by Garry  Wills

i. Paul and the Risen Jesus

The most important event of Paul's life, that which determined everything else, was his encounter with the risen Jesus. He puts this in a social context, as part of the Resurrection experience that other followers of Jesus shared. His own account of this epochal occurrence does not accord with the most famous story of Paul's "conversion," that given in the Acts of the Apostles (9.1-9). But that story, told by one "Luke," was written half a century after what it purports to describe, and we shall find that it has many holes in it. Here are Paul's own words, close to the event:


My urgent concern was to pass on to you what was passed on to me—that Christ died for our sins, in accord with the sacred writings, that he was buried, that he arose on the third day, in accord with the sacred writings, that he appeared to Kephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared at the same time to more than five hundred of the Brothers, most of whom are still with us, though some have died. And after that he appeared to James, then to all the emissaries.1 Finally, as by a delayed birth, he appeared to me, though I am the least of the emissaries, one not even worthy to be called an emissary, since I persecuted God's gathering. (1 Cor 15.3-9)

Paul puts his own experience in the context of the Gospel revelation, of the tradition passed on to him, which it is his urgent concern to pass on to others, in company with the other emissaries, his superiors.

The principal thing to notice here is that Jesus appeared to Paul—ophthe, "he was seen." In Luke's account of Paul's encounter with Jesus, Paul sees nothing—a sudden flash of light proves literally blinding, so that he merely hears a voice. This is technically not an apparition but a photism (a light flash) accompanied by an audition (a disembodied voice). In the Gospel stories of meetings with the risen Jesus, genuine apparitions occur—the Lord not only appears to men and women but he converses with those who see him, he gives instructions, he answers questions. Paul, putting his own record along with theirs, implies that his experience was like theirs—that he spoke with Jesus. That is the credential he offers to others who also possess it. He asks to be tested by all those he has identified as his fellow witnesses to the risen Lord. "Am I not an emissary? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Cor 9.1). That is why he can report that he had his calling as an emissary to the nations directly from Jesus: "I, Paul, made an emissary not in any human way, or through any man, but through Jesus-Messiah and his Father, God, who raised him from the dead" (Gal 1.1).


Of all those who saw the risen Lord, Paul is the only one whose own words we possess. The other accounts are second-or third- or fourth-hand, written down four or five decades after the Resurrection. Yet Paul, at the time he wrote, met many of those who shared his privilege—people who could have challenged his claim. No doubt he shared his own story with them, they all "compared notes."

And of all this large company of witnesses to the Resurrection, only Paul has described (so far as that is possible) what a risen body is like. The others remark on an elusive or uncanny aspect to their encounters. They often do not at first recognize Jesus. He seems paradoxically physical (eating food) yet ghostly (gliding through a door), ordinary (a gardener, a traveler) yet transfigured. Paul, who knows what he is talking about, says that the risen body does not fit any of our expectations. Only he, of those who have seen such a body, tells us what it is like:

Will someone ask, in what way are the dead raised, and in what kind of body do they fare? Do not be a fool. Even a seed you sow does not come to life until it dies. And what you sow is not the plant it will become; it is a mere seed—of wheat, perhaps, or of some other grain. God gives it the plant he has decreed, a different plant according to what seed is sown. And all flesh is not the same, but that of humans, or of beasts, or of birds, or of fish. There are, moreover, heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, and the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendor of earthly bodies another. There is one splendor for the sun, another for the moon, and another for the stars—since star from star differs in splendor.

That is how it is with the resurrection of the dead. Sown in disintegration, it is raised in integrity. Sown in disgrace, it is raised in splendor. Sown in frailty, it is raised in strength. What is sown as a sensate body is raised as a spiritual body. If there is a sensate body, there is also a spiritual body. For it is written: "The first man, Adam, became a living soul." But the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. Yet the spiritual comes not first; rather the sensate is first, and then the spiritual. The first man came from the clay of earth; the second came from heaven. As the first man was of clay, so are the others claylike. And as the last man was from heaven, so are all his fellows heavenly. And as we have borne the likeness of the man of clay, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

