Answer for yourself: What was the big events which signaled the beginning of the Christian religion?
You might not be aware of this but the "big event" that provided the origin for Christianity was the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus. It was through this event that Jesus' movement (Messianic Biblical Judaism) changed from being a variety of Judaism into a new religion with a theology and religious belief system distinct from those of Judaism. This outcome was not immediate, even in the mind of Paul himself. But it was the Damascus event that provided the germ of all the later developments and these developments can be traced through the "evolution" of Paul's religious concepts throughout his life as chronicled in the New Testament.
Paul (at this stage, still called Saul) was on his way to Damascus on a mission described as follows:
Acts 9:1-2 1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, 2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. (KJV)
Most likely you have read this passage hundreds of times in your life and never saw anything out of the ordinary that might provoke any idea of a "problem" in this passage. But believe me with a little knowledge of Judaism then this passage from Acts 9:2 presents several problems. The High Priest had no authority over synagogues as such, for his jurisdiction in Jewish law extended only over the Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogues, which were set up for prayer and study wherever there was a population of Jews, both inside and outside the Holy Land, did not form part of the Temple organization, but were under lay supervision and authority, as they are to this day. The priests or kohanim (the descendants of Aaron) were given certain honors in the synagogue service, such as being called up first to the reading of the law and pronouncing the priest's blessing on festival days, but they had no role of leadership in the synagogue community. The lay administrators of the synagogue were elected by its members, and the spiritual guidance of the community was in the hands of a rabbi, at this time not a paid office. The High Priest, therefore, had no right to send his officers into the synagogues to arrest people whose activities he disapproved of. Nevertheless, within Judaea the High Priest was able to do this, not by religious right, but simply by virtue of the power assigned to him by the Roman occupying forces. It was as chief of police, not as a figure of religious standing, that the High Priest was able to send officers such as Saul into synagogues to arrest members of Jesus' movement and haul them off to prison. As we have seen, he did this, not because he disapproved of their theology, but because he regarded them as a menace to the Roman occupation and desired to forestall or prevent any Messianic uprising that might bring upon them the wrath of Rome for such political unrest.
Outside Judaea, however, the High Priest had no such police authority, and it is therefore difficult to understand how any "letters" he might give to Saul "authorizing him to arrest" followers of Jesus would have any validity. The difficulty is all the greater in that Damascus at this time was not even under Roman rule, having been ceded by Caligula (AD 37). It belonged to the independent Arab kingdom of Nabataea, under the rule of King Aretas iv (9BC-AD 40). This King, who was jealous of his independence, would hardly take kindly to the entry into his territory of an emissary of the Roman-ruled area of Judaea for the purpose of arresting and dragging away citizens or even aliens who were under his protection.
It seems, then, that the details of Saul's allotted task in Damascus does not line up with the facts. It cannot be that he had letters from the High Priest authorizing him to arrest indiscriminately members of Jesus' movement in Damascus. On the contrary, it was precisely in order to escape from the jurisdiction of the High Priest and of the Romans that Jesus' followers had left Judaea and gone to Damascus. This being the case Saul must have been on a clandestine mission to kidnap certain leading Nazarenes and bring them back to Judaea for imprisonment or for handing over to the Roman authorities. As we have seen, one wing of Jesus' movement, of which Stephen had been a leader, was adopting an activist line against the Roman occupation, and had been forced into exile (while the quietist wing, which was waiting for the triumphant return of Jesus himself, was allowed to remain unmolested). No doubt some activists still remained in Judaea underground, and were receiving help and advice from their comrades in Damascus, who were proving a thorn in the flesh of the High Priest. Saul, the trusted police officer of the High Priest, was therefore sent with a band of mercenaries to put an end to this menace by illegally entering Damascus and carrying off the ringleaders of subversion.
A verification of this Acts 9 incident of Paul exists and has survived in later Christian literature. In the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions (i. 70 if.), a work known to contain some material taken from Jewish Christian literature, we are told that when Saul travelled to Damascus it was with the intention of arresting no other than Peter, who had fled there after a persecution involving the near-murder of James. While this account cannot be reconciled with the statement of Acts that the leading apostles were not being molested at this time, it may well be a garbled version of genuine historical fact, which was that leading members of Stephen's faction were in Damascus, and Saul was in pursuit of them.
