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The Conversion of Paul

My book on the “Triumph of Christianity” will deal with how and why people converted to the Christian faith.   (As I think I’ve said, unlike some scholars I have no problem calling the earliest followers of Jesus who came to believe in his resurrection “Christian.”)   The best known and most important conversion was Paul.   Seeing how/why he converted is a key for understanding his own subsequent mission to convert gentiles to the faith.  Here is my current thinking on the issue

To start with, it is impossible to know either what led up to Paul’s conversion or what exactly happened at the time.   We do have a narrative description in the book of Acts, and it is this description that provides the popular images of Paul seeing a blinding light on the road to Damascus, falling from his horse, and hearing the voice of Jesus asking “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:1-19).   The account of Acts 9 is retold by Paul in both chapter 22 and chapter 29.  The historical problems it presents have long intrigued and perplexed scholars.  For one thing, the three accounts differ in numerous contradictory details.  In one account Paul’s companions don’t hear the voice but they see the light; in another they don’t see anyone but they hear the voice.  In one account they all fall to the ground from the epiphanic blast, in another they remain standing.  In one account Paul is told to go on to Damascus where a disciple of Jesus will provide him with his marching orders, in another he is not told to go but is given his instructions from Jesus himself on the spot.   Clearly we are dealing with a narrative that has been molded for literary reasons, not with some kind of disinterested historical report.

The other problem is that

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Reading Suggestions for the New Testament: A Blast from the Past
How Paul Persecuted the Christians



  1. Avatar
    Abu  June 16, 2016

    In this translated version of luke 13:35, we can see that Jesus son of Mary peace be upon him clearly state if he leaves then the only way he will be coming back is when all people praise the Almighty. Meaning it’s not going to be a private matter as Paul said, besides if he leaves the only other way to Complete a message he points out in another verse is when the comforter comes and tells you all things.
    Aramaic Bible in Plain English
    “Behold, your house is left to you desolate, for I say to you, you shall not see me until you will say, ‘Blest is he who comes in the name of THE LORD JEHOVAH!

    • Avatar
      SidDhartha1953  July 16, 2016

      An Aramaic writer would not call God by the name Jehovah. Jehovah is an invented English rendering based on a misunderstanding of Hebrew manuscripts of the Tanakh. When the scribes of the Middle Ages began inserting vowel markings in the texts so readers would not misspeak when reading aloud (Imagine if English were written without vowels. Would “fr ngns” mean “fire engines” or “four engines?”) they left the name of God YHWH unmarked because Jews were not to pronounce that name. Rather than supplying the vowel sounds for YHWH, they put the vowel sounds for adonai, which means “lord” in Hebrew, in the margin, to indicate the reader should say “adonai,” not “YHWH”. That is why most English translations of the OT render YHWH as LORD (all caps to inidicate the word being translated is YHWH, not adonai. But some Christian, English speaking translator didn’t know all this. He presumed a scribe had forgotten to point the text at that point and someone later inserted the vowel sounds in the margin. He inferred from that that the correct pronunciation of YHWH (or JHVH, as was the accepted transliteration) was something like JaHoVaiH, which came to be spelled Jehovah. Hence, Jehovah is a nonexistent name in both Hebrew and Aramaic, and Jewish writers in the time of Jesus and after would never speak the name, however it would be correctly spelled.

  2. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  June 16, 2016

    I wish I could remember how I reacted to the inconsistent retellings of Paul’s conversion in Acts. I am fairly certain I was of the mind that the Bible is inerrant, so I would not have doubted that Paul actually described his convernsion inconsistently and that his accounts differed from Luke’s which, somehow, must have derived from Paul’s own account (which may have differed yet again when he told it to Luke). Putting myself in the place of that young literalist, I am sure I must have realized that people change details when they retell some event, not because they are liars but because they forget. This is the thesis of your most recent book. Of course, you provide solid evidence for why people do this, while most of us know from experience that everyone but ourselves does that.
    My question: Could Paul, in the first-hand account he gives in Galatians, have forgotten that he spoke with another Christian (Ananias or someone else — perhaps the source of the Acts version of Paul’s conversion) before leaving Damascus, as well as other details: where he was — in a house, on the road — whether he went to Jerusalem before going anywhere else? The fact that it is Paul’s own account doesn’t mitigate the fact that he is telling it some twenty years hence by the time he relates it to the Galatians. Why should we trust Paul’s first-hand, twenty years removed memory more than someone else’s sixty years removed retelling of another retelling of what was originally Paul’s memory?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Yes, he certainly could have forgotten it. But my hunch is that Paul better remembered what happened to him 20-25 years earlier than an author writing 50 years after the event would remember, esp. if that author never even knew Paul!!