So, brothers, I assure you, flesh and blood cannot have any inheritance in God's reign, any more than disintegration can have any inheritance in integrity. That is the secret thing I am telling you. Though we all may not die, we shall all be altered at a stroke, at an eyeblink, at a last trumpet blast, and the dead will awaken in integrity and we shall be altered. Then must disintegration be clothed in integrity, and death be clothed in deathlessness. When such death is clothed in deathlessness, the word will apply: Death, what victory have you? What stab, Death, is left you? (1 Cor 15.35-55)

Paul inevitably associated what other risen bodies would be like from his encounter with that of Jesus. "He will transfigure our body's lowliness into the pattern of his dazzling body" (Phil 3.21). "By looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord mirrored back on us, we are transformed into that image, from splendor to splendor, by the working of the Lord's Spirit" (2 Cor 3.18). When Paul talks of seeing the splendor of Jesus' face, it is often assumed or asserted that he is registering the internal assent of faith, but there is no reason we should artificially keep his statement apart from his report that he had actually seen the Lord's face: "The God who said, 'Let light shine out of the dark,' has shone a light in our heart to understand the splendor of God that is the features (prosopon) of Messiah" (1 Cor 4.6). Paul is our expert on the risen body, and he shows a fascination with it. He writes about the longing for it.

When this transitory housing we inhabit is dissolved, we know another housing is prepared for us by God, a lasting casement in the heavens not made by hand. We naturally chafe in our present casing, yearning for the heavenly one to be put on over it, lest we be caught naked but for our first habiliment—we chafe while pent in this narrow enclosure, though not wanting to put it off until it is enclosed in the new casing, so that the mortal shall be absorbed into the immortal. God has prompted us to this yearning, and has given us the Spirit as a surety of its fulfillment. Bracing ourselves on all sides, then, realizing that while we are held in by our bodies we are held off from the Lord, we fare on, believing beyond what we see, bracing ourselves as I say and taking heart to leave the body's home and enter the Lord's home, making it our point of pride to win his favor, however disembodied or re-embodied. (2 Cor 5.1-9)

Paul is attributing to others his own yearning to be freed into the higher state where Jesus has led the way. "For me, living is Christ and dying a boon. ... I feel an urgency for dissolution, to be with Christ" (Phil 1.21, 23).

The tug between the present body and what he had seen of the future one played into Paul's mystical experience of prayer. This is something he would not have mentioned in his letters had Corinthian spiritualists not boasted of their ecstatic states as a warrant for their aberrations. Paul refutes their arguments, but also says that such experiences do not excuse their conduct. He is a bit embarrassed at having to engage in such competitive spiritual credentialing, so he modestly puts his claim in the third person.

I am forced to boast. Though it does me little good, I will venture on the subject of visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Messiah who, fourteen years ago— whether in his body or out of it I know not, God knows— was swept up high as the third heaven. And I know that this very man—whether in his body or out of it, I know not—was swept up into Paradise, where he heard unspeakable words, words it is impossible for a man to pronounce. About such a man I might boast, but about myself I may boast only of weaknesses. (2 Cor 12.1-5)

Apparently describing the same time, he assured the glossolalists of Corinth: "Thank God I can speak in tongues more than all of you—though I would rather speak five intelligible words in the gathering, to be understood by others, than speak thousands of words in tongues" (1 Cor 14.18-19).

By dating his ecstasies back to a specific time, Paul no doubt refers to the key period in his life, that in which he received his call from Jesus. As soon as Jesus appeared to him, he went to Arabia—to the desert just over the eastern border of Syria (the country Damascus is in).

I would have you know, Brothers, that the revelation I revealed to you came not in the ordinary human way, for I did not receive it from a man by way of teaching. Rather, it was directly revealed to me by Jesus-Messiah. For you have heard how I led my life under the Jewish Law, that I was extreme in my persecution of God's gathering, trying to extirpate it, how I surpassed many of my contemporaries in adherence to Jewish Law, more highly devoted to the traditions I received from the ancestors. But when the time came for what God had destined me to from the womb, summoning me by his favor, he directly revealed his Son to me, that I might proclaim him to the nations. At this point I consulted no flesh-and-blood person. Nor did I go to Jerusalem, to see emissaries called before me. I went off, instead, to Arabia, whence I later returned to Damascus. (Gal 1.11-17)

