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In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] (please grab yourself a copy!), I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him (as I am insanely busy researching the hell out of the Pentateuch):

Paul of Tarsus

Paul of Tarsus (aka Saul) is an enigmatic figure in Christian history. He is the earliest Christian writer, but he has very little to say about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and seems more interested in the implications of Jesus’s resurrection, than Jesus’s actual life and ministry.

It is generally considered that Paul converted to Christianity (in some form) a few years after Jesus’s death, and he claimed he had previously been a persecutor of Christians, but had some sort of “conversion” experience. He, supposedly, set up a number of churches around the Middle East and Asia Minor, and corresponded with them about problems they were having. It is thought that these letters were written from about the year 50 CE. These letters became known as “The Epistles of Paul”, and are thirteen in number within the Christian Bible. These Epistles have been the subject of scholarly debate, and, generally, it is agreed that seven of these are undisputedly of Pauline origin (Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians).

In addition to the Epistles, other information about Paul can be found in the “Acts of the Apostles” (aka “Acts”). This is thought to have been written by the author of “Luke” and is considered to be Volume 2 of his writings, and the two volumes together are often referred to as “Luke/Acts”. Unfortunately, a lot of the information presented in Acts conflicts with the information in Paul’s own letters, and there also appears that it attempts to “harmonise” differences between the Jerusalem church (which interacted mostly with Jews), and Paul’s churches which largely recruited Gentiles. As such, much of what is recorded in “Acts” must be regarded with some suspicion, unless corroborated by Paul’s own writings.

For example, Paul does not describe, in his letters, how he “persecuted” Christians, and also what event triggered his conversion. Acts, however, supplies a scenario for each of these instances and must therefore be viewed with some suspicion.

For the “persecution”, Acts describes Paul being present at the stoning death, for blasphemy, of Stephen and approving of this action. This is not corroborated by any other source, so it is an open question whether it actually occurred.

For the “conversion”, Acts has a scenario described in three places. Before we look at them, we must first establish why Paul was travelling to Damascus. According to Acts, Paul “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.

This presents some problems. According to Paul’s own letters, he was a Pharisee, whereas the High Priest in Jerusalem would have been a Sadducee. Pharisees  and Sadducees were ideological opposed to one another. In addition, Pharisees looked on Sadducees as collaborators and hypocrites for siding with Roman oppressors as a way to keep their power and authority. It is highly unlikely a Sadducee High Priest would give any sort of authority to a Pharisee. In addition, it is very unlikely that a High Priest in Judea would even have any authority in Syria, let alone be able to arrest people there, and bring them back to Judea. It is also difficult to imagine, how Paul would be able to find these Christians, let alone manage to get them back to Jerusalem (150 miles {240 km} away) in some sort of “chain gang”.

Already the story is off to a rocky start!

The “conversion” accounts according to Acts are as follows:-

  1. Acts 9:3-8 describes this “conversion” thus:-

“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.”

He is then taken into Damascus and cured of his blindness by a Christian called Ananias, and then baptised.

[Side note: Ananias was told in a vision to go to a house in Damascus to cure Paul of his blindness and baptise him, but Ananais was reluctant stating “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”. Now how did Ananias know that Paul had “authority from the chief priests” when Paul had only just arrived in Damascus a few days earlier? Damascus is 150 miles (240 km) from Jerusalem and it would probably take two weeks on foot, or one week on horseback to travel that distance. There were no telephones, radios, or newspapers, just “word of mouth”. It is difficult to believe that, someone heard about the commission entrusted to Paul, and was able to transmit this information as Paul was arriving Damascus, and know who to pass this information to. In addition, how would Ananias know exactly which house to visit to find Paul? There must have been hundreds of houses in Damascus at that time.]

  1. Acts 22:6-11 describes it thus:-

“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.

Notice that the first quote said Paul’s companions “heard a voice but saw no one” but the second quote said they “did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me”, so did his companions hear a voice or not?

  1. Acts 26:12-18 describes it thus:-

“With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15 I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ The narrative is much the same except this time, apparently, the voice spoke “in the Hebrew language” and the message is a lot longer than in the previous two narratives. There is no mention of whether Paul was blinded or not.

It is not known where the author of Acts came upon all this information, as none of Paul’s authentic letters mention this Damascus incident. In Galatians 1:15-16 Paul states “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” and in 1 Corinthians 15:8 Paul states “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” With no information where and when this “revelation” or “appearance” occurred, and in what form (vision, hallucination or dream).

There is another intriguing event that is covered by Paul’s epistles and Acts which have caused a lot of confusion, namely Acts 9:19-25:-

“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.” 21 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. After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

[As previously mentioned, it is curious that, apparently, Christians in Damascus knew of Paul’s original mission to take Christians as prisoners and return them to Jerusalem for trial, under instruction from the High Priest; see previous remarks]

Compare this with Paul’s own account in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33:

In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

So, in this account, Paul was being sought by the Governor (ethnarch), not the “Jews” as in Acts. It is also strange that the Governor or the Jews would need to guard the city in order to seize him. If they knew where he was (he was making no secret of his presence in Damascus) why didn’t they just seize him at any time? In addition, Paul does not specify why a governor of Damascus would want to arrest him in the first place. What had he done to warrant such a seizure?

Even more confusing is the mention of King Aretas having a Governor in Damascus. If Paul was referring to King Aretas IV, who was the King of the Nabataeans between 8 BCE and 40 CE, then it is odd because King Aretas IV never had any control over Damascus. (This is debated by scholars, with some saying King Aretas maybe had control of Damascus in 37 CE). A possible solution to this confusion, is that Paul just made the whole thing up. He may have been trying to suggest that his preaching caused such consternation that even the Governor of such a large city as Damascus wanted him dead. Acts just picked up on the same story, assuming it to be true. Paul is known for making outrageous claims (eg referring to the risen Jesus “he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time”; an amazing event, if true, that is not corroborated by any source inside or outside the Bible), so it is prudent to be cautious when evaluating these narratives.

We often hear stories about a person who was an alcoholic or drug addict, lied, cheated and stole, but, at their lowest ebb discovered Jesus and turned their life around. Christians use this rhetoric to illustrate the transformative power of Jesus’s message. A similar scenario could be possible with Paul’s conversion. It could be that Paul claimed to be a persecutor of Christians, but Jesus’s “power” changed him dramatically to convince others of the transformative message of Jesus.

To sum up, there is no corroboration of these events (Paul at the martyrdom of Stephen, Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and his escape from Damascus) by Paul himself, and there are even differences between the conversion accounts by the author of Acts. In addition, the author of Acts has a propensity to “manipulate” his narratives for his own agenda, and even Paul has stated that he can change his message depending on to whom he was speaking.

With all this in mind, we should look upon all these events with extreme skepticism.

 


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...