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PaulHis Story$

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780199266531

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2004

DOI: 10.1093/0199266530.001.0001

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Conversion and Its Consequences

Conversion and Its Consequences

(p.20) 2 Conversion and Its Consequences

Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Paul’s encounter with Jesus transformed the knowledge he had of the founder of Christianity that he had gained as a persecutor. A very brief mission in Arabia was followed by three years in Damascus during which period he became a tentmaker. From Peter in Jerusalem, Paul learnt about the historical Jesus. His probing of the mystery of a Messiah who should not have died is at the root of his unique stress on the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion.

Keywords:   Arabia, conversion, crucifixion, Damascus, historical Jesus, Messiah, Paul, Peter, tentmaker, trade

THE simplest explanation of Paul's presence near Damascus when he encountered the Risen Lord is that he was on his way back to Tarsus for a visit. For security, it was imperative to travel with a caravan, and there was regular traffic between Jerusalem and Damascus, the great trading crossroads of Syria. From there he could be sure of regular caravans to Antioch-on-the-Orontes and further west.

The route to Damascus brought Paul the ambitious scholar into areas that he had not seen before.1 Even for a sedentary Pharisee the first day's march would not have been too difficult. It was all downhill through the Judaean desert to the oasis of Jericho. The next four days in the heat in the Jordan valley, which in the south is 1,200 ft (369 m) below sea-level, were another matter. It was certainly with great relief that Paul saw the Sea of Galilee in its deep cup. The sound of the little waves at least gave an impression of coolness.

At that point the caravan was about half-way to Damascus. The route then switched to the east bank of the Jordan, and skirted the vast Huleh swamp with its myriads of wildlife. The stiff uphill climb to the plateau of the Golan passed Caesarea Philippi, of which Peter would speak to Paul in the not too distant future. Even if he had exceptional eyesight, Paul could not have picked out Gischala, his ancestral home on the far side of the Jordan rift, but he could certainly have seen Mount Meron, on whose slope the village lay.


The massive bulk of Mount Hermon (9,000 ft; 2,769 m) kept the travellers company on their left until they dropped down into the fertile plain of the Hauran. As the peak faded behind them, the great oasis gradually came into clearer view. The Barada River poured out of the gorge between the Hermon and Anti-Lebanon ranges and, east of Damascus, fanned out to block the ever advancing sands as they swept out of the Arabian desert.

Recognizing the Unrecognizable

Where exactly in the Hauran Paul had the experience that changed his life is unknown. There were few, if any landmarks, and none familiar to him. Moreover, the encounter with Jesus made such an impact that Paul literally did not know where he was.

Only in the most general way does Paul reveal what happened. One thing he tells us is that his experience was identical with that of Peter and the others to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15: 5–8). When read carefully, these apparition stories in the Gospels reveal a common pattern: (1) Jesus is dead, and all hope has been lost; (2) Jesus intervenes; (3) Jesus offers a sign of his identity; and (4) the disciple(s) recognize(s) Jesus.

A little reflection reveals how true to life these narratives are, be it a question of a single individual such as Mary Magdalene (John 20: 11–16); a couple, the two disciples on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13–42); or a group, the Eleven (John 20: 19–20). Even though Jesus had proclaimed that he would rise from the dead, what predominated in the minds of his disciples was that he had died an agonizing death on the cross. He was dead, and that was the end. Inevitably, the reaction to Jesus’ appearance is shocked incredulity. The disciples cannot believe their eyes. Reality penetrates their consciousness only when Jesus offers proof of his identity; he shows them his hands and his feet (Luke 24: 39), or he blesses and breaks bread for them (Luke 24: 30). Finally the disciples admit the impossible. The Crucified stands before them as the Risen Lord.

In order to follow up Paul's hint, it is within this framework that we must interpret his experience. These narratives, however, are (p.22) recognition stories. Disciples who had known Jesus during his earthly life come to know him again in a different way. This forces us to ask: what did Paul know about Jesus prior to the moment of the encounter near Damascus?

