Was Paul ‘converted’ or ‘called’?

A young man once came to a Rabbi and said, “Rabbi, I don’t really know what to do. There is this one woman, we love each other, but she and I are very poor so what good would it do if we get married and have children?! We won’t be able to help anyone and our whole lives will be aimed at survival. On the other hand, there is another woman. I don’t love her, but she really loves me and she is rich. May be I should marry her? Rabbi, what do you think?”

The Rabbi: “Well… That’s it. It’s decided. Marry the rich woman. It will be well.”

The man, after thinking for a month said: “Rabbi, you know… I’ve been thinking about your advice. I am really not sure about it after all. You see, if I marry this well-to-do woman, we will be able to do many good things in the community, but I will be miserable all my life, and in the long run she too will be very unhappy. Perhaps I should after all think about marrying the poor woman I love. What do you think?”

The Rabbi: “Have you considered converting to Christianity? I have a wonderful priest down the road to refer you to.”

In this joke, the Rabbi has the luxury of thinking that his own professional troubles (such as counselling indecisive young Jews about personal matters) could be solved by advising conversion to another religion thus the problem becomes someone else’s. Paul and others in the first century Roman Empire had no such luxury.


It is a common thing for modern Christ-followers, who are keenly aware of the Jewish Background of New Testament Scriptures, to struggle with how “the beloved apostle” should be referred to. Do we refer to him as Rav Shaul (Rabbi Saul) as many today do? Do we keep on calling him with the non-Jewish sounding phrase Apostle or perhaps even St. Paul? Do we do something far less practical, but more true to history and refer to him as Saul/Paul? These and other question you are asking are perfectly legitimate.

Nobody knows who he got his Latin name Paul (the name is actually not Greek). Given the fact that he was born a Roman citizen (Acts 22:28) it is likely that both Jewish and Roman names were given to him at birth. The Greek versions of both Saul (Σαῦλος) and Paul (Παῦλος) are remarkably similar. In fact, there are different by only one beginning letter. This practice of matching names was wide-spread.[1] Another well-known example of such a double name would be John Mark. John or Yohanan – a Hebrew name and Mark or Markus a Latin one (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37).

It is interesting that Luke (and Luke’s Jesus) uses his Hebrew name Saul first, but at some point later (Acts 13:9), and that unconnected to his Road to Damascus experience that happens way earlier (Acts 9:4), begins to call him Paul.

What maybe significant is that Saul was the first king of Israel, and in spite of his eventual fall, was characterized by large and strong body, continuing in some way to inspire Jewish devotion in naming children. Not only King Saul was from the tribe of Benjamin, but so was the legendary Jewish sage Rabbi Hillel who lived before Jesus.

Incidentally, Paul makes a reference to his affiliation with this particular tribe as one of his reasons for his human confidence (Phil.3:5). In opposition to that “Paul” in Latin, means “small” or “little”. So, the switch (if there was ever one indeed) is better explained not by Paul’s so-called “conversion from Judaism to Christianity”, but by his own realization, and perhaps accompanied by his direct request to Luke, of his own standing before his God. In fact as his life progressed, so progressed this realization of his own sense of smallness and weakness before the grandeur and power of his no longer tribal deity (1 Cor.15:9; Eph.3:8; 2 Cor.12:9).


Discovering the Jewish Apostle Paul for me started with rethinking what most normative Christ-followers today routinely and mistakenly call “Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.” The Apostle Paul himself wrote about his experience in Gal. 1:15-16:

But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Nations …

Even after this call of God on his life, Paul was able to defend himself in the Sanhedrin against false accusations, as we read in Acts 23:6:

Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!

Shaul Paulos’s writings are the only surviving letters authored by a Pharisee. All of them were the letters of a Jewish Pharisee, called by the Jewish Christ to the service of Israel’s God, addressed to the followers of the same Jewish Christ among the Nations of the world. As we will see, this perspective will become very important as we seek to make sense of the seemingly conflicting and self-contradictory writings of the Apostle Paul.

As you can surely anticipate, I will seek to convince you that Paul (Paulos) was not converted from Judaism to Christianity. Instead, Paulos as he called himself in his own surviving writings, was called to the service of Israel’s God as were many other Israelite prophets. Before he personally encountered Yeshua/Jesus on road to Damascus, he was a pharisaic Jew. After that earth-shaking encounter, however, something dramatic had happened. He became an apocalyptic and Christ-following pharisaic Jew.

I, among many others when discussing the kind of Jew Apostle Paul was, use the word “apocalyptic” to qualify something very important about him. I do of course realize that it introduces a little difficulty into the discussion, but I nevertheless prefer to raise, clarify and establish this point, because I think it is crucial for understanding the Jewishness of Shaul Paulos in a proper way. By him becoming an “apocalyptic Jew” I mean that he came to the realization not only that Jesus was the Messiah, but that the time of both Israel’s and therefore the entire world’s redemption was finally and suddenly within reach of his generation.

