January 25th marks in our church calendars the traditional date for the “Conversion of St Paul”. The evangelist Luke relates the dramatic account of Paul’s conversion twice, in his follow-up volume to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-21; cf. 26:12-18).
But was Paul converted?
I’m reading through Acts in preparation for an Intro the New Testament course and I’ve been re-thinking the “Paul was converted” argument, mainly thanks to this 2019 blog post from the late Larry Hurtado here. Hurtado argues for the following couple of points:
- if by religion we mean changing from one religion to another, then we cannot speak of conversion in Paul’s own experience, since the earliest Jesus followers did not form a new religion but a new sect within Judaism
- Nevertheless, we can still speak of conversion in Paul’s thinking, if we strictly apply this to Gentiles who Paul urged to turn or convert from their idols to worship the one true God (1 Thess 1:9-10). But in his own experience as Jewish follower of Jesus, Paul speaks of coming to a new revelation and a new calling (Gal 1.11-17), in a way that strikingly mirrors the experience of OT Prophets.
So Paul was called, not converted. That’s not to say that Paul wasn’t interested in conversion, however. Rather, he had in mind a “twin track” approach that dealt differently with Jews and Gentiles: Gentiles “converted” from pagan religions to the worship of the one true God (see 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10) but for Jews, like Paul, turning to Jesus entailed coming to a right understanding of the purposes of the One God of Israel for his people, and for the nations (Galatians 1:11-17).
This reading of Paul’s calling has very important implications for a number of areas of Christian life. In the remainder of this post, I will focus on just three: (1) Jewish-Christian relations, (2) the importance of the Old Testament and (3) Christology and Theology.
If Paul was called rather than converted, this would mean re-thinking Jewish-Christian relations today, in light of Paul’s ministry back then. Reading Paul’s conversion as calling reminds us of the true relationship between Christianity and Judaism, that Judaism birthed the Jesus movement and gave it its strong emphasis on particularity. Paul was to re-emphasise Jesus’s conviction that “salvation is from the Jews” while also extending this, again in a way that Jesus also sanctioned, to the nations. The particular (or one nation) is the route to the universal (or all nations). To my understanding, Paul is of one mind with other New Testament texts here, since he allows for Jewish Christians to continue to practice certain customs (see Paul’s circumcision of Jewish Christian Timothy in Acts 16:1-3), while absolutely condemning any who sought to impose these customs on Gentile Christians (see Galatians 2:11-14 where Paul lambasts Peter for seeking to “Judaize”, that is make the Gentiles live like Jewish Christians).
Luke, in his Gospel and his follow-up volume, the Acts of the Apostles, makes a similar move to Paul. Luke does not see Christianity as a new religion or even as a revised or reformed Judaism. Rather, Christians belong to faithful Israel, consisting of believing Jews and Gentiles who have joined in faithfully following Jesus. It’s useful to distinguish here in Luke’s thought between believing Israel and unbelieving Israel. Those who had rejected the message were, like those who had killed the prophets (6:23-26; 11:47-48, 50; 13:34) while faithful Israel were like those who had received the prophets of old, the sons of the prophets (Acts 3:25-26). Again, we do not see a dichotomy between a “rule-following” Judaism and a “relationship-based” Christianity. Rather, in Luke we see an attempt to fashion a new Christian identity which is continuous with Israel, while also highlighting that some from among the people of Israel had tragically rejected Jesus.
The Old Testament as Scripture
To see Paul’s conversion as calling also re-emphasises the importance of the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures for Christians. More specifically, we come to see the Old Testament as the first part in a two-part drama, rather than as a defunct text that we can all too easily dispense with. Paul came to see that Jesus was the fulfilment of Israel’s story, not the deus ex machina or “strange and foreign god” without any connection to the God of Israel revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. This theme of fulfilment is emphasised throughout the New Testament, practically on every page. Fulfilment is a special concern of Matthew’s gospel, perhaps the most Jewish of the gospels. Jesus comes not to abrogate the law, but to fulfil it (Mt 5:17-20). But we see this in Luke’s gospel as well, where Jesus preaches his Nazareth manifesto by offering himself as the interpretation and fulfilment of the scripture reading from Isaiah (“behold, I have come to preach good news to the poor”). Perhaps the paradigmatic example of this emphasis on fulfilment and inclusion is found at the end of Luke’s gospel, chapter 24 verses 44-47:
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Here, we have Jesus offering salvation to all, beginning at Jerusalem, including Jew and Gentile, and this being the fulfilment of scripture, rather than something completely new.
Paul, similarly, sees Jesus as “the climax of the Covenant”, to use NT Wright’s phrase. The Hebrew Scriptures saturate Paul’s writings and we could give any number of examples to show that Paul sees Jesus’s life through the prism of Old Testament texts, and that the covenant purposes of Israel’s God have come to fruition in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There is, of course, Paul’s classic statement that the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus are all “in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:1-4). Paul sees the death and resurrection of Jesus, in particular, as the events that stand in continuity with and as the fulfilment of the story of Israel. The importance of the Hebrew Scriptures to Paul and Jesus mean that we cannot understand Jesus’s ministry, and Paul’s witness to it, without a firm grasp on the Old Testament and its own covenantal theology.
Christology and Theology
And finally, seeing Paul’s conversion as calling has radical implications for Paul’s Christology and Theology, which are both quite at home with the other New Testament texts. Paul does not “switch deities” when he meets the Lord on the Road to Damascus. Instead, Paul modifies ancient Jewish monotheism, but without contradicting its underlying logic—the Oneness of God. Monotheism in the texts and thought of the Second Temple period, the time between the construction of the second temple (ca. 516 CE) and its destruction (70 CE), drew a radical distinction between the Creator and Sovereign, the God of Israel, on the one hand, and, on the other, his Creation, who depended on him for their preservation and redemption. Paul places Jesus on the Creator side of the equation. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Elsewhere, in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 8, Paul radically reshapes the Shema, the prayer that encapsulates Jewish monotheism (“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord”; Deut 6:4). We see this prayer, and its monotheistic assumptions, picked up and re-worked by Paul within the context of discussing food offered to idols. Paul writes, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live”. Paul here has modified, but not contradicted, Israel’s faith so that Jesus is now identified with the Lord, with Yahweh or Kurios, and within the framework of ancient Jewish monotheism.
We can compare this with John who speaks of “the Word” that was “with God”, and “that was God”, becoming “flesh and tabernacl[ing] among us” (John 1:1, 14). New Testament scholars sometimes speak of John as having the “highest Christology”, or the most developed picture of Jesus as divine (in crude terms, a low Christology refers to a less divine and more human Jesus). But to say that John has the highest Christology is to drive an unnecessary wedge between the NT texts which, for all their different emphases, together see Jesus as fully bound up in the identity of the one God of Israel. Paul is at home within the NT, and makes a vital contribution to early Christian conceptions of God and Jesus.
So, in summary, Paul was called rather than converted but that does not mean he did not believe in conversion for non-Jewish Christians (see 1 Thess 1.9; for a complementary argument, see Ian Paul’s post on this topic). The implications of Paul’s calling are huge for our understanding of who Christ is within the identity of the One God of Israel, for Jewish-Christian relations and for the central place of the Old Testament in Christian life and thought. In short, we come to see afresh that Paul’s conversion is, in fact, not a conversion. Paul does not “switch deities” when he meets the Lord on the Road to Damascus, but comes to see that Jesus as bound up in the unique divine identity of the One God of Israel, as the one who stands as the fulfilment of the Old Testament and now forms a people made up of Jew and Gentile alike.
Photo Credit: St Paul’s Church Cambridge, Facebook page