One of the big mysteries of the New Testament for a skeptic is, why did Paul convert to Christianity? He had everything going for him, and traded it all, based on a supernatural experience he had. In this episode, we look at all the historical data about Paul's persecution of Christianity, his conversion, and then the persecutions he faced for his new faith.
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Last time on the Ultimate Questions podcast we began looking at the facts that count as “minimal”, meaning, those facts that all historians agree upon in this discussion. The two facts we evaluated were the crucifixion of Jesus, and the fact that the disciples at least believed Jesus was resurrected. We dove into the various evidences for these points, showing the reasons why historians don’t debate these things. For this episode, we’re going to look at the dramatic conversion of Paul.
When looking at Paul’s life, scholars generally recognize most his writings in the New Testament are fairly reliable in that they are quite likely actually written by Paul. As I’ve mentioned different times, there is a great deal of skepticism by non-Christians regarding the authorship of the Gospels (even though there’s a great deal of reason to think they are written by their namesakes, as we’ve gone through in other episodes of this podcast). However, for Paul’s letters, even the most rigid skeptics admit most of these letters are very likely actually written by Paul. To go into why these writings are so highly regarded, firstly, Paul’s writings are quite early. For example, it is accepted that Galatians was written by Paul, about 50ad. We also see 1 Thessalonians being written in the early 50s, and again obviously by Paul. Romans is also quite obviously written by Paul, and was written in the mid 50s ad. 1 Corinthians is also definitely by Paul, and was written in about 53ad, with 2 Corinthians about a year after that. While a lot of biblical scholarship involves arguments about authorship and dating, for example with Ephesians and Colossians, what I’ve said just now is largely non-controversial in academic circles, even among the most skeptical of academics. This means Paul was doing a lot of very well respected writing in the Early Church, at about two decades after the death of Jesus Christ. So again, these pieces of writing are quite definitely from Paul, and also very early, meaning they give us some incredible insights into the events of the Early Church. As I’ve said many times, even if you don’t believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, we should still treat these books as ancient history, just as we would any similar book. When treated this way, the Pauline letters are quite a valuable sources of information.
Another point worth mentioning with Paul’s writings is that Paul was a highly educated man, and was previously quite respected in religious circles during his time. We can see this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Paul, in a sense “brags” about his religious credentials in Philippians 3, and in other places it’s written that he was even the son of a Pharisee, meaning that being a religious top dog ran in the family. We even see, while Paul was on trial before King Agrippa, that Fetus comments on Paul’s “great learning”, showing that the people there were quite well aware of the education and reasoning abilities of Paul. Secondly, merely by reading Paul’s letters we can see that he was a highly trained individual, who was skilled both in theology and philosophy, and was quite adept at expressing very deep issues. This is likely why he wrote much of the New Testament, because he was probably the most highly trained and academic person in the Early Church. I’ve had many moments where students of mine have been reading through the Bible, and they need me to help them understand portions of Paul’s epistle to the Romans, because it’s just such a rich, well argued, deep, and difficult text. Paul also gives us a lot of details, which aids in the credibility that he wasn’t just making stuff up. He writes to specific individuals, names people he wishes to address, mentions specific places he’s been on different journeys, and so on. It’s quite noticeable to anyone who actually sits down and reads the Pauline epistles, that this was a man who was quite educated, and knew the content he was writing about. Because of these things, scholars tend to be more favourable towards Paul, recognizing that, if he gives his testimony about something, it’s worth treating with respect. While secular scholars will not appreciate the more supernatural elements, they still admit that, at least to Paul, these things were true. So when we read Paul giving his testimony of the events in his life, there isn’t really any debate regarding the fact that Paul was telling the truth from his own perspective.
In order to appreciate the conversion of Paul, we need to look at what he was like before becoming a Christian, the accounts of his conversion, and what he was like after he had converted. A first point to note, Paul was known by two names, “Saul” which is his Hebrew name, and “Paul” which is the Greek equivalent. This is similar to people who immigrate from another country having two names they are known by. It’s not as though Saul “became” Paul, or something like that. Acts 13:9 even spells it out for us, saying that he was known by both “Saul” and “Paul”. Interestingly, we also see in the book of Acts, the moment the switch is made where Luke stops referring to him as Saul, and begins calling him Paul, is right about the same moment when Paul starts reaching out to the gentiles, where “Paul” would have been the more appropriate name. In terms of the situation before his conversion, Paul was a Pharisee, and was actively persecuting the Christians. We see accounts directly from Paul himself, in Galatians 1:13-14 and Philippians 3:4-6, which are recognized as definitely being written by Paul. In these cases, Paul tells us that he persecuted the Church violently, for the purpose of trying to destroy it. He places the reasoning for this on the fact that he was so zealous for the cause of Judaism, the tradition of his forefathers.
