Daniel Boyarin, “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity”

Earlier this year I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Daniel Boyarin when he visited the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae at UC Irvine during the Winter academic quarter. He gave a guest lecture in the TLG for a “Jews in Theory” course that was being offered at the time. Boyarin is currently working on a project studying the use of the Greek word θρησκεία (thréskeia), which is typically translated as “religion.” Boyarin utilized the TLG database to track down all the attested uses of the word in antiquity, to challenge whether this is really the best translation. This current project is very similar to the work done by Brent Nongbri in Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept.

51oy3MJ585L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I also read a number of Boyarin’s earlier publications when taking seminars on the New Testament and Christian origins last Spring quarter. Among the books I read was A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity. The apostle Paul is a rather enigmatic figure in early Christianity for a number of reasons. Not only was Paul from the Jewish Diaspora, making him a more Hellenized Jew, but he also joined the original apostles later in Christianity’s development, and likewise had an unusual drive to convert Gentiles. This background placed Paul at the intersection of a number of different cultures in the Mediterranean. Because of his blurred identity, reconstructing the historical Paul can be a rather challenging task.

It was for this reason that New Testament scholars started asking Daniel Boyarin to do more work on the historical Paul, as well as the historical Jesus and the Gospels. Boyarin is, by training, a Talmudic scholar. In fact, he is (literally) one of the leading Talmudic scholars in the world. Very, very few people have comparable credentials. Because of his training in ancient Judaism (though, Boyarin does not like to use the word “Judaism” when describing the ancient Jews, and prefers to call them “Judeans”), NT scholars were interested in his take on Paul’s identity. Could Paul become a Christian, take his mission to the Gentiles, even abandon the practice of circumcising Gentile converts and demanding kosher, and yet still be a fully practicing Jew? Boyarin’s answer is a definite “yes” and in this fascinating book he explains why.

First off, let me just say right off the bat that this book has extensive bibliographical notes, is steeped in theory, and is a highly erudite and challenging read. You can get a real sense of Boyarin’s Talmudic training, just in how he writes. Almost every sentence has some note of commentary.

One of the major themes that Boyarin stresses in the book is Paul’s “universalizing mission.” The Judaism of his day was highly insular, and practices like circumcision and kosher were even designed to differentiate Judeans from their Gentile neighbors. In Galilee, the Judean community was more isolated from the broader world. There were a couple Hellenized cities, such as Sepphoris and Tiberias, but the rural Judeans probably had little interaction with these areas (see Mark Chancey’s The Myth of a Gentile Galilee). Jesus and his earliest followers thus emerged in a highly Judean and Aramaic-speaking context.

Jerusalem was more of an international city, so the Judean community there was a little less insular, but as the capital of the Judeans it still had a strong native culture. Where Paul came from in Tarsus in Asia Minor, however, was quite a different story. Judean culture outside of Palestine was living alongside and competing with many other ethnicities and religions. Paul was a native Greek speaker. The Judeans in his part of the world relied on the Greek Septuagint translation of their scriptures. They were also more savvy in dealing with the Gentiles than their Palestinian cousins [1].

As Boyarin (pg. 14) argues:

“[T]here were tendencies which, while not sharply defined, already in the first century distinguished Greek-speakers, who were relatively more acculturated to Hellenism, and Hebrew- and Aramaic-speakers, who were less acculturated. These tendencies, on my hypothesis, became polarized as time went on, leading in the end to a sharp division between Hellenizers, who became absorbed into Christian groups, and anti-Hellenizers, who formed the nascent rabbinic movement … The congruence of Paul and Philo [of Alexandria] suggests a common background to their thought in the thought-world of eclectic middle-platonism of Greek-speaking Judaism in the first century.”

At the same time, Boyarin points out that in the Judean scriptures and theology there were implicit universalizing assumptions. The Judeans worshiped only one God (though, they may have been more of henotheists in antiquity than monotheists), who had created the earth and cosmos. They were this God’s chosen people, which was an immense privilege compared to their Gentile neighbors. There was only one Judean temple (the Samaritans were no longer considered Judeans for daring to build another). There was only one Torah and Law (though, this was before the Masoretic Text was formed, so the canon of sacred scriptures was a bit more flexible back then). All of these unitary features of Judean religion seemed to imply that it was the one, correct religion.

