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Conversion of Paul

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The Conversion of Paul, as depicted in the Christian Bible, refers to the event in the life of Saint Paul which led him to become a follower of Jesus. This event is the source of the phrase Pauline conversion.

Paul's life prior to conversionEdit

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Paul was a Pharisee who "violently persecuted" the followers of Jesus. Says Paul:

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.
Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1:13-14

Paul also discusses his pre-conversion life in his letter to the Philippians:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 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.
Paul's Letter to the Philippians 3:4-6

Paul's conversion experienceEdit

Within the New Testament, Paul's conversion experience is discussed in both Paul's own letters and in the book known by the title Acts of the Apostles. In both instances, the conversion experience is described to be miraculous or revelatory in nature. According to both sources, Paul never met Jesus prior to Jesus's crucifixion and was not a follower of Jesus prior to the crucifixion, instead he persecuted the Early Christians. Although Paul refers to himself as an "Apostle" of Jesus, it is clear that Paul was not one of "The Twelve" (1 Cor 9:1-2). Rather, Paul's conversion occurred after Jesus's crucifixion, and the accounts of Paul's conversion experience describe it as miraculous, supernatural, or otherwise revelatory in nature.

In Paul's LettersEdit

In his surviving letters, Paul's own description of his conversion experience is somewhat brief. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he describes having seen the Risen Christ:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians 15:3-8 (emphasis added)
Am I not an apostle?? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?
Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians 9:1

Paul's Epistle to the Galatians also describes his conversion as a divine revelation:

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 [...] But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being.
Paul's Letter to the Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16 (emphasis added)

In Acts of the ApostlesEdit

Acts of the Apostles discusses Paul's conversion experience at three different points in the text. Compared with the accounts in Paul's letters, the Acts accounts are far more detailed. According to the accounts in Acts, Paul's conversion experience occurred as he was enroute to Damascus, featured a blinding light, and Paul communicating directly with a divine voice.

Acts 9Edit

Acts 9 tells the story of Paul's conversion as a third-person narrative:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!"

"Yes, Lord," he answered.

The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight."

"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name."

But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Acts of the Apostles 9:3-19

Acts 22Edit

Acts' second telling of Paul's conversion occurs in a speech Paul gives when he is arrested in Jerusalem. Paul addresses the crowd and tells them of his conversion:

About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, "Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you, Lord?" I asked.

"I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting," he replied. My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.

"What shall I do, Lord?' I asked.

"Get up," the Lord said, "and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do."

My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because the brilliance of the light had blinded me.

A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, "Brother Saul, receive your sight!" And at that very moment I was able to see him.

Then he said: "The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name."

"When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking. "Quick!" he said to me. "Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me."

"Lord," I replied, "these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him."

Then the Lord said to me, "Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles."

Acts of the Apostles 22:6-21

Acts 26Edit

Acts' third discussion of Paul's conversion occurs when Paul addresses King Agrippa, defending himself against the accusations of antinomianism that have been made against him:

On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O king, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads."

Then I asked, "Who are you, Lord?"

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," the Lord replied. "Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them 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 me."

Acts of the Apostles 26:12-18

Feast DayEdit

The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul is a feast celebrated during the liturgical year on January 25, recounting the Conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who after a record of brutalizing and persecuting Christians, converted to Christianity and became the apostle Paul. While on the road to Damascus (c AD 36) to annihilate the Christian community there, Saul said he was blinded by a brilliant light and heard the voice of Christ saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?...And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid, but they heard not the voice...."[1] Elsewhere (see Resurrection appearances of Jesus) Paul claims to have seen Christ, and it is on this basis that he grounds his claim to be recognised as an Apostle: "Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?"[2]. Saul of Tarsus would journey into Damascus, where he was cured and attended by Ananias, being baptized into Christianity. He later took the name Paul and became one of the chief founding voices of Early Christianity. Paul's epistles, for instance, form the bulk of the New Testament of the Bible, after the combined total of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (both traditionally attributed to the Apostle Luke), whose two books amount to nearly a third of the New Testament. The Christian theological implication of the Conversion of Paul is that it witnesses the absolution of sin that is offered by faith and grace through belief in Jesus Christ.[3] The magnitude of Paul's transgressions, such as his attempts to completely eradicate Christianity, indicate that any sinner may be forgiven, no matter how terrible his sins, except for the Unforgivable sin.

This feast is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches. This feast is at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an international Christian ecumenical observance that began in 1908, which is an octave (an eight-day observance) spanning from January 18 (observed as the Confession of Peter) to January 25. This event has been depicted frequently in works of art and music, most notably paintings by Caravaggio (1571–1610) and musical works such as the choral motet Saule, Saule, quid me persequeris by Giaches de Wert (1535–1596).

