Reconceptualizing Paul’s Conversion

Matthew Hopper, in discussing how the term “conversion” is appropriate for Paul, notes that

“The decision Paul sought was a decision to swear fealty to King Jesus and become a citizen of his people by means of baptism. It was not a matter of ‘beginning an intimate relationship with Jesus’… as the result of dramatic, impulsive emotions.”

Yes: this should be taken as a given: Paul wasn’t a soul-searching western. But just because he didn’t convert for introspective reasons doesn’t mean that he didn’t convert at all. Matthew understands this, unlike (say) Krister Stendahl.

There are three sides to the question of Paul’s conversion: (1) an objectively-analytical point of view, (2) mainstream Judaism’s point of view, and (3) Paul’s own point of view. According to the first two, I would say yes: Paul should be understood as a convert to something radically new. But if we listen to Paul himself, I think the answer becomes more murky; both yes and no. Let’s take them in turn.

(1) Required reading is Zeba Crook’s Reconceptualising Conversion, in which the author demonstrates that by the time of Hellenistic Judaism, it was possible to be called and thus converted: Paul was invoking the call of the divine patron-benefactor (which involved conversion by definition) and the call of the Hebrew prophets at the same time. In other words, Stendahl’s distinction between being “called” and “converted” (recently followed by Malina and Pilch) is a false dichotomy. Objectively speaking — and by non-introspective standards — we can and should speak of Paul’s conversion.

(2) Even assuming a valid distinction between being “called” and “converted” (just for the sake of argument) doesn’t settle the issue, because while Paul naturally aligns himself with prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, his rivals easily denied him his claims. Most of his contemporaries thought he was a radical apostate (on which see Philip Esler’s Galatians).

(3) Paul’s own view of the matter is tricky. On the one hand, he knows he has found something new, but on the other, his patron-deity hasn’t changed. Zeba Crook discusses the phenomenon of synkrisis. In order to credit benefactors, clients always described their past as grim and bleak in comparison to the new and improved present — except in cases where the patron doesn’t change, in which case they “raise the stakes” by improving upon an already excellent past which in comparison to the present is actually worse than worthless. Says Crook:

If patronal synkrisis was meant to honor the patron by attributing to him or her a tremendous improvement in life by comparing the good one has received to the ill one knew previously, then Paul’s synkrisis in Philippians does this all the more so… All that he has lost from his past he now regards as “shit”…Paul’s past was excellent; it was a source of pride for him. Yet in comparison with Paul’s awesome present status, even something as excellent as that appears so profoundly diminished as to call it “shit”. (pp 181-182)

That’s the irony we’re stuck with. When a patron-deity stays the same after conversion, the past must remain positive and yet become worse-than-worthless at the same time. So Paul’s Jewish heritage is good in and of itself (Philip 3:4b-6), but nothing more than “shit” when compared to the new revelations of Christ (Philip 3:7-11).

Paul knew that he was advocating something radically new with his version of the Christ-gospel, but he was caught between loyalty to past and present convictions — again, he was still serving YHWH. I appreciate the way James Dunn characterizes the so-called “continuity” presented in Rom 9:6-10:21: “continuity by transformation, as when a caterpillar becomes a butterly, and the empty shell of the caterpillar is all that’s left of the old stage of existence”. It may be an ingenious argument by sectarian standards, but any mainstream outsider would have laughed themselves sick and treated it with the derision it deserved. So Paul capped it off with Rom 11:1-32, making clear that “continuity by extension” is what he really had in mind — an olive tree rather than a butterfly. There will never be an easy way to resolve this tension. Who said being a convert was easy?


9 thoughts on “Reconceptualizing Paul’s Conversion

  1. Thanks for this nice post. I think it captures the problem of Paul the “convert” neatly–he was torn between contradictory convictions, and struggled to reconcile the two.At least one can take solace in the fact that it seems to have been as confuddling to Paul as it is to us!

  2. “Matthew Hopper has reservations about whether the term “conversion” is appropriate for Paul”Loren, you hurting me, bro. My whole point was that Paul DID see his Damascus road experience as a conversion, and that he certainly saw his converts as converts.

