25Jan Feast of The Conversion of St Paul

Acts 9:1-22. The change in young Saul, from fiery, zealous persecutor of Christians, to becoming a totally devoted follower and missionary of the crucified and risen Christ.
Mark 16:15-18. The promises of Jesus Christ to be with his followers is at the heart of the Gospel’s life-giving truth power. Mark lists various “signs” that will accompany those who believe – signs that are well illustrated in Paul’s travels as a Christian missionary.

A Man Transformed

Instead of composing a homily for today, I have opted to incorporate some of the points made about the background to, and meaning of Paul’s conversion, in Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s very stimulating book: Paul, a Critical Life. There he shows what a reversal of values took place in the mind of Paul the Pharisee, once he recognises the divine mandate and authority of the risen Christ. Murphy O’Connor writes, p. 76 and following:
“It was the existence of Christians, though they were not yet known as such; Acts 11:26 which directed Paul’s attention to Jesus. It is inconceivable that he should have persecuted Christians without learning something about the founder of the movement. Paul the Pharisee certainly was in a position to discover as much as Josephus did. Thus we can safely assume that Paul knew, 1 that Jesus had been a teacher to whom wonders were ascribed;, 2 that he had been crucified under Pontius Pilate as the result of Jewish charges; and, 3 that his followers thought of him as the Messiah. It is unlikely, however, that he would have been content with such bare bones. Pharisaic interests would have driven him to flesh them out.

Given their concern to transform the Jewish people through more exact instruction in the written and oral Law, the Pharisees would have been extremely sensitive to the fact that Jesus had disciples whom he taught, John 7:15. Any success by other teachers threatened their hoped-for monopoly. The natural response would have been to challenge what Jesus was saying, particularly in areas where they sensed vulnerability.
The touchstone of Jewish observance has always been the sabbath, and … it is not surprising that the Gospels record a number of controversies in which Pharisees challenge Jesus on what is permissible on the sabbath, Mk 2:23-8; 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11; 14:1-6; John 9:1-40. The basis of their objection to his healings was that illnesses which he treated were not life-threatening; they could have been deferred for a day. Jesus, on the contrary, saw his cures as a matter of life and death. By his action and response precisely on God’s day, the sabbath, he was criticizing current Jewish halakha in order to emphasize that God’s love expressed in healing power was available at each and every moment, and not merely when permitted by the Law. Why should a sick person have to wait for relief when it was available now? Jesus’ attitude was less a repudiation of the sabbath than an affirmation of the imminence of the kingdom of God.

Presumably the Pharisaic version of the results of such encounters differed from that of Jesus’ followers. His attitude of unperturbed authority, however, would have hinted at an attitude towards the Law embodying a personal claim so extravagant as to make even closer attention to his teaching imperative. Through infiltration or, less dramatically, through questioning of verbosely enthusiastic supporters, Pharisees could easily have come to learn that Jesus’ sabbath actions were confirmed and reinforced by his relativization of the Law. Even the simplest of his followers must have realized the implications of assertions such as ‘It was said to those of old [in the Law] … but I say to you …’ particularly when accompanied by a claim that Jesus was the touchstone of salvation, Matt. 10:32-33. Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah empowered to articulate God’s will; the Law was no longer the sole or final authority.

Finally, there was one aspect of the gossip about Jesus which would have been of particular interest to Pharisees. In opposition to the Sadducees who denied any afterlife, the Pharisees believed in resurrection of the body. Fundamental to the preaching of the first Christians was the assertion that God had raised Jesus from the dead; it appears in the earliest formulation of the faith of the church, 1 Cor. 15:3-5. The resurrection was the great sign which validated the mission of Jesus and guaranteed his teaching. No Christian could avoid speaking of it and, once heard, it would rankle in the memory of a Pharisee.

While there may be some hesitancy in determining what Paul knew of Jesus while still a Pharisee, there can be no doubt as to what he thought of Christian claims. To his way of thinking it was ridiculous to maintain that God had intervened to raise from the dead a false teacher whose blasphemous claim to be the Messiah went hand in hand with deliberate subversion of the authority of the Law. It now becomes clearer why Paul tried to turn Christians from their beliefs. They had been disastrously misled.

Given this attitude, it is certain that Paul was in no way disposed to expect anything to happen en route to Damascus. His reaction paralleled the initial response of Jesus’ followers for whom his crucifixion was the end of hope. Jesus, Paul was convinced, had died a fitting death, and all that remained was the return of his supporters to the fold of authentic Judaism.

Paul explicitly reports that Jesus took the initiative in the encounter; there had been no preparation on his part. The most important passage is in his addition to the earliest creed, which needs to be looked at closely. The ambiguity of the phrase ophthe kamoi, 1 Cor. 15:8 is brought out by the variety of translations, e.g. ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me’, NRSV; ‘Last of all he was seen by me, as one born out of the normal course’, NAB. There is a significant difference between ‘he appeared to’ and ‘he was seen by’. The latter takes ophthe as passive voice, whereas the former treats it as middle voice, ‘he SHOWED HIMSELF, cf. John 21:1.

Which is correct? The active meaning is demanded by Acts 26:16, and strongly recommended by the Septuagint usage, e.g. Gen 12:7, = Acts 7:2, which must be translated ‘he showed himself to Abram’ because it renders wayyera’ Yahweh ‘el Abram, where the particle of motion or direction ‘el unambiguously indicates the active agent. In the case of Paul the active meaning is made certain by other references in which the stress on the initiative of God/Christ is unequivocal. ‘He was pleased … to reveal his son to me’, Gal. 1:16. ‘I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus’, Phil. 3:12. The weight of these texts is not countered by the exceptional ‘Did I not see the Lord?’, 1 Cor. 9:1, which simply reflects the natural shift towards the graphic which is also found in the gospels, where in a secondary phase of the tradition Jesus is ‘seen’ by those whom he ‘met’ or ‘stood among’ or ‘journeyed with’.

