Passover (Acts 20:16;1 Corinthians 16:8). These factors and his inclusive use of “we” in contexts where he clearly means “we Jews” (for example, Galatians 2:15, 16, 17) demonstrate that even after becoming a follower of Christ, he considered himself to be a good Jew. But he was not the same Jew that he was before his acceptance of Jesus as the resurrected Messiah.

The pre-Christian Paul was no mere nominal Jew, but rather a zealous adherent of the ancestral faith.1 Paul does not reveal much in his writings about this period when he was called Saul. Occasionally the boasting of some of his opponents about their Jewish pedigree elicited from Paul a response in a similar vein: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I” (2 Corinthians 11:22). To brag of his Jewish heritage, was, in Paul's opinion, to speak as a fool or even as a madman (16–17, 21, 23). But in order to defend himself against his detractors, he felt constrained to rehearse his own religious pedigree for his converts’ sake. He came from a pious Jewish family that spoke Aramaic (Philippians 3:5). Like all observant Jews, his family circumcised him on the eighth day after his birth (5). They named him "Saul," since, like the king of that name, he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (5).

“I am a Jew,” he publicly acknowledged in Aramaic to his fellow countrymen, “born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city [Jerusalem] at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:3).2 Tarsus was on a busy trade route between Syria and Asia Minor, and as Paul declared (Acts 21:39), it was the most “important city” in the province of Cilicia (southeast Asia Minor, modern Turkey). Tarsus was a city noted for its local philosophers and schools of learning, but it should not be designated a “university city,” and it is very doubtful whether Paul owes anything to Tarsus for his education. Paul was brought up in Jerusalem and educated there “at the feet of” (that is, as a disciple of) the then leading Pharisaic teacher of the Torah (law), Gamaliel I. He was an apt pupil, and became a strict advocate of the Pharisees’ way of life and interpretation of the Torah (Acts 23:6; 26:5; Philippians 3:5).

By his own testimony Paul's zeal for the traditions of the sages of Judaism surpassed all of his contemporaries (Galatians1:14). As an observant Pharisee, he applied the law to his daily life in a strict manner, and was blameless in this regard (Philippians 3:6).  Adhering to the Torah more strictly than most Jews was, according to both Luke and Josephus, the hallmark of being a Pharisee: “I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee” (Acts 26:4 italics added, see also Acts 22:3). “Pharisees [were] a Jewish sect that appeared more pious than the rest and stricter in the interpretation of the Law” (Josephus, Jewish Wars 1.110 italics added, see also 2.162; Life, 191).3 The Pharisees were a small lay sect of about 6,000 in number most of who lived in and around Jerusalem. They were innovative in that they attempted to apply all the requirements of the Torah to their daily lives.4

Paul was no exception, and as a Pharisee he too boasted that he “was far more zealous for the traditions of [his] ancestors” than were his Jewish contemporaries (Galatians1:14). The ideal model for Pharisaic zeal was Phinehas, the priest, who showed “he was zealous for his God” by spearing the Israelite Zimri and the Midianite woman Cosbi through their stomachs (Numbers 25:6–15). And like his Old Testament exemplar, Paul also demonstrated his zeal for Judaism by acting against the Jesus-sect as “a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13).

Even before Paul (while Saul) met the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he must have known something about the life and teachings of Jesus. Saul's passionate persecution of the followers of Jesus indicates that he had some knowledge of the new Jewish sect called, “The Way” (Acts 9:2). In fact, it required more than mere knowledge to cause Saul to breathe “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1; 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24: 14, 22). He realized even before most of the Jewish believers in Jesus that Judaism, which focused on the Torah, and the new religion, which centered in Jesus, were as compatible as new wine in old wineskins.

Paul's descriptions of his life as a pre-Christian Jew reveal him as a confident observer of the Torah no different from his account of a good Jew found in Romans 2:17–20. Paul's claim that he was “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:6) was no doubt sincere and well based on a genuine piety. Therefore, given Paul's own accounts of his life prior to his encounter with Jesus, it would be quite misleading to see his conversion in terms of the deliverance of an anguished soul from its vain struggle to keep the law. Paul was no Augustine or Jerome desperately looking for freedom from his lusts. Nor was he a Catholic Martin Luther struggling to fulfill the demands of a righteous God through the sacramental means of the medieval church. Nor was he a John Wesley frustrated in his pursuit of an unattainable holiness through a rigid method of piety. No storm in a field (Luther) or at sea (Wesley) shook the foundations of his religious confidence.

