Rev. Brandon Robertson, a progressive Christian pastor, tweeted a challenge regarding the authority of the apostle Paul. Although not one of the original 12 apostles of Jesus, Paul wrote the majority of the books in the New Testament. Robertson takes issue with that and sees Paul as a less authoritative source than Jesus or the 12 apostles. In this tweet, he challenges the reliability of Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. Should we be skeptical of Paul’s conversion story?
What is the Challenge?
Robertson states, “Hey everyone, I was walking down the street last night and Jesus appeared to me. He told me I’m an apostle and that my words have divine authority. So please listen to me. You’d surely be skeptical of this claim if I made it. Why shouldn’t we also approach Paul similarly?” If Paul’s conversion story is not true, it brings his writings into question, and by connection most of the New Testament.
The account of Paul’s conversion comes from Acts 9, where on the road to Damascus to persecute and kill Christians, Paul has a vision of the risen Jesus. After the vision, Paul is blinded until he meets Ananias, who received his own vision from God instructing him to meet and help Paul. They meet, Paul’s blindness is cured, and he becomes an evangelist all over that region of the world. But does that make him an authoritative source that should be in the Bible?
Is the Conversion Story Unbelievable?
I don’t think Robertson is wrong to raise the question. Christians have a reputation for shutting down any challenge or question like this, which helps nobody. However, this challenge fails in several ways. First, it assumes that nobody was skeptical of his conversion. The first-century Jewish people were not so gullible that they automatically believed anyone who said they had a vision from God. Many wanted nothing to do with Paul.
The fact is the people fearing for their lives had much more reason to be skeptical of Paul than we do today. And yet, they were eventually persuaded that his experience was divine and his conversion genuine. They were convinced by multiple things, though. Some, like Ananias, had their own visions from God about Paul. Others were persuaded by his actions and the complete 180 his life took. And, of course, there were other witnesses.
Is the Analogy Accurate?
Of course, I would be skeptical if someone said they had a vision from God. But Robertson does not tell the full story in the tweet. I would ask Robertson if there were other people traveling with him who heard the voice. Did a respected member of the community have a vision simultaneously with instructions to receive you? Were you suddenly blinded during your vision until the community leader prayed over you? Did the vision turn your life around from trying to kill Christians to risking your life by accurately teaching and preaching the gospel? In that case, I am inclined to think you probably had a vision from God.
Misunderstanding Paul’s Authority
The last thing I would point out is that the tweet misrepresents what Paul said and did. Paul does not claim to have divine authority. He never said, “By the way, these letters are divinely inspired. Put these together in a book and call it the Bible.” Robertson writes like Paul was using this story as a way of gaining power and influence. He fearlessly preached the gospel everywhere, often trying to downplay his personal influence. Instead, others recognized that Paul spoke with authority and was consistent with Jesus and the Old Testament. Because of his vision, they considered Paul a credible witness of the risen Jesus and should be heard.
Yes, we should be skeptical of Paul’s conversion story. But that skepticism leads us to investigate, which leads me to conclude that we should trust Paul’s conversion story.
This is not the first time that Robertson has brought challenges to orthodox Christianity. He recently came under scrutiny for calling Jesus racist in Mark 7. Click here to see Drew’s response to that challenge.