Was Paul ‘converted’?

A few days ago, a friend linked me to an interview with a US pastor about Revelation and the end times. I spend a few minutes browsing some of this person’s other preaching, and in one discussion he asserted very definitely: ‘That’s why Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity’.

It is not an uncommon assumption, and the language of Paul’s ‘conversion’ is embedded in next week’s Feast day (25th January) which is identified in the lectionary as ‘The Conversion of St Paul’. But the idea that Paul ‘converted from Judaism to Christianity’ has two major problems with it. The first is that it is historically anachronous; there was no such thing as ‘Christianity’ for Paul to convert to, and even now I have some reservations about where there really is a thing called ‘Christianity’. More seriously, this language sounds strongly supersessionist, suggesting that Paul ceased to be a Jew, and that ‘Christianity’ is a separate religion that demands Jews cease to be Jews to join. Apart from being a bizarre reading of the New Testament, this is inherently anti-Jewish.

Concerns with this language led the late New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado to question the language of ‘conversion’ in an short article published this time last year.

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.

Hurtado’s article makes the important points about continuity in belief for Paul, and addresses the question of anachronism. I think I would also immediately add an important qualifier: in turning from paganism to be followers of Jesus, Gentiles didn’t go from being ‘irreligious’ to ‘religious’, but rather the opposite, at least by the standards of their day; it is doubtful that faith in Jesus even counted as a religio. But there still remains the question of whether we should use the language of ‘conversion’ for Paul’s Damascus Road experience (which, after all, has itself passed into the English language to denote some kind of ‘conversion’).

First, we need to ask where the language of ‘conversion’ comes from in the first place. Pause for a moment: can you think of a biblical text which uses this language? You won’t be able to unless you are very familiar with the Authorised Version. I discovered it when listening to LPs of Billy Graham sermons with an elderly parishioner many years ago. ‘Except ye be converted’ bellowed Graham, ‘ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven’. He was quoting from Matt 18.3, which in modern translations is rendered: ‘Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (TNIV). It is the only place where the AV uses this language of ‘converted’ in connection with entering the kingdom.

The Greek word translated ‘converted’ or ‘change’ is strepho, closely related to the word epistrepho that Hurtado notes Paul uses for the ‘conversion’ of pagans to faith in the living God. In fact, strepho and its compounds occur 124 times in the New Testament, and it is almost always used in the literal sense of someone turning or turning around. So we are to ‘turn’ the other cheek (Matt 5.39) and not ‘turn’ away from one in need (Matt 5.42); Jesus ‘turns’ to the woman with an issue of blood (Matt 9.22) to pronounce her healing; a demon might ‘return’ to the house it has left (Matt 12.44); and Jesus ‘turns’ to Peter to rebuke him (Matt 16.23); and so on. 1 Thess 1.9 is almost the only place where the term is used metaphorically, signifying repentance, faith and conversion to being believers in and followers of Jesus.

Almost—but not quite the only place. Another, most interestingly, comes in the citation in Matt 13.15, Mark 4.12, John 12.40 and Acts 28.27 of Isaiah 6.9–10:

Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them. (Matt 13.15)

Here, [epi]strepho translates the Hebrew term shuv, which has both a literal and a metaphorical sense of ‘turn’, and is more commonly translated by the Greek verb metanoeo, which is usually translated ‘repent’. And, of course, this call to repentance is attested by the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as being at the heart of Jesus’ preaching.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1.14–15)

We might then say that ‘conversion’ in some sense is at the heart of Jesus ministry. In his preaching and his ministry, he calls his fellow Jews to ‘repent’, to turn, to be converted, but not from Judaism to something else. And he uses the term translated ‘converted’ quite clearly to his disciples. The message of the kingdom calls for a radical change and re-orientation, even though that is for Jews who will remain Jews after their conversion. Peter continues this tradition of preaching at Pentecost and beyond; in speaking to the Jews in Jerusalem about his healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, he uses both metanoeo and epistrepho to indicate the response that the news about Jesus calls for:

Now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. Repent [metanoeo], then, and turn [epistrepho] to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3.17–19).

