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The Legend of Paul's Conversion
We Have Ways of Making You Talk


One reason it is so often difficult to tell whether, with a particular piece of biblical narrative, we are dealing with history or fiction is that stories appear in the Bible for their edifying and theological value. Since the stories are not there simply to satisfy idle reader curiosity, we cannot readily determine whether a given story has been remembered or fabricated, or a bit of both. And in the nature of the case, it will always be easier to show the unhistorical nature of a narrative than to verify one as historical. For historical criticism scrutinizes; it doubts; it holds the text's feet to the fire, rather like the evil interrogator in the movies who must assume his captive has information, that he is lying when he pretends not to know anything. Even though the poor prisoner may, like Dustin Hoffman in The Marathon Man, really know nothing, the interrogator must nonetheless assume he is lying ("I'll ask you one more time..."). Even so, the biblical critic may never be finally convinced his story is true even if God knows it to be a factual account. It is a matter of the futility of trying to prove a negative, in this case that the text is not a piece of fiction. At any rate, the story of Paul's conversion (Acts 9, 22, 26) has been for many hundreds of years both edifying (as a paradigm case of God's forgiving grace even to the chief of sinners) and apologetically important (miraculously proving the reality of the Risen Christ). As such it naturally calls forth our suspicions. And if the critic is like a merciless interrogator of texts, we may compare him with the picture of Paul as a persecutor1 of the saints in the very story we intend to subject to such cross-examination here.


Seeing Double

To suspect or reject the historical basis of the story of Paul's conversion as we read it in Acts is certainly nothing new in the history of scholarship. Indeed, one might have thought the issue settled long ago, with a negative verdict, by Baur, Zeller, and Haenchen.2 The contradictions and implausibilities of the three linked episodes (Paul's persecution after Stephen's stoning; his vision of the Risen Jesus on the Damascus Road; and his catechism and baptism by Ananias) are well known. To review just a few of them, and thus to beat a dead horse, the Stephen martyrdom (as Hans-Joachim Schoeps,3 followed by Robert Eisenman,4 suggests) is a fictionalization of the story of the martyrdom of James the Just in similar circumstances (as one can still glimpse in Acts 7:52, "... the Just One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered."). Luke's reduction of the Jewish Sanhedrin to a howling lynch mob is not to be dignified with learned discussion. Worse yet, Saul has been appended to the narrative by means of a typical Lukan blunder. The Law mandated the casting aside of the clothes of the one executed, not those of his executioners, but Luke has Saul play coat-check for the mob. And then Saul does not so much spearhead as personify the persecution, which, as Haenchen notes,5 is primarily a piece of "darkness before the dawn" hagiography anticipating the impending conversion of the enemy of the faith. The whole church is supposedly dispersed, jailed, or tortured into blaspheming Jesus, but the Apostles and myriads of their followers remain unmolested all the way into chapter 21. Saul obtains a hunting license from the high priest to persecute Jewish Jesus-believers in Damascus, though in fact the jurisdiction of that worthy extended into Damascus no more than did that of Quirinius into Bethlehem.

That the Damascus Road Christophany is the creation of Luke is evident, first, from the fact that, for artistry's sake, he quite properly varied the details between his three accounts, even as he had with his two accounts of the Ascension, a full forty days apart. As James Barr said regarding the latter case, a writer who is so little concerned for consistency cannot very well have been striving for historical accuracy.6  Second, as Gerhard Lohfink notes, Luke's stories copy standard scriptural type-scenes (to borrow Robert Alter's phrase).7 The scenes "work" because they prompt the reader to recall the biblical prototypes. Since he offers them as transparent literary allusions, he simply cannot have expected his readers to take such scenes as historical reportage. And the Damascus Road episode certainly does embody such a type-scene, the kind Lohfink calls the "double vision." In such a sequence a heavenly visitant grants the protagonist a revelation, adding that at the very same moment he/she is appearing to someone elsewhere with instructions to meet/help the protagonist.8 A third reason, and the strongest of all, as we will see, is that, while Paul's epistles provide nary a historical peg from which to hang the Lukan tale, there are strikingly close literary prototypes on which Luke seems to have drawn.


Paul's Con/version

Lohfink is willing to allow that "Probably a real narrative lies at the bottom of it, but that is really not certain."9 Lohfink is thinking of some version of at least an oral-traditional story depicting Paul having a vision of Christ on the Road to Damascus, but why should we assume this? Lohfink himself admits that Galatians 1:22-23 gives little to build on. And it is not uncommon for exegetes to note how the writings attributed to Paul really provide no parallel whatever to the Damascus Road account. Paul claims in 1 Corinthians 9:1 to "have seen the Lord" and in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that "he appeared also unto me," but absolutely nothing is said as to the circumstances, or of any connection to a religious conversion. Acts' account, of course, runs together the rather different issues of Paul's conversion to Christ and his naming as Apostle to the Gentiles; one cannot assume that any Pauline reference to either must imply both. All Galatians 1:15-16 says on the matter is "he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son in me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles..." Is there any echo or hint of the Damascus Road story here? It is astonishing that Lüdemann can use the Lukan-derived term "the Damascus experience" of this or any other Pauline text.10 On the contrary, unless we are determined to find the Damascus business there, Galatians will naturally be read as speaking of no conversion at all, but of a life-long religious commitment secured by divine fiat before birth. At a subsequent point he was then "called by the grace" of God to some form of ministry, which later still eventuated in the showing forth to others of Christ's life within his poor mortal frame, precisely as in 2 Corinthians 4:10; Galatians 3:1; 4:14.11

