Sunday, 3 June 2018

The conversion of Saul / Paul: multiple accounts - multiple discrepancies and contradictions?



How good was Luke as a historian of the first century church? I can’t attempt a full answer in one post. So here is just one issue along those lines, often asked about in such a way as to disparage Luke’s competence. It’s about the story of the ‘conversion’ of Paul, which Luke tells three times in Acts. Two questions about it:

  • Does Luke present the story clearly so that the reader can understand what is supposed to have happened?
  • Does Luke’s Book of Acts incompetently contradict itself when it comes to telling it? Is it an embarrassing litany of discrepancies, when the three accounts of it are compared?

These are the three passages:

  • Acts 9 features what Luke as a historian believes about Paul’s conversion.
  • In Acts 22, Luke reports Paul making a speech about it.
  • An Acts 26, Luke reports Paul giving another speech, but with far less detail from Paul this time.

Although some sceptics claim there are supposedly dire inconsistencies between the three passages, I can’t see that. I explain why in this post. (In the passages, Paul is called Saul, but for this study, I refer to him as Paul throughout, the name more familiar to the general reader.)

By the way, what this post is not about is explaining the supernatural elements in the story. For the record, there are two: firstly a flash of light like lightning which blinds Paul; and secondly the voice of an unseen Jesus. Interesting as those two things may be, this post is not about that, but simply about whether or not the three tellings of the same story contradict each other.


Quick note for Greek geeks

Further down, you’ll find notes on two Greek words that are significant to any reconstruction of this episode: 1) a flash like lightning, the Greek word περιαστράπτω; and 2) the Greek word for ‘hear’ or ‘hear with understanding’ in Acts 22:9, ἤκουσαν.


Luke’s task

 If we are interested in judging Luke’s ability as a historian of his day, then the questions can be put differently:

  • in Acts 9, does Luke report fairly and coherently what he has been told (if we can measure that in any way, perhaps by comparing the other two passages with it)?
  • and in Acts 22 and 26, does Luke report fairly (or accurately) what Paul himself is saying (if we can measure that in any way)?

If the story is clear to the reader, it gives a better impression of Luke as a writer who wants his readers to understand the story he is relating. But it is difficult to formulate a method to answer those questions. What was Luke told, after all?

But if Luke did report fairly what he was told, then it follows that he passes the test of what a historian or reporter is reasonably expected to do as a starting point. Report what he’s told and start from there.

Luke’s job as a historian isn’t to make three passages tell the same story regardless of what he’s been told by Paul or whoever. Whether or not Paul gets things right or wrong when making speeches is a question about Paul, not about Luke, and not how we test Luke (so long as Luke as a historian accurately reports Paul). If Luke had accurately recorded Paul misremembering, this would tell us a little about Paul’s memory, but nothing else. I don’t recall anyone saying that Paul was meant to be infallible!

So, whether there are inconsistencies or not, Luke’s job is precisely not to doctor Paul’s versions to fit. He’s a reporter. If he can dig deeper than reporting, great, but only if he can truthfully. He would aim to be fair and coherent, and tell the story meaningfully.


Basis for a harmonised text

Of course, people’s main interest is trying to get a fix on the story itself. If the data is a mess or consistent makes it harder or easier to get a fix on the story.
As I will show with a harmonised text in a moment, judging from what the narratives do and don’t tell us, the narrative of Paul’s conversion plays out quite simply, like this:

On the road to Damascus, Paul and his travelling companions have a two-stage encounter with the supernatural. First, a mysterious flash of light like lightning blinds Paul. Paul and his companions fall to the ground in awe. Nobody new seems to be seen by anyone. After the flash of light passes, there is nothing more to see. The men get up. All except the one who’s now blind. But their encounter with the supernatural is not over just yet. A voice in Aramaic starts to be heard, coming from nowhere. Paul can understand the voice, but it is just noise to the men standing. Paul on his knees converses with an unseen Jesus in Aramaic, which continues until he understands Jesus (in Aramaic) telling him to get up. The men, learning that Paul is blind, assist him and lead him on by the hand.

That is my reconstruction in outline.


The three accounts of Paul’s conversion harmonised

This is my harmonisation of the text, and you can find the three passages in full at the foot of this post for ease of reference. So, fine detail of Acts 9, 22 and 26 harmonised. It is straightforward, except for two bits that needs a bit more knowledge of the Greek language. The biblical words are all from the NIV translation, except one thing from the ESV translation where the Greek will be explained. My comments are in square brackets like this [x]. Passages in speech marks are Paul’s words, except for the obvious place where Jesus is speaking.

