Hurtado on the “Conversion” of Paul

The Jewish PaulI finally got around to reading Larry Hurtado’s blog post The “Conversion” of Paul and found it illuminating. Here are the two most telling paragraphs:

But it’s a genuine question among scholars whether Paul understood himself as having undergone a “conversion,” at least in the sense that the word typically has. He didn’t move from irreligion to a religious life, from being a sinful man to virtue. And he didn’t change his God, or denounce his ancestral religious tradition. Instead, he expresses the strong conviction that the God he had always sought to serve showed him his blindness in opposing the Jesus-movement, revealed (Paul’s word) Jesus’ high/unique status, and summoned Paul to a special mission that he believed would usher in (or at least promote markedly) the consummation of the divine plan of world-redemption.

So, some scholars prefer to characterize Paul’s shift in religious orientation as a prophet-like “calling” rather than a “conversion” (as influentially proposed by Krister Stendahl). Others, such as Alan Segal, contended that “conversion” was appropriate, as the term can include a change from one version of a religious tradition to another, such as a Roman Catholic becoming a Baptist. So, Segal urged, Paul shifted from one understanding of what his God required to another very different one, and from opposition to the Jesus-movement to aligning himself with it.

Anyone who has read this blogspot for very long knows I don’t consider Paul (or Rav Shaul if you prefer) a convert, but rather someone who received a “Prophet-like” calling (to use Hurtado’s phrase) to become Rav Yeshua’s (Jesus Christ’s) emissary to the Gentiles.

What’s really cool though, is Hurtado, a well-known and respected New Testament scholar, holds a view of Paul that you would hardly find preached in most normative Christian churches.

I still find it surprising that what the Church teaches (and I’m using the word “Church” in the broadest possible sense) is so at odds with the continuing research being done on the New Testament in general and on Paul specifically.

I suppose one explanation could be that, Christian (and Jewish) tradition about Paul being what it is, the average Christian sitting in the pew on Sunday wouldn’t tolerate a radical update to his/her doctrine. In order to make supersessionist/replacement theology work, Paul had to convert from the Judaism of his day to early Christianity. Most Jews and probably even some Christians believe that Paul even founded Christianity, converting it from a branch of ancient Judaism to a wholly Gentile religion.

Larry Hurtado
Larry Hurtado

Hurtado’s reply to one of his readers continues to establish his views on the Apostle, complete with Biblical citations:

Well, Michael, to go by his own testimony, Paul/Saul remained a devoted Jew, even in his ministry as “apostle to the nations” (e.g., Philip 3:4ff; 2 Cor 11:21ff.). But you put your finger on the historical phenomenon that I’ve worked on for over 30 yrs now, offering the best answers that I can find to the various component questions. Paul’s own statement (Gal 1:13ff) is that he shifted from opponent of the Jesus-movement to proponent when “God revealed his Son to me”. So, he accepted the exalted status of Jesus as thoroughly compatible with his commitment to the uniqueness of the God of Israel precisely because he was convinced (by a “revelation”) that this one God had himself exalted Jesus and now required him to be acknowledged and reverenced. In short, if God approved, who was he to withstand it?

In 2 Cor 3:7–4:6, Paul’s description of fellow members of Israel who don’t perceive/accept Jesus as “Lord” pictures them as having a veil over their minds. But “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (3:16).

We have to form our notions of what “Jewish traditions and biblical monotheism” could include based on the evidence, not preconceptions. And, as I showed in my 1988 book, One God, One Lord (3rd ed., 2015), “ancient Jewish Monotheism” could accommodate some amazing things.

Moreover, Paul was and remained a Jew, and so even the remarkable view of Jesus that he accepted must be included as one of the developments initially within 2nd temple Jewish tradition.

Coffee and BibleI’m probably just recycling things I’ve written in the past, but frankly, I learn more about what the Bible is actually saying by studying scholarly works rather than listening to a Pastor’s sermon or going to Sunday School.

I wish I could make blogs like Hurtado’s  “required reading” for all churches everywhere, but, in my  opinion, many or most Christians don’t want to actually learn anything new. They are quite content to have their theology “settled”.