  3. Avatar
    godspell  June 16, 2016

    If he never saw Jesus, how could he have had a vision of the man? My impression was always that he saw a blinding light and heard a voice speaking to him, but his own description is extremely vague. Maybe he saw some angelic figure. What he thought Jesus should have looked like, except at the time he had the vision, he supposedly thought Jesus was a heretic and a scoundrel.

    Paul’s Jesus, the one he wrote about, is not the Jesus that the disciples knew. They knew a man who ate, drank wine, laughed, associated with persons of low repute, told stories, and presumably crapped behind bushes. They knew a man. Paul never knew the man. To him, Jesus was an ideal. We all know what that’s like–to idealize somebody we’ve never met. Paul just took it to a different level.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  June 18, 2016

      There are people that have visions of Jesus today. One of my former coworkers swore he saw Jesus and that he spoke to him. I also remember seeing a comment on the blog by someone who said he and his wife saw Jesus when they were in a car driving down the road.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 19, 2016

        Obviously, but that’s after well over a thousand years of artistic depictions of Jesus. Western civllization has spent a long time creating a generally accepted image of him as a tall bearded caucasian with brown hair. Paul had no such collective image to draw upon, nor was he punch drunk that we know of…(warning, one expletive)


        Suppose you went blind at an early age, and only then became a fan of Elvis Presley, listening to his recordings, reading books and articles about him in braille. You know what men look like, but you never saw this particular man. Maybe various people have described him to you, but their memories are all different, and anyway, hearing a description will always lead to a different image in your head than the person making the description.

        That’s a whole lot more information than Paul would have had to work with.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  June 19, 2016

          Ha! The video was funny. Sounds about right!
          Have you read anything about Akiane Kramarik? She was a child prodigy who painted the Prince of Peace based on her visions of Jesus. Her parents were atheists, but at the age of 4 she began having heavenly visions and heard God’s voice. She said God encouraged her to draw and paint. The little boy who inspired the book Heaven is for Real claimed his vision matched Kramarik’s depiction of Jesus.
          Here’s a link to her work. It’s categorized by the age she created each piece. Prince of Peace was painted at the age of 8.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 16, 2016

    I think we should acknowledge the possibility that he had a vivid dream, not a “vision.” At least some people are *more* likely to accept dreams as being “true.”

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  June 18, 2016

      I think it was you I told about my very vivid dream that seemed different from other dreams. My sister had an “experience” that lasted for several days. And, no she wasn’t on drugs lol…but it was pretty wild.

  5. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  June 16, 2016

    Regarding Jews accepting the salvation of the Goyim, in modern times Jews have advanced the concept of the Noahides, but back in the time of Paul did the Jews think the Goyim were doomed or did they think they had chance?

  6. Avatar
    jhague  June 16, 2016

    My thought is that Paul obviously imagined seeing Jesus who he then labeled the Christ. Maybe it was a dream. I also think that if Paul was as zealous for the ways of Pharisaic Judaism as he claims he was, then his conversion process must have occurred over a long period of time. I find it almost unbelievable that someone could make the change that he claims he made. Is there any other record of individuals converting from zealous Pharisaic Judaism to something that is the complete opposite? Doing a 180 religiously?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      I’m afraid we don’t have biographies of anyone who was a Pharisee.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 18, 2016

      A rabbi who was also a friend and a therapist whose view was that Paul’s zealousness was a part of his personality, his psychology. He said he was zealous for his Jewish faith; when he was came to judge those who continued to believe Jesus was the messiah after his crucifixion, he persecuted them zealously; when he came to believe in the risen Jesus, he pursued that zealously. His zealousness had less to do with the content of his convictions and more to do with his temperament which does not transmute as readily as beliefs can.

      • Avatar
        godspell  June 19, 2016

        I think this is absolutely right–and we see this behavior pattern to this day. There were no more overzealous conservatives than the early Neoconservatives, who began as Marxists, then became disillusioned and went the other way. The black leftist radical Eldridge Cleaver went to Russia, and came back as a far right thinker. Others go from right to left, from atheist to theist, from theist to atheist, and the transition, if anything, makes them more zealous than they were before.

        Some people want to believe they have the truth–whatever it is. Not merely know some truths, but THE Truth. It’s a sense of ownership, and they cling to it fiercely. They may change it once, shedding their early set of beliefs for another, but rarely twice, because once a truth has been found, it becomes THE Truth, and the owner’s whole sense of self rests upon it. And such men can be dangerous, no matter what kind of belief we’re talking about, as Dr. Johnson well knew.


