Paul's Conversion

How did Paul convert to Christianity?

Saul of Tarsus, who was later refered to as the Apostle Paul, became a follower of Jesus Christ while walking on the road to Damascus with two other men, after seeing a bright light and hearing the voice of Jesus, as reocrded in Acts 9. After this experience, Saul no longer persucuted Christians but became one of the chief missionaries of the Christian faith and changed his name to Paul.

It was sudden, and yet God had led Saul to the state of mind when it could more easily happen. True, Saul was engaged in the very act of persecuting the believers in Jerusalem. His mind was flushed with the sense of victory. He was not conscious of any lingering doubts about the truth of his position and the justice of his conduct till Jesus abruptly told him that it was hard for him to kick against the goad (Ac 26:14).

Thus suddenly brought to bay, the real truth would flash upon his mind. In later years he tells how he had struggled in vain against the curse of the Law (Ro 7:7 f). It is probable though not certain, that Paul here has in mind his experience before his conversion, though the latter part of the chapter may refer to a period later. There is difficulty in either view as to the "body of this death" that made him so wretched (Ro 7:24).


The Christian keeps up the fight against sin in spite of defeat (Ro 7:23), but he does not feel that he is "carnal, sold under sin" (Ro 7:14). But when before his conversion did Paul have such intensity of conviction? We can only leave the problem unanswered. His reference to it at least harmonizes with what Jesus said about the goad. The words and death of Stephen and the other disciples may have left a deeper mark than he knew. The question might arise whether after all the Nazarenes were right. His plea for his conduct made in later years was that he was conscientious (Ac 26:9) and that he did it ignorantly in unbelief (1Ti 1:13).

He was not willfully sinning against the full light as he saw it. It will not do to say with Holsten that Saul was half convinced to join the disciples, and only needed a jolt to turn him over. He was "yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord" (Ac 9:1), and went to the high priest and asked for letters to Damascus demanding the arrest of the disciples there. His temper on the whole is distinctly hostile to Christ, and the struggle against his course was in the subconscious mind. There a volcano had gathered ready to burst out.

It is proper to ask whether Paul had known Jesus in the flesh, but it is not easy to give a categorical reply. It is possible, though hardly likely, that Paul had come to Jerusalem to study when Jesus as a boy of 12 visited the temple, and so heard Jesus and the doctors. That could be true only in case Paul was born 5 or 6 BC, which is quite unlikely. It is possible again that Paul may have remained in Jerusalem after his graduation the school of Gamaliel and so was present in Jerusalem at the trial and death of Jesus.

Some of the ablest of modern scholars hold that Paul knew Jesus in the flesh. It will at once seem strange that we have no express statement to this effect in the letters of Paul, when he shows undoubted knowledge of various events in the life of Christ (compare Wynne, Fragmentary Records of Jesus of Nazareth, 1887). It is almost certain, as J. Weiss admits (Paul and Jesus, 41), that in 1Co 9:1 Paul refers to the Risen Jesus. The passage in 2Co 5:16 is argued both ways: "Wherefore we henceforth know no man after the flesh: even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him so no more." J. Weiss (ibid., 41-55) argues strongly for the view that he knew Jesus in the flesh. But in the first clause of the sentence above Paul means by "after the flesh," not acquaintance, but standpoint. It is natural to take it in the same way as applied to Christ.

He has changed his viewpoint of Christ and so of all men. Weiss pleads (ibid., p. 40), at any rate, that we have no word saying that "Paul had not seen Jesus in person." It may be said in reply that the fact that Jesus has to tell Paul who He is (Ac 9:5) shows that Paul did not have personal acquaintance with Him. But the question may be left in abeyance as not vitally important. He certainly had not understood Jesus, if he knew Him.

Experience of conversion

Space does not, permit a discussion of this great event of Paul's conversion at all commensurate with its significance. A literature of importance has grown up around it besides the lengthy discussions in the lives and theologies of Paul (see e.g. Lord Lyttleton's famous Observations on Saul's Conversion, 1774; Fletcher's A Study of the Conversion of Paul, 1910; Gardner, The Religious Experience of Paul, 1911; Maggs, The Spiritual Experience of Paul). All sorts of theories have been advanced to explain on naturalistic grounds this great experience of Christ in the life of Paul.

