There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion to Christianity found in the Book of Acts. They’re all a little bit different, and because of that, some critics have cried foul. I don’t think these skeptics are paying very close attention when they say that there are irreconcilable discrepencies.
So what are the differences that critics point to? Biblical scholar Darrell Bock tells us in The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible:
The biggest differences in the accounts have to do with whether the men traveling with Saul see the light and hear nothing (22:9) or stand speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). . . . Another difference is that Ananias does not appear at all in the Acts 26 account. . . . Another key difference between the accounts is that Saul does not mention his call to reach the Gentiles in the account given in Acts 9, whereas he shares this detail in Acts 22 and 26.
However if we look closely, we’ll see that there is no inconsistency. Instead, we find that on close inspection Acts 9, 22 and 26 line up with what we know about Paul and the circumstances he found himself in quite beautifully. There’s nothing contrived in the differences, which bolsters our confidence in Luke’s accuracy.
First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room: The alleged contradiction between what Luke says happened in the 9th chapter and what Paul says in his speech in the 22nd chapter. Here are the verses.
Acts 9:7: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.”
Acts 22:9: “My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.“
So which is it, Luke? Did they hear a voice but not see anyone? Or did they not hear anything but see someone? There’s a reasonable answer here that dispels the contradiction. First, t
Secondly, when we look at Acts 22:9, the emphasis is on the voice. It’s not that they didn’t hear a sound, they may have just not understood what was said. It could’ve been just noise to them but understandable to Paul. Now before you cry “special pleading” know that the Greek verb for ‘hear ‘- akouō (ἀκούω) is also used for the word
Now we get to the fun stuff. These variations found in the three different accounts fit nicely into the conditions that Paul found himself. Taken together they show that Luke was an eyewitness. Let’s take a look:
Acts 9 is Luke’s story of Paul’s conversion.
- Being a medical doctor, Luke is the only account that mentions Paul’s subsequent blindness and the scales that fell from his eyes after Ananias healed him. (Acts 9:18)
- Luke also says that Paul didn’t eat for three days. (Acts 9:9)
- He also is the only one who mentions geographical details, like the house of Judas and Straight Street. (Acts 9:11)
These are all little details that a historian and a doctor would be interested in sharing with his audience. Let’s keep looking.
Acts 22 is Paul’s defense at the Temple before the Jewish Leaders.
- He speaks to his audience in Hebrew. (Acts 22:2)
- He calls them brothers and fathers. (Acts 22:1)
- He builds common ground, noting Jerusalem is the place that he grew up. (Acts 22:3)
- He mentions his training from Gamaliel, a leading Rabbi and member of the Sanhedrin.
- He speaks of the laws of our ancestors.
- He says he’s as zealous for God as they are.
- Instead of calling Ananias a Christian brother, he says he’s a devout observer of the Jewish law, and highly respected among the Jews (Acts 22:12)
- Paul doesn’t let the Gentile cat out of the bag right away. He says that the voice said he’d be a witness to everyone. (Acts 22:15)
- He holds out until Acts 26:21 to say the word Gentile and then all hell broke loose.
It’s clear that Paul is trying to build bridges with the Jews as far as he can. He’s trying to be relatable and he dances around bringing up his mission to the Gentiles as much as possible. He’s clearly adapting himself to his audience, he’s not about to get polemical about the Law as he did with the Galatians. If Luke was lazy and just making up a story, it’s doubtful we’d have this story told to us this way. Let’s see the contrast when Paul testifies to quite a different audience.
Acts 26 is Paul’s defense before King Agrippa
- Paul speaks with no concern about a riot interrupting him. He has time to develop a little doctrine and even preaches the Gospel to Agrippa. (Acts 26:18-23)
- He draws a sharp contrast between himself and his Jewish accusers. Suddenly they’re the bad guys. (Acts 26:2)
- He calls Christians saints. (Acts 26:10)
- He talks about how he forced Christians to blaspheme. (Acts 26:11)
- He omits the story with Ananias because of a story about a devout Jew praying for him doesn’t help his cause.
- He’s upfront about his mission to the Gentiles. (Acts 26:21)
- He says the voice that spoke to him spoke in Hebrew. He was speaking Agrippa’s language now. (Acts 26:14)
So with Agrippa, you can see that Paul changes things up. He’s relaxed, he’s speaking to him about events that he’d be more aware of and he brings things into more of a Christian-to-Roman angle.
So in Acts, Paul’s conversion story is told and retold with distinct relation to both the speaker and the audience. But it’s these little details of how Paul adapts himself to better resonate with his audience that have the ring of truth. Paul said he became all things for all men in order that some might be saved. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) The man was a master at persuasion. Luke could’ve just dropped some copypasta on us for each story and hoped that we wouldn’t notice, but he doesn’t.
Now I got to fess up. I’ve read these passages repeatedly for the past 20 years and I never really picked up on these nuances. I discovered this argument from listening to Dr. Tim McGrew. Here’s his talk on the Evidential Value of Acts, and I promise it’s well worth your time, especially if you’re a history nerd. He goes into a lot more details that are pretty fascinating.
And he picked up the argument from an old book by a 19th-century scholar named John Howson. You can read it FOR FREE right here.
This sort of internal evidence adds to the trustworthiness of the New Testament documents. Luke knew his stuff.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.