A Pharisee's Knowledge of Jesus

Paul's admission that ‘we have known Christ in a fleshly way’ (2 Cor. 5: 16) unambiguously shows that he once thought about Christ in a way of which he is now ashamed. He can only be referring to his pre-conversion knowledge of Jesus. It is inconceivable that Paul should have persecuted Christians without learning something about the founder of the movement. Thus, we can safely assume that he knew at least as much as a self-confessed fellow Pharisee of the first century, the Jewish historian Josephus. The latter says (1) that Jesus had been a teacher to whom wonders were ascribed; (2) that he had been crucified by the Romans under Pontius Pilate on charges laid by the Jewish authorities; and (3) that his growing number of followers thought of him as the Messiah (Antiquities of the Jews 18. 63–4).

It is unlikely that Paul would have been content with such bare bones. His animosity towards Christians, particularly when coupled with his specifically Pharisaic interests, would have driven him to flesh them out.

Given their concern to transform the Jewish people through instruction in the written and oral Law, the Pharisees would have been extremely sensitive to the fact that Jesus had disciples whom he taught. Any success by other teachers threatened their hoped-for monopoly. Through infiltration or, less dramatically, through questioning of verbosely enthusiastic supporters of Jesus, Pharisees could have learnt that Jesus downgraded the importance of the Mosaic Law. Even the simplest of his followers must have recognized the implications of assertions such as, ‘It was said to those of old [in the Law] … but I say to you …’ (Matt. 5: 21), particularly when coupled with a claim that Jesus was the touchstone of salvation (Matt. 10: 32–3).

In other words, it would appear to a curious Pharisee that Jesus thought of himself as the Messiah empowered to articulate God's (p.23) will definitively. The Law was no longer the sole or the final authority. In this Paul would have found confirmation for the assessment that had been the basis of his persecution of Christians: namely, that any proclamation that the Messiah had already come was a radical threat to the Law which had become his life.

Finally, there was one aspect of the gossip about Jesus that would have been of particular interest to Pharisees. In opposition to the Sadducees, who denied any afterlife, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body. Fundamental to the preaching of the first Christians was the proclamation that God had raised Jesus from the dead. The Resurrection was the great sign which validated the mission of Jesus and guaranteed his teaching. No Christian could avoid speaking of it, and, once heard, the claim would have rankled in the mind of a Pharisee.

It goes without saying that Paul the Pharisee did not believe a word of what he heard about Jesus. His resurrection must have been some sort of a trick, because God could never reward anyone who had set himself above the Law as Jesus had.

Encounter with the Risen Lord

Given this attitude on the part of Paul, it is certain that he was in no way disposed to expect anything to happen on his journey to Damascus. His mental attitude paralleled that of Jesus’ followers, for whom the crucifixion was the end of hope. Jesus, Paul was convinced, had died a death that befitted his presumption, and all that remained was to return his misguided supporters to the fold of authentic Judaism.

Paul explicitly reports that Jesus took the initiative, ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me’ (1 Cor. 15: 8), which permitted Paul in another context to ask rhetorically, ‘Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ (1 Cor. 9: 1).2

But how did Paul know that it was Jesus? Unlike Mary Magdalene, Peter and other disciples, he had not been acquainted with Jesus during his lifetime. We can only assume that, from what he knew about Jesus, Paul had somehow built up a mental image to (p.24) which the Risen Lord corresponded. The stress under which Paul was operating would have heightened his susceptibility to anyone and everything associated with the focus of his emotion.

However it happened, the one thing that we can be absolutely sure of was that as a result of the experience Paul knew with the inescapable conviction of direct experience that the Jesus who had been executed by Pontius Pilate was alive. The resurrection of Jesus that Paul had contemptuously dismissed as fraud proved to be a fact, as undeniable as the nose on his face. Jesus continued to exist on another plane of being. This recognition is all that is necessary to Paul's conversion, because it completely transformed his value system.

The brutality of the 180-degree turn-around is evoked by Paul when he says, ‘I was apprehended by Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3: 12). With irresistible power Jesus arrested him, and set him on a completely different path. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to find a more graphic illustration of what an act of lordship means. Paul's first conviction regarding the true identity of Jesus, therefore, must have been that he was ‘Lord’. Once Paul had accepted Jesus as Lord, he had to acknowledge that he was ‘Christ’ (the Annointed One). Jesus was not just any ‘Lord’ but the Jewish Messiah for whom Paul had hoped. Moreover, if Jesus was the Messiah, he was the ‘Son of God’, because the two notions were intimately associated in Judaism.

