The conversion of Paul the Apostle (also Pauline conversion, Damascene conversion, Damascus Christophany and The Road to Damascus event), was, according to the New Testament, an event in the life of Paul the Apostle that led him to cease persecuting early Christians and to become a follower of Jesus. It is normally dated to AD 33–36. Since his birth is estimated at 5 AD, he would have been somewhere around the age of 28–31 at his conversion.
The New Testament accounts
Paul's conversion experience is discussed in both the Pauline epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles. According to both sources, Paul was not a follower of Jesus and did not know him before his crucifixion. Paul's conversion occurred after Jesus' crucifixion. The accounts of Paul's conversion experience describe it as miraculous, supernatural, or otherwise revelatory in nature.
Before his conversion, Paul, also known as Saul, was "a Pharisee of Pharisees", who "intensely persecuted" the followers of Jesus. Says Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians: "For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers." (Galatians 1:13–14), NIV
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.— 1 Cor. 15:3–8, NIV
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. ...But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.— Galatians 1:11-16, NIV
Acts of the Apostles
Acts of the Apostles discusses Paul's conversion experience at three different points in the text, in far more detail than in the accounts in Paul's letters. The Book of Acts says that Paul was on his way from Jerusalem to Syrian Damascus with a mandate issued by the High Priest to seek out and arrest followers of Jesus, with the intention of returning them to Jerusalem as prisoners for questioning and possible execution. The journey is interrupted when Paul sees a blinding light, and communicates directly with a divine voice.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Paul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.— Acts 9:3–9, NIV
The account continues with a description of Ananias of Damascus receiving a divine revelation instructing him to visit Saul at the house of Judas on the Street Called Straight and there lay hands on him to restore his sight (the house of Judas is traditionally believed to have been near the west end of the street). Ananias is initially reluctant, having heard about Saul's persecution, but obeys the divine command:
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.— Acts 9:13–19, NIV
Acts' second telling of Paul's conversion occurs in a speech Paul gives when he is arrested in Jerusalem.[Acts 22:6-21] Paul addresses the crowd and tells them of his conversion, with a description essentially the same as that in Acts 9, but with slight differences. For example, Acts 9:7 notes that Paul's companions did not see who he was speaking to, while Acts 22:9 indicates that they did share in seeing the light (see also Differences between the accounts, below). This speech was most likely originally in Aramaic (see also Aramaic of Jesus), with the passage here being a Greek translation and summary. The speech is clearly tailored for its Jewish audience, with stress being placed in Acts 22:12 on Ananias's good reputation among Jews in Damascus, rather than on his Christianity.
Acts' third discussion of Paul's conversion occurs when Paul addresses King Agrippa, defending himself against the accusations of antinomianism that have been made against him.[Acts 26:12-18] This account is briefer than the others. The speech here is again tailored for its audience, emphasizing what a Roman ruler would understand: the need to obey a heavenly vision,[Acts 26:19] and reassuring Agrippa that Christians were not a secret society.[Acts 26:26]
Differences between the accounts
A contradiction in the details of the account of Paul's revelatory vision given in Acts has been the subject of much debate. Whereas Acts 9:7 states that Paul's travelling companions heard the voice, Acts 22:9 states that they did not.
Biblical translations of Acts 9:7 generally state that Paul's companions did, indeed, hear the voice (or sound) that spoke to him:
And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.— Acts 9:7, King James Version (KJV)
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.— Acts 9:7, New American Bible (NAB)
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.— Acts 9:7, New International Version (NIV)
By contrast, Catholic translations and older Protestant translations preserve the contradiction in Acts 22:9, while many modern Protestant translations such as the New International Version (NIV) do not:
And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid, but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.— Acts 22:9, King James Version (KJV)
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.— Acts 22:9, New American Bible (NAB)
My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.— Acts 22:9, New International Version (NIV)
"Hear" or "Understand"?
Critics of the NIV, New Living Translation, and similar versions contend that the translation used for Acts 22:9 is inaccurate. The verb used here — akouō (ἀκούω) — can be translated both "hear" and "understand" (both the KJV and NIV translate akouō as "understand" in 1 Cor. 14:2, for example). It often takes a noun in the genitive case for a person is being heard, with a noun in the accusative for the thing being heard. More classically, the use of the accusative indicates hearing with understanding. There is indeed a case difference here, with Acts 9:7 using the genitive tēs phōnēs (τῆς φωνῆς), and Acts 22:9 using the accusative tēn phōnēn (τὴν φωνὴν). However, there has been debate about which rule Luke was following here. On the second interpretation, Paul's companions may indeed have heard the voice (as is unambiguously stated in Acts 9:7), yet not understood it, although New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace finds this argument based on case inconclusive.
"Voice" or "Sound"?
The New American Standard Bible, New Century Version, and English Standard Version maintain the "hear"/"understand" distinction while using "voice" in both passages. On the other hand, the Holman Christian Standard Bible has "sound"/"voice" with "hear" in both passages, and The Message adopts a similar translation, but with "sound"/"conversation." The French La Bible du Semeur distinguishes between entendaient ("heard") and compris ("understood").
Although it is possible that there is a contradiction in these two passages unnoticed by their author, Richard Longenecker suggests that first-century readers probably understood the two passages to mean that everybody heard the sound of the voice, but "only Paul understood the articulated words." Similar comments have been made by other scholars.
The conversion of Paul, in spite of his attempts to completely eradicate Christianity, is seen as evidence of the power of Divine Grace, with "no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it" and "no height so lofty that grace cannot lift the sinner to it." It also demonstrates "God's power to use everything, even the hostile persecutor, to achieve the divine purpose."
