There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion found in the Book of Acts. They’re all a bit different and because of that some critics say they’re at odds with each other. Comparing them, skeptical Biblical scholar 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.”
If Luke can’t keep from contradicting himself while telling and re-telling Paul’s conversion, this would cast doubt on if he ever traveled with or even knew Paul very well at all. 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.“
Two things need to be noted about these verses. For starters, the exact forms of the word “hear” (akouo) are not used in both case. Let’s look at the context a bit. Acts 9:4 uses the word akouein (in the accusative) which means hear a sound of a voice. In Acts 22:9, akouontes (in the genitive) can mean understand the voice (as the NIV, ESV, and NASB translate it). So when this verse is properly understood, there’s no real contradiction. Paul’s companions heard the sound of the voice but didn’t understand what it said.
If you think about it, we’ve all experienced this. A week doesn’t go by without either my kids or me saying from another room, “I can’t hear you.” We didn’t understand what they said despite hearing their voice.
Luke uses this same word in the same manner elsewhere. For example, see Luke 6:27 which says “But I say to you who hear (akouousin)…” (or to those who understand). This is not about the plain meaning of the text as Ehrman makes it out to be. Rather, it’s a question about interpretation.
But Ehrman has more objections.
Did Paul’s companions fall to the ground, or not?
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.”
So what’s going on here? 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.”
But let’s consider the worst case scenario here. Variations in small detail are common in the testimony of honest eyewitnesses. Can the points of difference here be so strong and decisive that it’s impossible, or at least difficult, to attribute them to ordinary causes like inattention or forgetfulness? This is hardly enough to cause us to doubt the robust reliability of Acts.
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?”
Notice that in Paul’s speech to Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul doesn’t say that Jesus told him not to go. Luke’s Christian audience may have been familiar with Ananias and interested in the story, and so they get a lot of details in chapter 9. And 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. 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. Ehrman says these three different accounts undercut Luke’s reliability. This criticism fails to land.
Paul’s 3 accounts as evidence for Luke’s reliability
If anything, we actually find that upon closer inspection Acts 9, 22, and 26, the variations line up nicely with what we know about Paul’s circumstances. This should boost our confidence in Luke. Allow me to explain why. For this argument, I’m leaning on the work of the 19th-century scholar JS Howson.
- In both of these speeches, Paul leaves out facts that would have been interesting to Luke as the narrator, but less so to Paul’s audience. These details would include that Paul didn’t eat for several days after his experience on the road to Damascus, and when He was healed, scales fell from his eyes (Acts 9:9, 18-19).
- Before the Jerusalem mob, Paul paints himself as a zealous and devout Jew to keep their attention and make them more favorable to himself. He respectfully calls his audience “brothers and fathers” (Acts 22:1). And Paul emphasizes his own rabbinic education under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He also highlights the Jewish devotion of Ananias who came to him in Damascus. Rather than calling him a Jesus-follower, he says he’s “a man who was devout by the standard of the law” (Acts 22:12).
- Paul skillfully puts off any use of the word “Gentiles” throughout his entire speech until he has had a chance to tell his testimony. For example, in Acts 22:15 he tells them that Ananias told them that “the God of our fathers” has sent him to be a witness “to all men.” When Paul finally lets the cat out of the bag by acknowledging that Jesus sent him to the Gentiles (Act 22:21), the crowd erupts in riot.
- In stark contrast, Paul omits any mention of Ananias before Agrippa and Festus. Again, why would they care about an obscure Jew from Damascus?
- Paul emphasizes more than once to Agrippa and Festus (Acts 26:7, 21) that it is the Jews who are opposing him here (Acts 26:2). Now they’re the bad guys.
- In contrast, Paul calls Christians saints (Acts 26:10). He admits that he tried to force the Christians to blaspheme (Acts 26:11), a self-accusation that fits well with Paul’s own self-blame in his letters (e.g., Phil 3:6).
- Paul mentions to Agrippa and Festus that the voice from heaven spoke to him “in a Hebrew dialect” (vs. 14), probably Aramaic. This casual indicator tells us that Paul is speaking Greek now, as there would be no reason to mention a similar linguistic point to the Jewish audience in Chapter 22, where it’s noted that Paul is speaking to the crowd in “a Hebrew dialect.” (Acts 22:2)
Paul said he became all things to all men and we see that in action here. (1 Cor 9:21-22) Luke’s accurate access to Paul’s words on these events, and his impressively careful documentation of them explain these seemingly small touches quite well, even if they’re only summaries.
Luke as an accurate reporter
This raises an interesting question: if Luke was so knowledgeable and conservative in recording Paul’s speeches, is it really probable that Luke would invent several of Jesus’ speeches, or deliberately alter them? Various scholars tell us that he felt free to so, but this evidence seems to counter that claim. The same would hold true for his reporting of Peter’s speeches in Acts, which include him testifying about the apostles eating and drinking with Jesus after he had rose from the dead. (Acts 10:41)
Remember previously that Bart Ehrman implied 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 an incredibly sloppy historian, or a literary mastermind who embellished the facts, or a highly reliable reporter. I think option three makes the most sense of the data.
Tim McGrew, The Evidential Value of Acts.
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.