An interesting confirmation of this version of events can be found in Paul's own writings. In 2 Corinthians 11: 32-33, he writes:
"When I was in Damascus, the commissioner of King Aretas kept the city under observation so as to have me arrested; and I was let down in a basket, through a window in the wall, and so escaped his clutches."
This refers to the period after Paul had entered Damascus, having been struck blind by his vision of Jesus, cured by Ananias and become a public advocate ofJesus. But the account of the same event in Acts presents a surprising contrast:
But Saul grew more and more forceful, and silenced the Jews of Damascus with his cogent proofs that Jesus was the Messiah. As the days mounted up, the Jews hatched a plot against his life; but their plans became known to Saul. They kept watch on the city gates day and night so that they might murder him; but his converts took him one night and let him down by the wall, lowering him in a basket. (Acts g: 22-25)
Paul's version is, of course, much closer to the actual events (Paul was writing his letters from about AD 55 to about AD 60, while Acts was not written until about AD 90). And Paul tells us that the reason why he had to steal secretly away from Damascus was that the police chief of King Aretas was seeking to arrest him. In Acts, however, it is said that Paul's life was threatened by the Jewish residents of Damascus, who objected to Paul's advocacy of the Messiahship ofJesus. This is a most instructive contrast. It is a perfect example of how the shift, found throughout the Gospels and Acts, from a political to a religious account of events results in vilification of the Jews as the villains of the story.
If it was the "commissioner of King Aretas" who was seeking to arrest Paul, and not the Jews, Paul must have been thought guilty of some political offence. Some scholars have tried to argue that the commissioner was acting on behalf of the Jews; but there was no reason for the Nabataean chief of police to concern himself with religious disputes among the Jewish residents of Damascus. Much more likely is that he had discovered that Paul was himself a police agent of the High Priest of Jerusalem and that he was in Damascus on a mission that constituted an infringement of Nabataean sovereignty. The situation must have been quite a common one in Damascus, which was a refuge for political dissidents fleeing areas under Roman authority. The fact that Paul had given up the mission on which he had been sent would not have been believed by the commissioner, who would regard Paul's conversion merely as a front for an undercover agent. The commissioner would therefore have acted promptly on information received about Paul's status, and Paul had to beat a hasty retreat from Damascus to avoid arrest.
The Jews of Damascus would not have had anything against Paul just because he had been converted to the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. Belief in a Messiah or a particular identity for this "soon coming King" was varied in Israel in the first century and was not a matter of contention. Paul, at this early period of his conversion, had not yet formulated his new and heretical views about the divine status of Jesus and the abrogation of the Torah, so he would be regarded as simply another follower of Jesus; and the Nazarenes in Damascus would be regarded with sympathy by all Jews as a patriotic party working for the liberation of the Jewish homeland. But there would be no Jews in Damascus who would sympathize with the collaborationist views of the High Priest, for there would be no pro-Roman party among Jews living in a city that had been removed from Roman rule.
The book of Acts, however, having transformed Saul from a police agent into a fanatical Pharisee, has to represent his mission to Damascus as religious, not political, and consequently, when Saul becomes converted to Jesus' movement, the Jews of Damascus become the cruel, intolerant Pharisees who oppose him, just as in the Gospels the Pharisees are set up as the opponents of Jesus. The clear evidence of tampering with the facts, shown by the changing of the story from Paul's account of what happened to that given in Acts, should alert us to a similar process wherever the Jews are portrayed as persecutors.
It is time to focus on the experience of Paul near Damascus that changed his life and that of the Western world. There are three accounts of this event in the book of Acts (in chapters 9, 22 and 26), and there are some curious inconsistencies between the three accounts; also there is a fourth account in the first chapter of Galatians, written by Paul himself, that raises problems of its own. We may begin with the first account (Acts 9:1-31):
"While he was still on the road and nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed from the sky all around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 'Tell me, Lord,' he said, 'who you are.' The voice answered, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do.' Meanwhile the men who were travelling with him stood speechless; they heard the voice and could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could not see; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. He was blind for three days, and took no food or drink."
