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Paul of Tarsus: The Damascus Road Illumination

Paul has been described by one of the Church Fathers as having been a small, crooked balding man with thick eyebrows, a fierce glare and jaunty airs who walked with a pronounced limp. What strikes us most about him, at first acquaintance, on the pages of the New Testament scriptures, however, is the intensity of his fervor. He appeared to have lived his life, after conversion, for nothing besides what he had somehow come to believe in. The superhuman dimensions of his self-sacrificing efforts to get the message across to the "Gentiles" makes a deep impression on us even as it did his contemporaries; friends and enemies alike in the Jerusalem Church. In the presence of fervor and zeal like Paul's not even the presence of the powerful party of former Pharisee converts had been enough to bring James to denounce Paul's Gentile ministry at the Jerusalem Council.

Paul of Tarsus

Paul of Tarsus (image source: http://faculty.buffalostate.edu/smithrd)

The news of his conversion, on the road to Damascus, had been greeted with mixed feelings by the Jerusalem Church leadership. As Saul, he came to the attention of the Jerusalem Church as the fanatical Pharisee who had been appointed "chief persecutor" of the Church by the Jewish authorities. The Church had reeled under the ferocity of his onslaught. He had personally supervised the mob that lynched Stephen. He had been granted authority to drag Christians from their homes for arrest or imprisonment and sometimes even summary execution by an organized lynch mob.

Concerning his Damascus road conversion, scholars have for long pointed out the fact of conflicts between the different New Testament accounts. Paul, himself, makes a number of rather brief references to his conversion in his letters. The Book of Acts describes the incident briefly. Paul had not known Jesus during his lifetime and the little we can safely gather from the New Testament accounts is that he had a life changing experience on the road to Damascus which he interpreted as an encounter with the "risen Lord." We may side-step the scholarly debate that has flourished in the past over the contradictions between the different New Testament accounts over whether Paul's traveling companions, at the moment of his encounter with Jesus, "heard but failed to understand the voice," or did not "hear" the voice at all. Our prime interest in this article is with regard to the nature of the conversion experience itself.

What really happened to Paul at the moment of the encounter? A Neurologist had suggested, in 1987, that Paul had had an attack of temporal lobe epilepsy; the specialist conclusion being based on the New Testament report of a bright light, falling to the ground, a message of spiritual or religious content and blindness. Other specialists have challenged this conclusion, but what concerns us most in this article is the content of the revelation he claimed to have received on the road to Damascus.

Accounts of divine revelations tend to emphasize the supernatural origin of the new knowledge or revelation received by a claim of sudden "lightning-fall-from heaven" illumination. It is doubtful that this is ever the case in reality. A suddenly illumination comes to a person after having been ruminating on a problem for a prolonged period, and the revelation is never a sudden wholesale impartation of knowledge but a sudden synthetic insight building into a whole a mass of previously apparently unrelated bits and pieces of facts and ideas. That, it would seem, is what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. A sudden flash of synthetic insight might have been associated with the onset of a neurological event of some sort which left him incapacitated for some time.

Paul reveals enough about himself, in his letters, to make us appreciate that he might have been the monkish sin-guilt obsessed type of religious personality as a pharisee. He describes himself as having been extremely zealous for the laws and traditions of his nation. In his own words to his gentile converts: "… born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." Central to Paul's new revelation, as shown in his subsequent insistence that "we are free from the bondage of the law," might have been the sudden realization that no amount of human effort at self-mortification tomfoolery could suffice for redemption of the human soul.

We know enough about the tendency of the sin-guilt obsessed religious mind to carry self-mortifying observances to absurd and irrational extents. Some three centuries after Paul's illumination on the road to Damascus we still find, flourishing in Christian Europe, a monkish culture which exemplifies the absurd tendencies of human minds obsessed with union with a moral god. Monks competed to outdo each other in acts of self-denial to please a self-imposed moral deity presiding ruthlessly over their lives: a certain St. Macarius of Alexandria carried about on him eighty pounds of iron chain which he would sometimes not lay down for an entire week. He was once thrown into depression from a feeling of inferiority to two monks he had seen roving stark naked. Another is said to have burnt his fingers on a candle one after the other to distract his attention for the tempting sight of sexually attractive women.

What burden must have been lifted off the shoulders of a Pharisee who suddenly recognized the significance of the Christian teaching of Jesus' expiatory sacrifice! We are free from bondage to the curse of the law! And indeed, Paul made plenty of enemies in his attempts to test the limits of his new found freedom. He would go as far as to ridicule the sacred Jewish rite of circumcision. Something practically unthinkable under ordinary circumstances for a man raised up as a Pharisee.

