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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
    RonaldTaska  June 17, 2016

    It is interesting that Paul, himself, does not fully describe his conversion experience. Hmmm?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      My hunch is that his readers knew it well (I wouldn’t be surprised if he had told it to them ad nauseum!)

  2. Avatar
    mbetanzos  June 17, 2016

    From your work How Jesus Became God (as I understand it at least), you explain that, based on the fallible nature of human source-monitoring, the emotional state of his early followers basically set the stage for their future, nonveridical vision of a risen Jesus – i.e., that their early fervent belief in Jesus (while he was living), essentially created an ideal psychological environment for an emotional, pre-vision critical mass state such that having a vision of a risen Jesus after his crucifixion is plausible, if not somewhat likely, especially since Jesus isn’t your average grandmother or brother (no disrespect intended), for example. In this assessment, the followers are assumed to have a very positive emotional alignment with Jesus. In Paul’s case (pre-conversion), he obviously had the opposite emotional alignment, including active persecution. Do you have any thoughts on why Paul may have had a vision of a risen Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Yeah, I think it’s hard to psycho-analyze him, having so little information. Some kind of insight blind=sided him, whether it was driven by guilt or by something else….

  3. TWood
    TWood  June 17, 2016

    It’s clear that Paul didn’t want or expect to see Jesus in any sense for obvious reasons, but it’s often stated that the original disciples didn’t expect to see him either (they clearly wanted to see him—but how could they—he died in public humiliation). What are the historical reasons for believing they didn’t expect to seem him again?

    I assume it’s 1) the known first century various expectations of the Jewish Messiah—none of them expected a crucified Messiah. And 2) the gospels make it clear they didn’t expect to see him. Are those the only two reasons?

    And what makes the gospel’s account here historical vs. theological? Criterion of embarrassment and dissimilarity come to mind… and it’s the only thing that explains their sudden and novel message… but I want to know your thoughts.

    Also, what about 2 Cor. 12? Is Paul not referring to his conversion?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Too many quesitons! I’m not sure what you’re asking, bottom line. They probably didn’t expect to see him after he died since no one expects to see someone after they die. 2 Cor. 12: I’m not sure.

  4. TWood
    TWood  June 17, 2016

    Another quick question (I couldn’t find this in the archives). We often hear Revelation’s prohibition against “pharmakeia” has to do with drugs. Is this really the first century meaning? Or is this an anachronism because of our English word Pharmacy? “What did it mean back then?” is my underlying question. THANK YOU!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Sorry — I’m on the road and don’t have any of my books with me. But my sense is that the English word pharmakeia comes from the Greek word for drug.

    • Avatar
      FocusMyView  June 19, 2016

      Is this in response to the wave of YouTube videos about the dangerous drug Flakka? My roommate is a Christian who usually is not caught up in fads, but I could see this one effected him.
      Here is a link to Biblehub which shows dozens of translations that never thought to translate Pharmakeia to drug. Rather it was translated to demon or sorcery. https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Revelation%2018%3A23
      Also, here is Strong’s web address on the word in question. http://biblehub.com/greek/5331.htm
      I do not see any translators choosing to use the word “drug” or “poison” in their translation. I assume this is because sorcery and witchcraft fit better in the context.

      • Bart
        Bart  June 19, 2016

        I”m back to my books and looked up the word in the standard (major) ancient Greek lexicon. Yes, it does usually mean drug/healing remedy; it can sometimes mean “poison” as well.

  5. Avatar
    Theonedue  June 17, 2016

    Would you say beyond any doubt (with 100% ceartainty) that Paul either had a hallucination of Jesus or that he actually saw him?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      I would say that there is very, very little in early Xty that is 100% certain.