According to this account, Saul's vision is characterized by certain manifestations:
Several of the details are contradicted in the other accounts: thus, in chapter 22, we are told that the men with Saul did not hear the voice, though they saw the light; and in chapter 26, we are told that Jesus made a much longer speech, telling Saul that he was appointing him on a mission to the Gentiles.
According to the account quoted above, Jesus gave no details of the mission he had in mind for Saul, but told him that he would be further informed in Damascus, where he was indeed visited by Ananias, who cured his blindness, converted him to Jesus' movement by baptism and also (presumably, though this is not said explicitly) informed him of his mission to the Gentiles.
Answer for yourself: Have you ever contrasted the depiction of Ananias in chapter 9 with the depiction of Ananias in chapter 22?
Ananias in chapter 9 is a Christian, but in chapter 22 he is a pious Jewish observer of the law, and it is not explained why as such but what I want you to notice because it is so important is the fact that Ananias, a Christian (follower and believer in Jesus) is also "well spoken of by all the Jews of that place."
Answer for yourself: If Ananias can be a follower of Jesus and at the same time exhibit Jewish piety and friendliness with all the other Jews and can be at the same time "well spoken of by all the Jews" then why does Saul's conversion to Christianity bring upon him the enmity of the Jews of Damascus?
Answer for yourself: What is the difference? Could it be that Saul's religious doctrines that he obtains and attached to Jesus that not only are so far from Biblical Judaism but contradicts Biblical Judaism could be the cause for this enmity that causes Paul to be beaten repeatedly and rejected by his fellow Jews?
Answer for yourself: Are you aware that these "inconsistencies" in the accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9, 22, 26) come from the pen of the "same" writer? How can this be explained? Could the manuscripts have been tampered with and "edited?"
Despite the above inconsistencies in the narrative, which are somewhat surprising in the course of a single book by a single author, it is possible to piece together an intelligible account of Saul's experience. He had a sudden overwhelming attack, in which he saw a flashing light and fell to the ground and heard a voice which convinced him of the presence of Jesus. He did not, apparently, see the face and form of Jesus, but only the bright light. When the experience was over, he got up from the ground and found that he was blind. The content of the experience was vague: he did not yet know how it was to affect his future life, but only that the Jesus whose followers he had been persecuting had appeared to him in supernatural guise and reproached him, and that this meant that he, Saul, had been chosen for a great role.
Some commentators have tried to assign a physical cause to Saul's experience, such as a sun-stroke or epilepsy. Such explanations really explain nothing. But one only has to read slowly and closely at what Paul says about himself to understand the internal conflict within himself to understand the origin for such a revelation. Much more to the point is to investigate the psychological conditions for such a sudden conversion experience, and here the work of William James and other investigators is of value. They have shown that the background to such an experience is the "divided self". It is when a sensitive person is struggling, against great difficulties, to achieve physical unity that there may occur a unification experience of startling suddenness, after which the individual is able to embark on a new life with purpose and energy.
Paul's own statement of his spiritual dilemma is one of the classic portrayals of psychological conflict:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am not: I am unspiritual, the purchased slave of sin. I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine, for what I do is not what I want to do, but what I detest. But if what I do is against my will, it means that I agree with the law and hold it to be admirable. But as things are, it is no longer I who perform the action, but sin that lodges in me. For I know that nothing good lodges in me ? in my unspiritual nature, I mean ? for though the will to do good is there, the deed is not. The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will; and if what I do is against my will, clearly it is no longer I who am the agent, but sin that has its lodging in me.
I discover this principle, then: that when I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves and making me a prisoner under the law that is in my members, the law of sin. Miserable creature that I am, who is there to rescue me out of this body doomed to death? God alone, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God! In a word, then, I myself, subject to God's law as a rational being, am yet, in my unspiritual nature, a slave to the law of sin.
The conclusion of the matter is this: there is no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus, because in Christ Jesus the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death. What the law could never do, because our lower nature robbed it of all potency, God has done: by sending his own Son.. . . (Romans 7:14-8:1)
Answer for yourself: Since Paul represents himself as a "Pharisee of Pharisees," then is what Paul is experiencing and relating in his epistles, particularly Romans 7 and Romans 8 concerning his internal struggles with sin, obedience, and guilt indicative and characteristic of Phariseeism? NO!
