Freedom Through The Death of Jesus Christ In Galatians: A Nonviolence Reading

Chapter V

Paul’s Experience of God’s Revelation of God’s Son, the Victim of the Law


Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of God’s son on the road to Damascus is recorded not only in Galatians (Gal. 1.11-17) but also in Acts (9.1-19, 22.4-16, 26.9-19). It is an encounter between the one cursed by the law (Gal. 3.13), but raised by God (Gal. 1.1), and the “persecutor inspired by his zeal for the law”. This encounter of Paul with Jesus Christ brought forth an insight into the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ “as the epiphany of sacred violence.”[1] It exposed to Paul what has been concealed in Judaism, to which he belonged, that Judaism was a sacrificial structure of sacred violence. This revelation made a radical impact on Paul’s life that resulted in change of his worlds.

A. Paul’s Pre-Conversion Zeal

A zealotic religious ideology affirms the salvific power of violence. It denigrates people who do not follow the social order based on its interpretation of the Torah, thus permitting discrimination and violence. Paul associates violence with which he had persecuted the church with “zeal” for the law. He not only was persecuting the community(s) of Jesus Christ, but also wanted to destroy it because of his zeal “for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal. 1.13-14). For Paul the way of life in Judaism provided a context where the law was used as a means to violence against those considered to be apostates. The law that governed his life, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, was the law interpreted in exclusionistic terms, which enforced a wall of separation between Jew and Gentile. The community(s) of Jesus Christ that he persecuted did not observe the Jewish distinctive rituals that expressed this separation, because the cross has made them no longer significant (Gal. 5.11). It is this situation that has led to zealous Jewish persecution to preserve strict observance of ritual requirement of the law or the social order that promoted exclusionism (Gal. 5.11; 6.12).

1. Zeal

Zeal was an important characteristic of the Second Temple Judaism Period. This is evident in the Maccabean movement. The zealous Jews were vigilant against those who were a threat to the Torah (that is, zealot interpretation of the Torah), the constitution of the Jewish communities. In order to maintain the social order based on the exclusionistic interpretation of the law, they used violence against individuals and communities that threatened the social order of the Jewish communities. During Paul’s “life in Judaism,” he was “extremely zealous for (his) ancestral traditions,” so much so that he “used to persecute the community of Jesus Christ and tried to destroy it” (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:6). The precise reasons for Paul’s persecuting activity are unknown, but there can be no doubt that it had to do with his zeal for the law and what he perceived as the threat by Jesus’ communities to the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish communities (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:6). Paul characterizes his life in Judaism and his persecuting activity to “destroy” the community of Jesus Christ by zēlōtēs, meaning a “zealot”.[2]

There are three dominant models of the nature of “zealots” in the first century. The first one proposed by Martin Hengel is “zealots” as representing a party, the second by Morton Smith, “zealots” as violent individuals, and the third by Richard Horsley, “zealots” as a kind of bandit movement, emerging during the period of the Jewish war with the Romans (66 – 70 C.E).

a. The Hengel Model: Zealots as a Party[3]

Martin Hengel argues that “Zealots” is a name of the Palestinian freedom movement that originated with Judas the Galilean in 6 C.E. This movement engaged in a continuous struggle against the Romans until the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. and the fall of Masada in 73/74 C.E. According to Hengel, fourth philosophy, brigands, Sicarri, and Zealots were four different terms used by Josephus for a single group of revolutionaries. Josephus used “Zealots” as a synonym for these revolutionaries. The central model for all these Zealots was the zeal of Phineas (Num 25). Hengel maintains that the realization of such zeal as that of Phineas, that is, elimination of apostates and destruction of the pagans who led Israel astray, “called for an organized group…and could not be accomplished by individual desperados.” Such zeal was not just confined to the zealots, he observes, but also characteristic of the Palestinian Judaism of first century C.E. 

Hengel’s view of the Zealots as designating a Palestinian freedom party has influenced many biblical scholars. At the same time it has also been challenged. Lester Grabbe, though considers the “Zealot” as a proper name referring to a particular group active before and after the Roman seize of Jerusalem and with a longer history, criticizes Hengel for applying it “indiscriminately to refer to any revolutionary group.”[4] He contends:

Josephus clearly uses the term primarily in reference to a particular group who had themselves taken this name. It is, therefore, unhelpful to lump all these various groups together as Zealots (with a capital letter), even if they tended to have certain characteristics in common…(that is,) zeal in devotion to God like that of Phineas (Numbers 25).[5]

b. The Smith Model: Zealots as Individuals

Morton Smith rejected Hegel’s monolithic picture of revolutionaries. Smith argues that from atleast Maccabean times many Jews fostered the ideal of zeal on the model of Phineas and Elijah.[6] Such admiration for zeal and these models of zeal were also influential in shaping resistance against the Roman government. Everyone who claimed to be a zealot should not be considered as a member of a particular revolutionary party.[7] Smith notes that naming of a party as “The Zealots” indicates the popularity of the ideal of zeal. According to him, the Zealots as a party did not come into existence until the winter of 67-68 C.E. Before that time there had been many individual zealots in Jerusalem.[8]

