Tomorrow is the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, celebrated in the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran/evangelische churches, and the Roman Catholic Church. The eucharistic readings for the feast vary, but in the Church of England is read the “Road to Damascus” account of Acts 9.1-22:
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ 7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ 21All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ 22Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
Paul gives his own account of the event in Galatians 1:
11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days; 19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. 20In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie! 21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, ‘The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.’ 24And they glorified God because of me.
The problem with all of this is the label the church gives to this event: The Conversion of Paul. The issue I have with this is indicated in the title of this post – Paul was not a convert! Search the two passages above, or any of the other accounts that relate to the revelation of Jesus to him, and you will not see the word “convert.” Yes, he changed, but as Pamela Eisenbaum argues in her brilliant book, Paul Was Not a Christian: The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), Paul never stopped seeing himself as a Jew, and did not see Christianity as something separate from Judaism. Christianity, a category he did not know of, was not the successor religion to Judaism; rather, Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy and promise, and through Jesus Gentiles could now be grafted onto the salvation promised to Jews. Paul did not convert to Christianity, because Christianity as we understand it did not exist. Paul was, however, called by God through the revelation of Jesus to him to be an apostle to the Gentiles, a kind of rescue mission to an otherwise depraved and damned population.
Of course, most Gentile Christians have not seen it that way. They retro-projected the rigid separation of Judaism and Christianity of their own day – medieval and modern – onto the early church. However, as a multitude of recent scholars have demonstrated, in books such as The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (edited by Adam H. Becker, Annette Yoshiko Reed; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), communities of Jews and Christians overlapped, went to each others services, and shared members throughout antiquity; what we now know as Judaism and Christianity emerged out of an older form of Judaism. Admittedly, from the 2nd Century CE on various leaders in both communities admonished their peoples not to attend each other services, but they had to do it for centuries because the people would not listen and kept on doing so. Christian leaders argued about the date of Easter and its difference from (but connection with) Passover, because Christians were partaking in Passover as well as Easter, and vice-versa; by setting up a separate date the two feasts were separated.
So Paul did not convert, and he was never a convert. He was born a Jew, circumcised as a Jew, educated as a Jew, and died a Jew. He followed Jesus because he experienced a call from the Son of the God – a God he knew as the God of the Jews. He never repudiated God’s promises of faithfulness to the Jews, but rather saw them being extended, by special permission, to non-Jews.
The name of the festival is wrong. Paul did not convert, at least not in the usual meaning of that word in a religious context. Using that language encourages supersessionism, the belief that Christianity replaces Judaism – and this is a theology of which we who are Christians must repent. Paul was called, and for that reason I think liturgists and church leaders need to change the name of the feast tomorrow to The Calling of Paul. Over to you, bishops and archbishops, pastors and clergy, synods and liturgical committees.