Does not the famous soliloquy in Romans chapter 7 attest to something like a transformative experience on the Apostle's part? As is well-known, this text is susceptible to too many viable interpretations, some of which will rule out the use of the passage as Pauline autobiography. Paul may rather be using "I" like the rhetorical "one." The same difficulty attaches to two other passages (Rom. 6:3 and 1 Cor. 12:13) which may also be taken as instances of Paul's rhetorically associating himself with his audience. But if they are read as references to Paul's own baptism, he would seem to be presupposing anything but a unique mode of entrance into the Christian community.12 Instead, he can speak of sharing his readers' baptismal experience just as he identifies by experience with the tongue-talking of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:18). One other bit of evidence pointing in this direction is spotlighted by Anthony J. Blasi:


The conversion account in the Acts of the Apostles presents a dramatic scene in which the risen Jesus knocks Paul off his horse13 on the road to Damascus and talks to Paul. None of this appears in the Pauline letters, however. Rather, we learn that "kinsmen" of Paul's were also apostles. In a letter of recommendation for the deaconess [sic; actually "deacon"], Phoebe, which is attached to the end of Romans, Paul notes that his kinsmen, Andronicus and Junias [sic: Junia], "are... of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me" (Rom. 16.7).14 


Here we overhear Pauline table talk to the effect that, like many present-day ministers, he is proud to hale from a family of previous ministers, and this hardly comports with the traditional picture of Paul radically turned about in his tracks, rescued like a brand from the burning by the miraculous intervention of Christ.

I suggest a comparison here between the case of Paul and his legend and that of Gautama the Buddha. Later hagiographical texts tell the edifying tale of the Great Renunciation of Prince Siddhartha, who abandoned the opulence of his father's imperial palace to seek the solution to mankind's ills. It came about in this wise. Miraculous portents revealed to King Suddhodana that his newborn son should grow up to be either the world's redeemer or its conqueror. Being a mighty man of war, the king set about to make sure his son would follow in his bloody footsteps. This he did by shielding the boy from the knowledge that the world needed redemption. Prince Siddhartha lived a happy life roaming the extensive grounds and game preserves of the royal estate, never gaining a glimpse of human misery, never suspecting the woeful truths of pain, old age, infirmity and death. This way, his father reasoned, he should know nothing of the world's need till irrevocably committed to the warrior's path. But it was not to be. The gods themselves saw to it that the Prince's eyes should be opened: they took turns dropping down to earth in human form, one each day, disguised as a sufferer of illness, an old man, a fly-buzzing corpse, and at last a mendicant monk. Each day the Prince saw one, to the great consternation of his guardians. Thus did he learn of sickness, old age, and death, and much did he meditate until the fourth day when he beheld the monk and saw his own way pointed. Abandoning sleeping wife and children, leaving a stricken father shaking his crown-heavy head, Siddhartha Gautama launched into the jungle and began his search for enlightenment. The story is exceedingly rich in symbolism and implications, much like the story of Paul's conversion, when the scales of unbelief fell from his eyes. But the judgment of Edward J. Thomas15 is that the story is groundless and secondary. Now it may seem that this is to state the obvious, but that is only because we are used to taking New Testament supernaturalism for granted and it does not occur to us to take Buddhist miracle stories seriously.

One might seek to historicize the Great Renunciation by rationalizing, demythologizing it. One might envision the Prince rudely awakening from a pampered life (though without the fairy-tale luxury of the full-blown myth) by the unexpected sight of a genuine sufferer, elder, corpse, and monk, and undertaking an ascetic life himself. And some historians of Buddhism have made these adjustments if by these means they might salvage some of the story as historical. We may trace a striking parallel in the case of the legend of Paul's conversion. Many have been willing to rationalize the story if they may thus by bargaining strike a deal between the historian and the believer within themselves.16 Perhaps Paul had an hallucination, yes, an hallucination brought on by a deep crisis of conscience over his participation in the death of Stephen. Perhaps he even secretly coveted the freedom from the Law that Stephen stood for. He was "persecuting" his own secret desire to be a Christian. And on the Damascus Road his conscience and desire erupted from his subconscious in the form of the Risen Christ to assure him his sin was forgiven and his desire granted. Despite the fact that this reconstruction ignores all the problems attending the Stephen and the Damascus Road stories, it has not lost its popularity. For instance, Gerd Lüdemann dusted it off in his recent book on the resurrection.17

But rationalizing either story is only a stopgap. We need only invoke the fundamental historical-critical axiom that in any choice between a more and a less spectacular version of the same event, the less spectacular is to be preferred, since if the more colorful were first available we cannot account for the fabrication of the more mundane. But if only the less spectacular were first available, we can well imagine someone replacing it with a more dramatic one. Accordingly, Thomas shows that any hypothesized version of the Great Renunciation story collapses when placed next to this passage from scripture:


