The former persecutor turned evangelist.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 February 2022
Galatians 1.13-24 KWL
13 For you heard the story of my behavior
when I was in Judaism—
that, in my extremism, I persecuted God’s church
and was laying waste to it.
14 In Judaism, I was advancing
beyond many of the peers in my class,
being extremely zealous
in my spiritual fathers’ “traditional” interpretations.
15 When God thought it best,
he separated me from the time I was in my mother’s womb,
and called me by his grace,
16 to reveal his Son to me
so I might evangelize of him to the gentiles,
I didn’t immediately confer with flesh and blood,
17 nor did I go to Jerusalem
to those who became apostles before me.
I went to Arabia instead.
Then I returned to Damascus again.
18 After three years, then I went up to Jerusalem
to interview Simon Peter.
I stayed with him 15 days.
19 I saw none of the other apostles except James, our Lord’s brother.
20 I write you all about this:
Look, I swear before God I’m not lying.
21 Then I went to the region of Syria and Cilicia,
22 and my face was unknown to the Jewish Christian churches.
23 They had only heard,
“Our former persecutor now evangelizes
the faith he was previously destroying,”
24 and they were glorifying God over me.
  • “Christ Jesus’s apostle to this present age.” Ga 1.1-5
  • “The ‘gospel of grace’… with a little karma in it.” Ga 1.6-9)
  • “The gospel doesn’t come from anyone but Christ Jesus.” Ga 1.10-12)
  • Paul gives some of his testimony here. As you know (or oughta know) a conversion story is a testimony, but it’s hardly one’s only testimony. One’s testimony is a story of anything God has done through us, and since God had done a lot through Paul, he had a lot to testify. He’d seen some stuff.

    Various people, much as they have with Historical Jesus, have invented a Historical Paul—the guy they blame for anything in Christianity they don’t like. To them, Historical Paul was an ancient Pharisee rabbi who ditched Pharisaism, opportunistically adopted the teachings of the recently-dead Jesus the Nazarene, and shaped it into a new religion about grace instead of righteously obeying the Law (which they claim Jesus was really all about; not God’s kingdom). Historical Paul invented Christianity, they claim; not Jesus.

    Their rewrite of history disregards Paul’s own writings. Every reference to Paul’s conversion points out no evangelist won him over, no logical explanation got him to change his mind. Paul was absolutely convinced Christianity was heresy. Not just that, Christians like Stephen needed to be dead—lest they outrage God and trigger the cycle of history again. This time it wouldn’t be the Babylonians flattening Jerusalem; it’d be the Romans. (As, it turns out, the Romans did—less than 20 years after Paul wrote Galatians.)

    Paul was absolutely certain he was doing right by God to purge the world of Jesus’s followers, and nobody but nobody could tell him different; he had all the blind zeal of a religious extremist. It is decidedly not the behavior of someone who wanted to adopt, nor create, another religion. This is what a περισσοτέρως ζηλωτὴς/perissotéros zilotís, “superabundant zealot,” does. It’s typical cage-stage behavior. But, y'know, more murdery. There are a lot of overzealous “defenders of faith” who would totally murder everyone they considered heretic, and the only thing mitigating them is the government. Sometimes Jesus—but many of them ignore Jesus, figuring the destruction of “heretics” far outweighs everything Jesus teaches about loving one’s enemies. It’s why they wanna grab the reins of government so badly: This way, nothing can stop them from purging “sinners” and stopping the cycle.

    The better-than-average Pharisee.

    Occasionally people describe Paul as a former Jew, or former Pharisee. These are descriptions Paul never used for himself. First of all you can’t be “a former Jew” unless you’re not ethnically Jewish. Paul was a descendant of Benjamin ben Israel ben Isaac ben Abraham. He could never not be a Jew.

    As for being Pharisee, Paul never stopped identifying himself as one. Including when he had to stand before the Judean senate.

    Acts 23.6 KJV
    But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.