And yet the Judeans of Paul’s days, especially the Pharisees, wanted little interaction with the Gentiles. They wanted to retain their insular culture and to draw Judeans away from the outside world. How could there be only one God worthy of worship, and yet most of the world was excluded from his people? How could God create the whole earth and yet only favor a small fraction of its inhabitants? Paul appears to have been greatly troubled by this. We, of course, have no writings of Paul from before his conversion, but even his conflict with Peter and James about taking the gospel to the Gentiles implies that he had a problem with it within Christianity, as well.

As Boyarin (pg. 52) argues:

“I read Paul as a Jewish cultural critic, and I ask what it was in Jewish culture that led him to produce a discourse of radical reform of that culture. This question, moreover, raises two closely related but different points: What was wrong with Jewish culture in Paul’s eyes that necessitated a radical reform? And what in the culture provided the grounds for making that critique? The culture was in tension within itself, characterized both by narrow ethnocentrism and universalist monotheism. I thus contend that Paul’s motivations and theory was genuinely theological, but that his practice and preaching was directed toward radical change in Jewish society.”

What about Christianity was appealing to Paul then? Well, in many ways, it offered a fresh start to Judean culture, as well as an apocalyptic hope. If Christ had come to fulfill the Law (Rom. 10:4), and the time had come when he would rule over the Gentiles (Rom. 15:12), then Paul had a new vehicle to reform Judaism. Converting to Christianity, therefore, may have required little dramatic transformation in Paul at all. Christianity offered a natural step in his aspirations for Judean cultural reform.

How do we explain Paul’s conversion experience, therefore? A lot of Christian apologists like to act like Paul completely came out of nowhere and then had a 180. To begin with, Paul didn’t come out of nowhere. He came from the Diaspora, from a Hellenized Judean culture, and became interested in this new strain of Galilean Judaism. But why would he persecute this movement and then change? The motives for Paul’s persecution are harder to gleen, since he only writes about it after the experience, but Bart Ehrman (“Jesus as the Messiah”) has recently suggested that Paul was probably offended by the fact that Christians were worshipping a crucified Messiah figure. The Messiah was supposed to be a great king or judge, not a crucified criminal. This may have offended Paul, but then Paul changed.

How does Boyarin interpret Paul’s conversion? Would it have required nothing less than a miracle? Well, here is the take of a Talmudic scholar on this issue (pg. 39):

“An enthusiastic first-century Greek-speaking Jew, one Saul of Tarsus, is walking down a road, with a very troubled mind. The Torah, in which he so firmly believes, claims to be the text of the One True God of all the world, who created heaven and earth and all humanity, and yet its primary content is the history of one particular People—almost one family—and the practices that it prescribes are many of them practices which mark off the particularity of that tribe, his tribe. In his very commitment to the truth of the gospel of that Torah and its claim to universal validity lies the source of Saul’s trouble. Not only he but many Jews of the first century shared this sense that something was not right. Philo of Alexandria and the anonymous author of the Wisdom of Solomon seem troubled by the same thoughts. Why would a universal God desire and command that one people should circumcise male members of the tribe and command food taboos that make it impossible for one people to join in table fellowship with all the rest of his children?”

Is this the moment when nothing short of a miracle must have occurred? Well, Boyarin (pg. 39) continues:

“Now this Saul, as a loyal Jew, has in the past been among the most active persecutors of a strange messianic sect that has sprung up recently in Jerusalem. He knows something, therefore, of the claims and beliefs of the participants in that sect, little as they appeal to him. Walking, troubled and musing, all of a sudden Saul has a moment of blinding insight, so rich and revealing that he understands it to have been, in fact, an apocalypse: That very sect, far from being something worthy of persecution, provides the answer to the very dilemma that Saul is facing. The birth of Christ as a human being and a Jew, his death, and his resurrection as spiritual and universal was the model and the apocalypse of the transcendence of the physical and particular Torah for Jews alone by its spiritual and universal referent for all. At that moment Saul died and Paul was born.”