Thus, O monks, before my enlightenment, while yet a Bodhisattva and not fully enlightened, being myself subject to birth I sought out the nature of birth, being subject to old age I sought out the nature of old age, of sickness, of death, of sorrow, of impurity. Then I thought, "What if I being myself subject to birth were to seek out the nature of birth [etc.] and having seen the wretchedness of the nature of birth, were to seek out the unborn, the supreme peace of Nirvana?" (The Sutta of the Noble Search)


Thomas concludes, "In these accounts we have no definite historical circumstances mentioned, nor any trace of the legend as we find it in the commentaries and later works. These have elaborated a story... based upon the abstract statements of the earlier texts."18 It seems to me that exactly the same relationship obtains between the more general language of passages like Galatians 1:15-16 and 2 Corinthians 4:6 and the miracle-mongering narrative of Paul's conversion as we read it in Acts.

Similarly, the canonical account of Joseph Smith's initial vision of Jesus and the heavenly Father in the Sacred Grove at Palmyra seems to be a secondary mythologization of an earlier process of introspective contemplation. According to the official version, in 1820 young Joseph found himself confused by the strife between local Protestant sects: the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians--which should he join? Retreating to the woods to think and pray, he beheld an epiphany of the Father and the Son who had come to tell him that his suspicions were well-founded: none of the competing sects was right. And he himself had been chosen to restore true Christianity to the world. Shortly thereafter, the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph, directing him to unearth the Book of Mormon. Strangely, this account of the revelation was unknown to Mormons and non-Mormon polemicists alike until Smith first recounted it in 1842. But according to Joseph's mother Lucy, their family had been discussing the relative merits of the competing sects at home one evening. Joseph went to bed, only to be awakened by an angel. The heavenly messenger told him that none of the churches was right: he ought to start a new one. It is apparent that Joseph later split this version of the story into two, for greater effect. But in an 1832 account by Smith himself he claimed that well before he had beheld any vision, it had been his own studies of the Bible that had convinced him that none of the contemporary churches was scripturally authentic.19 It is apparent that his own inner theological musings gradually became externalized, with the help of legendary embellishment, and the result was a legendary conversion narrative.

The story of Paul's Damascus Road conversion can no more be salvaged by rationalizing historicization than that of the Great Renunciation of the Buddha or the visions of Joseph Smith. All alike are midrashic narratizations of earlier, less spectacular, autobiographical musings.


Damascus Covenant

I have noted the tendency, even among critical scholars (as witness Lüdemann) who ought to know better, and who indeed do know better, to discount Luke's story of Paul's conversion in Acts as myth and/or fiction and yet in effect to continue presupposing the substance of it to be historically true. Chronologies are based on the conversion of Paul, despite the dearth of evidence for it. It is simply too much trouble to think through the implications, the redrawing of the rules that might become necessary. It is quite as unthinkable for them to let go the "Big Bang" model of Pauline origins as it is for them to dispense with what Burton Mack20 calls the "Big Bang" model of Christian origins in general. If, as Mack suggests, the Big Bang of cross-and-resurrection is merely one subsequent version of the multiform myth of Jesus, and we must shake off its spell and try to get behind the Easter morning faith of the disciples,21 the need is just as serious to get behind the legend of Paul's conversion if we wish to come to a better understanding of the evolution of the Pauline movement.

James D.G. Dunn's discussion22 of various theories seeking to derive Paul's theology directly from his conversion experience on the Damascus Road is instructive in ways he may not intend. Some have proposed that Paul drew primarily a Christological inference from his vision: even though Jesus was a transgressor of the Torah, here he is resurrected, so it turns out he was the messiah after all. Others suggest Paul drew primarily a legal inference: if the Torah (shorthand for "works-righteousness") condemned the likes of the now-vindicated Jesus, then so much for the Torah. Dunn himself finally settles upon the nuance that Paul inferred from his vision the need for a Gentile mission: if a Law-transgressing Jesus was vindicated by the resurrection, then God has exercised his preferential option for the scofflaws, i.e., the Gentiles. In all this, Dunn is worried about how Paul could have inferred either God's saving grace or Jesus' messiahship or the Gentile Mission from the Damascus Road encounter, i.e., on the spot. Dunn complains that previous theories do not comport with Paul's (supposed) claim in Galatians 1:15-16 (which Dunn, needless to say, interprets a la Acts 25:17-18, as a reference to the Damascus Road) to have received his commission to the Gentiles "the hour I first believed."23 Never mind that Dunn's theory is the lamest of the lot, what has he shown? Mainly, the fact that exegetes can take such theological midrash as historical reconstruction shows that they find it all too easy to directly assimilate the Lukan conversion story (to which they are at least implicitly referring) as a piece of narrative theology, that is, narratized theology. They seem not to notice they have passed, with Luke, from the domain of historical explanation to that of midrash.24 It is not that they miss Luke's point. No, they are on precisely his wavelength. It just isn't history. Dunn's "historical" reconstruction, even more than those he criticizes, leaves no room for a man hammering out his theology as need and new questions arose. Luke's picture of Paul receiving his gospel in one gulp on the road to Damascus is the same sort of theological cameo as the story where Moses gets the whole darn Torah on Mount Sinai. Narratized theology, not history. 