Thus right from the beginning of his life as a Christian, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘Lord’ and ‘Son’ would have been intimately associated in Paul's mind, because they were rooted in his experience of the power of Jesus.

The next step followed naturally, because Paul had anticipated it mentally, and was prepared for it. If Jesus was the Messiah, then the time of the Law was over. What the Law laid down as the prerequisites for salvation no longer had any validity. Gentiles, therefore, in terms of their hope of salvation were no longer in any way different to Jews. It was not obedience to the Law that mattered, but acceptance of Jesus. The Messiah was not just for the Jews. He was Lord of the whole world.

In Paul's case this rational deduction was reinforced by his personal experience. He had opposed Jesus in the name of the Law, yet (p.25) grace had been given to him. His acceptance of Jesus was in no way dependent on the Law. It followed that grace was also accessible to the pagans whom the Law had excluded.

These two aspects fused in Paul's mind. ‘[H]e who had set me apart from my mother's womb, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the nations’ (Gal. 1: 15–16). As Paul saw it, his submission to Christ was at the same time acceptance of a duty to proclaim him as Lord to the pagan world.

Mission in Arabia

Still in shock after his encounter with Jesus, Paul somehow got to Damascus, and made contact with the Christian community there. It is not impossible that they had heard of his persecuting activities in Jerusalem, but this quickly became irrelevant when they recognized that he confessed Jesus as Christ and Lord precisely as they did. For Paul it would have been a homecoming to be with others who had had the same experience of the Risen Lord. He did not enjoy this comfort for long. He himself tells us that his first decision after his conversion was to go into ‘Arabia’ (Gal. 1: 17).

For ancient geographers ‘Arabia’ was what we today know as Saudi Arabia, the huge land mass between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. A first-century Jew from Jerusalem, however, in practice would have applied ‘Arabia’ to a much more restricted part of that vast area: namely, the modern kingdom of Jordan plus both sides of the Gulf of Aqaba. This was the territory of the Nabataeans, whose king, Aretas IV, ruled from Petra.3

The early thirties AD was not a good time for a Jew to venture into the northern part of ‘Arabia’. Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who had inherited the kingdom of Galilee, also ruled Peraea, which shared a border with ‘Arabia’. Relations between Jews and Nabataeans had always been rather tense, but Antipas brought them to boiling-point by repudiating his wife, a daughter of Aretas IV. This insult was not something that Aretas could tolerate. He went to war (p.26) and soundly trashed the army of Antipas before returning to his own territory. Antipas complained bitterly to Rome.

Aretas knew from personal experience that any changes on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, and in particular violent ones, were totally unacceptable to the emperor Tiberius. Thus, he and his people waited with increasing trepidation for the Roman reaction. The emperor had just to give an order to the governor of Syria, who had four legions at his disposal. As Aretas waited tensely for something to happen, his attitude towards Jews was anything but benign. They, in the person of their king, were responsible for the desperate anxiety that weighed upon him. A Roman reprisal, which he could never hold off, would be just the latest in a series of disasters that the Jews had brought upon his people. His subjects shared his apprehension and anger.

By the time Paul arrived sometime around AD 34 the tension had been mounting for over three years. It was not a propitious moment to begin preaching what the Nabataeans could only understand as a new variety of Judaism. To those who were the objects of his ministry, it appeared to be a Jewish attempt to infiltrate, divide and weaken them. What they perceived as an invitation to betrayal would have prompted an immediate and violent reaction. There was real danger that Paul would be lynched. Somehow he escaped. But he was remembered as dangerous, and three years later the Nabataean authorities prepared to call him to account.

If this assessment of the situation is correct, it is most unlikely that Paul penetrated very deeply into ‘Arabia’. He may not even have reached Bosra, which is close to the southern border of modern Syria. There were three Nabataean cities—Phillopolis, Kanatha and Suweida—closer to Damascus. It is also probable that Paul did not stay very long. Once he had opened his mouth, he would have been suspect. I would give him a week at the most. His silence as to the duration of his visit confirms that it was very short, since he lists his two weeks in Jerusalem and three years in Damascus (Gal. 1: 18). The sole importance of his imprudent venture is that it indicates that from the beginning he was convinced that his mission was to Gentiles.