II. Call and Commission

A. According to his own letters.

How did Saul become Paul? And what was involved in leaving his “earlier life in Judaism” (Galatians 1:13a) and becoming an advocate of the Jesus-gospel?  Why did the persecutor become the protagonist? When the Jesus movement arose, Paul saw it as posing a threat to the Pharisees' understanding of the Torah. His response was therefore to do all in his power "to destroy it" (v. 13b). Indeed, Paul justifiably puts forth his “violently persecuting the church” (Galatians 1:13) as proof of his zeal for the law (“as to zeal, a persecutor of the church,” Philippians 3:6). It was his zeal for Judaism as he understood it that caused him to attack the Jesus movement as a threat to the religion of his forefathers.

Hence Paul as a Jew was a very religious person, a devout believer in the Jewish faith as understood by the sect of the Pharisees. What happened on the road to Damascus was not then a conversion in the sense of coming to a faith in God, for Paul, as a pious Jew, already had that. Yet Saul did become Paul at this time; what did that change mean? It meant that the Living God of Israel became for him also “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15;6; 2 Corinthians 1:3; Ephesians 1:7, 17; Colossians 1:3). It meant that the center of his existence was no longer the Torah, but Jesus the Christ (Messiah). He had died to the law through the body of Christ, so that he might belong to him who had been raised from the dead (Romans 7:4). It meant that God had called Paul to serve him and commissioned him to take the gospel of his Son to the pagan Greco-Roman world. Just as he experienced God's initiative in his call, so he realized that salvation was also due to the divine initiative (Romans 8:30; 1 Corinthians 1:9). This was true for both Paul and the Galatians (Galatians 1:6, 15). He was a chosen vessel to take the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles (Galatians1:16).

From Paul's new perspective, God had set him apart from his very birth for this very task (Galatians1:15). His Jewish pedigree, circumcision, the Torah and his status as a Pharisee all became secondary to Christ, or as Paul put it, so much garbage (Philippians 3:8). His role now was not to destroy the message of Jesus, but to proclaim it; to be "the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing" (2 Corinthians 2:15). Paul's conversion then was not a transference from unbelief to belief in God, but a radical change in how he understood God and his way of salvation. Borg and Crossan see it as a dramatic change within rather than into a religious system: “Paul’s was a conversion within a tradition from one way of being Jewish to another way of being Jewish, from being a Pharisaic Jew to being a Christian Jew.”5 However, this may not do complete justice to the strong metaphor Paul used to describe the effect that his meeting with Jesus had on him. He likened it to a traumatic or delayed birth (ektrōma, 1 Corinthians 15:8). Bird describes it as a gut-wrenching transformation than spun Paul around in a violent 180 degree turn. Even so he says “Paul was converted from the Pharisaic sect to a messianic sect within Judaism” (italics original).6

Paul's zeal for the Torah had trapped him; supposing he was fulfilling its requirements, he sought and obtained letters of authority from the high priests in an effort to eliminate the followers of Jesus (Acts 9:1–2). His keenness for the law had led him to persecute the followers of Jesus and thus to oppose the Lord's Messiah. From his new Jesus-centered perspective, Paul saw that sin had used the Torah as its tool to blind him to the true covenant people of God. The commandment was holy, just and good, but sin deceived Paul and led him to fail to recognize Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, and consequently to persecute his followers. Sin made use of the good law to trick him into a way of death (Romans 7:8–11). But this was a Christian insight or interpretation of his past life in Judaism.

B. According to Acts.

Acts 1:8 (and Luke 24:46–48) provides the sequence of the apostolic mission: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Luke follows the expanding witness of the gospel impelled as it was by miracles (Acts 4:16), pilgrims (2:9), forced scatterings (8:1, 4; 11:19), as well as faithful testimonies (2:32; 3:15; 4:33). So the gospel of the resurrected Christ spread both geographically and ethnically: Jerusalem (2:14), Judea (2:9), Samaria (8:1), and the ends of the earth (2:9). The move to the Gentiles is also progressive (proselytes, 2:10; 6:5), an Ethiopian God-worshiping eunuch (8:38), the household of a God-fearing Roman (10:43–48), and the Gentiles of Antioch (11:20–23).

