Table of Contents
6.0 The Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
In contemporary critical studies, the apostle Paul is almost always thought to be the best witness among the New Testament writers. A former opponent of this message, Paul clearly points out that the risen Jesus appeared personally to him. He was a zealous Pharisee who had surpassed many of his Jewish contemporaries in his efforts to keep the Jewish traditions of his fathers (Gal 1.13-14). He was educated by Gamaliel, one of the most respected Jewish rabbis of his day. In his zeal for keeping the Jewish tradition, Saul made it his mission to crush Christianity. Thousands of Jews who heard the message of Christ were converting to Christianity, and consequently were leaving the paths of ancient Judaism. It is not difficult to imagine Saul’s motive in persecuting the Way. Having his heart set on destruction of this perverse new religion, Saul, armed with letters of authority from the High Priest, turned his faced toward Damascus. Yet, something happened on the trip to Damascus that changed the course of Saul’s life—and the course of history itself—: Saul became a follower of Jesus Christ. Suddenly, he gave up everything. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader and became a Christian missionary; and in so doing he entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times, in constant danger, deprivation, and anxiety. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice and was martyred for his faith. And it was all because, on that road to Damascus, he saw “Jesus our Lord” (l Cor. 9.1). Therefore, we must ask ourselves, what type of evidence must have been presented to this well-educated Roman citizen that not only made him rethink his position, but also caused him to endure a life of enormous hardships for the sake of the very thing he once sought to destroy.
6.1 Early, Independent Attestation of Paul’s Eyewitness Account
Paul tells us that he, himself, was witness to the risen Lord. Paul makes this claim more than once (1 Cor 9.1; 15.8; Gal 1.16). We also have corroboration of Paul’s testimony from another New Testament author, Luke, who retells the story three times (Acts 9.1-8; 22.3-11; 26.9-18). The data behind the fact of Paul’s conversion from being an enemy of the church are recognized by all. But there needs to be a reason for this brilliant young scholar being convinced against his former beliefs and persecution of believers, as he explains (1 Cor 15.9; Gal 1.13-14; Phil 3.4-7). Paul’s reason is clear: he was persuaded that he had seen the risen Lord. The scholarly consensus here is attested by atheist Michael Martin who admits the following: “However, we have only one contemporary eyewitness account of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus, namely Paul’s” .
6.2 Paul’s Methodological Chariness
Paul was exceptionally careful to ascertain the content of the gospel message, which centered on the resurrection. To do so, he made a second trip to Jerusalem specifically for the purpose of checking out his gospel preaching (Gal 2.1-10). Amazingly, he states his fear that perhaps he had been teaching the wrong message (Gal 2.2). Some think that Acts 15.1-35 describes an amazing third trip to Jerusalem to do the same. Paul obviously desired to be absolutely positive of the gospel truth. Further, Paul was careful to ask his questions of the proper authorities—the chief apostles. In his initial trip, he met with Peter and James, the brother of Jesus (Gal 1.18-20). On the second occasion, he met with these same two men, plus the apostle John (Gal 2.9). Martin Hengel points out that “evidently the tradition of I Cor. 15.3 had been subjected to many tests” by Paul . Eminent scholar Howard Clark Kee makes the astounding comment that Paul’s research “can be critically examined and compared with other testimony from eyewitnesses of Jesus, just as one would evaluate evidence in a modern court or academic setting” ].
6.3 Paul’s Response
After his conversion, he wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and became the leading apostle sent to the Gentiles. As F.F. Bruce wrote:
It is reasonable to believe that the evidence which convinced such a man of the out-and-out wrongness of his former course, and led him so decisively to abandon previously cherished beliefs for a movement which he had so vigorously opposed, must have been of a singularly impressive quality. The conversion of Paul has for long been regarded as weighty evidence for the truth of Christianity. Many have endorsed the conclusion of the eighteenth-century statesman George, Lord Lyttelton, that “the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.
Thus, any successful effort to discredit Christianity must first adequately discredit the testimony of Paul and the evidence responsible for his conversion.