Putting Paul in His Place: Reimagining the Work of the Controversial Apostle
Did Jesus Appear *TO* Paul?
Before I jump into the topic of this post, I want to add another point to the sketch of Paul I shared previously. One of the common misconceptions about Paul, who we first encounter in the book of Acts as Saul, is that Jesus “changed his name” after that fateful encounter on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). This isn’t the case, and is likely a conflation with a couple of other instances in which a person’s name was changed by God (Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel, for example). The simple explanation is that, in Acts, Saul is his Hebrew name and Paul is his Roman name. In Acts, Paul is used once the apostle begins his travels to share the Jesus movement throughout the Roman Empire.
In this post I want to explore what is often called Paul’s “conversion. This probably isn’t a helpful way to frame that encounter, because conversion implies leaving one religion and embracing another. That’s not what happened to Paul; he lived and died a Jewish person. If it wasn’t a conversion, then what was it? More on that soon.
Paul’s experience of Jesus on the Road to Damascus is found three times in the book of Acts: chapters 9, 22, and 26. The details of these stories interestingly do not all align, which has led to much discussion among scholars. My perspective is that the book of Acts is a later text (dated by scholars between the 80s and 110s CE), and not a literal, historical account of Paul’s life. To put it another way, Acts isn’t a historical biography but a theological one. That being the case, as we try to uncover Paul’s transformative Jesus experience I will not rely on the narratives found in Acts, but in the information Paul gives us in his genuine letters. We will look at four specific examples: 1 Corinthians 9 and 15, 2 Corinthians 12, and Galatians 1. Galatians is understood to have been one of Paul’s earliest letters we have, second only to 1 Thessalonians, but that passage is so fascinating that I want to save it for last.
In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul is discussing how he and his traveling companions have not insisted on exercising their own rights for the sake of the movement they are building. To make his point, Paul begins chapter 9 by asking a few rhetorical questions:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord? Aren’t you my work in the Lord? (v.1)
His claim here is that his experience was on par with the other early apostles who had seen Jesus. Which is fascinating because the best guesstimate is that Paul had his experience of Jesus between one and six years after Jesus’s crucifixion. He further builds on this claim several chapters later. Here’s how he describes his inclusion into this group of witnesses to the raising up of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15:
Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing. I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. (vs.1-8)
Paul understands his own experience to be of a similar kind to that of Peter (Cephas), the Twelve (apparently he doesn’t know about Judas? Interesting?), five hundred others, James, and all the apostles. He uses the same verb in Greek, opthe, to describe how Jesus “was seen” by all of these witnesses. Isn’t it interesting to think about what he understood these experiences to be?
In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul writes about himself indirectly, describing his experience, which he calls “revelations from the Lord.” He writes,
It is necessary to brag, not that it does any good. I’ll move on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven fourteen years ago. I don’t know whether it was in the body or out of the body. God knows. I know that this man was caught up into paradise and that he heard unspeakable words that were things no one is allowed to repeat. I don’t know whether it was in the body or apart from the body. God knows. I’ll brag about this man, but I won’t brag about myself, except to brag about my weaknesses. If I did want to brag, I wouldn’t make a fool of myself because I’d tell the truth. I’m holding back from bragging so that no one will give me any more credit than what anyone sees or hears about me. (v.1-6)
Again, Paul is vague here, as might be expected. Whatever his experience or vision was, he finds it hard to relay the content of it. Transformative experiences are often hard to articulate. It’s a little like trying to explain what the number seven tastes like or how the color red smells. Instead, he simply tries to show his bonafides by saying, “I have a friend who had a profound experience,” which his audience was fully aware meant Paul, himself. He’s the friend.
Finally, we have the earliest information from Paul about his Jesus encounter, found in Galatians 1. Here he reminds the Galatians of his background, and then, almost in passing, mentions his experience:
Brothers and sisters, I want you to know that the gospel I preached isn’t human in origin. I didn’t receive it or learn it from a human. It came through a revelation from Jesus Christ.
You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors. But God had set me apart from birth and called me through his grace. He was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might preach about him to the Gentiles. (v.11-16)
Paul’s claim is that what he was preaching didn’t come anything he learned from others—even those who knew Jesus—but from Jesus himself. Further, he recounts his role as a persecutor of the early Jesus communities. Then he says that God was “pleased to reveal his so to me…” Except, that’s not what he actually says. Often translations will footnote the phrase “to me” in this verse, and when you check the footnote it tells you that the phrase in Greek is actually, “in me.” See the image below for an example of how the NRSVue handles the phrase.
This doesn’t seem like a minor issue when it comes to Paul’s experience. My guess is that translators are trying to make Paul’s words in Galatians align with what Acts says about his experience. Which is also a good reminder that all translations end up being interpretations.
In Acts, Jesus appears TO Paul, but in Galatians, Paul says Jesus was revealed by God IN him. One is an exterior experience, and the other an interior experience. Perhaps Paul was never knocked off his horse by a bright light, but maybe that became an accurate metaphor for what he did experience. Did he encounter those who had followed Jesus and were living in generous community together? Did he find the love of those he persecuted so compelling that he eventually joined them? We can’t know for sure. Yet, whatever and however, Paul’s experience of Jesus being revealed in him transformed his life, from the inside out.
It changed him, but it didn’t change his religion. He remained Jewish. He was not a Christian convert, mainly because at this point Christianity didn’t exist yet. If there was any conversion, it was to a way of practicing his faith in the context of Roman oppression. That, after all, is what Jesus was doing, and it’s the work Paul expanded upon. That’s our topic for next week: Jesus, Paul, and Rome.