Why would Paul go even farther off from Jerusalem—to Arabia? Some have said he was acting at once on the commission to preach to "the nations." But that underestimates the wrenching experience that turned him from a fierce assault on "the Brothers" as enemies of the Law. He had to come to grips with all his earlier misconceptions. He had to reconcile somehow his reading of Jewish destiny and its improbable fulfillment in Jesus as Messiah. We also have to suppose that Jesus, in his appearance to him, directed Paul toward a kind of desert experience of intense prayer and study. All the later citations of the sacred writings that Paul made while dictating his letters "on the road" could not have come from ad hoc unrolling of the bulky papyruses of the Bible. He had to puzzle out, under divine guidance, where he had been wrong in his reading of the prophets, what new light was cast on them by the words Jesus spoke to him. This deep involvement let him quote scripture extensively from memory (it is noticed that he is often slightly "off" the precise wording). There is no reason to suppose that Jesus appeared to him only once. He appeared to others several times and in several places (Mt 28.10, Jn 21.1). In fact, Paul tells us of a later apparition (Gal 2.2), when he decided to go to Jerusalem, not summoned or sent by men, but "directed by an apparition" (apokalypsis, the same word he uses of Jesus' apparition to him at Gal 1.12 and 1.16).

Paul, by withdrawing into Arabia, away from his home and prior associations, was able to develop what would continue to be his passionate intimacy with Jesus. "It is no longer I who live—Messiah lives in me" (Gal 2.20). "It is in Messiah-Jesus that I take pride for service to God, though I dare not say this is anything but Jesus himself working through me to bring the nations to his service" (Rom 15.17-18). "I made up my mind not to display any learning to you, only Messiah, and him as crucified" (1 Cor 2.2). "Be imitators of me, as I am of Messiah" (1 Cor 11.1). "I bear on my body Jesus' wounds" (Gal 6.17). 

Paul's identification with Jesus was not just a personal matter. It was what he saw as the essence of belief for all his Brothers. This is what made them "the Holy," the persons "in Jesus." Baptism had incorporated them into the Messianic fulfillment of history. "We were buried with him by this baptism into his death, so that, just as Messiah rose from the dead to the splendor of his Father, we should fare forward in a life entirely new" (Rom 6.3-4). "Anyone in Messiah is a new order of being, the ancient things have passed away, and— see!—the new ones begin" (2 Cor 5.17).

In Paul's dizzying early days of communication with Jesus, he had to reconcile his earlier devotion to the Jewish Law with his experience of the risen Jesus—and he came to recognize the latter as the fulfillment of the former. Jesus is the Promised One: "Messiah is the Law's completion" (Rom 10.4). In most English translations of Paul's letters, "Christ" is taken as a name, not a title. "Jesus Christ" is made to sound like a full name (praenomen and cognomen). But Khristos in Greek is a title, like Kyrios (Lord). It is the Greek form of Hebrew "Messiah." Both words mean "Anointed." Paul sometimes refers to Jesus as the Messiah, or just Messiah, or Jesus-Messiah, or Messiah-Jesus. But it is always his title that is at stake, and we should keep this as much to the forefront of our minds as it was to his, since it is what unites the risen Jesus with his Jewish destiny. That is why the basic revelation of faith for Paul was always that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, in accord with the sacred writings (1 Cor 15.3-4).

The experience of the risen Jesus was not only the pivotal event in Paul's own life. It was for him the center of salvation history, for the Jews and for the world. It is what he preaches.

Without it, he would have nothing to say and the gatherings would have nothing to bring them into existence.

If it is our revelation that Messiah was raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection from the dead? If there is no resurrection from the dead, how could Messiah have been raised? If Messiah was not raised, our revelation is an empty thing, as is your faith, and we are guilty of false testimony about God, since we were God's witnesses that he had raised Messiah, which he could not have done if the dead cannot be raised. If in fact the dead are not raised, the Messiah was not raised; and if Messiah was not raised, your faith is pointless, and you are still in sin's thrall. More that that, those who died in Messiah have simply perished. If our hope in Messiah is only for this present life, we are the most pitiable of all human beings. But Messiah truly was raised, the first harvest of all who die. As death came through one man, so resurrection comes through one man. (1 Cor 15.12-21)

He cannot repeat this message of the Resurrection often or urgently enough.