16 thoughts on “Hurtado on the “Conversion” of Paul”

  1. ‘Conversion’ in my mind always relates to a ‘change’ in viewpoint to any subject from one set of beliefs to another. In that way Sha’ul ‘converted’. He presumably converted from his view of Gentiles as being unacceptable to his Pharasaic traditions unless they converted to Judaism, and became a strictly observing Pharisee of that time to the idea that Gentiles have their own place in G-d’s heart and Kingdom, but with a lesser set of mandated adherence to Mosaic Law.

    I have come to see over the last years that Sha’ul himself would have been horrified to think that he opted out of Judaism, and invented a new religion with new gods and new laws. The Greeks and Romans did that without any help from Sha’ul.

    But in the instance that Sha’ul passed through a purifying ritual of immersion, a particularly Jewish practice, well, that did happen, and is part of the story that matches with the idea of ‘conversion’…but to Judaism of the purest sense.

  2. Since I began my “Messianic Journey,” (by which I mean unlearning some things evangelical teachers taught and being introduced to what the Bible might actually say), I’ve been surprised at how tightly people hold on to mistaken interpretations of Scripture, even in the face of the Scripture itself proving otherwise. (How’s that for a Paul-worthy, long sentence?)

  3. James, how true that most Christians don’t want to learn anything new. The Bible really comes alive when we view it more from a Jewish perspective than from a Western mindset. Yes, Paul did remain in Judaism. How I wish that as Non Jewish believers in Messiah Yeshua, our eyes would be more opened to see Him as He is. Keep sharing your thoughts with all of us!

  4. Peace be to all and a good health
    Hello guys,
    We always advice all the people to really read now their whole Holy Bible. So they may be also qualified to be Caught in the Cloud as terminolgy by A. Paul (for each prophesy  is within the prophesy application or it have a dual meaning: the 1st meaning is of the Literal procedure application, similar to Yeshua Messiah have done in his Covenant glory. And the 2nd meaning is of its purely from Spiritual Mortality into Immortal Transformation Application at the End Time Period). Because of this reason, many people were all only decieve by many false preacher of their false teaching of the Holy Bible, especially on the NT gospel (for each exclusivity to the Israelites but now the generalize it) by those gentile world religion and even other Israelite preachers, which also taught the gospel in each literal fictionize parable story in to true to life story and not of the Spiritual Objective of God. And this is the truth, how this New Covenant Plan of God now known as the NT gospel were implemented first to the Israelites by Yeshua Messiah (as Son of the Holy Spirit or the Word). With the combination formulation context of the major guidelines of God in the Spiritual Character Development and Automatic Judgment in the Plan. And this is how it is being implemented, this Spiritual Character Development to the Israelites, when an Israelites accidentally get interest to have and read the gospel book (this also what A. Paul meant of his Caught in the Cloud terminology version to the Holy Spirit). And to other Evangelist this is an example of God may ways and means of Calling. And when seriously read the whole gospels by knowingly, willingly and observing it (This is the fact that there is no mediator between God and man except Yeshua Messiah or the gospel books). And these general guidelines and many prohibition were written conceals in the Sermon on the Mount messages in Mt. 5:1-48, 6:1-31 & 7: 1-29.. and other explanation in other 3 gospels and to some letters of the Apostles. Then he make repentance as an spiritual act sign to his Water (the Word) Baptism. And to the completion of this God’s Call, which is also the same of one’s completion of his whole Spiritual Character Development, and this is done when recieving the Complete Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is only executed by Yeshua Messiah as “Final Sealing” of a Chosen Call Out of God. And to those Israelites that dislike or don’t believe or those that were called but did not completed it, they have an Automatic Judgment. But to those Israelites that victoriously completed the Calls of God gets their Salvation. And to this, God have set a long period of 2 Days in God Count with an equivalent of 2000 years in our time conversion. And this was Worked Out Alone by Yeshua Messiah, which is incomparable to the world gentile religion immitation. And only 144,000 Chosen Call Out Israelites were Redeemed and Saved by Yeshua Messiah, Rev. 7:1-8 & 14: 1-5, and No gentile because Yeshua Messiah have already condemn judged all the gentile nations, Mt. 25:31-41.. Now, who among you could compute this great mortality in Yeshua’s Covenant Period? 
    May our living lord God Bless us all

    LOVE : New Jerusalem – Holy City

  5. Let’s make it even more simplistic. Paul acknowledges that Yeshua is the messiah as promised by God in his word. In what universe does this create a brand new religion??????

