Acts 9.1-6, 10-16:
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. 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.”
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
In the past two posts, I have begun to describe the idea of an apocalyptic anthropology in the Apostle Paul. In sketching this picture, my point is to ultimately work through the idea that an apocalyptic theology in Christ can serve as the central ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ that informs the rest of Paul’s thinking about the life of believers in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. While I have yet to get to the point of fully sketching it out, it is my intuition that an apocalyptic theology is the best theological framework to integrate and explain the various and diverse theological and ethical themes that occur in Paul’s letter. In other words, an apocalyptic anthropology (a) can be seen as being described in various Pauline texts and (b) also provides a coherent center to make sense of the whole Pauline corpus. If this is indeed the case, then an apocalyptic anthropology has a strong exegetical warrant in its favor.
However, exegetical evidence by itself is not enough. It is perfectly possible to create a mental map of a people’s thinking based upon the evidence of specific communications and be able to come up with a coherent explanation of the whole of the way the person acts and speaks, but it is wrong. Some conspiracy theorists, for instance, can provide very coherent accounts of social phenomena that they support with specific pieces of evidence. Yet, the vast majority of the time, they end up being wrong. This is because all our evidence of the internal, mental world of people is only partial. The partial nature of the evidence means that people can either get caught down a rabbit trail that goes far from the real nature of the person(s) involved or pick up something that is getting at the core of the truth about the person, but they don’t fully understand the significance of what they have discovered.
For instance, in my own experience with the traumatic symptoms of PTSD, there were times that in my times where I felt threatened that I could coordinate my memory of various events and sayings from other people that lead me to conspiratorial thinking, sometimes a conspiracy of malice and sometimes a conspiracy of kindness. Yet, in the end, as I dealt with multiple “coincidences” of speech and action that went beyond the critical threshold of what I would accept to be coincidence and randomness, I concluded: it wasn’t the people involved that were primarily involved for all that was happening, nor was it simply a common way of thinking between the persons, but that there was something responsible for what I was witnessing: ‘spiritual’ realities, namely the Spirit of God and at times a transpersonal force of evil, that is Satan. That is to say that my ability to draw evidence for a coherent account of what I was observing was initially explained by something I readily gave credence to, the nature of personal and interpersonal action. Still, it was only when I truly came to receive the possibility of divine agency not just as a theoretical possibility but as a reality that I took my well-grounded but ultimately conspiratorial interpretations and found a source of explanation and convergence that I did not originally accept.
What shifted my interpretations of the same events and speech was what I would consider plausible. Before that, the two primary models that I consider to be plausible explanations were (a) the randomness of coincidence and (b) social communication and intentionality. Both are plausible because there is plenty of real-life experience that validates these explanations as plausible. Yet, other events in my life began to further cement the possibility and even the reality of the Holy Spirit’s engagement in my own life in ways that I had previously was skeptical of. Upon my acceptance of the Holy Spirit and other ‘spiritual’ as plausible explanations for my experiences, I began to discover that an even better, more coherent account of my experience comes together when I recognize the dynamics of ‘spiritual’ agency. Another more plausible explanatory model allowed me to develop a more robust understanding.
I share this to make the point that our interpretations are validated not just based upon evidence and coherence of specific texts, experiences, etc., but also what we learn to consider plausible based upon the whole rest of our life, including but beyond the specific texts, experience, etc. in specific consideration. How we learn to make sense of life to determine our plausibility structures varies, but if our goal is to develop plausible explanations of experiences, texts, etc. that are also reliable in their ability to help us to comprehend and successfully engage with other aspects of life beyond those specific experiences, texts, etc., then it necessitates that we condition our sense of plausibility based upon what we already trust to be reliable to some degree. To put it differently, in order to develop our plausible explanatory models that are used to interpret specific Biblical texts, we need to rely upon what we consider reliable knowledges, such as the specific historiographical methods, knowledge of the languages and their use, a variety of anthropological models, sufficiently flexible accounts of psychology, etc.1
So, in the context of interpreting the letters of the Apostle Paul, we don’t need to just come up with a coherent interpretation that has direct, evidential support, but we also need to consider how plausible are our interpretations based upon other knowledges that are relevant to the Apostle Paul and his letters. Of course, the value of history and language are the prime sources for the academic study of the Bible. Yet, our models of plausibility can be derived from other sources. Perhaps most important is our knowledge of the person of Paul.