Smith contends that Zealots and Sicarii are different parties. The latter was founded by Judas of Galilee and he did not name his party as “Zealots”. Josephus calls it “the fourth philosophy”. In the mid-fifties it involved in a series of murders of distinguished individuals. Since these murders were carried on with a dagger called sica, it got the name “Sicarii” (Josephus, Ant. 20.186). The members of this group fled to Masada. The Zealot party consisted of “the representatives of Palestinian, principally Judean, peasant piety, hostile alike to the rich of the city, the upper priesthood of the Temple, and…the foreign rulers.”[9]

c. The Horsley Model: Zealots as Peasant Bandits during the Period of 66-70 C.E. Horsley argues that “Zealots” was a coalition group of peasant bandits, who fled to Jerusalem as Romans swept southward from Galilee in 66 C.E. These peasant bandits carried out attacks on the ruling aristocracy.[10] The reasons for the attacks on the ruling class, according to Horsley, were class conflict and conviction that the ruling aristocracy was a group of traitors. The peasant bandits “challenged and rendered ineffective the government of chief priests and leading Pharisees (including Josephus!), who apparently had been attempting to reach an accommodation with the Romans.”[11] Horsley finds the Zealots to be a recognizable party only during the years of 66-70 C.E. Various terms used by Josephus – fourth philosophy, brigands, Sicarii and Zealots – do not refer to a single party of revolutionaries, but are to be read as designations of various groups and coalitions. Josephus uses the term “Zealots” to refer to a party that did not evolve until the middle of the War of 66-70 C.E.

According to Horsley, “Zealots” is not a unified party of Judaism with a distinctive theology and continuous leadership extending from the Maccabean period to the end of the Second Revolt against Rome. He observes that much of the banditry reported by Josephus was due to economic hardship and heavy Roman taxation, rather than the ideology of religious zeal. He maintains that there is very little evidence that “zeal for the Law” was an important factor in the first century Palestine, let alone as a passion for freedom from alien rule. Zeal for the law was not a collective movement, but an individual feeling about the importance of other Jews’ Torah-observance. This zeal was not directed against foreigners or Roman rulers, but against fellow Jews, who transgressed the law.

Horsley’s downplay of the importance of zeal for God or the Torah is unconvincing in the light of several texts testifying to the role of religious zeal. M.R. Fairchild rebuts Horsley’s view by arguing that there was a tradition of zealous religious ideology having its roots in the times of the Maccabean movement. He further makes an important point regarding the scope of influence of this ideology. As Fairchild notes, “This ideology transcended sectarian boundaries to the degree that the evidence indicates that Essenes, Pharisees and the unaffiliated masses were attracted to it.”[12] In other words, “this (zealot) ideology was not privy to any social class or established religious sect.”[13] Those individuals who followed this tradition of zealotry were extraordinarily zealous for the Torah and ready to use violence to maintain Jewish life in conformity with the law. Their zealous violence was directed against individuals and communities that posed a threat to strict observance of the Torah.

2. Paul as a Zealot

In Gal 1.13-14, 23 (and Phil. 3.5; cf. I Cor. 15.9) the extraordinary zealotry of Paul is related to his persecuting activity of the community(s) of Jesus Christ. However, earlier studies on the persecuting activity of Paul did not always pay much attention to the character and role of his zeal.[14] Some scholars have offered psychological reasoning for Paul’s persecuting activity, claiming that it was a result of purely personal aberration. They contend that it was an external attempt to silence his dissatisfaction with his life under the law and to suppress “all humaner tendencies in the interests of his legal absolutism.”[15] However, this view is no longer in currency. Moreover, the zealot Jewish behavior has precedence in Mattathias, the father of Maccabean movement, and his followers on the model of Phineas.

Echoing the Reformation interpretation of Judaism F.C. Baur argues that Paul’s persecution of the community of Christ has to do with its rejection of the Jewish idea that true religion was a matter of “outward ceremonies”.[16] Baur remarks that Paul understood the gospel as a “refusal to regard religion as a thing bound down to special ordinances and localities.”[17] Bultmann reformulated the Reformation view by stating that the concern at the heart of Paul’s persecution was faith versus works. Paul became a persecutor of believers in Christ because he understood the gospel of the Hellenistic Jewish believers as a message of “God’s condemnation of his Jewish striving after righteousness by fulfilling the works of the law.”[18] Bulmann’s approach was followed by Bornkamm and Schmithals.[19] However, E.P. Sanders strongly refutes the Reformation understanding of Judaism as a religion of works-righteousness by saying that it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of it.[20] According to him, the Torah in Judaism functioned as part of a system, not of legalism but of covenantal nomism.

Martin Hengel, P.H. Menoud, Sayoon Kim, Justin Taylor, and Arland J. Hultgren have seen Christology as the cause of Paul’s persecution of the community(s) of Jesus Christ. Hengel supposes that the proclamation of the crucified one as the Messiah, who would lead the Jewish nation to salvation, would have been an intolerable offence to someone like Paul who combined nationalist aspirations with zeal for God and his law.[21] For Menoud the heart of Paul’s persecution was that “the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah was not only a contradiction in terms, totally unanticipated in Jewish eschatological expectation, it was categorically prohibited by Deut. 21.22-23.”[22] According to Sayoon Kim, the scandal of the cross could be the proclamation by the followers that Jesus Christ, the cursed one God, is the Messiah.[23] Justin Taylor remarks, “The idea of a ‘crucified Messiah’ remained…paradoxical and might have been unacceptable to many Jews….”[24] Hultgren notes that even though there were several messianic movements before and during the times of Jesus Christ, followers of these movements were not persecuted. He contends that the messianic movement centered on Jesus, however, is different in several reasons. Two of the reasons are its proclamation of a crucified one as the messiah and the inauguration of the new age in Christ.[25]

Martin Goodman sees politics as the reason for the persecution of the community(s) of Jesus Christ by the diaspora Jews. Goodman argues:

