Are the Narratives of Paul’s Conversion Repetitious and Contradictory?
The Bible is replete with examples of where an event is recorded multiple times. Sometimes the repetition will be by different writers, as in the case of certain narratives in the books of Kings and Chronicles, or in the Gospel records. At other times a single writer may repeat the record of an event for the sake of a slightly different point of emphasis. Chapters 1 and 2 in Genesis is an example of such. In Acts, chapters 10 and 11, there are two accounts of the conversion of the Roman centurion, Cornelius. The first is Luke’s depiction of the event; the second is Peter’s rehearsal of the circumstances when he subsequently defends his actions before Jews in Jerusalem.
Another New Testament illustration of this literary phenomenon is the record of Paul’s conversion, as set forth three times in the book of Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26). This repetition has puzzled some sincere Bible students. Others, searching for flaws in the sacred Scriptures, contend that the repetition is superfluous and contradictory, and thus constitutes evidence against the inspiration of the sacred narrative. One critic recently asked:
“If the New Testament is without contradictions, why does Paul give three totally different memories of Jesus appearing to him?”
In the first place, the author reveals his own lack of knowledge of the facts. The initial record of Saul’s conversion (Acts 9), is not Paul’s account; it is that of the historian Luke.
Secondly, the criticism fails to take into account the epochal nature of the conversion of Saul, and its importance in the divine scheme of things. Add to this the fact that there were different circumstances underlying the case histories that the apostle later introduces, in defending his transformation from Judaism to Christianity (22,26).
Thirdly, the critic, lacking mature analytical skills, charges that the accounts contradict one another. They do not. Yes, there are differences; one record may supplement another narrative. But supplementation is not the same as contradiction.
The Significance of Paul’s Conversion
The conversion of Saul, that rabid persecutor of the early church, is one of the most significant events in the history of the first-century church. One historian has expressed the matter in the following way.
“In all the history of Christianity no single conversion to Christ carried with it such momentous results to the whole world, as that of Saul the persecutor, afterward Paul the Apostle” (J. L. Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1954, p. 30).
Another historian describes Saul’s conversion as “one of the most important events in the entire course of Christianity” (Kenneth Latourette, A History of Christianity, Vol. I, San Francisco: Harper, 1953, p. 70). Quotations of a similar nature could be multiplied many times over.
If the Holy Spirit saw fit to initiate four Gospel accounts of the death of Jesus Christ, surely no reasonable person can fault the divinely guided historian, Luke, for including three accounts of the conversion of Christianity’s greatest missionary – especially since there is unique purpose in each narrative.
The Three Narratives
Perhaps brief notice should be given to the nature of the three “conversion” records in the book of Acts.
Luke’s personal description of Saul’s dramatic conversion, and certain accompanying events, is found in Acts 9:1-30. The narrative may be divided topically into the following segments:
- Saul’s mission of persecution to Damascus (vv. 1-2);
- the zealot’s confrontation with the resurrected Christ (vv. 3-9);
- the details of Saul’s conversion (vv. 10-19);
- Saul’s immediate, post-conversion proclamation of the Christ (vv. 20-22);
- the Jewish assassination plot (vv. 23-25); and,
- the apostle’s eventual return to Jerusalem (vv. 26-30).
This section of Acts constitutes the primary historical record of this event. It is wonderfully condensed (which reflects an example of the restraint of the inspiration process), and it is entirely accurate. This was forcefully illustrated by the research of noted archaeologist, Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939). Originally Ramsay doubted the credibility of Acts. However, after years of personal investigation and discovery, he championed the position that “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, p. 81).
The second narrative that contains a record of Paul’s conversion follows a vicious attempt on the part of certain militant Hebrews in Jerusalem, to lynch the apostle – based upon the false charge that he had defiled the Jews’ temple (21:27ff). When Paul was providentially rescued from the bloodthirsty mob, he asked permission to address the crowd from the stairs of the fortress of Antonio. His request was granted.
The address delivered on this occasion was a benevolent, evangelistic polemic, the design of which was to present an argument to his Hebrew kinsmen, explaining why he had come to acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. He chronicles his illustrious background in Judaism, his days as a persecutor of the Christian faith, the details of his “new birth,” and his subsequent commission to proclaim Jesus. There is ample reason as to why this testimony was recorded by the inspired historian.
