Scholars debate the story of Paul’s conversion, or call, and some even question the three accounts in the Book of Acts and how they sync with the personal references in the epistles. The simple fact is clear to all – Paul, or Saul as he was initially known, was a persecutor of the church and a rigorously faithful Jew who rejected the idea that Jesus was Israel’s messiah. In Acts 9:1-31 we have an account by Luke of Paul's conversion story and in 22:6-21 and 26: 12-20 we have speeches of Paul about how he came to faith in Jesus as messiah. The final account speaks of a conversion type of experience. Is this the primary way we should think of Paul’s account of his great change?
This is what we know: Saul was a ferocious antagonist of the early Jesus followers in Jerusalem. He obtained authority to travel to Damascus to arrest the followers of Jesus. While on the road to Damascus he experienced a blinding light and heard a voice from heaven. When he asked who this was the answer must have shocked him: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul was left blind and led into Damascus by his companions. He was later met by a man named Ananias, a Jesus follower. Ananias had been instructed in a vision to go and minister to Saul, who would later become Paul. As a result of the faithfulness of this one man, Ananias, and of course God’s overwhelming grace, Paul believed the good news and was baptized. He became a zealous proponent of Jesus and of his good news movement.
Paul went from being a persecutor to a powerful advocate, thus he experienced a type of conversion. This began in a visionary experience in which he saw and heard the risen Jesus!
Paul tells us that he was a zealous Jew, righteous and blameless according to the law. He refers to himself in Philippians 3:5 as a “Pharisee” though this is the only time he provides this information. In Acts 22 he refers to having studied under Gamaliel, ,a fact mentioned nowhere else too.
Some have doubted Paul’s visionary experience, often for very different reasons. Yet Paul clearly refers to his experience of Jesus in Galatians 1:15-16 and 1 Corinthians 15:5-9. He says in Galatians that God was pleased to “reveal” himself to him in his Son. In Corinthians he says Jesus “appeared” to disciples five different times. These terms both refer to the nature of his experience. The Greek in Galatians is apokalysai, the verb form of the word apocalypse or revelation. In the light of Paul’s claim that he did not confer with any other human being about this matter the only reasonable way to understand this is to say that he had an apocalyptic vision of the risen Christ!
In Corinthians the word translated “appeared” comes from the Greek word opthe, which is the identical verb form in the preceding verses used to describe the appearances of the risen Jesus to Peter, James and the five hundred. Simply put, the appearance that they had of the risen Christ is exactly like the one Paul had. The sense here is captured in the word “epiphany.”
At this point there are several ways to respond. Some resort to psychological explanations of Paul and the changes that followed. Others realize that he lived in a religious environment where revelatory visions were the norm. In fact, he refers elsewhere to making decisions based upon such revelations; cf. Gal. 2:1; 2 Cor. 12:1. In 2 Corinthians 12 he goes on to describe one such encounter when “he was caught up into the third heaven” and saw paradise (2 Cor. 12:2-5). All serious scholars admit that this last description is actually common to the Jewish apocalyptic tradition. What they debate is not that people had such experiences, or wrote about them, but whether or not they believe they actually happened as “real” (supernatural) experiences. The answer you give is rooted in how you read the New Testament and understand such literature. I am persuaded that such revelations did happen in real history. I am actually persuaded that they still do but the Canon of Scripture is primary and interpretive of them in our day.
What no one can deny is that Paul had a profound experience, regardless of how or why they define it. In Gal. 1:15 he refers to all of this as the time when “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace.” Paul believed what happened to him was in line with what happened to Hebrew prophets in such Old Testament passages as Jeremiah 1:4-5 and Isaiah 49:1-6. Both passages refer to being “set apart” and “consecrated” or “called.” There is, in Paul’s case, a prophetic calling to serve the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. He had no doubt who this was and what he should do with this call.
All of this places Paul squarely within his Jewish heritage and context. Yet Paul became the apostle to the Gentiles. His mission was to spread the Jesus movement beyond the Jews, to the whole Gentile world. This means that there was no sense in which Paul left his Jewishness behind or turned away from it entirely. This is also why the “conversion” versus “calling” debate arises among scholars of the Bible. Was Paul “converted” away from Judaism? I answer no. He was a Jew to his final day. But he believed Jesus was the messiah of Israel and then the nations. His “call” was to take the Jewish message to the whole world. One scholar, who again has less confidence in the supernatural origins of the human text of the Bible, says that Paul was a “religious quester.” By this he means that he gradually came to realize that the very group of Jews he had persecuted as an aberrant form of Judaism was indeed the true way of Judaism after all. I think these scholars get very close to the truth in this conclusion. It is best to think of Paul’s experience as his calling in order to avoid the wrong conclusions about his Jewish past and identity. Paul was a Jew and a follower of messiah Jesus. His calling was to take the good news beyond Israel, to the nations. This is what set him apart in the early church.