(A)lthough there may well have been all sorts of theological reasons for Jewish hostility to early Christians, theology alone can never explain the risks taken by synagogue authorities in imposing violent discipline on the Christian Jews such as Paul in their midst. In the case of Paul…the political factor which impelled diaspora Jewish leaders to persecute him was the need to live a quiet life untroubled by the hostility of pagan neighbors resentful that a Jew should try to have them away from the ancestral worship on which, in their eyes, their security depended.[26] 

In the above studies Paul’s claim that he was “an extraordinary zealot for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1.14; cf. Phil. 3.6) is not taken seriously. However, in his 1975 article on the call of Paul, Klaus Haacker focused on Paul’s zeal as important for understanding his persecuting activity.[27] According to Haacker Paul’s zeal should not be understood as a psychological category, but as a “pure theological category”. For Paul as a Pharisee, the law was his ruling measure and as a persecutor, the zeal his “obligatory norm, which is a decisive governing principle.”[28] Haaker understands the term “zeal” as referring to a violent religious intolerance rooted in the times of the Maccabean movement. This zeal was directed primarily against Jewish apostates, but not foreigners. He contends that the claim of Paul to be a zealot does not indicate that he was a member of a revolutionary Zealot party, since it is doubtful that such a party ever existed. So Paul’s designation as a zealot denotes that he belonged to a radical wing of Pharisees.

Some scholars assume that references to zeal or zealot in the NT such as Simon the zealot, refer to the Zealot Party. Justin Taylor argues that Paul’s claim to being a “Zealot”, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, should be understood as a reference to his membership in a Zealot party. He suggests that the reason for Paul’s persecution of the community of Jesus Christ was due to “the supposed hostility of a Zealot towards a group which stood apart from the national struggle.”[29] According to Taylor, the Zealots were already opposed to Jesus and his teachings because of his “refusal to ally himself with them, and more generally his preaching of non-violence and even of non-resistance to Roman rule.”[30] Therefore, they considered him to be a “no-less-dangerous quietist, hardly better than a collaborator and a traitor.”[31] Paul’s persecutions were of the same kind as the Zealots’ political struggles. As Taylor notes, “He persecuted the followers of Jesus for the same kinds of reasons that Zealots had to be hostile to Jesus himself, namely that not only did they not take part in the national struggle . . . but they were a threat to it.”[32]

However T.L. Donaldson and M.R. Fairchild disagree with Taylor’s view. They contend:

(Considering) diversity of offenses, the cross-section of literature glorifying zeal, and the variety of individuals and groups to which zealous actions were attributed (eg. Paul the Pharisee was a “zealot”) suggest that the term “zealot” was not a sectarian designation but descriptive of a type of piety which was not limited to one group or sect.[33]

Donaldson and Fairchild argue that the evidence from Josephus indicates that the “Zealots” as an identifiable party did not appear until Roman-Judean War during 66-70 C.E.[34]

Donaldson emphasizes that Paul’s claim of being a zealot does not denote that he belonged to a specific revolutionary party. He contends that a zealot is one who was not only passionate towards observance of the Torah, but also willing to use violence against those who were a threat to the Torah. Donaldson notes, “Zeal was more than just a fervent commitment to the Torah; it denotes a willingness to use violence against any – Jews, Gentiles, or wicked in general – who were contravening, opposing or subverting the Torah.”[35] The reason for persecution of the communities of Jesus Christ by the zealots, according to Donaldson, was the conflict between Jewish sequential understanding of the Torah and Messiah, with the Torah defining the community guaranteed salvation when the Messiah arrives, and the “peculiar already/not yet structure of early Christian messianism.”[36] He explains:

In early Christian proclamation the Messiah had appeared in advance of the full eschatological salvation, and participation in that salvation is dependent on acceptance of this Messiah. In consequence of this, Christ becomes, at least implicitly, another-thus rival-way of drawing the boundary in this age of the community guaranteed of salvation in the age to come.[37]

Fairchild also argues that Paul’s claim of being a zealot does not make him a member of the Zealot party, because there had been zealot ideology that was cultivated over decades from the times of the Maccabees. The zealot ideology transcended the boundaries of the Jewish parties and had adherents not only among the various Jewish parties, but also among the unaffiliated Jewish masses. Zealotry expressed itself in violent actions against those perceived to be a threat to the Torah, such as Paul’s persecution of the community(s) of Jesus Christ.

Paul claimed that he was perissoterōs zēlōtēs huparchōn tōn patrikōn mou paradoseōn (Gal. 1.14 cf. Phil. 3.6). This terminology is so close to the words of Mattathias, the father of the Maccabean movement, in Josephus’ Antiquities 12.271: ei tis zēlōtēs estin tōn patriōn ethnōn. LXX records these words in I Maccabees 2.27 differently and uses the verbal form of the word for zealot: pas ho zēlōn tō nomō kai histōn diathēkēn. Josephus changes the participle zēlōn into the noun form. This change is significant in view of Josephus’ consistent concealment of past Zealot history.[38] The pivotal demonstration of zealous piety, which inaugurated the Maccabean movement, may have become a pattern of pious action for the future.[39] This implies that Paul was a follower of zealot tradition. He aligned himself with his predecessors of venerable individual zealots.[40] This does not, however, make him a member of the Zealot party.[41] But Paul, being zealous for the Torah, saw himself as acting out the model of Phineas, even to the extent of using violence against those perceived to be a threat to the Torah. Thus he became a persecutor of the community(s) of Jesus Christ.[42] Paul’s zealotry resembles that of Mattathias. The zealotry of Mattathias was first, zeal for the purity of the ancestral tradition, and second, zeal that drove him to use violence against those considered to be apostates and posed a threat to these traditions.[43] In Gal. 1.13-14 Paul mentions the same concerns: zeal for the ancestral traditions and violent action against those considered to be posing a threat to these traditions. By turning into a threat to the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish communities, the communities of Jesus Christ have become a threat to the Jewish freedom of patterning their lives according to the zealotic interpretation of the Torah, a privilege the Jews were enjoying in the Roman empire.



