Theosophy – August 1896

THE CONVERSION OF PAUL: II — C.

II. (1)

In these studies of Paul the Initiate, we shall try, above all things, to prove every position as we go along; or rather to bring the facts so clearly together that he who reads may instantly prove for himself. Only by a series of complete and perfect demonstrations can a new face be put on these old records, a new insight into them given, by which they may be won from the theologians for Theosophy and Occultism, or, to use a phrase that includes the other two, for real life. Hence we may have to write much, at first sight very like mere repetition of things already familiar; but regard rather the few quite unfamiliar things scattered among them, — they will form the beginnings of a new understanding, which, in the end, will transform the whole aspect of the Initiate Paul, and brush away from his memory the dust and cobwebs of theology. To begin with the Conversion of Paul; we shall translate four narratives of this event, and try to show how one, which is Paul's own, differs wholly in spirit from the other three. Here is what Paul himself says:

I make known to you, brothers, as to the good teaching taught by me, that it is not after man; for I did not receive it from a man, nor was I taught it, but through an unveiling of Iêsous, of the Christos. For you have heard of my former activity in the Ioudaian polity, that I pursued the chosen assembly of the Eternal to excess, and that I devastated it; and I went forward in the Ioudaian polity more than many of my age in my nation, being extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But when the Eternal, who separated me from the womb of my mother, and called me through his good-will, thought fit to unveil his son in me, that I might bring the teaching of him among the nations, I did not immediately communicate with flesh and blood, nor did I go to Hierosoluma, to those who were messengers before me, but went away to Arabia, and returned to Damaskos.

We need only note here that Paul speaks of what is called his conversion as an unveiling, an unveiling of the son of the Eternal, an unveiling of the Christos in him; the full meaning of this, what it signified to Paul himself, can only be brought out by fully understanding what he meant by the son of the Eternal, the Christos, in this and other letters of his. What he particularly insists on, was that his teaching, his message, his doctrine, had not been received from any man; and, in order to demonstrate the fact that he did not, in particular, receive it from those who were messengers before him, he specifies with great exactness the only occasions on which he could thus have received any teaching from any one. For three years, he says, he saw none of these messengers; then he visited Petros for fifteen days, seeing no one else except Iakôbos, "the brother of the master." Then, after fourteen years, probably including the three already mentioned, he again visited the messengers, of whom he names three, Iakôbos, Kêphas and Iôannês, the second evidently being the same person as Petros. So that, during the first fourteen, perhaps seventeen, years after what is called his conversion, he spent only fifteen days in the company of the former messengers, seeing only two of them even then. The letter to his followers in Galatia, to whom he tells these facts, is of the highest possible literary and historical value. It is the oldest of his uncontested writings, and therefore, almost certainly, the oldest document in the New Testament; the oldest authentic record of Christian origins. It will be important to remember this when considering Paul's relations with the messengers before him. He says here "I laid before them the teaching which I teach among the nations," while "they did not communicate anything to me." He therefore insists on the independence and independent origin of his teaching; and confirms this by showing that the few days he spent with them, during many years, made it almost impossible that he should have received any detailed communication from them.

To turn now to the secondary accounts of his conversion. They all three occur in an unsigned narrative, which we know as The Acts of the Apostles, or the Doings of the Messengers, the date of which is uncertain. The first account occurs in the ninth chapter:

But Saulos still breathing threats and destruction to the pupils of the master, going to the arch-priest, asked him for letters to Damaskos, to the assemblies, in order that, if he should find any that were of the path, men and women, he might lead them tied to Ierousalêm. And as he was proceeding, he came to approach Damaskos, and suddenly there whirled round him light from the sky; and, falling on the ground, he heard a sound saying to him "Saoul, Saoul, Why do you pursue me" But he said: "Who are you, master?" But the master said: "I am Iesous whom you pursue: [It is difficult for you to kick against the goad" And trembling and astonished he said: "Master, what do you wish me to do?" And the master, to him:] "Rise and go to the city, it will be told you what you must do." And the men that were travelling with him stood dumb, hearing the sound indeed, but seeing nothing. But Saulos rose from the ground, and opening his eyes he saw no one, but leading him by the hand, they led him into Damaskos; and he was three days not seeing, and did not eat or drink.

The passage in brackets, containing the famous words, "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," is omitted in the Revised Aversion, as being almost certainly a later interpolation, not a part of the original narrative. The story goes on to tell how a certain pupil at Damaskos had a vision, in which the "master" told him to visit Saul; how Ananias was at first unwilling to approach the notorious inquisitor, but finally went; how he laid his hands on Saul; how scales, as it were, fell from Saul's eyes; and how he was baptized. The conclusion is, that Saul, as a result of his vision, began to teach "that Iesous is the son of the Eternal," or, according to other manuscripts, "that the Christos is the son of the Eternal." After noting that, in this account, the Greek manuscripts accepted by the Revisors attribute twenty-four words to the voice from the sky which spoke to Paul, we may turn to the second account, in the twenty-second chapter of the Acts; here the narrative is attributed to Paul himself, and his historian speaks as an actual auditor of Paul's words:

It happened to me when approaching Damaskos, about midday, that suddenly from the sky a great light whirled round me, and I fell on the ground and heard a sound speaking to me: '' Saoul, Saoul, why do you pursue me?" and I answered: "Who are you, master?" But he said to me: "I am Iesous the Nazôraian whom you pursue." But those two were with me saw the light, and became afraid. But they did not hear the sound that spoke to me. But I said: "What shall I do, master?" And the master said to me: "Rise and proceed to Damaskos, and there it will be told you about all the things which it is ordained for you to do." And when I could not see, from the shining of the light, led by the hand by those who were with me, I came to Damaskos.

