Skip to content

Was Paul “Converted”?

January 23, 2019

In the ecclesiastical calendar, 25 January (this Friday) marks the “Conversion of St. Paul.”  Over the last several decades, however, scholars have differed over whether “conversion” is the right term to describe Paul’s change from fierce opponent of the young Jesus-movement to one of the most well-known advocates.

In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance.  At the time of Paul’s experience (a scant couple of years after Jesus’ crucifixion), the Jesus-movement wasn’t what we know and think of as a self-standing “religion.”  It was more a rather exclusive new sect or movement within the larger Jewish tradition.  (And it must be emphasized that Paul’s “persecution” of Jesus-followers was not directed at “Christians” but solely at fellow Jews whom he must have regarded as having seriously problematic in their beliefs and practices.)

More significantly, Paul refers to that experience that prompted his shift in direction as a “revelation” (apokalypsis) and a “calling” (kaleo) as in Galatians 1:11-17.  On the other hand, Paul can refer to those Gentiles who accepted his gospel message as having “converted” or “turned” (epistrepho) to God and having turned away from their ancestral gods (“idols”), as in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10.  So, in Paul’s thinking Gentiles/pagans “convert” from their polytheistic practice to worship and serve “a true and living God.”  But Jews such as he instead come to right understanding of what their ancestral deity requires of them.

Paul’s references to his own experience seem to align it more with that of the classical prophets, who received revelations and divine callings.  So, many scholars would insist that we should refer to Paul’s “calling,” not his “conversion.”  To be sure, the reorientation must have been unsettling; hence his reference in the Galatians passage to going off to Arabia for some time, probably to sort through the meaning of what had happened!

The late Alan Segal, recognizing the problem, nevertheless argued that we could refer to Paul as converted, in the sociological sense of shifting from a staunch stance against the Jesus-movement to embracing it.  It wasn’t a shift from one religion to another really, but Segal proposed, a bit more like moving from one Christian denomination to another, as when a Catholic person becomes a Baptist.

In her recent book on Paul, however, (Paul:  The Pagans’ Apostle) Paula Fredriksen insists that “conversion” isn’t appropriate.  Her emphasis is that Paul didn’t change deities, and also continued to see himself and function as a Jew.  His willingness to undergo several synagogue floggings attests this, for the punishment was given only to Jews, and only if they submitted to it.  Paul came quickly to see that his previous attitude toward Jesus and the Jesus-movement was wrong, and that the God of his ancestors in fact affirmed both.

Given that the Jesus-movement became “Christianity,” a separate religion, however, and for many centuries largely made up of non-Jews, the term “conversion” may reflect this outlook.  But Paul thought of himself as bringing former pagans (and fellow Jews too) to a proper alignment with the God of Israel and his Messiah, not inventing a new religion.  So on 25 January, perhaps we should remember this.

From → Uncategorized

  1. Conversion has traditionally been defined as a change of religion. Paul never changed his religion. He was born a Jew and died a Jew. What happened on the Damascus road is that he came to understand that the risen Jesus was Israel’s promised Messiah. Paul embraced the messiahship of Jesus, but never changed his religion. His calling, which followed the Damascus road event, was to take the message of Jesus’ messiahship and resurrection to the (gentile) nations.

  2. Tom Hennell permalink

    Is not the point Larry, that the Mishnah prescribes two forms of punishment that can be exercised by synagogue authorities; flogging (of no more than 39 stripes), and extirpation (exclusion from the community)? By Makkoth 3:15, anyone who has been flogged is free from the threat of extirpation “once he has been demeaned, he becomes like your brother”. Flogging is the lesser penalty. So, following his flogging, Paul could continue to be associated with the synagogue. Which in turn implies that he continued to value that association.

    But that prompts (to me) a further question; when the gospels, and Paul in his letters, refer tp the ‘persecution’ of Christians by synagogue authorities, should we understand that ‘persecution’ as flogging or extirpation?

    • The more explicit texts (e.g., Paul’s reports of being flogged, and the Gospels references to being arraigned before synagogues) suggest that, at least in the earlier decades, Jesus-believers were treated as fellow but erring Jews, not as apostates.