From Paul's Biography to Luke's Bibliography

If there is no graft point in the Pauline epistles for Luke's account of Paul's conversion, where did Luke derive his inspiration? And why did he feel the need to include such a scene? First, it seems plain, as soon as one reads the texts in question, that Luke has borrowed freely from two well-known literary sources, Euripides' Bacchae25 and 2 Maccabees' story of the conversion of Heliodorus. From 2 Maccabees Luke has borrowed the basic story of a persecutor of the people of God being stopped in his mission by a vision of heavenly beings (3:24-26), thrown to the ground in a faint, blinded (3:27), and cared for by righteous Jews who pray for his recovery (3:31-33), whereupon the ex-persecutor converts to the faith he once tried to destroy (3:35) and begins witnessing to its truth (3:36). Given Luke's propensity to rewrite the Septuagint,26 it seems special pleading to deny that he has done the same in the present case, the most blatant of them all.27

From the Bacchae,28 Luke has derived the core of the Damascus Road epiphany, the basic idea of a persecutor being converted despite himself by direct fiat of the god whose followers he has been abusing. Pentheus has done his best to expel the enthusiastic Maenads of Dionysus from Thebes, against the counsel of Cadmus, Teiresius, and other level heads who warn him not to be found fighting against a god (Teiresias: "Reckless fool, you do not know the consequences of your words. You talked madness before, but this is raving lunacy!" 357-360. Dionysus: "I warn you once again: do not take arms against a god." 788-789. "A man, a man, and nothing more, yet he presumed to wage war with a god." 636-637; c.f., Acts 5:33-39). He ought to mark how the Maenads, though they may seem to be filled with wine, are really filled with divine ecstasy ("not, as you think, drunk with wine," 686-687; c.f., Acts 2:15), as witnessed by the old and young among them prophesying ("all as one, the old women and the young and the unmarried girls," 693-694; c.f., Acts 2:17-18) and the harmless resting of tongues of fire upon their heads ("flames flickered in their curls and did not burn them," 757-758; "tongues of fire," 623-624; c.f., Acts 2:3)! Pentheus remains stubborn in his opposition, arresting the newly-arrived apostle of the cult, who turns out to be Dionysus himself, the very son of god, in mortal disguise. After an earthquake frees him from Pentheus' prison (585-603; c.f., Acts 16:25-34), Dionysus strolls into Pentheus' throne room and mocks him ("If I were you, I would... not rage and kick against necessity, a man defying god." 793-796; c.f., Acts 26:14), offering Pentheus the chance to find the outlaw disciples in their secret hideaway. He may see them at their sport, but he must go in drag, wearing their distinctive doeskin costume (912-916; c.f., Acts 9:26-30). He mesmerizes Pentheus into agreeing to the plan (922-924; c.f., Acts 9:17-18), and no sooner does he prettify himself than he has become a true believer despite himself (929-930). But the joke's on him, since Dionysus sends him to his doom: he knows Pentheus will be detected and torn limb from limb by the Maenads. Such poetic justice! The poor fool could dish it out but not take it! He wanted to persecute the Maenads? Let him! He'll see how it feels from the standpoint of the persecuted! He becomes a true believer, only to suffer the fate of one. And so does Paul. In light of the parallels with the Bacchae (Dionysus to Pentheus: "You and you alone shall suffer for your city. A great ordeal awaits you. But you are worthy of your fate." 963-964), we can at long last catch the awful irony of Acts 9:16, "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name!" Paul, a conscript despite himself, will find his punishment fitting his crime: he will suffer as a member of the same persecuted community against whom he himself had unleashed the persecution.


Another Jesus

As for Luke's motive for the story, it is not far to seek. As is well known, Luke in Acts parallels Paul not only with Peter, but with Jesus as well. Luke's Paul goes about doing good, anointed with the Spirit, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons, preaching in synagogues, finally making his way to Jerusalem like a moth to the flame. Passion predictions adumbrate what will happen there, and after a tumult at the temple, he is taken into custody, tried before the Sanhedrin, by Herodian and Roman officials who all declare him innocent, and, it is implied, he is killed (Acts 20:25; also compare Acts 21:11 with Luke 18:31-33). Lest there be a missing piece, Luke felt it needful to include a scene corresponding to Jesus' baptism by John, the starting point of his ministry (Luke 3:21-22). This is the function of the Damascus Road and Ananias sequence. The idea of Paul meeting the Risen One while traveling along a road comes from Luke's Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-33), and the encounter with "the Just One" (Acts 22:14) "whom you are persecuting" (Acts 22:8 and parallels) probably derives from an old story, echoed in the Clementine Recognitions, in which Paul ambushes James the Just in the temple. But the sequence as a whole parallels the baptism of Jesus by John. Why does Luke bother to tell us that Paul was staying on the well-known "street called Straight" (Acts 9:11), if not to hint at John the Baptist's urging to "prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight" (Luke 3:4)? Paul's vision of Jesus reflects Jesus' own vision of the descending Spirit (Luke 3:22). As Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, so does Paul at the hands of Ananias (Acts 9:17). And Ananias even administers a baptismal rite aimed at washing away sins (Acts 22:16), just as John does (Luke 3:3). Finally, the very name Ananias (Hananiah, Hanan-yahu) is the merest disguise for John (Yah-hannon), the theophoric suffix replacing the identical prefix.

