Who is this guy Paul? Was he a Jew or a Christian, loyal to Torah (Law) or to Christ, a believer in works or grace? There are some traditional ways to answer that:
• “He was the first great convert to Christianity from Judaism,” who has served as the pattern for Christian converts ever since.
• “He was Christianity’s first real theologian,” and as such he institutionalized the words of Jesus of Nazareth, which led to the creation of one of the world’s great religions.
• “His doctrine of justification by faith lays out the path of eternal salvation for all individuals who accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”
Those and related statements are often made without realizing how they came into being through the lens of 2,000 years of religious, social, and biblical interpretation. While it is impossible to remove those filters entirely, a good starting point is to at least recognize that those filters have had an effect—good, bad, or somewhere in between.
Pick up a New Testament and it’s easy to conclude its contents were written in a roughly chronological order: First come the four Gospels, followed by the story of the emerging Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles (a continuation of Luke’s Gospel). Then comes a collection of letters, written under the names of the early apostles, concluding with the book generally referred to as Revelation, which is an apocalyptic writing filled with strange and complex imagery related to the end of time.
Paul is credited with thirteen of the letters (fourteen if the Letter to the Hebrews is included, although that is rarely done anymore). Bible scholars agree that Paul definitely wrote seven (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon). Not that the others should be discounted. The Colossians letter is the subject of continuing dispute regarding its authorship, with Ephesians close behind. Fewer scholars believe the remaining letters (2 Thessalonians and the so-called Pastoral Epistles: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) were actually written by Paul, but more likely they were written within a few decades after his death by followers devoted to his teachings. Lessons 3 and 4 will look at those issues more closely.
Bible scholars do agree the Gospel accounts (and Acts) didn’t come first. Most likely they were written anywhere from one to three decades after Paul’s letters (which generally are dated somewhere in the period from 50 to 65 of the Common Era). The Gospel writers represent a later stage of development (after 70 CE) in the believing community (it would be incorrect to actually call it the Christian church at this point). Furthermore, the four Gospel writers aimed their accounts at different communities (Matthew’s has a definite Jewish/Hebrew perspective while Luke appears to be writing to Greeks and Romans, for example).
Even Acts, which includes our most familiar portrayals of how Saul of Tarsus became Apostle Paul, as well as detailing his missionary journeys, was written a decade or two after Paul’s letters. In fact, Luke may not even have known about Paul’s letters. One concern is why Acts includes multiple accounts of Saul/Paul’s remarkable encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus while Paul hardly mentions it. When he does, briefly in Galatians, his account is somewhat at odds with Luke’s versions.
One place to begin is to recognize, as noted above, that there was no such thing as “The Christian Church” in the first century CE, at least in the sense there is today. The teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were spreading rapidly throughout the whole eastern Mediterranean area. At first all the followers of this new way were Jews. Jerusalem was the central hub where James (the brother of Jesus) and Peter gained prominence among what remained of Jesus’ inner core of disciples. At some point they became known as apostles. They had lived with and been instructed by their teacher, Jesus. Luke actually credits Peter (as recounted in Acts chapter 10) with the idea that the good news of Jesus Christ should be shared beyond Judaism with Gentiles.
Apostle Paul has become larger than life. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century many people, probably without even realizing it, see Paul through the 500-year-old eyes of the great Protestant reformers, especially Martin Luther. A man of his times, Luther was deeply introspective. He was wracked by an overwhelming sense of guilt and despair over humankind’s inability to find real forgiveness for its sinful nature.
Luther must be understood in light of the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s practice of requiring penance in the form of indulgences to satisfy God, particularly in regard to reducing time to be spent in purgatory. Indulgences could take several forms but what upset Luther the most was what he viewed as an abuse by the church’s hierarchy, beginning with the pope. The payment of monetary indulgences became a primary method of financing construction on the long-delayed St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Luther’s rocky relationship with what he thought was an overly legalistic and corrupt church transferred over into how he came to understand Paul’s relationship with Judaism.
It’s worth noting that Luther was an Augustinian monk. Augustine is considered by some to be the first true “Western man.” What is meant by this is that before Augustine (he lived from 354 to 430 CE) people didn’t have the kind of well-developed “inner life” that we take for granted in our contemporary world. Augustine, by the way, was among the first to read without speaking out loud, something that is almost unimaginable today.
Although Augustine had been born to a Christian mother and reared in the church, he eventually discarded his childhood faith. During much of his young adult years he explored lots of different philosophies and followed multiple religious paths, all to no avail. One day, as he related the story in his autobiography, he heard a child singing outside his open window, “Pick it up and read….” Coincidentally what he had closest at hand to read was Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where he found an answer to his inner turmoil. That was the moment that led to his conversion to Christianity, and he eventually became a bishop and one of the most influential theologians of his day. In discovering and accepting Jesus Christ he was freed of his past burdens as a sinner.
When Luther read Paul’s Romans letter (much as Augustine had done centuries earlier) he homed in on the idea that humans are saved (or “justified,” to use the theological term, which in its most precise but grammatically awkward form means “to righteous” someone), not by human works (particularly in keeping the commands of the Law), but by the grace of God. This justification was made possible by Christ’s atoning sacrifice and available to all who are “in Christ” by faith. This discovery lifted Luther from utter despair. Quite literally, his religion underwent a dramatic change: the prototypical conversion experience. However, this kind of deep, penetrating soul-searching and conversion (meaningful as it was for Luther and his contemporaries) was not at all characteristic of the thinking of the earliest Christians and Hellenistic Jews in the first centuries after the time of Jesus. That brings us back to Paul.