(p.27) Three Years in Damascus

If Paul went back to Damascus with his tail between his legs, it may have been some small consolation that he could lick his wounds in a beautiful city whose scale was similar to that of Jerusalem.4

The Roman citadel in the north-west corner anchored a three-mile (5 km) wall pierced by eight gates, which enclosed a roughly rectangular area (east–west 1.35 km) virtually identical in size to that surrounded by the walls of Jerusalem. One feature, however, clearly differentiated the two cities. The north side of Damascus was protected by the Barada River, the source of the fertility of the oasis. Water was brought into the city by at least two main channels, including an aqueduct from the Barada.

The streets of the city crossed in a grid pattern, creating rectangular building blocks of unequal sides. The principal east–west street cut through the middle of the city linking two gates. With its covered colonnaded sidewalks it was 28 yards (26 m) wide. The topography forced it to make two slight deviations, both marked by an arch placed at a major intersection. At this period streets did not have names, which made finding anyone in a city very difficult. So when Luke speaks of Paul lodging in Damascus in a house on ‘the street called Straight’ (Acts 9: 11), it might reflect a Damascene joke. By definition, all the streets in the grid pattern were straight. The principal thoroughfare, however, was crooked! Hence, the mocking name.

The dominant monument of the city was the sanctuary of Jupiter. The huge open space surrounding the temple building was majestic in its proportions, but Jews would have taken secret satisfaction in the fact that it was slightly smaller than the Temple in Jerusalem built by Herod the Great. Damascene Jews, however, would not have been as proud of Herod's contributions to their city: namely, a gymnasium and a theatre. Both were most offensive to pious Jews. With some reason they felt that Herod could have built something more useful to his own people.

Damascus had a big Jewish population, but there was no doubt that it was a pagan city. As a founding member of the League of Ten Cities designed to propagate Greek culture, its culture was strongly (p.28) Hellenized. Its coins, for example, exclusively carried the images of Greek gods and goddesses. It owed its prominence and wealth to its position at one of the great crossroads of the ancient world. The trade routes from Anatolia and Mesopotamia joined there before splitting again to go down the plateau to Arabia and out to the Mediterranean coast and south to Egypt. If its merchants went as far as the island Delos in the Aegean Sea in the second century BC, we can be quite sure that merchants of other nations had permanent bases in Damascus. They swelled the normal pagan majority in the city. Thus, during his three years in Damascus (Gal. 1: 18), Paul would have had no difficulty in fulfilling his missionary vocation. There were Gentiles in abundance to be called to Christ.

Learning a Trade

In Damascus Paul did not only give, he received. If he was a preacher, he was also a learner. There was much about Christianity that he had to absorb, and he had to master a skill that would make him self-sufficient. Only financial independence could guarantee his mobility as a missionary.

What we have seen of Paul's life in Damascus and Jerusalem makes it clear that he did not work for his living. In both places he was a full-time student supported by charity. As a missionary, however, he says on a number of occasions that he worked with his hands (1 Thess. 2: 9; 2 Thess. 3: 7–9; 1 Cor. 4: 12). Thus, at some point he must have learnt a trade. To claim that he did so in Damascus goes beyond the evidence, but during those three years Paul must have given considerable thought to his missionary strategy, particularly in the aftermath of the fiasco in Arabia.

Paul had a number of options. He could acquire a patron who would support him. This, however, would put him at the mercy of his master, to whose whims he would have to tailor his teaching. Moreover, he would be stuck in one place. An alternative was to beg as he travelled. The objection to this was not the precariousness of the livelihood, but the fact that the cities of the Graeco-Roman world were infested by charlatans who made a good living out of pious (p.29) promises supported by fake miracles. If he took this option, Paul would simply be lost in the throng.

Despite his inherited bias, Paul must have worked out relatively quickly that there was no alternative to paying his own way. He would have to earn as he travelled. This meant that he had to become a skilled craftsman. He had to serve an apprenticeship.

