Conversion of Paul the Apostle


Conversion of Paul the Apostle
Illumination depicting Paul's conversion, from Livre d'Heures d'Étienne Chevalier (c. 1450–1460), a book of hours by Jean Fouquet, now in the Château de Chantilly.

The Conversion of Paul the Apostle, as depicted in the Christian Bible, refers to an event reported to have taken place in the life of Paul of Tarsus which led him to cease persecuting early Christians and to himself become a follower of Jesus; it is normally dated by researchers to AD 33–36.[1][2][3] The phrases Pauline conversion, Damascene conversion, and road to Damascus allude to this event.

Contents

New Testament description

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 before Jesus's crucifixion and was not a follower of Jesus before 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" apostles. (1 Corinthians 9:1-2). 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.

Paul's life before conversion

Before his conversion, Paul, then known as Saul, was a "zealous" Pharisee who "intensely persecuted" the followers of Jesus. Some scholars argue that Paul was a member of the "Zealot" party. Says Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians (1:13-14):

For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: And profited in the Jews' religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.

Galatians 1:13–14, KJV

Paul also discusses his pre-conversion life in his Epistle to the Philippians (3:4-6), and his participation in the stoning of Stephen is described in Acts 7:57-8:3.

The conversion in Paul's letters

In his surviving letters, Paul's own description of his conversion experience is brief. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians (9:1 and 15:3-8), he describes having seen the Risen Christ:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

1 Corinthians 15:3–8, KJV (emphasis added)

Paul's Epistle to the Galatians (1:11-16) also describes his conversion as a divine revelation.

The conversion in Acts of the Apostles

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, around the year 36, Paul was on his way from Jerusalem for Syrian Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus, with the intention of returning them as prisoners for questioning and possible execution. The journey is interrupted when Paul sees a blinding light, and communicates directly with a divine voice.

Acts 9

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

And as he journeyed, it came to pass that he drew nigh unto Damascus: and suddenly there shone round about him a light out of heaven: and he fell upon the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: but rise, and enter into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but beholding no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw nothing; and they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and did neither eat nor drink.

Acts 9:3–9, ASV

The account continues with a description of Ananias of Damascus receiving a divine revelation instructing him to visit Saul at the house of Judas on the Street Called Straight and there lay hands on him to restore his sight (the house of Judas is traditionally believed to have been near the west end of the street[4]). Ananias is initially reluctant, having heard about Saul's persecution, but obeys the divine command:

Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul (c.1631) by Pietro da Cortona.

Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name's sake. And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.

Acts 9:13–19, KJV

Acts 22

Paul on trial before Agrippa (Acts 26), as pictured by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875.

Acts' second telling of Paul's conversion occurs in a speech Paul gives when he is arrested in Jerusalem (Acts 22:6-21). Paul addresses the crowd and tells them of his conversion, with a description essentially the same as that in Acts 9, but with slight differences. For example, Acts 9:7 notes that Paul's companions did not see who he was speaking to, while Acts 22:9 indicates that they did share in seeing the light (see also Differences between the accounts, below). This speech was most likely originally in Aramaic[5] (see also Aramaic of Jesus), with the passage here being a Greek translation and summary. The speech is clearly tailored for its Jewish audience, with stress being placed in Acts 22:12 on Ananias' good reputation among Damascene Jews, rather than on his Christianity.[5]

Acts 26

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 (Acts 26:12-18). This account is briefer than the others. The speech here is again tailored for its audience, emphasising what a Roman ruler would understand: the need to obey a heavenly vision[6] (26:19); and reassuring Agrippa that Christians were not a secret society[6] (26:26).

Feast day

The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul is a feast celebrated during the liturgical year on January 25, recounting the conversion. 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.[7]

The traditional collect was:

O God, who through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: grant, we beseech thee;
that we, having his wonderful Conversion in remembrance, may shew forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught.[8]

Theological implications

The Conversion of Saint Paul, a 1600 painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio.

The Conversion of Paul, in spite of his attempts to completely eradicate Christianity, is seen as evidence of the power of Divine Grace, with "no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it"[9] and "no height so lofty that grace cannot lift the sinner to it."[9] It also demonstrates "God's power to use everything, even the hostile persecutor, to achieve the divine purpose."[10]

The transforming effect of Paul's conversion influenced the clear antithesis he saw "between righteousness based on the law,"[11] which he had sought in his former life; and "righteousness based on the death of Christ,"[11] which he describes, for example, in the Epistle to the Galatians.[11]

Nature of the conversion experience

The Bible says that Paul's conversion experience was an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Alternative explanations have been proposed, including sun stroke and seizure. In 1987, D. Landsborough published an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry,[12] 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 ... The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal."[12]

This conclusion was challenged in the same journal by James R. Brorson and Kathleen Brewer,[13] 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).[13] Furthermore, no lack of awareness of blindness (a characteristic of cortical blindness) was reported in Acts,[13] nor is there any indication of memory loss.[13] Additionally, Paul's blindness remitted in sudden fashion, rather than the gradual resolution typical of post-ictal states,[13] and no mention is made of epileptic convulsions; indeed such convulsions may, in Paul's time, have been interpreted as a sign of demonic influence, unlikely in someone accepted as a religious leader.[13]

Differences between the accounts

An apparent contradiction in the details of the account of Paul's revelatory vision given in Acts has been the subject of much debate.[14] Specifically, the experience of Paul's travelling companions as told in Acts 9:7 and 22:9 has raised questions about the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles, and generated debate about the best translations of the relevant passages. The two passages each describe the experience of Paul's travelling companions during the revelation, with Acts 9:7 (the author's description of the event) stating that Paul's travelling companions heard the voice that spoke to him; and Acts 22:9 (the author's quotation of Paul's own words) traditionally stating they did not.

