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The “Conversion” of Paul

January 25, 2017

Today (25 January) in the traditional ecclesiastical calendar marks the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, who is likely the most famous “convert” in religious history.  He remains a giant figure in the study of Christian origins, with scholarly books on him continuing to pour out of the presses.  He is also perhaps the most controversial figure in early Christianity.

Accused by some of being the true founder of “Christianity,” and even of perverting Jesus’ teachings, accused by others of being a misogynist, in traditional Jewish thought accused of being the arch-apostate, in his own lifetime accused of teaching a libertine way of life, seen by others as a spiritual father-figure and paradigmatic teacher of Christian faith, a doughty defender of what he believed to be non-negotiable convictions, he remains fascinating as a human subject.

From comments such as those in Galatians 1:13, that his readers had heard from him of his “former life in Judaism,” and the more extended auto-biographical statements such as we have in Philippians 3:4-16, it appears that his shift from vigorous opponent of the young Jesus-movement to passionate exponent was a part of what he himself communicated to the churches that he founded.   And from these self-referential passages in his letters we get a strong sense, I think, of the profound self-dedication that he felt.  Rhetorically crafted though such statements may well be, still it seems to me that his passionate sense of being personally called by his God to a special mission was genuine.  Likewise, his various statements about his relationship to Jesus, whom Paul held to be “Christ” (Messiah”), the (unique) “Son of God,” and his “Lord” strike me as reflecting what he genuinely felt (e.g., Galatians 2:19-21; Philippians 3:4-16; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15).

At least some of the calumnies down the years are unfair, even ridiculously incorrect.  For example, he was certainly no misogynist!  For one thing, his numerous positive references to women co-workers and leaders in his churches testify otherwise.  He was, to be sure, a man of his time, and so he seems to have held (with most others of the day) that a wife was bound to her husband.  But he also held, unusually for his time, that a husband was equally bound to his wife, including a sexual exclusivity that husbands as well as wives owed to their marriage partners (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).  This effectively challenged the “double standard” in sexual behaviour otherwise commonly approved in the Roman period.

But it’s a genuine question among scholars whether Paul understood himself as having undergone a “conversion,” at least in the sense that the word typically has.  He didn’t move from irreligion to a religious life, from being a sinful man to virtue.  And he didn’t change his God, or denounce his ancestral religious tradition.  Instead, he expresses the strong conviction that the God he had always sought to serve showed him his blindness in opposing the Jesus-movement, revealed (Paul’s word) Jesus’ high/unique status, and summoned Paul to a special mission that he believed would usher in (or at least promote markedly) the consummation of the divine plan of world-redemption.

So, some scholars prefer to characterize Paul’s shift in religious orientation as a prophet-like “calling” rather than a “conversion” (as influentially proposed by Krister Stendahl).  Others, such as Alan Segal, contended that “conversion” was appropriate, as the term can  include a change from one version of a religious tradition to another, such as a Roman Catholic becoming a Baptist.  So, Segal urged, Paul shifted from one understanding of what his God required to another very different one, and from opposition to the Jesus-movement to aligning himself with it.

There is absolutely no chance that I can settle any disagreements about Paul in a simple blog-posting here!  My only aims are to take the occasion of the date to note Paul’s huge significance, and to make a plea that we extend to him the same sort of sympathy and fair hearing that we would hope for ourselves.  Oh, and despite the mountain of books on Paul and the continuing flood of new ones, I’d also suggest as most important a slow and generous reading of Paul’s letters preserved in the New Testament.


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  1. Alan Paul permalink

    There is one very good reason why Paul emphasizes in Galatians 1:15-16 that he was set apart and called by God (“in his mother’s womb”) to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. This “passionate” assertion of his preordained, God-given and God-equipped special mission is needed in order to demonstrate that he has an apostolic authority no less great than that of the original disciples.

    Subjective views about whether Paul’s declared sense of personal mission was “genuine” or “rhetorical” seem to me to be of little value; and any assessment of his inner motivation would be pure speculation. All that can be usefully said is that, had Paul not been able to project and convey passion and sincerity in his writings, it is unlikely that they would have had the same impact on his audience and on the development of early Christianity.

    • No, Alan, the probe Paul’s letters for indication of his own religious life isn’t “pure speculation”. Obviously not. For we have letters, for heaven’s sake! Now, you can take a cynical view such as you seem to offer. That’s one view. Or you can take a more nuanced approach such I take. Obviously, something powerful happened to Paul to shift him from vigorous opponent to vigorous proponent of the Jesus-movement and message. There was little to be gained by faking this. So, clearly there is a genuine and passionate religious life to explore. We can only make careful and disciplined inferences, but that isn’t the same as “pure speculation,” and your cynical approach isn’t any more grounded in the data, to say the least!