However, at this point, it is important to qualify what I mean about the knowledge of Paul the person. I do not mean the various historical and biographical portrayals on Paul that are on offer. While these may certainly be of value, most biographies of Paul are a combination of knowledge of the Pauline and New Testament texts, historical work, grammatical work, cultural work, a bit of wishful thinking from one’s own theological and cultural background and affiliations, etc. without a clear demarcation of how the various aspects of the portrayal of Paul are derived. This leads to uneven reliabilities when it comes to the various claims made about Paul. For instance, the assumption that Paul is somehow influenced by apocalyptic conventions leads to a wide variety of understandings of Paul that may look apocalyptic but not it is ultimately based upon specific assumptions about the specific shape and nature of the influence of apocalyptic conventions on Paul. As there is no text from Paul that we have that says “I learned this from the such-and-such book about revelation,” apocalyptic portrayals of the apostle Paul are inclined to fill in the blanks about the specific contours of the apocalyptic in Paul based upon more non-personal considerations, such as the historical study of apocalyptic literature of Second Temple Judaism, the usage of common words and tropes between Paul and apocalyptic literature, etc. While this may at times be a legitimate way of proceeding in the face of gaps in our sources of information about Paul, what should be considered a higher priority in the interpretations of texts by a specific person is our (relatively) more reliable, less speculative knowledge about the person, both in the form of specific knowledge about them and also our knowledge about psychology that are more reliable and robust when it comes to understanding persons from various cultures.
With that in mind, I suggest an apocalyptic anthropology in the Apostle Paul not only makes coherent sense of Paul’s letters and has specific, direct textual evidence in its favor, but that our knowledge about Paul, particularly the account of his revelation of Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus, along with knowledge about how significant, surprising events (that is, a crisis event) begin to structure the way people think over time serves to demonstrate the plausible shape of “apocalyptic” in the Apostle Paul. That is to say that Paul’s experience at the Road to Damascus determines the shape of Paul’s theology, or more particularly apocalyptic anthropology.
However, Michael J. Gorman posits that both apocalyptic experience and an apocalyptic theology are mutually reinforcing.2 The problem with such a presupposition is that we have little direct evidence that Paul’s theology was cognitively structured according to a general model of “apocalyptic.” While Paul will occasionally use the word “revelation” (ἀποκάλυψις) and “reveal” (ἀποκαλύπτω). There is not a systematic reflection on revelation or a persistent usage of the word revelation that suggests it was a higher-order theological idea that shaped the rest of Pau’s thinking. Revelation/apocalypse is not about a “divine invasion” or the inauguration of a “new age” that then shapes the fundamental structure of Paul’s worldview and discourse. Whatever other features we might find to be consistent with “apocalyptic,” such as eschatological, references to ages, etc. are not necessarily from a top-down, accommodation of Paul’s thinking to a specific model of “apocalyptic;” they could emerge in a bottom-up manner from Paul’s engagement with Israel’s Scriptures.
As an analogy, If were to describe a person having been “taught” by another person, I would not be suggesting that the learner’s thinking is somehow being structured by a conceptualization of teaching and the various types of ideas we associate with teaching, but that is describing teaching I am putting on emphasis on the act of communication between two persons that has specific patterns of engagement with specific content being conveyed. Yet, this is precisely what happens with many attempts to describe an “apocalyptic theology” in Paul. It is to “over-intellectualize” the idea of an apocalypse and miss what is most significant: what is being communicated.
It is much simpler to think of revelation as a specific type of communicative event that is of a dramatic nature, with the significance of revelation beyond a description of the event being narrowed to God’s agency as the initiator of revelation. The implication of this is that to whatever the extent that Paul’s theology is shaped by something that we might designate as “apocalyptic,” it is a reflection on the specific content of the communicative events themselves as an instance of God’s disclosure. In other words, Paul’s experience of the apocalyptic revelation on the Road to Damascus is what structures his thinking. Much as other dramatic, and unfortunately sometimes traumatic, events will begin to dramatically form over time the way a person thinks about themselves, other people, the world, God, etc. in a similar way the revelation of Christ shape’s Paul thinking. This occurs not simply with the dramatic event(s) as a catalyst for changing of cognitive structures, but the very experiences and perceptions that occur during those events will shape how a person perceives and understands.
