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Paul’s Converted Vision of Himself

To make sense of how Paul’s conversion affected his actual life, not just his theology, it is important to recall what I said about how it did affect his theology.  I repeat the key paragraph from yesterday’s post before drawing the further even more far-reaching conclusion.

To be members of God’s covenantal people, it is not necessary for gentiles to become Jews.  They do not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, or any of the rest.  They need to believe in the death and resurrection of the messiah Jesus.   This was an earth-shattering realization for Paul.   Prior to this, the followers of Jesus – the first Christians – were of course Jews who understood that he was the messiah who had died and been raised from the dead.  But they knew this as the act of the Jewish God given to the Jewish people.  Certainly gentiles could find this salvation as well.  But first they had to be Jewish.  Not for Paul.  Jew or gentile, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was faith in Christ.

Once Paul came to realize this he was blinded yet again by a further insight.   Throughout the prophets of Scripture can be found predictions that at the end of time God would bring outsiders into the fold of the people of God, as gentiles flock to the good news that comes forth from his chosen ones, the message delivered through his Jewish people.  As found in the prophet Isaiah:

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In days to come, the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and that we may walk in his paths.”  For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the world of the LORD from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-3)

The prophecy of Isaiah was coming true in Paul’s own day.  Or consider the words of the prophet Zechariah:

Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem… In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:22-23)

God had predicted that gentiles would come to the salvation that transpired in Jerusalem.  Where had Jesus been killed?  Jerusalem.   And how was the message to go forth?   It would be preached by Jews, or a Jew, to outsiders.  Paul may well have thought specifically of a famous passage about God’s special servant, spoken by the Lord himself, again in the book of Isaiah:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness.  I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.  (Isaiah 42:6-7)

I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6)

Who is this one who was “called in righteousness” to proclaim God’s salvation as a “light to the nations”?  Remember how Paul describes his conversion experience in Galatians 1: God “called me through his grace” and “in order that I might preach him among the gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-16).   Paul was the one God had called to take his message of salvation afield.  Paul’s calling to preach was anticipated in the Jewish Scriptures.  Paul himself was the fulfilment of prophecy.  He was the one God had chosen to bring salvation to the world, through his proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

A number of scholars over the years have suggested that rather than speaking of Paul’s “conversion” we should instead speak of his “call.”  Part of the logic behind that suggestion is that it is misguided to think that Paul left one religion, Judaism, in order to adopt another, Christianity.   It is widely acknowledge among Pauline scholars today that that is absolutely right.  As Paul’s most recent biographer, Bert Harrill has expressed it, “Paul thus did not change from Judaism to ‘Christianity’ in the sense of a faith apart from the religion of Israel” (p. 26).   In other words, Paul did not see himself as switching religions.  He came to realize that Christ was the fulfilment of Judaism, of everything that God had planned as revealed within the sacred Jewish scriptures.   God had not abandoned the Jews or vacate the Jewish religion; Christ himself had not opposed the Jewish faith or proposed to start something new.   Christ stood in absolute continuity with all that went before.  But without Christ, the Jewish faith was incomplete and imperfect.  Christ was the goal to which that faith had long striven, and now he had arrived.  And Paul was his prophet.

Even while granting that Paul saw himself principally as one who was “called,” it may be worthwhile not to jettison to quickly the term “conversion” for what happened to him.   True, in his own eyes he did not stop being a Jew, or think that what he was preaching was something disconnected to Judaism.  But he did “turn around” (the literal meaning of “conversion”), making a radical change in his understanding of that religion and, even more obviously, in his understanding of Christ.  And so possibly it is best to consider his experience both a call and a conversion.

Whatever we call it, it was a cataclysmic change, breath-taking in its understood self-importance.  Paul was commissioned to take this gospel message to the gentiles.  That was not merely an interesting career choice.  It was the fulfilment of God’s plan for the human race.  Paul’s mission had been anticipated by the prophets of old.  He himself was to bring the history of the world to a fitting climax.[/private]



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What Paul’s Conversion Meant



  1. Avatar
    rburos  June 20, 2016

    I’m seeing that being a NT scholar does not mean you get to “ignore” the OT.

    • Avatar
      jhague  June 22, 2016

      Author: rburos
      I can’t help but find myself in your camp here. I have often wondered if I wouldn’t have liked Paul as my neighbor (unless you count long periods of absence). Seems to me many of the Jewish Christians felt the same way?

      I agree. I think that the Jews and Jewish Christians must have thought that Paul was very confused and delusional.

