On the way to Damascus

Today’s first reading is about the conversion of St. Paul. It is an event in history that we note in reference to the place it transpired – the Road to Damascus. It is an event that inspired the great Italian artist, Caravaggio to create his masterpiece, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus. The artwork is located in the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in Rome. Across the chapel is a second Caravaggio depicting the Crucifixion of Saint Peter. On the altar between the two is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary by Annibale Carracci.  It is quite the chapel.

This event happened after Jesus’ death and Resurrection and is discussed in both the Pauline epistles and in the Acts of the Apostles. Prior to the event he is present at the stoning of St. Stephen described in Acts 7:57-8:3. His pre-conversion life and ardor is discussed in Philippians 3:4-6.

In the Pauline epistles, the description of the conversion experience is brief. The First Corinthians 9:1 and 15:3–8 describes Paul as having seen the risen Christ:

“For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me” (1 Cor 15:3-8)

The Epistle to the Galatians chapter 1 also describes his conversion as a divine revelation, with Jesus appearing to Paul.

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel preached by me is not of human origin. For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it and progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race, since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions. But when [God], who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him to the Gentiles…” (Gal 1:11-16)

In the Acts of the Apostle the account is told three time. It is first recounted in Acts 9:3-9, then Acts 22:6-21 and finally in Acts 26:12-19.

It was a profound experience. There is no evidence to suggest that Paul arrived on the road to Damascus as anything but an observant Second Temple Jew. Instead, the conversion, and the associated understanding of the significance of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, caused him to rethink from the ground up everything he had ever believed in, from his own identity to his understanding of Second Temple Judaism and who God really was. The transforming effect of Paul’s conversion influenced the clear move from righteousness based on the law, which he had sought in his former life; and righteousness based on Christ, which is explains in Galatians and Romans.

An etymological speculation. If you search on line there are many who connect “knocked off your high horse with the Damascus Road experience of St. Paul.  Many will point to the Caravaggio work. The oldest English usage of “knocked off your high horse” is late 14th century in the works of John Wyclif. But the painting dates from 1601. And I would note that Scripture in no place says Paul was on a horse. It may well be that Caravaggio added the horse given the popularity of the phrase.

1 thought on “On the way to Damascus

  1. Debi and I have been in Santa Maria several times and enjoyed the paintings. I enjoy Christian art and this famous painting always reminds me how art influences what we believe is written in the Bible. “I’m just saying,” nowhere is it written that Paul was riding a horse, although I accept he could have been. It’s the same with Christ on the cross, the nails had to be in the wrist and not the palms, or the wonderful nativity art with the Shepard’s and Maji in the same or near time frame.

    I’m not a huge fan of biblical archeology but I was on vacation and read two books that I very much enjoyed by Michael Hesemann titled Mary of Nazareth and Jesus of Nazareth. Email me your address and I’ll send them to you for your bookshelf.

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