Many Christian commentators, especially of the German school, have asserted that the religious dilemma outlined here by Paul is typical of Phariseeism, and thus reveals him as the archetypal Pharisee before his conversion. For, according to these commentators, the Pharisees were guilt-ridden, under the burden of the Torah, with its many complicated laws and were obsessed with the fear that they might have failed to observe the law in its entirety. Paul thus (according to this theory) saw Jesus as the solution to his anxiety-ridden state as a Pharisee: instead of having to strive with nagging consciousness of failure to fulfil a law which human nature was too degraded to obey, he could now rely, not on his own puny efforts, but on the initiative of God, who had sent His Son to take away the moral burden from mankind. Actually (though some of the writers of this school have failed to recognize this), there is no criticism of the Torah itself, or even of the rabbinical additions to it, in this passage: Paul is saying that the demands of the Torah are just, but that human nature is unable to comply with those demands because of the weakness of the flesh; and therefore, the Torah is no help to mankind in its moral dilemma, since it only serves to make clear its moral inadequacy, for which only the grace of God can compensate.
Answer for yourself: But is this characterization of Paul and Phariseeism accurate? No it is not!
More recent scholarship, however, has completely refuted the view of a gloomy, guilt-ridden Pharisaism, constantly in fear of damnation for having omitted the observance of some petty law. For there is no such sense of inevitable human failure to live up to the demands of the law; and on the other hand, in Pharisaism, there is the constant possibility of repentance and forgiveness, if any sin or error is committed. The emphasis, in Pharisaism, is just the opposite of that found in the above passage of Paul: that the demands of the law are reasonable and not beyond the power of human nature to fulfil; and this is merely the continuation of the emphasis of the Hebrew Bible itself, which says:
"For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it'". . . But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (Deuteronomy 3O:11-14
If, however, human nature being admittedly frail, temptation is too strong and a sin is committed, Pharisaism stresses the availability of God's forgiveness through repentance and reparation; so that there is no sense of unbearable strain because every commandment has to be perfectly obeyed, as appears to be the case with Paul, both here and (more explicitly) in Galatians 3:10-12. On the contrary, Pharisaism everywhere stresses the concept that the Torah may be fulfilled on various levels, according to the state of spiritual advancement of the individual: thus there are the minimum requirements for ordinary people, but also the "measure of saintliness" (middat hasidim) for those who wish to acquire supererogatory virtue, though no one is blamed for not proceeding to such a level ? and may even be blamed for seeking it prematurely.
Further, the psychological dualism found in Paul's statement is most uncharacteristic of Pharisaism. The dichotomy, in Paul's thinking, between the flesh and the spirit, in which evils proceed from the flesh, which can be redeemed only by an inpouring of spirit from above, reflects a view of human nature that issued in the Christian doctrine of original sin. This doctrine is radically opposed to the Pharisaic concept of the essential unity of human nature. In Pharisaic thinking, there is indeed a conflict in the human psyche between two formations or inclinations, the "good inclination" (yetzer ha-toy) and the "evil inclination" (yetzer ha-ra); but neither of these inclinations is identified with the flesh or body and both of them are regarded as equally human. In this struggle between good and evil tendencies, the human being is regarded as having the initiative in his own hands, and not to require supernatural help. The instruction to be found in the Torah, however, is regarded as the greatest aid towards the victory of the good inclination; but, again, this instruction can be gained only by initiative on the part of the human being, who has to set himself to the task of studying the Torah and applying it to his life. The very effort involved in this essential process of education and study is regarded as efficacious against the power of the evil inclination. Thus, the application of energy and effort to the moral life is of the essence of Pharisaism, and nothing could be more alien to it than a moral despair which declares that human effort is useless and the only remedy lies in the grace exercised by God. Yet this moral despair is precisely the attitude powerfully described in Paul's account of his own dilemma.