Agrippa II, who governed certain territories in northern Palestine, was the last Jewish ruler to wear the title “king.” Having been appointed by Claudius Caesar, he was a powerful political figure of that day.
When Porcius Festus became the Roman procurator over Palestine, he found Paul imprisoned at Caesarea. Not knowing exactly how to deal with his famous prisoner, he sought the counsel of Agrippa. After some discussion, the two of them (together with Agrippa’s sister, Bernice) determined they would interview the celebrated apostle. Paul then had the opportunity to put his case before a Jewish official (allegedly an “expert” in Hebrew matters — 26:3), and a pagan governor – legal dignitaries. The apostle begins his address directly to Agrippa, but quickly broadens his remarks to include the others (as reflected by the plural pronoun — 26:8).
That he made a devastating defense of his cause (and thus also for the validity of Christianity) is evidenced by the response that he received from his hitherto hostile audience. After an initial explosive outburst from Festus (obviously to “save face”), the king, the governor, and powerful and wicked Bernice, had a private conference.
In this clandestine session, they discussed Paul’s case extensively (as suggested by the verbal tenses; “spoke” — imperfect; “saying” present, v. 31). Their verdict was this: “This man is doing nothing worthy of death or imprisonment.” Agrippa even added that Paul deserved to be released, and likely would be, were he not under the restraint of his own appeal to Caesar (v. 32). Protocol demanded that that legal process be satisfied.
The late E.M. Blaiklock, former Professor of Classics at University College (Auckland, New Zealand), once raised the question as to whether the extensive inclusions relative to Paul’s conversion, as displayed in Acts, were justified. He responded in the affirmative. He called attention to the fact that Paul’s case was a great legal test for the authenticity of Christianity, and that the apostle’s eventual acquittal (as evidenced by the letters of 1, 2 Timothy and Titus) justifies the volume of Luke’s material, and demonstrates that the historian’s purpose was achieved (Acts of the Apostles, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959, p. 186).
Contradiction Vs. Supplementation
Let us now give brief notice to the charge that the records of Paul’s conversion conflict with one another.
- The most-frequently-cited example, that is said to mar the harmony of the narratives, is the alleged conflict between 9:7 and 22:9. The former, in earlier versions (KJV, ASV) states that the men accompanying Saul “heard the voice” of the Lord, while the latter text contends that they “heard not the voice.”
A common method of reconciliation has been to note that in 9:7 “hearing” (akouo) is used with the genitive case, which merely specifies that a “sound” was heard. On the other hand, akouo in 22:9 takes an accusative object, which indicates “extent,” i.e., though a sound was heard, the “meaning” was not comprehended. A.T. Robertson, the prince of grammarians, declared that this approach is “perfectly proper” (Historical Grammar of the Greek New Testament, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1919, p. 506).
A contemporary scholar suggests that an appropriate harmony is explained best by Luke’s use of different sources to compose his document. Professor Daniel Wallace surmises that Luke preserved the precise phraseology of dual sources (cf. Lk. 1:3), and that his record reflects the fact that both akouo (hear) and phone (voice) are capable of different nuances, e.g., hear/understand and voice/sound. Thus, no contradiction may be charged legitimately, even without the “case” argument (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, pp. 133-134).
- Factual “supplementation” (the addition of non-contradictory details), of course, presents no problem for the perceptive student who is aware of the nature of a genuine discrepancy. And the three “conversion” accounts do supplement one another quite richly. Consider but one example.
When Saul opened his eyes, following the brilliant vision, he was unable to see anything, and it was necessary that he should be led by his companions into the city of Damascus. Even though these men also “beheld the light,” they were not blinded (22:9). Why not? This unique detail explains the matter. It was the “glory” of the light, i.e., the radiance of the Lord Jesus himself (22:11; cf. v. 14), that his companions did not see, that temporarily robbed Saul of his vision. Yes, wonderfully complementary are the details, but no contradictions exist.
The critic’s charge, as stated at the beginning of this piece, is without credibility. Truth ever triumphs.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.