After the initial shock, Shaul Paulos concluded, The time when God will intervene into the world history on a colossal scale must have arrived. He was wrong and those whom he persecuted with such a vigour and passionate, were right. We, who have the privilege of hindsight, can also see that Shaul Paulos was also partially right. Even though he rightly understood that the new age (the-world-to-come) has begun (for example, in Eph. 2:6), he mistakenly thought that Christ Jesus would return in his own lifetime. But this can hardly be held against this great Jewish teacher. He himself was very much aware of his limitations “…now I know in part, but then I will know fully…” (1 Cor.13:12).

It may sound that this is only semantics (“was he an apocalyptic Jew?”, “wasn’t he apocalyptic Jew?”), but I respectfully disagree. These are crucial trajectories of thought that will guide you and me as interpreters of Paul’s letters, depending on these starting points, to one set of conclusions or another.

Was Shaul Paulos called to God’s service at the revelation of the Jewish Christ, or has he, as many erroneously believe, left the religion called “Judaism”[2] and joined a new religion called “Christianity” that he himself established? How we answer this question (was he converted or called) will influence in the most dramatic way possible how we will interpret his surviving letters.


The idea that Paul converted to Christianity is not new. In fact, its roots go down deep in history when Gentile Christ-followers sometime around the 3rd century sought to decisively separate from any Jewish authority structures and ended up in every way separating from almost everything Jewish. One such obvious decision had to do with the calendar. The non-Jewish followers of Jesus, just like the Jews, believed that the holidays described in the Torah such as Pesach (Passover) and Shavout (Pentecost) must be perpetually observed, but

  1. they interpreted them differently and
  2. they certainly did not want to wait from year to year for the time when the Jewish authorities would correlate the Israelite holiday schedule with the Roman imperial one.

The non-Jewish Christ-following movement, it could be argued, formally became the religion we call “Christianity” when it redefined the Israelite feasts in opposition to Jewish traditional practices and when its powerbrokers set its dates to be purposely unconnected with existing Israelite calendars. It was the struggle of the leaders for power, authority, influence and theological independence that has led to this separation.

A short side trip into church history will make this more concrete in our minds. In many predominantly Christian countries, the festival of Easter until today is called by a different name that has no audible connection with the English word “Easter” – the “Christian Passover.” Why is this? It is simply because the Christian theological logic went as follows: In the resurrection of Jesus, the judgment of God passed over sinners’ heads, just as it passed over the heads of the Israelites in their exodus from ancient Egypt.

You see, all second and third century Christ-followers celebrated a festival that much later would be known as Easter – it had been called Pascha (“Passover” in Syriac/Aramaic) or Peisach (“Passover” in Hebrew). Over time, Christian and Jewish leaders worked hard to create a clear separation between these two faith communities. The question for the emergent non-Israelite Christ-following movement was not whether or not Biblical feasts such as Passover should be observed, but rather how and when.

There were many who held that this Pascha/Peisach had to be commemorated on the same date as the Jewish (and Biblical Israelite) Passover on the 14th of Nissan in order to maintain the continuity with ancient practice. The majority of the Christ-following gentile leaders, however, had a serious objection to this.[3] The issue was submission to the local Jewish (non-Christ-following) religious authorities. The logic went like this: “We have discovered the truth in Jesus, but they without accepting God’s Son will decide when we should celebrate it.” It may be said that this was an unfortunate situation that had no easy solution. The time when Jews, in this case Christ-following Jews in Acts 15, made decisions about what the Nations should do and not do was effectively over.

By the third century of the Common Era a new generation of leaders was born and raised, leading the Jesus movement in another direction. They were not born Jews as Peter and Paul (Gal.2:15), nor were they discipled by those guided by the Jerusalem council’s decisions that demanded good relationships with the Jewish community.[4] In fact, the opposite was the case many of them were brought up in the anti-Jewish circles within Roman political climate, importing from there the harmful thinking into a newly born “Christian” (2-3 century) community of precious people, who sought to worship Christ Jesus and the God of the entire world from with the pure heart. The history took an unexpected turn and its final chapters are yet to be written.

Most of these new leaders, many of whom we now call the Church fathers, had to read and interpret what eventually became known as the New Testament collection originally authored by Christ-following Israelites,[5] were not at all familiar with its original Jewish setting. Given these circumstances the enormous challenge of interpretation these sacred scriptures, perhaps predictably, has overcome their once Jewish origins and setting. Tragically, the majority of the Jesus movement began to follow a mistaken trajectory that has led this new community into an almost entirely non-Israelite frame of reference.