It is worth speculating whether Luke may have had some Grundschrift (underlying story) for the story of Ananias healing and baptizing Saul of Tarsus, though an unexpected one. As J. Louis Martyn pointed out, the story in John chapter 9 of the blind man healed by Jesus and being excommunicated from the synagogue very likely reflects contemporary Jewish controversies over whether Jews might accept the help of Christian healers when all else failed. Martyn adduced two rabbinical anecdotes.29


It happened with Rabbi Elazar ben Damah, whom a serpent bit, that Jacob, a man of Kefar Soma, came to heal him in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera; but Rabbi Ishmael did not let him. He said, "You are not permitted, Ben Damah." He answered, "I will bring you proof that he may heal me." But he had no opportunity to bring proof, for he died. (Tosefta Hullin 2, 22)


The grandson [of  Rabbi Jehoshua ben Levi] had something stuck in his throat. Then came a man and whispered to him in the name of Jeshu Pandera, and he recovered. When he [the healer] came out, he [Rabbi Jehoshua] said to him, "What didst thou whisper to him?" He said to him, "A certain word [euphemistic for the Christian invocation of Jesus]." He said, "It had been better for him that he had died rather than this." And it happened thus to him. (j Shabbath 14d)


We see here the Jewish horror at the prospect of Jews being converted to the ranks of the Christian minim (heretics) by means of miracles. Why would it have been better to die than to receive healing in the name of Jesus Pandera? Because it would be to commit one of the three mortal sins: one ought to die before committing idolatry, and that is what conversion to the heathen demon Jesus would constitute. Note how the first of the two cautionary tales warns the potential objector not even to dare arguing the "wrong" side of the case lest disaster follow! Apparently there was some kind of "ecumenical" healing bridge between Jews and Jesus-sectarians, as witness also the striking inclusion of Yochanan ben Zabda (= John son of Zebedee) alongside Asaph ben Berechiah as a pair of physicians who frame a kind of Hippocratic Oath in the Hebrew text Sefer Refuot (Book of Medicines), a text with Qumran affinities.30

Is it possible that Luke adapted a Jewish story which depicted a Jew, perhaps named Saul, beset with sunstroke and blindness, accepting the healing ministry of the Jewish Jesus-sectarian Ananias and, horror or horrors, becoming one of the minim as a result? Originally the Saul and Ananias story would have been a slightly different cautionary tale: look what will happen--it won't stop at healing!


Paul the Persecutor

The reader has no doubt been asking whether the datum of Paul having previously persecuted the church does not require some sort of conversion episode, and of a rather drastic nature at that. If Paul recalls his days of being a persecutor, does he need to make his conversion explicit? I believe that every single one of the apparent Pauline references to former persecution is secondary. As interpolations or parts of pseudepigrapha, such references one and all presuppose the same Pauline legend we read of in Acts.

First, John C. O'Neill marshals a number of considerations indicating that Galatians 1:13-14, 22-24 did not originally belong to the text of that epistle. "These verses have been interpolated into Paul's argument by a later writer who wished to glorify the apostle. The argument is irrelevant and anachronistic, the concepts differ from Paul's concepts, and the vocabulary and style are not his."31  "The astounding reversal of roles he underwent, from a fierce persecutor of the Church to an evangelist of the faith, and from a precociously zealous Jew to an opponent of Jewish customs, is no argument in favour of Paul's position,"32  which seems to be the thread of the passage otherwise.

The reference to "Judaism" is too late for Paul, since it implies that Christianity and Judaism are separate religions, a use analogous to speaking of "Judaism and paganism." Similarly, pistiV as a reference to "the faith," i.e., the Christian religion, would fit in Acts 6:7 and the Pastorals, but not in Paul. And Paul elsewhere uses the word ekklhsia for local congregations. The use in 1:13 (cf. 23) smacks rather of the later Church Universal (or even Church Aion) doctrine of Ephesians. The word anastrofh is elsewhere to be found over Paul's name only in Ephesians and 1 Timothy, while IoudaismoV, porqow, sunhlikiwtaV, and patrikoV do not occur even there. The frequency of the enclitic (three times) in these few verses is closer to that in Ephesians and the Pastorals (seven) than the other Paulines (once more in Galatians 2:6, nine times elsewhere in the Corpus). Stylistically these verses are un-Pauline, the sentences even and regular, with 20, 19, 12, and 20 words respectively. And there is more.32

I have argued at some length elsewhere33 that Winsome Munro, J.C. O'Neill and others are quite correct in seeing 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, containing another reference to Paul's pre-conversion persecutions, as an interpolation.