What trade would best serve his purposes? His object was not to become rich, but to survive on his own terms. Paul no doubt approached the issue with the acute intelligence that he later applied to the resolution of theological problems. The skill to be acquired would have to be in demand throughout the Graeco-Roman world, on land and sea, in towns and villages, as well as in great cities, and on the roads that linked them. It had to be a trade that would bring him into contact with all sections of the population. The tools had to be easily portable. The craft had to be quiet and sedentary, so that he could preach as he worked.

As far as Paul was concerned, the trade that met all these criteria was that of tent-maker (Acts 18: 3). To us this seems a rather bizarre choice. Paul exercised his ministry in an urban environment, and what need have city dwellers of tents? From a first-century perspective, however, it was a very clever decision.5

The skill involved was minimal, so was quickly learned. It was essentially the ability to cut and shape lengths of leather and canvas, and then to sew them together with a neat turned-over seam. The tools were simple and light. Paul needed a half-moon knife to cut heavy leather or canvas, an awl to make the holes to take the waxed thread, and curved needles. The lot fitted neatly into a small wallet. Exercise of this trade developed muscular shoulders and strong calloused hands. The stitch was set by a sudden outward jerk of both hands into which the thread bit. Little wonder that Paul could write only with awkward large letters (Gal. 6: 11)—a sign that he had plenty of work.

Work for a Tent-maker

In cities several types of awning were in demand. They all involved sewing strips of canvas of various weights together. Those in sailcloth (p.30) shading the theatre and forum could be moved backwards and forwards on guy wires. The courtyards of private houses had to be protected from the summer sun. Inscribed awnings both advertised and shaded shop fronts. Those who went to the beach used linen pavilions to provide shade without impeding the cooling breezes.

The market for tents in the strict sense was also far from negligible. Inns needed them to accommodate overflow customers, which occurred on the occasion of great festivals. Shrewd travellers took the precaution of providing themselves with tents in case an accident should prevent them from reaching an inn at night. If they planned to travel any distance by boat, tents were indispensable. There were no ferries, and cargo boats had no cabins. Without tents deck passengers could not protect themselves from sun or spray, and had nowhere to sleep when the ship docked at nightfall.

Every town with a temple had its festival, when traders erected their leather or canvas booths around the sanctuary. Cities fortunate enough to host the major pan-Hellenic festivals had work year round for tent-makers. The competitions went on for the better part of a week, and the great numbers of visitors from all over the Greek world had to be housed in tents, as had the shopkeepers who catered to their needs. At Corinth, for example, the Isthmian Games were celebrated every second year in April or May. New tents were always needed to replace old ones, and ongoing maintenance was imperative.

Minor repairs were also a valuable source of income. Paul could repair the canvas roof of a wagon or the harness of the draught animals. A torn sail could become as new in his hands. He had the ability to put a stitch or two in any of the multifarious articles of leather used by travellers: sandals, gaiters, belts, cloaks, wallets and gourds. He would have been welcomed in any short-handed workshop.

Paul had chosen to arm himself with a skill that virtually guaranteed him jobs on every road he walked and on every sea he sailed. His choice, however, had one disadvantage. It stigmatized him as belonging to the labouring class, which was despised by the leisured class from which he had to recruit one or two believers in each city if he was to find a house large enough to assemble his converts. The natural place to meet them was as clients of the workshop that hired (p.31) him. That provided an opportunity to talk business, but it must have been something in Paul's personality that drew them back to speak of Jesus Christ.

A Hurried Departure

Paul's tranquil, busy life in Damascus came to an abrupt end in the autumn of AD 37. The emperor Tiberius had died on 16 March of that year, and was succeeded by Gaius, nicknamed Caligula (‘Little Boots’), who immediately changed his predecessor's policy regarding the eastern frontier of the empire. Tiberius had put his trust in well-organized Roman provinces rather than client kingdoms, unless the latter were governed by kings as utterly committed to Rome as Herod the Great. Gaius, on the contrary, cared little for reliability, and carved kingdoms for his friends out of bits of the frontier.

