Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Goodacre's Podcast on Paul's Conversion

I'm enjoying Mark Goodacre's NT Pod series. In the latest about Paul's conversion, he follows those who think it's more appropriate to speak of Paul's calling rather than conversion. He says:
"If we think that conversion means that Paul is somehow converting from one religion to another religion, say from Judaism to Christianity, then that's clearly wrong, isn't it? I mean, Paul doesn't stop being a Jew when he has his experience with Jesus on the Damascus Road... When he's really pressed, he is absolutely insistent on the importance to his identity of his Judaism. He talks about being a Hebrew of Hebrews, an Israelite, from the tribe of Benjamin, he really wants to underline that his Jewish heritage is absolutely solid. It's certainly not something that he feels he's turned away from in any sense at all."
I think yes and no to the above. Paul does want to underline that his Jewish heritage is solid, but he also wants to underline -- as he goes on to do in Philip 3:7-11 -- that he's more than comfortable putting it aside. Philip 3:7-11 is the language of a hardcore convert, owning up to the fact that his heritage is "rubbish" (politely speaking) in view of what's new. To say that this heritage is "not something Paul feels he's turned away from in any sense at all" is, to me, a very surprising statement. We should say rather that Paul presents his heritage as solid on its own right, but worse than worthless in view of the Christ event. I doubt it's accurate to even speak of "salvation history" in Paul's thought; that's how conversionist he was. His experience of the risen Christ resulted in far more than a "new vocation".

While making some allowances for the word "conversion", Mark insists we recognize that the word is "our terminology and our way of describing what's going on in the text. We have to look at the way the text itself describes things." That's true, but a text like Philip 3:7-11 is as important as Gal 1:15-17, and Paul's testimony is only half the picture in any case. He can describe his dramatic turn around in terms of a prophetic calling all he wants. Assertion isn't proof. The perception of others is what really counts (especially in a world like the ancient Mediterranean), and those who opposed Paul's gospel could readily deny his claims and call him apostate. As I read Romans, Paul is trying to come to terms with his apostacy as best he can.

UPDATE: Jason Staples agrees with Goodacre in substance -- that Paul saw his Christian life as the natural outgrowth of his pre-Christian heritage -- but quibbles over terminology: Paul was a convert from Judaism to a different form of Israelite religion. On his blog I noted that while I appreciate the distinction between "Jew/Judean" and "Israelite" (and have blogged about this ad nauseum), that doesn't really get at the issue here. In Philip 3:7-11 it is precisely his Israelite identity that Paul is comfortable putting aside and even disdaining as "excrement". Unlike Jesus, he was capable of using the term Ioudaios but didn't here; its more restrictive meaning isn't in view. (The difference between Israelite and Ioudaios is slippery. The latter could be a subset of the former, as Staples says, but it could just as easily be a synonymous designation typically employed by outsiders.)

Much as I'd like to believe otherwise, Paul wasn't representing his life in Christ as the "natural outgrowth" of his Israelite heritage. There's no sense -- certainly not on any substantive level -- in Galatians or Romans that for him Christ was the "goal" or "natural result" of anything to do with the Torah. Christ didn't come at the end of a process represented by the law in earlier stages; he liberated Israel from the law's chaos. While the "fulfillment" of Paul's heritage points to what God intended with it (the consummation of the deity's will and plan), it doesn't follow that Christianity is thus effectively its natural outgrowth. The figure of Abraham is a shocking one -- a lonely hero in a faithless era, anticipating better things to come.


Blogger Jeff said...

Interesting post. Paul's obvious familiarity with Hellenism and his relationship to his own (claimed)Judaism and still baffles me. Ditto with his relationship with James the Just...

Anachronistically, looking through the lens of contemporary Rabbinic Judaism, we see the Law as absolutley essential to Jewish identity, but was this so for all groups within Second Temple Judaism, especially Hellenistic Jews? It's hard to imagine how, but maybe it's possible.