3. Paul as a Persecutor

In the NT diōkō is used in the sense of “pursue” (Phil. 3.12,14; Lk. 17.23), “follow” (Rom. 9.30, 31, 12.13), and “persecute” (Mt. 5.10,11,12,44). Therefore, the context becomes important in determining the meaning of diōkō

In Gal. 1.13 Paul testifies about his conduct in Judaism. His use of the term Ioudaismos is very significant. In the NT this term is used only in Gal. 1.13,14. Ioudaismos came into currency with II Maccabees, where it was used to distinguish those who were faithful to the Jewish way of life from those “adopting foreign ways” (II Macc. 2.21, 8.1, 14.38). According to Dunn, Judaism is “a description of the religion of Jews, only emerged in the Maccabean revolt…in reaction to those who attempted to eliminate its distinctiveness (as expressed particularly in its sacrificial system, its feasts, circumcision and food laws – II”[44] Thus, the religion represented by Ioudaismos is a religion based on the zealotic interpretation of the law. Paul followed the same kind of Jewish religion that demanded exclusionistic way of life expressed primarily by the Jewish distinctive rituals such as circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath and festivals. This is confirmed not only by the description of Paul’s way of life in Judaism in Gal. 1.13-14 (the clause beginning with o[ti describes his life in Judaism),[45] but also the usage of cognate expressions Ioudaikōs zēs and Ioudaizein in the context of the controversy over the dietary laws in Antioch (Gal. 2.14). These cognate words are found only in Galatians. Raisanen aptly comments that “the word (Ioudaismos) carries connotations which hint at those practices which separated Jew from Gentile.”[46] Moreover, the word anastrophē (“way of life”) occurs only in Galatians among the undisputed letters of Paul. Significantly this term also occurs in II Maccabees 6.23 (and Tobit 4.14) in the context where the Jewish way of life was seriously threatened. 

Paul explains his way of life in Judaism by two interrelated clauses in Gal. 1.13-14. The first one is kath’ huperbolēn ediōkon tēv ekklēsian tou theou kai eporthoun autēn (Gal. 1.13). It is significant that the word diōkō is used in I Maccabees to describe the Maccabees’ pursuit of “the sons of arrogance” and the “lawless” (I Macc. 2.47, 3.5). Paul uses the verb diōkō not only in describing his own persecuting activity (Gal. 1.13-23; cf. I Cor. 15.9; Phil. 3.6), but also the persecution he himself suffered (Gal. 4.29, 5.11, 6.12; cf. I Cor. 4.12; II Cor. 4.9). The persecuting activity of Paul, before his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son, is recorded not only in Paul’s letters but also in Acts (I Cor. 15.9; Gal. 1.13, 23; Phil. 3.6; Acts 8.1-3, 9.1-2, 22.4-5, 26.9-11). The verb diōkō is modified by the adverbial phrase kath’ huperbolēn, which means “beyond measure”, “excessively”, and “intensely” (Gal. 1.13). Hultgren argues that kath’ huperbolēn denotes intensity of Paul’s zeal, rather than intensity of his violence. So he translates Gal. 1.13: “I persecuted the church of God to the utmost.”[47] However, Paul’s usage of portheō together with diōkō in Gal. 1.13, 23 provides an interpretation of the adverbial phrase whether it denotes the intensity of Paul’s zeal or his violence.

Paul also uses the verb portheō to describe his way of life. This term occurs only in Gal. 1.13, 23 (and Acts 9.21) in reference to Paul’s activity towards the community(s) of Jesus Christ. P.H. Menoud argues that because Paul was never accused of murder, portheō here refers to the destruction of faith (Gal. 1.23), rather than physical destruction.[48] Hultgren too contends that the verb portheō does not have violent connotation and so it simply means that Paul tried to put an end to Christian faith, or Christian church.[49] However, the zealot context in which portheō is used implies the meaning of physical violence. Here portheō is used in the sense of “devastate” or “destroy” cities.[50] This verb is directly associated with diōkō both in Gal. 1.13 and 1.23.  It is used in imperfect in Gal. 1.13 and 1.23, whereas diōkō is used in imperfect in the former and in present participle in the latter. It is difficult to decide whether the conjunction kai is used paratactically or explicatively in Gal. 1.13 as both verbs are in imperfect.[51] Seland takes it as explicative and so understands persecutions consisting of portheō,[52] whereas Betz sees the latter as the goal or purpose of the former.[53] What is evident is the intensity of Paul’s violent activity beyond trying to destroy “the faith”. The imperfect verbs ediōkon and eporthoun with their connotation of repeated action highlight this violent persecuting activity. Paul does not need to exaggerate his violent activity, because the communities of Jesus Christ knew about it (Gal. 1.23). Ho diōkon in Gal. 1.23 indicates an established way of referring to Paul among the communities of Jesus Christ.[54] Therefore, the violent zealotic nature of Paul’s persecution of the community(s) of Jesus Christ in the model of Phineas and rooted very much in the Maccabean movement is evident.

