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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Paul's ‘Conversion’.


Any biographical accounting of Paul needs to begin with what in popular parlance is called his ‘conversion’. The appropriateness of the term is debated, and will be discussed a little later. Without foreclosing on the debate, we will refer to the event as Paul's Damascus transformation or Damascus experience. This experience—which Paul understands as an encounter with the risen Christ—is not only foundational for everything that follows, it is the perspective from which our sources present what they do about anything that precedes. Luke does not seem to tire of the story; after providing a full narrative in Acts 9 , he repeats it (with some interesting variations in detail) on no less than two other occasions ( 22:3–21; 26:2–18 ). Modern readers might wish that he had used this space instead to fill in some of the gaps in his narrative—the activity of Peter, for example, or the origins of the church in Rome. Paul is somewhat more reticent, speaking of it on three occasions (Gal 1:15–16; 1 Cor 9:1; 1 Cor 15:8–10 ; perhaps also 2 Cor 4:6 ), but always in the context of some other issue. Still, the consequences of the experience—the conviction that God had raised Jesus, making him Christ and Lord; the conviction that God had commissioned Paul, making him apostle to the Gentiles—are everywhere present, as assumption or as theme.


To reconstruct Paul's biography, then, it is necessary to begin with his Damascus experience. To reconstruct it accurately, however, it is necessary to understand the nature of the experience. It was an event that divided Paul's life into a ‘before’—‘my earlier life in Judaism’ (Gal 1:13 )—and an ‘after’—‘an apostle’ (Gal 1:1 ) ‘entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised’ (Gal 2:7 ); a proper understanding of Paul depends on how we correlate these three biographical points. More specifically, the characteristic features of Paul's apostolic self-understanding stand in such patent contrast to the typical ‘life in Judaism’ that one cannot really understand the later Paul without understanding how the transformation worked itself out. How was it that a self-proclaimed ‘zealot for the traditions of [his] ancestors’ (Gal 1:14 ) was transformed into a zealous advocate of a mission to Gentiles, offering them a righteous status before God not by adherence to the Torah but by faith in Christ?


It was mentioned above that there have been some significant shifts in Pauline scholarship in recent years; one such has to do with the understanding of Paul's Damascus transformation. Older scholarship tended to understand this transformation as involving a perception on Paul's part of some fundamental deficiency in Judaism and his consequent abandonment of Judaism for a different religion that was able to offer what Judaism lacked. In this family of interpretations the appropriateness of the term ‘conversion’ is assumed. There are several branches of the family. One, stemming from the Reformation, emphasizes Paul's polemical contrast between justification by works and justification by faith. It is assumed that this works/faith contrast represented Paul's fundamental critique of Judaism; he understood Judaism to be a legalistic religion, one in which a person's status with God was something earned through meritorious Torah observance (works) rather than something offered freely by God in divine grace, to be received in humble faith. The essence of Paul's conversion is understood, in this reading of it, to consist in the recognition that Judaism was a works-religion that did not work, and the correlative discovery that Christianity offered freely, on the basis of faith, the righteous status that Torah- religion was not able to provide. Sometimes such a recognition of the futility of Judaism is understood to be the essence of the Damascus experience itself; in encountering the risen Jesus Paul saw Judaism for the inferior and inadequate religion that it was. Often, however, the recognition is shifted further back, Paul's problem with Judaism seen as something emerging during his upbringing. It is argued, usually with appeal to Rom 7 , that Paul's experience of Judaism was one of frustration and despair. He had tried hard to gain God's approval by keeping the law in a zealous fashion, but found that no matter how hard he tried he always fell short. In this reading, his conversion is seen as fundamentally the discovery that Christ provided the solution to an existential problem that he had already experienced in his Jewish upbringing.