Furthermore, in Pharisaic thinking, the moral struggle is directed not so much to the obliteration of the evil inclination as to its sublimation and redirection. It is recognized that the selfish energies of the evil inclination are essential to the vitality of the psyche and of the community, so that we find such expressions as the following (Midrash Rabbah on Ecciesiastes 3:11):
Nehemiah, the son of Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman, said: 'And behold, it was very good' (Genesis 1:31) - this alludes to the creation of man and the Good Inclination, but the addition of the word 'very' alludes to the Evil Inclination. Is, then, the Evil Inclination 'very good'? It is in truth to teach you that were it not for the Evil Inclination, nobody would build a house, marry and beget children, and thus Solomon says, That it is a man's rivalry with his neighbor? (Ecclesiastes 4: 4).
In other words, the impulse of aggression and rivalry provides the psychic energy for all action, and though the good inclination is engaged in building up a spirit of co-operation, it cannot do so by suppressing the selfish instincts but only by making use of them.
Thus the Pharisaic psychology of morality by no means sinks into an easy optimism about human nature, but declares morality to be a continual struggle; yet its theory not only unifies the psyche by giving it power over all its own processes, but also declares that the psyche becomes more and more unified as it progresses in the moral struggle.
Answer for yourself: Is Paul's characterization of his plight in Romans 7 and 8 typical of what Pharisees believed concerning sin and its remedy in the Torah? No, not at all!
Answer for yourself: If Paul prided himself as being a Pharisee of Pharisees then why does he not hold this very "central" doctrine concerning the struggle of the flesh and the spirit; of sin and it's remedy as understood by mainline Phariseeism and Biblical Judaism?
At the opposite pole to this is Paul's picture of the moral struggle, in which he portrays the psyche as hopelessly divided and unable to progress without direct supernatural intervention. There is thus no confirmation to be found in this passage of Paul's alleged Pharisaism; on the contrary, he seems, on this evidence, to have been in a spiritual situation entirely different from that of Pharisaism before his conversion to Jesus. If Paul was a Pharisee, he was a unique one.
As we have demonstrated in earlier articles in this series Paul was not a Pharisee but is made to look as if he was by the writers of the New Testament. This realization, that Paul was not a Pharisee, is a result which we have reached in other contexts too - for example, in the context of Paul's alliance with the High Priest. When Paul repeatedly comes to appear so untypical as to be unique, it seems a more plausible hypothesis that he was not a Pharisee at all.
But if we look for a parallel to Paul's analysis of the human condition among the philosophies and creeds of the ancient world, it is not hard to find. In style, terminology and content, Paul's declaration can be paralleled in the writings of the Gnostics. This will be shown more fully in later articles on this website, but at present it is relevant to point out that Paul's psychological dualism, here expressed, is clearly grounded in a metaphysical dualism.
Paul is saying that there are two laws in the world: the law of the spirit (pneuma) and the law of the flesh (sarx). If there are two independent and conflicting laws (or systems of organization) in the universe, it is clearly implied that there are two opposing forces, that of the spirit and that of the flesh. This is the doctrine characteristic of Gnosticism. It is also a doctrine to which the Pharisaic rabbis were utterly opposed, as the form of idolatry (or denial of the unity of God) that was endemic in their era. Thus Paul's espousal of this philosophy shows him to be not only unPharisaic, but unJewish, for not only Pharisaism but every variety of Judaism opposed it.
Some, who are acquainted with Gnosticism, see all the way through Paul and see him from what he really is...a Gnostic. This charge does not set will with Christians who look to Paul as the hero of the faith. This charge has to be defused at all costs and many attempts have been made throughout history to do so. In order to try to dispel the notion that Paul was not a Pharisee but a Gnostic some recent writers have proposed a different interpretation of the passage under discussion. Aware of the fact that a knowledge of Pharisaism does not bear out the German interpretation of the passage (as a diagnosis of the spiritual dilemma of the typical Pharisee), they argue that Paul is here not discussing his own spiritual situation (before conversion to Jesus) at all. Being a Pharisee (as they assume) he could not possibly be starting from such a dilemma, since Pharisees were too confident in the efficacy of their covenant with God, and grateful for the instruction given to them in the Torah, to find themselves in such an impasse. Moreover, as a Pharisee, Paul would surely be aware of the availability of God's forgiveness for any sins committed, through repentance and reparation; yet Paul makes no reference to this as a factor in the situation. Therefore, these writers urge (Stendhal, Gager, Gaston), what Paul is writing about here is the spiritual situation of a Gentile, who is aware of the saving grace of the Torah, but feels himself excluded from it. They would have us believe that as an Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul would have had a special sympathy for Gentiles who had been awakened to a sense of guilt by acquaintance with the Jewish Torah, but had no means of appeasing this guilt; it was for them, and not for the Jews, that Jesus Christ had come to Earth and suffered, and it was through him that Gentiles could attain the same state of grace that, for Jews, could be attained through the Torah. Thus, according to this interpretation, Paul was not abrogating the Torah at all, but simply providing an alternative mode of salvation for Gentiles; the idea that salvation through Jesus Christ implied the abrogation of the Torah even for Jews was a later unfortunate aberration, caused by a misreading of Paul's writings.