    Asked & answered by Paul himself in Romans 11.

  6. Has anyone here noticed that the entire notion of “conversion” in this case is predicated on the false belief that there was something wrong with Rav Shaul’s religion — which was and remained a Pharisaically-structured Judaism — and that his encounter with a vision of Rav Yeshua therefore had to change him into something else? It also presumes the existence of an alternative religion to be designated “Christianity”, which did not, in fact, yet exist, even for gentiles. Both of these notions are supercessionistic and anachronistic presuppositions that fail to apprehend historical and covenantal aspects of the situation.

    It’s true that Rav Shaul’s view of Rav Yeshua and his followers had to change drastically, but why view that any differently from any other occasion of repentance upon realizing one’s failure to approach correctly some aspect of HaShem’s activity in human history? Hence, Hurtado’s view of the event as a “calling” rather than a “conversion” must be considered a sensible one, for which he should be commended.

  7. Hi, I agree with Jim. Paul believed that Y’shua is the Messiah, he didn’t start believing in the Trinity or that Y’shua is the creator God. See Acts 17:31. Y’shua stayed a man in Paul’s mind, a man appointed by God and the resurrection is the proof! Paul could not be part of Judaism and hold the belief that the Messiah is God in the flesh. Shalom

  8. Excellent point, Migdalah, about Rav Shaul’s choice of terms to refer to Rav Yeshua, both in Acts 17:31 and in 1Tim 2:5, emphasizing that he was a resurrected human messiah and not some of the other things that later non-Jewish doctrines falsely assigned to him.

  9. I agree — “calling” and repentance or awakening or enlightenment or the like. One detail where I’d go further is that Israel was in a state or condition of almost exile even while within the land (although there were also those individuals and communities in the diaspora). They were under Rome, and it is sometimes the case that individuals or groups forget to differentiate between their place in life and extraneous habits. Remembering that Israel is unique on the earth in promise, compromised ways of eking by without truth in each case couldn’t abide.

  10. Peace be to all and a good health
    Hello guys,
    Sorry to this very elementary checking of the scriptures. Because thou could not still understand to know who really is Yeshua Messiah. And this is the way how to do it: firstly, don’t mixed up your false understanding knowledge, only brainwashed to you by your false teacher (pastor, priest, minister, imam and even your rabbi or other psuedo teacher of your schools and universities) but just CONSULT your NT book, to get all the truth about Yeshua Messiah, who is really in the gospel books as the SOLE TEACHER or RABBI! And Yeshua have 2 Character Name Role used in the writings of the NT book; the first is use in the Literal Name of the literal character role in the fictionize parable story writing of the gospels. And the second is used in the Spiritual Essence Character Role of the Name of the Word in the gospel book! And from this, thou could now separate the Literal and Spiritual Name of Yeshua Messiah, to observe the Right Objective of God in to your higher character development.

    Now, let us example a simple checking, is it not what thou now all know that there are three synoptic gospel? This become a true teaching if only thou will not check it! Now get your gospel books and check it by reading it! Now, what part of the top messages in the gospel were literally written in the same or very similar to each other? Is it not only in the prophesy sign of the time of the Parousia  Period or the 2nd Advent Period in Mt. 24:, Mk. 13: & Lk. 21 is the synoptic. And about the nativity or the virgin birth is only written in the two gospel of Mathew and Luke, and even Mark and John did not used the nativity, to the reason they also knew of the formulation of the Evangelist about the “holy family,” why they have been written in the fictionize parable story only in the gospel!

