Road to Damascus leads Saul in new direction

by Joe Bollig

You might say that Saul of Tarsus was a one-man wrecking crew.

In first-century Jerusalem, this rising young star among the Temple elite was creating a buzz. He was already known for kicking down doors and taking down names of the members of the subversive little sect that was spreading after the death of its charismatic leader, one Jesus of Nazareth.

Saul, the well-connected scion of a Jewish family in Asia Minor, spent his teenage years in Jerusalem studying the Torah under the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel.

The precocious Saul may have learned a lot from Gamaliel, but he didn’t share his tendency toward tolerance, according to the Anglican writer N.T. Wright, in “What Saint Paul Really Said.”

In fact, Saul quickly graduated from an earnest young scholar to a young tough for God. He participated in the lynch mob that stoned the first Christian martyr, the deacon St. Stephen.

And it didn’t end there.

Threats, murder, and pursuit

When the Temple authorities launched a severe persecution against the followers of Jesus — driving all but their leaders, the apostles, out of Jerusalem — Saul of Tarsus was right in the thick of it, according to the New Testament:

“But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).

Saul, however, was no loose cannon. He was acting under the express authority of the Temple rabbis. In fact, he probably was in the mainstream of popular sentiment. In all probability, he thought he was a pretty good guy, acting in accord with the will of God.

In “What Saint Paul Really Said,” Wright observes: “Saul of Tarsus was acting as best he knew ‘according to the Scriptures’ . . . a story in search of an ending, an ending he himself would help bring about.”

Why did he do what he did? Look at it from Saul’s perspective.

Had the words of the prophets been fulfilled? No. Had Israel been restored? Roman occupation was proof enough that it had not. Had the Messiah come and redeemed Israel? Obviously not.

If not, why not?

There could be only one answer: because Israel had not been faithful and was not pure. Did not the holy Scriptures teach that disaster had fallen upon Israel in ancient times for just these reasons?

It was a relentless logic that led Saul the scholar to become Saul the persecutor. Not only would he hasten the day of the Lord by keeping the Torah wholeheartedly; he would force his fellow Jews to do likewise — by violence, if necessary. If Israel was to be saved, these apostate followers of Jesus of Nazareth must repent or die. God’s will be done!

So, Saul helped clean out Jerusalem. He was working on Judea and Samaria as well. But it wasn’t good enough:

“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).

Destiny at high noon

What happened next could have been likened to an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The “Damascus Road Incident,” known to us as “the conversion of St. Paul,” is told three times in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles (9:1-19; 22:6-16; and 26:12-18).

Saul was nearing Damascus at about noon when a dazzling light flashed above him and he was knocked to the ground. A voice asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you?” Saul responded.

“Jesus,” came the answer.

Saul then received his marching orders: to serve and testify to what he has seen; to open the eyes of those to whom he was being sent; to go to Damascus to receive further instructions. When the vision was over, Saul was blind.

Meanwhile, another man was also receiving instructions from God: Ananias, a devout believer, was told to seek out Saul.

Ananias was a little apprehensive, because he knew of Saul’s reputation. But he obeyed.

Going to Saul, he laid hands on him saying, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:17). Next, he baptized Saul. The persecutor had become the believer.

Paul’s conversion was not a radical change in religions, wrote Father Ronald D. Witherup in “101 Questions and Answers on Paul.” He did not trade Judaism for Christianity. He remained a Jew, but one who believed he had found, and was commissioned by, the Messiah.

According to Wright, the “Damascus Road Incident” forced Paul to totally rethink his perspective on the way God would act on his plan of salvation.

A man without a country

As a new believer in Christ, Paul could not simply return to Jerusalem and continue his old associations. Nor could he necessarily join the local Christian community, which knew him only as a persecutor.

What next? It seems that God may have given him a direction:

“So that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus” (Gal 1:16-17).

Paul began to passionately preach about Jesus being the Son of God. He was very effective, “confounding” other Jews with his message and change.

They asked themselves, “Isn’t this the guy who raised havoc in Jerusalem and sought to arrest those who believed Jesus was the Messiah? Now, he’s one himself!”

Apparently, Paul was so irritating that some of those he “confounded” decided to assassinate him. The Damascus Christian community found out and smuggled him out of the city by lowering him over the wall in a basket.

Ironically, it wasn’t until three years after his conversion experience that Paul decided he wanted to meet his fellow apostles in Jerusalem.

The question was: Would they want to meet him?

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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