1 Timothy 1:13 contains another reference to the mischief wrought by the pre-Christian Paul, but it is as spurious as the epistle which contains it. The same goes for Philippians 3:6, "as to zeal, a persecutor of the church." As Baur pointed out long ago, Philippians is virtually a fourth Pastoral Epistle, with its anachronistic references to bishops and deacons, the Gnosticizing kabbalism of the Kenosis hymn in 2:6-11, its unusual vocabulary, and most of all, its heavy hagiographic irony as it has Paul assure his readers that, though he would much rather wing his way to glory and finally attain his crown of perfection, he will continue to minister to them, which of course "he" does by means of this very pseudepigraph. The poignancy depends completely, as it does for the modern reader, on the implied reader knowing that Paul was in fact executed immediately after "he" wrote these sweet sentiments. It is another Acts 19, another 2 Timothy. So no wonder it, too, knows the legend of Paul the persecutor. And note the anti-Semitism whereby it equates Jewish zeal with Christian-hunting. Paul can have written this no more than he can have regarded Judaism as a competing religion he did not belong to (Gal. 1:14) or aimed at fellow Jews the classic anti-Jewish jibe "haters of humanity" (1 Thess. 2:15--and here note yet another variation on the Pauline persecution legend: this time it is Palestinian Jews who persecuted Paul!).

Whence the Pauline persecution legend shared by Luke and his fellow Paulinists? I believe it is a late and garbled Gentile Christian version, a turning to hagiographic advantage, of an early and persistent Ebionite reproach of the Christian Paul as an "enemy of the faith," their faith, the Torah-gospel of James the Just and the Nazoreans. In the Clementine Recognitions34 we read of attacks led by Paul ("the Enemy") on James and his flock. These are actual physical attacks upon James and the Jerusalem Ebionim, not unlike that attributed to Paul and the Sanhedrin in Acts. But in the Ebionite source underlying this episode of the Recognitions 35 it seems doubtful that Paul's attacks presaged a conversion; he is referred to uniformly as the Enemy of James throughout, as if nothing ever changed. Now in fact the historical Paul may never have mounted violent attacks on any group of rival religionists. “The legend of Paul’s persecution of Christians… may have been invented by the Petrine party, as the Paulinists invented the legend of Peter’s denial of his Lord.”36

Was it cut from whole cloth? Not exactly. His reputation as one who, as a non-Torah Christian, opposed the "true" (Ebionite) faith and "fought" against it would have eventually crystallized into stories of his actually taking up "worldly weapons of warfare" (2 Corinthians 10:4). But the original point was simply that Paul as a Christian apostle strove, polemicized, against the Nazorean Christianity of James and Peter. "They have heard concerning you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs" (Acts 21:21). Naturally Gentile, Pauline Christians could never have interpreted his promulgation of the Law-free gospel as opposing the true faith, so when eventually they heard the charge that Paul had been an enemy of the faith they took it to mean he had once persecuted what they considered the true faith: their own Hellenized Christianity, which must, in turn, have meant he had previously been a non-Christian and then had undergone a major about-face.37


Conquer By This

In suggesting that there never was any sort of dramatic conversion of Paul from a Jewish persecutor of Christians to a Christian believer and apostle, I am floating a theory analogous to that of T.G. Elliott who has recently argued that the famous story of Constantine converting to Christian faith as a result of a heavenly token seen in a vision before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge is a fabrication of Eusebius.38 It seems much more likely that Constantine had simply been raised as a Christian. Originally the vision was supposed to be no more than the origin of the symbolic battle standard, the labarum. Eusebius initially treats the story of the vision this way, as do all other early discussions of the vision. But eventually Eusebius introduces the notion that the event marked the miraculous conversion of Constantine to the Christian religion, and subsequent writers who make the claim owe it to Eusebius. Elliott shows how, once we free ourselves of this bit of hagiographic propaganda about Constantine, we find ourselves in a better position to appreciate the mature, long-nourished convictions that led the Emperor to involve himself in theological deliberations leading to Nicea. Constantine appears less the meddling amateur theologian, just as, without the Big Bang of the Pauline conversion, we can better understand the gradual, contextual development of his convictions without having to think the Risen Christ just unscrewed Paul's cranium, dropped in a cassette, and pressed play.

The utility of the miraculous conversion legend is obvious in both cases: it serves the same purpose as the common assertions that founder-prophets were unlettered: the eloquence of their revelations must then have come from God, not from the founder's own imagination, however gifted. Moses (Exod. 4:10-11), the Prophet Muhammad ("But I cannot recite!"), the Prophet Joseph Smith, Peter and John (Acts 4:13), Jesus himself, all are claimed never to have enjoyed formal schooling. "Where did he get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? Is not this the carpenter?" (Mark 6:2-3) "How is it that this man has learning, having never studied?" (John 7:15) The answer: "Flesh and blood has not revealed it to" him (Matt. 16:17). It must be good news from God, not good views from human beings. 

Now neither Paul nor Constantine could plausibly be depicted as uneducated, so the metaphor is just slightly different: what if each, albeit well-educated, was a non-Christian, in one case a pagan, in the other a Jew, converted to the faith by a miracle? This means the views subsequently propagated by them must be a gospel not from men or through man (Gal. 1:1). "For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ."

1. See Page duBois, Torture and Truth (NY: Routledge, 1991): "Is our very idea of truth... entwined with the logic of torture?" Pass me the thumbscrews.