      • Alan Paul permalink

        It’s surely not cynical to note that the epistles of Paul (whether written by him or by someone else, or edited by someone else) reflect an agenda than goes far beyond merely emoting about religious experiences and beliefs. Indeed, to assume otherwise would be a huge oversimplification (I respectfully suggest) and would ignore other important dimensions of these precious texts. Moreover, recognizing the limitations of what genuinely autobiographical information can be reliably gleaned from the epistles does not prevent us from acknowledging that some interesting and remarkable things must have happened to Paul to produce his extraordinary life trajectory and to empower him to have the impact on early Christianity that he evidently did.

        The overriding and interlinked objectives of the epistles, I think you would agree, are pastoral and theological; and it is Paul’s ability to imbue his writings with a sense of passion and personal conviction which makes them an effective medium to achieve these objectives. My point is that the literary merits of the texts do not in themselves provide a basis for us to judge Paul’s motivations or to say whether his beliefs were more or less genuine than those of his contemporaries and rivals.

      • Well, if you soften your earlier statements in this direction, meaning that Paul’s letters were intended to communicate effectively and so employed rhetorical devices, then, yes, no contest. Of course Paul’s letters were intended to serve immediate pastoral purposes, not to provide us fodder for a biography! But my point is that his letters didn’t function in isolation but in the context of his own immediate and personal relationships with those groups to who he sent his letters. So, he couldn’t readily have been very different in the letters from the man they knew.
        And, as you admit, Paul must have undergone a powerful religious experience, and refers to himself several times as continuing to have such experiences. So, there is a religious man and his religious life reflected , albeit in snapshots only, in his letters. I trust that we have now adequately aired this topic.

      • Michael permalink

        Dr Hurtado was the Christology that was preached by the early Jesus movement the same message and beliefs that Paul received during his conversion or powerful “religious experience”?….

      • I’ve argued in various publications (including my book, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity) that Paul likely came to accept the sort of claims about Jesus that he had formerly found repellent.

  2. Julian permalink

    Prof. Hurtado,

    What level of historical reliability concerning Paul do you think we should accord to the Book of Acts?

    • Julian: That’s a complex question. We probably have to take items in the Acts depiction of Paul on a case-by-case basis, testing whether we have any corroboration in Paul’s letters, whether there is congruence or not, etc. We also have to make a lot of assumptions and test them, e.g., what information did the author of Acts draw upon (he refers to having done so)?

      • Julian permalink

        Since the topic is Paul’s conversion, let’s stick with that case, as described in Acts. What’s your sense of its historical reliability?

      • I’d say that we can’t take the details uncritically. For one thing the various accounts don’t fully agree. But it’s likely that they all derive from a genuine experience, however difficult it is to reconstruct details.

      • Julian permalink

        Yes, the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts don’t fully agree. And yet it is the same author who records them all. So didn’t he realize his inconsistencies? Or was he trying to be faithful in recording Paul’s inconsistencies?

      • Ancient authors often report varying accounts of the same incidents, and don’t seem to be as bothered about it as we are!

      • Julian permalink

        Interesting. Then maybe we shouldn’t take the inconsistencies between Paul’s and Act’s accounts of other incidents so seriously, either?

      • You’re confusing two things: (1) variations in the way a given author recounts something, and (2) variations/differences between two (or more) authors in their accounts. Any such variations of either kind, however, are to be taken “seriously”, but that means investigated, as to what to make of the differences.

      • Julian permalink

        But now that I know that the author of Acts wasn’t all that concerned to get the details of one of the most significant events in Paul’s life exactly right, it’s no longer clear to me why I should worry all that much if he disagrees with Paul about some of the (what seem to be minor) details of other events in Paul’s life.

      • You’re still on the wrong track! The author of ACts, as with many ancient authors, was able to use varying accounts for complementary purposes. It isn’t that he wasn’t interested in details. He was interested in using details for varying purposes.

      • Julian permalink

        So the author of Acts varied the details of Paul’s conversion story to achieve certain purposes? Now that’s a very interesting thought. I don’t expect you to discuss all that here, but could you direct me to a good source on the topic?

      • Any good commentary on Acts should address the matter.