The radical mystical-philosophical core of Pauline theology which, strange to say, the Christian world tends to miss or hold a very watered down version of,  is what he terms in effect the mystery of divine reproduction: "…The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed…we ourselves who are the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoptions as sons, the redemption of our bodies."

Paul's mystical theology employs a sexual reproductive metaphoric blueprint which derives it major elements from the Asiatic Mystery Cult theologies that were the rave of the Greco-Roman world of his time(Christian apologists would stridently but unconvincingly deny the influence of the pervasive system of thought in the mystery cults of Paul's time on his thinking). The "sons of God," are literally the offspring of God by his divine semen the Holy Spirit. The Church, as the community of saints, is likened to the Earth-as-mother in whose womb Christians are nurtured as embryo till the day of the second spiritual birth as sons of God. In Paul's theology, therefore, the Kingdom of God is the family of God; a family composed of a Father with Jesus as the first born son and Christians as sons-to-be. What Paul actually aspired to, in his new found faith, was nothing less that divinity. The crowning reward for him, in his race of faith, was immortality as a divine being born into the "Kingdom of God."

Modern day Christianity has generally watered down the transcendent hope of the first generation of Christians. For men who sincerely believed that death was the portal to divine glory; the Caesar's amphitheater was welcome means to a glorious new beginning.

JohnThomas Didymus is the author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus

About JohnThomas Didymus

Transmodernist writer and thinker. Author of "Confessions of God: The Gospel According to St. JohnThomas Didymus"
  • What happened on the road to Damascus? My own work of historical fiction explores this question as well as others raised in this post. In general, I agree with the views expressed here, but I doubt the Acts version of Paul's preconversion persecution of the church.

    Acts has Paul in Jerusalem as a young man to study at the feet of Gamaliel. From Paul's letters, it is obvious that he was an educated GREEK scholar. Such a Greek education would not have been available to him in Jerusalem. Secondly, when his credentials were under fire and he put forth his Jewish, Pharisee bona fides, he never mentioned Gamaliel, a telling omission under the circumstances. I think the evidence suggests he was educated in the diaspora and probably never arrived in Jerusalem until three years after his Damascus road experience, which is what he hints at in his Galatians letter. Third, it is implausible that the high priest would have sent Paul or anyone to Damascus to arrest Christians. Damascus was well outside the High Priest's jurisdiction. Even in Jerusalem, the authority of the High Priest was circumspect and subject to Roman oversight.

    Paul's own letters are considerably more subdued than the Acts accounts in these and other respects and are to be preferred over Acts.

    For any who are interested in my treatment of these issues, background information about the novel, "A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle" are available online. Click on my name.

  • The Damascus Road illumination is only one experience of the "light" of the immortal Christ, in his perfect and transfigurative death on the cross, as the way for every truly born again believer (John 3: 1-21).

    Today's Christian watered-down version of the "mystery of divine reproduction" is a direct consequence of "loving the darkness rather than the light" and the gardener's "breaking off branches that do not bear fruit" (Ibid, 15: 1-2).

  • And his disciples took him by night and let him down over the wall, lowering him in a basket. And when he had come to Jerusalem he attempted to join the disciples but they are all afraid of him for they did not believe he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists; but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brethren knew it, they brought him down to Caesarea and set him off to Tarsus. (Acts 9:25-30)

    And (Ananias) . . .said, The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Just One and to hear a voice from his mouth; and you will be a witness for him to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now, why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name. When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple I fell into a trance and saw him saying to me, 'Make haste and get quickly out of Jerusalem, because they will not accept your testimony about me. And I said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in very synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. And when the blood of Stephen thy witness was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.' And he said to me, 'Depart; for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.' (Acts 22:14-21)

    But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia; and I still was not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. (Galatians 1:15-23)

    My conclusion: Paul either had a very poor memory, was mentally ill, or lied about what he did in the weeks, months, and first few years after his conversion experience on the Damascus Road. Yet, Christians base their belief in the Resurrection, the pinnacle event of their faith, on this man's testimony, which in his own words, was a "heavenly vision" of a talking, bright light…along with the writings of four anonymous first century authors, writing decades after the alleged event, in a foreign language, in far away foreign lands, for purposes we do not and will never know.

    That isn't evidence, folks. That is speculation, superstition, and fantasy.

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