St. Paul Logo Graphic

September 22, 2008

St Paul's letter to the Galatians contains his most extended autobiographical remarks, remarks he makes to defend his role as an apostle.

In that section, Paul describes the time before his conversion "my former life in Judaism" – like this: "I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my ancestors" (1:14).

A 21st century North American is likely to read those remarks and conclude that Paul was a prayerful Jew who spent much of his time in the synagogue discussing Scripture with the rabbis.

This is most likely a mistaken interpretation. We come to this misinterpretation because of our spiritualized understanding of the words "zeal" and "Judaism."

A proper understanding of those words is essential if we are to grasp the nature of Paul's conversion. Understanding the nature of his conversion, in turn, is the key to understanding his writings and ministry. Paul's writings, of course, are a foundation of the Christian faith.

Throughout his writings, Paul uses the term "Israel" to refer to the people of the covenant. When he talks about Jews or Judaism, he is talking about something different.

"Judaism" was a political term for Paul. It denoted, says leading scholar James Dunn, the people who defined themselves through separation from the wider world. Part of the function of the Torah was to reinforce that separateness. Judaism was not just religion, but also a form of nationalism.

Zeal, again, was a political enthusiasm. N.T. Wright, another scholar, says, "Whereas for the modern Christian 'zeal' is something you do on your knees, or in evangelism, or in works of charity, for the first century Jew, 'zeal' was something you did with a knife."

Jewish zealotry was an aggressive assertion of Israel's cultural-religious identity, an assertion that could easily take a violent form. Moreover, this zeal was directed not only against Gentiles, but also against those Jews who were not as rigid in their defence of Israel's people, land and Temple.

Paul was a Pharisee and most likely a Shammaite Pharisee, one who subscribed to a right-wing militant nationalism that allowed no compromise with either outsiders or more liberal sons of Israel.

We do not know if Paul actually killed any Jews who were followers of Jesus or if that was the purpose of his trip to Damascus. But we do know that he was at the very least an accomplice in the stoning of St. Stephen.


He also read the Bible not so much as the foundation of religious doctrine but as a story – "a story in search of an ending," as Wright puts it. His role as a zealous Pharisee was to help bring that story to its conclusion.

The end of the story is not to get to heaven when you die. The story ends when God's chosen people are the instrument of salvation for the whole world.

This salvation comes when the Temple is properly and fully rebuilt, when the Torah is meticulously observed by all and when the land of Israel is safe from outside oppressors. Then the Messiah will come and judge world history in Israel's favour and bring his salvation to the nations.

All of this added up to a Jewish exclusiveness. It was from this path of violent Jewish nationalism that Paul was converted on the road to Damascus.

He did not jettison his religious beliefs. But he did come to see his faith in a different light once he came face-to-face with the risen Jesus.

That encounter meant that he could no longer accept the Shammaite belief in an uncompromising separate religious elite. It also meant that he had to turn away from the path of violence. His righteousness could not be derived from the Law. It came from the Prince of Peace.