The Historicity of the Apostle Paul’s Conversion and Persecution of the Church

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Saul’s testimony (Saul being the name of the Apostle Paul’s prior to his conversion to Christianity) is similarly striking to that of James’, the brother of Jesus Christ. The historical evidence strongly points to Paul, although playing a significant role in the early persecution of the Church, giving his allegiance to Jesus after a dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus. Here we want to briefly note some background context and explore what historical grounds we have for affirming Paul’s conversion and persecution of the early Church.

Paul, with 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 since Paul becomes a significantly formative figure in the early Church. Paul traveled widely across multiple continents spreading the Gospel and debating with skeptics, encouraging others in the faith, resolving internal Church disputes, and planting churches. Evidently so ashamed of his persecution of the early Church prior to his conversion, Paul states that he doesn’t even deserve to be called an apostle, a very follower of Jesus. Of course he was an incredibly devout follower of Jesus, he just so regretted his former actions.

There is an important distinction between the testimonies of James and Paul, which will help elucidate some background. We read that James was skeptical and did not believe in the claims Jesus, his brother, was making. Paul was also skeptical, but unlike James he was an active persecutor of the early Church. What the Church was claiming, namely a crucified Messiah and saviour, was to Paul greatly blasphemous and needed to be stamped out of existence. Paul witnessed the murdering and persecution of early Christians and approved of such activity (Acts 7:54-59). The author of Acts, in his attempt to provide a historical account of the early events of the Church, writes 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 clearly deep and radical, to the point of wishing to eliminate its blasphemy from the historical record.

Now with this background understood, let’s turn to the historical evidence. Here we find that Paul himself admits to his persecution of Church in several of his authentic epistles (1 Cor. 15:9-10; Gal. 1:12-16, 22-23; Phil. 3:6-7). There is no reason to doubt this testimony and the fact that he mentions it in several letters written to various early Church communities suggests it was widely known. It is unlikely Paul would fabricate these activities in light of this.

Perhaps just as compelling is that Paul’s persecution of the Church passes the criterion of embarrassment. As noted in 1 Corinthians 15:9 above, Paul felt great shame and embarrassment for the role he played in this only to become a Church leader at a later point. It is highly unlikely that he would have invented and attributed to himself such a potentially damaging (to his reputation) narrative, especially in light of his formative role in early Christianity.

Turning to Paul’s conversion, that Paul went on to live a life that experienced significant persecution is pointer to the conversion’s historicity. Paul was certainly willing to suffer and be persecuted for his new-found faith. After his conversion, Paul experienced various abuses and there is good grounds to believe that he was martyred for his faith. Paul’s own testimony attests to him being incarcerated and enduring beatings (2 Cor. 11:24-27). The Jews with whom Paul spoke attempted 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), stoned and dragged out of a 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). That Paul suffered for his faith post his conversion is independently attested in three sources: his own letters, disputed letters (2 Timothy for example.), and Acts. Three independent accounts satisfies the historian’s standard for what constitutes satisfactory proof.

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.” Clement was writing this around the mid 90’s CE, making it a valuable source. Polycarp also attests to Paul’s martyrdom, as does Tertullian (who tells us that “Paul was beheaded”). and Eusebius who quotes Dionysius of Corinth and Origin concerning Paul’s martyrdom.

This collective evidence is enough to convince scholars of the historicity of Paul’s conversion (1). Bart Ehrman writes that “Paul was undoubtedly the most important convert in the history of the Christian religion” (2). That Paul also persecuted the Church is also more than sufficient in light of its independent attestation, the criterion of embarrassment, and that Paul himself, with great difficulty, admits to it.

References

  1. Barnett, Paul. 2002. Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A History of New Testament Times. Westmont: InterVarsity Press.
  2. Ehrman, Bart. 2006. Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 101.

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