  3. The only qualification I was making was that Paul’s conceptualization of conversion was not the same as that of the Southern Baptists.I gladly take the side of Baur, Sanders, and others, in viewing Paul as the one who made Christianity a religion in its own right.

  4. <>Loren, you hurting me, bro. My whole point was that Paul DID see his Damascus road experience as a conversion, and that he certainly saw his converts as converts.<>Sorry for that, Matthew. I’ve edited accordingly.

  5. One could, through squinting and some imagination, see this as a microcosm of the whole problem of Paul and the law. Was Paul opposed to the (OT)law or in favor of it? Did Paul feel there was essential continuity with the “mosaic covenant” (as we say in reformed churches) or discontinuity.As someone who had for a while stressed the *continuity* lines in Paul, I had a very favorable reading of Stendahl (last summer). But I think the matter is probably at least as ambiguous as you say in your post.I’m sure I would enjoy reading Crook when I get a chance. I know that there was an idea of conversion within (or more specifically “to”) Judaism, since Jesus refers to the phenomenon himself. But I don’t really know what sort of term Paul would have thought in regarding such a thing.The fact that Paul and the other NT writers portray Jesus as the climax/centerpoint/fulfilment of OT teachings makes it difficult to see the christian faith, at least in the 1st C, as easily distinguishable from Judaism. But that’s old ground, so I’ll shut up now.

  6. Paul, you’re right on target. This is nothing other than a discussion of Paul and the law, Paul and Judaism, yadda, yadda, yadda. Surely 99.9% of all “Christian origins” discussions revolve around these basic questions: From the beginning, where did the Christ-believers stand in relation to Judaism, in relation to non-Judaism, for how long, and why?Yes, it is all ambiguous. There are many indicators in the NT that the Christians differentiated themselves and their faith from Judaism, and just as many indicators that they felt that they were nothing less than Judaism at its best. Famous names on the side of differentiation include, but are not limited to: F.C. Baur, Rudolf Bultmann, Ernst Kasemann, E.P. Sanders, etc. Those on the side of continuation include, but are not limited to: W.D. Davies, Joachim Jeremias, Martin Hengel, Ben F. Meyer, N.T. Wright; etc. Then there are those who say the real task lies in explaining why the early Christians rode both sides of the fence at the same time on so many fundamental issues: including but not limited to, James D.G. Dunn, and myself, Matthew Thomas Hopper.

  7. <>The fact that Paul and the other NT writers portray Jesus as the climax/centerpoint/fulfilment of OT teachings…<>I strongly disagree with this (in the case of Paul, anyway), on which see my < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Romans commentary<>.

  8. Loren,Sheesh–that’s along post. To be honest it is difficult for me to read something that long on a blog (particularly one with relatively narrow columns). But perhaps I could raise a couple of points for the moment.First, I’m not at all convinced that your use of the term “righteousness” is on target. Particularly I’m not persuaded by the claim that Abraham wa the ONLY example of “faith-righteousness” in Paul’s mind. I would assume Abraham was picked due to his unique story and place as the father of Israel. What applies to him should naturally apply to all Israel since they are all his children. I’m not saying that Paul doesn’t believe in a broad apostacy in Israel (of course he does), but just that he had good reason to keep coming back to Abraham as an example.If I am wrong about that then there is certainly a MASSIVE disconnect in the early church between your Paul and the author of Hebrews (ch 11).The other point would be that for Paul and the other NT writers Jesus represents God’s judgment (or, the coming of God Himself), in both the positive and negative sense, as well as the redefinition of “God’s people”, as foreshadowed in Hosea and elsewhere. These themes are fairly pervasive throughout the NT and at the very least Jesus was considered the “fulfilment” of those OT ideas.This is a pretty broad sort of thing though, so I think further discussion could probably get a bit complicated. All of that to say I find Wright fairly convincing on the relevant subject and would need a LOT of persuading to show me that he is misreading things generally.

  9. Was Paul converting, or creating pace Hyam Maccoby’s writings? People don’t given enough credence to Maccoby, in my opinion, even though he is neatly over turning two millenia of intellectual custom.And you e-mailed him, I see. Neat.

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