When is a Conversion Not a Conversion? Thoughts on the “Conversion” of St. Paul

By the Rev. Ken Howard

And regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.
So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you
according to the wisdom given him,
speaking of this as he does in all his letters.
There are some things in them hard to understand,
which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

Peter – an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ

(2 Peter 3:15-16)

conversion of st paul

A little over 20 years ago, while still in seminary, I had a preaching experience that profoundly transformed my opinion of the Apostle Paul and my thinking about conversion. I was a seminarian at the time – a senior, to be exact – and I had just been assigned my seminary preaching date (Virginia Theological Seminary, at the time, only gave its aspiring preachers one shot at the gathered seminary community). That’s right: my preaching date would be the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul.

Needless to say, I was a little intimidated, Paul being known as the founder of Christianity as we know it, and all, and famous for his “Road to Damascus” conversion experience. Nevertheless, I got to work reading and researching the texts.

What I discovered was nothing less than astonishing: When it comes to the Apostle Paul, we think we know more than we do, especially when it comes to the topic of conversion.

But first a little background…

At the time of the birth of the church on that first Pentecost, Paul (then known as Saul) was a young man, a Roman citizen born in Tarsus, a Jew educated in the religious traditions of the Pharisees. Offended by this upstart movement that had sprung up around this failed messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (who himself had likely grown up within the same Pharisaic tradition), Paul began his adult years as an avid opponent of the Nazarene Jewish Christian movement. But as a result of some mysterious revelation by Jesus in the wilderness, he was transformed from one of its chief antagonists into its foremost apostle. In an ironic twist, this former Pharisee was chosen by God to bring Christ to the Gentile citizens of the Roman Empire. Soon after he returned from his “Road to Damascus” experience he petitioned and won approval from the leadership of the nascent—and then almost entirely Jewish Christian—church in Jerusalem to allow Gentiles to become followers of Christ without first converting to Judaism, and with this approval was born his Gentile Christian movement. Over the next decade or so Paul planted and nurtured a dozen or more vibrant and rapidly growing church communities around the predominantly Gentile, northern Mediterranean. These communities would continue to grow and expand after his death, until eventually, the Gentiles would far surpass in numbers the Jewish Christians in the church.

Over the two to three decades of Paul’s ministry, as an integral part of the process of planting and guiding Gentile Christian communities, he carried out an intense correspondence with them, most of which was helping them to figure out what it meant to be communities centered on Christ. A half-dozen to a dozen of these letters (depending on whose opinion you ask) would become canonized as Holy Scripture—what we now call the New Testament. Within these letters he set forth the words of institution for Holy Communion: “this is my body, which is [broken] for you . . . this cup is the new covenant in my blood…” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26) and he articulated the theological principle of alvation through faith in God’s grace extended to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—not to mention offering much practical advice about the communal life of faith. I think it is ironic that many view Paul as the founder of Christianity as we know it today. Because while his concept of radical grace occupies a revered place – a pedestal at the very center of Christian doctrine – it has seldom been taken down from its pedestal and put into practice in the church’s communal life. So rather than seeing Paul as the founder of the Christian religion, I think of him as a catalyst for a Christianity that might have been, had the church not misunderstood and misapplied his teachings.

And now to the point…

Much of what we think we know about Paul doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. As one of my seminary professors once put it, “Paul got a bad rap.” For example, Paul is often perceived as being antagonistic toward Judaism and toward followers of Christ who observed Jewish ceremonial law. But a closer look at his writings shows that his attitude toward Judaism and Jewish Christianity was more open than popularly believed.

For example, he never described himself as a convert from Judaism or an ex-Jew. When he describes his experience of coming to faith, as in does his letter to the church in Galatia, he simply says, “my Lord was revealed to me” (Galatians 1:15).  Nor does Paul use the language of conversion to describe others coming to faith in Christ. In almost every version of Scripture, Paul is said to describe two of his companions – Timothy and Epaenetus – as “new converts.” But the literal translation of his description of Timothy is “new plant” (“neophutos” in Greek) and his description of Epaenetus is “first fruit” (“aparche” in Greek).

Paul seems to regard the issue of conversion (in the sense of changing religions) as irrelevant, seeing faith in Christ as the spiritual equivalent of the faith of Abraham, rather than a religion of Christianity as a successor to the religion of Judaism (see Romans 4:1ff.).

