Sunday, July 19, 2009

Paul's Conversion

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is often cited as evidence for Christianity, but many of the nuances involved are often neglected:

- The idea that Paul experienced some sort of naturalistic vision on the road to Damascus is problematic on multiple grounds. One of the problems is what Paul's behavior and testimony suggest about his pre-conversion mindset. There's no indication, from his behavior or later testimony, that he doubted his Judaism or his opposition to Christianity prior to his conversion. His behavior leading up to the time of his conversion, as described in Acts and in his letters, is consistent, not conflicted. Even if it would be suggested that he might have viewed the truthfulness of Christianity as highly possible prior to his conversion, the fact remains that we have no evidence pointing to such a scenario, and that scenario would still have to explain what happened on the road to Damascus to shift his view of Christianity from possibly true to probably true. All of us acknowledge that alternatives to our current beliefs on a wide range of issues could be true. But if we think those alternatives probably are false, why would we be likely to experience hallucinations in support of those alternative beliefs? Paul tells us that he was zealous and viewed himself as blameless (Galatians 1:14, Philippians 3:6). He doesn't seem like a probable candidate for something like a guilt-induced hallucination. Both his behavior and his later testimony suggest that he was confident in his Judaism, not doubtful.

- I know of no credible early dispute of the general historicity of Paul's conversion as related in Acts. (I refer to "general historicity" because a critic of Christianity could dismiss Paul's experience as a delusion of some type, for example, without denying that he actually traveled the road to Damascus, that he actually converted at that point, etc.) The early heretical, pagan, and Jewish non-Christian sources raise a large number of arguments against Christianity on a large number of issues. Some of those heretics rejected the authority of Paul, and some of these sources criticized Paul in particular. But the general historicity of Paul's conversion as related in Acts seems to have been widely accepted, and no early Christian source I'm aware of seems to think that Paul's conversion needs to be defended in any relevant sense. This fact becomes even more significant in light of some other factors I'll be addressing below.

- There are some elements of the accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts that are better explained if the accounts are true than if they're false. If somebody was making up an account, it could have been claimed that Paul saw the risen Christ when he was by himself, at a largely unspecified time, with little awareness of the event among other sources. But Acts places the timing of the event at a point that would have been known to the enemies of Christianity (Acts 9:1-2, 22:5). Saying that the conversion took place just after Paul had been in contact with the Jewish authorities, and that the conversion was widely known shortly afterward (9:10-23), seems to be an unwise approach to take if Paul didn't undergo such a public conversion. And why place multiple non-Christian sources with Paul (9:7)? Why not have him alone, in a more unspecified time and place, with few or no people knowing about the appearance of Christ to him and the surrounding events until much later?

- It's unlikely that Paul would have lived as a Christian for decades, traveling as a prominent church leader, without widely spreading some information about his conversion. It's unlikely that somebody writing Acts after Paul's death, if we date the book that late, would have had a blank slate to write on. The Acts account would be expected to be consistent with what Paul had said, and if it went beyond what Paul had said, it would be expected to be credible as a historical addition to Paul's testimony. Many of the early churches, including some of the most influential (Rome, Ephesus, etc.), had been in contact with Paul. The author of Acts has Paul repeatedly speaking about his conversion publicly, including before hostile witnesses (Acts 21:27-22:15, 26:1-26). The author of Acts has these things "not done in a corner" (26:26). That's not a good way for the author to contextualize a story he's making up. The idea that the author was free to be largely inventive in his accounts of Paul's conversion, yet get those accounts to be so widely accepted, is dubious.

- The author of Acts claims to have met Paul and to have spent a lot of time with him (the "we" passages, such as Acts 16:10), and the attribution of the document to Luke is undisputed in early church history. He would have been in a good position to have reliable information on Paul's conversion.

- We have good reason to trust Acts as a result of its general historicity.

- A naturalistic vision wouldn't have been experienced by Paul's travel companions (Acts 9:7, 22:9, 26:13-14).

- Why would a naturalistic vision result in blindness (Acts 9:8), which was removed by Ananias (Acts 9:18)?

- Did Ananias just happen to have a naturalistic delusion independently of Paul's, around the same time and in confirmation of what Paul had experienced (Acts 9:10-12)? In other words, it's not just Paul's experience with the risen Christ that needs to be explained, but also the supernatural results of that experience, such as the information Paul and Ananias independently received concerning each other.

- Paul's experience gave him the power to perform miracles, as we see in the remainder of Acts and in Paul's letters (Romans 15:19, 1 Corinthians 2:4, 2 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 3:5). It should be noted that Paul sometimes refers to his miracles in contexts in which his authority was being questioned and among people who were skeptical of him for other reasons (the Corinthians and the Galatians). In Romans 15, Paul refers to such miracles as characteristic of his ministry in general. How would a naturalistic vision give Paul the ability to perform miracles of the nature of those described in Acts, miracles credible enough for Paul to appeal to them in contexts of controversy? Any argument that Paul was lying would have to address the evidence we have for his sincerity. Any argument that he was sincerely mistaken would have to address the nature of the miracles reported in Acts and the widespread acceptance of his claim to be a miracle worker, including in contexts in which people were willing to question him on other grounds. (He's criticized for his appearance, his speaking skills, his alleged lack of love, his view of the Jewish law, etc., but not for false miracles. His miracles apparently need no defense.) It's possible that somebody could have a hallucination, then conclude that he should be able to perform miracles as a result of that hallucination, then go on to mistakenly think he was performing miracles many times and in many contexts, having those miracles undisputed and widely accepted. But that's hardly the most likely explanation of the data.


  1. Also, if Paul started to have doubts about Judaism and doubts about the falsity of Christianty, he probably would have stopped persecuting Christians for a while because if it were true, he would be persecuting God's people. Also, it would have given him more time to consider Christian claims that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Scriptures (i.e. OT). Taking a sabbatical would have given him time to search the Scriptures to see if Jesus does fit the prophecies.

    Modern preachers like Dan Barker can keep on preaching a Gospel he no longer believes in for a while before his public announcement of deconversion and conversion to another worldview(atheism), but that's totally different from *actively* persecuting a group of people whose beliefs you now are considering might be true.

  2. Jason,

    Having said what you said about divorce, what do you think a new convert to Christianity should do who currently has more than one wife (say 5 wives)? Shouldn't he do his best to provide for his wives and children and not seek to marry another wife (that is, unless they all die, in which case he's free to marry again). Were you implying that now that he's a Christian, he should annul or divorce all his other wives except the one he had a marriage with first/earliest?

    Say Joe Pagan marries. His first wife dies. Joe marries again (2nd wife). Then marries 4 more times polygamously (totaling 5 current wives). He then becomes a Christian. Must he now only affirm his second marriage to his second wife as genuine and also deny the legitimacy of the other four marriages and wives? Sure he was married by a Pagan ceremony, but we normally accept the marriages of people from other religions or no religion. Since, we would still consider Hindu or Atheist infidelity as adultery.

  3. Annoyed Pinoy wrote:

    "Having said what you said about divorce, what do you think a new convert to Christianity should do who currently has more than one wife (say 5 wives)?"

    I don't know what you mean by "what I said about divorce". Did you read my response in the previous thread in which you raised these issues?

  4. Jason,

    Yes, I'm referring to you previous post about polygamy. My use of the word "divorce" was a typo.

  5. I usually don't edit posts this long after I put them up. However, I had intended to discuss Paul's blindness after seeing the risen Christ, but I forgot. I just added a section on that subject to my post.