Conversion (or Metanoia) of Paul?

Conversion (or Metanoia) of Paul? January 25, 2020
Conversion of Paul
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Conversion of Paul is January 25—but how did he “convert” when he remained Israelite all his days?

Conversion, as it applies to Paul, is one of many things about which there exists much spurious familiarity. We celebrate “the Conversion of Paul” every January 25, but perhaps we should think of it as the feast day celebrating the Metanoia of Paul, or maybe, the Commissioning of Paul. Conversion is about changing groups, especially religious groups. From what group did Paul, the Israelite, leave? And to what group, different than his original group, did Paul join?

Nothing Jewish or Christian in the First Century

Contrary to much spurious familiarity and popular misunderstandings, Paul was not a Jew—as we have explained before, there is nothing Jewish before ca. 500 CE. Additionally Paul also was not a Christian. There were no Christians before 325 CE. The first followers of Jesus were barbarian Israelites who followed his way in a political-religious coalition. Hence these sons and daughters of Israel called themselves “Followers of the Way” (as remembered in Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). And outsiders? They pejoratively called these Israelite followers of Jesus christianoi (Acts 11:26; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16-17), a slur.

To understand these arguments, please read Context Group scholar John Elliott’s tour-de-force on the subject, here:

Jesus the Israelite Was Neither a `Jew’ Nor a `Christian’: On Correcting Misleading Nomenclature

What then should we call followers of Jesus living before Constantine and the Council held at Nicaea (325 CE)? Perhaps Messianists, suggests Dr. John Pilch and his colleagues, the Context Group of biblical scholars. The reason? They were predominantly Judaeans (Ἰουδαῖοι) who accepted Jesus as messiah.

Messianists and Hellenes

So Paul, therefore, was a “Messianist.” He never calls himself a Judean in his seven authentic letters. He does, however, claim Judean birth (Galatians 2:15; Philippians 3:5; 2 Corinthians 11:22). Paul saw the world divided between Israel and every other people (ta ethne, the out-group). He saw the Israelite part of the world likewise divided, consisting of Judeans and Hellenes (not the mistranslated “Jews and Greeks,” as there were no Jews or ethnic Greeks in the first century—Romans 3:9; 10:12; 1 Corinthians 1:24; Galatians 3:28).

 

Conversion of our View of Paul
Fellow Dying Inmate / All rights reserved

Whereas Judaeans were Aramaic-speaking barbarian Israelites, following Judaean custom and living in Judaean lands, Hellene Israelites were different. First off a Hellene could be any Mediterranean who was cultivated, speaking any Hellenic tongue, and who practiced some Greco-Roman customs. In other words, a Hellene was a civilized person of whatever people, Roman, Egyptian, Macedonian, Israelite, etc. Therefore “Judaean and Hellene” in the New Testament do not refer to country or state, but to status.

There needs to be a “conversion” in how we think about Paul and his mission. We will “convert” from a received view about Paul into one informed by the social sciences, especially the scholarship of John Pilch. Let’s clear up some spurious familiarity concerning Paul.

Conversion One—Paul was NOT a Roman Citizen!

Paul lived in Tarsus according to Acts 21:39. It is true that several passages in Acts indicate that Paul enjoyed Roman status also (“citizen” would be anachronistic, Acts 16:37; 22:25; 23:27). But this is a Lukan spin—someone with genuine Roman status could never have been exposed to the abuses Paul endured (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24-25).

In his own seven authentic letters, Paul never refers to himself as “a Roman citizen.” These letters conflict and contradict the portrayal of Paul in Acts. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and the Steggeman brothers, Wolfgang and Ekkehard, have indicated that Acts’ portrayal of early Church figures is a “literary fiction.” The Lukan Paul seen in Acts is largely fictive—the Lukan Paul and the historical Paul are quite different. Pilch suggests that “Luke” was not unlike a “James Carville” or “David Axelrod” for Paul.

Conversion Two—Paul had Lowly Social Status

“Luke” describes Paul as a Mediterranean jet setter. The Lukan Paul has great disposable wealth. But his own letters give no basis for this fiction and instead express a very different story. There Paul struggles working as an artisan needing others for financial support (2 Corinthians 11:8-9; Philippians 4:10ff). The historical Paul may have been barely above subsistence level—along with approximately 90 percent of the population.