When Paul describes the revelation of Christ in Galatians 1.16, he describes the revelation occurring “in him” (ἐν ἐμοὶ). This is highly suggestive of Paul’s account of the revelation being understood in an experiential sense. Gorman observes that Paul does not elsewhere narrate the revelation in terms of experience by reference to 1 Corinthians 9.1 and 15.8.3 Yet, Paul’s discursive purposes in 1 Corinthians are different than in Galatians. In Corinth, Paul is engaging with a community who are going astray because of the appropriation of Stoic philosophy within the community. In correction, Paul emphasizes the way they heard and believed the Gospel (1 Corinthians 2.1-5), with the functional effect of “concretizing” their understanding. On the other hand, the Galatians have begun to embrace the works of the Torah. To explain how the works of Torah and the faith of Christ are qualitatively different ways of living, Paul makes multiple references to experiential concepts in order to explain the shape and nature of a life lived in Christ (Gal. 3.1-5, 4.6, 5.1, 5.5, 5.16-25). So, Paul’s discursive purpose would be a sufficient reason for Paul to narrative the revelation of Jesus to him in a different way than he did in 1 Corinthians. Indeed, that Paul narrates the revelation in experiential terms on 1.16 sets up for his further expansion of this theme in 2.20 with Paul’s life in the flesh (σάρξ), a concept with experiential content, that explains how “Jesus was publicly displayed as crucified” in the eyes of the Galatians (3.1). As the purpose of the revelation of Jesus in Paul was to proclaim Jesus in/among the Gentiles (1.16), the emphasis on Paul’s own experience n the revelation (a) provides an explanation as to how Paul is a demonstration of Jesus to the Galatians along with (b) being a prototype of the experience of life in Christ. There are sufficient pragmatic considerations in Galatians to think that Paul narrates the Damascus Road experience in terms of his experience. Thus, even as it seems to be more plausible to understand the impact of the apocalyptic revelation of Paul’s theology in terms of the specific content of the revelation rather than a more general, overarching paradigm of “apocalyptic,” it also provides a coherent reading of Paul’s discussion about the revelation in Galatians in terms of his experience that has direct evidence in favor of it.
With that in mind, how then does the Damascus Road revelation impact Paul’s theology in a larger sense? How does it lead to the emergence of an apocalyptic anthropology? I propose that if we attend to seven specific features of the revelation, we can begin to explain the shape of Paul’s thinking as apocalyptic anthropology. These seven features are the (1) Jesus as the one who is communicating, (2) the dramatic, surprising nature of the revelation, (3) God the Father as the agent who initiates the revelation, (4) the revelation as a pivot point in which Paul’s purposes changes, (5) the partial nature of revelation that requires other disclosures to comprehend, (6) the question put forward by Jesus, (7) the specific statement nested within the question.
The revelation was not initially understood by Paul as coming from Jesus. After Jesus asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?,” Paul responds, “Who are you, Lord?” While Paul’s usage of κύριος was not likely intended as a reference to the name of God in the Old Testament as it is unlikely Paul would ask such a question if he immediately knew it was God, he certainly recognizes this person as one who has great power that he did not know. Then Jesus discloses his name to him, bringing together an important aspect of Paul’s thinking: Jesus is a figure of great power, that he is Lord. As such, revelatory events are understood as a demonstration of highly exalted characteristics, such as dramatic power or surprising wisdom (1 Cor. 2.6-10).
While nothing is explicitly said in the account in Acts 9 about God the Father as the agent who initiates the revelatory event, the dramatic power on display is certainly suggested by the dramatic nature of the event. Paul describes God as the one who reveals Jesus His Son in Galatians 1.15-16. In a similar manner, Paul understands God as the agent of revelation that comes through the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.10.4 In understanding God as the agent of revelation, this means that whatever is being revealed is be understood as occurring within the purview of God’s will.