        But Paul, happily for those around him, had embraced what was then a rigorously pacifist belief system. No need to knock him down first and pity him afterwards, though that may in fact have happened. The Romans tended to knock down anybody they saw as a threat to social order, and pity them not at all.

  7. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  June 16, 2016

    hello Bart

    as an expert on the history of early christianity do you believe “Testimonium Flavium” have been inserted into the Antiquities about the time of the 4th century .


    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      I think the heart of it was original but it got “Christainized” by a later scribe.

  8. Avatar
    Scott  June 16, 2016

    The most telling thing about Paul, to me, is that his change in perspective seems radical but in an important way, he didn’t change at all. He went from all-in AGAINST the Christians to all-in IN FAVOR of Christianity. If the biblical accounts are to be believed Peter saw a similar lack of transformation – he went from clueless and flighty in dealing with a living Jesus to clueless and flighty in dealing with the “judaizers” while in Antioch

  9. Avatar
    RJKinNYC  June 16, 2016

    I am often puzzled by the purported conflict, reflected here, between actual religious experiences and imaginary ones. It is precisely in the human imagination that people have some of their most powerful and life changing religious experiences. As George Bernard Shaw put it in his play Saint Joan, messages from God of course come to us in the imagination. That makes them no less real or actual. For sure, not everything we imagine is a religious experience. It is through a process of spiritual discernment that we distinguish genuine religious experiences from mere phantasms; perhaps this is what Paul was doing when afterwards he went away to Arabia. Granted, religious experiences are beyond the reach of verification by the modern historian. But that Paul claimed to have had such an experience of the Risen Jesus seems beyond reasonable historical dispute and the early Christians in the community that gave birth to Acts of the Apostles plainly believed Paul even as they may have mythologized some details of Paul’s profound encounter. But skeptics are at least disrespectful when they respond to Paul’s claim by dismissing it as a mere figment of his imagination. Religious experience is real and it deserves more humble regard than that.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  June 24, 2016

      the important word in your posting is “claimed.” No doubt Paul claimed to have met the risen Christ. Is there any reason we should believe him?

      • Bart
        Bart  June 24, 2016

        Depends what you mean. I don’t think he was telling a bald lie. But I also don’t think Jesus physically appeared to him.

  10. Avatar
    Michael Fischer  June 16, 2016

    I am curious what your response is to the claim some make that in the Greek it is reasonable to interpret that Paul’s companions heard the voice speaking to Paul but did not understand the words that were spoken.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      The Greek doesn’t say that. You *could* interpret one passage as saying they “heard” the voice and the other to be saying they did not “obey” the voice. But that doesn’t quite make sense since the voice wasn’t ordering them to do anything.

  11. Avatar
    probablynot  June 16, 2016

    Great stuff! Thank you.

    Quick typo from the second paragraph: The third account in Acts is in chapter 26, not 29.

    Regarding the hearing/seeing discrepancy, could the Greek words used in one account mean “hear something” and in the other “hear a voice,” and could the Greek words used in one account mean “see something” and in the other “see a person”? I need your help with the Greek!

    I agree it would still be weird for one account to emphasize something heard and for another to emphasize something seen. But what if the companions saw the bright light, and heard an accompanying “whoosh,” and heard Saul falling to the ground, and heard Saul’s grunts of surprise and confusion as he was being talked to (these sounds aren’t stated in the accounts but they don’t seem too unreasonable to me if I’m picturing the situation)…would the accounts be compatible with that? And if so, would it be reasonable to conclude that both parts of these accounts are conveying the same idea, namely that Paul’s companions experienced something general, whereas Paul experienced something more specific?

    (I’m an atheist, by the way. 🙂 Not that that matters, I just feel that sometimes it’s helpful to know where people are coming from.)

    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Yes, it’s possible to figure out ways to make discrepancies disappear — it just depends how creative one wants to be! The question would be then why there are discrepancies at all (since there don’t *need* to be!)….

  12. Avatar
    doug  June 16, 2016

    I sometimes wonder if Paul’s conscience/emotions finally blew up over his brutal treatment of Christians who had done no harm to him and who, perhaps, even showed him love. But there is no way to know.

