Paul’s Conversion and Name Change: Separating Fact from Fiction

It’s an oft-told story in Sunday School classes and pulpits: when Saul was converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, God changed his name to Paul. Just one little problem: it’s not true!

st-paul-conversionTo begin with, it’s probably inaccurate to say that Saul was “converted.” Typically when we use conversion language, we are referring to changing from one religion to another, e.g. from Christianity to Islam. This is certainly not what happened to Saul. When Saul met Jesus on the way to Damascus, Christianity was not a distinct religion from Judaism (don’t get me started on the enormous problem of whether ‘religion’ was even on the first-century conceptual radar!). Jesus and all his earliest followers were Jewish. Early Christians were considered to be members of a Jewish sect (“the Way,” according to Acts), not a new religion.

It may surprise you to realize that Paul continues until his death to identify himself as a Pharisee (Acts 23:6; 26:5). He follows the Jewish law (Acts 21:17–26), makes sacrifices, engages in purification rituals in the Temple (Acts 24:17–18), and observes the Jewish festivals (Acts 18:21; 20:16)—even after he has become a follower of Jesus.

I don’t mean, of course, in any way to undermine the radical change that occurred when Saul met Jesus. His life was certainly turned around, as he amply attests in his letters. A more helpful way to understand Paul’s experience, though, may be as a prophetic call. Many of the Old Testament prophets, like Saul, were “Shanghaied,” so to speak, into proclaiming God’s message. For example, Jeremiah found that he had to speak God’s word, since it was like a fire in his bones (Jer 20:9). Moreover, like Paul, many of the OT prophets experienced a vision of God’s glory or presence when they were called. Think of Moses at the burning bush, Isaiah in the temple, or Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot-throne.

Now, what about the name change? This is simply mythical, a part of Sunday School lore. If we read Acts, we find that Luke calls the apostle ‘Saul’ long after his encounter with Jesus (all the way up to Acts 13:9). It’s not until he has begun his first missionary journey that the apostle is first identified as ‘Paul’ (Acts 13:9). And here there is no indication that he has changed his name. Luke’s statement “Saul, i.e. Paul” (Σαῦλος δέ, ὁ καὶ Παῦλος) suggests that ‘Paul’ may simply be another one of Saul’s names. Paul is a good Roman name, which is probably why Paul began favoring it when he began his travels throughout the Roman world. On the other hand, Saul was a Hebrew name (think of King Saul in the OT), which would have emphasized Paul’s foreignness. Also, ‘Saul’ in Greek (σαῦλος) probably had negative connotations, as it described someone who strutted or swaggered, perhaps in an effeminate way, i.e. prancing. It simply would not do for Paul to begin his preaching to Greek and Roman audiences by introducing himself as “Prancer!”

If you’re interested in separating Sunday School myth from Scriptural fact, you might considering enrolling in one of our degree programs at HBU. We offer numerous courses in the Bible, with an emphasis on understanding the Bible in its first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts.

The “Big Idea” behind N. T. Wright’s Big Book on Paul

Recently I sat down with N. T. Wright, Research Professor for New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews.  I asked him a variety of questions regarding his new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).

David Capes:

Professor Wright, I tell my students that every good book, every important book has a “big idea.” What is the “big idea” behind your book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress 2013)?Paul and Faithfulness of God

Tom Wright:

The big idea is to see how Paul does something which I think he is not usually given credit for, which is that he basically invents something which in hindsight we could call Christian theology.  Now that may seem rather odd, because didn’t the Jews have theology?  Well, they did and they didn’t.  Didn’t the pagans have theology?  Well, not really.  They talked about the gods, but that wasn’t a big topic of analysis.  Paul has this vision that because of who Jesus is, because who the Holy Spirit is, everything that they had known about God from the Jewish Scriptures has to be reworked from top to bottom, particularly for this reason: Paul believes that what has happened through Jesus, his death and resurrection has radically defined the people of God so that the people of God are no longer defined as they were in Israel by circumcision and the Sabbath and the food laws and the things which marked out Jewish people from their non-Jewish neighbors.  So if you are going to have a  single community which is very important for Paul, the unity of the church is very, very important for Paul–not for us and that’s a problem by the way but a topic for another conversation.   If this community is to be united and holy but without those markers to keep it place, how are you going to do that when Paul’s answer is that the whole community needs to be involved in this prayerful, worshipful, Scripture-soaked reflection on who God is, who God’s people are, and what God’s future is for God’s world.  So in a sense this book is about Pauline theology.  In Paul and the Faithfulness of God  I expound all the details of Pauline theology, but back of that is this sense that Pauline theology as a whole is something which he is doing with his congregations because he realizes that without that they are not going to be able to be the people they are called to be.