In addition to Paul’s own testimony, we also read of what his pre-conversion state was like from Luke. During Paul’s life he had different companions that he would travel with, and one of them was Luke, who wrote many of these journeys down in his book the “Acts of the Apostles”. We also find Luke giving us a little bit of what Paul was like before his conversion. In the end of Acts 7, we see Stephen preaching the Gospel, and being stoned to death by a mob for it. While the people gathered to stone Stephen, they laid their clothing down at the feet of a man named Saul, who would later be known as Paul. The story continues in Acts 8, saying that Saul approved of the public stoning of Stephen, and that he continues vehemently persecuting Christians, even describing his actions as “ravaging” the Church. Luke tells us that Saul would actually travel around, going into house after house, dragging people off to prison. Then in Acts 9, it says Saul was threatening to murder the disciples of Jesus, and so he went to the religious leaders and asked for permission to travel to Damascus, so he could persecute even more Christians. In Acts 22:5, Paul even says that the high priest and the whole council of elders themselves could bear witness to the fact that Paul travelled around zealously persecuting the Christians. We also find later in Acts 26, while Paul is giving his testimony, he explains that, prior to conversion, he spent his younger years in the strictest party of Judaism as a Pharisee, that he was convinced he should oppose the name of Jesus, that he locked people up in prison, and then voted to have them executed. He also punished them in the synagogues, trying to make them blaspheme, and that he was so full of anger and rage that he chased them all over, even to foreign cities.
Another interesting point to consider is Paul’s reputation in the area. For example, Paul writes in Galatians 1:22-23 that the churches in Judea didn’t really know Paul yet, but there were rumours going around about him, that “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” In other words, not only do we get an account of pre-conversion Paul from his own writings, and also from his friend Luke, but we even get an account from the stories that were told in Judea about him, which would make it three independent sources about Saul of Tarsus’ rampage against Christianity.
Lastly, we do see references in non-biblical works to the persecutions brought upon the Church by Paul. For example, 1 Clement was a letter to the church in Corinth written by Clement the first, who was one of the first bishops of Rome after Peter, and who is one of the earliest of the Church Fathers, and his writing 1 Clement is possibly the earliest non-biblical writing by a Christian, written in the end of the first century. We read in 1 Clement chapter 13 that Paul was an apostle, but at first he was a persecutor of the Church, shedding the blood of Christians, and then later converted, and ended up being a great writer for the cause of Christianity.
Now that we’ve looked at the pieces of evidence that Paul previously persecuted the Church severely, we now need to evaluate the evidence regarding the conversion of Saul. In the book of Acts we receive three different accounts of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The first is an account given by Luke, and the other two are quoted testimonies from Paul while he was on trial on two separate occasions. First, in Acts 9, Luke tells us that Saul was travelling to Damascus to continue his persecution of Christians, and then a light fell from heaven, and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This account also specifies that the people who were with Saul were shocked by this encounter, that they could hear the voice, but couldn’t understand what was being said. This account also tells us that Saul was blinded by this, and that he received a vision that he needed to be led to Ananias, who was a Christian, who would pray for him. Luke tells us that Ananias heard from God to do this, and when Saul showed up and Ananias prayed for him, immediately Saul regained his sight after something like scales fell from his eyes. It was at this time that Saul converted to Christianity. This is referred to as Saul’s “Damascus Road experience”. After this moment, he started preaching that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that people who heard him speak were confused and amazed, realizing that the one that had wreaked havoc against the Christians was now a Christian himself, and was arguing for the truth of Christianity. After this, because of his conversion, the religious leaders then tried to kill Saul, but Saul escaped. This account also tells us that, once Saul was converted, the other Christians were scared of him at first, because they obviously knew how much trouble he had been causing them. It seems they thought that perhaps Saul was faking his conversion, in order to try and gain more information about them. However, of course they ended up trusting him in the end.
