Reason #4 The Authenticity of Paul’s Stunning Conversion
The facts of history would never lead you to believe that Paul never existed, that his life was not drastically and suddenly changed, or that he never truly believed in what he claimed about seeing the resurrected messiah.
Because the apostle Paul left us such a large body of literature and was so frequently referred to in antiquity, there is a very strong consensus that he existed in history, and that he was once a fierce persecutor of the church. But the consensus also concludes that Paul then converted suddenly to become the undisputed leader of the church by the early 50s A.D., and was perfectly willing to suffer and die for his Christian claims.
None of this is seriously called into question by reputable historians. For example, an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica says: “Paul spent much of the first half of his life persecuting the nascent Christian movement, an activity to which he refers several times.” Another article, in Wikipedia, says: “Paul is generally considered one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age and from the mid-30s to the mid-50s AD he founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe.” The historical data is actually pretty straightforward.
But there are two salient questions about Paul’s life that must be faced in all honesty by truth-seekers.
First, why would anyone change from being the staunchest of Jewish Pharisees, and a rabid hater of Jesus Christ, as well as a persecutor of the church, to becoming the number one advocate and spokesperson for Jesus, as well as the special apostle to non-Jewish people? Diehard Jewish rabbis today do not easily convert to Christianity and take up with Gentiles. And yet Paul did, and he was once violently opposed to all of this.
Paul’s claim was that he suddenly and utterly changed because he one day encountered the resurrected messiah in a powerful sensory way on the road to Damascus.
And this brings us to the second salient question about Paul’s life. Was he a charlatan, or did he really believe in his encounter with the resurrected messiah—believe in it even enough to suffer and die for his belief?
The comments of skeptic Bart Ehrman—no friend to the Christian faith—are helpful in this regard. Ehrman refers to Paul’s letter of Philippians as “one of the seven ‘undisputed letters’ of Paul.” While we cannot prove from history that Paul was beheaded by Nero in the mid-60s A.D., we can see in his “undisputed letter” (Philippians 1:12-23 and 3:20-21) that he was already suffering in prison for his Christian claims, and that he still proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus and his willingness to die for his belief in it. Once again, therefore, the data concerning his suffering of deprivation and imprisonment is actually a simple matter of historical record.
History says that something extraordinary happened to drastically change Paul from a rabid persecutor of the Christian faith to the premiere leader of that faith, and that he suffered dearly for that change of heart. He said his conversion was accounted for by his meeting of the resurrected messiah.
History also indicates that Paul didn’t live like a liar (gladly suffering deprivation and imprisonment for his resurrection claims), and he didn’t die like one.