“Have I not seen the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1). “He appeared to me” (1 Corinthians 15:8). “He (God) called me through his grace and was pleased to reveal his son to me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16). While Acts has several accounts of Paul’s Damascus Road experience, the above statements are pretty much all Paul himself says about his call or conversion.
In Paul’s own writings he does not describe the brilliant light or his own blindness or inability to speak. He does not mention the voice of Jesus calling out to him. He does not even mention that it happened on the road to Damascus.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, in Paul: a Critical Life, adopted the method of treating Paul’s own account as the best source and Acts as questionable. So what we get from Paul is just that God had taken the initiative and provided him a direct experience that Jesus, who had been crucified, was now alive. Connected to this seems to have been a call to make this reality known to the Gentile nations.
One result of this was that Paul soon pissed off the Nabatean authorities so that when they came to control Damascus, they tried to seize him. Murphy-O’Connor thought this was a result of hostility between Jews and Nabateans that had to do with Herod Antipas having divorced the daughter of King Aretas and then having won a petty war over some territory in Jordan only to have the Romans oppose him.
His theory was that Paul tried to carry out his mission to the Gentiles by preaching in Arabia (Nabatean territory) but quickly ran afoul of the authorities there and returned to Damascus where he stayed until after Caligula became emperor and allowed the Nabateans to control Damascus. This is possible, even likely, but not certain.
Some think Paul had another reason to go to Arabia. Maybe he went on a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai. The only place, besides Galatians 1:17, where Paul mentions Arabia is Galatians 4:25 where he says it is the site of Mt. Sinai.
If Paul quickly returned to Damascus, what did he do there for three years? This is where Murphy-O’Connor fit in Paul learning his trade. When Paul was with the Jerusalem Pharisees and in touch with his family, he would have had income. In Damascus he was likely cut off from this support. So he learned a trade to support himself. Although speculative, this is a good point.
After his escape from Damascus, Paul went to see Peter in Jerusalem. Murphy-O’Connor thought his purpose was to learn about the historical Jesus from one who knew. This is probable, even though Paul’s purpose in Galatians required him to play down dependence on the apostles.
Murphy-O’Connor also saw the agreement between Peter and Paul that one should go to the Jews and the other to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-8) as having been formulated at this meeting.
Although this book is a “critical life” of Paul, it does not always see Acts as unhistorical.
Murphy-O’Connor thought (contrary to more skeptical scholars) that the commissioning of Paul and Barnabas by the church at Antioch and their mission to Cyprus and the south coast of Turkey in Acts 13-14 actually happened. Paul several times in his letters refers to his past association with Barnabas. When he describes his challenge to Peter at Antioch in Galatians 2:11 ff., it looks like both he and Barnabas belonged to the congregation there. Luke must have had a source for the joint mission, or at least a list of the places they visited.
I haven’t read that far yet, but it looks like Murphy-O’Connor is going to argue that the Pastoral Letters are either by Paul or contain real information about Paul. So 2 Timothy 3:11 (“what happened to me in Antioch, Lystra, and Iconium”) is further confirmation.
This fills in some information about the years from 37-46. It is only after this that we get much information from the letters. During this time Paul seems to have joined the disciples at Antioch, visited Tarsus in Cilicia, and gone with Barnabas–probably as his assistant– on the mission to Cyprus and the Pisidian coast. Beyond that, we do not know, but several of the events and dangers recalled in 2 Corinthians 11:26-27 probably occurred during this period:
I have been on journeys many times, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from robbers, in dangers from my own countrymen, in dangers from Gentiles, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers from false brothers, in hard work and toil, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, many times without food, in cold and without enough clothing (NET Bible).