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Why Did Saul of Tarsus Identify Jesus of Nazareth with the God of Israel?

by Mark Horne

copyright © 1998

The god of Israel was not just any god. Two thousand years of Christian history, with it’s besetting philosophical temptations, and full-blown deist and transcendentalist and universalist problems, have obscured the fact that, in itself, the identity of the true god (or gods) cannot be predetermined, any more than the identity of “dog” may be generally equated with “Fido.” The fact is that there are many different gods being proposed as candidates for the true One-Allah, the All-seeing Eye, the Great Spirit are just a few one could list..

The god in which Saul of Tarsus believed (quite passionately, to say the very least) was the god whose deeds were recorded in what is now commonly called “the Old Testament” (henceforth to be called “the Hebrew Scripture”). This god created the world and all that was in it. Furthermore, he created humanity as special-this specialness being revealed in the intriguing claim that god made the first man and woman in the image of god. According to the writings accepted by Saul as true, this god watched over people and loved them, but he also judged them according to his standards of right and wrong which were part of his own character.

Thus far, this description could fit any number of gods that are posited these days, mainly because Christianity has spread these ideas around so well. Back in the first century there were multitudinous gods and goddesses who people believed in, but most of these gods were neither creators nor judges, and many of the ones that were said to have such roles in the cosmos were not ascribed the moral rectitude, even by their own worshipers, to function as fair judges over humanity. Apollo, Siva, Thor, Mithra, and many others, were actually finite gods who operated in a common environment with humans. Like Clark Kent/Superman of D. C. Comics, or the Mormon version of each of the three persons in the Christian Trinity, these gods and goddesses are described as powerful, perhaps incredibly powerful, but not omnipotent. They may have some mysterious ability to predict future events, but they were not omniscient, as was manifested by the many times they were surprised, or were told information of which they were previously unaware. These gods were commonly seen in certain spatial locations, as opposed to being omnipresent. Indeed, they commonly sided with certain people or tribes or cities, simply because of an established relationship, much like human allies might side with one another. They were never portrayed as universal powers who would simply dispense justice for all, but rather identified with certain groups against others.

As I said above, the modern gods usually proposed, are alleged to be much more universal and much less inclined to side with one part of humanity against another part. (Perhaps Allah would be an exception to this, because Islam seems rather tightly tied to certain Eastern cultures. But even so, according to adherents, these cultures are part of Allah’s will for all the earth-thus, Islam has a very universalistic teaching.) Furthermore, these gods are usually “transcendent” in some way. They are not limited to certain locations in space and time. Rather they are omnipresent. They are also lacking in the passions which drove the finite gods to commit all sorts of improper actions.

These more abstract gods are more popular now because Christianity has spread certain ideas about a god being omnibenevolent and completely just and fair to all people regardless of where they are from. But in that these gods are presented as rivals to the god of Christian orthodoxy, they are not particularly keen on some other ideas which Christianity has spread, or at least which are uncomfortably present in the Scriptures.

Indeed, the irony is that, in many ways, the god whom Saul of Tarsus worshiped resembled the finite gods of the ancients. This god rode on a cloud (Isa 19.1). From there he was known to send lightning bolts like an archer shooting arrows (Psa 18.14). These statements are scattered throughout Hebrew poetry, but are also present in the narrative history of Israel. It was in this cloud that Israel’s god led them out of Egypt: “And the LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night” (Exo 13.21; NASB). Riding in this cloud, this god interposed himself between the Egyptian army and the Israelites, giving his people time to cross the Red Sea which he had divided for them (Exo 14.19-20).

This cloud came to rest on Mount Sinai, full of thunder and lightning (Exo 19ff). It was there that the god gave Israel the law by which his people were to live. Moses, went up into this cloud and actually saw this god, at least his backside (Exo 33.18-34.9). Seventy elders also went up with Moses in the cloud and saw this god as an apparently human figure (Exo 24.9-11). Nevertheless, Moses got a unique view of the god of Israel. As that god later said of his special status:

Hear now my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD shall make myself known to him in a vision. I shall speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses, he is faithful in all my household; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even openly and not in dark sayings, and he beholds the form of the LORD (Num 12.6-8a).