Answer for yourself: Is there anything to be found wrong with such an "assumption" that Paul was speaking of the Gentile's plight in Rom. 7 and 8 and not all of mankind? Yes there is!
The writers of this school all seem entirely unaware that Judaism already provided a way of salvation for Gentiles, and that therefore no Pharisee (as Paul is assumed to be in this argument) would feel pity for the exclusion of the Gentiles from salvation. There were two methods of salvation for Gentiles in Pharisee thinking: either by full conversion to Judaism, in which case the convert would become a full Jew and participate in the covenant with Israel; or by adherence to the Noahide Laws which constituted a covenant and a Torah for Gentiles as revealed by God to Noah, the patriarch of the Gentiles.
In any case, this whole interpretation is a most unnatural reading of the passage in question, which has always been held, with great literary and psychological justification, to be a moving expression of Paul's own personal dilemma. The idea that when Paul says "I" in this passage he is merely putting himself sympathetically into the place of the Gentiles is most unconvincing to anyone who reads with an ear for the resonances of the passage. It is true that Paul is not referring only to himself; he is universalizing his own situation, and giving a representation of the universal human plight, as he sees it, but with the special depth of feeling of one who has felt this plight in his own soul and for whom the normal distractions of life have proved ineffectual.
Answer for yourself: Understanding that these ideas expressed by Paul are totally foreign to the Pharisees and Biblical Judaism what can they tell us about the man Paul?
But the new reading of the passage has at least the merit that it directs our attention to the undoubted fact that it is an expression of the plight of the Gentiles in the face of a Torah which they despair of mastering. This indeed is a most valuable insight; but it needs to be supplemented by the further insight that Paul identifies himself so completely with the situation he describes that he cannot be regarded as a Pharisee empathizing with the Gentiles, but instead must be recognized as a Gentile himself, i.e. as a Gentile convert to Judaism who has failed in his quest and has entered into a state of despair from which only some psychological revolution can rescue him. The passage mirrors so perfectly the spiritual situation of one who has tried and failed to become a Jew (a good Pharisee) that it can only be regarded as evidence (taken together with the other evidence presented in NT where Paul defends himself from other rejection from the Jerusalem church and the Apostles) that this was indeed Paul's situation. This throws light on those passages in Paul's letters in which Paul actually speaks of himself as a Gentile by the use of "we" to comprehend both himself and the Gentiles. These passages have proved somewhat puzzling to commentators, who, however, have found the ready explanation that Paul's sympathy with the Gentiles has made him regard himself as one of them, despite his supposed Pharisaic upbringing.
Galatians 3:14: "... that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." A better explanation, in the light of the evidence presented is that Paul here, in the heat of his emotion, has forgotten his persona as Pharisee, and has lapsed into his real identity (himself a Gentile) and motivation.
We may now turn back to Paul's revelation outside Damascus. Let us not forget that Paul had left the Sadducees because, as the Ebionites tell us, he was rebuffed in his attempt to marry the daughter of the High Priest. Being himself desirous to rise to greatness in Judaism and finding doors for such an ascent closed to him, to say that Paul was depressed was an understatement. The psychological conditions for such an experience are extreme turmoil of mind, induced by a sense of spiritual failure or disaster. Such a condition is likely to arise in a person who is torn between two different cultures, to one of which he is emotionally tied, while his ambitions and highest aspirations are centered on the other. This is the situation of a convert; and Paul's Damascus experience becomes psychologically and sociologically understandable as soon as we think of him as a recent convert to Judaism, instead of as a Pharisee. There is thus the strongest similarity between Paul's mental condition and that of his greatest follower in the later Church, Saint Augustine, who also struggled painfully against a pagan background and found his rest, after a mental explosion, in the same kind of synthesis, and in a sense of deep affinity with the ideas of Paul.
