Mark Goodacre’s most recent NT Pod (as usual posted at NT Blog as well) deals with Paul’s “conversion,” or, as Goodacre prefers, Paul’s “call.” He says (thanks to Loren Rosson for typing up the quote):
“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.”
On the one hand, I entirely agree with Goodacre in that Paul does not see a fundamental break between his past and his future in the way that the word “convert” suggests. Instead, he sees his life in Christ as the natural outgrowth, the fulfillment of his pre-Christian beliefs and heritage.
On the other hand, it is very important to avoid a lack of precision with respect to Paul’s terminology: Paul does not identify as a “Jew,” and “Judaism” does not adequately describe Paul’s identity and heritage. Rather, as Goodacre observes, Paul calls himself an “Israelite,” a “Benjamite,” a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” but he tends to avoid “Jew.” This is (as my soon-to-be-published article on Rom 11:25–26 shows) intentional and reflects a very important distinction between “Israel” (a larger group also including “Jews”) and “the Jews” (a sub-group of Israel descended from the southern kingdom of Judah) upheld in the first century but generally neglected in modern scholarship.
Recognizing this distinction between “Israel” and “the Jews” is critical to any detailed exegesis of the Pauline epistles, especially on those things pertaining to Israel and the Law.