What changed for Paul?

Caravaggio Conversion of St PaulOne of the fascinating questions that keeps popping up when you read the NT, is this: once he was a believer in Jesus the crucified Messiah and risen Lord …

‘What changed for Paul?’

If you are someone who is a Christian and reads the NT, I bet you have some sort of framework for answering that question – whether you have ever put it into words or not.

You can’t say ‘Nothing’ and get a pass! If nothing changed then Paul’s whole life and teaching become incomprehensible.

No, there was significant change; dramatic change if you will.

There have to be good reasons to do what Paul did …. to shift from persecutor to being persecuted; to travel all over the known world regardless of danger and opposition – and eventual death. To leave a promising career.

Did Paul repudiate his Jewish faith?

Is it right to call what happened on the Damascus Road a ‘conversion’?

How do you think Paul would have filled out a census questionnaire under the ‘Religion’ box? Would he have ticked the box ‘Jew’ or put something else in there?

Did Paul imagine being the catalyst for a new religion of Christianity, founded on, but a distinct faith from, Judaism?

Did Paul envisage the church replacing Israel? Is it right to use words like ‘replace’, ‘supersede’ when it comes to Torah / Israel? Paul was the missionary to the Gentiles who he welcomed into the people of God on an equal basis with Jewish believers. Did this mean that he had rejected Israel?

Did his view of who God is change? Did his understanding of Jesus and the Spirit change his theology of God’s identity and character? And more – how did his experience of God change?

And a big one over which ink continues to flow, what changed in his attitude the Law? On the one hand, he has some very negative things to say about the Law [Torah] that marked out the Jewish faith and revealed the will of God for his people (Gal 5:4 for example – trying to be justified by the Law means being alienated from Christ and detached from grace.) Yet on the other hand, he affirms the Law. Galatians 3:21 “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!”

Or did he only have a really tough line on some strands of Judaism of his day – like the Pharisees from which he came or the (Christian) Judaizers in Galatians trying to force Gentile believers to take on the Torah and be circumcised?

Or was Paul just inconsistent and all over the shop? (Some have said so, I don’t think so)

How significant was Paul’s own experience on the Damascus Road for explaining the dramatic life which followed? What changed there?

How did his view of the future change in comparison to his previous beliefs?

These are the sorts of questions that are the hub of Pauline studies and why books upon books continue to be written about Saul of Tarsus. But they all are a sub-set I think of the bigger question in the title of this post.

As you may guess I’ve been enjoying doing some reading on Paul. I’m just listing the questions – there are many different answers and theories as you’d expect since Paul didn’t write (as far as we know 😉 ) a detailed self-reflection journal on his ministry practice.

I hope to discuss some ideas in other posts – but for now, what do you think? Can we get a list going? What for you are the key things that changed for Paul?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

5 thoughts on “What changed for Paul?

  1. I really appreciate your question about what “box” Paul would have ticked off in the religion category. In my journey of figuring out exactly what this Christianity thing really is at its core I’ve had to question things I one accepted as standard such as – “the prayer of acceptance.”

    Paul’s apparent conversion really looks nothing like the little prayer I prayed as a child to accept Jesus into my heart and looks a lot more like a prominent Jewish leader getting knocked over on the road and then realizing “the way” he was approaching all he knew was wrong as opposed to “changing sides.”

    As a woman I am fascinated by how Paul’s views on women changed after being blinded, but perhaps my most profound questions have more to do with how Paul himself veiwed the “conversion” process. As a Jew who accepted a Jewish messiah, but was very forceful in stating that gentiles needn’t become Jews themselves I’d love to hear in language that fits into this 21rst century culture exactly what “being a Christian” looks like.

    • Hello Shandi and welcome. Good comments. I think that core you mention – the key thing that links Paul on the Damascus Road and your prayer as a little girl – is a turning of life to follow Jesus.

      Now, as you say, those are radically different settings and experiences but what unites all Christians is faith in Jesus the Messiah. Paul’s faith is both theocentric and Christocentric and empowered by the Spirit. The most radical thing of all was Paul’s realisation that this included Gentile pagans without the Law – including (I assume) people like you and me.

      Yes – I could / should have included views on women in that list. I’m someone who thinks there was substantial change there, following Jesus’s example.

      I agree that Paul’s conversion was not ‘changing sides’ – there was no ‘side’ yet for him to ‘join’. The fascinating thing is how he comes to understand his Jewish faith and the whole story of Israel in light of the risen Messiah and the gift of the Spirit.

      What words fit this? Fulfill? Reconfigure? Develop? Restructure?

  2. Your observation that there was no “side” for Paul to join at the time of his conversion is precisely why I question that nature of “conversion” today. My deconstructionism will show, but the very idea of converting means to change from one thing to another. Now there is no question that Christ fundamentally changes the very nature of our existence upon acknowledgeing Him – yet I wonder what Paul would say to the deepening lines in the sand that “Christianity” digs to separate “us” from “them.”

    For Paul the very nature of discovering Christ was discovering a more profound way to live that as you said did not abolish the law as much as it in many ways fulfilled it. I think that perhaps Paul realized the vast mystery of what had once seemed very structured (ie. Judaism in all its tenents). To call his realization of Christ as the very essence (Christ AS “Judaism” incarnate) of what he had thought himself to believe before (Judaism) was far more than a restructuring, and perhaps more an awakening to the real meaning of the words he had previously only understood as rote and without life. It is not that Paul cast aside old rules (although some he definitely did), as much as he saw them no more as rules but as ways to breathe new air. What has always struck me is the ways in which belief systems are a way of expressing G-D to us in finite ways our minds can grasp. What Christ did was to turn on its head the idea that a system was the totality of anything, instead showing that the system was a mere representation of the wholeness of G-D.

    • While there is much continuity for Paul, there are also very sharp discontinuties. The Law (Torah) is good but cannot give life. I’d come back to faith and the Spirit – both are essential for life from death, from flesh (old age) to Spirit (God’s new age broken into the present). There is conversion in the sense of a radical change of allegience, spiritual new life, becoming part of God’s redemptive work in the world … and that (controversially for Paul the Jew) was a necessity for both Jew and Gentile.

  3. Hallo Patrick,
    I have done Paul’s study from the perspective of … bicycle 🙂 – 6 big tours to all the mentioned places, where he was. To summarize I wrote a book after each tour. The English translations available are published as e-books, that is “From Tarsus to Damascus“ and “Tensions around Israel“. Wishing to send them to you if I had your email address; my email: S.Malina@gmx.de.

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