This is not the only way in which Paul's Damascus transformation is perceived as essentially an abandonment of Judaism. Another interpretation takes its point of departure not from Paul's faith/works contrast but from his universal gospel. How is Paul's interest in Gentiles to be accounted for? The answer, it is suggested, is that Paul came to abandon a frame of reference in which the distinction between Jew and Gentile is central, for one in which that distinction is abolished, one in which ‘there is no longer Jew or Greek’ (Gal 3:28 ). Again, such an exchange of one type of religion (this time a particularistic one) for another (a universalistic one) is sometimes seen as the essence of the Damascus experience itself. Just as often, however, it is rooted in the idea that already in his upbringing Paul had experienced frustration with Jewish particularism and, in some interpretations, had struggled, valiantly but vainly, to suppress an attraction to the wider Hellenistic world.


Such interpretations, in which Paul's Damascus experience is seen as essentially an abandonment of a Jewish context for something different, have had a long and successful history, at least in part because they seem to provide a coherent explanation of central elements in Paul's post- Damascus frame of reference—especially his role as apostle to the Gentiles, and the gospel he preached to Gentiles, offering them a righteous status before God without demanding adherence to the Torah. But more recent study of Paul has tended to demonstrate that such coherence is purchased at a high price, specifically, an unacceptable level of incoherence with respect to the first of the three biographical points—Paul's earlier life in Judaism.

By the early part of the twentieth century Jewish scholars (e.g. C. Montefiore, S. Schechter, and later H.-J. Schoeps), along with Christians sympathetic to Judaism (e.g. G. F. Moore, J. Parkes), had already pointed out that Judaism was not the legalistic religion of meritorious achievement that it had often been made out to be. Jewish religion, they objected, started not with the Torah but with the covenant, a relationship between God and Israel established entirely on the basis of divine grace. The Torah was given as a means not of earning a relationship with God, but rather of responding in gratitude to God and of maintaining the relationship already established by God's gracious election of Israel. Further, Jewish religion did not require flawless performance of the law, as Paul's argument in Romans and Galatians seems to assume. The law itself recognized the inevitability of sin, making provision, in the sacrificial system, for repentance, atonement, and forgiveness—an aspect of Torah-religion that Paul studiously avoids in the pertinent passages. This more accurate depiction of Judaism has been most convincingly developed and demonstrated by E. P. Sanders (see Sanders 1977 ), who terms it a religion of ‘covenantal nomism’ rather than of legalism. Prior to Sanders's work, however, the conclusion often drawn from this argument about the true nature of Judaism has been that if the traditional reading of Paul is accurate, then Paul must have seriously misunderstood Judaism. If Paul really perceived Judaism as a religion of meritorious achievement requiring perfect performance, then his critique of Judaism is badly off-target from the outset.


One way of explaining this supposed misunderstanding of Judaism is to lay it at the door of Paul's diaspora upbringing; if Paul had been raised in Judea, closer to the source, he would have experienced a truer form of the faith and thus would have depicted it more accurately (Schoeps 1961: 173). But this leads to a second way in which the traditional interpretations of Paul fail to integrate what we know about his earlier life in Judaism. Not only is it recognized that no sharp distinction can be drawn between Hellenistic and Palestinian Judaism, the idea that Paul fundamentally misunderstood Judaism does not square well with his own comments about his earlier life. For one thing, he locates himself within a traditional, covenant-centred form of the faith. He is a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Phil 3:5; cf. 2 Cor 11:22 ); a zealot for the traditions of his ancestors (Gal 1:14 ); a Pharisee, a group for which we have only Palestinian evidence (Phil 3:5; see Hengel and Schwemer 1997: 36). Further, whenever he looks back on this period of his life, he does so with a great deal of pride and satisfaction (Gal 1:13–14; Phil 3:4b–6; 2 Cor 11:22 ). Phil 3:6 is particularly instructive; as one of the grounds for which he might have confidence in the flesh, he points to the fact that ‘as to righteousness under the law, [he was] blameless’. The statement resonates with the pride of accomplishment (blameless!) rather than despair over the impossibility of the law's demands. With the recognition that the ‘I’ of Romans 7 is not autobiographical (Kümmel 1929 ), the way has been cleared to ask whether instead of Paul misunderstanding Judaism, Paul's interpreters have misunderstood him.