Here, it will be noted, Paul's companions are said to have seen the light but not to have heard the sound, while the preceding account tells us that they heard the sound, but saw nothing. The words attributed to the sound, with the exception of "the Nazoraian." are substantially the same, as also is the narrative of Ananias' visit to Paul, though nothing is said of Ananias' vision. In the present account, Ananias delivers a Messianic doctrine, identifying Iesous with the expected Saviour of Ioudaian aspiration; and it is quite clear that, to the narrator, the thaumaturgic vision and this Messianic doctrine constitute Paul's message and teaching, — all the things which it was ordained for him to do.

To come to the third account, in the twenty-sixth chapter of the Acts: Paul is again put forward by the speaker as narrating what occurred:

With this purpose proceeding to Damaskos, with power and authority from the arch-priests, in the middle of the day, on the road, I saw, O King, from the sky, above the splendor of the sun, a light resplendent round me and those who were proceeding with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a sound speaking to me and saying in the Hebraid dialect: "Saoul, Saoul, why do you pursue me; it is difficult for you to kick against the goads." But I said: "who are you, master?" And he said: "I am Iesous whom you pursue. But rise up and stand on your feet; for with this purpose I have been seen by you, to employ you as a servant and witness of what you have seen and what I shall be seen by you; choosing you from the people and the nations, to whom now I send you as messenger, to open their eyes, to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of the Satanas to the Eternal, for them to gain freedom from futilities, and heirship among those consecrated, through aspiration towards me."

Here the twenty-four or twenty-five words first attributed in the Greek to the sound, are expanded to eighty-five. It is further implied that Paul's companions also saw the great light above the splendor of the sun, and the words translated "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks," appear; they were evidently transferred from this account to the first, to make the narrative more complete, in the later manuscripts. In this last account, the teaching which is attributed to Ananias in the second, but not the first, of these three narratives in the Acts, is substantially transferred to the sound or voice of the vision. Here nothing is said of Paul's blindness, of the vision of Ananias, of a second vision of Paul's, of the scales, or of his baptism; his teaching is made the immediate effect of the vision itself. The somewhat large discrepancies in these three accounts are just what one would expect from a fairly good witness, narrating an event from hearsay, at second hand; and it is quite evident that they genuinely represent the belief of the anonymous author, as to what really happened thirty years or more before he wrote; and we may quite readily admit the tradition which sees in this anonymous author Paul's friend, the loved doctor, Loukas or Loukanos, — to give his name the Greek form which it bears in Paul's letters.

The sincerity of these three somewhat discrepant narratives is, we say, quite evident, but not less evident is the wide difference in spiritual tone and quality, from the first account we translated, in Paul's own letter to his followers in Galatia. We need not press the point that what he says, as to "not communicating with flesh and blood," and as to his "going away to Arabia," directly negatives the story of his entering Damaskos, and the visit of Ananias, the scales falling from his eyes, and his baptism. Nor need we say that his particular insistance that he received no message from men further runs counter to the story of Ananias imparting to him his Messianic doctrine. Nor, again, need we refer to the extreme and universally admitted difficulty of reconciling what he says of his visits to Jerusalem with what the author of the Acts says. What is really important is the difference in spiritual quality of the two narrators. The author of the Acts believes in a great dramatic and thaumaturgic occurrence, with remarkable miraculous accompaniments of somewhat uncertain nature and extent; believes, in fact, in an occurrence which is not travestied, but almost faithfully represented by Ercole di Ferrara's picture, where a colossal figure appears, surrounded by clouds, just above the heads of Paul and his companions, who, as well as their horses, have fallen to the ground, and one of whom is raising his shield to ward off an expected thunderbolt.

There is nothing of all this exoteric thaumaturgic and materialization in Paul's own account in his letter. Here, as always, he speaks of the inner man, teaching a truly esoteric doctrine, — to give the word "esoteric" its best meaning, as "what concerns the inner, esoteric, man," to quote words of Paul's. He simply speaks of an unveiling in himself, not of a light from the sky, surpassing the splendor of the sun.

How deep and universal is the tendency to thaumaturgy which marks his anonymous historian may be shown by a single instance; his words in this same letter: "he who energized powers in you" are transformed into: "he that worketh miracles among you," in the received translations; thus clearly adapting to the purposes of thaumaturgy what Paul as clearly spoke of the inner man. If Paul's latest translators thus misunderstood his plain words, can we wonder that his earliest hearers did the same?

FOOTNOTE:

1. See article, Paul the Initiate, in July number, p. 106. (return to text)


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