  6. Avatar
    llamensdor  June 18, 2016

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think it’s crystal clear that he believed he did see Jesus. This was a very convenient claim for him. My belief is that somehow or other he came upon Peter and the other members of what is called traveled from place to place seeking work. When he came upon Peter, James and the others, he thought they had a pretty good story and it could be saleable, but there were too many inconvenient conditions, not least of which was circumcision, particularly of adults. He told Peter and the others they could expand their movement if they would leave out some of these inconvenient requirements. Peter, James, etc., told him Jesus would never go for that. When Paul persisted, they told him, you didn’t know Jesus, we did, and he would not have approved of what you are proposing. But now Paul had communed with Jesus when he was in heaven. Paul told the Jerusalem guys, you only knew him while he was alive, but I’ve been in direct communication with him in heaven! My knowledge and authority supersedes yours! Paul certainly made his version work–probably better than he ever expected. How could he know people were going to collect his letters and ordain them as scripture?

  7. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 18, 2016

    Paul mentions in I Corinthians 15 that Jesus was buried. Why isn’t that reason enough to believe Jesus wasn’t thrown into a mass grave?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2016

      Being tossed into a mass grave *was* a burial.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  June 18, 2016

        I think you said before that Acts’ description of Pentecost is not considered historically accurate. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 16:8 that he was staying at Ephesus until Pentecost. Other than Acts, how can we know what Pentecost was even about?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2016

          It was an annual Jewish festival described in the Hebrew Bible.

          • Avatar
            Kazibwe Edris  June 21, 2016

            if it was a festival then does that mean jewish christians were participating in animal sacrifices?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 21, 2016

            It is often thought so.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  June 19, 2016

          The Torah prescribes three pilgramage festivals for the Israelites: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles.) Each of the three festivals focused on a category of product that was traditionally ready for market during that time of year. For Passover it was livestock, so the first-born of the new year was brought to the cities for sale in the markets, and that’s why on Passover livestock (principally a lamb) were sacrificed. For Tabernacles (Sukkot) the products were fruits that had ripened over the summer, and the makeshift booths (the so-called Tabernacles or Sukkahs) represented the merchants who set up shop in the cities to sell their fruit. And for Pentecost (Shavuot) the product was the first gleaning of the crop harvest. In other words: Passover for animals, Pentecost for wheat, and Sukkot for fruits. Shavuot in Hebrew means “[Feast of] Weeks” because it always fell exactly seven weeks after Passover — making it a week of weeks, so to speak — and the Greek word Pentecost itself means “The Fiftieth Day”, because fifty is a rounding of the forty-nine days (called the omer in Hebrew) leading up to Shavuot plus the day, and Greek speaking Jews outside of Judea would refer to Shavuot as Pentecost, hence the name found its way into the Book of Acts and, subsequently, into the Christian calendar. That’s the original significance behind Pentecost. Hope that helps.

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  June 20, 2016

            Yes, thank you! I was taught something entirely different about the subject of Pentecost.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  June 19, 2016

        Looking at it technically, everyone would be considered buried. But from a human perspective, it wouldn’t be considered a burial. Considering how ancient people focused so much on attaching meaning to physical acts, (David Lambert’s thread on repentance and your post on homosexuality and males being the submissive sex partner) tossing someone into a mass grave would have meaning too–the physical act of being denied a burial. You don’t think that’s possible?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 19, 2016

          My sense is that we don’t know what Paul thought or “knew,” but for him the fact that Jesus was in some sense was important *principally* because it showed the he really died, just as his appearances were important principally because they showed that he had really been raised.

  8. Avatar
    Jana  June 18, 2016

    Would it be fair to state that Paul’s literal and unsophisticated interpretation if not misinterpretation of a mystical experience created the link between Jesus’s death and resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2016

      I don’t think so. My sense is that people had made the link before Paul came on the scene. (They too had visionary experiences, and I suppose those led to the link)

      • Avatar
        Jana  June 19, 2016

        Oh this is interesting. Where are the accounts from others? I would like to read. Then let me broaden my question .. would it be fair to state that early Christians’ literal and unsophisticated … etc. ?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 20, 2016

          The apostles see Jesus in the Gospels, as do the women. I’m not sure that visionary experiences are necessarily unsophisticated….