  2. Avatar
    sunchasing1  June 20, 2016

    Bart, if I didn’t know better, it sounds as if you are defending the idea of the fulfillment of Christ in O.T. prophecy.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      I’m not saying that’s my personal view, but that it was Paul’s view.

  3. Avatar
    Raemon  June 20, 2016

    “He himself was to bring the history of the world to a fitting climax.[/private] “?
    Bart, please elaborate!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      The world would end when all the gentiles had come into the faith.

  4. Avatar
    Monty  June 20, 2016

    If Paul was telling the truth in Galatians 1:11, he believed the gospel he was preaching had been revealed to him, I presume in his vision. If he believed what he was saying to the Galatians, he didn’t realize that he had worked this all out himself. Like you, I think he did, whether he realized it or not. But it seems strange to me that he would delve so deeply into the predictions of his gospel embedded in the Law, in explaining himself to these gentile Galatians, who until recently, were pagans. In fact I am wondering if all that Jewish background was intended not primarily for the edification of the Galatians, but was instead intended for the Jews who were insisting that the Galatians must be circumcised to be Christians. I wonder if Paul, in educating these gentiles as to how his gospel was the fulfillment of the Law, was in fact setting the stage for his gentile converts to argue his case on his behalf – from a Jewish perspective – the next time the “circumcisors” came calling when Paul was not present.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      My senses is that the people who urged the Galatians to get circumcised were gentiles who themselves had been circumcised. That’s probalby why they’re so insistent.

      • Avatar
        Monty  June 21, 2016

        I never even considered that. I think I was confused because of Paul’s kerfuffle with Peter in Antioch, when Peter was intimidated by “certain men who came from James,” whom I assume were Jews. I somehow conflated what happened in Antioch with what was happening with the Galatians, but after going back and reading it again, I can see that Paul does not know who these circumcision proponents in Galatians were, and never voiced any suspicion that they were Jewish. Thank you for clearing that up for me.

      • TWood
        TWood  June 24, 2016

        Is the reason you sense this because Paul hopes they accidentally cut off their “members” while being circumcised (if they were born Jews they’d already be circumcised)?

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  June 20, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, would you say that instead of thinking of it as if Paul abandoned Judaism that, instead, it’s more like Paul felt that the Jews who rejected the Messiah Jesus were the ones abandoning the faith?

  6. Avatar
    gavriel  June 21, 2016

    Does this mean that Paul himself continued to observe the prescriptions of the Law for everyday life , and that he expected other Jews to do the same, or did he develop a more relaxed attitude to these prescriptions (for Jews)? Did he perhaps become less “pharisaic” in these matters? After all, James, the brother of the Lord, was running the business of Jewish Christians for decades with probably the same idea about the atoning effect of the crucifixion, but is portrayed as much more strict regarding the Law.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      He says in 1 Corinthians that he was a Jew among Jews and a gentile among gentiles — whcih I take to mean that he was *sometimes* acting in “Jewish” ways.

  7. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 21, 2016

    Good post Dr. Erhman. It raises some questions for me. Paul’s view seems inconsistent. He views Jesus, his death and ressurection, as the fulfillment of Judaism and He always considered himself Jewish even after his conversion. Further, he viewed as his call to bring Gentiles into the fold, yet they need not convert to Judaism. What Religous label then did Gentile believers in Jesus fall under? To our modern mind which likes to place people places and things in categories it seems odd that Gentile believers in Jesus would not need to convert or be viewed as being Jewish.

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  June 21, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Do you think we should conclude that Paul had a single overwhelming visionary experience about which he ruminated for years or that he is claiming to have occasional visions of Jesus over a long period?


    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      My sense is that it was a solitary vision. But I’m not sure if 2 Cor. 12 is referring to a later experience or not.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 21, 2016

    Fascinating! Not being a Bible reader, I’d never known *any* of this.

    So while Jesus *didn’t* actually fulfill prophecies about the Messiah, Paul *did* fulfill prophecies about an evangelist who’d spread the “good news” of a transformed Judaism among the “Gentiles”?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      Paul thought that Jesus did fulfill the prophecies. It’s just that other Jews didn’t see it.

  10. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  June 21, 2016

    It seems so strange that an educated Jew in the first century CE would understand so very differently the salvation that God must have been referring to in Isaiah 49:6, written six or seven hundred years earlier (“that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth”) and yet be certain it’s what God must have meant. Paul’s understanding implied that the God of Israel, speaking to Israel though Isaiah (or whomever wrote Ch 49….Josiah?) did not mean what Israel would have understood back then by “salvation” but something only Jews centuries later could possibly understand. I guess such subtle, logical-historical problems simply didn’t occur to or bother Paul or other early Christians.