Conversion Three—Paul’s Israelite Heritage

Consider carefully Philippians 3:5-6. How did ancient people identify themselves? Generally speaking, it was by way of gender, genealogy, and geography that first century persons did this. Whereas gender and geography are implied by Paul in Philippians, he specifies genealogy. He covers this in kinship—he is an Israelite, specifically a Benjaminite, belonging to a family devoutly practicing Judean customs. Paul also expresses his fictive family affiliation, as a Pharisee.

We shouldn’t throw away what “Luke” says about Paul in Acts. But our primary focus must be Paul’s seven authentic letters (2 Corinthians 11:22). As far as biographical information about Paul is concerned, the letters take preeminence.

Conversion Four—Paul Persecuted Messianists.

The stories of murderous Paul ravaging the earliest churches has been colored by centuries-later Empire-wide genuine persecutions under Decius (d. 251) and Diocletian (d. 311). Historically, Paul sought to pressure back into conformity Israelites who were continuing in the Jesus Movement in the early 30s of the first century CE (Galatians 1:12-14, 22-23; also Acts 7:58—8:3). In this way, Paul persecuted (or abused?) his fellow Israelites who belonged to Jesus Groups in Judea.

Conversion Five—Paul was Commissioned by God as Change Agent

Paul insists in his own seven authentic letters that his authorization and commissioning come directly from the God of Israel.

Galatians 1:1—
Paul an apostle—not from man nor through men, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…

Paul explains that his authorization and commissioning came to him via a revelation:

Galatians 1:12—
For I did not receive [my gospel = innovation] from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ [messiah, Israelite political religion].

Consider carefully Galatians 1:15-17. There was “conversion into Christianity” for the historical Paul. How could Paul “convert” to Christianity if Christianity did not exist until after 325 CE? Did Paul join the Body of Christ (i.e., the Jesus Group)?  Yes. But he did not switch religions, from Judaism to Christianity. This is a metanoia, not “conversion.” In conversion someone moves from one group into another. But Paul never ceased being an Israelite. And while he did tolerate non-Israelite Jesus group members, he didn’t care about them, really.

Conversion Six—Paul was Change Agent to Israelite Emigres Residing Among Gentiles.

According to Pilch, a change agent is some “authorized person sent out to influence innovation decisions in the direction deemed desirable by a change agency.” The change agent is a crucial link for communication between social entities, namely, those receiving the communication (i.e., “the clients”), and the one sending the change agent (i.e., “the change agency”).

Romans 1:1-6
Paul, a slave [controlled by Jesus, messiah] of Jesus Christ [messiah, Israelite office of political religion, controller of Paul], called to be an apostle [one commissioned as an emissary and change agent sent to diffuse some innovation], set apart for the gospel [=innovation] of [the] God [of Israel, the change agency]  which he [the God of Israel] promised beforehand [to Israelites] through his [Israelite] prophets [authorized spokespersons] in the holy scriptures [of Israel—this assumes his audience is familiar with this tradition, i.e. they are Israelites], the gospel [innovation] concerning his Son [the broker mediating between Israel, the client, and God, the patron], who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God [divine broker] in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection [a Persian idea adopted by Yehud after 537 BCE—Pharisees = Farsi = Persian] from the dead, Jesus Christ our [Cosmic] Lord, through whom we have received grace [favor] and apostleship [commissioning and authorization to proclaim and disseminate the innovation] to bring about the obedience of faith [loyalty] for the sake of his name [HONOR] among all the nations [that is, for those Israelites living among all the nations in the Western diaspora], including yourselves [Israelites] who are called to belong to Jesus Christ [messiah]…

In the case of Paul, the God of Israel or “change agency” (1 Corinthians 1:1) commissioned Paul, the “change agent,” to proclaim the innovation or “gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). This innovation was something entirely new. This is why we can legitimately think of Paul as a change agent, a person sent is to communicate and diffuse some innovation. “Apostle” is a term laden with 2,000 years of theological and devotional freight. So long as we understand this along with the information provided here, we can speak of Paul “the Apostle” and of his “conversion.”