About noon

As he neared Damascus on his journey

on the road

suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him

[Note that the light ‘flashed’, not long-lasting.]

a bright light

“brighter than the sun, blazing around me”

“the brilliance of the light had blinded me

[Paul is instantly blind due to the flash of light. So from hereon, he is blind and does not know if the light has stopped or not, nor if there is anyone there to be seen.]

and my companions saw the light”

but did not see anyone

[So all have seen the flash of light. Despite what is often supposed, no-one has seen Jesus in the flash of light.

Indeed, there is no mention here of Paul seeing Jesus. Although this is often assumed, it has not been demonstrated. In fact, there is no mention of Paul seeing Jesus in any of the three accounts – bear in mind that he was blind!

By way of contrast, to emphasise the point, Acts tells of times when Paul actually saw Jesus, in a vision in Acts 22:17-21, and seemingly also in Acts 23:11.This last seems to speak of Jesus physically standing near to Paul. These latter two occasions are notably a very different picture from being blind from a flash of light. It seems reasonable to suppose that Paul experienced a number visual experiences of Jesus over the years, given what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:8. We should hesitate to claim without evidence that Paul saw Jesus at his conversion. It says he heard Jesus, not that he saw him.]

“I fell to the ground”

“We all fell to the ground”

[There is no contradiction here. There is no report that Paul did not fall to the ground, nor that the men did not fall to the ground. Nor is there a report that only Paul fell to the ground. Such reports would be contradictions to what Acts says above. It’s precisely such contradictions that we don’t have. It’s just another two statements that complement each other, much as commonly happens in normal speech.

So then, there is no further mention of any light. It stopped at some point obviously, consistent with being a flash of light, so the place in the narrative where it stops is very early in it. The light has served its purpose. It has got Paul’s attention to listen to a voice that he is really not expecting. Coming up.

Although we will be told when Paul stands up, instructed to do so, we are not told when the men stood up. The narrative includes the memorable business of falling to the ground, but does not detail the uninteresting business of them standing up. This is unsurprising.

Then to their surprise comes a voice that they don’t understand. Here, it becomes clear that for these men the Aramaic just sounds like noise.]

“I heard a voice in Aramaic”

The men traveling stood there speechless;

[The logic of the text is that the men had stood up before Paul did. Paul getting up is mentioned later.

By the by, since Paul is blind at this point, he can only know that the men had stood up if he heard something that gave him that impression, or if they told him so afterwards (and there is no reason to imagine that they were not telling Paul the truth about this).]

they heard the sound 

“but they did not hear with understanding [ESV*] the voice who was speaking to me” 

[Again, for Paul to know that about the men would mean that the men later told Paul the story from their point of view. Regardless of whether or not they told him the truth of course!

Paul and Jesus then converse for a bit in Aramaic, which only he understands, including this:]

‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus.’

[That’s the last of Jesus speaking in this story. Again, note the obvious, that there is nothing saying that the light stopped shining when Jesus stopped speaking. The flash of light had passed earlier. The traditional artistic depictions of Jesus appearing and speaking bathed in heavenly sunlight are completely wrong.]

Saul got up from the ground

[Note there is no mention here of the other men getting up. Saul/Paul is the only one who needs to be told to get up. The fellow-travellers stood up in a different moment, as indicated above.]

when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. 

he was blind

they led him by the hand into Damascus. 


That’s it. Anyone claiming there is definitely a contradiction in that doesn’t have a case.

Why do some say there are contradictions?
Generally, the notion that there are contradictions arises from blindly assuming things in the text that are not actually there to be found. For example, the errors of

  • Supposing that the blinding light lasted a long time like sunlight, whereas actually one passage calls it a flash of light and the others don’t mention duration.
  • Supposing that Paul saw Jesus, whereas none of the passages say that (and he’s supposed to be blind from the flash anyway!).
  • Supposing that the light was seen and the voice were heard at the same time, whereas none of the passages say that (and as we’re only told that it’s a flash like lightning [περιαστράπτω] anyway, it is not much of an opportunity for something else to be happening at the same time).And following from the last supposition:
  • supposing that some of the passages record that the men were on their knees when the voice was heard, whereas none of the passages say that.

How did four suppositions that are so unfounded get to be commonly assumed? Well, perhaps it’s got something to do with artist’s impressions. Unfortunately, pictures that present simultaneous long-lasting light and voice, including Paul seeing Jesus, are lovely pictures but actually not remotely close to the flow of the text of Acts. They freeze everything into one moment, and such paintings have probably affected how some people have come to read the passage.