  11. Avatar
    jhague  June 21, 2016

    Other than perhaps narcissism, what would being Paul to the conclusion that he was the one who was called to the gentiles based on passages from the Hebrew scriptures?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2016

      His revelation!

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 22, 2016

        Yes. But I think there was another force behind the scenes of Paul that we will never know. I don’t find Paul to be as truthful as you do. I think there are other motives for him to view himself as THE person referred to in the Hebrews scriptures. I assume that most Jews of the first century would have thought Paul was a little off his rocker in thinking of himself in this way?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 23, 2016


          • TWood
            TWood  June 24, 2016

            Peter, John, James, et al. didn’t think he was off his rocker. Don’t you think it’s a little too strong to say Paul considered himself to be “the person” referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures? The others seemed to share that title with him (esp. Peter) because they shared a claim to have seen a raised Jesus. I get your point, but I don’t see Paul’s claim as symmetrical to the likes of Muhammad or Joseph Smith who did make such “the person” claims about themselves.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 24, 2016

            My reason for saying he thought he was “the person” is because unlike the others, he realized he was the one called to take the message to the gentiles in fulfillment of Scripture.

          • TWood
            TWood  June 24, 2016

            I see… but if Acts 10 is remotely accurate, isn’t it true that Peter opened the door to the Gentiles before Paul? I get it wasn’t the same in every way… but the idea of taking the message to the Gentiles was fairly similar…

          • Bart
            Bart  June 26, 2016

            Yes, if Acts 10 is accurate that is what it would mean. I don’t think it’s accurate, historically

          • TWood
            TWood  June 26, 2016

            Is that due to Paul’s statement that he was the apostle to the Gentiles while Peter was the apostle to the Jews?

            What resource do you have that gives a summary of which parts of Acts you think are historically reliable/unreliable? I’m interested in whether you think the Jerusalem Council really happened for example.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 27, 2016

            That’s part of it. Acts is trying to show they were completely on the same page because of divine intervention. Nothing anywhere else indicates plausibly that Peter was the one who started a misison to gentiles. He missionized Jews.

    • Avatar
      rburos  June 21, 2016

      I can’t help but find myself in your camp here. I have often wondered if I wouldn’t have liked Paul as my neighbor (unless you count long periods of absence). Seems to me many of the Jewish Christians felt the same way?

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 21, 2016

    Hmm? I have never heard this before about Paul concluding that he was the one fulfilling the scripture in Isaiah about one being called “in righteousness.” It’s always interesting to learn something new. Thanks.

    With regard to Paul’s emphasis on salvation requiring the correct belief about Jesus, I have always, even as an adolescent, thought it was “Christianity light” to conclude that all one had to do to go to heaven was to have the good fortune to have the correct belief about Jesus and that was it….. That always seemed a little too simple and also a little unfair to others who did good deeds and studied hard to figure stuff out, but were not lucky enough to settle on the “correct” belief about Jesus, maybe because they were born in a non-Christian country. Often, the belief is worded as belief that Jesus is the “son of God.” When I was baptized, I was required to agree that Jesus is the “son of God,” Oddly, at the time, I thought what does that mean? Despite my question to myself, I went ahead and got baptized with the rest of the kids in my class. Now, I still think it’s a good question.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 23, 2016

      Thee are perhaps 15 or so places in the NT where it says belief is necessary to be saved (I have a list I made of the verses). But, to your point, that does not imply it is a sufficient condition for salvation, only a necessary one.

  13. Avatar
    marcrm68  June 21, 2016

    This is not history Dr. Ehrman, it’s speculation…

  14. Avatar
    marcrm68  June 22, 2016

    I’m not saying I believe it, but here is an alternative story. Paul is some type of local official in Tarsus, responsible for the local militia or police. He is in the top 2% in education, being able to write. He persecutes the local Christians because they are different ( we don’t really need much more reason, do we? ). At some point, he is influenced by the suffering, dying messiah idea that was becoming widespread. And he realizes that this is an opportunity. Because he is a megalomaniac, and maybe has suffered a recent trauma, such as being rejected by a woman, he claims to have had a vision of this new god Jesus, and starts preaching. Because of his education and natural powers of persuasion, he is very successful in winning people over to an idea that has been known in Judea for some time already, and has several sects competing… As time goes by, and he is enjoying his success, and all that goes with it, he meets other leaders of the idea, and establishes himself as a power in the movement. Perhaps money was involved… During his life, he converts thousands, and his letters come to be regarded as scripture. His letters were in fact the only uniquely Christian scripture of the time…. Years after his death, as his churches had grown, the author of Mark took his letters, passages of scripture, and passages from literature such as Homer, and wrote an allegorical story meant to teach Christians what to believe. And the rest is history…