On the road to DamascusEdit

Saul's Persecution of ChristiansEdit

CaravaggioConversionPaul01

The Conversion of Saint Paul, a 1600 painting by Italian artist Caravaggio (1571–1610).

Saul, better known as Paul of Tarsus, is self-described as "a Hebrew of Hebrews,"[4] and as "extremely zealous for the traditions of [his] countrymen, and of [his] ancestors."[5] He had set out from Jerusalem for Syrian Damascus around the year 36, with letters from the high priest authorizing him to arrest followers of Jesus of Nazareth whom he could find living in the city of Damascus. He was to bring them back to Jerusalem in chains for questioning and possible execution.[6] Saul had to the best of his ability repressed the disciples in the city of Jerusalem; where, according to his own words, he had "laid waste to the Church, arresting the followers of Jesus, having them thrown into prison, and trying to get them to blaspheme" the name of YHWH.[7] Saul had also distinguished himself during the trial of Saint Stephen, the first of the official Christian martyrs, when Saul had "watched over the robes of those who were stoning Stephen."[8]

Paul's conversionEdit

Paul's own account of his conversion is fairly sparse. He wrote: I did not receive it [the Gospel] from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ....But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.[9]

The author of Acts of the Apostles recounts more details of Paul's conversion from persecutor of Christians, at that time called the sect of the Nazarenes.[10][11][12][13][14][15]

While on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, near Damascus, he was hit by a flash of light from the sky and dropped to the ground. He heard a voice: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." Paul's traveling companions heard the voice also, but did not see anyone and when Paul stood up, he was blind. They led him to Damascus and for three days he was blind and didn't eat or drink.[10]

Healing by AnaniasEdit

Ananias house

The alleged house of St. Ananias in Damascus.

A disciple in Damascus named Ananias also had a vision: "Ananias!" "Yes, Lord," he answered. The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he had seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." "Lord," St. Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." Ananias performed the deed, Paul's vision was restored, after "something like scales" fell from his eyes, he was baptized, and after eating he regained his strength.[16]

Paul recounts the episode in a speech to a "crowd in Jerusalem" in their language, most likely Aramaic (see also Aramaic of Jesus). His companions saw the light but didn't understand or hear the voice. Ananias was said to be a "devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there." He stood over Paul and said: "Brother Saul, receive your sight!" and Paul's vision was restored. He added: "Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name."[11]

Nature of the Conversion ExperienceEdit

Christians believe that Paul's conversion experience consisted of a divine vision. Alternative explanations have been proposed, including sun stroke and seizure. In 1987, D. Landsborough published an article entitled 'St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy' in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry (J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1987;50;659-664) in which he stated that Paul's conversion experience, with the bright light, loss of normal bodily posture, a message of strong religious content, and his subsequent blindness, suggested "an attack of (temporal lobe epilepsy), perhaps ending in a convulsion, which was startling and dramatic. The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal." This conclusion was challenged in the same journal (J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1988;51;886-887) by J.R. Brorson and K. Brewer who stated that this hypothesis failed to explain why Paul's companions heard a voice (Acts 9:7), saw a light (Acts 22:9), or fell to the ground (Acts 26:14). Furthermore, no seizure, depressed mental state, nor lack of awareness of blindness (a characteristic of cortical blindness) were reported in Acts. Additionally, Paul's blindness remitted in sudden fashion, rather than the gradual resolution as is typical of post-ictal states. Landsborough responded by noting that rapid regaining of sight in such a post-ictal state is indeed rare, but not impossible. Furthermore, with the passage of time between Paul's conversion and the composition of the book of Acts, certain discrepancies in memory of the event might have surfaced. For example, Acts 9 states that Paul fell to the ground, while his companions remained standing, whereas in Acts 26 Paul claims everyone fell to the ground. Moreover, if all the men traveling to Damascus with Paul saw the light, as Acts 22 claimed, why was it that only Paul was blinded?

To date, the nature of Paul's conversion experience remains indeterminate.

Popular UsageEdit

From the Conversion of Paul, we get the metaphorical reference to the "Road to Damascus" that has come to refer to a sudden conversion of thought or a change of heart or mind even in matters outside of a Christian context.

References in cultureEdit

The conversion of Paul is the subject of the medieval play The Digby Conversion of Saint Paul.

The Renaissance Italian master Caravaggio painted two works depicting events from the conversion of Paul, The Conversion of Saint Paul and Conversion on the Way to Damascus.

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

Notes and citationsEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Easton's Bible Dictionary originally published in 1897. (see listing "Paul")
  • Jewish Encyclopedia (1901–1906)
  • Ahahroni, Yohanan and Avi-Yonah, Michael. The MacMillan Bible Atlas (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. & Collier MacMillan Publishers, 1968, 1977).


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