Paul’s conversion was seminal in the church, but the stories differ. Are they false, or true? Why do Paul’s three conversion accounts differ?
By Mark D. Harris
The story of Paul’s conversion from a devout Jew, violently persecuting believers in Jesus, to a devout Christian, fearlessly spreading the Gospel against all opposition, is found three times in Acts. The stories differ slightly, and many people harbor doubts about the truth of each.
The first account of Paul’s conversion, in Acts 9, narrates Paul’s conversion when it actually happened. After being a ringleader in persecuting Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, Paul obtained permission from the high priest, and then set out for Damascus, hoping to find and arrest Christians who had fled his persecution. While enroute, Paul and his companions suddenly saw a great light (v3). Paul fell to the ground and heard Jesus’ voice, asking why he was persecuting Him (vv4-5). The voice then told him what to do (v6). Paul had been blinded by the light, and his companions led him to Damascus where neither ate nor drank for three days (v9). Meanwhile, the Lord commanded a believer named Ananias to meet Saul and minister to him (vv10-16). Despite his fear at revealing himself to the feared Pharisee and persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus, Ananias obeyed (v17). Saul, soon to be known as Paul, regained his sight as “something like scales fell from his eyes.” He was baptized (v18), took food and water (v19), and began his ministry .
The second account of Paul’s conversion describes his testimony during his trial before the Jews. After years of preaching Christ throughout Asia Minor and Greece, Paul returned to Jerusalem. He was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple and he was arrested. Paul addressed his accusers in their native “Hebrew dialect” (v2, different versions say Hebrew or Aramaic). He reflected back on his conversion, telling them that he was a Jew, raised in the Diaspora but brought up and educated under the famous Jewish teacher Gamaliel (v3). He recounted his zeal in persecuting Christians and his mission to Damascus (vv4-5). Like the sister account, Paul described the bright light and the voice of Christ (vv6-7), but quoted Jesus as saying, “I am Jesus the Nazarene whom you are persecuting (v8).” The descriptor “Nazarene” is not found in the earlier account. The chapter 9 account said, “go into the city” but the account in chapter 22 said, “go to Damascus”. The account of the Lord’s message to Ananias as recorded in chapter 9 is not found in the 22nd chapter, but Ananias’ service on Paul’s behalf is present in both accounts.
The third account of Paul’s conversion differs significantly from the other two. In this case, Paul had been in prison for over one year and he had been testifying in his own defense before the Judean King Agrippa. Paul described his persecuting Christians in much greater detail (vv9-11). He added facts about the encounter on the road, including that “it is hard for you to kick against the goads (v14).” In this account, Jesus told Paul that he was chosen by God and that he would bring the gospel to the Gentiles (vv16-18). Paul provided no details on his activities in Damascus and then went on to convey his message to the Gentiles.
Addressing some of the differences
Far from being proof of a fabrication, the differences in the accounts demonstrate their reliability. Depending upon the purpose for telling a story and the audience that will hear it, speakers choose to emphasize different aspects of a story. The account in chapter 9, in which Luke’s purpose was to tell the history of the early church, emphasizes Paul and the believers in Damascus. The chapter 22 account was not intended to be a story but a testimony. It emphasizes Paul’s essential Jewishness and faithfulness to the Law and refers to “the God of our Fathers.” One can sense that he yearned for his Jewish accusers to see that Jesus is their Messiah. Paul’s defense to Agrippa in chapter 26, a small, more private and less hostile audience, is different. Both in medicine and in law, a story that is totally unchanged between events is more likely to be considered a fabrication.
We must recall that Paul himself gave all these accounts, so this is not a case of two witnesses seeing different things. Paul knew what happened to him, although the years may have clouded a detail or two. Like all good communicators, Paul tailored his words to his hearers. The conversion accounts are just another example.
One reader replied that my argument is “pure sophistry.” My first reaction to such a charge is to congratulate the reader for his use of an excellent word. My second reaction is to reassure him that I have neither desire nor need to deceive.
Part of practicing medicine is ascertaining the truth or falsehood of a patient’s history, especially when that patient is making allegations about the behavior of someone else, such as abuse. If one person tells a story, another tells exactly the same story, and a third tells exactly the same story, the listener has to be suspicious that the three collaborated rather than giving independent testimony. General agreement is typical, but exact agreement is not. This is expected between witnesses, but also with a single witness over time. Paul told all three of these accounts to Luke, who recorded them in Acts. Again, people change their account slightly to meet their goals before different audiences.
There is no doubt that something happened on the road to Damascus. The men accompanying Paul either heard something (9:7), did not understand the voice (22:9), or some combination. Either Paul alone fell to the ground (9:4, 22:7) or they all fell down (26:14), or some combination. The apparent discrepancies in the accounts, themselves separated by years of time, reflect human nature, whether by forgetting details or emphasizing certain facts over others.
This conversion story is useful to all Christians in a variety of ways. Those who fear that they are too sinful for God to save have a useful role model. Those who believe that they can be “solo” Christians see the utter need that even the greatest among the apostles had for his brothers in Christ. Those who doubt the authority of Paul as an apostle can be reassured in his God-given authority. Paul’s story preaches well, demonstrating God’s sovereign choice in his servants, and the certainty of His will. It is a model for believers today.