Paul’s Conversion – Why Three Accounts, and How Do They Differ?

Paul’s conversion was seminal in the church, but the stories differ. Are they false, or true?

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.

The first account, in Acts 9, narrated 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. Paul fell to the ground and heard Jesus’ voice, asking why he was persecuting Him.  The voice then told him what to do (v6).  Paul had been blinded by the light, and his companions led him to Damascus where he had nothing by mouth for three days (v9).  Meanwhile, the Lord commanded a believer named Ananias to meet Saul and minister to him.  Despite his fear at revealing himself to the feared Pharisee and persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus, Ananias obeyed. Saul, soon to be known as Paul, regained his sight and began his ministry. Something like scales fell from his eyes, he regained his sight, he was baptized (v18), and he took food and water (v19).

The second account, in Acts 22, described his testimony during his trial before the Jews.  After years of preaching Christ throughout Asia Minor and Greece, Paul had returned to Jerusalem.  He was falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple and he was arrested.  Addressing his accusers in their native Hebrew tongue, Paul 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.  He recounted his zeal in persecuting Christians and his mission to Damascus.  Like the sister account, Paul described the bright light and the voice of Christ, 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 that in chapter 22 said “go to Damascus”.    The account of the Lord’s message to Ananias is not found in the 22nd chapter.

The third account, in Acts 26, is significantly different 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.  He added details about the encounter on the road, including that “it is hard for you to kick against the goads”.  In this account, Jesus told Paul that he was chosen by God and that he would bring the gospel to the Gentiles, all in great detail.  Paul provided no details on his activities in Damascus and then went on to convey his message to the Gentiles.

Far from being proof of a fabrication, the differences in the accounts demonstrate the reliability of the account.  Depending upon the purpose for telling a story and the audience that will hear it, people choose to emphasize different aspects of the story.  The account in chapter 9, in which Luke’s purpose was to tell the story of the early church, emphasized Paul and the believers in Damascus.   The chapter 22 account was not intended to be a story but a testimony.  It emphasized Paul’s essential Jewishness and faithfulness to the Law, and referred 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, was different.  Both in medicine and in law, a story that is totally unchanged between events is more likely to be considered a fabrication.

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.

3 thoughts on “Paul’s Conversion – Why Three Accounts, and How Do They Differ?”

  1. You are wrong. In the NIV Bible, v.18, states, “Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eys, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, (v.19) and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

  2. At the end of your first paragraph, you state that the accounts “differ slightly”. I’d like to point out that they differ more than slightly.

    Acts 9:3 As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. 4 Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
    9:7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one.

    Light shines. Paul falls to the ground. Paul hears a voice. His companions hear a voice but see no one.

    Acts 22:8,9 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.

    Paul falls to the ground. Paul hears a voice. His companions see the light, but don’t hear the voice.

    Acts: 2612 “While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 13 at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

    Paul sees a light. All fall to the ground. Paul hears a voice.

    While one account could be true, they can’t all be true, especially the first two.

    I won’t even get into the jurisdictional issue here with the high priests. What authority would they have had in Damascus? Also, they were Sadducees and the high priest’s office at the time was bought. A Pharisee such as Paul purports to be would not have cooperated with them.

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