  13. talmoore
    talmoore  June 16, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, though it’s dangerous to attempt a diagnosis 2000 years after the fact (which didn’t seem to stop me from making one in a previous comment), I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical Paul had some kind of mental disorder — possibly schizophrenia (see me previous comments as to why). If it was, indeed, the case that Paul had a mental disorder that made him think he saw and heard the risen Jesus, then such a mental disorder (i.e. schizophrenia) would also explain why A) Paul felt he was suddenly on a special calling to spread the Gospel (delusions of grandeur); B) Paul was paranoid that he was being undermined, both by his “brothers in Christ” who disagreed with him (cf. his falling out with Barnabas in Acts 15:36-41) and non-Christian “persecutors”, all of whom, in Paul’s mind, were being guided by Satan; and C) Paul was such an irascible pain in the ass. In fact, from the account of him in Acts — which is supposed to be a flattering portrayal! — one gets the sense that no one really liked Paul, but they tolerated him because he was at least getting stuff done. I’m reminded of other leaders with similar qualities, who few people actually liked, who were always paranoid that the world was against them, who felt they had a special God-given purpose. Indeed, with only a modicum of power Paul could have easily become one history’s biggest megalomaniacs. https://www.amazon.com/Historys-Most-Insane-Rulers-Megalomaniacs/dp/1483981126

  14. Avatar
    Stefan  June 16, 2016

    Do you think 2 Cor 12 has to do with his conversion? “14 years ago”? “Caught up to the third heaven”?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      I’ve never thought so but argument have been made both ways.

    • Avatar
      TomSmith  June 21, 2016

      I think this is a very strong possibility. The apocalyptic language, the coy self-reference…from my reading I find this pretty convincing. But my specialty is really later Greek and Latin writers, and I am neither a NT scholar nor the son of a NT scholar.

  15. Avatar
    teresa  June 16, 2016

    Hi Prof Ehrman,
    Re the Galatians 1 15-17 ref. several translations YLT, NASB, ERV read “revealed his son IN me” which makes a lot of difference to the sense of what is being said. Which is correct ” to me ” or ” in me “?

    Best wishes, Teresa

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      It can mean *both*. It might even mean both at once: this is a revelation by God to Paul that came through mental insight (inside his head).

  16. Avatar
    nichael  June 16, 2016

    Dumb question: Why the rename from “Saul” to “Paul”, specifically?

    That is, is there an actual connection between the names (i.e. other than the, presumably uninteresting, fact that they are spelled similarly)?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      He never was renamed. Saul was his Hebrew name; Paul his Greek name.

      • Avatar
        nichael  June 19, 2016

        Ah. Sort of analogous to “Jacob” vs “James”, I take it.

        Got it. (Thanks)

  17. Avatar
    clairemcdougall  June 16, 2016

    Looking forward to your upcoming book and am reading MacMullen’s “Christianising The Roman Empire,” in anticipation. In his chapter “What Pagans believed,” MacMullen really only deals with Roman paganism, which in itself was already a kind of male hierarchical system. Other types of paganism – Celtic worship of the triune goddess Cailleach, for instance – provide a better contrast. If in your book, you intend to consider what was lost by the triumph of the Christian mission, perhaps you will cast your net wider.

  18. Avatar
    annepquast  June 16, 2016

    These comments are interesting in the light of comments made by Hugh J. Schonfield in his book “The Politics of God” (P113) where he gives the impression that many of those who became Christian in the early years of Chrisitianity were converted only very superficially!! Isn’t one of our problems today that fact that so many so-called Christians have only a superficial knowledge of their ‘faith’?

    Anne Quast

  19. Avatar
    gavriel  June 17, 2016

    If Paul had a vision of Jesus, it would normally mean that he recognized something, based on prior knowledge of him. Do you think that Paul had actually seen him alive once, let’s say in the temple area during a festival? Can 2 Corint 5:16 be taken as a hint about this?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      No, it’s like people who have visions of Jesus today. How do they know it’s not one of his brothers, e.g.?

      • Avatar
        gavriel  June 18, 2016

        Probably because they have been exposed to images of Jesus since early childhood. Their visions are like those images. Paul did not have anything like that.

        • Rick
          Rick  June 18, 2016

          Sorry for the cynical outlook but that makes me wonder; do people who have visions of Jesus today see a Jew, or do they see that Western European guy in the picture frame of my Sunday school?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 19, 2016

            Ha! They probably see all sorts of Jesuses…

  20. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  June 17, 2016

    Once again, I am moved to comment on your comment, “I have no problem calling the earliest followers of Jesus who came to believe in his resurrection ‘Christian’.” Earlier, you would say that you had no problem using “Christian” to refer to people who called themselves “Christian.” But to call those who continued to believe in Jesus as messiah after his death (and at least up to the time of Paul’s conversion) “Christian” is to impose it on people who did not call themselves “Christians” (as far as we know).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Historians do not simply call people what they called themselves! (how many gentiles would say “I’m a gentile”?)

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  June 18, 2016

        Good point. Thanks. I finally came to an understanding in another post about your reasons for calling the the believers after Jesus’ death “Christians.” Took me a long time.

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