It has been urged that Paul had an epileptic fit, that he had a sunstroke, that he fell off his horse to the ground, that he had a nightmare, that he was blinded by a flash of lightning, that he imagined that he saw Jesus as a result of his highly wrought nervous state, that he deliberately renounced Judaism because of the growing conviction that the disciples were right. But none of these explanations explains. Mere prejudice against the supernatural, such as is shown by Weinel in his Paulus, and by Holsten in his able book (Zum Evangelium d. Paulus und Petrus), cannot solve this problem. One must be willing to hear the evidence.

There were witnesses of the bright light (Ac 26:13) and of the sound (Ac 9:7) which only Paul understood (Ac 22:9), as he alone beheld Jesus. It is claimed by some that Paul had a trance or subjective vision, and did not see Jesus with his eyes. Denney (Standard Bible Dictionary) replies that it is not a pertinent objection. Jesus (Joh 21:1) "manifested" Himself, and Paul says that he "saw" Jesus (1Co 9:1), that Jesus "appeared" (1Co 15:8) to him. Hence, it was both subjective and objective. But the reality of the event was as clear to Paul as his own existence.

The account is given 3 times in Acts (chapters 9; 22; 26) in substantial agreement, with a few varying details. In Ac 9:1-43 the historical narrative occurs, in Ac 22:1-30 Paul's defense before the mob in Jerusalem is given, and in Ac 26:1-32 we have the apology before Agrippa. There are no contradictions of moment, save that in chapter 26 Jesus Himself is represented as giving directly to Paul the call to the Gentiles while in chapters 9 and 22 it is conveyed through Ananias (the fuller and more accurate account).

There is no need to notice the apparent contradiction between Ac 9:7 and Ac 22:9, for the difference in case in the Greek gives a difference in sense, hearing the sound, with the genitive, and not understanding the sense, with the accusative. Findlay (HBD) remarks that the conversion of Paul is a psychological and ethical problem which cannot be accounted for save by Paul's own interpretation of the change wrought in him. He saw Jesus and surrendered to Him.

Effect of conversion

is surrender to Jesus was instantaneous and complete: "What shall I do, Lord?" (Ac 22:10). He could not see for the glory of that light (Ac 22:11), but he had already seen "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2Co 4:6). The god of this world could blind him no longer. He had seen Jesus, and all else had lost charm for Paul. There is infinite pathos in the picture of the blind Saul led by the hand (Ac 9:8) into Damascus. All the pride of power is gone, all the lust for vengeance.

The fierceness of the name of Saul is well shown in the dread that Ananias has and the protest that he makes to the Lord concerning him (Ac 9:10-14). Ananias doubtless thought that the Lord had made a strange choice of a vessel to bear the message of Christ to the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel (Ac 9:15), but there was hope in the promise of chastisement to him (Ac 9:16). So he went, and calls him "Brother Saul." Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit, the scales fell from his eyes, he was baptized.

And now what next? What did the world hold in store for the proud scion of Judaism who had renounced power, place, pride for the lowly Nazarene? He dared not go back to Jerusalem. The Jews in Damascus would have none of him now. Would the disciples receive him? They did. "And he was certain days with the disciples that were at Damascus" (Ac 9:19). Ananias vouched for him by his vision. Then Saul took his courage in his hands and went boldly into the synagogues and "proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God" (Ac 9:20).

This was a public committal and a proclamation of his new creed. There was tremendous pith and point in this statement from Saul. The Jews were amazed (Ac 9:21). This is the core of Paul's message as we see in his later ministry (Ac 13:1-52; 17:3). It rests at bottom on Paul's own experience of grace. "His whole theology is nothing but the explanation of his own conversion" (Stalker, Life of Paul, 45). We need not argue (Garvie, Studies of Paul and His Gospel, 51) that Paul understood at once the full content of the new message, but he had the heart of it right.


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain (with minor edits).