With these first two features in view, we can put forward a more general account of revelatory events as dramatic, startling, surprising disclosures that are an expression of God’s unfolding will and purposes. That is to say, that revelation is not any and every experience we can not readily account for, but that it is something that is initiated by God to bring about a particular outcome. As it says in Isaiah 55.10-11:
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it
In other words, God’s disclosure is metaphorically compared to agricultural processes in order to explain the way in which God’s word brings about its purposed outcomes. Apocalyptic revelation, when it is made, has specific goals within God’s will that are to be achieved over the course of time. This leads to the fourth feature in that while the revelation to Paul does not make the purpose of God’s revelation to him know. Jesus tells him that he will learn more from someone when Paul goes into the city. Then, Jesus’ words to Ananias about Paul suffering for the name of Jesus provide oversight as to the purpose of the revelation: God has revealed Himself to Paul to bring him to a place of suffering, although that not given as the ultimate purpose. As Paul most likely would have been informed of this by Ananias, Paul would have the beginnings of insight into what Jesus was calling of him to suffer with Christ. Hence, when Paul talks about Christ being revealed in him in Galatians 1.16, it is not solely referring to Paul’s experience of the event of revelation, but also the emergence of what God purposed to bring about through the revelation in bringing Paul’s suffering in the shape of Christ’s crucifixion.
This very purpose that is given for Paul leads to a dramatic reversal of Paul’s life. Whereas Saul is originally chasing after believers in Christ, making them suffer, now Paul is the one who is going to suffer for Jesus’ name. The seminal reversal then becomes further exhibited in the reversal of Paul’s purposes to control and reign in the Church to being one whose vocation the expansion of the Church. Paul himself notes this reversal in Galatians 1.13-16a, suggesting Paul does understand the emergence of a new way of life that dramatically differs from the old way of life. Rather than understand the oldness and newness of “apocalyptic” at a cosmological level in terms of different ages, we can look at Paul’s understanding of newness through his letters and see how it is connected to personhood/humanity (Rom. 6.5-7, 2 Cor. 4.16-18, 5.16-17, Eph. 4.17-24, Col. 3.5-11), just as Paul has been dramatically shaped through the Damascus Road revelation.
An explanation for why Paul persecuted the church perhaps finds its origins within the question from Jesus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” While we could be inclined to read this as a rhetorical question with the purpose of bringing about feelings of guilt and shame in Paul, the question could also be understood in a more straightforward manner: what is it that causes Saul to take the course of action he was understanding? To the extent that the rest of the New Testament does not do, Paul ultimately gives an account for sin that is grounded in the realities of the flesh (σάρξ). He develops an account of the desires of the flesh to explain sin, understanding the powers of sin and death to have imperially colonized the body. If Galatians 2.20 can be understood as the reality that the revelation of Christ brought about in him, then his reference to the flesh can be understood as a reference to the original cause of Paul’s persecution that is no longer in effect because Christ now lives in him. In other words, the question asked by Jesus in the revelation likely facilitated the anthropological explanation of the flesh for Paul’s sin specifically and sin universally: the flesh is why Paul was persecuting Jesus.
Finally, Jesus makes a statement that on the surface of it wouldn’t seem true: that Paul was persecuting Jesus specifically. Saul was pursuing many people who were disciples of Jesus, but he thought Jesus was dead (it is unlikely he would have been persecuting the disciples of someone who he knew was raised from the dead). That Jesus identifies Himself with His persecuted disciples can be appealed to as the explanation for Paul’s account of participation with Christ: the explanation for this revelation is that in some way Jesus is spiritually united with the believers. Hence, Paul places a strong emphasis on the Holy Spirit throughout his letters, including the one who united believers to Christ (1 Cor. 12.12-13) and brings about righteousness and resurrection like it was present in and happened to Christ (Rom. 8.10-11).