Gaius owed a debt of gratitude to the Nabataeans, who had once supported his father, Germanicus, against Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, the all-powerful governor of Syria. Gaius, then age 7, was present when his father died in Antioch in AD 19 claiming that he had been poisoned by Piso. If there was any city the Nabataeans lusted after, it was Damascus, which was a key staging point on their important trade routes. Its transfer to their hands created an unanticipated danger for Paul. ‘At Damascus the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of the Damascenes in order to arrest me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands’ (2 Cor. 11: 32–3).

This is a very curious incident. The lapse of time had made it clear that Rome had no intention of bringing Aretas to book for going to war against Herod Antipas. More importantly, Tiberius had died, and the new emperor Gaius was their friend. All the anxieties that had led the Nabataeans to see Paul as a Jewish agent provocateur had dissipated. There was no reason for the representative of Aretas to move against Paul. One is forced to wonder if Paul did not exaggerate the danger. It is well within the bounds of probability that he merely presumed that he was still a wanted man in Arabia, and took precautions to ensure that he could preach another day elsewhere. In (p.32) that case, the greatest danger of his dramatic escape was that the rope might break!

Peter and Jesus

Having left Damascus, never to return, Paul headed back to Jerusalem. Given the importance he attached to his mission to the Gentiles, one would have expected him to head north-west into virgin territory, the great pagan cities on the Mediterranean coast. To have done the opposite implies the compulsion of an overriding reason. He had something very important to do in Jerusalem.

For reasons that will become apparent when we deal with his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses a deliberately ambiguous verb to explain his motive for going to Jerusalem. He hoped that his readers would understand it in the sense of ‘to get acquainted with Cephas’, but he really intended the meaning as ‘to get information from Cephas’ (Gal. 1: 18). What did he need to talk to him about? It is absurd to imagine that Paul spent his two weeks with Peter discussing the weather, the health of the latter's mother-in-law, or his nostalgia for fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Only one basic question burned in Paul's mind: what was Jesus really like?

During his time in Damascus Paul undoubtedly heard stories about Jesus from the Christians there. But they had only second-hand knowledge, and could not answer the searching questions that Paul wanted to ask. He must have been consumed with envy of those who had been Jesus’ companions during his earthly life. I would not be surprised if he did not bitterly regret the waste of the years when he could have listened to Jesus’ preaching in Jerusalem. But it was too late for that.

Peter was the ideal person to take up the slack. He had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ words and deeds since they were both disciples of John the Baptist. At this point in AD 37 Peter had been preaching Jesus for some seven years. Through repetition his story had inevitably acquired a fixed form, in which the sayings and miracles that Peter considered the most important were highlighted. This was (p.33) obviously grist for Paul's mill. More importantly, Peter could answer any questions about Jesus that Paul wanted to ask.

The Personality of Jesus

From these sources Paul built up a very detailed picture of the personality of Jesus. It became a fundamental part of his oral preaching (2 Cor. 11: 4), and the basis of his ethical teaching (Gal. 6: 2). The comportment of Jesus was so clear to Paul that it could be imitated (1 Cor. 11: 1) to the point where he in his own life-style consciously mirrored ‘the life of Jesus’ (2 Cor. 4: 10).

Unfortunately, Paul does not reproduce in his letters the vivid portrait of Jesus that he painted orally (Gal. 3: 1). All that we get is a short list of ‘facts’. Jesus was born into a Jewish family (Gal. 4: 4) of Davidic descent (Rom. 1: 3). He had several married brothers (1 Cor. 9: 5), one of whom was called James (Gal. 1: 19). On the night he was betrayed, he celebrated a final meal of bread and wine with his followers, and directed that it become a commemorative ritual (1 Cor. 11: 23–5). These, however, were but the tip of the iceberg. We are fortunate that Paul occasionally fills out the picture by offering tantalizing glimpses of two character traits that particularly impressed him.

The first was Jesus’ total dedication to his mission. Paul admires his ‘steadfastness’ (2 Thess. 3: 5) and his ‘fidelity’ (Gal. 2: 16, 22). Despite the growing hostility that surrounded him, Jesus never wavered; his life was ‘an enduring Yes’ in realizing the promises of his Father (2 Cor. 1: 19). Jesus’ complete reliability was ‘the truth of Christ’ (2 Cor. 11: 10). He was the ‘pattern’ of his own teaching (Rom. 6: 17).

