2016-06-30
Reprinted from Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free with permission of Paternoster Press.

With astonishing suddenness the persecutor of the church became the apostle of Jesus Christ. He was in mid-course as a zealot for the law, bent on checking a plague which threatened the life of Israel, when, in his own words, he was "apprehended by Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12) and constrained to turn right round and become a champion of the cause which, up to that moment, he had been endeavouring to exterminate. What caused this revolution? His own repeated explanation is that he saw the once-crucified Jesus now exalted as the risen Lord. "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" he asks indignantly when his apostolic credentials are questioned (1 Corinthians 9:1), referring to the same occasion as that mentioned later in the same letter (1 Corinthians 15:8) where, after listing earlier appearances of Christ in resurrection, he adds, "Last of all...he appeared also to me" (perhaps in the sense, "he let himself be seen by me"). The resurrection appearance granted to him was as real as the appearances witnessed by Peter, James, and many others on the first Easter and the days immediately following. When, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, he says that "God...has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ," his language perhaps implies a reminiscence of the same event-more particularly of that great "light from heaven, brighter than the sun" which flashed about him as he and his companions approached Damascus, according to the evidence of Acts (9:3; 22:6; 26:13).
The evidence of Acts corroborates Paul's claim to have seen the risen Christ but also insists time and again that he heard him speak. "The God of our fathers," he is told by Ananias of Damascus, "appointed you to see the just One and to hear a voice from his mouth" (Acts 22: 14; cf. 9: 17). Whatever variations there are in Luke's three accounts of Paul's conversion, all three agree that about midday, as he was approaching Damascus, he "heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' And he said, `Who are you, Lord?' And he said, `I am Jesus [of Nazareth], Whom you are persecuting'" (9:4f.; 22:7f.; 26:14f.). Some verbal communication, beyond the heavenly vision in itself, is implied in Paul's statement that "he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles" (Galatians 1:15f.). No single event, apart from the Christ-event itself, has proved so determinant for the course of Christian history as the conversion and commissioning of Paul. For anyone who accepts Paul's own explanation of his Damascus-road experience, it would be difficult to disagree with the observation of an 18th-century writer that "the conversion and apostleship of St. Paul alone, duly considered, was of itself a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation." With no conscious preparation, Paul found himself instantaneously compelled by what he saw and heard to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, was alive after his passion, vindicated and exalted by God, and was now conscripting him into his service. There could be no resistance to this compulsion. He capitulated to the commands of this new master. Attempts to account for Paul's experience in physiological or psychological terms are precarious, and inadequate to boot, unless they take into consideration the fact that it involved the intelligent and deliberate surrender of his will to the risen Christ who had appeared to him. "Blinded with excess of light," Paul was led into Damascus to the house of one Judas in the "street called Straight" (a name which survives to this day in the Darb al-Musta), where presumably arrangements had been made for him to lodge. There he was visited by Ananias, one of the local disciples of Jesus, who greeted him as a brother and a fellow disciple. Immediately Paul recovered his sight and was baptized in the name of Jesus. The man who had set out for Damascus to work havoc among the disciples now found himself welcomed into their fellowship.

Damascus has been claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is mentioned in the biblical story of Abraham (Genesis 14:15; 15:2), who is said in later (Hellenistic) tradition to have "reigned in Damascus."

Damascus, which plays a part in Muslim eschatological tradition as the place to which Jesus will descend to destroy Antichrist, may well have figured in this way in a branch of Christian tradition from which the Muslims took over the expectation. In some strands of Jewish tradition, too, Damascus or the surrounding territory figures as the place where Gentile dominion will be finally overthrown. "Damascus" has been held by some scholars to be a code name for the community's place of exile"-a code name chosen because they interpreted their emigration as the fulfilment of the prophecy of Amos 5:26f., quoted in the strange form: "I have exiled the tabernacle of your king and the pedestal of your images from my tent to Damascus." But the form of the quotation-not to speak of its interpretation-is so strange as to suggest that it was adapted to fit the fulfillment: the interpreters, that is to say, sought a text to suit their migration to Damascus and found it in Amos 5:26f.

The covenanters regarded the "Teacher of Righteousness" (who was no longer alive) as the first leader and organizer of their community. If Damascus be taken literally, the question arises of the relation of this community to that of Qumran, which also venerated the Teacher of Righteousness as its first leader and organizer. The means of reconstructing the history of the community are too scanty to make any firm answer possible. Perhaps the community as a whole resided in "the land of Damascus" for some years: at one time the attractive suggestion was made that it resided there during the thirty years or more of its abandonment of the Qumran centre at the end of the first century B.C. Another possibility is that one branch of the community lived in the land of Damascus for a time while the main body lived at Qumran. There is serious reason to believe, however, that those who betook themselves to the land of Damascus did so "in order to anticipate there the appearance of the Messiah, or, in general, the inauguration of the messianic drama."

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