Persecutor of Christians and Conversion
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
Paul arrived in Jerusalem about AD 15. His conversion can be dated to AD 33. Since Pharisees ventured outside Jerusalem for only brief periods, we can safely assume that Paul spent these 18 years in the Holy City. This means Paul and Jesus were in Jerusalem at the same time. Jesus had made several visits before being crucified there on 7 April AD 30. Did they ever meet? Paul would certainly have told us if the answer was ‘Yes’.
His silence confirms two insights. First, Paul refused all and every distraction from his studies. Just as the Ultra Orthodox yeshiva students were not aware of the presence of Anwar Sadat in Jerusalem in mid-November 1977, he would not have wasted his time listening to a Galilean labourer who had no rabbinic qualifications. Second, Jesus made little or no impact on Jerusalem. With the possible exception of Nicodemus, we know of no converts in the Holy City.
Paul became conscious of the figure of Jesus only after the passion, resurrection and Pentecost, when his followers began to make inroads into the Jewish population. The proslytising mission of the first Christians was very low-key. There was nothing brutal or disruptive. They believed that their new faith was the full flowering of Judaism. Thus they continued to live as Jews who cherished all the traditional values and customs. They differed from other Jews only in what they added. They celebrated the Eucharist in their homes, and they proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah. They won over people, not by propaganda, but by the quality of their lives.
The Jewish authorities found the appearance of a new group disturbing. In the light of what they foresaw as a major struggle against Rome, any further fragmentation of Judaism could only be construed as a danger to the survival of the people. Thus it is not suprising that the first Christians were persecuted by the High Priest and the Sadducees. The only one to speak out in their defense was Gamaliel, the leader of the Pharisees. He argued that if the Jesus movement was not from God, it would eventually wither away and disappear, but that if it was from God, those who opposed it would be offending God. He did not believe that it was time for action. The authorities should wait and see.
Alone among Gamaliel’s followers Paul refused to follow the party line, and struck out against the Christians. He was temperamentally incapable of the temporizing attitude of his leader. Moreover, he saw clearly that the situation was ‘either-or’, not ‘both-and’ as the Christians believed. Their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah had implications for Judaism that they had failed to recognize.
Like all Jews of the period Paul believed that the Messiah would come one day. The present was the ‘Time of the Law’ in which the Mosaic code dictated behaviour. At some unspecified time in the future the Messiah would arrive to inaugurate the ‘Time of the Messiah’. The most specific characteristic of the ‘Time of the Messiah’ was that all Jews would be righteous. There would be no sinners among them.
With his usual clarity of vision Paul saw that this meant that there would be no need for the Law in the ‘Time of the Messiah’. Not all Jews were so perceptive. The Law had become so central that they could not conceive of life without it. Thus they said that in the ‘Time of the Messiah’ the Law would be written on the hearts of all. For Paul’s black or white mentality this was just playing with words. When the Messiah arrived what they all knew as the Law would no longer exist.
As far as Paul was concerned, by proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah, the Christians were in effect saying that the Law no longer had any place in the lives of Jews. This could not possibly be correct. Jesus had not done any of the things that the Pharisees expected of the Messiah. Therefore, he was a fake and his followers had been led astray.
Paul’s commitment to the Law was so absolute that his conscience obliged him to attempt to bring Christians back to the way of truth. He himself tells us that his persecution of the church was the proof of his ‘zeal’. Contrary to what Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles, he had no authority to arrest, imprison or execute. He could only make the lives of Christians a misery by repeated challenges and vociferous argument.
The Conversion of St Paul
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 Jesus. 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.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP