JEWISH SAUL MET RISEN CHRIST
AND BECAME CHRISTIAN PAUL
The gift of the Jews to all humanity is “monotheism” – belief in “One and Only God”. Paul’s importance lies in the fact that he made that uniquely Jewish faith universal. Before Paul, Judaism was the only religion that espoused the notion of one god. Belief in the one that transcends all human imagination, the absolute other, is now the belief of two third of world’s population who believe in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or native spirituality. Most of other millions of gods were reflexion of human’s own aspirations and desires, such as longevity, money, sex, power etc. Paul says of this type of belief, “they are serving their own bellies.” (Romans 16:18)
Paul is a central figure of Christian faith: dare I say he is the second most important person next to Jesus himself. His letters and those that carry his name, and his life story dominate the New Testament; 14 out of 27 books. Some people have even called him the founder of Christian religion. But oddly enough he never met Jesus alive. His claim to be an Apostle is based solely on his encounter with the Risen Christ, while all other Apostles lived and walked with Jesus alive. This is why the resurrection of Jesus is central to Paul’s faith (1 Corinthians 15: 14).
Also his nemesis alleged Paul was an imposter who wanted to start his own religion by claiming he met the risen Christ. Saul was a Greek speaking diaspora Jew; opponents alleged his Jewishness was corrupted by Greek philosophy. Worse still, he had been an enemy of the Jesus movement known as the “WAY” as the church was known, jailing its members and overseeing their execution. (Acts 8:1) No wonder he had difficult time being accepted into the church.
So what happened on his way to Damascus? He had heard there was a thriving community of the members of the “Way” in Syria. With a licence from the Temple authorities, he was on the way to arrest those Christians. But something happened on the way that transformed him. This episode has been often called “Paul’s conversion.” (Acts 8:1-3 & 9:1-31) However, I would argue that it was God’s call to a new assignment. It was not a conversion. It was a step in the evolution of his long held Hebrew faith which he did not throw that away.
On the way to Damascus, he was called to be a missionary to spread the way of Hebrew God to the Greek speaking non-Jewish world. In other words, Saul did not reject the Hebrew tradition. He realized that the resurrection of Christ was the fulfilment of God’s design to be the God for all peoples, not just for the Jews. This is why he adopted the Greek version of his name “Paul” in stead of the Hebrew name Saul. (Acts 13:9) He became a missionary of the monotheistic spiritual tradition to the world of many false gods.
The way it happened as described in the Acts sounds like a heat or Sun stroke: “a sudden light flashed around him, and he fell to the ground from the horse-back and became blind.” (Acts 9:3-4) Likely story: the distance between Jerusalem and Damascus is 200 k.m. in a straight line, more than a week of horse back ride under the hot Sun of the Middle East. It was a long ride. Heat/ Sun stroke probably induced hallucination. He must have been thinking about those brave and faithful people like Stephen who stood face to face with a brutal persecution. “Who are they? What made them so strong in their belief?” It must have troubled him enormously.
Another factor that has to be kept in mind is the fact Saul was a member of the Pharisees, the party led by scholarly lawyers and teachers (rabbi). Another dominant group was the Sadducees, who believed in importance of the Temple and the rituals. They were often in conflict with the Pharisees. They quarrelled over many issues about spiritual life. For example, Pharisees believed in resurrection and Sadducees didn’t. For Sadducees, the religion was a this worldly institution; buildings, hierarchy, order, rituals, finance, etc. But for Pharisees, it is about deed/ morality, belief, doctrine, learning and teaching. Jesus himself took upon himself the life-style of the Pharisees rejecting temple culture. Jesus criticised hypocrisy of Pharisees but not their philosophy. The Sadducees disappeared after the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 68 A.D.
The next question is: how can a man change so completely? On the way to Damascus, Saul realized the mistake he had made in his belief and completely changed his view of Jesus. This really shocked him. He didn’t know what was happening to him. He could not see his way. People rarely change their basic attitude. Can a zebra change its stripes? However, changes are normal in other context. Swans are black when they are chicks but they grow up to be white. Change of mind is natural; a normal progression of life. When you stop changing, you are dead.
An example: I am reading a auto-biography of Nelson Mandela’s personal secretary, Zelda la Grange. She is a white Dutch descendant. She grew up in a conservative Calvinistic home and became convinced that Black people were inferior race. How did she change after being chosen by Nelson Mandela to be his closest assistant after he was elected the first Black President! She became the closest confidante and the trusted friend of Nelson Mandela. A sheer strength of Mandela’s charisma did it.
How did Saul become Paul? It was a growing process of his belief system. It must have been quite a shock for Paul but was natural; a progression from a tribal god to the universal symbol of love. It was so shocking that he could not face the world immediately afterward; he went into hiding for 3 years in Arabian desert. (Letter of Paul to the Galatians 1:15 – 18) He did accept the new assignment eventually to be an Apostle to the non-Jews, and faced both external and internal enemies. Thus began the process of the belief in one God, began among Hebrew people, becoming the universal God for all people through Jesus the Christ.
With Saul changing to Paul, Joshua Messiah in Hebrew language became known in its Greek name Jesus the Christ (Iesus Christus). But many Jewish Christians insisted on keeping Jewish customs such as kosher food and circumcision: they thought those Jewish customs should be kept as an integral part of Christianity. But Peter and Paul didn’t. Thus the people of “the Way” became “Christians” in Greek word.