This is exactly the kind of analysis that Christian apologists like Mike Licona rebut is “psychoanalyzing” Paul. And yet here a Talmudic scholar (much above the credentials of apologists) is engaging in this kind of interpretation. To begin with, such an argument has a complete double standard. To say that Paul was entirely in his senses and saw nothing short of a genuine miracle is psychoanalyzing Paul. We don’t know what Paul’s psychological state was or what he saw. But furthermore, neither Boyarin nor other scholars who interpret Paul’s motives are imposing any definitive psychological portrait on Paul. Here is what Boyarin (pp. 39-40) states:

“By telling the story of the conversion of Paul in this way, I am hardly making a claim to know things about ‘what really happened’ … Still less am I claiming to know what was actually going on in the mind of Paul. Rather, I am using the narrative form to construct and communicate the ‘Paul’ that I will present in this book. The Paul that I am constructing here is a highly politicized intervention in biblical interpretation…”

And, indeed, I would never claim to know what really happened to Paul either. We can’t know, since we are thousands of years distanced from the event and only have a few scraps of ancient literature as evidence. But the evidence that needs to be explained is not, “Why did Paul have a vision of Jesus?,” rather than, “Why do we have a few letter references (1 Cor. 9:115:8; Gal. 1:15-16) and scenes in Acts (9:3-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18) that describe a visionary conversion?” Literature can be produced from a variety of causes. We will never know what exactly happened to Paul, but the point remains that there are a variety of psychological, political, and rhetorical causes that can produce such literary claims, and these causes have been demonstrated to genuinely exist with some frequency, while miracles have not.

To wrap up Boyarin’s view of Paul and his conversion to Christianity, I think the following statement from Boyarin (pg. 29) summarizes his view well (if not a bit jargony, but hey, Boyarin is a smart guy who writes that way):

“According to my understanding, ontology, hermeneutics, anthropology, and christology are so intimately related in Pauline thought that they cannot be separated from one another … [T]he fundamental insight of Paul’s apocalypse was the realization that the dual nature of Jesus provided a hermeneutic key to the resolution of that enormous tension that he experienced between the universalism of the Torah’s content and the particular ethnicity of its form.”

Now, for the last part of this review, I am going to depart from discussing Boyarin’s views and instead focus on my own. I don’t think that Boyarin likes to engage with Christian apologetics. But, for me personally, I think it is worthwhile to explain to a general audience why, as someone studying in academia, I do not find apologetic arguments centered around the conversion of Paul to be persuasive. What follows is my opinion, not Boyarin’s.

To begin with, I have already discussed above how Paul’s conversion did not require a complete 180. Paul did not come out of nowhere. He came out of a Hellenized Judean community that was living among Gentiles. When he adopted Christianity as his gospel, he had a perfect vehicle to convert Gentiles, just as his universalizing mission had been driving him. Paul was able to fulfill the cultural critique of Judaism that he had been aiming for.

Moreover, we do not need to psychoanalyze Paul to explain whatever vision or conversion experience he had outside of miraculous causes. As I also discussed above, to even say that Paul soberly saw a genuine miracle is to psychoanalyze him. All we have is ancient literature, and such literature can be produced from a variety of causes. The fact that psychological, political, and rhetorical causes for such claims are far more documented and attested, while miracles are not, provides sufficient justification for arguing that whatever Paul experienced was probably not a genuine miracle.

Likewise, Paul’s conversion is really not that extraordinary, when you really think about it. One guy who had been a former persecutor had a change of heart. It’s not like Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and Tiberius Caesar all converted to Christianity over night (though, I did discuss how later Christians lied and made up conversion stories about the latter two in my recent blog “Tiberius Caesar the Christian?”). Furthermore, Paul was already an odd guy who did not mesh well with much of his surrounding Judean culture. He was a cultural critic, and it is not really that unusual for such a person to join a new religious movement.

But, finally, I don’t think that Paul really converted to Christianity at all. Rather, I think that Paul converted Christianity. We do not have any surviving letters from the original apostles. As Bart Ehrman (Forged: Writing in the Name of God) explains, the letters attributed to Peter and James in the New Testament (not to mention a handful of apocryphal texts also attributed to them) were probably not written by Peter and James. We only have Paul’s letters (to be sure, only seven, since the other letters attributed to Paul are probably forgeries). We also know that Paul disagreed with Peter (Gal. 2:11-19), and yet we don’t have Peter’s side of the story.