2. Ferdinand Christian Baur, Paul the Apostle of Jesus Christ: His Life and Works, His Epistles and His Doctrine. Trans. A. Menzies (London: Williams and Norgate, 1876) vol. 2, pp. 42-89; Edward Zeller, The Contents and Origin of the Acts of the Apostles, Critically Investigated. Trans. Joseph Dare (London: Williams and Norgate, 1875) vol. 1, pp. 284 ff; Ernst Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary. Trans. Bernard Noble, Gerald Shinn, and R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), pp. 297-299, 318-329.

3. Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Theologie und Geschichte des Judenchristentums (Tübingen: Mohr, 1949), pp. 408-445. Having experienced audience reaction not unlike that accorded Stephen himself in the wake of this published suggestion, Schoeps, in his 1969 popularization Das Judenchristentum (Eng. trans. Jewish Christianity: Factional Disputes in the Early Church by Douglas R.A. Hare, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), decided only to hint at his theory "since all theologians immediately see red when the historicity of the alleged Hellenist deacon Stephen is questioned" (p. 43). Little has changed in the interval, as the shocked and outraged reactions to Eisenman's related conjectures have recently shown.

4. Robert Eisenman, "Paul as Herodian," in Eisenman, The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians: Essays and Translations (Rockport: Element Books, 1996), pp. 242-243; Ibid., James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (NY: Viking Penguin: 1996), chapter 14, "The Stoning of James and the Stoning of Stephen," pp. 411-466.

5. Haenchen, p. 298.

6. James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), p. 57.

7. Gerhard Lohfink, The Conversion of St. Paul: Narrative and History in Acts. Trans. Bruce J. Malina (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1976), pp. 80 ff.; ibid., The Bible: Now I Get It! A Form-Criticism Handbook (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979), pp. 123-124.

8. Conversion, pp. 73-77. In fact, one may note the presence of the same complex not only in the Bible but in Lucius Apuleius' Metamorphosis or The Golden Ass, in which poor Lucius, prototype for Francis the talking mule, beholds an epiphany of Isis, who instructs him to appear on the morrow in Rome to her priest Mithras, whom she is even now informing of the meeting. He will change Lucius back to human form in preparation for Lucius' initiation into her saving mysteries. This done, Mithras asks Lucius, "Why do you wait?" and initiates him (Book XI). Here, as in Luke's account of Paul, a blatantly metaphorical malady is healed preparatory to conversion-initiation, with the rhetorical prompt "Why do you wait?" (see Acts 22:16), which Oscar Cullmann long ago identified as a ritual cue (as also in Mark 10:14, "hinder them not;" Acts 10:47, "Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people...?" Also Acts 8:36, "What doth hinder me to be baptized?" Acts 11:17; Matthew 3:13-14); Cullmann, Baptism in the New Testament. Studies in Biblical Literature No. 1. Trans. J.K.S. Reid (London: SCM Press, 1952), Appendix: "Traces of an Ancient Baptismal Formula in the New Testament," pp. 71-80.

9. Lohfink, Conversion, p. 87.

10. Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 50. He attempts to make the theological language of 2 Corinthians 4:6 an echo of a visionary experience on the way to Damascus. But if there is any relationship, the details of 2 Corinthians 4:6 have surely suggested the Damascus Road story. Lüdemann's suggestion must be judged an astonishing bit of nostalgic harmonization.

11. It is always possible to read the Galatians passage in a way that would harmonize it with Luke's conversion tale, but this would be circular: the point is to see first what the Galatians text would seem to imply when read by itself. Only if it seemed problematical when read on its own would we be entitled to search elsewhere for some unspoken, missing premise. But if it makes sufficient sense as is, and obviously it does, then there is no need to read Luke's story into it. And if anyone wishes to nullify the natural implications of Galatians 1:15 by pointing out its allusion to Jeremiah 1:5, let me just note that the latter even more strongly envisions a continuous religious consciousness from early youth ("I am only a child."), not a drastic discontinuity or conversion.

12. Reginald  H. Fuller, "Was Paul Baptized?" Les Actes des Apôtres: Traditions, rédaction, théologie par J. Kremer. Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium XLVIII (Gembloux: Leuven University Press), p. 505. Fuller's article is pretty much a homiletical haze from which no real answer to the eponymous question ever emerges.

13. Or, better, on his ass.

14. Making Charisma: The Social Construction of Paul's Public Image (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1991), p. 26. One can always argue that "kinsmen" here merely means "fellow Jews," but other Jews are mentioned without such terminology. To distance his "kinsmen" from Paul in such a manner is a leaf taken from the book of Roman Catholic apologists for whom the brothers and sisters of Jesus must be his cousins, or whatever.

15. Edward J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha as Legend and History (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1927), p. 52.  

16. Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer: A Confrontation between the Modern Historian's Principles of Judgment and the Christian's Will-to-Believe (NY: Macmillan, 1969).

17. Lüdemann, Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 81-84. This is only one respect in which Lüdemann has retreated into nineteenth-century rationalism and sentimentalism in The Resurrection of Jesus, another being his Renan-like view that Jesus was resurrected into the nostalgia of the Twelve (pp. 97 ff).