Judaism was not simply Paul’s religion, in the way we think of the term. People back then had tribal or at most national deities with related cultic practices. Our modern concept of world religions was simply inconceivable. More than doctrines and cultic practices, Judaism was Paul’s way of life and worldview. It provided his core identity as part of God’s chosen people, Israel. After two millennia we may tend to view Paul as Christianity’s first great convert, perhaps even as the de facto founder of the Christian church as a non-Jewish religion. Certainly, within a century after Paul the church would be entirely devoid of Jews, so perhaps it is understandable that viewpoint became prominent.
But Paul left no evidence in his own writings that he saw himself as a convert. Instead he proudly wrote to the Philippian church: “[I was]…circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6). Those are not the words of someone who has discarded his old religion, Judaism, to accept a new one, Christianity.
Paul’s identity was as a Jew. It was his mission, however, that called him away from Judaism to be an apostle to the Gentiles. All the other apostles had personally known Jesus of Nazareth, who had called them from their individual lives to follow him. Paul makes it clear in both Galatians and Romans that his authority derived not from men or councils:
Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—all and the members of God’s family who are with me, to the churches of Galatia…. For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. —Galatians 1:1–2; 11-12
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. —Romans 1:1–7
It was the risen Lord who met Paul (originally known as Saul of Tarsus) in a dramatic event on the road to Damascus one day. We tend to think of that extraordinary experience as Paul’s conversion, and by inference, his formal rejection of his Jewish past. A closer look at accounts of that experience (in Paul’s words found in Galatians 1:13–16 and by the writer of Acts in 9:1–19, 22:6–16, and 26:12–18) instead shows a strong resemblance to the divine calling of Old Testament prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
Look at the way those ancient prophets received their callings: chosen by God even before birth (Isaiah 49:1), surrounded by light as the Lord spoke (Ezekiel 1:28), and given a specific commission (Jeremiah 1:7). Saul/Paul’s experience places him clearly within this prophetic tradition. Furthermore, what Paul is to accomplish for the Gentiles is a reflection of the prophecies that the eyes of the blind shall be opened and that salvation will come:
…to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]. —Acts 26:18
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. —Isaiah 35:5
I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness…. I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. —Isaiah 42: 7, 16
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners. —Isaiah 61:1
In recent years some scholars have begun to understand Paul in yet another way. They view Paul, not only in light of Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, but as a “new Abraham,” a model for Paul’s own identity.
Both men were called by God to a purpose benefiting them but also the rest of humanity. In Abraham’s case, the world would be blessed through his descendents. For Paul, the Gentiles (with that term understood in the broadest ways possible: Greeks and barbarians, meaning everybody in the world besides Jews) would discover that God has offered them the blessings of being part of God’s covenant community.
Just as Abraham was alienated from his homeland (Ur of the Chaldees), Paul was sent beyond his faith community by birth (Judaism) to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles (including his dream of eventually extending his missionary efforts to the so-called barbarians outside the Greek/Roman sphere). Finally, both Abraham and Paul became travelers among far-flung nations and ethnic communities.
Curiously, Paul devoted scant attention to his extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus. Meanwhile, Luke offered multiple instances of Paul sharing this “testimony” with others on his missionary journeys (each time with someone associated with Rome). All other things being equal, historians and biblical scholars tend to give greater credence to an individual’s own words over those of someone else writing about him or her, especially if there’s a significant lapse of time between the two sets of writings. As will be explored later on, most likely Luke had his own agenda at work in promoting the conversion accounts.
The experience on the Damascus Road was simply the opening act in a long process of commissioning him as apostle to the Gentiles. Scriptural accounts show that after spending a short time in Damascus (instructed by Ananias) Paul briefly returned to Jerusalem before heading off to “the wilderness” for several years of spiritual preparation. Once again, note the similarity to the way Old Testament prophets spent time in the wilderness preparing for their mission. The same is true, of course, for both Jesus and John the Baptist.
It is often assumed, as well, that the spectacular Damascus Road experience was also the moment Saul changed his name to Paul. Paul, unfortunately, never gives us a clue about this issue in his letters. But Luke does, although indirectly. He uses the name Saul exclusively up to chapter 13, where the expression “Saul, also known as Paul” is used in verse 9. From that moment on the apostle is referred to only as Paul.
So what’s going on in chapter 13? Saul was on the island of Cyprus, along with his traveling companions Barnabas and John. While they were there a magician (described as a “Jewish false prophet”) attempted to turn the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus against Saul and his teachings about Jesus Christ. When “Saul, also known as Paul” blinded the magician by the power of the Holy Spirit, the proconsul was “astonished at the teaching about the Lord” and believed. Afterward Paul and his companions set sail for Perga, where John left them and returned to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas headed for Antioch.
The symbolism here is important: Instead of returning to Jerusalem and dealing once again with leaders of the “Jewish Christian” community, Paul began to turn his attention away from Jerusalem and toward his ultimate goal of reaching Rome and, he hoped, to the barbarians beyond (beginning with what we know as Spain). His acceptance of a mission to take the good news of Christ to the Gentiles was now complete.