Moreover, Paul took his gospel widely outside of Palestine, to cities all across the Eastern Mediterranean and even to Rome (the stories about Peter traveling to Rome are probably spurious). The original Judean Christian community was located more in Jerusalem and Galilee. And, when Jerusalem was destroyed in 7o CE, it began to diminish, and certainly did not spread as rapidly as Pauline Christianity. Pauline Christianity, therefore, was what survived and it is more from this tradition that modern Christianity draws its roots. We probably owe more to Paul in modern Christianity than to any other early Christian figure, including Jesus.

Paul, therefore, accomplished his mission of carrying out a cultural critique of Judaism. That doesn’t require a dramatic transformation at all, except perhaps a transformation of Christianity itself to Paul’s own ideas. He was a clever guy. A Hellenized Judean, living among the Gentiles, who was able to hijack a nascent Messianic movement to spread his own ideas across the Mediterranean. I’ve got to give him credit for that, but I don’t think that any of his story was miraculous.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] An interesting side note is that Boyarin points out that our most prolific Judean authors from the 1st century CE—Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Paul—were all, to varying extents and in different regions, Hellenized Judeans. As such, we actually have more of a literary record of the Hellenized Judeans from this period than the Aramaic-speaking Judeans, which is important to take into consideration when interpreting surviving evidence. It’s not that the Aramaic-speaking Judeans weren’t there, but we simply have a sample bias that, in some respects, sheds more light on Hellenized Judeans.

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12 Responses to Daniel Boyarin, “A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity”

  1. Micah says:

    I really enjoy your blog. I’m am what many would call a “fundamental, conservative Christian” but I’m anything but stereo-typical, if you could allow me to say so as an introduction to myself. I learn a lot from your blog because of the historical and philosophical context you bring to religion that I’ve never seen before. Although I disagree with many of your conclusions, your blog is helpful in a lot of ways. So thanks for writing and please keep doing so.

    I don’t see Paul as an egotistical, anti-Jewish cultural critic. I know that’s not exactly how you describe him, but that’s what I inferred from reading your post. I personally see a lot of humility in Paul’s letters. I find what he says in Romans 9:1 to be genuine: “I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” That is quite a bold claim and I don’t see there a heart of criticism towards Judaism, rather a desire for the Jews to know the truth about their Messiah. Paul consistently argues that Christ fulfilled all Old Testament Prophecies. His desire was for his own people to see that truth. So desirous was he, that he wished himself cursed to hell if necessary to achieve that end. You might say Paul was only exaggerating to convince his fellow Jews — but Paul appeals to his conscience — we are unable to be judge of that.

    I just cannot see Paul as anything other than a man who formerly was zealous for Judaism, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, advancing in the tradition of Judaism, yet completely willing to give up his position under Gamaliel to sacrifice his life to serve Christ. The other apostles who heard of his transformation said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of that change. For the apostles (who would have feared Saul of Tarsus) to now receive this man in friendship (whether they had disagreements or not) – speaks volumes about the conversion itself.

    I don’t intend to be overly preachy, but your questioning of Paul’s motives doesn’t convince me that what happen to Paul was anything short of miraculous. Not only that — but you should know that I work with Prison inmates in North Carolina. I work to help rehabilitate them. The one convincing argument I’ve seen in my experience is this one truth: The gospel transforms lives. Say what you will, but those who hold on by faith to the truth claims of scripture (and those who do so sincerely – not hypocritically) radically change. I’ve seen it with my own eyes — rapist become gracious stewards, drug addicts released from bondage; and hateful, spiteful criminals who use people for their own gain, turn 180 and go back to society as productive citizens. Bad habits transformed quickly, and quite radically, into self-control without the help of a psychologist or therapist. Say what you will about Paul — yes, we are 2,000 years from his story — but my own experience testifies that there is credibility to the account of Paul’s conversion and his claim of Christianity. I’m not saying that my experience is proof of truth, but only as a testimony of credibility to the power of the gospel itself.

    Thanks again for your blog posts. I say it sincerely, you are a very insightful person, so please continue writing!

  2. Micah says:

    Also – one more thing out of curiosity. You ever heard of the apologist James White? If so, just curious of your opinion. Thanks.

    • Hey Micah,

      First off, let me thank you for your respectful and kind tone. Not everyone who disagrees with this blog always posts that way. Apologist David Marshall, for example, who showed up here a little while ago on this blog, did not set a very good example for how conservative Christians should behave.

