I’m enjoying Mark Goodacre’s NT Pod series. In the latest about Paul’s conversion, he follows those who think it’s more appropriate to speak of Paul’s calling rather than conversion. He says:
“If we think that conversion means that Paul is somehow converting from one religion to another religion, say from Judaism to Christianity, then that’s clearly wrong, isn’t it? I mean, Paul doesn’t stop being a Jew when he has his experience with Jesus on the Damascus Road… When he’s really pressed, he is absolutely insistent on the importance to his identity of his Judaism. He talks about being a Hebrew of Hebrews, an Israelite, from the tribe of Benjamin, he really wants to underline that his Jewish heritage is absolutely solid. It’s certainly not something that he feels he’s turned away from in any sense at all.”
I think yes and no to the above. Paul does want to underline that his Jewish heritage is solid, but he also wants to underline — as he goes on to do in Philip 3:7-11 — that he’s more than comfortable putting it aside. Philip 3:7-11 is the language of a hardcore convert, owning up to the fact that his heritage is “rubbish” (politely speaking) in view of what’s new. To say that this heritage is “not something Paul feels he’s turned away from in any sense at all” is, to me, a very surprising statement. We should say rather that Paul presents his heritage as solid on its own right, but worse than worthless in view of the Christ event. I doubt it’s accurate to even speak of “salvation history” in Paul’s thought; that’s how conversionist he was. His experience of the risen Christ resulted in far more than a “new vocation”.
While making some allowances for the word “conversion”, Mark insists we recognize that the word is “our terminology and our way of describing what’s going on in the text. We have to look at the way the text itself describes things.” That’s true, but a text like Philip 3:7-11 is as important as Gal 1:15-17, and Paul’s testimony is only half the picture in any case. He can describe his dramatic turn around in terms of a prophetic calling all he wants. Assertion isn’t proof. The perception of others is what really counts (especially in a world like the ancient Mediterranean), and those who opposed Paul’s gospel could readily deny his claims and call him apostate. As I read Romans, Paul is trying to come to terms with his apostacy as best he can.
UPDATE: Jason Staples agrees with Goodacre in substance — that Paul saw his Christian life as the natural outgrowth of his pre-Christian heritage — but quibbles over terminology: Paul was a convert from Judaism to a different form of Israelite religion. On his blog I noted that while I appreciate the distinction between “Jew/Judean” and “Israelite” (and have blogged about this ad nauseum), that doesn’t really get at the issue here. In Philip 3:7-11 it is precisely his Israelite identity that Paul is comfortable putting aside and even disdaining as “excrement”. Unlike Jesus, he was capable of using the term Ioudaios but didn’t here; its more restrictive meaning isn’t in view. (The difference between Israelite and Ioudaios is slippery. The latter could be a subset of the former, as Staples says, but it could just as easily be a synonymous designation typically employed by outsiders.)
Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, Paul wasn’t representing his life in Christ as the “natural outgrowth” of his Israelite heritage. There’s no sense — certainly not on any substantive level — in Galatians or Romans that for him Christ was the “goal” or “natural result” of anything to do with the Torah. Christ didn’t come at the end of a process represented by the law in earlier stages; he liberated Israel from the law’s chaos. While the “fulfillment” of Paul’s heritage points to what God intended with it (the consummation of the deity’s will and plan), it doesn’t follow that Christianity is thus effectively its natural outgrowth. The figure of Abraham is a shocking one — a lonely hero in a faithless era, anticipating better things to come.