Tuesday, January 25th marks the conversion of Paul, according to the Revised Common Lectionary.
Wikipedia suggests a “Religious conversion is the adoption of a new religion that differs from the convert’s previous religion.” In this sense, the term “conversion” is actually an anachronism disliked by scholars because at the time of Paul’s Damascus road experience, neither he nor any others of the fledgling Jesus movement anticipated or intended a new religion. Perhaps “transformation” is a better choice.
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, 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. Galatians 1:15-17 (NRSV)
By the time the author of Acts told the story, a generation or more later, dramatic flourishes had been added:
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Acts 9:3-7
Apparently forgetting what he had written earlier, the second telling of the story by the author of Acts reversed the seeing and hearing. In the first passage, the companions of Paul heard the voice but saw nothing; in the second, they saw but did not hear.
While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ Acts 22:6-10
Finally, the third version contained within Acts significantly expands the conversation between Paul and the voice:
when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ Acts 26:13-18
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that my novel about Paul, entitled A Wretched Man, was published around ten months ago. How should I depict the scene on the Damascus road? How could I describe an event that is believable to my readers yet account for the profundity of Paul’s experience? As I wrestled with my choices, I also wondered, to what extent was Paul’s experience of the presence of the divine, his theophany, different from the times in my life when I felt God’s touch? Or, from a more intellectual perspective, I wondered about the famous 19th century book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which a late 20th century reviewer lauded for its “penetration into the hearts of people.”
In my novel, I foreshadowed the Damascus experience in a scene with Paul’s fictional mentor, Eli the sage.
“The Prophet Ezekiel describes the God who is indescribable. How do we see the God that is beyond sight? How do we know the God who is beyond knowing? The absolute holiness of God is greater than a mere human can bear and more than we can comprehend. These are words beyond words with meaning beyond meaning.”
“I understand,” said Paulos.
Eli scowled. “Do not be overconfident, my young friend. Self-doubt is the blossom of wisdom. When Moses faced God in the burning bush, he asked, What is your name? We must all pursue the same question,” Eli said, and then his voice dropped to a whisper, “but we err if we believe we have the answer.”
The oil lamp flared and briefly chased the shadows, but then the flame died, leaving the room dark except for the shaft of light that fell across the scroll in Paulos’ hands.
“As soon as we name the one whose name is unknown, we create the one who created us,” Eli said. “Ezekiel the prophet painted colorful pictures that point to the truth, but they are untrue.”
Paulos squinted into the nearly blind eyes of the old man. Had the fuzziness that coated his eyes reached his mind? Paulos began to doubt his mentor who spoke in silly riddles. He tugged on his nose and his gaze returned to the written words. His finger traced the scribed marks with care not to touch the holy scroll. He read aloud, “This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”
The wizened old man rhythmically tapped his willow cane on the tile floor. First, he offered a promise. “One day you will see the glory of the Lord.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
And then, he issued a challenge, “What words will you speak when you tell the tale? What picture will you paint?”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
And finally, he uttered a warning, “But retain your humility and self-doubt. Do not pretend to answer Moses’ question or paint truer pictures than Ezekiel. Do not commit idolatry.”
In the end, how did I write the Damascus scene?