  15. Avatar
    Abu  June 23, 2016

    A question that puzzled me about Paul is why would he consider the gentiles of Arabia to be the first ones to preach to, there got to be a significant notion that is known to the jews which made Paul to believe he is the prophet after the messiah, what’s your take on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2016

      Arabia probably means the Nabatean kingdom. I don’t know why he would go there!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 23, 2016

        While the Nabateans were pagan, they did have extremely close ties with the Jews. In fact, Herod Antipas — son of Herod the Great and Tetrach of the Galilee — was married to the Nabatean princess Phasaelis (whom he later divorced in order to marry his brother’s ex-wife Herodias). While it would be speculation to estimate how many Jews actually lived within the Nabatean territory, Josephus does say that John the Baptist was taken to the frontier fortress of Machaerus, on the border with Nabatea, where John was likely executed. A fortress manned by Jews so close to an Arab territory suggests very close contact between the two nations. I wouldn’t be surprised if Petra, the capital of Nabatea, had a small Jewish population at the time.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  June 25, 2016

          Not sure about the logic of “A fortress manned by Jews so close to an Arab territory suggests very close contact between the two nations.” The close proximity of South and North Korean forces, for example, certainly suggests no such thing.

          • talmoore
            talmoore  June 26, 2016

            If you read Josephus you’ll see that the Jews and the Arabs had something of a love-hate relationship with eachother throughout those centuries. Sometimes they were allies. Sometimes they were enemies. Typical neighbor stuff.

      • Avatar
        Abu  June 24, 2016

        Dear prof Erhrman, I appreciate your response for it meant a lot to me to hear your insight. I think having to say that he went to Nabateen kingdom is in the probability zone. But a more supported evident is that he did went to THE AREA named Paran where desendent of Abraham from Hagar are found,which is the area where present day Makka in saudi Arabi is .
        I think Paul thought and believed in his mind after the encounter with a true light being (Satan)that claimed to be Jesus , that he is that prophet that was pointed out by jews in a question to John in john 1:21. The proof is that Paul seemed to deliver the children of Hagar because he thought he is the one who will fulfill the second covenant as stated in Galatians4:27
        27 For it is written:

        “Be glad, barren woman,
            you who never bore a child;
        shout for joy and cry aloud,
            you who were never in labor;
        because more are the children of the desolate woman
            than of her who has a husband.”[e]
        So in order for him to fulfill both covenant he went first to deliver what is a covenant promised for Arabia.
        This is what he said in Galatians 4:
        24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.

  16. Avatar
    Omar6741  June 23, 2016

    Off-topic: why is there a debate between those who see Jesus as a wisdom teacher, and those who see him as an apocalyptic preacher? Couldn’t he have been both?

  17. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  June 23, 2016


    christian apologists say, “the pagans hated the christians…”

    “how could christianity be pagan if pagans hated it…”

    is it not true that pagans hated other forms of paganism?

    christians hated christians

    jews hated jews

    sometimes hatred might cause one to forget the common elements that christianity and paganism share i.e

    god could come down and get defeated by nature

    if i am correct, pagans did believe that gods could get defeated, right?

    ideas such as sharing in the suffering of a god by creating memorial was known too, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 23, 2016

      Lots of question! But the main point to stress is that it is very hard to give a generalization that applies to 93% of the population of the Roman empire!

  18. Avatar
    Edward  August 21, 2016

    How close did Paul come to being the archetype of every “religious fanatic” who came after him?

    What I mean is, how many religious people throughout history would one not consider to be “fanatics” for judging and cursing everyone for believing differently, commanding their flock that it was best not to touch a woman (save that pent us sexual energy for spreading the cult), even adding that it was best for married couples to live celibate lives so they could focus on spread the cult more resolutely. Not to mention Paul’s predictions that the Lord was coming soon. In other words, based on statements in his own letters Paul comes off like the trifecta of fanatics. Below are examples of Paul’s fanatical statements and beliefs:



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