IN EVERY AGE there are people who have made dramatic turn-arounds in their life, going from one religion – or no religion – to another. These conversions often lead to a person making a significant contribution to the religious life of their age. One convert who has touched every successive age is St Paul the Apostle.
The story of St Paul’s conversion is described three times in the New Testament – twice in the Acts of the Apostles and once in St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. The story is basically the same, although there are a few variations we can note. The basic story, told largely in his own words, is as follows:
Paul’s Background – When he was attacked by Jews in Jerusalem and accused of defiling the temple Paul began his defense by speaking of his upbringing: “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ Law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today” (Acts 22:3). He described his religiousity in his Epistle to the Philippians. He tells how he was “… circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; concerning the Law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the Church; concerning the righteousness which is of the Law, blameless” (
Philippians 3:5, 6). At this time Paul was still known as Saul of Tarsus. The name Paul was given to him upon his conversion.
Paul’s teacher, Gamaliel (+ad 52) was an important member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. He is described in the New Testament as “a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law held in respect by all the people” (Acts 5:34) and a voice of moderation in their council. When the Sanhedrin was considering how to kill Peter and the other apostles, Gamaliel calmed them, saying “…if this plan or this work [preaching Christ] is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it—lest you even be found to fight against God” (Acts 5:38, 39).
We do not know why Saul did not adopt Gamaliel’s wait-and-see approach to the followers of Jesus, but he describes his own attitude to them like this: “I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren…” (Acts 22:4, 5).
We may have a clue to Saul’s thinking in what he wrote to believers in Galatia, St Paul described his religious convictions this way: “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14). He had been, after all, a participant in the stoning of the protomartyr, St Stephen.
The Commission to Damascus – There was a large Jewish community – some say it numbered 10,000 – in Damascus in the first century ad. This community, which traced its origin to the time of King David, some 1000 years earlier, was so prominent that it was ruled by its own ethnarch in Roman times. Some 130 miles from Jerusalem, Damascus was one of the first destinations to which Jewish believers in Jesus brought their message. Their impact on the Jews of Damascus was so great that news of it reached Jerusalem. Saul “went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1).
What happened on Saul’s journey to Syria is well known. Years later Paul described it for his accusers in Jerusalem with these words: “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’
“And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me. So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.’ And since I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of those who were with me, I came into Damascus” (Acts 22:6-21).
Many English-speaking commentators have pointed out an apparent contradiction between the two stories of this event in Acts. In chapter 9 we are told that “the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (Acts 9:7). Paul, however, says that “those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me” (Acts 22:9).
The word in chapter 22 translated as hear may also be translated as understand. In other Scriptural passages it is rendered in just that way. So this verse may mean that Saul’s companions heard a sound but did not understand it as speech. It may also mean that they heard speaking but may not have understood the words.
Saul’s Baptism – Saul was led into the city by the hand, “And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9). Then, we are told, the following took place: “Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ So the Lord said
to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.’
“Then Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he has done to Your saints in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.’
And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.”
Paul Preaches Christ – As a result of Saul’s experience on the road, “Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God. Then all who heard were amazed, and said, ‘Is this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem, and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound to the chief priests?’ But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus is the Christ. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill him. But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day and night, to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” (Acts 9:19-25).
In 1885 the Melkite Patriarch Gregory II purchased a dilapidated mosque in the old city wall of Damascus. A former church, it had been long revered as the site of St Paul’s escape. It is now a church again.