This question has been posed most forcefully by E. P. Sanders in his epoch-making book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism ( 1977 ). In the book Sanders demonstrates convincingly that Paul can be much better understood if we assume (1) that in his upbringing he had experienced Judaism as a religion of covenantal nomism, but that (2) in his Damascus experience he had come to believe that God had provided Christ as a means of salvation for all on equal terms, and that (3) since entrance into the community of salvation was through Christ, Torah- observance could not be imposed as a condition of membership. Anticipating some discussion to follow, we need to observe that Sanders leaves a number of loose ends and logical disjunctions; in particular: why ‘for all’? Why ‘on equal terms’? Why are Christ and Torah mutually exclusive? But for present purposes, the significant point of Sanders's work is that it opens up the possibility of seeing Paul's Damascus experience as primarily the acceptance of a new set of convictions about Jesus rather than the abandonment of an old set of convictions about Judaism. The way is open to see Paul not as a frustrated Jew, nor as one who fundamentally misunderstood the religion of his ancestors and contemporaries, but as a covenantal nomist who had an experience convincing him that the God of Israel had raised Jesus from death.


What emerges, then, is an understanding of Paul's Damascus experience in which it is seen not as the solution to an already-perceived problem with Judaism, nor as the abandonment of one religion (Judaism) for another (Christianity). Instead, the outcome of the experience was in the first instance a new estimation of the person and significance of Jesus in the purposes of the God of Israel. This led to an unprecedented reconfiguration of the constituent elements of Judaism, for reasons that we will explore in a moment. But reconfiguration is quite a different thing from abandonment.

For this reason, ‘conversion’ has been seen as perhaps not the best term to use to describe Paul's experience. Both in popular parlance and in much social-scientific study, ‘conversion’ implies a transformation that is more radical, more discontinuous with the convert's past, and more driven by psychological imbalance, than was the case with Paul. At the same time, to describe the experience as a ‘call’, as Stendahl does (Stendahl 1976: 7–23), is not a fully satisfactory alternative either, even when one gives full value to Paul's use of prophetic call language in Gal 1:15 (cf. Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5 ). This term fails to do justice to the fact that Paul's experience represented a much more decisive shift, a more sharply demarcated before and after (cf. Phil 3:4–11 ), than was ever the case with an Isaiah or a Jeremiah. While Paul continued to worship and serve the same God, his framework of service shifted decisively from one organizing centre (Torah) to another (Christ). What term to use, then, for this decisive shift? One alternative is to return to ‘conversion’, redefining it so that both continuity and discontinuity are preserved (Segal 1990 ). Such an approach can claim support from more recent social-scientific studies (e.g. Rambo 1993 ), which recognize a much broader range of conversion types. Perhaps the safer approach, however, is to choose less loaded terms, such as transformation or reconfiguration.


But why was the reconfiguration so sharply polarized? Why were the two organizing centres—Torah and Christ—set over against each other in such an antithetical way? Or to pose the question with respect to the comparative biographies of Paul and James, who both became leaders in the church as the result of an experience understood to be an encounter with the risen Christ (for James, see 1 Cor 15:7 ): why did the experience lead in Paul's case to a Christ–Torah antithesis while in the case of James of Jerusalem, who seemed to be able to combine Christ-faith and Torah-religion in a much more harmonious way, it led rather to a Christ-Torah synthesis?


In contrast to Paul's conversion per se, the answer to this question does seem to lie in his pre-Damascus experience. Even prior to his own experience of Christ, Paul had already come to some conclusions about the incompatability of Christ-faith and Torah-religion. What is important here is not simply that Paul persecuted the church, but that he understood it as an expression of zeal (Phil 3:6; cf. Gal 1:14 ). In the context of Torah-piety, zeal implies more than simply fervour. At least since the time of the Maccabees, zeal and zealotry referred to the willingness to use force to defend Torah-religion from some perceived threat (e.g. 1 Macc 2:24, 26, 27, 50 ; Jub. 30.18; Jdt 9:2–4; see Donaldson 1997: 285–6; Dunn 1998: 350–2). If Paul's persecution of the church was an act of zeal, then he must, even at this early stage, have seen Christ-religion and Torah-religion as mutually exclusive. Further, since even after his Damascus experience this incompatability between Christ and Torah seems to have remained (even if transformed), the conflict between the two must have been of such a nature that it could not be resolved simply by changing his estimation of Jesus. The Christ–Torah antithesis must have been perceived as a more fundamental incompatibility.


