The former persecutor turned evangelist.

Galatians 1.11-24.

So I did the bit where Paul wrote there’s no other gospel than the one he got from Jesus, and preached—and if anyone teaches otherwise, ban them from teaching, if not from our churches altogether. The Galatians were being peer-pressured, as Paul’s letter further makes clear, into the common pagan “gospel” of good karma: Be good, and in so doing earn God’s favor. Which sounds fair and commonsense, but isn’t at all how God’s kingdom works.

As to how Paul got the proper gospel—i.e. God’s kingdom has come near, for Jesus’s self-sacrifice makes it available to all—most every Christian hears Paul’s story at some point. (Heck, it’s told three whole times in Acts.) Saul, a Benjamite Pp 3.5 from Tarsus, Cilicia, born a citizen of the Roman Empire, had moved to Jerusalem to study under rabbi and senator Gamaliel Ac 22.3 in a Pharisee academy. It was there he first encountered Christianity in the person of Stephen the deacon… and decided he personally needed to stamp it out. But enroute to doing a little persecuting in Syria, Jesus stopped him, blinded him, and turned him 180 degrees in his direction. Saul was Christian ever after, proclaimed Jesus all over the empire, and was ultimately beheaded because the empire demanded its citizens and subjects worship not just their own gods, but their emperor. (Kind of a problem for us monotheists whose LORD God forbade that.)

Paul described his backstory to the Galatians thisaway:

Galatians 1.11-24 KWL
11 Family, I want you to know the gospel shared by me isn’t from other people,
12 for I never got it from people, nor was it taught me by them.
It came instead by a revelation from Christ Jesus.
13 For you heard of my former lifestyle in Judaism:
I excessively persecuted God’s church, and was destroying it.
14 I was advancing in Judaism over many in my class, in my family,
becoming a superabundant zealot in my ancestors’ traditions.
15 When God, who appointed me in my mother’s womb and called me by his grace,
thought it best 16 to reveal his Son to me, so I might share Jesus with the gentiles,
I didn’t quickly go to flesh and blood for advice, 17 nor go up to Jerusalem to the apostles preceding me.
Instead I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18 After three years, then I went to Jerusalem to examine Kifa (i.e. Simon Peter) and stayed with him 15 days.
19 I didn’t see other apostles, except James the brother of Master Jesus.
20 Look, what I write you—I promise before God I’m not lying.
21 Then I came to the foothills of Syria and Cilicia.
22 I was unknown—well, my face was—by the Judean Christian churches.
23 The churches were only hearing this: “Our former persecutor now shares the faith he was formerly destroying.”
24 The churches glorified God because of me.

Various people, much as they have with Historical Jesus, have invented a Historical Paul—the guy they blame for anything in Real Jesus they don’t like. To them Historical Paul was an ancient Pharisee rabbi who ditched Pharisaism, adopted the teachings of the recently-dead Jesus the Nazarene, and shaped it into a new religion about grace instead of religious rules. Historical Paul, they claim, invented Christianity; not Jesus.

But 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, and Christians like Stephen needed to be dead lest they outrage God and trigger the cycle again—this time with the Romans destroying Jerusalem instead of the Babylonians. As the Romans did, y'notice—less than 20 years after Paul wrote Galatians.

Paul was certain he was doing right by God to purge the world of Jesus’s followers, and nobody but nobody could tell him different. This 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—’cause if the overzealous “defenders of faith” could, you know they would. Historically, they always do.

The better-than-average Pharisee.

Occasionally people will describe Paul as a former Jew, or former Pharisee. These are descriptions Paul never, ever used for himself. First of all you can’t be “a former Jew,” unless you’re not ethnically Jewish, but dabbled in the religion, and then quit. Paul was a descendant of Israel ben Isaac ben Abraham, and could never not be a Jew.

As for being a Pharisee, Paul never stopped self-identifying as such. Including when he testified in the Judean senate.

Acts 23.6 KWL
Paul, realizing one part was Sadducee and the other Pharisee,
called out to the senate, “Men, brothers, I’m Pharisee, the son of Pharisees.
I’m actually being judged over ‘the hope,’ the resurrection of the dead.”

Despite what our culture means by the word “Pharisee,” Paul’s culture recognized a Pharisee meant a devout Jew, one who took the LORD and his commands seriously. And despite what irreligious Christians might tell you, Paul never stopped upholding the LORD’s Law.