If we follow, then, the Ebionite account of Paul as a convert to Judaism, we may trace the biographical events that led to the road to Damascus.
On becoming converted to Judaism, he adopted the Hebrew name Saul, which was the name of the ill-fated King of Israel who came from the tribe of Benjamin. It was probably for this reason that Paul later invented for himself a genealogical descent from the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3;5).
Answer for yourself: Is there anything strange about Paul remarking that he was from the tribe of Benjamin?
As it happens, it was impossible for any Jew at this time to describe himself truthfully as of the tribe of Benjamin. While it is true that part of the tribe of Benjamin survived in Palestine after the deportation of the Ten Tribes by Shalmaneser of Assyria, the Benjaminites later intermarried with the tribe of Judah to such an extent that they lost their separate identity and all became Judahites or Jews. Only the Levites, the priestly tribe, and that section of the Levites called the kohanim or priests (the descendants of Aaron) retained their identity because they needed to do so for cultic reasons. All other Jews were simply known as Israelites for cultic purposes (e.g. for entry into the various areas of the Temple, consumption or nonconsumption of the terumak or priestly food) and no distinction was made for any religious purpose between Judahites or Benjaminites, so that there was no motive for preserving the distinction. Consequently, when Paul described himself as "of the tribe of Benjamin", this was sheer bluff, though the recipients of his letters, being Gentile converts to Christianity, were in no position to know this.
Answer for yourself: What was Saul's name before he became converted to Judaism?
It was probably some Greek name, such as Solon, that sounded something like Saul, or at least had the same initial letter. His original Gentile name was certainly not Paul, for this name was adopted by him for the first time later in his career as a Christian.
According to the Ebionites, Saul's parents were Gentiles who had not been converted to Judaism; Saul himself, then, was the first of his family to be converted. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that Saul's parents were semi-converts of the type known as "God-fearers"; i.e Gentiles who were attracted to Judaism and believed in its main tenets, but did not wish to take the drastic step of full conversion to Judaism, which involved circumcision, in the case of males, and adoption of Jewish nationality. "God-fearers" were given a respected status in Pharisaic theory, and were regarded as having attained salvation even without conversion to full Judaism, since such full conversion was regarded as more a matter of vocation than of necessity. But it was quite a common pattern for the child of "God-fearing" parents to proceed to full conversion, and it may well be that Saul was conforming to this pattern. Even as the son of "God-fearing" parents, however, Saul would have been exposed in his early childhood to pagan influences far more than a fully Jewish boy. In Tarsus, his education would have been with pagan children, and his imagination would have been impressed by the beautiful pagan ceremonies of mourning and joy associated with the death and resurrection of certain pagan gods worshipped in Tarsus.
In Acts 23, we find mention of Paul's "sister's son" who lived in Jerusalem and acted as Paul's messenger to the Roman commandant. This has been taken to be confirmation of Paul's claim in his letters that his family were native-born inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we thus often find in the writings of scholars references to "Paul's married sister, who lived in Jerusalem". However, the fact that Paul had a nephew in Jerusalem does not prove that his sister and her husband lived there too. It is more likely that Paul's nephew, following his example, had left Tarsus and had come to Jerusalem, either as a convert or as a "Godfearer". As a matter of fact, if Paul did have a whole constellation of relatives in Jerusalem, it is surprising that none of them is mentioned, apart from his nephew, as taking any interest, positive or negative, in his career.
Answer for yourself: What was the status of Paul's parents?