  3. Not “converted, perhaps, but Paul did “repent and believe the Gospel.” LITERALLY!

  4. Ben Hudson permalink

    Agree that conversion isn’t the most helpful word, but I wonder if ‘calling’ says enough. Paul believers himself to have died and risen with Christ, to be a new creation, in some way participating in the eschatological age. Perhaps this kind of eschatological-transition, needs it’s own word? I’m not sure calling it a calling says enough?

  5. john permalink

    I was wondering what your educated guess is on who invented the idea of a suffering messiah Larry? We get hints of this in Isaiah, Solomonic and Enochic writings that seem to predate Paul, but nothing overtly clear about this, until Paul. My guess is the disciples must have preceded Paul with the idea, but I’m thinking here of Bart Ehrman’s blog question, here:

    • The idea was “invented” because the one that early believers regarded as Messiah (Jesus of Nazareth) was crucified. Reasoning therefore, if he was really Messiah, then his suffering must have been part of the divine plan. From there, they went to OT texts to find further understanding and confirmation.

  6. This is timely as I was just reading Romans 10 where Paul says: “For I bear them [his fellow Jews] witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God [presented in the man, Jesus], and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” The assumption seems to be that indeed they have the same God as the Christians. Yet, with Christ being a person of the trinity, with all the fullness of deity dwelling within him, could we not also say that the rejection of that person while still worshiping God is like worshiping a deficient version of God? That makes me think, then, were Jews worshiping a fuller version of God (without knowing it) before Christ came into the world and they rejected him?

    • Well, Mac, it would be anachronistic to ascribe 4th century christology to Paul! Notions of “Trinity” and “persons” thereof don’t appear till much later than Paul. In his eyes the blindness of fellow Jews was their inability to recognize Jesus as God’s Messiah and unique Son (and “Son” was for him expressive more of intimacy and approval with God, not an ontological statement).

  7. Steve Kell permalink

    “The Jews…saw him as a deviant Jew, not an advocate of a new religion.” Agreed, but someone needs to tell James Tabor that! (‘Paul and Jesus: How Paul Transformed Christianity’)

    Yet I’m wondering if converted may actually be the better term. What apparently took place in Acts 19:1-7 might give indication that simply a better understanding of the Messiah via John’s Jewish baptism was insufficient. Thus the “conversion stories of Paul” found in Acts 9/22/26 (two of which are in Paul’s own words/understanding) appear to involve a transformation that addresses the sin in his life (cf: 22:16; 26:17-18), not simply a clearer revised understanding of the Christ.

    • Paul professed himself to be “blameless” in Torah observance (Philippians 3:6), and the only sin to which admitted was that he had persecuted the Jesus-movement (1 Cor. 15:9; reflected also in 1 Tim. 1:12-16). But, obviously, he only reckoned that as “sin” after the revelation that changed his thinking!

  8. I’m grateful you’re making the reality of Paul and early Jesus faith known, Mr. Hurtado. Thank you.

    With regards to Paul’s Jewish identity, I understand some scholars go even further, claiming Paul was aiming for a reformed Judaism centered around Jesus that welcomed both Jews and non-Jews. Mark Nanos says, for example,

    “I remain focussed on investigating the implications for Jewish – Christian relations of my reading of Paul as a Torah-observant Jew founding Jewish subgroup communities. These assemblies were attracting some non-Jews, but nevertheless dedicated to practicing and promoting Judaism for non-Jews as well as Jews. In other words, I propose to that we should be investigating Paul’s Judaism in the intra-communal context of other Jewish groups, including other groups of followers of Jesus, which together with Paul’s groups represented a coalition we might describe as Apostolic Judaism.”

    If Paul wasn’t pushing for a new religion, but rather a reform of the old religion in light of Jesus’ appearance, it’s interesting to consider modern Christianity and where it aligns and where it deviates from Paul’s direction.

    • I disagree with Nanos’ idea that Paul was founding “subgroups” of local synagogues. Paul was attempting to convert the “nations/gentiles” primarily, and he refers to these groups as “ekklesias” (assemblies), not as parts of the synagogue. Moreover, Paul hoped for fellow Jews to join him in recognizing Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and regarded those Jews who did not do so as “blinded” and acting in “ignorance”.