[1] He was willing to observe the ceremonial law in his dealings with Jews in order to win them to Christ (see 1 Corinthians 9:19ff.). And he was willing to require that Gentile converts observe basic Jewish ethics (see Acts 15:5–21).[2] He did not object to Jewish Christians following the ceremonial law, as long as they did not make the case that it was necessary for salvation, as did the so-called “Judaizers.”[3] With reference to Judaism as a whole, it is clear from Paul’s letter to the Romans that he does not believe that his Jewish brothers and sisters who have not accepted Jesus as the Messiah are lost to God. After much agonized wrestling with the issue, he realizes that he must learn to live with the paradox that while the name of Jesus is the only name by which people are saved, God’s promises of salvation to the Jewish people cannot be broken. So he resolved to continue to try to persuade them, but to leave their ultimate fate to God (see Romans 9–11).

Paul is generally viewed as being authoritarian in his oversight of the churches he founded, handing out and rigidly enforcing rules for individual and community conduct. Yet a closer reading of his letters reveals a more flexible leadership style: advice and counsel about the implications of the love of Christ and the grace of God as it applies to the circumstances of each community. For example, in Ephesians he appears to be encouraging the community to strive for a greater and more charismatic experience of the Holy Spirit. But in his letters to the Corinthians, he seems to try to turn the thermostat down on such experiences. In his first letter to the Corinthian church, he advises the community there to put a person outside the community for sexual immorality, but in the second letter he advises them that they have taken this corrective measure too far, and that now that he has repented they should welcome him back. Space does not allow an exhaustive review, but such examples abound in Paul’s letters, if you don’t come at them with the preconception that Paul is trying to enforce rigid rules. In every case, in every community, he seems to ask the question, “If Christ, then what?” In other words, if the love of Christ and the grace of God are true and transformative, than how ought this to be acted out in the life of this community and in the situation at hand. Paul is not the authoritarian rule-giver we often believe him to be. He was not about uniformity, but rather seemed to revel in raucous diversity within his communities as obvious evidence that it could only be the Holy Spirit making such community happen. In fact, the one thing absolutely consistent across all of Paul’s correspondence was his desire that he, and his communities, “know nothing…except Christ, and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

We know that the communities Paul founded—and their humble, radical, grace-centered approach to community in Christ—survived Paul’s death at the hands at the Romans. What we don’t know is for how long. We know that the more organized the church became, the less this approach was followed. As early as the second century—as evidenced by the three so-called Pastoral Epistles—we begin to see a much greater emphasis on uniformity and a more authoritarian approach to life in Christian community. This emphasis and approach would continue to expand in the fourth century as the Church began what would ultimately become a near-merger with the Empire, and as more and more canon law developed over time. While the church would continue to acknowledge the concept of radical grace as foundational to the way of Christ, with Paul as its greatest apostle, it would increasingly operate as though Christian community was based on obedience to Church law.

Related Reading

Boyarin, Daniel. (1997). A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hays, Richard. (2005). The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Howard, Ken. (2013). Excommunicating the Faithful: Jewish Christianity in the Early Church. Germantown, MD: The Paradoxy Center for Incarnational Christianity.

Kaye, William & Anne Amos (2010). Re-Reading Paul: A Fresh Look at His Attitude to Torah and Judaism, Jewish-Christian Relations, retrieved July 15, 2010 from website: http://www.jcrelations.net/en/?id=789.

Lopez, Lavina. (2008). Apostle to the Conquered: Reimaging Paul’s Mission. Minneapolis: Fortress.

Stegemann, Ekkehard & Wolfgang Stegmann. (2010). The Jesus Movement: A Social Histyory of Its First Century. Minneapolis: Fortress.

[1] Patrick J. Hartin, “Jewish Christianity: Focus on Antioch in the First Century,” Scriptura 36 (1991): 38-50.

[2] G.P. Carras, “Jewish Ethics and Gentile Converts: Remarks on 1 Thes. 4:3-8,” in The Thessalonian Correspondence, Raymond F. Collins and Norbert Baumert, eds., (Ithaca, NY:  Leuven University Press, 1990), 306–315.

[3] Roger Beckwith, “The Origin of the Festivals of Easter and Whitsun,” Studia Liturgica 13(1979): 7–8. Beckwith argues that Paul allowed Jewish Christians to observe Jewish festivals privately.


4 thoughts on “When is a Conversion Not a Conversion? Thoughts on the “Conversion” of St. Paul

  1. Many churches not only misunderstood and misapplied the convert Paul his teachings and the teachings of other first disciples of Christ, they also created somebody else of the master rabbi Jesus and made him into a god.

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