They way I put it is this.  You know this saying: “Give someone a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish and you feed him for life.” Paul isn’t content just to give people dogmas: “Here is a true doctrine which you ought to believe.”  He does that and that will help for a while.  What he wants people to do is to grow up in their thinking, to mature as Christians in their thinking, so that then they will be able to sustain their life and the life of the church in days to come because he won’t always be just to tell them: “believe this, don’t do that, whatever.”  So Paul is concerned to teach people to think Christianly which then emerges as Christian theology.   That is the heart of it.

Putting Off . . . putting on

A new friend of mine—let’s call him HB—is an accomplished legal mind and great Bible teacher.  Recently, he started using The Voice in some of his teaching.  He posed a question to another friend—let’s call him ML (another accomplished legal mind and amazing Bible teacher)—about how to read Ephesians 4:22-24.  Paul uses two aorist infinitives for “putting off” the old self and “putting on” the new self.  Most Bible commentaries describe the aorist as a one time act.  It is often called punctilliar aspect.  That’s probably telling you a lot more than you want to know.  But the idea would be that we decide once and for all to put off the old self and put on the new.  In other words it refers to a person’s salvation.  But Klyne Snodgrass, a distinguished professor at North Park Theological Seminary, has this to say: “The aorist tense is used for undefined action. Not necessarily ‘point action,’ as has been the traditional way of looking at the aorist tense!”

Now here is how we translated the passage in The Voice.baptismal font

22 then you know to take off your former way of life, your crumpled old self—that dark blot of a soul corrupted by deceitful desire and lust— 23 to take a fresh breath and to let God renew your attitude and spirit. 24 Then you are ready to put on your new self, modeled after the very likeness of God: truthful, righteous, and holy.

You may notice words in both regular font and italic font.  The regular font is more of a straight line translation from the original Greek.  The italic is “explanatory paraphrase;” this expresses the idea of the Greek because often it takes more than one word in English to express the nuance and artistry of the original language.

Eventually HB and ML kicked the question to me and here is what I said to them late Saturday night.

You are correct that Paul uses aorist infinitives for “putting off” (the old) and” putting on” (the new).  In between however, he employs a present infinitive to describe ongoing renewal by the Spirit which is to typify the Christian life.

There are times when the aorist points to a one-time event (punctilliar) and times when it is undefined.  After all Greek only has a few tenses to draw from. and it is probably unwise to pound the pulpit every time you see an aorist.  On this occasion, however, I think the punctilliar is warranted because most scholars are convinced that Paul is making use of baptismal language when he talks about putting off and putting on.  Since baptism was supposed to be a one-time act, these aorist forms are appropriate.  Christian baptism–widely understood as initiation into the Christian life–was seen as the decisive turning point when a person denied the old nature once and for all and took on (intentionally) the new nature.  This language about Christian baptism was taken so literally in the first part of the second century AD that the baptismal candidates took off their old clothes, went down into the water naked, and came up from the water to put on a new set of clothes.  That was one reason why the church needed women deacons, to superintend the baptism of women candidates.

That said, however, I think Paul would also agree that we are to always be working out our baptismal vows.  That means we are continually in the process of renewal, which means setting aside/repenting of the old and appropriating the newness of the Spirit. This is why we translated the passage in The Voice the way we did.

Perhaps you’ve gone to a church and noticed a water font at the entrance to the sanctuary.  They are usually small and off to one side.  The purpose of the font is to remind you of your baptism.  You may see people dip their finger in the water and make the sign of the cross.

Pentecost, Pesher, and the People of God

 In sum: “to be saved” in the Pauline view means to become part of the people of God, who by the Spirit are born into God’s family and therefore joined to one another as one body, whose gatherings in the Spirit form them into God’s temple.  God is not simply saving individuals and preparing them for heaven; rather he is creating a people for his name, among whom God can dwell and who in their life together will reproduce God’s life and character in all its unity and diversity.