Paul’s clients? They were Israelite emigres living as minorities among non-Israelite majorities. His field of evangelization is the Mediterranean, where these Israelites have been living, dressing, speaking, and behaving indistinguishably from those they live among save for their Israelite self-identification.

Conversion Seven: Paul’s Field of Evangelization.

As just mentioned, Paul worked the Mediterranean. Ancient Israelites were not fixed in the land of Israel—they had lived abroad, spread out for centuries before Jesus’ days. They had spread eastward from Palestine to the Chaldeans. And they spread out also in the direction of the setting sun—as far as the Pillars of Hercules, through North Africa and what is called today “southern Europe.” Paul was not sent to the east, but rather westward.

There is a reason why our New Testament is Greek. In the Eastern spread of Israelites, Aramaic was the preferred tongue and literature (be it Oral Torah, Targumim, and eventually, centuries later, the Talmudim). But in the West, where New Testament Jesus groups flourished and evolved, the Israelite emigres, people not observant to Torah, spoke Greek and read from the Greek Septuagint.

Conversion Eight—Paul was Shamanic.

Every culture recognizes holy persons (called shamans by anthropologists). Despite the ethnocentric blinders among Western cultures, these figures have access to alternate reality, the world of spirits, via altered states of consciousness. Shamans, whatever their emic designations in various cultures, are adept at inducing such altered states in themselves and others. They are capable of navigating between the worlds and can broker divine gifts, such as healing and information. In the Israelite tradition, such a holy person was called either a saddiq or a hasid. Paul was such a figure.

Conversion of Spurious Familiarity Concerning Paul

If we approach Paul through fresh eyes and we take his approach and his presumptions seriously, respectfully, on his own terms, we arrive at quite a different figure from the received view. We see that his audience, from a massively illiterate time, was deeply familiar with Israel’s story and scriptures, and they were familiar with it in Greek.

The essential task of Paul becomes clear also—Paul was to diffuse an innovation among these enculturated “Greek” Israelites. What was it? This—the God of Israel, disclosed in the resurrection of Jesus, appointed Jesus messiah of Israel and the Cosmic Lord. Messiah Jesus is coming soon—any day now!—to establish Israelite theocracy.

Taking all of this seriously, it becomes evident that Paul’s message could only have been meant for Israelites. Conversion?—okay, but only in the sense of metanoia. Paul was an Israelite when he encountered Jesus, messiah, in an altered state of consciousness. Paul was a change agent (“apostle”) and all his clients were Israelites. His ardent expectation throughout his life was Israelite theocracy for Israelites. He encountered Jesus in alternate reality as an Israelite. He established and served Jesus groups throughout the Mediterranean as an Israelite serving Israelite emigres there. When he died, Paul died as an Israelite.

We need a fresh perspective on Paul. We need fresh perspectives on many things. These don’t destroy our living Tradition. They actually help us better understand it.

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  • Tom Hanson

    “There were no Christians before 325 CE.”

    I think that if you are understanding Pilch accurately, he is not a very good historian. The very idea of Constantine choosing “orthodox Christianity” as an ally in his reach for power without any practical reason along the line of “it’s my best bet for the winning class of the various sects of Christians” is simply silly. In point of fact, by 325 CE those orthodox Christian bishops were so strong that Constantine, after becoming emperor, lost what he wanted at Nicaea, which was for Arian and his following of bishops to be compromised WITH orthodoxy. Instead, Arian was kicked out. So much for any idea of Constantine creating orthodox Christianity, or anything nearly like it. In point of fact, orthodox Christianity was strong enough around 200 CE for the bishop Irenaeus of Lyons in France to write his magnum opus against heresy (Marcionites and others, whom historians today are tending to think of collectively as “Gnostic Christians”).
    One of the problems involved with historians’ dealing with the history of Christianity specifically and only through the Bible is that you also have to think about the swirling non-Christian politics both before and after Marcus Aurelius. For instance, the so-called Neronian persecution and the mention of Christianity in Tacitus. You have to decide whether it is a Christian interpolation or whether Tacitus was aware of Early Christianity by name around 100 CE. To call it an interpolation you will have deal with the formidable Ronald Syme and some fine agnostic/atheist historians ; for example , Robin Lane Fox of Pagans And Christians, who think it NOT a Christian interpolation. This does not mean the Romans thought of Christianity as a separate religion that early. At that time they probably thought it a sect of Judaism. But the separation was probably not much farther away than the early second century: see Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117CE).