Such single-mindedness can often breed a selfish coldness, but this is not what Paul saw in the way that Jesus interacted with those around him, and this is the second trait. Jesus’ manner was characterized by ‘gentleness and kindness’ (2 Cor. 10: 1), and in his dealings with others he displayed ‘tenderness’ (Phil 1: 8). Their needs took precedence, for ‘he did not please himself’ (Rom. 15: 3). On the contrary, he gave himself totally to others in love (2 Cor. 5: 14; Gal. 2: 20).

(p.34) Paul quotes Jesus only three times (1 Cor. 7: 10–11, 9: 14, 11: 23–5), but allusions to, and echoes of, his teaching abound in the letters. We would like him to have given us more explicit citations, because his letters are at least a generation earlier than the final editions of the Synoptic Gospels. This is because we think as historians. Paul, however, was operating as a pastor, who knew that echoes and allusions had a powerful bonding effect on those who grasped the hints. They constituted a shared secret language inaccessible to outsiders. It is hard to say exactly to what extent this was conscious pastoral technique on the part of Paul, because the teaching of Jesus informed his thought to the point where any attempt to distinguish source and personal elaboration would be both meaningless and impossible.6

A Messiah who should not have Died

It is difficult to think that Peter did not sympathize with Paul's insatiable thirst for knowledge about Jesus. No doubt Paul's inquiries brought to the surface of his mind incidents and impressions that he had forgotten. To this extent they delighted in a common quest. There was one important issue, however, on which they might have differed.

It was characteristic of Paul's preaching that he focused on the fact that Jesus had died by crucifixion.7 He made his hearers believe that they were present at the cross. No mere rhetorical tricks could achieve such an effect. Paul had to have the imagination to re-create the event for himself, and relive the appropriate emotions, before he could achieve the verbal vividness that he claims in Galatians 3: 1. Paul's compulsion to replicate the crucifixion is explicable only if it made a huge impact on him.

There is no hint that it had the same effect on Peter. The preaching of the early church, of which he must be considered one of the principal authors, highlighted the fact of the death of Jesus, and its salvific meaning, but remained resolutely silent on how Jesus had died (e.g. 1 Cor. 15: 3–5). Such reticence is entirely understandable. (p.35) It was difficult enough to preach a Messiah who had died without apparently achieving anything. To preach a Messiah who had been crucified as a traitor was virtually asking for a refusal.

Why, then, did Paul make the crucifixion of Jesus, of which he had heard as a Pharisee, the centre-piece of his preaching, when none of his contemporaries did? Just as Paul the Pharisee had seen to the heart of the fundamental opposition between Christianity and Judaism, while Christians did not, so here too Paul's penetrating intelligence detected a problem that others did not perceive. If Jesus was the Messiah, he should not have died!

Let us begin by recalling Paul's Pharisaic background, and in particular the portrait of the Messiah drawn in Psalms of Solomon 17. It tells us that the Messiah will be ‘pure from sin’ (v. 36), and that his people will be holy (vv. 26, 32, 43). In thus stressing the sanctity of the Messianic people, it reflects the mainstream Jewish vision of the end time. It is the teaching of the great prophets that ‘all your people shall be just’ (Isa. 60: 21); ‘they shall all live and never again sin’ (1 Enoch 5: 8). Common sense dictates that, as the leader of a holy people, the Messiah cannot be a sinner. His absolute righteousness is taken completely for granted.

This intuition had one supremely important consequence. All Jews believed that the Messiah would not die. The advent of the Messiah was seen as the glorious climax to history beyond which no one thought to venture. Inevitably the Messiah was thought of in terms of eternity. Why should he die? This common-sense insight was reinforced for many Jews by the teaching of the Scriptures that death was not integral to the structure of the human being, but a penalty imposed for sin. The Book of Wisdom can serve as representative of a series of texts reaching back to Genesis and forward to the second century AD: ‘God created humanity in a state of incorruptibility. In the image of his own eternity he made it. But through the devil's envy death entered the world’ (Wis. 2: 23–4).