  9. MichaelM permalink

    Could we say that Paul was ‘called’ by Jesus to be ‘converted’ to a fuller expression of Judaism which is Christianity? … Where can I find information on floggings by consent?: “[Paul’s] willingness to undergo several synagogue floggings attests this, for the punishment was given only to Jews, and only if they submitted to it.”

    • In the Mishnah, tractate Makkoth describes the punishment. It was based on Deuteronomy 25:3ff.

      • MichaelM permalink

        I see in the Makkoth where 40 or 40-1 lashes were prescribed. One could receive less lashings due to health reasons. Makkot 23b states, “There are no lashes in cases of those liable to receive karet” but that does not appear to be agreed upon by the rabbis. Paul, as a Roman citizen, could have prevented the Roman beating. However, in the Makkot, I do not see where the accused can consent or decline a flogging. If Paul had the option of declining a flogging why would he have ‘consented’?

      • Obviously, the flogging was given solely to those who willingly identified themselves as Jews. Paul wished to continue to be accepted as a Jew, so submitting to the lashes (39, not 40) was unavoidable.

  10. Tim Ellison permalink

    Thanks for that. It explains why I self-identify as a disciple of Saul of Tarsus who taught me how to read Israel’s scripture in light of the crucified rabbi Jeshua ben Joseph.

  11. cornel tuns permalink

    thank you for your ministry, Dr. Hurtado what a testimony of Paul, the Apostle Soli Deo gloria

  12. Kirk Kimberly Durston permalink

    I had not thought about this before, but I think you make a good point. Part of the problem is that the contemporary semantic range of the English word “conversion” could encompass experiences such as Paul’s, so the distinction is blurred. Looking at the four meanings of epistrepho in BDAG, I can see how it could possibly be applied to Paul’s change of direction with regard to his view of Jesus Christ, but I think your approach is a more accurate way of describing what happened to Paul versus gentile conversions.

  13. Paul didn’t mean to invent a new religion- so he wouldn’t have used the term “conversion”. But Christian tradition is built on a reading/interpretation of the past, so from a Christian perspective the term “conversion” could be retrospectively okay. Even Jesus, according to scholars, was a Jew who didn’t mean to do this or to say that- still, Christianity worships him as Lord and Savior. I believe we should keep separate what Paul and Jesus could actually thought of themselves (a bit speculative exercise, btw) and what Christian tradition actually celebrates. The risk is to get historians to tell the Churches what they should celebrate vs. what they got wrong, based on any “new perspective” on Paul, Matthew, Jesus, etc.

    • But don’t you think that Christian tradition sometimes needs some informing, some correction? Or are Christians bound simply to affirm whatever was formulated previously without ever re-thinking things. This isn’t a case of historians ordering churches about, just an effort to get Christians to get in touch with their past . . . original past.

      • Thanks for reply. I think this is a delicate topic. Christians should be informed about actual historical facts, but without *unnecessary* challenges to their belief. If we say that the date of Paul’s conversion is unknown (cause it is) and that even the “conversion” didn’t really happen, then believers are left with nothing. At the opposite, Paul had visions of Jesus which prompted him to stop persecuting Jesus believers and embrace what every Christian still believes today: we have one God and one Lord, Jesus Christ, and God exalted him <>. Now, is this what Jews believe? No. Not even close to it. So Paul had a conversion. Technical discussions are good, and I enjoy them, but in this case looks like a semantic issue.. Pardon me for this apologetic post! 🙂

  14. Ron Minton permalink

    Maybe, but I would say that Paul’s Christianity is so different from Judaism, that it was not just a sect of it – even though some Romans may have thought so at first. I was working on Titus 2:11 – 3:7 recently and I do not think that those even Jews (past or present) who would accept some person as Messiah, would accept what Paul taught as even close to their concept of Messiah.

    • You’re right that Paul’s Messiah wasn’t acceptable to most Jews (as Paul indicates in Romans 9–11), but they saw him as a deviant Jew, not an advocate of a new religion.

  15. RevJohnBav permalink

    This is very helpful, thankyou. I wonder if you have seen Tom Wright’s speculative comments on Paul’s trip to Arabia in his new biography of Paul? I found the idea that Paul was in some ways seeing himself like Elijah, and going where Elijah went to hear God’s voice. was a fascinating thought… Going to the place where the law was given to see how Jesus had fulfilled the law and brought about the new covenant.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: