Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Conversion of Saul

Posted by foryourfaith on April 25, 2010

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It was an agitated man who approached Damascus at the head of a small delegation from Jerusalem, just a year or two after the death of Jesus. Apparently on his own initiative, Sal of Tarsus had persuaded a high priest in Jerusalem that followers of Jesus who were members of synagogues in Damascus ought to be sought out and brought to trial, even when they lived outside of Jerusalem itself.

The trip to Damascus was a large operation, and Paul carried letters to the synagogues as proof of his authority. This move against the people called Nazarenes (a name deriving from Jesus’ hometown in Galilee) was odd on at least two counts. For one thing, most Jews in Jerusalem took no offense at the infant church. Secondly, Paul belonged to a group within Judaism called the Pharisees, whose leaders were not known for persecuting other sects.

What convinced Saul that the Nazarenes were something other than a harmless sect whose members happened to believe that Jesus was the Messiah? It might have been Saul’s presence at a speech by Stephen, one of the more zealous followers of Jesus. Stephen denounced the Jerusalem Temple (as an aberration of God’s will) and attacked his critics as murderers of the prophets. He concluded by announcing that he had just seen a vision of Jesus in heaven standing at the right hand of God.

That disclosure was enough to incite a mob action that led to Stephen’s death by stoning, according to the Acts of the Apostles. Luke reports that the “witnesses” to Stephen’s death, who seem to have taken an active role in the stoning, “laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul . . . And Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 7:58; 8:1).

Did Saul conclude from Stephen’s speech that all Nazarenes opposed the Temple and set themselves up as judges over their brother and sister Jews? Was it the claim that Jesus ruled at God’s right hand that proved ultimately offensive? Or was it the last words that Stephen is remembered to have cried out just before his death, as if to a god: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit . . . Lord, do not hold this sin against them”? In any event, something burned in Saul as a result of his contacts with followers of Jesus, and he became their hunter. His own words put the matter succinctly: “I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13). As he approached Damascus to search out the local Nazarenes, Saul must have been in a state of high agitation.

What happened next is reported in ways that do not dovetail with one another. According to three separate accounts in Acts (9:1-22; 22:4-16; 26:9-18), Saul saw a great light that seemed to fall about him from heaven. Immediately he fell to the ground and heard a voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” No doubt terrified, the smitten man could only ask, “Who are you, Lord?” And the reply came back: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

When he managed to stand up and open his eyes, Saul discovered that he could see nothing, and he had to be led by the hand into Damascus. He languished there, eating nothing for three days, not knowing what to do. At the end of this period, he was visited by a Jewish believer named Ananias, who in a vision was instructed by Jesus to heal Saul by laying hands upon him. Reluctantly and fearfully, Ananias obeyed this command. When he touched the stricken man, “something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. Then he arose and was baptized” (Acts 9:18).

After his baptism, Saul was still called by his Hebrew name. Later, as an apostle to the Gentiles, he was called Paul, a Roman name he probably carried from birth as a Diaspora Jew.

There are several references to Paul’s transforming experience in his letters. Although these are more fragmentary than the stories in Acts, they have the advantage of being firsthand reports. Moreover, they were all written around the middle of the first century, whereas Acts is usually dated around AD 80 or 85.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that God changed his life by revealing his Son to him, which suggests that his experience as a whole could be understood as a conversion of the heart. Probably another reference to the Damascus event is Paul’s rhetorical question to his Corinthian readers: “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1) and his grouping of himself with all the other disciples of whom Jesus first “appeared” (1 Corinthians 15:3-9).

Paul did not perceive his conversion as the giving up of one religion for another but as a call to carry out a new mission by the God he had always worshiped. The church Paul joined in Damascus was an altogether Jewish institution. Even later, when Gentiles as well as Jews held membership, Paul continued to consider himself Jewish. While he uttered some harsh words against his coreligionists, one of his last extant letters shows that he believed all Jews to be God’s chosen people, destined for salvation (Romans 11:17-36).

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