Dr IAN ELMER…
Now here's a really interesting commentary from Dr Ian Elmer that looks at the learning and intellectual sophistication of the early Christian leaders and particularly St Paul. Is it a myth that Jesus chose uneducated trades people as the leaders for his movement? Dr Elmer explores some of the evidence...
Two different readings of Paul's "conversion"…
The story of Paul's "conversion" as it is recorded in Acts (9:1-19; cf. 26:4-23) suggests a supernatural experience on the Damascus Road, which was to instantly transform the former persecutor of the early Church into a proselyte and proselytiser of a new religion. However, the story as Paul relates it in Galatians (1:11-24; cf. 1 Cor 9:1; 15:8-11) suggests that the process of this so-called "conversion" was somewhat different from Luke's presentation and, I would suggest, more akin to our own experience.
First, Galatians seems to suggest that "Paul did not understand the nature of his revelation as anything other than a specific vocation to be the apostle to the Gentiles. In this sense the experience was interpreted by Paul as a "call" rather than a conversion" (Davies, 1977-78). The language he uses is unashamedly drawn from the "call" narratives in the Prophets (Is 49:1; Jer 5:1). Hence, it is difficult to determine precisely what Paul actually did experience. There is no doubt that he did have a numinous experience that was life-changing, but the precise nature of that experience is difficult to quantify.
Nowhere in his letters does Paul explicitly describe the exact nature of the revelation he received. We know only that it was an experience of the Son accorded to him by the Father (Gal 1:16), in which he 'saw Jesus the Lord' (1 Cor 9:1). Paul equates this experience with that of the post-resurrection Christophanies granted to the official witnesses, suggesting that the only difference between his vision and theirs was that his vision took place much later (1 Cor 15:5-8). In 1 Cor 15:5-8, it seems clear that the other recipients of the Christophanies understood their experience as a "call" to be an "apostle".
The credentials to be an "apostle"…
Similarly in Acts 1:21-22, the credentials of an "apostle" are given as including a Christophany. Justus and Matthias are put up as candidates to replace Judas because either of them could "act as a witness to the resurrection" (Acts 1:22). Apostleship in the early Church was equated with witnessing to the resurrection; one must have been the recipient of a Christophany to be eligible for the title "Apostle". Paul's understanding of the nature of these Christophanies, shaped by the thinking and experience of the early Church and those who had been apostles "before" him (Gal 1:17-19), could hardly have been too different.
Thirdly, as I argued in a earlier article on this issue (which can be read here), Paul's so-called "conversion" occurred while he was engaged in persecuting the Hellenists (Gal 1:13-16; cf. Acts 9:1-2; 22:4-5; 26:11-12) — which raises another "problem". Paul was not persecuting the "early Church", most of whom remained good, Law-observant Christian-Jews. He was persecuting what appeared to him to be a renegade group of apostates, the Hellenists, who had relaxed their observance of the Law so as to admit Gentiles to their number (cf. Acts 11:19-20). The end result of his "conversion" was for him to see the error of his ways, not to change his religious commitment in any fundamental fashion.
Paul, himself speaks of his own "zeal" for his former Pharisaic life (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4-6). There is no reason to assume that he did not consider that his former life was any less "spirit-led" than his present one. On the contrary, he seems to speak in both Galatians and Philippians with great pride of his "former life in Judaism", even of his Persecution of the church, which he holds up as an example of how he "stood out among other Jews of his generation" (Gal 1:14). Perhaps it is possible to argue, as some scholars do, that Paul was not converted to a new religion per se, but he felt called to become involved in the ministry of another Jewish sect — but that is another issue. In any event, he does not seem to have "joined" any community for three years after his experience on the road to Damascus (Gal 1:18).
Fourthly, these factors noted above indicate that the immediate and primary feature of Paul's so-called conversion was his call to the Gentile mission. Paul's understanding of what his Gentile mission meant in terms of its the implications for the Law and its bearing on the Gospel was only a corollary, which was worked out with increasing sharpness over the early years of his work as a missionary to the church in Antioch.
Just as a final aside, it is my suspicion that Paul did not even adopt the Law-free mission until he came into contact with the Antiochene church. The fact that his opponents at Galatia could imply that Paul "still preached circumcision" (Gal 5:11) suggests that there was a time, even after his so-called conversion, when he preached a Law-observant gospel and, therefore, probably continued to see Christianity as just another form of Pharisaic Judaism like Jesus' original circle of disciples. This would explain why he seems to have had no problem with the other Christian Jews during his first visit to Cephas three years after his conversion (Gal 1:17-19). His problems only occurred after he aligned himself with the dissident and apostate Hellenists at Antioch (Gal 2:1-14; cf. Acts 15:1-2).
Now that, of course, contradicts exactly what I said in point one. But that is the problem. Paul gives us conflicting and fragmentary information. Perhaps it never quite seemed clear to him, or he changed his mind about, the exact import of his "supernatural experience". Either way, it seems to testify that Paul did not receive any direct and easily interpreted revelation on the Damascus Road that led to an immediate and dramatic change of lifestyle. There is no doubt that the experience was very real and it was transformative for Paul; but the transformation of Paul took some time to develop, and the revelation required time to be fully appreciated by Paul.
On that basis, I don't see a dramatic "conversion" experience. But rather a slow process of adaptation and formation that had far more to do with personal relationships and experience than any "zap!" "kapow!" instantaneous conversion on the road to Damascus. Like many (if not all) of us Paul had to "work out" the full implications of his Damascus Road experience from the many subtle indications that God gave him throughout the course of his life - which he committed to God long before he ever became a "Christian". But that is just how I read it, which may say more about my own experience of the divine in my life than it does about Paul's. Still, it is this constant struggle to understand the import of God's revelation that presents Paul's "conversion" as a model of our own.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2008 Ian Elmer