In 1 Corinthians Paul says dismissively:

Although I am free from being under the law, I made myself as one under the law, that I might win those under the law.

I wonder if Luke knew that he ever said that?

According to Acts, rumors about just this sort of thing is what got him in hot water with the Church in Jerusalem, and arrested at the Temple. It's almost like they set him up.

When we reached Jerusalem the brothers welcomed us warmly.
The next day, Paul accompanied us on a visit to James, and all the presbyters were present. He greeted them, then proceeded to tell them in detail what God had accomplished among the Gentiles through his ministry.
--Acts 21: 17-19

“Paul is convinced that he works harder than anyone else, brothers. That’s fine, God bless him… I hope he doesn’t think, however, that we’ve been sitting here doing nothing while he’s been among the Gentiles. God has accomplished wondrous things for us here in Jerusalem. We have many followers of The Way here among the Jews, and we didn’t need to relax a letter of the law in order to do it.”

They praised God when they heard it but said to him, "Brother, you see how many thousands of believers there are from among the Jews, and they are all zealous observers of the law.

They have been informed that you are teaching all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to abandon Moses and that you are telling them not to circumcise their children or to observe their customary practices.
--Acts 21: 20-21

Rumor, Paul… or fact?

What is to be done? They will surely hear that you have arrived.

So do what we tell you.
--Acts 21: 22-23

Paul is not being given a suggestion. He is being given a command. Paul is not the guy in charge here. Looks like it’s James. In any event, Paul is clearly subordinate.

We have four men who have taken a vow. Take these men and purify yourself with them, and pay their expenses that they may have their heads shaved. In this way everyone will know that there is nothing to the reports they have been given about you but that you yourself live in observance of the law.

As for the Gentiles who have come to believe, we sent them our decision that they abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage."
--Acts 21: 23-25

“Paul, you should already know this. You didn’t misunderstand us, did you? You were there when we made the decision at the Council here in Jerusalem years ago, and we sent the letters up to Antioch too. The Gentiles are only beholden to the Noachide laws. No one was supposed to take this to mean that the Mosaic law was abrogated for Jews. Paul, Paul, Paul.... Tell me you didn't get this wrong.”

So Paul took the men, and on the next day after purifying himself together with them entered the temple to give notice of the day when the purification would be completed and the offering made for each of them.
--Acts 21: 26

Blogger Jeff said...

What? No reply from Paul? He had no smack to throw down to James? He just rolled over like a fat seal? Where is all that tough talk about the Law from Romans and Galatians? If our conventional way of reading Paul is correct, here was his chance to hit James, the Jerusalem elders, and the whole “circumcision party” with the real broadside he’d been itching to give them ever since the incident with Peter at Antioch. He could have given it to them with both barrels. In the conventional way of understanding Paul, has Paul betrayed those Gentiles who contributed their hard-earned money to the collection by spending some of these funds on useless superstitions like Nazarite vows? Has Paul proven himself to be a bigger hypocrite in Jerusalem than Peter ever was in Antioch?

Or, is there another way of reading Paul? The text of Acts doesn’t say that Paul made a mistake. The implication seems to be that Paul was not a hypocrite, but a Pahrisee who believed in the resurrection. Is that why he obeyed James without complaint or objection or comment? Maybe in our conventional way of reading Paul, we make the same error as the Asian Jews who similarly misunderstood him and attacked him in the Temple. They both see Jew vs. Gentile as a zero-sum game.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, Loren, and for giving me the first experience of seeing my spoken words (in the podcast) getting written down. I agree with much of what you say, and of course Phil. 3 lends itself much more to a "conversion" reading than does Gal. 1. My point, though, is to suggest caution to those who continue to use the term "conversion on the Damascus Road" in an uncritical way. It can suggest a reading of Paul, especially to new students, that is really problematic. So I like to problematize it at an early point in introducing Paul to get students thinking.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Yes, I appreciate the audience of students in mind. Thanks, Mark.


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