Biblical translations of Acts 9:7 generally state that Paul's companions did, indeed, hear the voice (or sound) that spoke to him:

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
—Acts 9:7, King James Version (KJV)
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.
—Acts 9:7, New American Bible (NAB)
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
—Acts 9:7, New International Version (NIV)

By contrast, Catholic translations and older Protestant translations preserve the apparent contradiction in Acts 22:9, while many modern Protestant translations such as the New International Version (NIV) do not:

And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.
—Acts 22:9, King James Version (KJV)
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
—Acts 22:9, New American Bible (NAB)
My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
—Acts 22:9, New International Version (NIV)

"Hear" or "Understand"?

Critics of the NIV, New Living Translation, and similar versions contend that the translation used for Acts 22:9 is inaccurate.[15] The verb used here — akouō (ἀκούω) — can be translated both "hear" and "understand"[16] (both the KJV and NIV translate akouō as "understand" in 1 Corinthians 14:2, for example). It often takes a noun in the genitive case for a person is being heard, with a noun in the accusative for the thing being heard.[17][18] More classically, the use of the accusative indicates hearing with understanding.[19] There is indeed a case difference here, with Acts 9:7 using the genitive tēs phōnēs (τῆς φωνῆς), and Acts 22:9 using the accusative tēn phōnēn (τὴν φωνὴν). However, there has been debate about which rule Luke was following here.[14][19][20] On the second interpretation, Paul's companions may indeed have heard the voice (as is unambiguously stated in Acts 9:7), yet not understood it,[19] although New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace finds this argument based on case inconclusive.[21]

"Voice" or "Sound"?

A similar debate arises with the NIV's use of the word "sound" instead of "voice" in Acts 9:7. The noun used here — phōnē (φωνῆ) — can mean either.[22] By translating 9:7 as "they heard the sound" instead of "they heard the voice," the NIV allows for Paul's companions to have heard an audible sound in Acts 9:7 without contradicting the statement in Acts 22:9 that they did not hear a comprehensible voice. Atheist activist Dan Barker has criticised this as unjustifiable.[23]

The New American Standard Bible,[24] New Century Version,[25] and English Standard Version[26] maintain the "hear"/"understand" distinction while using "voice" in both passages. On the other hand, the Holman Christian Standard Bible has "sound"/"voice" with "hear" in both passages,[27] and The Message adopts a similar translation, but with "sound"/"conversation."[28] The French La Bible du Semeur distinguishes between entendaient ("heard") and compris ("understood").[29]

Although it is possible that there is a contradiction in these two passages unnoticed by the author, Richard Longenecker suggests that first-century readers probably understood the two passages to mean that everybody heard the sound of the voice, but "only Paul understood the articulated words."[30] Similar comments have been made by other scholars.[31]

An older explanation given, for example, by John Chrysostom, is that those with Paul heard only his side of the conversation:[32] this seems less grammatically feasible.[20]

Cultural references

La conversion de Saint Paul by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy.

Art

The conversion of Paul has been depicted by many artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Camilo, Giovanni Bellini, Fra Angelico, Fra Bartolomeo, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, William Blake, Luca Giordano, and Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante.

The Renaissance Italian master Caravaggio painted two works depicting the event: The Conversion of Saint Paul and Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Peter Paul Rubens also produced several works on the theme.[33]

Michelangelo's The Conversion of Saul is housed in the Cappella Paolina of the Vatican Palace.

Music and theatre

The conversion of Paul is the subject of the medieval play The Digby Conversion of Saint Paul and the choral motet Saule, Saule, quid me persequeris by Giaches de Wert (1535–1596).

Literature

In chapter seventeen of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, there is a literary device to the Saul to Paul conversion: "'You start Saul, and end up Paul,' my grandfather had often said. 'When you're a youngun, you Saul, but let life whup your head a bit and you starts to trying to be Paul – though you still Sauls around on the side.'"

