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. Comparing the accounts, biblical scholar and skeptic Bart Ehrman writes: “the three accounts differ in numerous contradictory details…Clearly we are dealing with a narrative that has been molded for literary reasons, not with some kind of disinterested historical report.”
Ouch. If Luke is a sloppy historian simply spinning some religious yarn then there’s a problem. If he can’t seem to keep from contradicting himself while telling and re-telling Paul’s conversion, this would cast doubt that he ever traveled with or even knew Paul very well at all. So let’s look at Bart’s complaints one by one and see if he has a good case against Luke.
Did Paul’s companions hear something, or not?
Here’s Dr. Ehrman’s first alleged contradiction: “On three occasions Acts narrates the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus — chapters 9, 22, and 26. Compare them closely to one another, and you find very odd contradictions…In chapter 9 Paul’s companions hear the voice of Jesus talking to Paul, but they don’t see anyone; in chapter 22 they see light but don’t hear anything. Which is it?”
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.“
I think that there’s a reasonable answer here that dispels the contradiction. Paul’s companions saw a light but not Jesus himself. And 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. What could’ve been just noise to them would have been understandable to Paul. The Greek verb for ‘hear ‘- akouō (ἀκούω) is also used for the word
Luke even uses this word in the same manner elsewhere. For example, see Luke 6:27 which says “But I say to you who hear…” (or clearly to those who understand). I don’t think this presents a major problem at all. But Ehrman has more objections.
Did Paul’s companions fall to the ground, or not?
Ehrman lodges a further complaint about the narratives. He writes: “In chapter 9 the companions are left standing while Paul falls to the ground; in chapter 26 they are all knocked to the ground. Which is it?”
Let’s look at the verses for ourselves:
Acts 9:7 reads: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.”
Acts 26:14 says: “And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
OK, so what’s going on here? Well, the phrase “stood speechless” is possibly only an idiomatic expression that suggests that they were ‘frozen in their tracks’, not that they were standing up the entire time. JB Lightfoot addresses this in his commentary on Acts: “Here in Acts 9:7 — stood speechless, εἱστήκεισαν ἐνεοί ( i.e. are arrested in the moment, all fell to the ground — the after effects, – ἡμῶν πάντων καταπεσόντων εἰς τὴν γῆν, Acts 26:14.”
It’s also possible that “stood speechless” could easily be Luke’s editorial voice in paraphrasing a story he learned. Considering modern literary conventions, this was a rather light editorial license used by Luke. This is hardly a deal-breaker against Luke’s reliability.
Was Paul instructed by Ananias or by Jesus himself?
But Dr. Ehrman has one more gripe about the accounts: “In chapters 9 and 22, Paul is told to go to Damascus to be instructed by a man named Ananias about what to do next. In chapter 26 Paul is not told to go be instructed by Ananias, instead Jesus himself instructs him. Well, which is it?”
As we’ll see in a moment Paul adapts his testimony based on his audience. But notice that in Paul’s speech to Agrippa in Acts 26. Paul doesn’t say that Jesus told him not to go. Some of Luke’s Christian audiences may have been familiar with Ananias and interested in the story, and they get a lot of details in chapter 9. When speaking to the Jews, Ananias is described as “a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews.” Paul’s clearly adapting to his audience, calling Ananias a devout Jew. But why would King Agrippa care about a random Jewish Christian?
This omission of Ananias in Luke’s account of Paul’s speech is not a declaration of the opposite. He’s just keeping to the facts that Agrippa would care about. That’s three strikes for Ehrman. He’s out.
Luke’s 3 accounts should actually bolster our confidence in his accuracy.
Now we get to the fun stuff. These variations found in the three different accounts fit nicely into the conditions that Paul found himself. If we look closely, 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, as I’ve touched on a bit already. There’s nothing contrived in the differences, which bolsters our confidence in Luke’s accuracy. Let’s check it out.
Acts 9 is Luke’s story of Paul’s conversion.
- Being a medical doctor, Luke’s description 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 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. There’s also a good bit about the supernatural power of God. This first story is clearly of interest to a Christian audience. Let’s go on to Acts 22. We’ll see that things get really interesting.
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 with a Roman official.
- 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. He appeals to publicly-known facts that a Roman official would have been aware of in trying to persuade Agrippa. (Acts 26:23)
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 didn’t.
Luke: Goofus or genius?
So we see that Paul’s conversion story is told and retold with distinct relation to both the speaker and the audience. And it’s these little details of how Paul adapts himself to better resonate with his audience that have the ring of truth.
Remember earlier that Bart Ehrman says that Luke is a bit of a bungler. He’s not writing a disinterested report, he’s molding a story for literary reasons. But he can’t seem to keep his story straight. But we see that if he’s haphazardly making up a story about Paul’s conversion, he’s also being carefully devious at the same time.
It seems to me that the critics can’t have it both ways. Luke is either a doofus or a genius. I’m going to pick option C.
I think the famous archeologist Sir William Ramsay had it right when he said “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy. …[He] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” Luke shows he is a very meticulous historian many, many times over, as I discuss here. Ehrman’s charges just don’t stick.
Tim McGrew, The Evidential Value of Acts. Watch it!
The Evidential Value of the Acts of the Apostles, John Howson. You can read it FOR FREE right here.
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.