          • Avatar
            Jana  June 21, 2016

            Let me clarify .. visionary experiences certainly aren’t unsophisticated. Authentic ones/on the contrary. But the interpretation can be unsophisticated and it reads to me that Paul as well as the Disciples interpreted and maybe misinterpreted the experience literally. This is a question: ).. and yes after more thought late at night I recalled the visitation to the Disciples .. and women?? This I don’t recall. Apologize for errors …. trying to type rapidly before the internet gives way.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 23, 2016

            My sense is that people who have visions of the deceased almost *always* think the person really is alive in some way.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  June 19, 2016

    Paul’s letters were never intended for our eyes. It’s like we’re listening to one side of someone else’s conversation but we don’t know what they’re talking about.

  10. Avatar
    Michael  October 7, 2016

    So one night in college a close friend and I had taken a controlled substance. I was standing in my dorm room looking at one of my Roger Dean posters listening to Pink Floyd, when I saw a hill before me with dozens of Crosses on it. There was one higher than all the others and I was sure it was Jesus on it. I looked down at my hands and both my wrist were bleeding from nail holes.

    A moment later my friend said something to me and the vision was gone. I told him the story, and we both agreed it was one of the better moments of being high. I never viewed it as religious, just a reflection on all the research and reading I was doing at the moment. Delirium, dreams, sickness, Epilepsy, Drugs, and near death can all induce visions of fantastic things.

  11. Avatar
    Jgapologist  March 10, 2018

    Hi Bart

    How do we know for certain that Paul had his experience 2 to 3 years after the crucifiction. What evidence do we have for this? Is there any non biblical sources? I see many reference these years but I don’t hear them producing any evidence.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 11, 2018

      No, there aren’t any extra=biblical sources of any use. Paul makes several off-the-cuff comments about “three years later I did this” and “x years later I did that,” and it is usually thought that he has no agenda he’s trying to serve in these comments. If you can arrange the letters in a sensible sequence and add of the years of this that and the other thing, you can get a pretty good basic picture of the essential chronology. But there are lots of difficult issues involved. If you want to see one recent attempt, look at the book on Pauline chronology by my colleague at Duke, Douglas CAmpbell.

  12. Avatar
    ftbond  May 23, 2018

    Dr Ehrman –

    I realize this is an ancient post, but I was looking up info on Paul, and my googling led me here…

    Now, about this: “The other problem is that most of the details in the accounts of Acts, contradictory or not, are absent from Paul’s own maddeningly terse description of what happened: he makes no references to being on the road to Damascus, being blinded by the light, falling to the ground, or hearing Jesus’ voice. The reason he provides no detail is not difficult to discern: the recipients of his letters had surely heard lengthy and gratifyingly full descriptions of the event in their earlier converse with Paul when he had first shared with them his gospel message, and for a long time after. But as outsiders we have been largely left in the dark.”

    Many times, I have seen you (and a great number of other skeptics and scholars) remark how Paul never makes mention of an “empty tomb”… Or, of the virgin birth, or of much of a great deal about the “life and times” of Jesus.

    Yet, in those cases, it is always used to push an argument that Paul knew little or nothing of the historical Jesus.

    But here, in this quote above, you seem to employ a double-standard: Paul makes no mention of his Damascus road experience, yet, *The reason he provides no detail is not difficult to discern: the recipients of his letters had surely heard lengthy and gratifyingly full descriptions of the event in their earlier converse with Paul when he had first shared with them his gospel message, and for a long time after.”

    Arguments that Paul doesn’t talk about the historical Jesus – because, after all, his audiences were *already* Christian, thus, had already *heard* the story of the historical Jesus – are very easily dismissed by you.

