Called or Converted? (Pt. 2)

A short while ago I began to address the question whether Paul was called or converted. It’s a question that has preoccupied a lot of scholars – especially in our post-holocaust world. It seems to many (including E.P. Sanders) that if you say that Paul converted away from Judaism and towards Christianity you are being anti-semitic i.e. that Judaism is a lesser religion than Christianity. This is a ridiculous accusation – if in fact Paul was converted and not called to another form of Judaism – that in no way implies anti-Semitic feelings. Its simply calling a spade a spade – Paul either converted or he didn’t. I understand that to say that he converted from Judaism to Christianity is a bit anachronistic: Christianity as an institutionalized religion was not a thing – and they certainly did think of themselves as starting a brand new religion. I think the issue – calling or conversion – boils down to how much contunity you see between Paul’s Judaism and the fulfilled Judaism as taught by Jesus Christ.

In his rather thick book Paul: Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ, Thomas Schriener says something very similar. He points out that some scholars today maintain that Paul was called and not converted – “In other words, Paul did not conceive of himself as forsaking Judaism and joining a new religion called Christianity when he was summoned to be an apostle.” (45) Schriener however believes that those who try to segregate Paul’s call from his conversion are mistaken – it is appropriate to speak of a call and a conversion. He argues this by pointing us to Paul’s own words in his letters. Paul says that he was “formerly in Judaism.” (Gal 1:13) – implying that he is no longer a part of Judaism. Tom points out that Paul could have easily spoken of his call to apostleship as the fulfillment of his Judaism, but he never does.

Tom acknowledges that Paul did conceive of his faith as the fulfillment of the OT scriptures and in that sense Paul did see continuity with his Judaism and his Christianity. Schreiner concludes by saying that Paul understood his own calling as a conversion as well…

He does not estimate his past as a valid and acceptable way to escape God’s wrath on the day of judgment. He rejects his past with passion and vehemence and says that those who advocate such a theology stand under God’s cures. This is the language of a man who was called and converted. (47)

I’ll shoot straight with you… I think Schriener is wrong. Sure I agree with him that we shouldn’t abandon call and conversion language when talking about Paul. Paul certainly received a call upon his life (which I think is modeled after several passages in Isaiah) and certainly he was converted – if by that we mean there was a turn around in attitude towards Christ. However, I don’t think we can say that Paul was converted from Judaism to Christianity. Paul might have been converted from a form of Judaism – specifically the sect of the Pharisees – to another form of Judaism. This “conversion” required a turn around (from persecuting Christ followers to being a Christ follower.) So their certainly was a radical change in Paul. However, Paul it seems to me still talks about Christ and Christianity as the goal of the OT Scriptures – as the fulfillment of Judaism. Where all this gets tricky is that we tend to conflate the term Judaism (or the term Jew especially in John) with Judaism as a whole. Usually (its certainly the case in John when he talks about the Jews) the author is speaking of a particular group of Jews (in John’s case the temple leaders and scribes/Pharisees) not all Jews. I think Paul is doing the same thing. When he talks about leaving behind Judaism – he isn’t talking about Judaism as in OT Judaism but a specific form.

So to answer the question – was Paul called or converted? The answer is yes. He was called to a new role in a new (but actually ancient) form of Judaism to which he had recently been converted into.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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