    Despite what our culture means by the word “Pharisee,” Paul’s culture recognized a Pharisee meant a devout Jew, one in a religious sect which took the LORD and his Law seriously. Despite what irreligious Christians might claim, Paul never stopped upholding the LORD’s Law.

    At some point Paul moved from Tarsus to Jerusalem to attend a Pharisee academy. It was the ancients’ closest equivalent to a college education; it meant following a rabbi around and asking him tons of questions, and he’d Socratically ask you questions right back, straighten out your misconceptions, and teach you to sharpen your thinking. (Yes, it’s exactly what Jesus did with his students.) Likely it was after he came of age, so around age 13 or so.

    In verse 14 he kinda describes himself as the class valedictorian, the furthest ahead in his age group. Speaking from experience as a former child prodigy: When you’re the littlest guy in the classroom, you tend to get labeled “the little man,” and if you proudly own these nicknames, they stick. This is where I suspect his Greek name Παῦλος/Pávlos, meaning “small,” came from: It rhymed with his Hebrew name, Σαῦλος/Sávlos. It aptly described the brilliant little guy in synagogue. Christians who’ve never been the brightest little kid in a classroom, just presume Paul was a shorter than average guy.

    Paul recognized his zeal for knowledge, and ability to retain it, was God-given. That’s likely what he meant by “separated me from my mother’s womb” in verse 15: It wasn’t about being born, but about being chosen by God even before he was born. He was made to follow God. We all were, but when you’re a child prodigy it’s a little more obvious.

    God had big plans for Paul. His contemporaries knew it; his parents probably moved to Jerusalem because of it; even as a νεανίου/neaníu, “teenager” (KJV “young man”) Ac 7.58 he was sitting in senate meetings and being commissioned by them to go house to house and arrest Christians. Ac 8.3 You don’t give that much responsibility to just any kid.

    But look at the utter mess he made with these abilities when Jesus wasn’t guiding him!

    This is why Jesus had to personally intervene. Sometimes people aren’t gonna turn to him any other way. It’s like hearing from fellow employees, “The boss wants you to do such-and-so,” but the instructions sound implausible or confusing, and your coworkers are kinda flaky, so you don’t trust them, and won’t do anything till you hear it straight from the top. And when she shows up, either she’s gonna patiently steer you right, or impatiently fire you, depending on what kind of person she is. Too many of us expect Jesus to appear in wrath and fire, both in his personal appearances and his second coming, and dread him…and that’s because they don’t know him. Okay yes, there’ll be fire. But he comes in kindness, not wrath.

    When Luke wrote of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9, he provided no timeline of when events took place, so Christians tend to get the idea this stuff happened over the course of a few weeks. Nope; took longer. When Jesus appeared to Paul, he was blinded; Ac 9.8-9 after Ananias cured him he stayed with Jesus’s followers some time, Ac 9.19 then immediately started preaching of Jesus in the Damascus synagogue. Ac 9.20 But it turns out it wasn’t immediate. Paul says in verse 17 he first went to Arabia, then Damascus. Ga 1.17 We’re not sure how long this Arabia trip took. We only know Paul spent three years in Damascus before returning to Jerusalem. Ga 1.18 In that time, he preached Jesus… till the Damascene Jews could stand no more and decided to kill him, and Paul’s fellow Christians had to sneak him over the wall in a basket. Ac 9.23-25

    But it’s after Paul’s conversion we see some of what God had created Paul to do. When he switched from being antichrist to Christian, every bit of his Pharisee education became repurposed to support Jesus instead of fight him. The scriptures already point to him; Jn 5.39 it’s just if you don’t wanna see Jesus in them, you won’t. But Paul (who for a while there was literally blind, and I’m sure he realized the aptness of it) had his eyes opened, and now saw everything.

    Likely he preached Jesus with the same zeal he had previously opposed him. That is to say, deficient in fruit—as new Christians will be. We have to grow it, y’know. All the more reason people would want to kill Paul. Not for nothing did he have to take several more years before he was ready for evangelistic ministry: He still had some growing up to do.

    Meeting Peter.

    Luke related how, after Damascus, Paul wanted to join the Christians in Jerusalem—the very same Christians he persecuted three years before.

