Paul’s Conversion or Paul’s Call?

Categories: Biblical Studies, Early Judaism, New Testament

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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.

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Loren Rosson III
    October 22, 2009 5:31 am

    While I agree that the term "Israelite" should be distinguished from "Jew"/"Judean" (and have blogged about it ad nauseum), I don't see that resolving the issue at hand. In Philip 3:7-11 it is precisely that Israelite identity Paul is comfortable putting aside and even disdaining as "excrement". The term "Judean" could refer to a subset of Israel, but it could also be used synonymously (if usually by outsiders).

    Much as I'd like to, I don't see Paul representing his life in Christ as the "natural outgrowth" of his Israelite heritage. There's no sense (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, but rather liberated Israel from the law's chaos, if you will. The "fulfillment" of Paul's heritage points to what God intended with that heritage (the consummation of the deity's will and plan), but it doesn't follow that Christianity is effectively its natural outgrowth. In this sense the figure of Abraham becomes fascinating — a lonely hero in a faithless era, anticipating better things to come.

    But I look forward to hearing more of your out-of-the-building ideas about Rom 2 & 11. Bring it on!

    • Calling Christianity the natural outgrowth sounds very appropriate to me since Abraham’s descendants were the natural branches of the olive tree and the gentiles brought in by Christianity are branches grafted into the olive tree, thereby a natural outgrowth of the tree. Also, the Old Testament being the New Testament veiled fits with the way a plant is veiled as a bud before it blooms – which is a natural outgrowth.

  • Jason A. Staples
    October 22, 2009 1:41 pm

    I'm actually getting to another layer beyond the "Judaean" translation, which I think sees the problem but doesn't solve it. The bigger issue is the role of non-Jewish Israelite tribes in the theology of certain elements of apocalyptic early "Israelitism" (to avoid the term "Judaism,"). This hasn't really been addressed adequately in the terminological debate, especially with reference to Paul. I've been working on this problem for about seven years now and hope to have published some of that research within the next year or two.

  • Mark Goodacre
    October 22, 2009 9:52 pm

    Thanks for the listening, and thanks for the comments, Jason. It's actually an odd experience to see my words transcribed by Loren and quoted by you, though I am pleasantly surprised to see that they appear reasonably coherent! Since I define what I mean by "his Judaism" by drawing attention to Paul's self-descriptors, which you approve, I think your charge of lack of precision may be a little harsh.

  • Jason A. Staples
    October 23, 2009 11:00 am

    'Tis true, Mark. To a large degree, I'm nit-picking your words as an avenue to discuss a mistake that is all too common in our field, especially among Pauline scholars. I tried to make sure I credited you for referencing his self-descriptors while still cautioning against equating these with "Judaism," but on a second read it's a bit harsher than I intended.

  • Mark Goodacre
    October 23, 2009 1:41 pm

    Thanks, Jason. Well, I am definitely looking forward to reading your forthcoming article and, of course, hearing more of your research in due course.

  • You may be interested to note Alan Segal has written a very interesting book called `Paul the Convert` and Beverly Gaventa`s `From Darkness to Light` deals with conversion in the NT. I thought these be useful avenues to explore conversion in NT


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