So, for both Jesus and Peter, repentance and ‘conversion’ are appropriate responses to the news of the coming of the promised kingdom in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Hurtado is correct to note the difference in language that Paul uses for Jews like himself who come to recognise the claims of Jesus and the kingdom, compared with the language he uses of pagans who come to worship the God of Israel through Jesus. But alongside that, we need to also note the similarity of language which reflects Paul’s continuity with Jesus and Peter. When Paul is preaching at the Areopagus in Athens, he talks about God’s patience with past ignorance in contrast to the present call to repent:

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent (Acts 17.30)

This is almost identical to Peter’s summary in Acts 3 (noting past ignorance, present knowledge, and the call to respond) and Paul is clear that the God calls ‘all people everywhere’ to repent, Jew and Gentile alike, with the advent of the kingdom in Jesus. His argument in Romans 1–3 follows the same kind of lines; first, he uses Jewish arguments again pagan idolatry, demonstrated in the rejection of God’s creation including the rejection of human sexed bodily forms, to show their need of repentance; then he uses the Jewish scriptures to highlight the problem of Jewish sin; so that he can conclude that ‘all have sinned’ in Rom 3.23, meaning ‘both Jew and Gentile’, so that all, both Jew and Gentile, need to repent and receive forgiveness through the grace of God offered in Jesus.

Perhaps most striking is the way that Paul uses the example of his own experience, in 1 Timothy, as a template demonstrating the nature of God’s grace and the required response to it.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. (1 Tim 1.15–16)

There are three interesting things to note in Paul’s exposition of grace here. The first is that the ‘trustworthy saying’ about Jesus saving sinners is very close to summaries in the gospels and on the lips of Jesus. We just heard in the nativity stories that Jesus would be given this name ‘because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1.21), and after meeting Zacchaeus, Jesus says that ‘the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost’ (Luke 19.10). Secondly, Paul here makes no distinction between Jewish sinners and Gentiles sinners, following his summary in Rom 3.23. Thirdly, Paul the sinful Jew in need of God’s grace actually becomes a model for both Jew and Gentile in repenting, believing and ‘being converted’.

What, then, is Paul being converted from and to? He expresses rather eloquently in Ephesians 2 that the coming of Jesus has actually changed the world. We once lived in an era where there were Jews (who were close to God, with the gift of the law, the covenants and the prophets) and Gentiles (who were far from God and had none of these blessings). But with the coming of Jesus all that has changed:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph 2.13, 17–18).

Paul has been ‘converted’ from failing to see God at work in Jesus, to now understanding what he has done and what it means. But in doing so he has not ceased to be a Jew, just as I, in my turn, have not ceased to be a Gentile.

So perhaps we can continue to use the language of ‘the conversion of St Paul’—just as long as we are clear what he was converted from and to, and not misusing that language.

(This featured image at the top of the article is a close-up of Caravaggio’sConversion on the Way to Damascus‘, one of two paintings Caravaggio completed of St Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road. In this one, the focus is only on Paul, who appears to be in a state of ecstasy as he reaches up to embrace the vision of Jesus, whilst the horse looks around in puzzlement.)

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17 thoughts on “Was Paul ‘converted’?”

  1. Language of conversion dumped on to biblical text stops us seeing what was happening. Another example is the so-called “conversion of Cornelius”. That story is mostly about Peter turning away from one trajectory and moving to another. Cornelius stays on the trajectory that he was on. Hence, if we’re using language of conversion, we could call it “the conversion of Peter”

  2. On a different, and more controversial note:
    Working in a Muslim context we have to ask whether people need to stop being “Muslim” in order to follow Jesus. I know fully Jesus focused people who still refer to themselves as Muslim.

    “Islam is my heritage, Jesus is my inheritance” (ie the risen, reigning Christ, not just the prophet Isa). We all need to re-evaluate our heritage in the light of our inheritance.

