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’s ‘Conversion 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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