There is no evidence to suggest that Paul arrived on the road to Damascus already with a single, solid, coherent scheme that could form the framework of his mature theology. Instead, the conversion, and the associated understanding of the significance of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, caused him to rethink from the ground up everything he had ever believed in, from his own identity to his understanding of Second Temple Judaism and who God really was.
The transforming effect of Paul's conversion influenced the clear antithesis he saw "between righteousness based on the law," which he had sought in his former life; and "righteousness based on the death of Christ," which he describes, for example, in the Epistle to the Galatians.
Based on Paul's testimony in Galatians 1 and the accounts in Acts (Acts 9, 22, 26), where it is specifically mentioned that Paul was tasked to be a witness to the Gentiles, it could be interpreted that what happened on the road to Damascus was not just a conversion from first-century Judaism to a faith centred on Jesus Christ, but also a commissioning of Paul as an Apostle to the Gentiles—although in Paul's mind they both amounted to the same thing.
The Acts of the Apostles says that Paul's conversion experience was an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Alternative explanations have been proposed, including sun stroke and seizure. In 1987, D. Landsborough published an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, in which he stated that Paul's conversion experience, with the bright light, loss of normal bodily posture, a message of strong religious content, and his subsequent blindness, suggested "an attack of [temporal lobe epilepsy], perhaps ending in a convulsion ... The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal."
This conclusion was challenged in the same journal by James R. Brorson and Kathleen Brewer, who stated that this hypothesis failed to explain why Paul's companions heard a voice (Acts 9:7), saw a light,[Acts 22:9] or fell to the ground.[Acts 26:14] Furthermore, no lack of awareness of blindness (a characteristic of cortical blindness) was reported in Acts, nor is there any indication of memory loss. Additionally, Paul's blindness remitted in sudden fashion, rather than the gradual resolution typical of post-ictal states, and no mention is made of epileptic convulsions; indeed such convulsions may, in Paul's time, have been interpreted as a sign of demonic influence, unlikely in someone accepted as a religious leader.
A 2012 paper in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences suggested that Paul’s conversion experience might be understood as involving psychogenic events. This occurring in the overall context of Paul’s other auditory and visual experiences that the authors propose may have been caused by mood disorder associated psychotic spectrum symptoms.
A completely different theory has been put forward in 2015 by astronomer W. K. Hartmann who argues that the three accounts in the book of Acts describe exactly the sequence of events that occur when a fireball, like the Chelyabinsk meteor of 2013, passes through the sky. This includes people being knocked off their feet and the physical effects on Saul's eyesight.
The conversion of Paul has been depicted by many artists, including Albrecht Dürer, Francisco Camilo, Giovanni Bellini, Fra Angelico, Fra Bartolomeo, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, William Blake, Luca Giordano, Sante Peranda, and Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante. Michelangelo's The Conversion of Saul is housed in the Cappella Paolina of the Vatican Palace.
The Renaissance Italian master Caravaggio painted two works depicting the event: The Conversion of Saint Paul and Conversion on the Way to Damascus. Peter Paul Rubens also produced several works on the theme.
Chapter seventeen of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man includes a literary device related to the Saul to Paul conversion: "'You start Saul, and end up Paul,' my grandfather had often said. 'When you're a youngun, you Saul, but let life whup your head a bit and you starts to trying to be Paul – though you still Sauls around on the side.'"
Paul's conversion is the subject of the medieval play The Digby Conversion of Saint Paul.
The conversion of Paul is the main term of argument of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's oratorio Paulus (St. Paul), MWV A 14 / Op. 36] (1833–36). It is also subject of the choral motet Saule, Saule, quid me persequeris by Giaches de Wert (1535–1596). It is also the focus of an eight part mixed choir a cappella piece (The Conversion of Saul) composed by Z. Randall Stroope.
From the conversion of Paul, we get the metaphorical reference to the "Road to Damascus" that has come to refer to a sudden or radical conversion of thought or a change of heart or mind even in matters outside of a Christian context. For example, Australian politician Tony Abbott was described as having been "on his own road to Damascus" after pledging increased mental health funding, and a New Zealand drug dealer turned police officer was likewise described as taking "the first step on the road to Damascus." In science fiction, the book Road to Damascus is based on a sudden political conversion of a self-aware tank, Unit SOL-0045, "Sonny," a Mark XX Bolo, on the battlefield.
In "-30-", the finale episode of The Wire, Norman Wilson tells Mayor Tommy Carcetti the Jimmy McNulty/Lester Freamon "serial killer" hoax is the mayor's "road to Damascus" moment and likens the detectives' fabrication of a serial killer, which allows them to successfully fund and achieve their actual investigative goals, to Carcetti's adoption of popular campaign platforms he doesn't really care about in order to achieve his actual political agenda. Similar parallel can be drawn to the compromises and decisions made by other entities who've taken shortcuts or otherwise "juked" the data to achieve their ends, such as the Baltimore Sun's managing editors in their pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize.
The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle is a feast celebrated during the liturgical year on January 25, recounting the conversion. This feast is celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches. This feast is at the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an international Christian ecumenical observance that began in 1908, which is an octave (an eight-day observance) spanning from January 18 (observed in Anglican and Lutheran tradition as the Confession of Peter, and in the pre-1961 Roman Catholic Church as the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter at Rome) to January 25. In rural England, the day functioned much like groundhog day does in the modern-day United States. Supposed prophecies ranged from fine days predicting good harvests, to clouds and mists signifying pestilence and war in the coming months.
The collect in the Roman Missal is:
- O God, who taught the whole world
- through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Paul,
- draw us, we pray, nearer to you
- through the example of him whose conversion we celebrate today,
- and so make us witnesses to your truth in the world.
- On Paul's conversion
- On the Feast day
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