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Conversion of Saul

 

c. 35 AD

The story of how Saul, the devout Jew and zealous persecutor of the church, became Paul, a passionate preacher of the faith, begins along the road going northward from Jerusalem to Damascus. As Saul approached Damascus with plans to arrest those who "belonged to the Way," he had a vision that totally changed the direction of his life. Luke describes the conversion three times in Acts (Acts 9:1-19, Acts 22:3-16 and Acts 26:4-18), and Paul alludes to it in his letters to the churches in Galatia and Corinth (Galatians 1:16-21; 2 Corinthians 11:22-23).

Saul was one of many Jews who felt that the followers of Jesus posed a threat to the Jewish religion. Earlier he stood by approvingly at the stoning of Stephen, one of the seven church deacons, for alleged blasphemy. Later, "breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples, he went to the Jewish high priest for permission to arrest any followers of "the Way" in the synagogues of Damascus, where the Gospel was attracting converts.

The 150-mile journey from Jerusalem to Damascus can now be completed in one day, thanks to excellent roads. When Saul set out from Jerusalem with his escort, he had the choice of two routes: One went east down through the canyon called Wadi Qelt to Jericho, then turned north through the Jordan River valley. It crossed the river at Scythopolis (modern-day Beit Shean). This route would have taken Saul around the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee and up to the mountain roads linking the Decapolis with Damascus. In summer time it is hot and uncomfortable, lying far below sea-level until the area east of the Sea of Galilee is reached.

The more frequented route moved through the khaki-colored hills of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank/Palestine today), across the Jezreel Valley, then skirted the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, passing very near Capernaum, the base for Jesus' three-year ministry (irony!).

map of Saul's possible route to Damascus

Assuming that Saul took the latter route (yellow), some selected views along the way:

Below, typical terraced hillside in Samaria, north of Jerusalem.

Sameria Terraced hillsides

Below, looking north across the Jezreel Valley, between Samaria and Nazareth. Upper center is the modern highway following the route of the ancient Via Maris toward the Sea of Galilee.

Jezreel Valley

Below, Sea of Galilee from Mount Arbel. The highway (Road 90) moving right to left follows the Via Maris north to Capernaum and the upper Jordan valley.

Sea of Galilee north shore from Mount Arbel

Below, remains of insula, foundations of family homes, and partially reconstructed synagogue at Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.

CAPERNAUM EXCAVATIONS

Some 15 miles north of the Sea of Galilee the Via Maris ("Way of the Sea") crossed the Jordan River at the historic Bnot Ya'akov Bridge, "Crossing of Jacob's Daughters" (below). In 2007 a modern concrete span was completed, replacing an earlier, temporary "Bailey Bridge."

BNOT YAAKOV BRIDGE ACROSS JORDAN RIVER

The road, below, then ran northeast across a sand-colored upland almost straight for Damascus.

road to damascus

It must have been somewhere along this stretch that Saul had a vision that completely changed the direction of his life:

"Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him." and a voice that only he could hear said: 'Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?' 'Who are you, Lord?' Saul asked. 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.'" (Acts 9:3)

Below, 'Conversion of Saint Paul' 1600, by Italian artist Caravaggio (1571-1610).

CONVERSION OF SAUL

The brief exchange left Saul convinced that the risen Christ had spoken directly to him, and that in persecuting his followers he had been persecuting Jesus himself. According to Acts, the vision caused Saul to lose his sight so that he had to be led by the hand to Damascus.