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    “The very idea of Constantine choosing ‘orthodox Christianity’ as an ally in his reach for power without any practical reason along the line of ‘it’s my best bet for the winner among the various sects of Christians’ is simply silly.”

    It’s also an oversimplification of what happened and a straw man of what I am presenting. Do argue against that position, please. Go for the gold.

    “In point of fact, by 325 CE those orthodox Christian bishops were so strong that Constantine, after becoming emperor, lost what he wanted at Nicaea, which was for Arian and his following of bishops to be compromised WITH orthodoxy. Instead, Arian was kicked out. So much for any idea of Constantine creating orthodox Christianity, or anything nearly like it.”

    ^ awesome example of a straw man.

    There is no “orthodox” position before 325. Theologies and beliefs of those ante-Nicene figures RECOGNIZED AFTER THE FACT as “fathers of the Church” were not considered “orthodox” by all Jesus groups/members prior to Nicaea. We can call them proto-orthodox, but not orthodox. By the way, none of this is judging the rightness of their theological positions, mind you.

    Yes, Constantine played a significant role. He was not the author of these proto-orthodox theologies and beliefs any more than he concocted Arius’s views. God works in the mess of all of this.

    “In point of fact, orthodox Christianity was strong enough around 200 CE for the bishop Irenaeus of Lyons in France to write his magnum opus against heresy (Marcionites and others, whom historians today are tending to think of collectively as ‘Gnostic Christians’).”

    Yes indeed Irenaeus did write. So did Marcion of Sinope and many others… and?

    “One of the problems involved with historians dealing with the history of Christianity specifically and only through the Bible is that you also have to think about the swirling non-Christian politics both before and after Marcus Aurelius. For instance, the so-called Neronian persecution and the mention of Christianity in Tacitus. You have to decide whether it is a later Christian interpolation or whether Tacitus was aware of Early Christianity by name around 100 CE. To call it an interpolation you will have to deal with the formidable Ronald Syme and some fine agnostic/atheist historians ; for example , Robin Lane Fox of Pagans And Christians, who think it NOT a Christian interpolation. This does not mean the Romans thought of Christianity as a separate religion that early. At that time they probably thought it a sect of Judaism. But the separation was probably not much farther away than the early second century: see Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98-117CE) and Domitian”s genuine religious persecution (ruled 81-96).”

    You excel at straw man, Tom. Mentions of Chrestus and Christ-lackeys, a slur, is not the same thing as testifying to Christianity existing in the first century. One need not reduce these important mentions to later Christian interpolations. Please read carefully the culturally-informed historical arguments of John Elliott and other scholars here:

    https://www.academia.edu/27314057/Jesus_the_Israelite_Was_Neither_a_Jew_Nor_a_Christian_On_Correcting_Misleading_Nomenclature

    What is my goal exactly, Tom?

  • Tom Hanson

    What is my goal exactly, Tom?

    It is easy to be thought to “excel at straw man” when arguing with someone who doesn’t make it easy for his readers to know what his goal (ie. your goal) might be here. I myself ask what can you mean, saying

  • Fellow Dying Inmate

    “Pagan” is a much-abused word. It’s flung around antiquity and laden with great misunderstanding. Pagans dwelt in the woods, and to Romans, were considered the lowest of barbarians. Germanic and Celtic tribes were pagans.

    City-dwelling Mediterranean worshipers of various Mediterranean deities should be called “polytheists” or “Mediterranean polytheists,” not pagans. First century Israelites, whether Messianists (not “Christians”), Essenes, Pharisees, Ben Zakkaists, Zealots, Sadducees, etc., were overwhelmingly henotheists.

    Americans and Western people, individualists, have a HARD time understanding the PASSIVE VOICE. Israelite “Followers of the Way” did not call THEMSELVES “Christians,” or more properly, Χριστιανόι. They were INSULTINGLY called that by others. They WERE CALLED = passive voice.