    In the end, this identity is a social negotiation, and just as Judaism and Christian identity grew apart, I don’t think the identity of being a follower of Jesus and of being Muslim will last. There are push and pull factors in this, not least often the local church often saying “conversion means you need to change diet, name, dress, etc. and be like us”. The Muslim community also tends to say “You’re somehow us, but also not us”. So the trajectory is that an identity that is not “muslim” but not the same as the local “Christian” will develop, but will slowly be recognised as relating to being Christian.

    But the concept of “conversion” is not a simple one in many missional situations.

    • There are some good things in Islam, but ultimately the two cannot go hand in hand. Christianity is ‘revealed’ by God, but Islam rejects that revelation as false, to the extent of teaching that God cannot become a human being, Jesus wasnt really crucified, and that such a sacrifice is irrelevant to human sin – all opposite to Jesus’ own teaching. Thus the Muslim contention that the New Testament is completely corrupted.

      In the same way that Jews who became followers of Jesus simply could not continue in their previous understanding of animal sacrifices etc, so Muslims cannot continue in their Muslim beliefs as they simply contradict God’s revelation.


      • Peter

        Jews didn’t give up animal sacrifice because they became Christians; they gave it up when their Temple was destroyed by the Romans and sacrifice became impossible. These were the precursors of rabbinic Jews.
        The early apostles and Jewish followers of Christ still attended the Temple, at least Paul did. There is no evidence that sacrifice was superceded for either Jews or Jewish Christians until after the destruction of the Temple.

        • 1. No evidence? There’s the letter to the Hebrews for a start. The whole logic of the gospel was that Jesus’s self-sacrifice was a perfect, once-for-all offering, rendering animal sacrifice obsolete – whether you were a Jew or not.

          2. Attending the Temple does not mean participating in animal sacrifice. It would have been odd indeed if Jewish Christians had continued to sacrifice lambs at Passover.

          3. What is the evidence that Messianic Jews continued to offer animal sacrifices?

          • Hi Steven,
            What is the evidence that Messianic Jews continued to offer animal sacrifices?
            I would suggest that Acts 21:20-26 constitutes significant evidence. Note how the believers [in Jesus as Messiah] were “zealous for the law”. That must have included the ceremonial law. Then in v26 the reference to ‘offerings’ is indicative of some cultic practice. I think one cannot draw any reasonable distinction between ‘offering’ and ‘sacrifice’. That which is offered to God is set apart for Him, and so becomes holy, which is where the word ‘sacrifice’ comes from. (In addition, the word in v26 is prosfora, used in Heb 10:10 of “the offering of the body of Jesus once for all.”)

          • One can accept that the passage relates how Paul went along with 4 other Messianic Jews in taking a Nazirite vow and offering animal sacrifice in that connection, without seeing it as evidence that it was the regular practice of Messianic Jews to offer animal sacrifices. It is surely the exception that proves the rule. The context was that Paul was reputed to be telling the Jews outside Judaea (where Paul operated) to forsake Moses and abandon their rites. The whole logic of the gospel was that Jesus’s self-sacrifice was a perfect, once-for-all offering, rendering sacrifice of the passover lamb, the sheep/goat of the day of atonement and all other types of offering/sacrifice obsolete. We don’t see Paul preaching one message for the Jews outside Judaea and another for the Jews inside it. Jesus himself was clear that worship from Pentecost onwards would be of an entirely different order (John 4:21-23).

            I don’t have any theology about whether Jesus’s atonement nullified the rite of purification in Numbers 6; I interpret his sacrifice as nullifying the rites of Nisan 14 and Abib 10. I would have thought that in the new order one just wouldn’t had made vows of this kind. Paul did, on this one occasion, but not because he wanted to make such a vow for its own sake but rather as a ploy to disarm his critics. It didn’t work. His critics continued to complain that he was teaching everyone everywhere (incl. Judaea) that the law and the Temple were obsolete (Acts 21:28). They were right. In his gospel there was neither Jew nor Greek. The law, including its sacrificial system, was powerless to deal with the power of sin (Romans 6-7). One was not justified by works of the law (Gal 2:17). Christ was the passover lamb (I Cor 5:7). Other sacrifices and offerings God no longer desired (Heb 10:5-18). ‘Where there is forgiveness there is no longer any offering for sin’ – a point directed expressly at Jewish readers.