The second clause that describes Paul’s way of life in Judaism affirms what the first clause explains: proekopton en tō Ioudaismō huper pollous suvēlikiōtas en tō genei mou, perissoterōs zēlōtēs huarchōn tōn patrikōn mou paradoseōn. Paul’s sense of superiority with regards to his progress in Judaism, based on the exclusionistic understanding of the Torah, is expressed by his usage of the preposition huper. This sense of superiority is based on his “being an extraordinary zealot for my ancestral traditions” (Gal. 1.14). Zealotry for the ancestral traditions, the Torah, and God would not have been perceived differently (cf. Gal. 1.14; Acts 21.20, 22.3; Josephus Ant 12.271). It was this extreme zealotry for the ancestral traditions of the law that had prompted Paul to use violence against those perceived to be a threat to the social order based on the exclusionistic interpretation of the law.

Considering Paul’s activities as a persecutor in the mould of Mattathias and the Maccabees with Phineas as their model, leads to a conclusion that such a behavior stemmed from his zealotic interpretation of the Torah. Such an interpretation of the Torah demanded exclusionism expressed by the Jewish distinctive rituals that formed walls of separation between the Jews and the Gentiles. The Maccabean crisis had promoted a few rituals such as circumcision and dietary laws, as key elements of law observance or boundary markers of God’s covenant community. These rituals remained central even in the time of Paul as the boundary markers between those who belonged to God’s covenant community and those who were outside this community. Any community that tried to remove the walls of separation was considered to be posing a threat to the Torah, the constitution of the Jewish communities. Donaldson comments, “Persecution arises not because a group holds ideas at variance with the norm, but because it does so in ways that threaten social cohesion.”[55] Paul saw the community(s) of Jesus Christ as representing such a threat. This is implied in Gal.5.11-12, where Paul says that the cross of Christ has become a “scandal” to the Jews (cf. Gal. 6.12; I Cor. 1.23). The scandal of the cross for the Jews is that it has annulled the Jewish distinctive rituals in the communities of Jesus Christ, thus removing the walls of separation between the Jews and the Gentiles (Gal. 5.11). This results in upsetting the social order that has been constructed on the exclusionistic interpretation of the Torah. In order to maintain social order based on the exclusionistic understanding of the law, it demands “good violence” against the “bad violence”, which is the cause of social disorder. The cross by demolishing the ritual barriers around the Jewish community and thus bringing together the Jews and the Gentiles, those who were excluded by the exclusionistic interpretation of the law, has given zealous Jews the motivation to engage in scapegoat mechanism, to maintain social order based on the zealotic interpretation of the Torah. Since in a zealot context faith in God is understood in terms of zealous action for God or the law, it is linked to sacred violence. It is a violent action against apostates to maintain conformity to a pattern of life according to the law, and thus preserve unity and order of the community. The unanimity of the members of Judaism in directing their violence against apostates is required to maintain the system of sacred violence. All cooperate mimetically in directing their violence against the victims. Those who withhold consent and cooperation in this conspiracy against victims are a threat to the very foundation of the sacrificial structure of Judaism. When Paul confessed that as a zealot, he was violently persecuting the community(s) of God and was trying to destroy it, he was, in fact, confessing that he used sacred violence against apostates to preserve the pattern of life according to the law, the constitution of the Jewish communities. In other words, by guarding the constitution of the Jewish communities, he was protecting their freedom to live according to the zealotic interpretation of the law.

B. Paul’s Conversion-Call and God’s Revelation of God’s Son

Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is recorded not only in Galatians (Gal. 1.11-17), but also in Acts (9.1-19, 22.4-16, 26.9-19). There are different views surrounding this experience. Some scholars insist that it is inappropriate to call this experience “conversion”. Krister Stendahl argues that the emphasis in the autobiographical account is on Paul’s call to be an apostle to the Gentiles, rather than on his “conversion”. In his essay “Paul among Jews and Gentiles” Stendahl argues that Paul, by echoing the language of Isaiah and Jeremiah, describes his experience as a call, similar to that of the prophets. The same God whom Paul had been serving since birth has now given him a new task. This task is, through the risen Messiah, God “asks him as a Jew to bring God’s message to the Gentiles.”[56] Though Stendahl does not deny the fact that Paul’s experience on the Damascus road has resulted in a striking shift in his perspective, he rejects the description of this experience as “conversion”, because Paul did not change from one religion to another.[57] However, Stendahl’s “call rather than conversion” formulation is an overstatement, because the term “conversion” properly understood can be appropriately applied to Paul.