The next account we find is in Acts 21 and 22. Paul was in Jerusalem, and when the people realized who he was, a mob formed that violently attacked Paul, which led to the Romans arresting him. After being arrested, Paul asked to speak to the crowd, which is where we get a direct quote from Paul as to how he communicated his testimony, and it looks pretty much the exact same as the account Luke gives in Acts 9, which we just looked at. Then, as Paul’s legal matters progress, we end up in Acts 26 where Paul is brought before King Herod Agrippa the second. While his testimony is once again nearly identical to the first, he adds a little more detail here, including that God gave him instructions that he was to preach the Gospel to the gentiles, who are the non-Jews. He then tells the king that, because of this dramatic vision he had, he started proclaiming the Gospel in Damascus, Jerusalem, all throughout Judea, and then to the Gentiles.
We also read about Paul’s conversion in some of the letters he sent out. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:1 he says that he has seen Jesus, referring to the resurrected Jesus he met in his dramatic Damascus Road experience. We also read about it in chapter 15, where he says explicitly that the resurrected Jesus appeared to him, but we don’t get much detail there. Then in Galatians 1:11-16, Paul writes that the Gospel he was preaching was received during a revelation he received from Jesus Christ. He once again goes over how he persecuted the Church, but that God called him by His grace, and revealed His Son to him (which refers to the vision he had of Jesus). He says that all of this was done so that he might go preach to the gentiles, the same thing he said when he was before Agrippa. So here we see a handful of different explanations of Paul’s conversion, both from Paul’s own writings, from the account of his friend Luke, and from Luke quoting what Paul said while in court.
The last point of Paul’s life we need to consider is what happened to him after his conversion. Because of his conversion, and continuing to preach the Gospel, Paul ended up being persecuted severely, even to the point of death. As we noted a little while ago, we see in Acts 9 that, because of Paul’s conversion, the religious leaders immediately plotted to kill him, and Paul ended up escaping. In Acts 14:10 Luke tells us the Jews stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, assuming he was dead. Later in chapter 23, Luke tells us the crowds of people got so upset, they had been shouting for Paul’s death, and that the commander present took Paul by force away from the people, even carrying him, because he was scared the people would tear him apart. Then we find Paul telling us of his sufferings in his letters. In Philippians 3:9 he says he lost everything. In 4:11-13 he gives a beautiful teaching on contentment, with his own life as the primary example, because he has been through such hardship, and yet has learned the secret of being content through these sufferings. In 2 Timothy 3:10-12 he comments on his persecutions and sufferings, and then in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, we find a famous passage, with an almost comedic element to it, where Paul is basically bragging about how much he’s suffered for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He realizes how foolish he is being, and there’s other reasons for why he did this we won’t go into here, but I’ll just read the passage, so you can see how much he suffered while proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
“with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure."
With all that data we see in the New Testament regarding the suffering and persecution that Paul experienced for his faith, we can also read references to the suffering of Paul in writings outside of the New Testament. In 1 Clement 5:5-6 we read, “he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance.” This actually confirms what we read about Paul in the book of Acts, and adds the fact that Paul ended up being killed for preaching the Gospel.
We see further examples from Tertullian’s works “Scorpiace” chapter 15, where we read that Paul was beheaded for his faith, and also in his work “On the Prescription of Heretics” chapter 36 where Tertullian writes that Paul was killed the same way as John the Baptist, meaning he was beheaded.
Another is Polycarp’s letter to Philippians chapter 9 where he references Paul being included in the persecuted who are now with the Lord, meaning they were killed.
Finally, we see a few mentions of Paul’s persecution when we read Eusebius. In his “Historia Ecclesiastica” book 2 chapter 22 he writes that Paul ended up defending himself successfully (which gives us the conclusion of his story we read about in Acts), however, he then continued to preach the Gospel, and was arrested again, brought to Rome, and did end up dying as a martyr then. Then in book 3 chapter 1, he also quotes from Origen’s third volume of his Commentary on Genesis, where he says that Paul “preached the Gospel of Christ from Jerusalem to Illyricum, and afterwards suffered martyrdom in Rome under Nero.” Eusebius also quotes from Caius and Dionysius of Corinth, showing they both mention Paul’s martyrdom as well.
