The Resurrection of Jesus, Part 3: The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus

One of the movement’s most bitter enemies became it’s most prolific evangelist

The apostle Paul, known as “Saul” before his conversion to Christianity[1] around 35 AD, has perhaps the most dramatic conversion story of all of the early Jewish believers in Jesus. It is considered almost historically certain that Saul oppressed and hounded early believers in Jesus, having many of the arrested and imprisoned. He also was a formal witness at the execution by stoning of the Christians’ first martyr, Stephen:

Acts Chapter 8

They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” 60 Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, he died. 8 And Saul agreed completely with killing him.

Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. 2 Some devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Gary Habermas (perhaps the leading expert on the state of scholarly opinion on Jesus’ resurrection) writes, “Without question, the most critically-respected witness for Jesus’ resurrection is the apostle Paul.”[2] This is because we have multiple letters which are known to have been written by Paul himself, in which he describes his oppression of the early Christians before becoming a believer. These passages describe events that would have been within living memory of many in the churches to which he was writing, so its very unlikely he was making up such embarrassing material.

Michael Licona sums up the case for Saul’s persecution of early Christians:

Paul’s notorious pre-Christian activities and conversion are multiply attested, first by Paul’s own testimony that he himself writes within roughly twenty to thirty years of the events; second, by Lukes record in Acts, written thirty to sixty years of the events; and third, by a story that was probably circulating among Christians in Judea and that most likely dates to within three to a little more than ten years of Paul’s conversion.[3]

The question arises, then, what could have caused this leader in the Jewish anti-Christian cabal to become, seemingly overnight, the new Jesus-is-the-Divine-Messiah movement’s greatest evangelist? Paul alludes to having “seen the Lord” as a he defends his credentials as an apostle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:1). Paul also lists himself “last of all” among those leaders in the movement who had seen the risen Jesus:

I Corinthians, Chapter 15

7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

(Notice that reference to his dastardly pre-conversion persecution activities in verse 9, by the way.)

There are two accounts of Paul’s encounter with Jesus recorded in the book of Acts: Acts 22: 6-16 and Acts 26:12-18. These accounts have some differences, which some have attributed to the different circumstances around their telling. Paul recounts the second story as part of testimony in a legal proceeding. The first one is the account by author of Acts (Luke), told in the flow of the narrative.

There can be little doubt that Paul had a profound, life-changing, and totally unexpected encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, five or so years after Jesus was executed and buried. Could this have been a ‘merely’ spiritual experience? Actually, Paul leaves no room for speculation that he took it as anything but an appearance of the physically resurrected Jesus, the Divine Messiah and Son of God. The evidence for this conclusion is extensive, and deserves its own blog post in its honor. Coming soon.

1. There really isn’t any religious reason why Paul is called “Saul” sometimes and “Paul” other times in the New Testament. “Paul” (eng. ‘little’) is his Roman familiar name which he probably was given at birth. “Saul” was his Jewish name. Both names were fairly common in their respective cultures. (Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, 2014, p.358).

2. Gary Habermas, “Resurrection Research From 1975 to the Present: What Are Critical Scholars Saying?” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3, no. 2 (2005): , accessed October 20, 2018, doi:10.1177/1476869005058192.

3. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 374-375.

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