New Testament

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