Paul Did Not Convert

St Paul at St James church

In the calendar of the western church, today is the feast-day of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is a bit of a problem. Especially, it’s problematic for any Christians who happen to be biblical scholars. It should be a problem for everyone who still marks this day. It’s pretty much accepted, now, at least in academic circles, that Paul didn’t convert. That is, on the road to Damascus, whatever happened to the extremist Saul of Tarsus (between horses in the paintings, no horses, voices from heaven, no voices, scales on his eyes and assorted other details one can take Acts to task for, since Acts repeats the story several times with variations) Paul didn’t stop being a Jew and suddenly become a Christian. Perhaps the easiest objection is that he couldn’t have! There was no such thing as Christianity for Paul to be converted to.

But there are other, more substantial issues. For one thing, in his own writings Paul never says he converted. Rather, he presents himself very much like an Old Testament prophet, called by the God of Israel (not some new deity but the one Paul knew all along), to proclaim that God’s Messiah, Jesus. The fact that so many Jews in Paul’s own day didn’t think Jesus was the Messiah is, in this case, beside the point. All of them were thinking of Israel’s God, no matter their disagreement on whether that God was, or wasn’t, responsible for the crucified teacher from the Galilee. Paul was a Jew, a Jew who believed with every molecule in his body that the Messiah had come, and that Israel’s God was about to change all of human history. In what he believed was the world’s defining moment, he thought his particular task, as a faithful Jew, was to invite the non-Jews into the family of Israel as they were, as non-Jews.

So Paul was not a Christian. This, by the way, is the title of Pamela Eisenbaum’s book on the subject. Perhaps there will someday also be a book with a title something like “Paul is not a (contemporary) Jew”. Judaism, like Christianity, has changed since the first century. Both contemporary Judaism and contemporary Christianity are children of a heterodox first century faith that no longer exists.

Paul once wrote: “I have become all things to all people”. Well, he got what he wanted. Paul has been made and remade so many times in our images it’s hard to know what he ever really was. The poor apostle’s been co-opted by supercessionists, by gnostics, by anti-semites, conservatives, liberals, sceptics and humanists alike. He’s been promoted as everything from the first liberated male of western religion to the one person responsible for everything bad about Christianity. The truth, as always, is probably not just in between, but lost, lost somewhere way back there, in the first century. However, there’s one thing we can be fairly certain of on this Feast-Day: whatever else he did, Paul did not convert.

Paul statue

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10 comments

  1. Agreed, and further to this, why would a piece of stock slice itself off in order to be grafted on as a branch? This habit of converting Paul is a deep seated prejudice, but utterly baffling.

  2. I think you’re using the modern definition of conversion, being “a person who has been persuaded to change their religious faith or other beliefs.”

    There are other definitions of convert that fit very well: “cause to change in form, character, or function.”

    1. Thanks for your comment, WiseCraig You’re right. I am using the contemporary, more restricted definition of the term. It seems to me that is the way most people will understand any mention of Paul’s ‘conversion’. This has historically been the case.

  3. Theological, hair-splitting semantics. However you describe it, Paul had a life, and mind changing experience on the road to Damascus. He did not leave behind his deeply held belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but he certainly altered his understanding of who Jesus is, to the point where he not only preached Jesus as the Messiah, but taught, and persuaded the elders at Jerusalem, that gentiles did not need to follow the cultic practices of the temple religion, as they had been required to do when “converting” to the Mosaic religion.

  4. Many thanks for this important piece! As an academic in this field, I affirm your assertion that “it’s pretty much accepted, now, at least in academic circles, that Paul didn’t convert.” Paul certainly changed his mind about a divisive issue, and evidently experienced something behaviour-altering/life-altering, but we do those things quite frequently as well and we aren’t “converting” either. For instance, I have recently changed my mind about a zealously and vigorously-argued belief about the Canadian political party which best reflects my values, and I may vote differently in future elections, but this doesn’t mean I’ve “converted” in the sense so often inaccurately thrust upon Paul. I will still donate my little five buckses a month to the old party, but I will also listen with a more open mind to communications from the party with which I’m newly impressed.

    I’ve also experienced spectacular instantaneous shifts in attitude/worldview after encounters with, say, the Northern Lights, but it does not follow that I have ceased belonging to one exclusive identity and assumed belonging in another separate category over and against the previous one, even if my outlook and habits are permanently and significantly altered. That *could* happen, but you’re right that it didn’t happen with Paul.

    And, no, talking about this word in relation to Paul isn’t merely a pedantic semantic quibble. Words and their connotations, especially within collections like the New Testament that still have power over people, have resulted in dastardly damage over the centuries, to women, to LGBT folk, and, in this case, most horrifically to Jews.

    For further reading on interpreting Paul’s Damascus experience in less anachronistic terms and instead placing it firmly in its broader ancient Mediterranean and Early Jewish context, I’d like to recommend Zeba Crook’s _Reconceptualising Conversion: Patronage, Loyalty, and Conversion in the Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean_. (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2004).

    Here’s a link to a review: http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2006/2006-02-33.html

    Thanks again!

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