The Damascus Road Conversion of St. Paul: Fact or Fiction?

Muslims are often quick to dismiss the letters of the apostle Paul. In a previous blog post, I showed why there is good reason to think that Paul's message was largely consistent with the message of the Jerusalem church, and why this presents a problem for Muslims. Here, I want to present another reason why Muslims need to start taking Paul more seriously. In this blog post, I want to examine the historical evidence bearing on Paul's conversion experience. What transformed the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus -- a persecutor of Christians -- into the great apostle Paul, arguably the greatest evangelist who ever lived? Did Paul really come to believe that he had a vision on the road to Damascus that he interpreted to be Jesus Himself? If so, then what best explains the origins of this belief? It is these questions that concern us in the present article. 

The Acts of the Apostles contains a report concerning Paul's conversion. In Acts 9:1-19, we read the following:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him.4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Paul Himself in his own words gives us some clues about his conversion experience. For example, in Galatians 1:11-16, we read,

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born,and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

In this text, it is noteworthy that no mention is made of the locality of Paul's conversion. A casual expression at the end of verse 17, apparently brought in for a different purpose, indicates that it was at Damascus ("...and returned again to Damascus"), consistent with the account in Acts (where Paul reportedly encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and subsequently met with Ananias in Damascus, where he received the Holy Spirit). This is a phenomenon that the great apologist William Paley called "undesignedness", where two independent accounts interlock in a manner that is unexpected if one were copied from the other or both from a common source. This gains further support from 2 Corinthians 11:32-33, in which Paul gives us an historical detail also recorded by Acts 9: 

32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.

Here is the parallel account in Acts 9:23-25:

23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

Notice that Paul's own account in his second epistle to Corinth gives us more information than does Luke's account in Acts. Luke doesn't tell us that it was the governor under King Aretas who wished to seize Paul. This suggests that Paul is not relying on Acts as his source. It seems also unlikely that Luke was relying on Paul's epistle in order to construct a consistent narrative. For example, the sufferings of Paul which are listed in verses 21-29 of the same chapter cannot be reconstructed from Acts. Furthermore, Titus -- who is mentioned prominently in the epistle (see 2 Corinthians 2:13; 7:6,13,14; 8:6,16,23; 12:18) -- is not mentioned in Acts at all.

Furthermore, the text in Acts 9:19-22 tells us that,

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. 20 And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

This is consistent with our text in Galatians (1:16-17). Both accounts indicate that Paul preached the gospel immediately upon his commissioning. 

A further text, that is important for our purposes here, is 1 Corinthians 15:8-10, in which Paul tells us,

8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.

Paul thus himself claims to have had an encounter with the risen Christ. He asserts that he was the very last individual to whom Jesus appeared. This is consistent with our account in Acts. What is the meaning of the phrase "as to one untimely born"? Presumably it refers to the fact that Paul had not encountered Jesus when he was on earth, but only encountered the risen Christ after His ascension into heaven. Again, this is very consistent with our account in Acts. Paul also gives his own testimony to the fact that at one time he used to persecute Christians. This raises the question as to what brought about his conversion from someone who was zealous for hunting down and killing Christians to someone who was zealous for serving the Lord Jesus Christ whom he had once persecuted. It seems very clear to me that Paul was sincere in his belief that he had personally encountered the raised Christ and that he had been commissioned by Jesus Himself to the office of apostleship. How do I know he was sincere? By the extent to which he was willing so suffer for the name of Christ. He had nothing obvious to gain by abandoning his faith (for which he was extremely zealous) and starting a new religion; and he had everything to lose.

Clement, the first century bishop of Rome, who almost certainly was personally acquainted with Paul (as I argue here), writes in his letter to the Corinthians towards the close of the first century (1st Clement 5):

And Paul, because of jealousy and contention, has become the very type of endurance rewarded. He was in bonds seven times, he was exiled, he was stoned. He preached in the East and in the West, winning a noble reputation for his faith. He taught righteousness to all the world; and after reaching the furthest limits of the West, and bearing his testimony before kings and rulers, he passed out of this world and was received into the holy places. In him we have one of the greatest of all examples of endurance.

Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke -- a companion of Paul -- also tells us of many of Paul's sufferings for the name of Christ. Moreover, Paul himself, in his own words, describes some of his persecutions in 2 Corinthians 11:

But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

What could have compelled the apostle Paul to give up his former commitment to Judaism and his prominent position within the Jewish community, and endure so much suffering and hardship for the name of Christ? Taken together, the evidence outlined above provides compelling reason to think that Paul really did experience a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul sincerely interpreted this to be a real and genuine commissioning by Jesus Himself to the office of apostleship. Paul, in his letters, gives every impression of being a man of sober-mindedness, and of first-class intellect. He most certainly was not stupid. These facts, taken together, ought to give one pause for thought before one casually dismisses the apostle Paul.