      I also appreciate comments from people with your background. I know that not everyone who reads this blog is an atheist or secular humanist, and that I also have Muslim readers, as well as both liberal and conservative Christians. I work to be civil even when I express disagreement with these views, not only because it is a more constructive way to write, but also because I know that I have a diverse audience.

      “I don’t see Paul as an egotistical, anti-Jewish cultural critic. I know that’s not exactly how you describe him, but that’s what I inferred from reading your post … I just cannot see Paul as anything other than a man who formerly was zealous for Judaism, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, advancing in the tradition of Judaism, yet completely willing to give up his position under Gamaliel to sacrifice his life to serve Christ. The other apostles who heard of his transformation said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of that change. For the apostles (who would have feared Saul of Tarsus) to now receive this man in friendship (whether they had disagreements or not) – speaks volumes about the conversion itself. I don’t intend to be overly preachy, but your questioning of Paul’s motives doesn’t convince me that what happen to Paul was anything short of miraculous.”

      First, let me just say that the analysis from Boyarin above, as well as my own contributing comments at the end, is only an *interpretation* of Paul. We, of course, can no longer know the real Paul, since we only have but a few (edited) letters from him, along with some (often varying) descriptions of him in later Christian literature. The question is how we reconstruct Paul based on the surviving evidence. Different scholars have offered different views, though I tend to be very sympathetic of Boyarin’s interpretation.

      Paul does stress his humility a lot (even in his name), but that personally doesn’t convince me that Paul was a genuinely humble person. It’s not an uncommon rhetorical device to stress humility. That said, I also don’t think that Paul was an insincere person. I would describe Paul as a “selfish altruist.” I do think that he genuinely wanted to help others, but the form of that help was him preaching and imposing his own ideas, even onto the original apostles.

      As far as whether Paul was a “Pharisee of the Pharisees,” I think that is hard to say. Remember that Judaism in the 1st century CE was rather diverse. Josephus likewise calls himself a Pharisee, and yet he too seems to have behaved uncharacteristically of this group. I especially like that Boyarin commented on how our most prolific Jewish authors from the 1st century CE — Philo of Alexandria, Paul, and Josephus — all seem to be atypical of normative Judaism. My hunch was that Paul was unusual, even before he converted to Christianity, since a number of Judeans with his background seem to have exhibited similar behavior.

      As far as whether Paul’s conversion was “miraculous,” I have to say that, whether you believe it was miraculous or not, it is simply unconvincing proof to a skeptical outsider of Christianity. A man had a change of heart. That is hardly the equivalent of the Red Sea parting. A person can change their mind for a variety of non-miraculous reasons, while few things besides a miracle could explain that latter.

      Take me, for example. Let’s say that I had a change of heart, re-converted to Christianity, and became an apologist tomorrow. That would be quite a 180, possibly even as dramatic as Paul’s (though, I never watched people being stoned in my modern culture). But would that be a miracle? Not really. I could make such a change as part of my own decision making. Many other causes besides a miracle could explain that effect.

      So, when Paul’s conversion is used as an argument for the truth of the resurrection, I simply find it unconvincing. As I state above, there can be other natural causes behind such evidence, which are better attested and occur with more frequency. That’s enough for me to think that it is at least more *probable* that something non-miraculous occurred.

      “Not only that — but you should know that I work with Prison inmates in North Carolina. I work to help rehabilitate them. The one convincing argument I’ve seen in my experience is this one truth: The gospel transforms lives. Say what you will, but those who hold on by faith to the truth claims of scripture (and those who do so sincerely – not hypocritically) radically change. I’ve seen it with my own eyes — rapist become gracious stewards, drug addicts released from bondage; and hateful, spiteful criminals who use people for their own gain, turn 180 and go back to society as productive citizens. Bad habits transformed quickly, and quite radically, into self-control without the help of a psychologist or therapist.”

      First off, let me say that I am sympathetic to your story. I worked as an intern at the Pima County jail in 2008, and, while my experience was no doubt shorter and more limited than yours, it did greatly open my eyes to the plight of people in the American correctional system.