One of the texts authored by Shaul Paulos, because it was interpreted outside of its original context, contributed to the idea that he converted from Judaism to Christianity. This text is found in his letter to the followers of the Jewish Christ residing in Galatia (Gal.1:13). There we read:

For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the ekklesia [6] of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. (Gal. 1:11-14 NASB)

First, English translations of the New Testament tend to use modern clarification terminology that cause significant changes of interpretive trajectories and exclude other “less desirable,” according to the establishment, interpretive translation options. One example is “Judaism” (Iudaismos). A more accurate translation would be “Jewishness” or better yet “Judean ancestral ways,” as Paulos in the end of his long sentence defines it himself.

As we will discuss later, Judaism as a religion was understood as such only later, after the deaths of Jesus, Paul and all the other original apostles. Certainly, it did not mean what it meant later. This is a very important point

At the time of Shaul Paulos, Judaism and Christianity did not yet exist. The word translated “Judaism” in modern language at that time would have been – “Jewishness” or “Jewish ancestral (tribal) ways of life.” “Christianity” was not yet formed as an identity. Therefore, the language Shaul Paulos used in the above text cannot be interpreted to mean that he was abandoning the religion called “Judaism” in favor of the religion called “Christianity.”

In the above quoted text, the choices are not between Judaism and Christianity, i.e. the former way of Judaism vs. the newer way of Christianity, but it is rather a comparison between Paul’s former ways and his newfound ways, i.e. Christ-centered and apocalyptic Judaism.[7]

Second, the word in Koine (Judeo-Greek) is ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) – “a gathering of the called out ones” is translated anachronistically in our Bibles as Church. While this word had potential to become a Christian concept (as it later did) it was certainly not a uniquely Christian concept in the 1st century. Jews and Greeks both used this word to describe all types of gatherings. The Greek word ἐκκλησία(ekklesia) is a translation of the Hebrew wordקָּהָל  (kahal) – a gathering, congregation or even a crowd. In Greek literature, for example, ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) became a technical expression for the assembly of people consisting of free men entitled to vote. This same word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) was used in the Judeo-Greek Septuagint (LXX) to describe Israel standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Hence the confusing, but in many ways more consistent, KJV translation of the “church (instead of Israel) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

Third, it is interesting that while we normally refer to the Apostle Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles, according to Luke’s testimony, this is not what Jesus himself called him. The Jewish Christ, addressing Ananias (חנניה), said that Paul was to be a chosen instrument to both the Nations and Israel, as well as to their leadership structures. In Acts 9:15-16 we read:

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9: 13-16)

Later, when Paul calls himself an Apostle to the Gentiles (Nations/Peoples), this was not, as is widely assumed, meant to highlight his exclusive mission to people of the world; but instead to affirm his strong commitment to the ministry among the Nations as well. This was never divorced from his ministry to Israel (Rom. 11). Shaul Paulos understood that those things were irrevocably bound together.


In the world of Shaul Paulos, things were clear. Everyone knew what conversion meant and what it did not mean. Essentially, conversion was fully unjoining one people and fully joining another. So sympathies for the traditions of other people were considered exactly as being sympathetic. Sometimes these sympathises/partial practices were viewed as dangerous, sometimes they were viewed as fully acceptable. However, as long as they did not cross the lines of full abandonment of their own ancestral ways, they were still not qualified as “conversion.”

In fact, Roman authors saw conversions as a real threat, and they therefore used their writing skills to fight the phenomenon in every way, seeking to preserve the highly segregated Roman society “as is.”

The social structure of ancient Rome was based on heredity, property, wealth, citizenship and freedom. It was also based on men. Women were defined by the social status of their fathers or husbands. The boundaries between different classes were strict and legally enforced. Members of different classes even dressed differently. For example, in the Roman Colosseum, sections for seating were class-based, reflecting this cast-like system of heightened status difference. So Paul’s strong affirmation of the end of segregation and discrimination in the body of Christ gained a particular importance in this context. There is truly neither Judean nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female in Christ. Roman segregation barriers and discrimination have no place in communities that honour the God of the Hebrew Bible as revealed in Christ Jesus (Gal.3:27-29).


Various Greco-Roman authors were unhappy about the great success of Jewish ingathering (conversion) activities in the Roman Empire. Here are a few examples:

Decimus Lunius Luvenalis, known as Juvenal from end of 1st beginning of 2nd century CE, was a Roman satiric poet and teacher who described life in Rome under several emperors. He wrote:

A father sleeps more each 7th day (within a 10 day Roman week), avoiding pork, the next thing that happens is that his sons become circumcised, keep Moses’ laws and despise the laws of Rome. (Juvenal, Satires 14.96-106).

The author of this text understood that the Shabbat that Roman God-fearers seem to have observed was the beginning of a slippery slope leading to full proselyte conversion; where, in the end, a law-abiding Roman citizen would adopt the rites of the Judeans and claim exemption and protection from the Roman laws.