  3. Michael permalink

    Just find it difficult to grasp how Paul, a devoted Jew, (prior to his convsrsion), later came to believe that Jesus was the messiah and the pre-existing Son of God who was the agent who created the everything that later became human incarnate!? Were there other Jews who viewed Paul’s christological beliefs as polytheistic or blasphemous!?.. Since the Jewish view of monotheism for 1000’s of years was never understood to imply a son of god preexisted along side God Almighty who created everything!?… Just doesn’t make any sense to me how a Jew can come to hold these beliefs in the light of Jewish traditions and biblical monotheism!…

    • Well, Michael, to go by his own testimony, Paul/Saul remained a devoted Jew, even in his ministry as “apostle to the nations” (e.g., Philip 3:4ff; 2 Cor 11:21ff.). But you put your finger on the historical phenomenon that I’ve worked on for over 30 yrs now, offering the best answers that I can find to the various component questions. Paul’s own statement (Gal 1:13ff) is that he shifted from opponent of the Jesus-movement to proponent when “God revealed his Son to me”. So, he accepted the exalted status of Jesus as thoroughly compatible with his commitment to the uniqueness of the God of Israel precisely because he was convinced (by a “revelation”) that this one God had himself exalted Jesus and now required him to be acknowledged and reverenced. In short, if God approved, who was he to withstand it?
      In 2 Cor 3:7–4:6, Paul’s description of fellow members of Israel who don’t perceive/accept Jesus as “Lord” pictures them as having a veil over their minds. But “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16).
      We have to form our notions of what “Jewish traditions and biblical monotheism” could include based on the evidence, not preconceptions. And, as I showed in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord (3rd ed., 2015), “ancient Jewish Monotheism” could accommodate some amazing things.
      Moreover, Paul was and remained a Jew, and so even the remarkable view of Jesus that he accepted must be included as one of the developments initially within 2nd temple Jewish tradition.

      • Michael permalink

        “precisely because he was convinced (by a “revelation”) that this one God had himself exalted Jesus and now required him to be acknowledged and reverenced. In short, if God approved, who was he to withstand it?”

        I guess it comes down to what we make of the nature or origin of the ‘revelation’ received by Paul that convinced him of his new beliefs…

        Surely for those Jews who didnt receive those “Revelations” would have found it difficult to be convinced about a new innovative way to worship God Almighty alongside the literal pre-existing Messiah that subsisted as Son of God who created the everything!.. incredible!

      • Yes, Michael, I propose that Paul himself was profoundly offended by the level of Jesus-devotion of those circles of the Jesus-movement that he initially sought to “destroy” (his term, Gal. 1). And he refers to a “veiled” mind and to a “hardness” as afflicting fellow Jews who could not recognize Jesus as the “Lord” and unique “Son” and “Image” of God.

  4. There might be an alternative lens to view this through. According to Acts Paul was a Roman citizen by birth. This seems improbable for a radically observant Jew but if accepted it suggests some things.

    The most probably route to citizenship would be through an ancestor who was a freed slave made a Roman citizen as a result of service done for a well-connected master. The freedman would then enter a patron-client relationship with the former master. The timing of Pompey’s dismemberment of the of Hasmonean kingdom provides an environment for this. There is a good chance the freedman was Paul’s father, enslaved during one of Rome’s military actions.

    IF this was the case it would mean Paul would be raised from an early age with close exposure to the Roman concept of fides and all that went with the patron-client relationship. What we think of as conversion might be more properly thought of as a radical shift in allegiance. Paul was “all in” as a Pharisee. After the road to Damascus he was “all in” for the risen Christ.

    • Steve: You illustrate the sort of speculative reasoning that in my opinion doesn’t get us far. It rests on a series of suppositions, each one required to complete the speculative chain, and none of which can be corroborated from Paul’s own letters. Finally, I don’t see that it explains anything that is otherwise unexplained… the sole justification for an uncorroborated hypothesis. So, why erect such an elaborate “castle in Spain”? It’s an amusement of sorts I guess, but not really useful for reasons given.

      • The fact that a religious Jew was a Roman citizen by birth two hundred years before the edict of Caracalla is not trivial. There are a limited number of ways Paul’s assertion to the Roman commander could be true. All of them seem to me to place Paul in a very Roman historical context.

        As a layperson I am stuck with speculation as I have yet to hear a biblical scholar engage the matter.

      • Steve: The issue isn’t whether Paul was a Roman citizen (although he himself never says as much). But your more complex speculative steps thereafter. Paul was in “a very Roman context,” but that doesn’t equal your rather elaborate speculative picture of things.

  5. Eddie Mishoe permalink

    I would find it very difficult to not see Saul as a redeemed man before meeting Jesus. He may not have been in the Body of Christ, but he was clearly a redeemed man. Of course, that which he did against the Church was done in “ignorance.”

    • Eddie: You express a view on something that is a judgement best left to God. As historical scholars, we simply try to understand how Paul saw his religious shift, and how it can be set in the context of our analytical categories.

  6. Thank you for this. On the subject of Paul’s “numerous positive references to women co-workers and leaders”, some subscribers to your blog may not be familiar with E J Epp’s excellent (in my opinion!) short book “Junia The First Woman Apostle”, which is an evidence-based exploration of some aspects of this matter.

    • Yes. Here’s the full bibliographical entry: Epp, Eldon J. Junia–The First Woman Apostle. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005.

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