      Many people in the correctional system need psychological help. I also (surprising as it may be) do not doubt that religion helps some people. Although I am a naturalist, I think that religion exists and is pervasive for some reason, the most plausible of which seems to be that it does help some people. Religion provides a structured set of beliefs, psychological reassurance, and a hope for a better life. But I also think that religion has negative side-effects, such as zealotry, close-minded attitudes, and a tendency to judge others. I view religion as sort of being like alcohol. Yes, alcohol can have medicinal effects, but it also has negative side-effects. Specially designed medication, in contrast, isolates the working ingredients, while also removing the bad ingredients. I work to make secular humanism that kind of specially designed medication.

      I am also sympathetic to people who suffer from mental illnesses and disorders. I posted yesterday about my own struggles with bipolar disorder. Fortunately, I am not in the correctional system and have more treatment options. Many people in prison and jails have religion or (limited) counseling as their only choice. I visit professional psychiatrists, who are secular, and they provide me with the service that I need. I also have been deeply helped by secular philosophy, particularly Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, when dealing with my own struggles. Religion has never done anything for me, so, while I think it can help some, I do not think that it helps all.

      I should also note that, simply because I think that religion can help people to a limited extent, that does not mean that I think it is metaphysically true. Placebo pills can also make people feel better. My hope is to find a philosophy that not only helps people, but also aligns with the empirical evidence of reality. I think that naturalism and secular humanism are those philosophies, so that is how I try to help others. But I also understand that other people have different beliefs and experiences…

      P.S. I haven’t read or seen anything from James White, but I have heard that he is a good debater. From everything that I have heard about him, I would probably disagree with most of what he says, but I can’t comment on anything specific, due to my lack of exposure.

      • Micah says:

        Matthew, apologies for the slow response as I’ve been on vacation this week.

        I agree. Not every self-claimed Christian comes packaged with humility and kindness. But I can say the same for any secular pursuits. There are those who pursue naturalism and atheism who also become fanatical, close-minded, and judgmental towards those who fit into a theological world view. These attitudes are actually the symptoms of human nature, not the side effects of a world view or religion; so we all must be watchful over them. But if you really understood true Christianity, you would know that it is actually the specialized medicine you refer to – it treats the root cause and not just the symptoms.

        Yes, Paul was a Hellenestic Jew, but still a Jew from birth, sitting under the teaching of Gamaliel in Tarsus. This would include years of memorizing the Old Testament. He would become an expert in Judaism and after his education, would have no doubt been a critical leader and teacher in a synagogue, where Christians like Stephan would began converting other Hellenistic Jews.
        I think it’s too simplistic to summarize Paul’s conversion by saying the man had a change of heart. There are two things that would deter Saul of Tarsus from Christianity. First and foremost, a Jew would be very careful before following the teachings of a self-claimed Messiah. To any Jew, regardless of sect, following a false prophet meant eternal damnation. For someone trained in Judaism like Saul, this Messiah would have to fit all the descriptions from the Torah, Psalms, and the Prophets. Saul’s education would not have included a crucified messiah. For Saul to follow Christ was quite a drastic transformation because it meant putting his eternal soul at risk.

        Secondly, it is quite obvious that converting to Christianity meant a change from being the persecutor to the persecuted. It likely meant excommunication from the synagogues, and from the Jewish community at large. What would cause anyone to give up their training in Judaism to associate with the outcast of society, and be willing to risk their life with them? A miraculous event? Maybe not. But I do propose that it is not simply a change of mind, but a very serious change in nature.

        When I say change of nature, I do mean a drastic change in one’s natural disposition in a single moment of time. Matthew, in order for you to become a Christian apologist tomorrow, something more serious than a simple change of mind would have to take place. Nothing I say in this comment thread will cause a 180 degree change in your mindset overnight. This would require a drastic change in your nature (natural tendencies/disposition). We might properly say that an overnight conversion for you is impossible. If it were to happen at all, it would likely take years. A change in mind over time would be very well explainable by natural causes. But let’s face it, an overnight change in your view of Christ at this point would be incredible by any means of natural explanation. Such a conversion of that nature would be very difficult to explain. And to make my case more clearly, it would especially by inexplicable if you made such a drastic change after growing up Muslim in an Islamic country where Christianity is punishable by death.