What, then, was the nature of this incompatibility? Several possibilities have been explored in scholarly discussion (Donaldson 1997: 169–72). Some suggest that the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah was in itself an affront to Jewish expectation and thus incompatible with Torah-religion. Others focus on the specific means of Jesus' death—crucifixion—noting that the Torah itself sees as cursed ‘anyone hung on a tree’ (Deut 21:22–3 ), a text that by the first century was being interpreted with respect to crucifixion (4QpNah 1.7–8 ; 11QTemple 64.12; cf. Gal 3:13 ). Still others suggest that Paul's estimation of the Torah had been deeply affected by the fact that it was precisely his zeal for the law that had led him to persecute Christ's church. But none of these suggestions seem to produce a tension between Christ and Torah so intractable that a well-motivated Jewish believer could not have found a way to resolve it.


My suggestion moves in a different direction, and builds on two more fundamental aspects of Jewish and Jewish-Christian belief: (1) the relationship between Torah and Messiah in Jewish expectation; and (2) the unprecedented ‘already/not yet’ shape of early Christian belief. In Jewish patterns of thought (at least those that included the concept of a Messiah), the respective functions of Torah and Messiah were neatly differentiated by the distinction between this age and the age to come. In this age, the Torah functioned as a badge of membership or a boundary marker for the covenant people of God. To live a life of loyalty to the Torah was a mark of membership in the covenant community; to be a member in good standing was to be righteous; it was the community of the righteous as demarcated by the Torah in this age that could expect to be vindicated by God in the age to come, when the Messiah appeared. There was thus no confusion of roles: the Torah served to determine the identity of the people whom the Messiah would come to deliver; put differently, the Messiah did not function as a boundary marker or badge of membership.


But the Christian message—that God had revealed the identity of the coming Messiah by raising Jesus from death—had the effect of blurring this neat distinction. The Christ who would come to redeem the righteous in the age to come had already appeared before this age was at an end. How, then, was the community of the righteous to be determined in the period between the resurrection and the end? Was it defined by adherence to Torah or to Christ? Would the community redeemed by Christ at the eschaton be one demarcated by Torah-observance or by Christ-adherence? The unprecedented two-stage appearance of the Messiah in Christian belief had the effect of putting Christ and Torah in tension with each other, as rival boundary markers for the people of God. The overlapping of the ages in Christian proclamation brought Christ and Torah into conflict.


My suggestion is that because of his perspective as an outsider, the pre-Christian Paul perceived this rivalry and conflict much more clearly than those inside. He was a faithful observer of the Torah, ‘as to righteousness under the law, blameless’ (Phil 3:6 ). But the Christian message as he heard it implied that this was not enough; to truly belong to the community of the righteous, he had to believe in Christ. He also observed that the church was prepared to admit as full members many who, ‘as to righteousness under the law’, were far from ‘blameless’. Torah observance, it appeared, was also unnecessary. Undergirding his persecution of the church, then, was a fundamental perception that—whether the early Christians recognized it fully or not—the Christ they preached represented a categorical rival to the Torah in its community-defining role. Since this rivalry was rooted not simply in Paul's lack of belief in Christ but in the nature of the Christian message itself, it did not disappear with his new belief in Christ. The Christ–Torah antithesis remained, even though his perception of its implications shifted dramatically.