There are many scholars who consider Paul’s experience as “conversion”. They have offered several proposals to explain Paul’s conversion. It is interpreted in terms of the psychological struggle with the Torah, and a result of his long struggle with the law in which he was dejected of ever achieving the righteousness it demands.[58] J.S. Stewart describes how “Paul’s growing sense of the failure of Judaism” gave way to the sudden conviction “that he had found the truth for which all men everywhere were seeking.”[59] However, Paul nowhere in his letters gives a hint of going through a period of dissatisfaction or mental turmoil. He rather testifies about his extraordinary zealotry for the Torah. The only thing that can be understood from his testimony is that his conversion was sudden and unexpected, and was a result of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son. Some other scholars understood Paul’s conversion in terms of his reaction to the scriptural apologetic and steadfastness under persecution of the community(s) of Jesus Christ.[60] Some argue that Paul through his experience of God’s revelation of the risen Christ realized that Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Further he understood that since Messiah had come, the law ceases.[61] E.P. Sanders contends that Paul on the road to Damascus was convinced that God had provided in Christ a universal means of salvation both for the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul’s rejection of the Torah as a means of salvation is a consequence of his new conviction: if the salvation is through Christ, then it is not through the law.[62]  Donaldson sees the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the demonstration of God’s provision of universal salvation in Christ. Therefore, if salvation is through Christ, then it does not come through the Torah.[63] Heikki Raisanen proposed a different view of Paul’s conversion. For him, Paul was converted from a rigid Jewish religion to Hellenistic Jewish Christianity and adopted its less rigid attitude towards the Torah, particularly the ritual and cultic aspects.[64] F.F. Bruce maintains that for Paul who considered the proclamation of a crucified one as the Messiah as blasphemous, the experience of God’s revelation of the risen Christ is a “conversion” experience. He further says that this conversion was both an external and an internal event. It was an objective revelation of the risen Christ as well as an overwhelming inward experience. Bruce takes seriously the change in Paul from persecutor to apostle.

There are also diverse views regarding the connection between Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of God’s son and his gospel. Concerning the essentials of Paul’s gospel, Raisanen proposes developmental hypothesis. Paula Fredriksen argues that the autobiographical conversion report of Paul tells more about his state of mind at the time of reporting than at the time of conversion.[65] However, these views can not be sustained in view of Paul’s polemic against the teachers of the “other gospel” that the essentials of the gospel he preaches remain same from the beginning (cf. Gal. 1.17, 5.11). Otherwise Paul would have faced criticism from his opponents, had he preached a different gospel at the beginning of his ministry. That means, Paul’s view of the Torah and the essential content of his gospel are the result of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son on the road to Damascus. Bruce rightly sees the connection between Paul’s experience and his theology. He supposes that although Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith was not developed fully at that time, it too was implicit in the conversion.[66] However, the weakness of Bruce’s analysis is that he relies more on the secondary source, the Acts, instead of Paul’s letters. Developing on his mentor’s view Seyoon Kim finds Paul’s conversion as the source of his thought.[67]

It is important to refer to Paul’s account of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son to see a connection between his conversion and his gospel. Paul claims that his gospel is not “of human origin” but “through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1.11-12). Apocalypsis and its verbal form apokalyptein in Paul’s letters refer most often to the eschaton and linked to God’s action in the end time (I Cor. 1.7, 3.13; Gal. 3.23).[68] Therefore, Paul’s reference to “revelation” in Gal. 1.11-12 and 1.16 underlines the eschatological significance of the experience. This revelation is “of Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1.12), which may be taken either as subjective genitive (revelation from Jesus Christ) or objective genitive (revelation about Jesus Christ). In the light of Gal. 1.16 which refers to God’s revelation of God’s son, “revelation of Jesus Christ” should be understood as objective genitive. It implies that the content of the gospel is Jesus Christ, who was revealed. What is striking is that in the following verses (Gal. 1.13-14) Paul, instead of explaining the revelation, first describes his former way of life in Judaism (notice the usage of the temporal particle pote). This implies that the information about his former way of life in Judaism has significance in the context of Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of the risen Christ. After explaining his extraordinary zealotic way of life based on the exclusionistic understanding of the Torah, expressed in the exclusion of the Gentiles, Paul returns to the apokalypsis (Gal. 1.15-16). In order to express the transition due to the impact of his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son in not only putting an end to his former way of life in Judaism, but also starting a new life and vocation, Paul uses the temporal phrase hote de. Through this Paul is indicating a sharp contrast between the two periods of his life.[69]

In Gal. 1.15-16 Paul describes the action of God and the purpose of that action. Paul says that God revealed the son en emoi. En emoi may be translated atleast in three ways: 1. “in me”, referring to internal, subjective experience; 2. “to me”, referring to external, objective experience of the risen Christ; and 3. “through me”, referring to his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles. Paul elsewhere describes his Damascus road experience in terms of “seeing” Christ, or Christ “appearing” to him (I Cor. 9.1, 15.8; cf. II Cor. 4.6). In Gal. 1.16 Paul describes it in terms of God “revealing the son”. The subject here is God. God is disclosing the reality that has been hidden. What has been concealed is the scapegoat mechanism that is generated by the zealotic way of life in Judaism. The power of this mechanism lies in its deception and concealment. On the one hand, it deceives by depicting God as the one who is demanding “sacrificial victims”, and thus, portraying violence against victims as a sacred act. On the other hand, it conceals the plight of innocent “sacrificial victims” and transforms violence against victims as a sacred violence. The content of God’s revelation is God’s son, the victim of the curse of the law (Gal. 3.13). Through this God is revealing not only his rejection of the law (the law on which Paul’s zealotic way of life was based) that crucified Christ, but also God’s vindication of the victim of the curse of the law. Paul says that God has revealed this en emoi. Beverly Gaventa argues for a meaning of “to me” based on parallel usage en tois ethnesin (Gal. 1.16).[70] It is an encounter between the cursed one of the law and the persecutor inspired by his zeal for the law. This encounter of Paul with Jesus the crucified and cursed by the law (Gal. 3.13), but raised by God (Gal. 1.1), brought forth a realization that the one cursed by the law is vindicated by God. By vindicating the cursed one of the law, God has revealed to Paul that the cursed one of the law (that is, the exclusionistic understanding of the law) is not cursed one of God. Paul reiterates this in Gal. 2.19: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” That means, the way of life expressed in strict adherence to the Jewish distinctive rituals such as circumcision, dietary laws, Sabbath and special days, and thus excluding the Gentiles, is not equivalent to living for God.