In looking at these seven features, we can provide a very plausible, coherent explanation for the various ideas expressed in Paul’s letters from the specific content and experience of the revelation of Jesus Christ on the Road to Damascus. When we integrate these various features together, we have the ingredients necessary to put together anthropology that is informed by the apocalypse of Jesus to Paul. As humans resist God and His will because they are locked into the powers of the flesh, God’s dramatic disclosure can set people onto a new direction in their life that conforms to the life and experience of Jesus, including suffering and resurrection, and comes to fruition through the Holy Spirit. While Paul doesn’t say that everyone has a revelation of Christ, he does think believers experience a calling (Gal. 1.6, 5.8, 5.13, 1 Cor. 1.26) just as he was called through the revelation (Gal 1.15-16). To that end, Paul’s experience of the revelation leads him to become a demonstration of Christ (Gal. 3.1; cf. the demonstration of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.3-4) that isn’t a proper revelation of God but is a demonstrative display of the glory of Christ to others (2 Cor. 2.14-16, 3.17-18). In that way, Paul’s understanding of the anthropological realities brought about in him and in other believers can be properly understood to emerge as a result of the seminal apocalypse to Paul, with God causing a purpose chain of events in Paul’s life to bring the proclaim Christ in accordance to the revelation to him.
If this account is more plausible than other apocalyptic accounts of Paul while at the same time providing a (more) coherent account of Paul’s letters which can marshall a wide array of direct textual evidence in favor of it, then there is a corollary to this: that most other accounts of apocalyptic in Paul, particularly those that treat apocalyptic as a theological schema that regulates and shapes Paul’s the whole shape of Paul’s theology in a top-down matter, are going down the wrong direction. By trying to derive an “apocalyptic theology” in Paul that goes beyond simply relating the content of Paul’s letters to the specific content of the revelation of Jesus to Christ, they get mired into a more speculative enterprise that ultimately risks becoming a Procrustean bed. Better to focus on specific themes and how they connect to Paul’s experiences and Israel’s Scriptures that trying to integrate them into a larger theological gestalt of apocalyptic theology that is then taken as a necessary shape for Paul’s theology. The content of the revelation of Christ to Paul catalyzing a new anthropological understanding is ultimately a much simpler account that is more plausible based upon what we can connect between Acts 9 and Paul’s letters and how thinking is shaped after dramatic events in a person’s life.
To clarify, this doesn’t rule out the possibility of there being other features observed in apocalyptic literature, particularly the book of Daniel, that we can also observe in Paul’s letters. To suggest there is some fashion of a literary dependence upon some apocalyptic literature is a slightly different thesis than the thesis that Paul’s theology if shaped by the apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ to him. Yet, it is plausible that there is an interconnection between the two as Paul’s understanding of Daniel may contribute to an understanding of the revelation of Jesus Christ, so we can rightly talk about a matrix of experiential and literary features that fits under the label of “apocalyptic.” For instance, I would put forward the epistemic resistance to the wisdom of imperial figures that is witnessed in the story of Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel could be integrated within Paul’s anthropology. Yet, that Paul’s letters may be called apocalyptic should probably not be used as a warrant to say anything about the discourse of Paul’s letters except those specific features that can be exegetically demonstrated. Otherwise, the premise that Paul is apocalyptic can be used as a warrant to unconsciously smuggle in whatever ideas one can plausibly associate with apocalyptic without having to strongly demonstrate it.
In conclusion, I would suggest the center of Paul’s thinking and even his life can be understood around an apocalyptic anthropology that emerges in response to the specific revelation of Jesus Christ to Paul that is very plausible, provides a coherent account of Paul’s letters, and has strong exegetical warrants.
- To summarize this in a dictum form: plausible explanations grow from the soil of reliable knowledge.
- Michael J. Gorman, “The Apocalyptic New Covenant and the Shape of Life in the Spirit according to Galatians” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination.
- As an aside, it is my opinion that Gal. 1.16 and 1 Corinthians 2.10 describe different types of revelation, where the appearance of Jesus is the content of the former whereas some vision, dream, etc. from the Spirit is the content of the latter. In other words, I don’t think it is fruitful to try to formulate a Trinitarian account of every revelation through synthesizing 1 Corinthians 2.10 and Galatians 1.15-16 together. Rather, they are two different classes of revelation, one of the person of Christ and one of something that comes from Spirit.