One final element of Paul's Damascus experience requires mention here, though we can deal with it only briefly. In the discussion carried out above concerning Paul's description of his experience as a ‘call’, we did not pay much attention to the focus of the call—‘to proclaim [God's Son] among the Gentiles’ (Gal 1:16 ). At least in retrospect, then, Paul sees his role as ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (Rom 11:13 ) as the direct outcome and inner meaning of his Damascus experience. But how are we to understand his all-embracing concern for the salvation of the Gentiles?

This question, too, has been altered by the interpretative shift described above. In older patterns of interpretation, Paul's interest in the Gentiles has been understood as entailing, or as the result of, an abandonment of Judaism. In his conversion experience, it was argued, Paul left behind a world where the distinction between Jew and Gentile was fundamental, and entered a wider world where there was no differentiation. The ways in which this line of interpretation were worked out varied with the ways in which the process of abandonment was reconstructed (see above, and also Donaldson 1997: 18–27). But the heart of the matter in each case was that Paul's ‘universalism’ (i.e. his concern for Gentile salvation) was tied up with a rejection of Jewish particularism.


More recent study, however, has brought to the fore two things that suggest a different explanation. The first has to do with Paul himself, the second with Jewish attitudes towards Gentile salvation. First, it is clear that ‘Jew’ and ‘Gentile’ continue to be important categories for Paul. While he insists that there is no distinction with respect to sin (‘all, both Jews and Greeks, are under… sin’, Rom 3:9 ) or salvation (‘for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek’, Rom 10:12 ), this does not mean that Jewishness has lost all theological significance for Paul. Indeed, by describing himself as apostle to the Gentiles, he indicates that he continues to inhabit a world where the distinction between Jew and Gentile is operative. Paul sees himself as a Jew (Rom 11:1 ), commissioned by the God of Israel to bring a message of salvation, not to an undifferentiated mass of generic humanity, but to Gentiles, that part of humanity that exists in distinction from Israel. Further, the ultimate goal of this mission is the final salvation of ‘all Israel’ (Rom 11:26 ). What is needed, then, is a much more Israel-centred understanding of Paul's interest in the Gentiles.


This brings us to the second point. While Jewish self-understanding is undeniably particularistic (the one God of all has chosen Israel from among the nations for a special covenanted relationship), Judaism also had its own forms of universalism. That is, by Paul's day Judaism had developed ways of finding a place for Gentiles within God's saving purposes for the world, ways that offered Gentiles a share in salvation without denying the special nature of Israel's own covenant relationship. One of these patterns of universalism, of course, was proselytism; the community of Israel was willing to accept as full members of the family of Abraham those Gentiles who embraced the Torah and its way of life (e.g. Jdt 14:10 ; Tacitus, Hist. 5.5.2). Another pattern, based on a quite different perception of things, was prepared to see the possibility of Gentiles being accounted righteous and having a share in the age to come as Gentiles, without having to accept those aspects of the Torah that differentiated Gentiles from Jews (e.g. Jos. Ant. 20.34–48; t. Sanh. 13.2). A third looked to the future, and expected that as one of the consequences of Israel's end-time redemption, many Gentiles would finally acknowledge the God of Israel and thus be granted a share in the blessings of the age to come (e.g. Isa 2:2–4; Tob 14:5–7 ).


This is not the place to survey the pertinent Jewish material in any detail. Nor is it possible here to explore Paul's conceptions concerning the Gentiles and their place ‘in Christ’ against this background (on both points see Donaldson 1997 ). For present purposes it is sufficient to say that Paul's Gentile mission is best understood as a Christ-centred reinterpretation of one of these Israel-centred patterns of universalism. That is, Paul's concern for the Gentiles had its origin in attitudes already present in Judaism, even though with his Damascus experience they came to be oriented around a different centre. His call ‘to proclaim [God's Son] among the Gentiles’ results not from a rejection of Jewish particularism but from a reinterpretation, from his standpoint ‘in Christ’, of some aspect of Jewish universalism.

Later on in this introductory essay we will return to the matter of Paul's thought and its characteristic themes and structure. For the present, however, we need to discuss the temporal and geographical framework of his life.

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