Recently, I’ve been running across websites that claim Luke and Paul disagree concerning the events surrounding Paul’s conversion. Some critics say Paul’s vision was in Damascus, not on the road to the city. I don’t know what difference that would make, if it were true, except to undermine the Scriptures’ claim that they are the word of God for us and aren’t contradictory within the text. Nevertheless, little things like these keep jumping out at me as I study the book of Acts and read what others say about it online.
Let’s take a look at what Paul says in Galatians, comparing it with what Luke tells us about the same event that he records in Acts 9:1-31.
But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia, and returned once more to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:15-18 NASB)
One of the literary vehicles used by the authors of the various books in the Bible is hyperbole or exaggeration. Mark uses this vehicle in Mark 1:5 when he says that all the people of the hill country of Judea and Jerusalem went out to be baptized. Does Mark mean everyone? No, he does not; if that were true, then he would have had no enemies among the chief priests and Pharisees, because all would have come out to him to be baptized. Luke uses it in Luke 3:21 when Jesus was baptized after all the people were baptized. Certainly, Luke didn’t mean everyone in Palestine was baptized nor everyone in Galilee or Judea, because after Jesus was baptized, John still baptized others (cf. Matthew 3:16; John 1:28-36; 3:22-23).
We often use this same literary form today without realizing it, and we all take for granted that what we say cannot be taken literally. When we speak of an upcoming event, we may say everyone will be there! Do we really mean everyone or is this merely an expression to show its importance to us?
As we read Galatians above did Paul actually mean God separated him from his mother’s womb, or did his mother have the usual human attendants, helping her through the birth? Surely, Paul does not exclude the human hands that God used to bring Paul into the world. When Paul tells us that God called him, does he exclude all human labor in that important event? While this is a possibility, in order to learn the truth about Paul’s call we must understand the context of Paul’s statement that he did not consult with flesh and blood (Galatians 1:16). Does he mean everyone, meaning all mankind, or is it an exaggeration, meaning each one of the Twelve?
Why did Paul write his letter to the Galatians? Paul wrote his letter, because the Galatians were beginning to believe “another Gospel” (Galatians 1:6-10). Someone had come to the churches in Galatia, preaching “another Gospel” in Paul’s absence (Galatians 3:1-5). Evidently, they were Jews, perhaps even believing Jews from Jerusalem (cf. Galatians 2:12 & Acts 15:1, 24-29), who visited the churches but ended up undermining Paul’s work there (Galatians 4:9-15). They either claimed Paul was a rebel Jew preaching apostasy or, if they were believers, that Paul wasn’t very thorough in what he preached, because he left out that believers must become subject to the Law (Galatians 5:3-4, 7).
The point of the troublemakers was that Paul’s Gospel must be subject to what the Apostles’ preached at Jerusalem, because, if Paul learned it from them, he was then obliged to preach only what they preached, or only what they taught him. If this was the troublemakers’ argument, then Paul’s argument in Galatians 1:16 concerning his consulting flesh and blood must mean that he did not receive his Gospel from the Twelve. If Paul didn’t receive his Gospel from Jerusalem, then his Gospel couldn’t be subject to what was preached in Jerusalem. That is, the Apostles preached that Jews in Palestine needed to be subject to the Law of Moses in order to be known as good Jews, because it was the law of the land.
The Law of Moses, however, was not the law of the land in Galatia nor in any other part of the Empire. Paul preached that believers ought to be subject to the local laws wherever one lived (Romans 13:1; Titus 3:1) in order to be viewed as good citizens. Therefore, if Galatians 1:16 specifically limits the phrase flesh and blood to the Apostles at Jerusalem, then any discussion between Paul and Ananias in Acts 9 could not be a contradiction of what Paul says about himself in his letter to the Galatians.