18. Thomas, Life of Buddha, ibid.

19. David Persuitte, Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., corrected 1991 edition), pp. 20-24.

20. Burton Mack, A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), pp. 7-9, 112-113, 368.

21. Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology.” Trans. Reginald H. Fuller. In Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate. Ed. Hans Werner Bartsch (NY: Harper & Row, Harper Torchbooks, 1961), p. 42. “All that historical criticism can establish is the fact that the first disciples came to believe in the resurrection.”

22. See also James D.G. Dunn, "'A Light to the Gentiles', or 'The End of the Law'? The Significance of the Damascus Road Christophany for Paul," in Dunn, Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), p. 95.

23. Dunn, "'A Light to the Gentiles'," pp. 89-107.

24. One finds a veritable cloud of witnesses to this point in the recent symposium collection The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul's Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), ed. Richard N. Longenecker.  It would be closer to the truth, I am suggesting, to speak of "the impact of Paul's life, thought, and ministry on the story of Paul's Damascus Road conversion."

25. Despite the pooh-poohing of A. Vögeli ("Lukas und Euripides," Theologische Zeitschrift 9 [1953] who held that Acts' parallels with the Bacchae are merely fortuitous and depend on dime-a-dozen literary motifs widespread in the Hellenistic world, it is plain that Luke has made extensive use of the Bacchae, as Lilian Portefaix has demonstrated in detail, Sisters Rejoice: Paul's Letter to the Philippians and Luke-Acts as Seen by First Century Philippian Women, Coniectanea biblica. New Testament series, 20 [Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1988], p. 170. In fact, Luke has used the Pentheus versus Dionysus sequence twice, since the story of Paul and the Philippian jailer in Acts 16 is manifestly based on it, too, and much more extensively, though this time it is Paul who takes the role of Dionysus' apostle, while the jailer is the Pentheus analog.

26. The Septuagint, or LXX, is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, widely read by Hellenistic Jews and early Christians in New Testament times. Recent scholars have demonstrated how Luke seems to have gotten many of his own stories by adapting LXX prototypes. See Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988); Thomas L. Brodie, "Luke the Literary Interpreter: Luke-Acts as a Systematic Rewriting and Updating of the Elijah-Elisha Narrative in 1 and 2 Kings." P.D. Dissertation, Pontifica Universita S. Tommaso d'Aquino, 1981; Ann Arbor: University Microilms, 1992; Brodie, "Reopening the Quest for Proto-Luke: The Systematic Use of Judges 6-12 in Luke 16:1-18:8," Journal of Higher Criticism. Vol. 2, no. 1, Spring 1995, 68-101.

27. To return to the parallel with the legend of the Buddha's Great Renunciation, we might point out that, just as Luke appropriated 2 Maccabees' story of Heliodorus' blindness and conversion to embellish Paul's story, so does Buddhist tradition seem to have borrowed the legend of the Great Renunciation from the story of the Buddha's predecessor and near-contemporary Mahavira (Vardhamana), the founder or repristinator of Jainism. Maurice Bloomfield, The Life and Stories of the Jaina Savior Parcvanatha (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1919), pp. 114-115.

28. I am using William Arrowsmith's translation in David Grene and Richard Lattimore (eds.), Greek Tragedies, Volume 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Phoenix paperbound edition, 1972), pp. 189-260.

29. Reproduced here, with slight variations, from James Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (NY: Harper & Row, 1968), p. 11.

30. Cited in Hugh J. Schonfield, The Essene Odyssey (Longmead, Shaftesbury, Dorset:: Element Books, 1984), pp. 51-52.

31. J.C. O’Neill, The Recovery of Paul's Letter to the Galatians (London: SPCK, 1972), p. 24.

32. Ibid., pp. 24-26.

33. Robert M. Price, "Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation.” In Price and Jeffery J. Lowder, eds., The Empty Tomb: Jesus beyond the Grave (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2005), pp. 69-104

34.  Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987) shows both the novelistic character of Acts and how traditional attempts to denigrate its "apocryphal" relatives have more to do with orthodox canon polemics than with historical judgment.

35. For different estimates of the extent and worth of underlying Clementine sources see E. Stanley Jones, An Ancient Jewish Christian Source on the History of Christianity: Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions 1.27-71. Texts and Translations 37, Christian Apocrypha Series 2. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995); Robert E. Van Voorst, The Ascents of James: History and Theology of a Jewish-Christian Community. SBL Dissertation Series 112. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989); Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (NY: Viking, 1996).

36. L. Gordon Rylands, A Critical Analysis if the Four chief Pauline Epistles: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, and Galatians (London:Watts, 1929), p. 353.

37. As Francis Watson ably shows in Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles: A Sociological Approach.  Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 56 ([Cambridge, 1986), pp. 26-38, there may well have been a Pauline "conversion" of sorts, but only from one sort of Christian mission to another. Paul may have begun preaching a gospel compatible with circumcision among Jews, found only meager results, and turned to the wider Gentile world, trimming back the stringent demands of the Law to make it easier for Gentiles to convert (precisely as his foes alleged).

38. T.G. Elliott, The Christianity of Constantine the Great (Scranton: University of Scranton Press, 1996).


 By Robert M. Price


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