Paul's dilemma should now be clear. The Messiah whom he had recognized on the Damascus road had been put to death on a cross. Paul was confronted with a sinless Messiah who was also a dead Messiah. Perhaps other Christians had seen the paradox. If so, they (p.36) chose to ignore it. The absolute streak in Paul's character meant that he could not live with the tension between the incompatible elements. It had to be resolved, but not by the calculated ambiguity of compartmentalization, nor by abandonment of one or other truth.

Crucifixion as Self-sacrifice

Eventually Paul perceived that there was only one possible solution. If someone on whom death had no claim had actually died, then that person must have chosen to die. All other human beings can only accept death; it will take them whether they like it or not. Jesus did not suffer that restriction. His death was the result of a personal decision. For Paul, in consequence, Jesus is ‘the one having given himself for our sins’ (Gal. 1: 4). He is ‘the Son of God who … gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2: 20).

Once Paul had accepted that the death of Jesus was an act of self-sacrifice, a dead sinless Messiah ceased to be a problem. Its modality then became the central issue: why did Jesus choose the most horrible way to die, the agonizing suffering of crucifixion? It goes without saying that in posing such a question Paul was working backwards. Jesus did not have to die. But if he did die, and in a particular way, then he must have chosen that form of death.

Paul was given a clue to the answer by the teaching of Peter and others, which he had inherited. They stressed that ‘Christ died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 15: 3), and ‘our Lord Jesus Christ died for us’ (1 Thess. 5: 9). In other words, humanity benefited from Christ's death. In his search for a motive for Christ's decision, Paul turned this the other way round. By dying, Christ intended those benefits for humanity. His motive, therefore, in choosing to be crucified was to do good to others who were both unaware and uninterested. In Paul's eyes such altruism was explicable only as an act of love. ‘He loved me, that is, he gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2: 20).

This insight so overwhelmed Paul that henceforth he could not think of the death of Christ without wanting others to appreciate the extraordinary depth and power of the love it revealed. He could not merely speak of that love. He had to show it in action. In practice this (p.37) meant forcing his hearers and readers to confront the crucifixion. Hence his vow, ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2: 2)—hence his correctives to traditional teaching. In his letters he quotes two liturgical hymns. One says, ‘He humbled himself becoming obedient unto death’, and Paul adds, ‘even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2: 8). The other hymn speaks of God ‘reconciling all things to himself through Christ’, which Paul interprets as meaning ‘making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1: 20).

It now becomes understandable why his death is the only ‘event’ in the life of Jesus to which Paul returns again and again in his letters. It was important for Paul that his converts knew what Jesus had said and done, and so he told them in his oral preaching (2 Cor. 11: 4), but in the last analysis that was not what made Jesus unique. Other teachers offered profound theological and ethical insights. Others had the reputation of being miracle workers. For Paul the fact that Jesus had a choice whether to die or not set him apart from all others for whom death was inevitable. Thus Jesus’ death became the key to the meaning of his life. It revealed to Paul that what makes a person genuinely human is the self-sacrificing love shown by Christ. This, above all, is what he wanted his readers to take to heart.


(1.) Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, ed. R. Talbert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), maps 70, 69.

(2.) Such reticence contrasts with Luke's vivid account of Paul's collapse on hearing the heavenly voice say, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Luke, however, gives three accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9: 3–9; 22: 6–11; 26: 12–18), which differ in significant details. It is probable, therefore, that Luke, who was not an eye-witness, embroidered the essence of the event as revealed by Paul into graphic stories designed to forward his theological agenda.

(3.) David F. Graf, ‘Nabateans’ in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4. 970–3.

(4.) For the history and archaeology of Damascus, see Ross Burns, Monuments of Syria: An Historical Guide (London/New York: Tauris, 1992), 72–108.

(5.) For the texts on which this description is based, see my ‘Prisca and Aquila: Travelling Tent-Makers and Church-Builders’, Bible Review, 8/6 (December 1992), 40–51.

(6.) On Paul's knowledge of the historical Jesus, see especially James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 182–206.

(7.) For a detailed analysis of all the texts, see my ‘“Even death on a cross”: Crucifixion in the Pauline Letters’, in The Cross in Christian Tradition from Paul to Bonaventure, ed. E. Dreyer (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 21–50.