You may have encountered the proverbial “Damascus Road” experience, where you “see the light,” fall off “your horse,” feel a sudden change of heart, and abandon former ways. Like many contemporary idiomatic expressions, the Damascus Road experience originates in biblical literature—specifically Acts 9, which narrates Paul’s dramatic transformation. This Caravaggio painting arrestingly illustrates that moment. Thrown off his horse, the armor-clad apostle lies on his back, arms outstretched toward light above. This image captures the polar oppositional movement now commonly associated with conversion: from high to low, darkness to light, blindness to vision, old to new—from Jewish works to Christian faith.
It is thus unsurprising that throughout history Paul’s conversion from one pole (Judaism) to its opposite (Christianity) has been highlighted as a reason to maintain trenchant divisions between Christians/Gentiles and Jews. In turn, such divisions have justified legacies of anti-Judaism in Christian practice, including large-scale persecutions of Jewish people. But what if the Damascus Road experience did not dramatically change Paul’s religious affiliation, as we have imagined? What would reconsidering such oppositions mean for historical reconstructions, and modern appropriations, of Paul? In light of the complex legacy Paul’s conversion has engendered, and particularly after the Holocaust, some biblical scholars have had a “Damascus Road” experience, wherein they have “converted” to a so-called New Perspective on Paul.
The New Perspective has gained traction in Pauline studies mainly through the scholarly work of Krister Stendahl, and especially E. P. Sanders, followed by James D. G. Dunn (who coined the term), and N. T. Wright. Their paradigm-changing realization was that “old” ways of interpreting Paul as leaving Judaism for Christianity actually reflect modern (Protestant) church dogma more than ancient historical circumstances. For several decades, New Perspective interpreters have reexamined key assumptions about first-century Judaism and challenged legalistic readings of Jewish practices, shedding light on Paul and his mission and offering new assessments of his relationship to Jewish law and community.
Contrary to traditional Christian viewpoints, many (but not all) New Perspective interpreters propose that there is little historical evidence that Paul left Judaism. Instead, he shifted positions within it, redefining God’s community, creating inner-Jewish conflict. Following this reimagination of his “conversion” as a “call” reminiscent of Israel’s prophets (Gal 1:11-16), Paul emerges as someone who remained fully Jewish throughout his life. Accordingly, his letters reflect human discussions consonant with ancient Jewish ways of thinking.
If this is so, then how should we understand community, or Paul’s audiences? If Paul is not Christian, is he still a preacher to non-Jews and founder of Christian churches? If Paul is a Jewish apostle to non-Jews, then how might we interpret his rhetoric about covenant, or relationship to Jewish law? Finally, what does this mean for Christian beginnings—and for modern Jewish-Christian relations? The New Perspective’s short response to such questions is that Paul worked toward new understandings of Jewish views on their covenant with God and relationship to Gentiles, with “justification by faith” playing a more minor role as a core Christian theological concept than had been thought. Further, according to these views, Paul never ceased being Jewish or saw himself as creating a new religion.
The New Perspective encourages conversation not just about the ancient world in which Paul is (re)situated but also about who gets to interpret Paul now, and to what ends. Perhaps its real contribution is the reminder that biblical interpretation is located in space and time, shaped by contexts in which it is conducted, and has real-world consequences. Ultimately, the potential of the New Perspective lies in recognizing the importance of examining our assumptions about ancient (and modern) religion—and that expansive questions, rather than predetermined answers, really matter in engagements with Paul’s life, letters, and legacies.