Paul draws on prophetic imagery in Gal. 1.16-17 (cf. Isaiah 49.1; Jeremiah 1.5) to “convey the radical impact of the revelation.”[71] Even though Paul’s language here echoes the call of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, and implies that he views himself as standing in the prophetic tradition, it does not mean what has happened to Paul may be considered simply as his call. Though Paul’s call and commission are included in this experience, his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son is not limited to these. His experience has called into question his zealotic understanding of the law and the way of life patterned according to such an understanding. When Paul experienced God’s revelation of the risen Christ, the victim of the “curse of the law”, he realized the problem of Judaism to which he belonged. This problem of Judaism is the exclusionism expressed in its distinctive rituals. Paul realized that it is the way of life in Judaism based on exclusionistic understanding of the law that has led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, whom God has vindicated. In other words, the law that has excluded the Gentiles is the same law that caused the crucifixion of God’s son. And God is rejecting the way of life based on the law. Paul understood how the law was (mis)used in Judaism to serve violence, which was expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, persecution of those considered to be apostates, and exclusion of the Gentiles.[72] Thus, the revelation of Jesus Christ has exposed what has been concealed in Judaism, to which Paul belonged. That is, Judaism is a sacrificial structure of sacred violence.[73] Paul realized the law and the community that patterned its life according to this law as a system of sacred violence. This realization made a radical impact on Paul’s life and disrupted his way of life in Judaism. Paul’s cosmos has been shattered (cf. Gal. 6.14). This has resulted in his transfer from Judaism based on exclusionistic understanding of the law, to the community of the new creation, where circumcision and uncircumcision are no longer significant (Gal. 6.15).[74] The contrast between these two worlds is expressed by the conjugation de (Gal. 1.15). Charles Cousar comments, “God’s revealing of the son to Paul not only involved a radical assault on his previous life, but also that assault was part of God’s world-changing activity, the bringing of new creation.”[75]

God’s revelation of God’s son has a purpose: “that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1.16). It implies that the conversion and the call of Paul belong to a single event. Interestingly the content of God’s revelation that disrupted Paul’s way of life in Judaism and the content of the message that Paul was asked to proclaim are same. It is Jesus Christ, the victim of the curse of the law. It is also significant that Paul was commissioned to preach this message to the Gentiles, who are also victims of the Torah (Gal. 1.16; cf. Is. 49.1-6; Jer. 1.5).[76] Paul understands his commissioning from that very moment of his experience of the revelation of the son as having Gentiles in view. This conviction is integral part of his experience on the Damascus road. It did not come to Paul later or grown over a period, as some have argued.[77] Christiaan Beker comments that “Paul’s conversion experience is not the entrance to his thought.”[78] However, Paul claims that he already had a well formed conviction before he first met other apostles (Gal. 1.16-17), and asserts its divine origin (Gal. 1.1, 11-12).

Thus, Paul mentions his conversion-call experience in contrast to his persecuting zeal for the ancestral traditions in the context of Galatian controversy in order to affirm that the way of life patterned according to the law (that is, the exclusionistic understanding of the law) and that according to the gospel of Jesus Christ are mutually exclusive.[79] His experience of God’s revelation of God’s son disclosed that the death of Jesus Christ was the result of sacred violence. Paul realized that it was the same sacred violence expressed in exclusion of the Gentiles. This realization has resulted in his transfer from Judaism, the system of sacred violence, to a community of Jesus Christ, the victim of sacred violence. Paul was commissioned to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, God’s disclosure of Judaism as the system of sacred violence, which is expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and exclusion of the Gentiles, and the vindication of the victim of the sacred violence. The conversion-call experience of Paul has a direct implication on or become a threat to the self-understanding of Jewish Christians (and Jews) as the covenant people of God, and their zealotic way of life in Judaism. It poses a threat to the Jewish social order and freedom to live according to that order. This led Paul, in his former life in Judaism, to persecute the community(s) of Jesus Christ. This has also led the Jewish community, to which Paul once belonged, to persecute Paul and the members of the community(s) of Jesus Christ.



[1] Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 66.

[2] Justin Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” in Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity, ed. by Graham N. Stanton and Guy G. Stroumsa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 105.

[3] Read Hengel, The Zealots; and The Pre-Christian Paul (London: 1991).

[4] Lester L. Grabbe, Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period: Belief and Practice from the Exile to Yavneh (New York: Routledge, 2000), pp. 287-288.

[5] Grabbe, Judaic Religion in the Second Temple Period, p. 287. Shaye J.D. Cohen too considers that the Zealots are a separate group. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, pp. 164-166.

[6] Morton Smith, “Zealots and Sicarii: Their Origins and Relation,” in HTR 64/1 (January 1971), p. 18.

[7] Smith, “Zealots and Sicarii,” p. 3.

[8] Smith, “Zealots and Sicarii,” p. 16.

[9] Smith, “Zealots and Sicarii,” p. 19.

[10] Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 224.

[11] Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, p. 217.

[12] Mark R. Fairchild, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Zealot Associations: A Re-Examination of Gal. 1.14 and Acts 22.3,” in NTS 45 (1999), p. 526.

[13] Fairchild, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Zealot Associations,” p. 524.

[14] Torrey Seland, “Saul of Tarsus and Early Zealotism: Reading Gal. 1.13-14 in Light of Philo’s Writings,” in Biblica 83 (2002), p. 453.

