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What Was St. Paul’s Conversion?

On this day, January 25, Anglicans and other Christians across the globe celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. What kind of conversion did Paul experience?

Many Christians would be inclined to respond to this question by claiming that Paul converted from Judaism to Christianity. In other words, he changed his religion. It’s a story that’s often told, but it’s a modern invention. This is not the conversion that Christians should be celebrating today — precisely because it’s not what happened.

For one thing, the modern concept of “religion,” of which Judaism and Christianity are species, rests on a dubious intellectual history. On this account, a religion is a system of beliefs and practices that one adopts for oneself. These beliefs and practices are related to spiritual, immaterial concerns, and a person’s religious identity can be neatly separated from other identity markers. It’s one of several categories with boxes to check when we fill out applications and government forms: age, sex, ethnicity, citizenship, marital status, religion.

Belonging to a religion, on this understanding, is much like belonging to a political party. If you change your political views or you don’t like the direction a party is heading, then you can switch parties. Or you can simply opt out altogether and become an independent.

In one sense, this is perfectly reasonable. When someone says, “My friend Mohammed used to be a devout Muslim, but he converted to Judaism for his fiancée,” or “My coworker was raised in a Christian home but now she doesn’t identify with any specific religion,” we know what they mean. We can easily imagine what this change in status entails.

But this understanding of religion becomes problematic when we try to read it back into antiquity. What we now identify as distinctly “religious” beliefs were, in reality, deeply interwoven with many other cultural, ethnic, and political patterns of thought. Observations like these have led some scholars to challenge, for example, the standard narrative that “religion” has caused most of the wars in human history. This also means that it’s nearly impossible to describe persons in antiquity as converting from one religion to another without projecting modern (and quite foreign) ideas onto them. Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity.

Fair enough, you might say. We need to be careful when we speak of the Apostle Paul’s “conversion.” But let me be clear: this isn’t merely an academic exercise. This isn’t simply about using the proper terminology. What we celebrate today speaks to the very heart of what Christianity is — and isn’t. And it is perhaps easier than we realize to go astray when we describe St. Paul’s conversion.

On this Christian feast day, we would do well to acknowledge that there is simply no biblical or historical evidence that Paul renounced Judaism or stopped considering himself a Torah-observant Jew.

Many Christians find this claim shocking, perhaps inconceivable. They assume that Paul must have rejected Judaism, because in his epistles he taught that we are saved by grace and not by works (Rom. 11:6; Eph. 2:8-9). There are loads of assumptions here that need to be untangled and examined, but the characterization of Judaism as a religion of works righteousness is one the Christian Church’s besetting sins of which we must repent.

To put it in the simplest terms possible: If it were true that the Apostle Paul, a circumcised, Torah-observant Jew (Acts 22:3; Phil. 3:5-6) decided to become a Christian and abandon the Mosaic Law because of some inherent flaw in it (namely, that it is a system of works righteousness), then he would be guilty of the heresy of Marcionism. The second-century heretic Marcion taught that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not the same God that Jesus taught us to worship.

A more subtle form of Marcionism might suggest that the way the Mosaic Law teaches us to relate to God is fundamentally at odds with the way that Jesus teaches us to relate to God. But this is irreconcilable with the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus as a law-observant Jew who taught that the Law would never be abolished (Matt. 5:17-20; Luke 16:16-17).

Yet this characterization of Judaism persists. As Rabbi Evan Moffic writes, “An old stereotype held that Jews care more about following the precise details of the law — of doing things right — than doing the right thing. They care more about the letter rather than the spirit of the law. The Old Testament, according to this view, depicts a God of vengeance and law, and the New Testament presents a God of love and forgiveness. Christianity, so the story goes, set aside this legalism as it developed into its own religion. Even as many Christians have set aside this stereotype, it still creeps up in sermons and even in secular publications.”

Indeed, it does. And not only in sermons and books; it also appears on T-shirts that poorly attempt to exegete 2 Cor. 3:6, like this one:

I realize that thus far I’ve said much about what St. Paul’s conversion wasn’t but nothing yet about what it was. So, what kind of conversion did Paul experience? What should we be celebrating today?

This isn’t an exhaustive description, but Paul’s conversion began with the recognition that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the Jewish messiah. Before his conversion, he zealously rejected this claim; after his conversion, he committed his life to it (Acts 9). Another significant change in his thinking (yes, a conversion) was the realization that this messiah had opened a new way for Gentiles to be in relationship with the God of Israel.

Against the Judaizers, who demanded that Gentiles must be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law in its entirety, Paul taught that Gentiles could become the “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:16) not by circumcision, but by receiving the spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9). This teaching was new and radical but also entirely Jewish. It meant that Gentiles, too, could be saved by Jewish flesh — even if not through the fleshly rite of circumcision.

Paul received a call from God to be an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), but he did not convert from Judaism to Christianity. Paul’s conversion consists in his newfound purpose: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). This is a conversion worth celebrating on this holy day, and we can give thanks for God’s salvation, which is “a light to lighten the Gentiles” and the glory of God’s people Israel (Luke 2:32).

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