        This is why I brought up my experience with inmates. On few occasions, after hearing of the gospel of Christ, a criminal who was naturally prone to violent outburst and addictions, without any psychological assistance, makes a drastic change in disposition; then re-enters society with this new nature only to astonish family members and friend for years. This is compatible to the Christian interpretation of Paul’s conversion, like the case of the Muslim conversion I mentioned above which in fact does happen on rare occasions today in middle-eastern countries. Not the seeing of a resurrected Christ, but the power of the Christian gospel as Paul claims in Romans 1:16 and 1st Corinthians 1 and 2. This conversion is not obtained by intellect, rather it is given by God in accordance with his own will. And these types of transformations occur even today.

        You might counter argue that some Christians become atheist, and I know a few… so does that mean God did it? Again – that sort of transition does not occur in the set of circumstances as I’ve described above. It does not imply a drastic change in one’s nature.

        Thus, I think Boyarin’s interpretation of Paul’s conversion is not a very good one. It is at best a valiant effort to attack a decent Christian apologetic defense. I remain convinced that the events in Acts 9 more likely occurred.

        And by the way – Romans 9:1 is not the claim of a selfish altruist. I responded to this blog post because it is a personal matter with me. The Apostle Paul, from the scriptural perspective, has been a role model to me for years. I have not become a selfish altruist. I follow Paul, as he follows Christ.

        • Hey Micah,

          Sorry likewise for my (long) delay in getting back to you. I think, to a certain extent, we are going to have to agree to disagree over some of what you say above. You contrast a “change of heart” with a “change of nature,” and I think what you mean by the latter is a fundamental change in human nature, rather than mere change in behavior or beliefs. What you describe does not sound too different from what many Christians call “being born again” (John 3:1-15).

          I’ll admit, I’m not a psychologist, and neither of our terminology is very specific. But, I am skeptical of the idea that there is such a thing as a “change of nature,” which would be psychologically distinct from other kinds of behavioral and belief changes. It sounds like a concept in Christian theology. I’m glad that you have seen prison inmates go through what you consider to be such a change, but I’m also skeptical that other philosophies, and especially other religions, couldn’t elicit the same response.

          To return to Paul, I am not sure that we can ascertain, with the limited evidence available, what exact kind of change he experienced. We have a few data points, and there are a number of different interpretations that can fit them. I still hold to the position that it is more *probable* that Paul experienced something that was non-miraculous, simply due to the fact that non-miraculous psychological changes must be far more common than miraculous ones (if they exist at all). That doesn’t mean, however, that I am telling you to consider Paul’s conversion non-miraculous. I don’t have your experience, worldview, or beliefs. I’m simply stating that, for me, Paul’s conversion doesn’t seem to be much of a trump card in arguing about the resurrection.

          I’ve known a good many Christians who view Paul as a role model, like you. For many, Paul is their favorite apostle. Funny enough, when I was a Christian and was growing up in church, the churches that I attended seemed to not emphasize Paul too much. I was raised with a very Matthean view of Jesus. Even today, when someone asks me to give a quote from Jesus, I almost always pull one from the Gospel of Matthew as my knee jerk reaction. It shaped my early Christian experiences in an interesting way, and even today both Paul and the Gospel of John seem somewhat more foreign to me. I feel right at home, however, with the Gospel of Matthew, as well as the Gospel of Mark.

          Bart Ehrman recently blogged about what he considers to be the differences between Paul and Matthew:



          It’s an interesting discussion, even if you disagree, though, you have to be a paid member on Ehrman’s blog in order to read the full posts.

          • Micah says:

            Matthew, in short, I concur, we must agree to disagree. But I must get to the bottom of why that is so in order to be satisfied with this discussion.

            What we obviously disagree on is your statement that we do not have enough evidence to exact what kind of change Paul experienced. I find it unlikely that anyone forged the book of Acts or that someone fabricated the events of Acts 9. I am confident that Luke wrote Acts, that he was a historian in search of truth, and that the purpose of his writing was to document historical events in which he claimed to investigate with scrutiny. Luke appears to have known Paul personally and was in a better position to document and interpret Paul’s conversion.