[15] C.H. Dodd, “The Mind of Paul: A Psychological Approach,” in BJRL 17/1 (1933), pp. 12-13; “The Mind of Paul: Change and Development,” in BJRL 18/1 (1934), p. 36.

[16] F.C. Baur, Paul: Apostle of Jesus Christ (London: Williams & Norgate, 1876), I. 57.

[17] F.C. Baur, The Church History of the First Three Centuries (London: Williams & Norgate, 1878), I. 46.

[18] Rudolph Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, I. 187-188.

[19] Gunther Bornkamm, Paul (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971), pp. 14-15; Walter Schmithals, Paul and James, tr. by D.M. Barton (Naperville, Ill: A.R. Allenson, 1965), pp. 21-28.

[20] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism; and Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People.

[21] Hengel, Pre- Christian Paul, p. 83; Hengel, The Atonement: The Origins of the Doctrine in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), p. 40.

[22] P.H. Menoud, “Revelation and Tradition: The Influence of Paul’s Conversion on His Theology,” in Interpretation 7/2 (April 1953), p. 133.

[23] Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel, p. 47.

[24] Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” p. 112.

[25] Hultgren, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church,” p. 110.

[26] Martin Goodman, Judaism in the Roman World: Collected Essays (Leiden: Brill, 2007), p. 152.

[27] K. Haacker, “Die Berufung des Verfolgers und die Rechtfertigung des Gottlosen,” in ThBeit 6 (1975), pp. 1-19.

[28] Haacker, “Die Berufung,” p. 8.

[29] Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” p. 112.

[30] Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” p. 108.

[31] Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” p. 108.

[32] Taylor, “Why Did Paul Persecute the Church?” p. 110.

[33] Rhoads, “Zealots,” VI. 1045.

[34] Rhoads, “Zealots,” VI. 1045.

[35] Terence L. Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert: The Origin of Paul’s Christ-Torah Antithesis,” in CBQ 51/4 (October 1989), p. 673.

[36] Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert” p. 679.

[37] Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert” p. 679.

[38] Hengel, Zealots, p. 155; E.P. Sanders, Practice and Belief 63 BCE – 66 CE (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 409.

[39] Fairchild, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Zealot Associations,” p. 522.

[40] Seland, “Saul of Tarsus and Early Zealotism,” p. 466.

[41] Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert,” p. 673.

[42] Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul, pp. 70-71; J. Dupont, “The Conversion of Paul, and Its Influence on His Understanding of Salvation by Faith,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. by W.W. Gasque and  Ralph P. Martin (Exeter: 1970), pp. 183-87; N.T. Wright, “Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17),” in JBL 115 (1996), p. 686.

[43] Fairchild, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Zealot Associations,” p. 527.

[44] Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, p. 56.

[45] Betz, Galatians, p. 67.

[46] Heikki Raisanen, Jesus, Paul and Torah: Collected Essays, tr. by David E. Orton (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992), p. 23.

[47] Hultgren, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church,” p. 110.

[48] Philippe H. Menoud, Jesus Christ and the Faith: A Collection of Studies, tr. by Eunice M. Paul (Pittsburg: Pickwick Press, 1978), pp. 47- 60.

[49] Hultgren, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church,” p. 110.

[50] Longenecker, Galatians, p. 28.

[51] Seland, “Saul of Tarsus and Early Zealotism,” p. 468.

[52] Seland, “Saul of Tarsus and Early Zealotism,” p. 468.

[53] Betz, Galatians, p. 67.

[54] Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, p. 83.

[55] Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert,” p. 671.

[56] Krister Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 7.

[57] Stendahl, Paul among Jews and Gentiles, pp. 7-23.

[58] A. Deissmann, St. Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1912), pp. 93-98, 122; C.H. Dodd, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1932), p. 115; J.S. Stewart, A Man in Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1935), pp 83-88; J.C. Beker, Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), pp. 24-243.

[59] Stewart, A Man in Christ, pp. 119, 141.

[60] O. Pfleiderer, Paulinism (London: Williams & Norgate, 1891), I. 3-13; J. Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (New York: Macmillan, 1943), pp. 312-329.

[61] W.D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London: SPCK, 1948), pp. 16, 71-73; Schoeps, Paul, pp. 88, 171-73; Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New York: Seabury, 1968), pp. 188-93, 198.

[62] Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism; and Paul, the Law and the Jewish People. 

[63] Donaldson, “Zealot and Convert,” p. 680.

[64] Raisanen, Paul and the Law, pp. 231-236.

[65] Paula Fredriksen, “Paul and Augustine: Conversion Narratives, Orthodox Traditions, and the Retrospective Self,” in JTS 37 (1986), pp. 3-34.

[66] F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1977), pp. 69-75, 87, 188.

[67] Kim, The Origin of Paul’s Gospel.

[68] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, From Darkness to Light: Aspects of Conversion in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 23.

[69] Martyn, Galatians, p. 163.

[70] Gaventa, From Darkness to Light, p. 28.

[71] Gaventa, From Darkness to Light, p. 28.

[72] Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 7.

[73] Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 7.

[74] Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 7.

[75] Cousar, Reading Galatians, p. 32.

[76] The prophetic call-stories from which the vocabulary here derived, also contain the phrase “to the nations”.

[77] Dupont, “The Conversion of Paul”; J.G. Gager, “Some Notes on Paul’s Conversion,” in NTS 27 (1981).

[78] Beker, Paul the Apostle, p. 10.

[79] Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law, p. 92.


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2 Responses to “Freedom Through The Death of Jesus Christ In Galatians: A Nonviolence Reading”

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