                                                                                                                                        Gordon Fee

                                                                                   Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God

This passage serves as an epigraph for my epilogue to the 4th edition of Bruce Shelley’s popular work, Church History in Plain Language. Revising Shelley’s work was an honor but also a humbling undertaking.  The most humbling challenge by far was the charge to offer a new conclusion to the work taking note of the remarkable growth of the church in the “Global South.”  Trying to picture the changing face of Christianity in a couple of chapters was daunting; I could work for 10 years to tell the story of the faith in the last 100 years and have only begun.

I hold a modest confidence toward other revisions concerning Gnosticism and early theology, but one of the very satisfying things about the project is the epigraph.  I found these words not only a faithful rendering of Paul’s teaching about the church but also fitting and prophetic when considering the church today.  The awakening of Christianity around the globe has awakened my own convictions about the church.  An almost pesher quality permeates my reading. Like Peter I declare “this is that” – this great global embrace of Christ is that church one sees in the New Testament.

Peter declared the Pentecost phenomena of Spirit- outpouring and tongue- speaking was that which Joel had prophesied (Acts 2); in this event the Spirit had overcome geographic, cultural, and language barriers to form his people; but so as not to miss the point, the Spirit also falls on the half- Jew in chapter 8 and the non- Jew in chapter 10.  The Spirit gathers the church from across racial lines.  Reconciliation requires a transforming of persons, but this transforming involves the forming of the people of God from every people and nation. Reconciliation apart from reconciliation with his people seems out of step with the Spirit’s work in the first century and in our own.

Are Single People Damaged Goods?

Christians often ground their thoughts on human sexuality and marriage with Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Accordingly, individuals and churches often project the message that the one of the chief goals in life is to find a spouse and have a family. Many congregations are structured and segregated into different departments–youth, college, singles, and married–to help parishioners live out this goal.

The expectation is that everyone will progress through these stages. The “singles” department is viewed as little more than a temporary way station; a physical manifestation of ChristianMingle.com. It is designed with a planned obsolescence and individuals in their mid-thirties are seen as party crashers. Within the church, people who never marry are regarded as damaged goods. Whether spoken or not, we often assume that if, after several decades of life, a person is not able to convince one–just one!–out of the seven billion people on the planet to walk down an aisle with them, they must have some seriously twisted issues.

If the Apostle Paul were with us today he would probably say that we have things upside down–it’s the married people that have a problem. In I Corinthians 7:8-9 Paul gives this advice to single people:

To those who are unmarried or widowed, here’s my advice: it is a good thing to stay single as I do.  If they do not have self-control, they should go ahead and get married. It is much better to marry than to be obsessed by sexual urges (The Voice).

For Paul, the proper default for human relations is singleness. It is only if a person lacks self-control–in other words, if they have a certain character flaw or spiritual immaturity–should they consider marriage. Why aren’t more churches structured to account for this? Why is it that we married people regard ourselves as healthy and single adults as in need to be fixed up?

We need to rethink our approach to human relations. The first thing we need to do is destigmatize singleness within the church. We need to present singleness as a lifestyle that is appropriate and noble instead of abnormal and dysfunctional. We should highlight the many benefits of singleness and the opportunities for blessing others that it presents. And this message needs to be communicated more than once every blue moon when a sermon series happens upon this passage in 1 Corinthians. This message needs to be embedded within the very fabric of our thought. Certainly, singleness entails hardships and we should be honest about them. But married life brings challenges of its own. No life situation is free of difficulties.

The second thing we should do is reexamine the structures of our churches and assess what these structures  communicate. If a church decides to have a “singles” program, the “singles minister” should spend as much effort helping their congregants find contentment in singleness as they do trying to facilitate pairings. And, a “singles” department should be explicitly designed to welcome singles of all kinds–young, middle aged, old, and widowed.

These two thoughts barely scratch the surface of how the church can more fully embrace Paul’s perspective on the value of singleness. What other ideas do you have?

Is God’s law really a curse in disguise?

So, is God’s law really a curse in disguise?  Well, some Christians think so.  I’ve heard them say as much, likely so have you.  Part of the reason they do is something Paul wrote in Galatians 3:13:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree– . . . “ (RSV)

The phrase I’d like to consider is “the curse of the law.”  What did Paul mean by it?  How did/does Christ redeem us from it?  All this talk of blessing and curses probably strikes you as kind of strange.Paul the apostle

Well, let’s back up to consider the broader context of the letter. 