You will notice that the title “lord” is rendered in all caps in several of these quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures. That word is derived from traditions surrounding the name which the god revealed as his own to Moses (Exo 3.13). Transliterated, the name was “Yhvh.” No one is sure what vowels went with these four consonants. In Jewish tradition, it was considered sacrilege to speak the name of this god, so they would substitute the word “lord.” In modern translations, “lord” is printed in all capitals when it is standing in for this god’s personal name. Thus, in Greek, “kurios” is used when one is translating a passage in the Hebrew Bible which uses this name, because “kurios” is Greek for “lord.”

All this matters a great deal.

Despite these manifestations of Israel’s god as a being located in space and time, Israel’s god was never as limited as other gods were said to be. Even though this god was said to live in Israel’s center of worship, he was also said to be everywhere present. When King Solomon later builds a palace (commonly called a “temple” in the English translation of the Hebrew Bible) in which this god is to live, Solomon does not hesitate to affirm the god’s infinitude even while asking him to be present in the new building.

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee, how much less this house which I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of Thy servant and to his supplication, O LORD my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer which Thy servant prays before Thee today; that Thine eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place of which Thou hast said, “My name shall be there,” to listen to the prayer which Thy servant shall pray toward this place (1 Kin 8.27-29).

The god answered Solomon’s prayer by moving the glorious cloud into the palace and shooting fire onto the altar to consume the sacrifices offered there (1 Kin 8.10-13/ 2 Chr 7.1-3). This is was understood to be the same cloud that had appeared on Mt. Sinai and had led the Israel under Moses from Egypt into the land of Canaan. It was the same cloud, in fact, that had also occupied the Tabernacle, the place were the god was worshiped before Solomon built the god a more glorious palace (Exo 40.34-38 and parallels).

The god of Israel also appeared to their prophets in this glorious cloud. Isaiah saw this cloud filled with angels and the god sitting on a throne in the palace that Solomon had built for the god (Isa 6.1ff). An even more awesome sighting is recorded by Ezekiel, when he saw the god, on a portable throne carried by four angels in a thunderous, flashing cloud (Eze 1-2). In both cases, the prophets received their commission from god when he appeared to them in his cloud/ palace/ chariot. In recounting events like these, the prophets were showing that they were true heirs to Moses who had also seen the god of Israel in his fiery storm cloud.

All of this, and much more along these basic lines, made up the background and religious consciousness of Saul of Tarsus. He believed in god that was infinite, but that had also appeared to Moses in a cloud, led the people of Israel out of Egypt, and spoken to the prophets. He believed in a god who had dwelt in a palace in Jerusalem to bless his people with his presence. He believed in a god who possessed a personal name that he had condescended to reveal to Israel, a name that Saul would not speak aloud, but instead (if speaking Greek) would say as “Kurios”–Lord.

And on the road to Damascus, Saul met him.

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, bot men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” (Act 9.1-5a)

Anyone reading this account, knowing nothing other than that it was a Jewish religious text from about two thousand years ago, would have good reason to think he was reading about a theophany. Like Ezekiel falling down on his face when confronted by his god (Eze 1.28), like Daniel also (Dan 10.4-9), Saul is thrown to the ground by this literally blinding vision. And he gives it a name: “Kurios.” LORD. YHVH. He is speaking to the god of Israel who is all too suddenly calling him to give an account for himself.

Only this god now has taken up a new name. Saul asks him who he is, and the god replies,

“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.” And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank (Act 9.5b-9).

When Isaiah was confronted with a vision of the god of Israel, he cursed himself for his “unclean lips.” The problem was addressed by an angelic being taking a coal from the altar and applying it to Isaiah’s lips. Likewise, something is also wrong with Saul when he is confronted by the god. In this case it is his eyes, and the god sends a disciple to come lay hands on Saul and heal him of his blindness (Act 9.10-19).

The point of all this is simple: Even if we had not one of Saul’s later letters (when he was known as Paul the Apostle), we would know from this account that the author of the book of Acts wanted to portray how Saul had been convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the god of Israel. It was this man who had suffered and died on a cross whom Saul addressed as LORD, as the god he had worshiped from childhood, as the one he had thought he was serving in persecuting the followers of Jesus.

copyright © 1998


  1. Israel know about God. but why Israeli’s people believe by God? you know who is give peace? only and only to give peace God? With out God we haven’t peace. If Israel people pray day and night and they beg a God I hope to get it peace. You know God with theme but they couldn’t use about God spiritual.

    Comment by yenene — December 18, 2007 @ 2:31 am

  2. I both undertood and enjoyed inmensely the entry, but I
    couldn’t decipher Yenene’s words…


    Comment by Joe — April 26, 2015 @ 4:43 pm

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