EP Sanders on Paul the Convert

Screen Shot 2015-12-25 at 6.31.48 PMThere is a debate among Paul scholars about whether or not Paul was a convert, and to that debate is one attached to whether Paul had a conversion or a call — did he convert to Christ or did he convert to the Gentile mission? E.P. Sanders, in his recent Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought, orients the question toward Paul’s gospel. We’ll work our way through his thoughts and summarize how Sanders sees Paul’s gospel at the end of the post.

Remember from previous posts that Sanders methodologically distinguishes what we know from Paul’s letters and what we know from Acts, and what can’t be known from the former is not as important. This follows in the method of John Knox, Johannes Munck, and (though uncited) Douglas Campbell (though Campbell does not agree with some of Sanders’ conclusions).

Where was Paul at the time of his conversion? He thinks he was in Damascus, not on the road to Damascus.
Where did Paul go after his conversion? To the region of the Decapolis, what can be called Arabia. (He provides three possible meanings of “Arabia.”)
What did Paul do in Arabia? He did not frame his entire theology but began to ponder his own theology in the context of his conversion to Christ and the Gentile mission.
How long did he stay in Arabia? Say 33-35 CE.

He sees considerable tension between Paul’s letters on his conversion and the Book of Acts’ accounts of his conversion (Acts 9, 22, 26). [I think he exaggerates small differences but the questions or tensions are there for all to see.]

Paul uses the term “apostle” differently than does Luke: Luke uses it mostly for the Twelve and the Twelve alone while for Paul it is more expansive. Thus, Paul sees himself as an apostle but Paul’s status in the earliest churches on the term “apostle” is a tension point — seen in Paul’s own letters (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:1-5; 15:7-8). Also 2 Corinthians 12:12-13.

Sanders thinks Paul was a “convert” in that he was not converted from one religion to a new religion but converted to Christ and the Gentile mission. [I wrote an article once on the conversion of Paul and Sanders is right in this: it all depends on what one means by “conversion.” But the tell-tale sign of a convert is a re-writing one’s autobiography, which Paul clearly did, and all conversions entail some kind of “apostasy.” To convert to something is to leave something else or no conversion occurs. Hence, Paul was a convert from and to.]

For Sanders it is important that Paul (1) was not focused on converting Jews and (2) does not seem to have many Jewish converts in his churches. They are he says all but invisible, and here one would at least need to hear him out on how he reads Galatians and Romans. Paul may well have had God-fearing Gentiles in his churches but not so many fresh converts. Paul’s missionary work with Jews was not successful, and this led Paul to see the incoming of the Gentiles as a provocation of Jewish jealously leading to their later conversion. This stands against the typical Jewish story of the time that Gentiles would come to Christ as the end of history.

Perhaps he did not win Jews because of the simple fact that he lived as a “renegade” Jew, consorting with gentiles and eating nonkosher food. There seems to me to be no doubt that in his mission field Paul usually lived as a gentile in order to win gentiles. He attended synagogue at least sometimes, as his punishments prove, but he was basically apostle to the gentiles, and he disregarded the parts of the Jewish law that separated Jew from gentile in the Diaspora (see further chaps. 17-18 on Galatians) (111).

As an apostle to the Gentiles, what was Paul’s message? Here are his principal statements, the first three of which work on the importance of moral change and social relocation, the fourth on christology and the last on Paul’s accrediting miracles:

One way of looking at his gospel is to consider the ways in which it was either improbable or attractive to many gentiles. He wanted them to give up their own gods of long standing and to believe in the Jewish God, and, further, to believe that this God had a Son who would save everyone who accepted him. People had grown up worshipping the gods of their cities, enjoying this worship, and feeling that they benefitted from it (114).

Paul wanted gentiles to give up their native traditions, which offered them the principal relief from the drudgery of life, in order to worship a rather austere God, who was identified with a peculiar people called Jews, and thereby to give up not only their accustomed worship, but also many civic and social activities (115).

The principal difficulty that Paul faced (as indicated above) was exclusivism—the elimination of pagan activities from his converts’ lives (117).

In these and many other passages we see the emphasis of the Christian message: (l) God had sent his Son; (2) he suffered and died by crucifixion for the benefit of humanity; (3) he was raised and was now in heaven; (4) he would soon return; and (5) those who belonged to him would live with him forever (119).

Besides this simple message, Paul also performed miracles that accredited him as a true prophet or spokesman of God (121).

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.