            Before the sanhedrin Paul abandoned the tactic of pretending that he still regularly participated in animal sacrifice at the Temple) and tried another ploy. “It is with respect to the hope of the resurrection that I am on trial.” That confused matters more successfully, but ironically it was scuppered by non-believing Jews who had taken a sacred vow to kill him. Sacred vows to the death were really not a good thing.

          • Paul didn’t teach that Jews had to abandon the Torah, but, rather, that gentiles did. He fought with the judaisers who insisted that gentile ‘Christians’ must first become Jews. His letters show that he remained proud of his Jewish heritage and there is no reason to believe that he forsook the Law – except when he was mixing with gentiles. Christ being the Passover lamb doesn’t preclude Temple sacrifice.

      • Hi Peter,
        One must not be too simplistic in one’s understanding of the Temple and the activities therein. If it is true that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”, one must ask why God instituted the practices in Leviticus. Perhaps it was for reasons other than some transactional means to remove sin. In the Hebrew Scriptures there is already an ambivalence towards offerings and sacrifice, e.g. Psalm 40, quoted in Hebrews 10. In addition, forgiveness seems to be available without sacrifice. 1 Kings 8 is interesting in this context. The newly consecrated Temple is clearly the centre of worship, prayers are to be directed towards it, and praise, prayer and supplication offered in it. But, if one considers vv46-51, then forgiveness is sought based only upon repentance and prayer.

        The Temple was a deep part of the life of the people of Israel. “Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises.” (Romans 9:4 – note the present tense) A Jew who believed in Jesus was not giving up these things. They were deeply embedded in the culture.

    • In this context I thouroughly recommend the book “Following Jesus in Turbulent Times” by Hikmat Kashouh, the senior pastor of Resurrection Church, Beirut. With many Muslims coming to faith in Christ, the issue is very pertinent. (It has lots of value in other ways as well).

      He distinguishes primary and secondary identities, and he is clear that for a Christian the primary identity is being in Christ. One way of considering secondary identities is to regard them as cultural identities. Thus, someone can be a believer in Jesus and a ‘cultural’ Muslim. A woman can carry on wearing the hijab. Such a person continues to not drink alcohol and continues to eat food which is ‘halal’. Indeed, continuing in these things means that they can maintain good social relations with other Muslims.

  3. Yeah, I think saying that St Paul was converted from being an oppressor to a follower of Christ is entirely reasonable. I think “In general usage, a “conversion” marks a change from one religion to another, or a shift from an irreligious to religious profession/stance. ” simply isn’t true; I think I’m more likely to hear the word in the context of going from Apple to Android than in a religious context.

  4. It was an about-turn, so would be in the top percentiles for accurately being described as conversion.

    His orientation (in terms of both his beliefs and his actions) went through 180 degrees, and the sequence sighted – blinded – newly sighted says a lot.

    The 180 degrees is especially apparent because he was extreme in one direction followed by extreme in ‘the’ other.

  5. Whatever, else it was, it was life transformative, with a contrast between, old and new and a new primary identity of being ” in Christ. “

  6. To be Jewish carries two senses; racial and religious. Paul’s racial identity was immutable and he never disowned it. What he repudiated was the religious approach associated with Judaism which he began to see as utterly futile and redundant because of Jesus.

    His conversion was surely about how he saw Jesus – from dangerous, heretical threat to the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah and Saviour of the world.

  7. The idea of conversion applied to Paul and other first generation Jewish believers of the Jesus Movement, The Way, is probably an anachronism. Thre was no “Christianity” per se, to convert to in the first century AD, there were only people who confessed Jesus to be the Divine Jewish Messiah. That would not have seemed like moving to something different than Judaism, most rather moving into a fuller, more robust and more complete Judaism.


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