Popular usage

From the Conversion of Paul, we get the metaphorical reference to the "Road to Damascus" that has come to refer to a sudden and/or radical conversion of thought or a change of heart or mind, even in matters outside of a Christian context. For example, Australian politician Tony Abbott was described as having been "on his own road to Damascus" after pledging increased mental health funding,[34] and a New Zealand drug dealer turned police officer was likewise described as taking "the first step on the road to Damascus."[35]

See also

On Paul's conversion
On the Feast day

References

  1. ^ Bromiley, Geoffrey William (1979). International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: A-D (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (W.B.Eerdmans)). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. pp. 689. ISBN 0-8028-3781-6. 
  2. ^ Barnett, Paul (2002). Jesus, the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times. InterVarsity Press. pp. 21. ISBN 0-8308-2699-8. 
  3. ^ L. Niswonger, Richard (1993). New Testament History. Zondervan Publishing Company. pp. 200. ISBN 0-310-31201-9. 
  4. ^ John Phillips, Exploring Acts: An expository commentary, Kregel Academic, 2001, ISBN 0825434904, p. 179.
  5. ^ a b C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles: Introduction and commentary on Acts XV-XXVIII, Continuum, 2004, ISBN 0567083950, pp. 1029-1031.
  6. ^ a b Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Smyth & Helwys, 2005, ISBN 1573122777, pp 208-209.
  7. ^ Exciting holiness: collects and readings for the festivals by B. Tristam ISBN 1853114790 Canterbury Press 2003 pages 54-55
  8. ^ Liturgy for 25 January, www.breviary.net.
  9. ^ a b Johann Peter Lange (ed.), A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: critical, doctrinal, and homiletical, Volume 8, Scribner, 1868, p. 24.
  10. ^ Jean Marie Hiesberger, The Catholic Bible, Personal Study Edition: New American Bible, Oxford University Press US, 2007, ISBN 0195289269, p. 341.
  11. ^ a b c G. Walter Hansen, "Paul's Conversion and His Ethic of Freedom in Galatians," in The Road from Damascus: The impact of Paul's conversion on his life, thought, and ministry, Richard N. Longenecker (ed.), Eerdmans, 1997, ISBN 0802841910, pp. 213–37 (quotes on p. 214).
  12. ^ a b D. Landsborough, "St. Paul and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy," J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1987; 50; 659–64: [1]
  13. ^ a b c d e f J.R. Brorson and K. Brewer, "Matters arising: St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy," J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 1988; 51; 886–87: [2]
  14. ^ a b Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A socio-rhetorical commentary, Eerdmans, 1998, ISBN 0802845010, pp. 312–13.
  15. ^ Mike Davis, The Atheist's Bible Companion to the New Testament: A Comprehensive Guide to Christian Bible Contradictions. Denver: Outskirts Press, Inc., 2009, pp 169–70.
  16. ^ Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: ἀκούω
  17. ^ J. W. Wenham, The Elements of New Testament Greek, Cambridge, 1991, p. 203.
  18. ^ Herbert Weir Smyth and Gordon M. Messing, Greek Grammar, 2nd ed., Harvard University Press, 1956, ISBN 0674362500, p. 323.
  19. ^ a b c Nigel Turner, Grammatical Insights Into the New Testament, Continuum, 2004, ISBN 0567081982, pp. 87–90.
  20. ^ a b Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary, 2nd ed, Eerdmans, 1990, ISBN 0802809669, p. 236.
  21. ^ Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, Zondervan, 1997, ISBN 0310218950, p. 313.
  22. ^ Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon: φωνή
  23. ^ Dan Barker, Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists. Berkely: Ulysses Press, 2009, pp 246–50.
  24. ^ NASB: Acts 9:7 and 22:9.
  25. ^ NCV: Acts 9:7 and 22:9.
  26. ^ ESV: Acts 9:7 and 22:9.
  27. ^ HCSB: Acts 9:7 and 22:9.
  28. ^ The Message: Acts 9:7 and 22:9.
  29. ^ La Bible du Semeur: Acts 9:7 and 22:9.
  30. ^ Richard N. Longenecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul, Zondervan, 1971, ISBN 0310283418, p. 32.
  31. ^ For example, R. C. H. Lenski, Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles 1–14, Volume 1, 1944 (reprinted 2008 by Augsburg Fortress, ISBN 080668075X), p. 356; or the Ignatius Catholic study Bible on Acts 9:7.
  32. ^ John Chrysostom, Saint Chrysostom's Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church 1889, Part 11, Philip Schaff (ed.), Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 0766184005, 2004, Homily XIX, p. 124.
  33. ^ Gosudarstvennyĭ Ėrmitazh, Peter Paul Rubens, a touch of brilliance: oil sketches and related works from the State Hermitage Museum and the Courtauld Institute Gallery, Prestel, 2003.
  34. ^ Mental health experts praise Abbott's spending pledge, ABC News, Thu Jul 1, 2010 12:04am AEST, accessed 3 July 2010.
  35. ^ Savage, Jared (3 July 2010). "Drug dealer hired as police officer". The New Zealand Herald. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10656229. Retrieved 26 September 2011. 

Further reading

  • Richard N. Longenecker (ed.), The Road from Damascus: The impact of Paul's conversion on his life, thought, and ministry, Eerdmans, 1997, ISBN 0802841910, 253 pages.
  • Thomas Martone, The theme of the conversion of Paul in Italian paintings from the early Christian period to the high Renaissance, Garland Pub., 1985, ISBN 0824068823, 254 pages.

External links


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