Paul’s Vision on the Road to Damascus

16 Apr
Paul - 9

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In recent years textual criticism has placed in doubt in the minds of some what actually took place on the road to Damascus. In a short essay (found HERE) John Dominic Crossan has taken issue with Paul’s vision of Jesus as recorded in Acts – where it took place, how long Paul was away from Jerusalem and who threatened Paul’s life in Damascus that he was saved by the brethren secretly letting him down through a window in the city wall under the cover of night to make his escape to Jerusalem (Acts 9:25).

While I don’t doubt Dr. Crossan’s sincerity, I do take issue with many of his conclusions about Christianity and what he claims about the New Testament, when it was written and by whom etc. A few years ago in an essay, dated March 21, 2012, he claims that the triple account of Paul’s vision of Jesus (Acts 9; 22 & 26) “…written around 50 years after Paul’s death, has two major historical problems.” Now I am sure that Dr. Crossan has data that he believes would support his conclusion that Acts was written 50 years after Paul’s death, but he doesn’t show that in his short essay. It is merely a conclusion, and, in my opinion, cannot be supported by archeology or ancient witness. Rather, it is a modern opinion based upon subjective conclusions drawn about the New Testament manuscripts. The church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD claim Acts was written prior to the death of Nero and, therefore, the book of Acts was most likely written before the death of Paul as well, since Luke makes no mention of his trial or execution.

The first “major historical problem” which Dr. Crossan puts forth is that

“Paul is travelling to Damascus empowered with authority from the high-priest to arrest dissident Christian Jews and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. But, whatever about high-priestly power in Judea, it could never have been exercised across Roman provincial borders as far away as Damascus.”

On the surface this argument seems irrefutable; however, Dr. Crossan does not seem to have taken into consideration what issues or agreements may have been in place between governments during the 1st century. Today, we exercise extradition proceedings between different national governments whereby criminals are brought to justice by one government placing a criminal under arrest and putting him under the power of official representatives of another government under whose authority the crime had taken place. This same practice was exercised in ancient times as well.

By the authority of Rome, the Jewish Sanhedrin exercised authority over its citizens throughout the Roman Empire (1 Maccabees 15:21). The Jewish ethnarch in foreign lands would aid any ambassadors sent by the high priest in the labor for which they were sent. In Damascus, however, the ruling ethnarch[1] for King Aretas, the Nabataean ruler, may not have honored any writ coming from Jerusalem, because he was presently at war with Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. On the other hand, Herod Antipas was not ruler of Judea; the high priest was ruler there, under Rome. The Jewish and Nabataean ethnarchs may have been in cooperation to apprehend Saul of Tarsus. There is nothing within the text itself that would disqualify this understanding, so Dr. Crossan’s conclusion regarding the historicity of Acts 9:2 seems to be pure conjecture.

As side issues John Dominic Crossan has also taken issue with the place of Saul’s vision, saying it was more likely in Damascus itself, and also says that Saul was probably a member of the Damascus synagogue, having received his previous Pharisaic education there. Yet, Dr. Crossan makes no attempt to support these claims. I realize it is a short essay, but he doesn’t even offer a footnote to an earlier work of his own or some other respected author that would support what he says here. As for me, I see no reason to doubt Luke’s claim that Paul’s vision occurred on the road to Damascus and not within the city itself. As for Paul being a member of the Damascus synagogue where he received his previous education, I see no reason to believe such a statement. Paul claims in Acts 22 that he received his education in Jerusalem under the Pharisaic ruler and teacher, Gamaliel. Dr. Crossan unveils absolutely nothing that would dispute this, other than his own opinion.

The second major historical issue John Dominic Crossan points to in the triple account of Saul’s vision in Acts is that Saul does not see Jesus’ face but only sees a light and hears Jesus’ voice. Concerning this, Dr. Crossan says that Paul’s:

“…sight of the heavenly Jesus makes him equal in authority with the Twelve Apostles who saw the earthly Jesus. As he argues in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ (9:1). And later: ‘Last of all, as to one untimely born, he was seen also by me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God’ (15:8-9).”

The problem with Dr. Crossan’s argument, as I see it, is that he has not taken into consideration how the Scriptures record heavenly visions. For example, in accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration Jesus’ face shone like the sun in light and even his garments were brighter than anything the Apostles had ever seen (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2-3; Luke 9:29). Moreover, the soldiers that guarded Jesus’ tomb saw a heavenly vision of one whose countenance was as lightning and his garments were white as snow (Matthew 28:3), and Paul’s own account later in Acts compares what he saw with the brightness of the sun (Acts 26:13). If one’s face is shinning like the light of the sun or as lightning and Saul later speaks of seeing a bright light is it necessarily a contradiction in Luke’s account or evidence that Saul did not see Jesus’ face? Personally, I think Dr. Crossan is reading a contradiction into the text.

Finally, John Dominic Crossan says

For Acts, only those first 12 were ‘apostles’ and Judas’ replacement had to be ‘one of the males [Greek andres] who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us’ (Acts 1:21-22). Acts not only excludes Paul from ever being an apostle, it insures there will never be any more apostles and, above all else, not any women apostles.

Actually, Luke calls both Paul and Barnabas apostles in Acts 14:14. But, concerning Acts 1:21-22, Luke is speaking of a particular apostleship. It could be filled only by a man (women were not considered accurate witnesses by Jews in the 1st century), and this man had to have been a witness of Jesus’ works from the beginning of his ministry. Acts 1:21-22 is all about replacing Judas. It makes no definitive statement that would limit the office to the Twelve. Dr. Crossan is again reading his opinions into the text and saying the text is saying what he thinks. I find it surprising that he does this so often, and this without further explanation or footnote pointing to an explanation.


[1] My position on the identity of this ethnarch has changed. After further study, I believe it was the Jewish ethnarch of whom Paul spoke in 2Corinthians 11:32, and this man governed the Jews and drew his authority from the ruler of the city, King Aretas. See my explanation HERE.

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Posted by on April 16, 2012 in Textual Criticism


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