We look toward his Son's appearance from the heavens, the one he raised from the dead, Jesus our rescuer from the impending wrath. (1 Thess 1.10)

[I am] an emissary from Jesus-Messiah, and from God his Father, who raised him from the dead. (Gal 1.1)

... to experience him and the energy of his Resurrection and the oneness with his sufferings, shaping myself to the pattern of his death, to have a share in his Resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3.10—11)

knowing that he who raised Jesus the Lord will raise us along with him, and bring us to his side. (2 Cor 4.14)

Baptized into Messiah-Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried with him by this baptism into his death, so that, just as Messiah rose from the dead to the splendor of his Father, so we may fare forward in a life entirely new. (Rom 6.3-4)

Luke's Story

It is important to get Paul's own words firmly in mind when considering his relation to the risen Jesus, since—as has already been mentioned—his own version is not the famous one. That comes from the Acts of the Apostles, and it is so sensational that there can be no wonder that it has eclipsed his own words. The Acts of the Apostles has been called a theological novel, and it does share some traits with the Hellenistic novels being written at the same time as Acts—wandering preachers, miracles, sea adventures, long rhetorical speeches.

The story of Paul's "conversion" is so good that the author of Acts repeats it three times, each time with variations. In one version, bystanders fall down when Paul does (Ac 26.14). In another, they stay standing (9.7). In one, the bystanders see a light, but hear no voice (22.9). In another, they hear a voice but see nothing (9.7). In short, in one version people get the photism without the audition, in the other one they get the audition without the photism—but Paul, Luke assures us, got them both. By the third version, what the voice says is considerably expanded in length as well as intention (26.16-18).


Luke is a theological artist. He creates for a purpose, and the purpose can shift from one part of his story to the next. He wrote the Gospel that bears his name, and the beautiful accounts he created of Jesus' birth and presentation in the Temple, with their accompanying canticles, show how good he was at presenting doctrine as narrative. His theological purpose in dealing with Paul will be considered later, but the first thing to note about his accounts is their distance not only from Paul's words but from legal possibility and historical probability. The best known of the three versions is the first one in the book. Paul had already appeared in Jerusalem as Saul (his Hebrew name), where Luke says he was a student of the great Pharisee scholar Gamaliel (Ac 22.3). Though Gamaliel was known to oppose zealots, Saul joined the hotheads who stoned Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus. He kept the executioners' coats as he condoned their violence. Not content with that, Saul decided to go and do likewise, first in Judaea: "Saul raided the gathering, going house to house, dragging men and women off to prison" (Ac 8.3). Then he moved out to a foreign land:

Saul, snorting even greater threats of murder against the Lord's followers, went to the high priest with a request for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, to identify those of the faith, male or female, and bringing them hack in chains to Jerusalem. But as he neared Damascus, a sudden flash from heaven lightened all about him, and he heard a voice as he fell to the ground, saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And he asked, "Who, Lord, are you?" "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. But get up and go into the town, and you will be told what you must do."

His companions on the trip had stood there speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. Saul then got up from the ground but, on opening his eyes, was able to see nothing. So they led him by the hand into town. For three days he saw nothing, nor did he eat or drink.

There was a follower in Damascus named Ananias, and to him the Lord called, "Ananias," in a vision. He responded, "Here, Lord." And the Lord said: "Get up and go to Straight Street, and look for a man named Saul of Tarsus in the house of Judas. He is praying there, you see, since he has seen in a vision one called Ananias coming to lay hands on him and restore his sight." But Ananias said, "Lord, many people have told me about this man, all the suffering he has brought on your Holy Ones in Jerusalem, and that he has a mandate from the high priests to arrest all who call upon your name." The Lord told him: "Off with you, this is the instrument I have fitted for carrying my name to the nations, to kings, and to Israel's sons, and I will make clear to him what he must suffer for that name of mine."

So Ananias went and entered the house, and said as he put hands on him, "Saul, Brother, the Lord has sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you traveled—so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And instantly what seemed like scales fell from his eyes, and he could see. He rose and was baptized, and ate and became strong. (Ac 9.1-19)…………..