The Historicity of the Apostle Paul’s Conversion

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Saul’s testimony (Saul being the Apostle Paul’s name prior to his conversion)  is similarly striking to that of James’. Weighing the historical evidences it appears that Paul, despite playing a role in the early persecution of the church (which involved some killings of Christians), gave his allegiance to Christ after a resurrection experience of Christ.

Paul, with in evident shame and embarrassment, speaks of the role he played in the persecution of the early Christians and their movement, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9). This is a striking statement for Paul, as he himself knew, was a pivotal, formative figure in the early Christian church. However, evidently so ashamed for his persecution of it, he goes to the length of saying he doesn’t deserve to be called an apostle, a very follower of Christ.

There is an important distinction between the testimonies of James and Paul. One learns that James was skeptical and an unbeliever in Christ. Paul was also skeptical but unlike James he was an active persecutor of the early church. Paul witnessed the murdering and persecution of early Christians, as well as approved of such activity. The author of Acts, in his attempt to provide a historical account of the early events of the Christian church, informed his readers that “Saul [Paul] began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison” (8:3). Paul also approved of the stoning to death of Stephen, probably the first martyr in Christian history (Acts 8:1-2). As such, Paul’s opposition to the church was deep and radical, to the point of wishing to obliterate its blasphemy from the historical record. The reasons why Paul opposed the early Christian movement and its teachings are interesting but peripheral to the question of the historicity of his conversion, to which we now turn.

That Paul persecuted the early church is well attested historically. Paul himself admits to this in several of his authentic epistles (1 Cor. 15:9-10; Gal. 1:12-16, 22-23; Phil. 3:6-7), and is confirmed by Luke’s attestation in the book of Acts. Paul’s persecution of the early church is therefore independently attested.

The persecution also passes the criterion of embarrassment. As noted in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:9 above, Paul felt shame and embarrassment for the role he played in this, only to become a leader in the church at a later point. It is highly unlikely that he would have invented and attributed to himself such a narrative that could potentially damage his reputation and credibility.

Paul’s authentic epistles constitute the strongest historical evidence for his conversion. Scholarship divides Paul’s letters into two main categories: those of which are authentic and those which are disputed. The authentic letters are those legitimately penned by Paul himself, from his own hand or dictation. Those that are disputed are not disputed for any historical-narrative purpose but rather in terms of the authorship. The disputed letters are attributed to Paul but most scholars (with consensus differing depending on the letter in question) believe they weren’t actually penned by Paul himself, but rather a follower of Paul’s. This considered, Paul’s authentic letters are therefore clearly of importance for historians wishing to understand his theology, ministry, and purposes.

The story of his conversion is detailed most vividly in the  book of Acts. According to the story, Paul was journeying with a company to Damascus to persecute Christians there. Christ appears to him in a vision while on the road, and asks Paul why he is persecuting him (by which Christ meant his church and his people): Paul “fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (9:4). Paul was subsequently blinded for three days and had to be led into Damascus by the hand where, after being prayed for by someone claiming to be sent by God, he received his vision once again (9:1-22). This experience was the seed of Paul’s conversion. According to Bart Ehrman, “Paul was undoubtedly the most important convert in the history of the Christian religion” (3).

But one need not only rely on Acts. Paul speaks of how God “was pleased to reveal his son to me” (Gal. 1:16), and includes himself on the list of people Christ had appeared to in his resurrection body (the early creed of 1 Cor. 15:8).

Similarly to James, Paul lived new life as a Christ follower with a willingness to suffer and be persecuted. This was a striking turn in his life considering that as a pharisee Paul was persecuting Christians, and therefore the one with the power. However, after his conversion, history says that Paul not only experienced a variety of abuses and persecutions but that he was also martyred for his faith. One discovers that on several occasions Paul was incarcerated and endured beatings (2 Cor. 11:24-27). The Jews with whom Paul spoke tried to kill him (Acts 9:29), he was persecuted (Acts 13:50, 1 Cor. 4:12, 2 Cor. 4:9, 2 Tim. 3:11, Phil. 1:12-30), he was stoned and dragged out of the city (Acts 14:9), beaten with rods (Acts 16:22), endured trial (Acts 18:12), verbally abused by crowds (Acts 21:36, 22:22), and incarcerated (2 Tim. 2:9). These narratives suggest that Paul was clearly willing to suffer hardship and pain for his faith. This is independently and multiply attested in three sources. From the New Testament, Paul’s suffering is attested by his authentic letters, disputed letters (2 Tim. for example.) and by Acts.

Paul’s suffering and eventual martyrdom receives some attention beyond the New Testament too. According to Clement of Rome, “[Paul] after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned… and suffered martyrdom under the prefects” (32). Clement was writing this around the mid 90’s AD, therefore making it a fairly valuable source. Polycarp also attests to Paul’s martyrdom (33), as does Tertullian (who tells us that “Paul was beheaded”) (34). and Eusebius who quotes Dionysius of Corinth and Origin concerning Paul’s martyrdom (35).

Multiple and independent attestation via several important historical sources suggests a high probability of Paul’s willingness to suffer for the resurrection message. Several source, some of which are from Paul’s own hand, affirm that it was the resurrection appearance of Christ himself to Paul that prompted his conversion.





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