    In Jesus’ lifetime the term Χριστιανός did not yet exist. Secondly, if it had existed, its meaning—‘partisan of Christ’, ‘Christ lackey’—would have prevented it from being used of Jesus who was rather thought to be the Christ himself. And why would any believer, even the the man on the Cross, who HONORED Jesus take up an insulting title meant to mock Jesus and his followers? The followers of Jesus during his lifetime should not be classified as Χριστιανόι (‘Christians’) since the nomenclature had not yet been created.

    Χριστιανός appears only three times in the New Testament, always in the PASSIVE VOICE, and in only two writings from the later third of the first century, fifty years after the Jesus Movement had begun!
    Acts 11.26;
    Acts 26.28;
    1 Peter 4.16

    As John Elliott explains, “Christian” is a Greek term with a borrowed Latin ending (-ιανός / -ianus), it originated within Latin-speaking or Latin-influenced circles where ‘Christ’ was regarded as a proper name (!!??) and the suffix -ianus designated a partisan, adherent or client of the one named, in analogy to formulations such as Herodianoi (Mark 3.6; 12.13; Matthew 22.16), Kaisarianoi, Oualentinianoi and the like. Χριστιανόι originated not as a term of self-identification but as an opprobrious label coined by outsiders to mock and demean the followers of the crucified Jesus Christ as ‘Christ lackeys’. In this regard Χριστιανός was not unlike the way the N-WORD was used to demean those living in America of African descent. It was only slowly accepted by Christ-followers as a self-designation. Whenever you move the language, you necessarily change the meaning, and even vile insults might become honorifics.

    Use of the terms ‘Christian’ and ‘Christianity’ today to identify Jesus and his earliest followers is anachronistic and problematic for reasons similar to those concerning ‘Jew’ and ‘Judaism’. The words as employed today imply elements of belief and behavior that became essential features of Christianity only in the elaboration of christological and trinitarian doctrine and ecclesial practice after the New Testament period. Calling Jesus, the good thief on the cross, and the earliest followers of Jesus ‘Christians’ or members of ‘Christianity’, or imagining Paul’s experiencing of God’s revelation and call as a ‘conversion’ to Christianity, erroneously presuppose an already existent ‘religion’ and social entity independent of Israel to which Jesus and his earliest followers belonged and to which Paul ‘converted’. This is a presupposition that every serious student of the New Testament and this historical period knows to be BASELESS. Inappropriate application of these terms to Jesus and company, however, continues unabated, and the historical distortion remains a glaring problem.

    Elliot and his fellow scholars are correct in thinking that it is time finally for interpreters, Bible translators, and commentators to cease and desist. Jesus and the Jesus movement (with all its various movement groups) have their roots in Israel, not ‘Judaism’. They were, in the nascent period, predominantly ‘Israelites’, not ‘Jews’; Galileans, not Judaeans; Nazoreans, not ‘Christians’. They belonged to the House of Israel, not ‘Christianity’.

  • Tom Hanson

    Hmmmm. Then if,– and it’s a big if–they are correct in their philology why would Tacitus plainly use Chrestus/Christus as the leader of arsonists? Clearly Tacitus believed that the leader of the band of arsonists indicated a specific man with that specific name who led it, or who Nero thought so, or, the praetor or praetors who were charged with keeping tabs on foreign religions in Rome itself, (and Tacitus had been one himself after Nero). Tacitus was a friend of Pliny the Younger, who wrote five or six extant letters to him all easily found in the book of his letters. Don’t bother to look for truthfulness on my part., just count them from the table of contents or index. Pliny’s letters to Tacitus were not about religious issues under Nero, his letters to him are how we know that they were friends who both enjoyed hunting. Both worked within the the first century of Christianity, or if you prefer, proto-Christianity. It is safest to think about philology itself as the history of how a word or words have changed across time especially if you are doing history or leaning on it. To say something happened or could never have happened relying on a bit of philology, especially in ancient history, is laughable unless you can find manuscripts or archaeology certainly from the time-frame you are dealing with. To say that no proto-Christians could or would ever have called itself Christians would be to beg a historian to laugh and say, with Tacitus, Pliny and Trajan himself as evidence that there is reasonable evidence to move that back a few hundred years on the philological time-frame.