    Acts 9.26-28 KJV
    26 And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem.

    Paul’s version of events is a little different: He wrote nothing about Barnabas. He says he didn’t meet with anyone but Peter and James, and he swears he’s not lying. Ga 1.20 So… is he rebutting what Luke wrote in Acts?

    Nah. Paul says he saw no apostles but Peter and James, and the Holy Spirit hadn’t yet made Barnabas an apostle. Ac 13.2 As for the other guys in the Twelve, they likely weren’t even there. When Paul first started persecuting, the Jerusalem Christians scattered, but the apostles didn’t. Ac 8.1 But Jesus had told them (and us) to go into all the world and preach the gospel, Mt 28.18-20 and gradually they realized they needed to do as their Lord said. So by the time Paul got to Jerusalem, the others had spread out to start new churches. It’s unfortunate it took persecution as the kick in the butt to get ’em going, but it worked.

    For the most part this left behind James bar Joseph, Jesus’s brother, who ran the Jerusalem church as its bishop; and Simon bar Yoannis, whom Jesus called כיפא/Kifá, “rock”—which in Greek is Πέτρος/Petros, from whence we get “Peter.” (In the original text of Galatians, Paul called him Κηφᾶς/Kifás, which the KJV turned into “Cephas,” which everybody mispronounces. I translate it “Peter,” lest you think Cephas is some other apostle.) If any other apostles were still around, Paul was pretty sure he didn’t meet ’em.

    Though neither Luke nor Paul got into it, bear in mind another factor which was going on in the Christians’ minds when Paul first tried to join them: Hard feelings. Three years ago, Paul viciously persecuted these people. Some of them might’ve been killed, or were permanently disabled. Not all of them wanted to forgive Paul for it. It took the bigger people among them, like Barnabas, to put aside their anger and hate, and forgive the kid.

    This particularly relates to the subject at hand—the Galatians adopting a false “gospel” in which people have to jump through extra hoops to be saved, instead of God's grace and radical forgiveness. If you insist on people first paying off their karmic debt before they can fellowship with you, Paul the persecutor would never ever be able to pay it off. Yet Jesus forgives him, and made Paul his apostle. Same as the other apostles. And the other apostles either had to recognize what our Lord did and get with his program… or stop calling themselves his followers, 'cause they weren't following anymore. He wasn’t Lord, who could add to his group anyone he chose; they were, and people first had to follow their rules.

    Not every Christian recognizes this is exactly what we’re doing whenever we make new Christians, or repentant sinners, follow our ridiculous, overly complicated “restoration” practices. All of which go right back to legalism and karmically earning our place in God's kingdom.

    Paul then spent half a month with Simon Peter. Various Christians like to imagine Peter giving the young Pharisee a condensed course in Jesus’s teachings—as if two weeks would be anywhere near enough! But that’s not how Paul described it. He used that time ἱστορῆσαι Κηφᾶν/istorísai Kifán, “to gather a history from Kifa.” Not be examined by Peter; Paul did the examining. Paul wanted to confirm whether what he had got from Jesus, was consistent with what Peter got from Jesus. Did Paul really have an authentic revelation of the gospel from Christ Jesus himself? Did they both listen to the same Holy Spirit? Were they both on solid footing? Seems so.

    They might have spent more time together, but James and Peter decided to send Paul home to Tarsus, ’cause Paul was getting into the same sort of trouble as he had in Damascus.

    Acts 9.29-30 KJV
    29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. 30 Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.

    By “the Grecians” Luke meant Greek-speaking Jews; apparently Paul was going to their synagogues and picking fights. The apostles didn’t need that! So they sent him home to Tarsus. He could pick fights there, where there wasn’t active persecution going on.

    Thus Paul was out of the way for the next decade or so, with nothing but a good story left behind: “Our former persecutor now evangelizes the faith he was previously destroying,” Ga 1.23 A reminder of how Jesus can turn anyone around. And why pray for our enemies’ destruction, when their salvation can be so much more productive?