We don’t know at what point Paul moved to Jerusalem for study. We know he described himself as basically the class valedictorian; definitely ahead of his age group. I know from experience as a 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 expect his Greek name Παῦλος/Pávlos, meaning “small,” came from: It rhymed with his given name, Σαῦλος/Sávlos; it aptly described the brilliant little guy in synagogue. Christians who’ve never been in that position just presume Paul was a short guy.

Paul recognized his zeal for knowledge, and ability to retain it, was God-given. Hence the “appointed me in my mother’s womb” talk in verse 15: God had big plans for him. 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!

And that’s 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 co-workers are kinda flaky, so you don’t trust them, and won’t do anything till you hear it straight from the boss. 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; but that’s only because they don’t know him. Okay, 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 quickly—like over the course of a few weeks. Nope; took longer. In Jesus’s appearance, Paul was blinded; Ac 9.8-9 after Ananias cured him he stayed with Jesus’s followers some time, Ac 9.19 and quickly started preaching of Jesus in the Damascus synagogue. Ac 9.20 But Paul wrote there was a bit of time where he went to Arabia, then Damascus. Ga 1.17 We’re not sure where to wedge this Arabia trip into the story, nor how long it took. We can only be sure Paul spent three years in Damascus before returning to Jerusalem, Ga 1.18 preaching Jesus until the Damascenes had enough and decided to kill him, and the Christians had to sneak Paul over the wall in a basket. Ac 9.23-25

But here’s where we begin to see some of what God had created Paul to do. When he switched from being antichrist to Christian, every bit of his Pharisee education was repurposed to support Jesus. Because the scriptures already point to him; Jn 5.39 it’s just if you don’t wanna see it in them, you won’t. But Paul (who for a while there was literally blind too) had his eyes opened, and saw it all.

And likely preached it with the same zeal he had previously opposed it. 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 a break 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 KWL
26 Showing up in Jerusalem, Paul attempted to stick with the Christian students,
all of whom were afraid of him, not believing he was a fellow student.
27 Barnabas, taking up Saul’s cause, brought him to the apostles and explained to them
how Saul saw the Master on the road and spoke with him,
and how he boldly preached in Jesus’s name in Damascus.
28 So Saul was with the Christians, entering and exiting Jerusalem,
still boldly preaching in the Master’s name.

Paul’s version of events is a little different: He didn’t meet with anybody but Peter and James, and he promises he’s not lying. Ga 1.20 So… is he rebutting what Luke wrote in Acts?

Nah. The other apostles weren’t there! When Paul started persecuting the church, the 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 were spreading out and starting new churches. It’s unfortunate it took persecution as the kick in the butt to get 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 John, whom Jesus called כיפא/Kifá, “rock”—which in Greek is Πέτρος/Petros, from whence we get “Peter.” (Paul, y’notice, refered to Peter by a Greek form of Kifa, Κηφᾶς/Kifás—which the KJV turned into “Cephas,” and now everybody mispronounces it.) There might’ve been other apostles around, but Paul was pretty sure he didn’t meet ’em.

Wait, wasn’t Barnabas an apostle? Ac 14.14 Yes. But not yet. Not till the Holy Spirit sent him and Paul to go evangelize. Ac 13.12 So let’s not count him.

And though neither Luke nor Paul got into it, bear in mind another factor which was going on in the Christians’ minds when Paul tried to join them: Hard feelings. Three years ago, Paul was viciously persecuting these people. Not all of them wanted to forgive him 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” of salvation by good karma, instead of God's grace and radical forgiveness. Under karma, Paul the persecutor would never, ever be able to pay off that karmic debt. But Jesus forgave him and made an apostle of him. 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. Not that every Christian cares to follow this guideline. At all. We create ridiculous, complicated “restoration” practices… 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 enough! But that’s not how Paul described it. He used that time ἱστορῆσαι Κηφᾶν/istorísai Kifán, “to examine Kifa.” Not be examined by Peter; Paul did the examining. Paul wanted to confirm whether what Peter knew was consistent with what he got from Jesus. Were they teaching the same things? Were they both listening to the Holy Spirit? Were they both on solid footing? Seemed 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 Damascus.

Acts 9.29-30 KWL
29 Saul also spoke—and disputed—with the Greek-speakers, who attempted to murder him.
30 Knowing of this, the fellow Christians brought Saul down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.

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 shares the faith he was formerly destroying.” Ga 1.23 A reminder that Jesus can turn anyone around. And why pray for our enemies’ destruction, when their salvation is so much more productive?