The “Conversion” of Paul
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.