Not long after Paul left the churches he founded in Galatia false teachers moved in and started teaching a form of the gospel which was not good news at all. These false brothers were insisting that non-Jews live like Jews in order to get in on the benefits of Christ.  What does it mean to live like a Jew?  Well, several things.  They would have to observe Sabbath as a day of rest, keep certain dietary rules and regulations, celebrate Jewish holidays, promise to uphold all of God’s law, which included men being circumcised.  Paul referred to these as “the works of the law.”

When Paul heard his churches had been infiltrated by these Judaizers (as we call them), he fired off the letter we call “Galatians.”  His essential argument is this: no one—Jew or Gentile—is put into a right and proper relationship with God by doing “the works of the law.” Instead, the faithfulness of Jesus has made it possible for those who put faith in Jesus to be made right with God.

In Galatians 3 Paul argues that faith all along has been what made rightness with God a reality.  It started with Abraham and his covenant.  It’s evident in the message of the prophets as well.  Those who trust in “the works of the law”—remember, dietary rules, Sabbath observance, circumcision—soon find they are living contrary to the law.  For Paul, it is clear the law is not the means of salvation. To try to make the law into something it was never intended is foolish.  The law does not justify.  It never did.  It was never meant to. 

So here is where our phrase “the curse of the law” comes in.  Jesus, God’s Anointed, has redeemed us from the curse of the law.  What did Paul mean?  To some degree it depends on what “of” means? You need to know that the word “of” is not found in the original language of the letter, Greek.  It is commonly supplied in English to express the relationship between two words (e.g., the love of God, the friend of sinners, one of my friends).  In Galatians 3 the words are “curse” and “law.” So what is their relationship? In large measure it has to do with how the Greek genitive case—now I’m getting really technical—is interpreted.  Let’s start with what Paul did not mean.  Paul did not mean that the entire law is a curse.  That would be what is known as an epexegetical use of the genitive.  So: “Christ redeemed us from the curse, namely, the law, . . . “ Some have taken this approach and unfortunately missed Paul’s point altogether.  No Pharisee like Paul would have ever thought of the law as a curse.  If you want to know what Jews like Paul thought of the law, read Psalm 119.  The longest chapter in the Bible is a celebration of the law, its goodness and its benefits.  More than that, notice that even before he came to Christ Paul felt confident before God precisely because he was  blameless before the law (Philippians 3:4-6). I think we can safely rule out the epexegetical genitive.  Well the best candidate for understanding what “of” is may be found in the partitive genitive.  The partitive genitive expresses the relationship between a part and a whole.  For example, in the phrase “one of my friends”.  The set is “my friends.” The subset is “one.”  The “one” is part of a whole, “my friends.”  This is probably the best way to read the phrase “the curse of the law.”  The set is “the law.” The subset is “curse.”  The phrase “the curse of the law” could be rendered “the part of the law that pronounces curses.”

“OK,” I can hear you saying, “now in English.”  If you haven’t noticed, there are places in the law—especially Deuteronomy 27-28 (part of the law)—where curses are pronounced against those who violate the terms of the covenant.  Ancient treaties and covenants always included a list of blessings and curses, announcing what would happen if one party kept or broke their promises.  It’s much the same today in modern contracts when a lawyer spells out the trouble you’ll be in if you violate the agreement you made.  In those days the penalties for breaking a promise were called “curses.” I suggest the best way to read Galatians 3:13 is this way: Now Jesus the Anointed, the Liberating King, has redeemed us from that curse-part of the law, since all of us were under the curse. How? He did it by becoming a curse for us, that is, becoming subject to the law that said “everyone who hangs on a tree is under the curse of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23).  Since Jesus hung on the cross, he fell under the curse. Now how did the cursed one—Jesus—liberate us from the part of the law that pronounces curses?  In a word, resurrection.  When God raised Jesus from the dead, he vindicated him as His Messiah and effectively reversed the curse, not just the single curse which affected Jesus but the entire system of curses which affected all of humanity.  In the resurrection Jesus became the curse-buster. As a result, the curses associated with the first covenant have been rendered null and void through Christ’s faithfulness. This apparently had been God’s purpose all along. GhostbustersLogoLarge

I’ve met Christians who question why we read the Old Testament.  “The New Testament has all we need,” they say.  “Jesus did away with ‘the curse of the law.’”  In effect, the Old Testament law was simply a curse disguised as God’s law. Well, in a way, yes, but in the main, no.  He did away with that part of the law that pronounces curses, but he didn’t do away with honor your father and mother, or do not steal, or do not murder.  He didn’t do away with love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  In fact, Jesus repeats these directives, affirms them, and makes them central to his own teaching.  Yes, Jesus reversed the curse.  Now the blessings and promises made to Abraham extend beyond the patriarch’s kin to all people who put faith in Him.  But the law in all its beauty and goodness remains.