The most difficult element of the appearance story to account for is the recognition of Jesus’ identity because, in opposition to Jesus’ disciples, Paul had not met Jesus during his earthly ministry. By definition, Paul could not have recognized Jesus on the same basis as those who had come with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. We can be sure, however, that Paul had a mental image of Jesus. Many create a portrait in their minds of authors whose books they happen to be reading. If simple interest can produce such images, then the intense anger which Paul directed against the one who had led Jews astray was capable of the same effect. The stress under which Paul was operating would have interfered with his rationality and would have heightened his susceptibility to anyone or anything associated with the focus of his emotion. What actually happened must remain a mystery unless we are prepared to invoke the vivid details of Luke’s accounts, in each of which, incidentally, Jesus has to identify himself, Acts 9:5; 22:8; 26:15. In any event, the reality and the mental image fused and Paul’s world was turned upside down.

Paul now knew with the inescapable conviction of direct experience that the Jesus who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate was alive. The resurrection which he had contemptuously dismissed was a fact, as undeniable as his own reality. He knew that Jesus now existed on another plane. This recognition is all that was necessary to his conversion, because it completely transformed his value system. If one of the resonances that the name of Jesus set up in his Pharisaic mind was true, i.e. resurrection, then the others automatically had to be viewed in a completely different perspective. No longer were they the blasphemous pretensions of a madman and his dupes, but utter truth. Jesus, therefore, must be precisely what he implicitly, and his disciples explicitly, claimed he was, namely, the Messiah. Equally the attitude of Jesus towards the Law must be correct; the Law was not the definitive expression of God’s will. What the Law laid down as the prerequisites of salvation had no further validity. As grace had been made available to Paul, despite his efforts to thwart the divine plan of salvation as revealed in Jesus, so it could be made accessible to those whom the Law had excluded.

Only when it is conceded that Paul’s conversion consisted essentially in the revaluation of ideas which he already possessed does it become possible to understand how he can write, ‘For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel preached by me is not according to man, for I did not receive it from man nor was I taught it but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ, Gal. 1:11-12; cf. 1:1…. In reality this Galatians text embodies a slight deviation from the absolute truth which is excused by the polemic context. No one convinced of the truth of Jesus had taught Paul about Christ or Christianity. He had never studied them in the way that he had applied himself to understanding the Law.

None the less, as 2 Corinthians 5:16 shows, he had assembled information about the Jesus movement. His point, therefore, can only be that, now that he understands them as gospel such concepts were not as he had acquired them. He had not heard of Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Messiah. He had not been taught that the Law was merely a source from which one could choose to draw or not.

His encounter with Christ revealed the truth of what he had once taken as falsehood by forcing a new assessment of what would become the Christological and soteriological poles of his gospel. Christ was the new Adam, the embodiment of authentic humanity. The Law was no longer an obstacle to the salvation of Gentiles; they could be saved without becoming Jews.

According to Paul, his conversion was for the Gentiles, ‘But when he who had set me apart from my mother’s womb, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his son to me, in order that I might preach him among the nations’, Gal. 1:15-16.23 The opening words are immediately evocative of two celebrated Old Testament vocations, the Isaian Servant of Yahweh and the prophet Jeremiah. The version cited is that of the LXX which Paul knew, and the underlined words are those he used in narrating his own vocation. ‘From my mother’s womb he called my name … He said to me… I will give you as a light to the nations’, Isa. 49:1,6. ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you came forth from [your] mother I hallowed you. I appointed you a prophet for [the] nations’, Jer. 1:5.

The repetition of the three key terms cannot be coincidental. As in the case of his two great predecessors, Paul saw his conversion as the working out of a plan devised much earlier by God. The goal of that plan was the extension of God’s grace to the Gentiles. Thus he was called precisely in order to bring the good news to those who did not belong to the Jewish people. Both Galatians 1:11-12 and 1:15-16 unambiguously indicate that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles was not a late development, nor a mere extension of a presumed outreach of Hellenists in Jerusalem.”

Murphy O’Connor goes on to describe Paul’s first missionary efforts in Arabia, the Nabatean kingdom ruled by king Aretas, before ever coming into contact with the original apostles of Jesus, Peter, Cephas and the others, the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem. Certainly he “went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days’, Gal 1:17-18. But ” it is highly unlikely that he made the acquaintance of any other members of the church. Galatians 1:22 merely serves as the introduction to what the churches of Judaea heard about their converted persecutor. Obviously Paul had no time for the dramatic gesture of a public apology. He always had difficulty in admitting a mistake, e.g. 2 Cor. 11:7-11, and it is very much in keeping with his character that he should be totally focused on the future, the mission in Syria and Cilicia.”
Because of the sheer overwhelming force of his own conversion experience, Paul always kept an attitude of critical distance towards any claims by the original apostles to authoritatively govern the way that the Gospel should be preached. He himself would proclaim it “in season and out of season,” and he was even prepared to openly criticise Peter and Barnabas, when he understood that their yielding to cautious ecclesial conservatism would pose a grave obstacle to spreading the Christian message, Gal 2:1-10

First Reading: Acts 9:1-22.

At that time Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lordsaid to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

Mark 16:15-18.

Jesus said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”


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