Without diminishing the powerful episode with Peter in Acts 10:1–11:18, Antioch is the first time the Christian witness broke the bounds of Judaism, and nor must we miss the significance  of Luke’s placing the call of Paul (Acts 9:1–19) before the vision of Peter in Acts 10:9–16). The three Lucan accounts of Paul’s call and commission (9:1–19; 22:1–21; 26:12–18) have some inconsistencies, but two themes dominate in all three speeches.7 First, the terror that Paul sustained against Christian Jews (9:1–3, 13; 22:4, 19; 26:9–11) was tantamount to persecuting Jesus (9:4–5; 22:7–8; 26:14–15). Second, that God had chosen Paul to be a witness to bring the name of Jesus before the Gentiles (9:15; 22:14–15; 26:16–18).

III. Conclusion

Paul’s encounter with Jesus did not occur in a vacuum. As we have seen, Paul's persecution of the Jesus-community presupposed a certain amount of knowledge of their beliefs. Beliefs that he rejected, but that clearly troubled him. As the risen Christ reminded him in the Hebrew language: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?  It hurts you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). To “kick against the goads” referred to the way a pack animal kicked back when prodded, and as a Greek proverb it meant that continued resistance was futile. What was goading Paul? Not the Torah, for in that regard he was a blameless Pharisee. No the goads that were stinging Paul, which he was finding difficult to handle, were the stings of the gospel of Christ. What tormented him was the niggling doubt that maybe Jesus truly was the resurrected Messiah just as his followers claimed. This became an irresistible conviction when the risen Christ“took hold of” him (Philippians 3:12 NIV) while he was on the road to Damascus.8

This meeting with Jesus dramatically changed the object of his zeal from Torah to Christ. He remained a Jew, but hardly an orthodox one. Central in the change was the call through God's grace that revealed his Son to Paul (Galatians 1:15–16a), which then commissioned him to go to the Gentiles “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified [dedicated] by faith t” in Jesus (Acts 26:17‒18). But first Paul himself needed to see the light of the glory of the Lord (“The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ … has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And this too happened when he fell to the ground before the glory of the Lord on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3; 22:6–7; 26:13–14). As H. G. Wood long ago beautifully put it: “Paul was converted to Christ rather than to Christianity.”9

Since he was called to proclaim Jesus as the resurrected Messiah not only among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:16b), but also among the Jews (Acts 9:15), he immediately, according to Acts, began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God (v. 20). However, his calling by divine appointment made him especially the messenger or Apostle to the Gentiles (“Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles,” Romans 1:4)and he was extremely jealous of that God-given office (Romans 11:13).

As Jesus had appeared to Paul, even if belatedly (1 Corinthians 15:8; Galatians 1:16), he had no hesitation in designating himself as an apostle on equal terms with those who preceded him in that role (Galatians 1:17). Indeed, Luke, who championed Paul, recognized his right to that title, for throughout Acts he consistently uses the term apostolos for the twelve, except in 14:4, 14 where he applies it to Paul and Barnabas, and thus gives a clear hint that he considered them “as playing a role similar to that of the twelve apostles.”10 Paul himself, of course, had no doubts about the divine origin of his call and commission (“For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle … a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth,” 1 Timothy 2:7). As Clark concludes, Paul cannot match the unique history and symbolic role of the twelve apostles, “but in terms of functioning as an authorized expounder of the significance of the Christ-event he is their equal, and as a missionary he surpasses them.”11


Notes & References:

1. The term “Christian” was not in use at the time Paul wrote Galatians; it is used throughout this study for convenience.

2. The dates of Paul’s birth and death are estimates at best and range from AD 4–6 for his birth, and to AD 62–67 for his death.

3. Josephus (AD 37–100) was a Jewish author, who wrote in Greek about the religion of the Jews and about the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. His career overlaps with Paul’s.

4. Martin Hengel. The Pre-Christian Paul (London/Philadelphia, PA: SCM/Trinity, 1991) 27–49.

5. Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (New York: HarperCollins, 2009) 24.

6. Michael F. Bird, A Bird’s-Eye View of Paul (Nottingham: IVP, 2008) 35.

7. Charles W. Hedrick, “Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 100 (1981) 417–419.

8. Jacques Dupont, “The Conversion of Paul, and its Influence on his Understanding of Salvation by Faith,” in W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (eds), Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F. F. Bruce (Exeter UK: Paternoster, 1970) 192.

9. Ibid, 194, footnote 2.

10. Andrew C. Clark, “The Role of the Apostles,” in I. Howard Marshall and David Peterson (eds), Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI & Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 1998) 185.

11. Ibid, 190.


Image credit: the author.

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