     And this is how A John elaborate in detailed who really is Yeshua Messiah even from the beginning. Let us check it in the prologue of John 1:1-5, analyze very careful the v:1-in the beginning was the Word (do you know or understand this?), and the Word was with God (do you also understand it?), and the Word is God (now, do thou really know who in these, is our God?). So in verse 2-3, (note: in here is the True God!) In verse 4, in him was life (what is in him that was life?) (and what is the life that was the light of men?) for Yeshua have said I am the light of the world. And on verse 5, and the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not or rejected. And on verse 6, just read it literally. Verse 7, so A. John become the Witness of the Light (Yeshua Messiah or  Son of the Holy Spirit-so men might believe through him or John). Verse 8, see John is not the light but witness of the light. Verse 9, the true light which lighted everyone that cometh into the world (Who now is this true light that cometh in to the world?), this is Yeshua and NOT AS MAN or Yeshua is light of the world which cometh from heaven. Verse 10, and when he come in the world, the world was made by him, and world knew him not (This is true, the world do not know who really is God and the True God!). Verse 11-12, just read it. But take note, who were the so called Son of God? Even to them that belive on his name! And on verse 13, they become the Son of God, not being born by their mother and father but by God’s Will in the Plan. And on verse 14, the Word become flesh. This meant that when the given Word of God messages to the Chosen Call Out prophet were put in to writings, the Written Word of God is the so called “Flesh of the Christ” or “Flesh of Yeshua Messiah!” Now thou know who really now is Yeshua Messiah as the “Word in your NT gospel books” that cometh from God, why they could not believe in his name???
    Have you not notice that there is NO IDOLATRY in these revelation?
    May our living lord God Bless us all

    LOVE : New Jerusalem – Holy City

  11. @Questor: The word “converted” is pretty loaded, especially when applied to a Jew and especially when involving Judaism, Christianity, and the association of Jews and Gentiles. For that reason alone, I’d probably refrain from using it to describe Rav Shaul’s call from Yeshua.

    @Lora: No one thinks they’re holding onto mistaken beliefs. Otherwise they wouldn’t hold onto them. I’ve experienced a certain amount of dismay in my association with more normative Christians, which is one of the many reasons I don’t currently attend a congregation.

    @Steve: Agreed.

    @Jim: In the world of nearly 2,000 years of Church history.

    @ProclaimLiberty: I’m sure you know that in order for non-Jewish Messianics, that is, Christians, to separate from Judaism and their Jewish teachers, they had to drastically refactor what the Bible says about Jews, Gentiles, the New Covenant, and particularly Yeshua and Shaul.

    To re-examine those beliefs would be tremendously threatening to Christians and the Church and might ultimately result is there not being a “Church,” at least in the historical sense.

    1. @James — You present an intriguing suggestion in your statement: “To re-examine those beliefs would be tremendously threatening to Christians and the Church and might ultimately result is there not being a “Church,” at least in the historical sense.”. Permit me to invoke the context of Jews returning to a primitive Eretz Yisrael after 20 centuries of exile and rebuilding a sovereign Jewish society. Let me then suggest a parallel re-structuring, for would-be gentile disciples of the Jewish admor haRav Yeshua ben-Yosef, that returns them truly to seemingly primitive first-century conditions. Clearly, HaShem has deemed the time ripe for Jews to return to their prior state. Might we not consider that the time is likewise ripe for gentiles to do similarly? For Jews, this entails repudiation of their former exile (which, regrettably, is still a work in progress). Would it not be so also for gentiles, necessarily to repudiate the falseness of the directions that Christianity has taken during that same interval? Many Jews in America also have difficulty in embracing the task of repudiating the exile (and the comforts they have developed therein) and embarking on a path to “make aliyah”. Those who do, have deemed the potential rewards to be worth the effort (and it’s no longer as primitive a state as once it was). Convincing Christians that there are commensurate rewards to be pursued in deconstructing traditional Christianity in favor of a return to a more primitive discipleship will demand of them also to step forward in an uncommonly bold expression of faith.

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