It is often thought that they must have been wealthy, but this is not necessarily the case. Paul was an artisan by trade, and this is hardly consistent with being the son of wealthy parents. Paul's trade has been traditionally identified as that of a tent-maker; but more accurate scholarship has shown that the Greek word involved really means "leather-worker". It has been asserted that Paul's engagement in this rather humble trade is not inconsistent with wealthy parenthood, since it was the practice of Pharisee rabbis to engage in such trades in order to preserve their independence and avoid making their living out of their knowledge of the Torah. Since Paul was not at any time a Pharisee rabbi, the point is irrelevant; and, in any case, those Pharisee rabbis who had large independent incomes did not engage in such trades. The rabbinical injunction sometimes adduced that a father should "teach his son a trade" is also not relevant, since this again applied only to those who could not provide their sons with an independent income.
On the other hand, there is evidence, taken to be incontrovertible, that Paul's father was a wealthy man: this is that he was both a Roman citizen and a citizen of Tarsus. Undoubtedly, Paul is represented as claiming that not only he, but his father too, were Roman citizens (Acts 22: 28). But there exists reasons to show that this was not the case; the mistake is probably that of Luke, the author of Acts. Paul acquired his Roman citizenship, not by birth, but by special circumstances when he was an adult. As for Paul's claim to be a citizen of Tarsus, this is not very definite. He says at one point, "I am a Jew, a Tarsian from Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city." At another point, he merely calls himself "a native of Tarsus in Cilicia". It may be that he was speaking loosely (or represented as speaking loosely) when he called himself a "citizen of no mean city", meaning by "citizen" merely "citydweller" rather than in the technical sense of one who was formally a citizen. If, in fact, Paul was a full citizen of Tarsus, this would certainly mean that his father was one before him; and this would argue a certain degree of wealth, since full citizenship was granted only to people of some wealth and prominence. It would also, incidentally, make it unlikely that Paul's father was a Jew, since membership in the citizen body of a Greek polis involved membership of a native phyla or tribe and participation in pagan worship.
There is only one conclusion possible when all the evidence is weighed. One must conclude then that Paul's father was possibly a Tarsian citizen, though not a Roman citizen, and that, even if moderately well off, he was not wealthy enough to provide his son with an independent income. The young Saul, therefore, knew that he had to make his way by his own skill and wits.
Even though Saul, after his conversion to Judaism and emigration from Tarsus to Judaea, never actually became a Pharisee rabbi, the mere fact that he felt a strong urge in later life to represent himself as having been one must be significant. It means that at some point in his life this had been his dream. If his parents were indeed "God-fearers", they must have told him in his youth about the famous Pharisees of Judaea, who occupied the apex of Jewish religious learning and piety, and were almost legendary figures to the Jews and "God-fearers" of the Diaspora. The young Saul would have heard the names of the greatest Pharisee leaders, Hillel, Shammai and Gamaliel. Perhaps even in Tarsus, he may have seen one or two of the noted Pharisee figures of his day, for many of the sages were travellers, who briefly visited Jewish communities in both the Roman and Parthian Empires, in order to preach and deliver messages from the central authorities of Pharisaism in Jerusalem. The young Saul, planning to be a full convert, would be impelled by his naturally ambitious nature to see himself as no ordinary convert, but as progressing so well in his studies and piety as to become a great Pharisee leader himself. This was not unheard of, for some converts to Judaism had indeed reached such eminence: there was, for example, Onkelos the Proselyte, whose translation of the Pentateuch into Aramaic became a standard work in the Pharisaic movement. It was even taught among the Pharisees that one of the biblical prophets, Obadiah, was a proselyte, for which reason the name Obadiah was often adopted by proselytes to replace their pagan names.
Unfortunately, young Saul's dream was doomed to disappointment. The fact that we find him, some time after his arrival in Judaea, employed as a police official in the pay of the Sadducean High Priest shows that his plans had gone awry. We may surmise that he made an abortive attempt to rise in the Pharisee movement; that he enrolled with some Pharisee teacher for a while (though not with Rabban Gamaliel, who accepted only advanced students), but proved a failure. His Epistles show him to be eloquent and imaginative, but lacking in logical ability; and this would have been an insurmountable obstacle in a Pharisee academy. Moreover, his educational base was too feeble; he had too much to learn to be able to shine and, being a person of soaring ambition (as his subsequent career shows), he would not be able to endure mediocrity. He broke off his studies and in desperation took whatever job he could obtain. Instead of his dream of respected status as a rabbi, the reality was ignominy as a member of the High Priest's band of armed hooligans.