So, basically, there’s a wealth of information regarding the life of Paul. We have more than enough evidence, both from reliable history within the New Testament, eyewitnesses, and even personal testimony, in addition to non-biblical historians, all pointing to the undeniable historical facts that Paul persecuted the Christian Church severely, and then converted to Christianity, and ended up dying as a martyr for preaching the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Now, all this suffering and persecution wouldn’t come as a surprise to Paul; he would have gone into Christianity knowing he would now be the recipient of the same sort of persecution he had been inflicting upon others. He would know, better than anyone else, what sorts of hardships he would face in his future. He knew this, and yet he dove head first into Christianity, with absolute resolve, fearless, and suffering the persecutions almost joyfully, continuing to proclaim the Gospel message. Why? What could cause his incredible zeal “against” Christianity to now be just as strong, or even stronger, in “favour” of Christianity? It would take a pretty incredible course of events to cause this kind of change. What kind of events brought him to this place? Well, again, we get numerous accounts of this conversion from Paul himself, and from his friend Luke. The reason for his dramatic conversion is not only clearly spelled out for us, but is repeated many times. He personally met the resurrected Christ in a supernatural experience.
Another important thing to note here is this. While we do see many amazing stories of conversion in people, even today, they are nearly always based on secondary information. This means that, the person is told the truth, and believes. However, this isn’t the sort of testimony we receive about Paul, and from Paul’s own words he wrote down. Paul’s conversion wasn’t based on secondary evidences; it was based on primary evidence. In Paul’s story, he tells us that he personally met the risen Christ. No one told him to just believe, no one argued him into the faith; his conversion was based on what he personally saw and heard. While the skeptic might not believe in the reality of the spiritual experience, they at the very least have to grant that Paul believed himself to have had a very real spiritual experience. It’s the only thing that makes any sense. For Paul to have had that dramatic of a switch in philosophies would require a powerful experience of some kind. If it were merely becoming convinced by evidence, then why wouldn’t he claim that? That in itself would have been convincing, that the academic Pharisee saw the rationality of Christianity. But that’s not what he claimed. He claimed a personal experience changed his mind. Also, if he didn’t have this powerful spiritual experience, then why lie about it? Maybe he’s trying to convince people that Christianity is true, but again, why? If he knows it’s a false testimony, why lie about it, only to be ostracized, lose his job, and become a poor wanderer that ends up being beheaded? There doesn’t seem to be any other options. After all, he didn’t convert because of the benefits, because it actually brought a lot of misery into his life.
When evaluating this plethora of testimony regarding Paul’s conversion, it’s important to remember that he went from being one of the greatest antagonists against the Christian faith, to being one of the most passionate proclaimers of the Christian faith. This incredibly dramatic switch in philosophy, worldview, religion, politics, and lifestyle needs to be explained by something. While obviously the skeptic will doubt what the Bible says regarding this experience, the goal should still be to try and figure out exactly what it was that caused Paul to convert. He had absolutely nothing to gain, and absolutely everything to lose. He was well respected, had a position of power and authority, and likely would have been well off financially. Because of his conversion, he ended up being beaten and imprisoned over and over again, lived a life of poverty and suffering, and ended up being beheaded for his faith. There needs to be a reason for this incredible switch in his life. Over and over again we are told the story, that it was a supernatural encounter with the resurrected Jesus that brought about this change. While the skeptic will deny the legitimacy of his, they cannot merely deny it; they need to give another explanation that makes sense of the data. The main point to focus on for the purpose of the minimal facts argument is this: We have gained historical facts that are undeniable, and however a person tries to explain the situation, they need to account for these historical facts. If the skeptic wants to deny the resurrection, part of their explanation must account for this powerful conversion of the Church’s harshest persecutor, into one of the Church’s most powerful evangelist’s, who was willing to suffer and die for the Gospel. So as we build up this argument, we gain more and more facts of history that can’t be denied, and the skeptic’s counter arguments to the resurrection need to account for these facts.
After today, hopefully you can see why scholars nearly universally agree that Paul was attacking the church, had some kind of dramatic experience, ended up converting to the faith he was persecuting, and then faced persecution himself, ultimately to the point of dying for his faith. This is now another one of the facts we use in the “minimal facts argument” that we are building. Next time, we’ll take a look at James, the brother of Jesus, and evaluate his conversion. So I hope you’ll join me for that next time, on the Ultimate Questions Podcast.