May 12, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: His conversion and first preaching

Saul could not have been less prepared for what happened to him on the road to Damascus about the year 33. He was intent on arresting any followers of Christ he might find in the synagogues in Damascus, and he prepared for that by getting letters of introduction from the Jewish high priest in Jerusalem.

What happened next is described in the Acts of the Apostles in three places (Acts 9:1-19, 22:5-16 and 26:12-18). I encourage you to read at least one of the accounts, but the details of Saul’s being knocked to the ground by a bright light that left him blind, and the voice of Jesus that asked why Saul was persecuting him, are well known.

This encounter with Jesus couldn’t have been more profound. It completely transformed Saul, who immediately became convinced that the Jesus who had been crucified was alive. Later, he was to say, “I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ” (Phil 3:12).

There was no doubt in Saul’s mind: From what he knew about the Jewish Law and about Jewish aspirations for the Messiah, Jesus was he. He was the Christ (anointed one), Lord, Messiah, Son of God—all descriptions in Judaism of the one who would come and replace the Law. From now on, Saul understood, acceptance of Jesus was what mattered, no longer obedience to the Law.

After being led into Damascus, he was blind for three days until Ananias laid hands on him. After recovering his sight, he was baptized and immediately began to proclaim in the synagogues that Jesus was the son of God.

Then he went for a short time to Arabia (Gal 1:17). This was not today’s Saudi Arabia, but more likely modern Jordan, which then was ruled by the Nabataeans. Their king, Aretas IV, ruled from Petra, a tourist site today. He probably didn’t stay there long, though, because Jews were not very welcome in the year 34. Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, who has spent years studying Paul, wrote, “I would give him a week at the most.”

So it was back to Damascus, where Saul stayed for about three years, preaching his new faith. Perhaps this is also where he learned his trade of tent-making, since there is no evidence that he worked at a trade previously. He wanted a trade whose tools were easily portable, was in demand wherever he might travel, and would allow him contact with people. Tent-making in the first century met all those requirements.

In the year 37, though, things got dangerous for Saul. King Aretas apparently didn’t like Saul’s preaching and tried to arrest him. But he was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped.

So he left Damascus, never to return. Rather than return to Tarsus, though, Saul decided to go back to Jerusalem. It had been several years since his conversion, and he thought it was about time he met Peter. Saul had been preaching about Jesus, and it was time he learned what he was really like. †


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