THE CONVERSION OF SAINT PAUL
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
We do not know how long Paul’s persecution of Christians lasted. We can be sure, however, that in the process he must have learned something about the founder of the movement.
We know from contemporary non-Christian sources something of what the Pharisees knew about Jeus. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that he was a teacher to whom the credulous ascribed wonders. Moreover, he had been crucified by the Romans on charges laid against him by the Jewish authorities.
It is unlikely that Paul or any other Pharisee would have been content with such bare bones. They would have been particularly sensitive to the fact that Jesus had disciples whom he taught, because the Pharisees wanted a monopoly on religious thinking. Through infiltration, or less dramatically through chatting up an enthusiastic Christian, it would have been easy for the Pharisees to discover what Jesus thought about the Law of Moses. He gave it much less importance than his person. He, and no longer the Law, was the touchstone of salvation. “It was said to those of old [in the Law] . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21). A curious Pharisee could only conclude that Jesus thought of himself as superior to the Law, and empowered to decide its meaning definitively. In other words, he was so misguided as to think of himself as the Messiah, the final agent of God in history.
One final point is also certain. The insistance of Christians that Jesus had been raised from the dead would have rankled in the minds of Pharisees. In opposition to all other Jews they alone believed that resurrection of the body was the modality of survival after death. The Sadducees did not believe in any form of afterlife, and the majority of Jews were convinced that the soul alone survived. The emphasis on the body was distinctively Pharisaic.
These were the ideas that circulated in the mind of Paul as he set out from Jerusalem on his journey to Damascus. He did not believe for a minute that they contained a scintilla of truth. Jesus had deceived himself and led astray others stupid enough to believe him.
We do not know why Paul broke off his persecution of Christians to go to Damascus. Luke tells us that he was commissioned by the High Priest to arrest Jews who had become Christians and to bring them in chains to Jerusalem. This is a neat explanation, but it cannot be correct historically. The authority of the High Priest was limited to Jerusalem and its immediate environs.
Thus Paul must have acted on his own initiative. Were he to have been taken by an urge to visit his parents in Tarsus, the safest way would have been to join a caravan to Damascus, and in that great commercial cross-roads to pick up another one going out to the west. The parable of the Good Samaritan underlines the inadvisability of travelling alone. There were no police forces to keep the roads clear of bandits.
Despite all the great paintings Paul did not ride a horse on the road to Damascus. Stirrups were first invented in China in the fourth century AD, and it would have been extremely uncomfortable for a sedentary scholar such as Paul to ride bareback for any length of time. Like others who could not afford a carriage he walked.
Paul is very reticent about his conversion experience. He tells us only that it was comparable to the encounters with the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday. The lack of details has given rise to all sorts of speculation. The most famous, of course, are the three versions furnished by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. His concern to provide responses to all the unanswered questions greatly diminishes the historical value of his reconstruction.
The important thing as far as Paul was concerned was that Jesus arrested him with irresistable force and turned his life in a completely new direction. Hence his fundamental conviction that Jesus was ‘Lord’, from which it followed that he was also ‘Christ’ and ‘Son of God’.
Paul’s persecution of Christians had set his mind in an either Messiah or Law dichotomy. Thus he was mentally prepared to abandon the Law the minute he was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. The conditions for salvation that it laid down were no longer valid. Not surprisingly, given his impulsive personality, Paul’s first action was to rush off to preach Jesus as Saviour to the nearest gentiles, the Nabataeans of Arabia, who lived south of Damascus in the modern kingdom of Jordan.