 

“Saved” by David Capes

A post by David Capes:

I grew up at a church where the word “saved” was used a lot. “Are you saved?” someone might ask. Or a testimony might begin, “I was saved when I was 12 years old.” In that context “saved” meant that a person is going to heaven after he or she dies. Assurance of salvation then refers to the confidence people can have in knowing that they are going to heaven after they die. Now this is a perfectly good way and important way of using the word “saved;” but the more I read the Bible, the more I learn that the word “saved” and all the other words the Bible uses to talk about being “saved”—words like redeemed, forgiven, set free, justified, chosen, set apart, adopted, reconciled, glorified—reveal that salvation is far more than knowing that after death we will be present with the Lord.

I don’t have time or space to talk about all these images of salvation in the Scriptures. If you’re interested, I’ve written about this at some length with two colleagues (Dr. Rodney Reeves and Dr. Randy Richards) in a book entitled Rediscovering Paul (InterVarsity, 2007). It’s available in hardback, paperback and on Kindle.

Let me give an example or two from Paul. The apostle uses various metaphors or images to describe salvation; one of those is “reconciliation” (read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21). Reconciliation is a relational metaphor; it implies that every person is separated from God and at odds with each other. The solution to that problem is to be reconciled to God (and one another) through Jesus so that we can enjoy restored and healthy relationships with God and others once again.

But, if we are honest, we must agree that there is more wrong with us than this. Our plight is far more complicated and insidious than being at odds with God. In Romans 6-7 Paul acknowledges that not only do we commit sins (acts of rebellion and disobedience against our Creator), but that sin is a power that enslaves us and causes us to do things we don’t want (read Romans 6-7 carefully). If we are enslaved to sin and sin has power over us, what is the remedy? Well, what is it that any slave wants and needs? The answer is this: to be set free from sin and its power. In a word “liberation.”

Some people have asked why we translated Luke 19:10 this way in The Voice: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to liberate the lost.” Most translations render it “to seek and to save the lost.” Now, this is a good translation. But, what did Dr. Luke mean by “to save?” Did he mean that the wee-little man Zaccheus would be assured that he would go to heaven when he died? I don’t think that the issue. Well, what then?

First, look at any standard Greek dictionary and you’ll see the Greek word often translated “save” (sōzō) means to “rescue,” “liberate,” “heal,” “preserve from harm.” It is a broad, general word for salvation. Second, take a look at how Dr. Luke sets the stage in his Gospel for what salvation is. Jesus’ synagogue sermon in Luke 4:16-30 provides us with the foundational text. You remember the story. Not long after Jesus began his public ministry, he returns to his hometown in Nazareth and reads the Scripture during the Sabbath service (Isaiah 61:1). After he reads, he sits down and tells the audience that these words are fulfilled even as they hear them. What did Jesus mean? That the Spirit of God was on Him and had designated Him to be God’s representative to preach good news to the poor, to announce to those held captive that they will be set free, to bring sight to the blind, to liberate those held down by oppression. In a word to proclaim the jubilee of God’s grace! For Luke salvation was all about liberation. Go back and read the song of Zacharias (Luke 1:67-80) and the song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55). That is a key reason we used the phrase “the Liberating King” as an explanatory paraphrase in The Voice to describe Jesus’ role as God’s Anointed, the Messiah. What Zaccheus needed was to be set free from his love of money, forgiven for crimes committed against his people, and restored as a honored member of his community.

Salvation is more than knowing that when we die, our souls will go to heaven. As important as that is, that is only a part of what it means to be “saved.” Salvation means that
• one day death’s grip will be released and these lowly bodies—not just our souls—will be made glorious
• broken relationships will be restored
• sins will be forgiven
• sin’s power over us will be broken
• the outcast will be brought near
• the poor will be exalted
• the worn out, used up will be made new
• the orphan will be made part of the family
• the blind will see and the lame will walk
• the sick and dying will be made whole
• those who are not right will be made right with God
• those held in political prisons will be released
• creation itself will be liberated from corruption and decay
• the image of God in all humanity will be restored

Salvation is . . . all of the above!

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