    So, why the double standard?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 23, 2018

      I try not to embrace double standards!! Arguments from silence have to be made very carefully. The only reason for thinking that an author’s silence is significant is if there were *reasons* from his writings to think that he almost certainly would have mentioned something at this or that point of particular relevance to his argument/thought that in fact he does not mention. Given his style of argumentation/reasoning, if he had knowledge of this that or the other thing, and had perfect reasons to want to use that knowledge to make his point, why doesn’t he? I explain all this in relation to Paul’s knowledge of the traditions about Jesus in my textbook on the New Testament, in a section on Paul and Jesus in a chapter called “Did the Tradition Miscarry?”

      • Avatar
        ftbond  May 23, 2018

        re: ” I explain all this in relation to Paul’s knowledge of the traditions about Jesus in my textbook on the New Testament, in a section on Paul and Jesus in a chapter called “Did the Tradition Miscarry?”

        Dr Ehrman, your positions are clear enough:

        Paul doesn’t write about his conversion because “everybody already knew the story”.

        Paul doesn’t write about the “empty tomb” because *he* doesn’t know about it — rather than “…because everybody already knew the story”.

        I’m sure you have an explanation for your view.

        I, too, have an explanation for mine: If neither Paul nor his audience already *knew* the “Jesus story”, then Paul’s own “conversion story” could have no relevance at all to anybody. Why should an onlooking Hindu care if Paul changed his mind about whether Jesus was Messiah if the Hindu has no idea who Jesus was in the first place? It would be of no significance to that onlooking Hindu at all. So, Paul’s own conversion story – which you believe “everybody” (speaking colloquially) already knew – could be of relevance *only* to them that already knew the “Jesus story”.

        And, that’s the very reason I think it’s far more likely that “everybody” already knew the Jesus story – including the empty tomb. Hence, there was no reason at all for Paul to recite a history that everyone already knew, when Paul could introduce the topic of resurrection by simply quoting an established creed, rather than going into lengthy detail of what that creed was based on. Everybody already *knew* the “story”. What they *didn’t* know – and what Paul was trying to explain – was the nature of resurrection itself.

        I suppose I just don’t need an entire chapter of a book to explain my view… Probably why I’m not a writer… 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  May 24, 2018

          No, that’s not my view. I don’t know if Paul knew any tradition about an empty tomb. If he didn’t know, and heard about it, my view is that he would not have been surprised.

  13. Avatar
    brotherjmac  June 3, 2019

    It definitely makes sense that Paul saw or experienced something that convinced him to reshape his faith convictions. Just to say that Paul made up the Christian doctrines fails to give a plausible reason for why a devout Jew, persecutor of the Christian sect would do such a thing. Many devout Christians would say the conversion of Paul is a strong proof of the Christian faith. But given Paul’s early conversion, so much of what we know about the teachings of Christianity yet were not even true. To be a proto-orthodox believer of Christ involved accepting what? What creeds were in circulation before Paul’s writings? How would you answer people who say Paul’s conversion is a strong proof for the validity of Christianity? Paul experienced some kind of hallucination, reflected and studied based on what he experienced, and came out a different man of faith. One of my guesses is standing and watching Christians martyred may have had a deeper impact on Paul than we realize by just reading the narratives. Even if the narrative of Stephen’s martyrdom is not historically reliable, Paul must have been involved in the persecution or even execution of some Christians based on his own testimony.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  June 3, 2019

      I agree that we simply do not know just what proto-Christianity or Christianity or something short of Christianity might have looked like at the time of Paul’s vision. We could just take Paul at his word when he says that he received the Gospel from those who came before him but, frankly, I don’t trust Paul. (As far as I’m concerned, his vision could have been one of a way to lead a new cult of his own shaping. ) When Paul refers to the Church of God, he does not spell out what its beliefs were. Even if a group of Jews simply believed Jesus was the messiah in spite of his crucifixion, that might have been enough to outrage some Jews and cause them to persecute the group. But, if that describes the beliefs of those Paul persecuted in the beginning, it could hardly be called a Christian group. Believing after his death that Jesus being the messiah doth not a Christian make, it seems to me.

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