            Here is why I think you and I come to different conclusions… You start with the presupposition of the evidence in probability. You don’t ever see miraculous events in everyday life, therefore you assume that such events probably don’t happen, therefore you assume there is no God to make them happen, and therefore you assume the account in Acts 9 to be a fabrication or an exaggeration of someone in antiquity attempting to find reasons to believe in the resurrection. There can be no trump card to convince a skeptic who holds to that presupposition, and unlike a lot of apologist, I don’t claim to hold one.

            On the other hand, I start with the presupposition that there is a God who can intervene in human affairs when he desires to do so for his own purpose. And I have yet to find reason to doubt Luke’s account. Therefore, we agree to disagree on our interpretation of Paul, but only because our presuppositions are different, not because the evidence points to one view or the other. I think that must be made clear.

            To clarify my purpose in using my experience with inmates… You are correct to interpret my utilization of a change in human nature as being “born again.” I will not spend time defending it theologically. But for the record, I am not claiming that my experiences prove or validate truth. Truth exist whether you and I experience it or not. Yet, I believe that if something is true, it will convey itself in consistency. I find my personal experiences with the few inmates who do experience a change in nature (whether psychologically or miraculously) to be consistent with the account of Paul’s conversion in the New Testament. Unlike other religions who claim to have a “new birth,” I have found the Christian theological “new birth” to be the only consistent one.

            Regarding Ehrman’s post about the gospel of Matthew’s view of Christ versus Paul’s view… (I can’t read the entire blog, but the first paragraphs were enough to figure out where he was headed)… let it suffice to say that Ehrman unknowingly takes a Catholic view of law vs. grace and it fits into the mold of someone like the Anglican bishop scholar N.T. Wright, who holds to “New Perspectivism.” (In case you’re interested: http://www.amazon.com/Paul-Perspective-N-T-Wright/dp/0800663578). There are so many fundamental fallacies in this view it is impossible to discuss here. I find absolutely no inconsistencies of Paul’s view of justification by faith with the teachings of Christ in the gospel accounts. But I’ll hold my theological views for the sake of your blog.

            Thanks for the links. And thanks for the opportunity to participate in the fun discussion on your blog. I enjoyed it.

          • Hey Micah,

            I still disagree with much of what you have said in this last comment–particularly the notion that my skepticism towards the “miracle” of Paul’s conversion is due to presuppositions (I think that my skepticism is actually far more inductive and evidential than that), as well as the assumption that Acts was written by an eyewitness of Paul–but, alas, I am very busy right now and have some deadlines to meet over the next couple weeks.

            As such, I am going to let you have the last word in this discussion. I was hoping to respond in more length, but I also want to get yours and other comments approved this morning. Thanks for understanding the moderation delays. I work to approve every comment that is respectful, on topic, and substantive, even if it sometimes takes a while when I want to write a response to them.

            Since we’ve had a good discussion, I’m not going to focus on some other work now and close up this thread. Thanks for reading!

      • robert2016 says:

        How is it that persecutor like Paul who dragged out Christians became like a coward and escaped in a basket? Why wasn’t he willingnto die for his faith? Something doesn’t seem right about the story. The man is going around persecuting then he needs to say that he is not lying about escaping in a basket?

        • Micah says:


          Unless you’ve found evidence to counter prove the claims of antiquity and church history, it is likely Paul was beheaded in Rome under Nero. He died for his faith. He escaped in a basket because his work for Christ was not finished. Yet, he went to Jerusalem to take a gift to poor Jewish Christians knowing that he was likely going to be arrested. He says in his own writings he was willing to die for the sake of Christ. Paul was no coward.

          • FYI: there is a new book that just came out compiling all of the ancient literary accounts of Peter and Paul’s deaths:


            I think a good case can be made that Peter never even went to Rome, but Paul did, and he appears to have died there. I am very skeptical that we can know the circumstances behind Paul’s death, however, since the church traditions about it contain many legendary elements. But, there may be a kernel of truth behind the idea that Paul died during Nero’s persecution of the Christians, which is attested in Pagan sources and would have been contemporary to Paul’s time in Rome.

          • robert2016 says:

            “he was willing to die” by escaping ?

            and where is proof that when he did die he died for his belief in a resurrection?
            the guy who killed him killed him for believing in a resurrected god?

            i don’t think we can ever know this

          • robert2016 says:

            paul was in damascus for 3 years . he says this in galtians 1.15

            does it sound like paul in galatians was a guy who was escaping arrest?

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