Publius Cornelius Tacitus, usually called Tacitus (56 -117 CE), was a senator, a historian and orator in the Roman Empire. His famous surviving works are Annals and Histories. He wrote that people who converted to the Judean way of life:

abandoned the practices of their fathers. They disowned their own gods, their own country and their own family. (Tacitus, History 5:1-2).

Celsus was 2nd CE century Hellenistic philosopher opposed to Early Christ-followers. The church father Origen preserved his words in his apologetic work against Celsus’ rhetoric. There we read:

If the Jews maintained their own law, we should not find fault with them, but rather with those who have abandoned their own traditions and professed those of the Jews. (Origen, Contra Celsum 5.41)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also known as Seneca the Younger was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist and humorist. Speaking of the Jews, he [Seneca] says:

Meanwhile the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors. (Seneca quoted by Augustine, City of God, c. 5 BCE–65 CE)

The following example clearly shows that Jews too joined others in full conversion, this time away from Judaism:

In those days, certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (1 Macc. 1:11-15)

Conversion as an experience of radical abandonment of one’s religious and ethical identity was known in antiquity. But this was definitely not Paul’s experience. Paul did not abandon Judaism, but “converted” from one variety of Judaism to another – from one way within Judaism to another (Jesus-centred, apocalyptic Judaism). He was and continued to be a Jewish Pharisee who was saved by the grace of Israel’s God and called into his unique service to be God’s instrument among both Israel and the Nations. It is with understanding of this basic idea that we must retranslate and reread Shaul Paulos in our own time. I believe the final chapter of Christian understanding of this great Jewish man has not yet been written.

[1] While this insight is not original to him I am indebted for it to my colleague Prof. Peter Shirokov.

[2] There are other anachronistic and interpretive problems here with which we will deal a little later.

[3] The so called Quartodeciman position (from the Latin for “fourteen” of Nissan) was declared heretical and people observing Passover according to a major Jewish calendar were excommunicated.

[4] An example, Polycarp who was discipled by (Jewish) John, the most-likely author of the Gospel of John should not be dismissed, but critically considered. There are many kinds of misconceptions and anachronisms that are present in the common and usually unchallenged account of what took place in the city of Smyrna with the martyrdom of Polycarp. When he was offered life in exchange for a public denial of Jesus and acceptance of the Roman Emperor as Caesar he uttered his now iconic words: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong; how, then, can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour!” The story of Polycarp’s Martyrdom, though being one of the greatest stories that inspired millions of Christians for greater commitment to the Lord, may not be historical at its very important points. At the very least, its authenticity is significantly weakened by the lack of earlier sources. The earliest manuscripts are dated to the tenth century CE and come across as containing many inspirational Christian interpellations. This becomes clear when the story of the Martyrdom of Polycarp is compared to the account as told by Eusebius in his Church History written in the fifth century CE. The differences are considerable. There are other issues such as literary parallels with the passion of Christ that are doubtfully coincidental. Moreover, by the fifth century CE, the Christ-followers had already developed what could be called Historic Non-Jewish (and often anti-Jewish) Christianity. Therefore, it is doubtful that documents coming from the quills of fifth century Christian historians such as Eusebius should be completely trusted, especially when they involve the Jews. My point here is not that the totality of Eusebius’ account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp is untrue. But that we simply do not have ideologically independent and reliable sources to establish the details of the Martyrdom, especially those that involve the Jews of Smyrna. The document claims that they led the way and encouraged the murder of St. Polycarp. It is in fact more likely, that this detail (the Jews in the Polycarp account) was inserted into the early true account based on a misreading of persecution of Christ-followers by those who, in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 2:9), falsely claimed to be Jews. The accuracy of Eusebius’s account has often been called into question, both today and in antiquity. For example, in the 5th century, the Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus described Eusebius as writing for “rhetorical finish” and for the “praises of the Emperor” rather than the “accurate statement of facts.” (Socrates Scholasticus, Church History, Book 1.1). The historical methods of Eusebius have been criticized by many scholars, and show that at least his chronology was something between an exact science and an instrument of the by now Christian Roman Imperial propaganda. My suggestion, therefore, is to leave the story of the dating and the authenticity of these materials to the scholars of later periods and not to allow the accounts of Polycarp (whether they are true, false or only partially so) to interfere with our readings of earlier well-attested New Testament documents.

[5] See my discussion on the possible Jewishness of Luke in the appendix.

[6] Translated traditionally as “Church” vs. “Israel” as “community/gathering of called out ones” is the case in Septuagint’s rendering of Hebrew “Kahal” (קהל).

[7] I use Judaism here not in the sense of religion, but in the sense of the “whole package” of Jewish experience that includes a religion component.

This article originally appeared on Israel Study Center and is reposted with permission.