A Contrast of Paul’s Conversion Accounts

12 Jun

Luke records Paul’s conversion three times in Acts, first in chapter 9 where he simply narrates the event, and secondly, through Paul’s testimony in chapter 22 before the Jews after they tried to kill him, and finally before Festus and King Agrippa in chapter 26. Each have similarities, but there are also differences in the accounts, and some have tried to make a point that the differences prove either the event never occurred, or that one cannot know for certain what happened. Is this true? The simple answer is, no; there are reasons for the differences in the accounts, just as there are reasons for the similarities.

Acts 9

Acts 22

Acts 26

vv.1-2… desired letters from the high priest against the Messianics at Damascus. v.5… received letters from the high priest against Messianics at Damascus. vv.10-12… received authority from the high priest against Messianics even at Damascus.
v.3… bright light from heaven shone round about. v.7… says the men with Paul, heard a voice but saw no man. v.6… bright light from heaven shone round about at noon. v.9… says others saw the light but heard not the voice. v.13… at midday a bright light above the brightness of the sun shone round about. “we” saw the light
v.4… Saul fell to the earth and heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” v.7… “I” fell to the ground and heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” v.14… “we” were all fallen to the ground, and “I” heard a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Paul adds: “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.”

v.5… “Who are you, Lord?” the reply: “I am Jesus whom you persecute!” v.8… “Who are you, Lord?” the reply: “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you persecute!” v.15… “Who are you, Lord?” the reply: “I am Jesus whom you persecute!”
v.6… “Lord, what will you have me do?” the reply: “Arise, go into the city and it will be told to you what you must do.” v.10… “Lord, what will you have me do?” the reply: “Arise, go into the city and it will be told to you all things that are appointed for you to do.”[1] vv.16-18… “Stand on your feet, for I have appeared to you to make you a servant and witness to the things seen and to that which I will appear to you. Delivering you from the (Jews) and from the gentiles, to whom I send you, to enlighten them and turn them from darkness to light –  from the power of Satan to God, for forgiveness of sins and have a share among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”


All three accounts agree that Paul received authority from the high priests to arrest Messianics at Damascus and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. Concerning the light that shone round about, there is no contradiction, except chapter 9 mentions nothing about the time of day or anything about the men with Paul seeing the light. While Paul, indeed, fell to the earth, only chapter 26 mentions the men with Paul fell too. But none of these differences are contradictions; the accounts merely show that some things in one or two of the accounts aren’t mentioned in all.

Some (not all) Bible translations do show a contradiction between chapters 9 and 22 where those with Paul “heard” a voice but saw no man (chapter 9), but they saw a light, but “heard” no voice (chapter 22). The Greek in both accounts for hearing and for the voice are the same, however the meaning of the Greek for heard could be rendered as hearing the sound but not understanding as in Matthew 13:13 “in hearing they hear not” where both words are the same in the Greek and the same Greek word is found here in Acts 9 & 22. What this means is that those with Paul on the Damascus road heard Jesus speak, but they didn’t understand his words. Chapter 26:14 tells us that Jesus spoke in Hebrew, which Paul understood, because he was instructed in the Scriptures, but apparently the Temple guards may have understood only Greek and/or even Aramaic.

Another problem occurs in chapter 9:5 where the translators have Jesus say, “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.” However, this is probably wrong. It is more likely that Paul mentions this proverb only in 26:14 as a clarification to the Romans present. Agrippa would have understood: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” as it being useless to work against the will of the Almighty, but the gentiles present wouldn’t have understood the phrase in that way. But, they would have understood the proverb about the goads. It is a gentile proverb, found only in gentile literature. So, Paul interrupts his own account, especially intended for Agrippa, at this point to make a clarification for the benefit of the Romans listening to him.

There aren’t any contradictions among the narratives concerning the identity of Jesus in the vision, but chapter 22 does mention Nazareth while the other two do not. When Paul asks what Jesus wants him to do, both chapters 9 and 22 have Jesus telling Paul to arise and go into Damascus, and it would be told him what he must do. However, in chapter 26, Jesus immediately tells Paul that he is sending him to both Jew and gentile to enlighten them—transferring them from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light or from the power/authority of the enemy to the authority of God. There is no mention in chapter 26 of Paul’s blindness or of Ananias from Damascus coming to heal and baptize Paul, nor to instruct him of what he (Paul) should do. On the contrary, the Lord commissioned Paul there, on the road to Damascus before he entered the city. What can be said of this?

There is nothing that could even remotely be considered a commission given Paul by Ananias from the Lord in chapter 9, and technically, even Ananias’ additional words found in chapter 22 couldn’t be used as the Lord commissioning Paul through the man from Damascus. Luke implies the words of Ananias merely verify what has already been told Paul by the Lord. Notice that in Acts 22:14 Luke has Ananias say that God had appointed Paul to know his will and see Jesus and to hear Jesus’ voice. Indeed, Paul saw Jesus and heard Jesus’ voice, and Ananias puts Paul’s knowing God’s will in the past tense. In other words, Paul was already instructed by the Lord and Ananias is merely verifying that fact. In Acts 22:15 Ananias merely says the obvious, that Paul would be God’s witness to all men concerning what Paul had seen and heard. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Paul was commissioned by God through Ananias in Acts 22. Ananias was meant for Paul—to heal him and to verify that what Paul had witnessed was not a hallucination. That is all Ananias did—he healed Paul and verified what the Lord had said. What Paul must do (cf. Acts 9:6, 22:10) in Damascus was submit to baptism and receive the Holy Spirit, without which he could not accomplish his commission (cf. Luke 24:49).

Therefore, Paul rehearsed before Agrippa in Acts 26:16-18 exactly what Jesus told him on the road to Damascus. Agrippa didn’t need to know about Paul’s blindness or Ananias. On the contrary, Paul says he was commissioned directly by the Lord and man (including Ananias) had absolutely nothing to do with it (cf. Galatians 1:1, 15-16). Leaving out the unnecessary incidentals of the account allows Paul to move rapidly and efficiently from the vision of Jesus to Paul’s commission and, finally, to Paul’s executing that commission throughout the world.


[1] The accounts of Paul’s blindness and the narratives of Ananias in both Acts 9 and 22 are omitted for brevity.

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Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Gospel, Paul in bonds


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