  • Fifthly, there is contention about what it means where passages say that the other men did hear the voice but did not hear it. This one is covered in my notes about the Greek below.

How did I do my reconstruction?

Working out what order the men stood up and what order events happened is the key. Simply working out points in the narrative when the men standing actually fits in with the text more or less resolves it all. If the men knelt down, then it is a given that at some point they stood up again, but that is the one thing that Luke doesn’t tell us. We have to work it out, if we want to read a sequence of events as detailed as, say, a cameraman’s shooting script for a movie.

As we are told that the men arrived and left, the only physically possible sequence is that the men were first standing, then they were kneeling on the ground, then they were standing again. The passages say that they fell on the ground in response to the flashing light, and then they were standing to hear the voice. So that helps. This is straightforward in pointing to the men getting up after the flash of light has passed. To understand the narrative, you actually have to picture the scene moment by moment from what we are told.

Notes for Greek geeks

1) 'flash of light'
About that flash like lightning, the Greek word is περιαστράπτω. Split it into two and it’s περι-αστράπτω. That is, περι meaning ‘around’, and αστράπτω being ‘the flash like lightning’.

By the way, it’s also elsewhere used without περι, just as αστράπτω, such as in Luke 17:24: ‘as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other’. It will be important to remember that because the passage is often misunderstood along the lines of mediaeval paintings that depict a continuous light, more like sunlight than a lightning flash.


2) ‘hear’

Some sceptics insist that there must be a hopeless contradiction in that the passages say that the men did hear but did not hear the voice/noise. Bible translators have long seen that there is a clear solution with the Greek word consistently used to mean to hear in these passages.

An ESV translation footnote for Acts 22:9 gives the meaning for ἤκουσαν as “hear with understanding” rather than just “hear” in inferring “they did not understand [hear with understanding] the voice who was speaking to me”. Needless to say, people’ hearing’ and not understanding is an everyday occurrence for us all. But there are two valid reasons for classing it with that meaning here:

  • When looking at more than one version of the same story by the same author in the same short book, the first thing should be to see if the author understands it as a harmonious story (with a legitimate grammatical reading of the text in view). We should appreciate the author before rushing off to find reasons to disallow a legitimate reading.
  • In particular, this meaning of “hear with understanding” applies here, as in other places in the gospels and Acts, in response to either Jesus’ own voice or a supernatural voice, or the two things combined (as in this case). We see this repeated usage in a consistent pattern. Here are five similar examples of it:
    • Multiple times, Jesus used the same Greek verb to mean that his voice was ‘heard with/without understanding’, particularly in his famous saying, “Whoever has ears to ear, let them hear”. To the point here (because we are talking about Luke’s Acts) is that Luke definitely records that exact usage by Jesus in Luke 8:8; and again in Luke 14:35. Jesus uses ‘hear’ twice in the saying, the same word, changing the meaning the second time.
    • Again, Jesus reflects on people hearing him but not with understanding in John 8:43 Thus, "Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say."
    • Similarly, by Jesus, Mark 4:33: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” This is a feature about hearing Jesus with/without understanding which we find across the gospels.
    • Paul talks about people hearing without understanding the supernatural gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:2.
    • And in Acts 22:9, it is Jesus’ supernatural voice from heaven that the men hear but hear without understanding. Paul alone hears with understanding.

We are really left with nothing at all that anyone can call a definite contradiction in the three versions of Paul’s conversion.


Footnote: Paul’s conversion in Galatians chapter 1

Finally, for the sake of completeness, it’s worth adding that Paul in his letters never quite gets to telling the story of the moment of his conversion. The nearest he seems to come is in Galatians 1:13-17, and even here Paul does not say that God showed him a vision of Jesus. Rather, Paul in Galatians strangely says that God was ‘pleased to reveal his son in me’. It’s difficult to say what that means. But what it certainly is not is a claim to have seen Jesus at the moment of his conversion. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament is there any claim that the moment of conversion was when Paul first saw Jesus. But then, if he was blind at the time, why would he?




The three accounts in Acts of Paul’s moment of conversion

Now, here are the three accounts of Paul’s ‘conversion’ in full, in turn.


Acts 9

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.


Acts 22

“About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’

“‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 

My companions saw the light, but they did not understand [NIV. Greek = ἤκουσαν] the voice of him who was speaking to me.

10 “‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.

“ ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.’ 11 My companions led me by the hand into Damascus, because.


Acts 26

 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic,[a] 

‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’
15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me. 17 I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
19 “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.

Selected further reading