Paul’s Vision: A Case Study

by Elisabeth Strout

I mentioned a few weeks back, spending an evening with a Christian Lebanese family, Evangelical Protestants like my own family, and entertaining quite the discussion about Islam and Christianity in the living room after dinner. We actually met twice, and the second time, Michael (who as it turns out, is a leading member of this organization whose mission is to provide Arabic Bibles to Muslims) had prepared several pages of notes to share with us about the gospel.

We sat quietly and listened as he expounded the Christian gospel, quoting verse after verse from Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Hebrews, explaining how Jesus had died for our sins, and if we just believed in him, we would have assurance of salvation. Islam, as he told us, doesn’t have any solution to the problem of sin, and doesn’t offer assurance of salvation. I was a bit astonished, not only that he was witnessing to Muslims without understanding our beliefs concerning sin and assurance of salvation (both of which Islam deals with), but that he seemed to take for granted that we would take Paul’s writings as the authoritative word of God.

Paul. Often referred to as the ‘founder of Christianity’, it’s a title most Christians wouldn’t dream of applying to anyone but Christ . Yet take away the body of New Testament works attributed to Paul, and we lose the vast majority of passages used to explain Christian doctrine and theology. A little-known figure, our only sources about his life and person are what he himself chooses to reveal in his many epistles, or letters, and Acts, a 28-chapter book written by an anonymous travelling companion of Paul, most likely his ‘beloved physician Luke’ (Colossians 4:14).

Christians generally maintain that as a doctor (and, we assume, a self-appointed historian), Luke’s writings can be implicitly trusted, because he was a scholarly type that would have take great pains to ensure the accuracy of his reports. Perhaps so. That’s why his accounts – three of them, to be exact, all in his book of Acts – of Paul’s claim to fame, his supernatural meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus, leave me a little perplexed about his attention to detail. Take a look.

Acts 9:1-9 – This is the author’s biographical account of Paul’s conversion…

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Acts 22:3-11 – This is Paul’s telling of the story before the Jewish mob in Jerusalem…

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. 4 I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. 6 “While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth [b] whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.

Acts 26:9-21 – And this is Paul’s retelling before King Agrippa, after being dragged from court to court…

Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.[b] 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. 11 By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

12 “With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 when at midday along the road, your Excellency, [c] I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew [d] language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15 I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me [e] and to those in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn 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 “After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance. 21 For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me.

As in the last case study, there are a few details which I’ll pass over quickly for the sake of brevity, because they can probably be written off with the inclusive argument (where one passage tells one detail of the story while another passage tells another). For example, the vision addresses Paul in chapter 9 with the words “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me… I am Jesus”; in chapter 22 with “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me… I am Jesus of Nazareth“; and in chapter 26 with “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads… I am Jesus”. Again, it could be maintained that this – as other contradictions – is simply an inclusive issue, where the voice actually said all three, but each passage adds a little more detail. So let’s move on to the larger issues.

If you compare the emphasized text, it would appear that the accounts differ in a couple of places. First of all, chapter 9 says those with him heard the voice speaking to Paul, but saw no one, while chapter 22 says they saw the light, but heard no voice. This seems like a pretty straightforward contradiction, yet many have tried to explain it away, saying that in chapter 22, the author meant “understanding”, so while the men heard the voice in 9, they didn’t understand it in 22 – not a contradiction. A number of translations have been altered to reflect this explanation, including such common translations as the NIV, the ESV, and the NASB. Check them out and you will find they’ve been changed to “understood”, with a little footnote at the bottom of the page explaining “or, heard (with understanding)“.

Yet take a look at the original Greek, and you’ll realize this is dishonest. The Greek verb being conjugated in both verses is the same: “ἀκούω“ (or “akouo”); in Acts 9 “akouontes”, “they heard”, and in Acts 22, “akousan”, “not hearing”. The word for “sound” or “voice” is also the same, “φωνή“. So one passage is saying the men “akouo-ed” (forgive the anglicism) the “phonen”, and another is saying they didn’t. Which one is it?

The next contradiction is a matter of substance, not translation. In chapters 9 and 22, the voice wastes no time, commanding Paul simply to “go to Damascus and it will be told you what to do,” and leaves almost as quickly as it appeared. Yet Acts 26 says nothing about going to Damascus for instructions. Rather, Paul receives his orders directly from the supernatural appearance, being told by the voice, “I appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn 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”. He then explains that he went first to Damascus to preach the good news, not to receive instruction. Did the voice tell him all this, or did it tell him to go to Damascus to find it out?

There are a couple other things that strike me as odd in the passage. For one, if the men with him saw the light (22) as bright as the sun (26), why weren’t they blinded by it as well as Paul? My initial guess is they must have closed their eyes in time… although then they wouldn’t have seen the light… so they must have opened their eyes… in which case they would be blinded also… who knows. Just a minor detail, but interesting to ponder.

Anyways, more importantly, and slightly more disturbing, is the final line of the Acts 29 passage, which I also highlighted. Here Paul is explaining to King Agrippa why the Jews tried to kill him. As he recounts, it was because he was preaching to the people, “that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance”. This really confuses me, because it comes off like a little child who hits his sibling, gets bitten in return, and when mom interferes, the child lies, “I barely touched her!”, trying to establish innocence.

If Paul had merely been preaching a message of repentance and good deeds, the Jews shouldn’t have had a problem with it. Nor would Muslims for that matter. But the fact is, if we go back to Acts 21 and 22 where the whole thing started, we find that the Jews initially attacked Paul in the temple for, “teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” Nothing about “turning to God”, or “doing deeds consistent with repentance”. And when Paul was attacked the second time, after giving his defense in Acts 22, it was for telling the Jews to “rise and be baptized and wash away their sins, calling on [Jesus’] name”, and claiming God told him they would refuse his testimony, despite his helping them to wrongfully kill Steven, and so God was sending him to the Gentiles. Again, nothing about “turning to God”, or “doing deeds consistent with repentance”.

While “repenting and turning to God and doing deeds consistent with repentance” might have made Paul appear innocent before King Agrippa, it was hardly a part of the message that caused the uprising against him in the temple, and by no means the message Paul preached to the rest of the world. Certainly Paul preached repentance and turning to God, but that would hardly have offended the Jews. Rather his rejection of the law and deification of Christ would have turned them solidly against him – yet that was not what he chose to tell King Agrippa. Was he lying to protect himself, or am I missing something here?

Those are a few of my thoughts when reading this passage. Now I recognize that for some Christians, the contradictions may not be an issue. If that’s the case, then we just have to agree to disagree, because while I absolutely understand that imperfections do come about at the hands of men, it is my personal belief that God’s Word is held to a higher standard, and must be 100% flawless. This is the stance of many other Christians, who believe that since the Holy Spirit inspired the words of Scripture, it is inerrant, and it is to these that I address myself. This isn’t an attack, this is simply a conversation about some of the issues that I don’t fully understand, which caused me to leave my faith, and for which I’m now reaching out for answers.

Leave a comment! If you have a more adequate explanation for the “heard the voice/didn’t hear the voice” contradiction, for the “instructions now/instructions in Damascus” issue, or for Paul’s strange summary of his message before King Agrippa, please, by all means, dialogue with me.

Also, I would please request the comments section be used for this topic only. I’m happy to discuss issues with the Qur’an and Islam, but this is not the place for it. This post is to discuss answers to a question about the Bible. Thanks!

View the original Downsum source here


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