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 (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 he had nothing by mouth 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 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.  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 that 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, 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 (vv9-11).  He added details 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, all in great detail (vv16-18).  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.

One reader replied that my argument in the previous paragraph 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 expected, 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. We have already discussed that 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.

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

MD, MPH, MBA, MDiv, PhD, ThM Colonel, US Army (ret)

13 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.

  3. I was going to make a point similar to the one above. The accounts say opposite things not just include or not different facts.
    You can’t reconcile opposite accounts. In one his companions heard a voice and didn’t see the light and in another it’s the other way round…..

  4. Ref. Paul and 3 different accounts ! You seem to want to add a 4th account !! as- you state that Ananias was “not found” in Acts ch 22. See v. 12 !
    3 differing accounts written by the same person is INTENTIONAL …..Perhaps LUKE is telling us something ? ( Paul meets NONE of Peter’s prerequisites for one to be an Apostle of JESUS …and nor did Paul meet JESUS CHRIST in the flesh ….Acts ch 1. vs 21-22) Be aware that Paul’s teaching is vastly different from the teaching of Christ. ” 2 JOHN v 9..”…is there for a purpose..
    ( 3 versions means at least 2 are not right…BUT ALL are in the Bible)) One must also notice that the beginning of each incident of all accounts, was the “blinding” LIGHT…..which blinded Paul. Acts ch 22 v 11. ie. PAUL therefore was NOT a witness of JESUS. even then…..AND ….
    JESUS has told us that “I am going away and no one will see “Me” until He returns at the end. Was JESUS wrong?
    I don’t think so !!!! Jesus also tells us that 2 witnesses are required for something to be true.
    .Even JESUS Himself relies on GOD to be His witness. (Texts available). Paul offers no witnesses ….for anything.. The Bible is GOD’s WORD ….but we must discern what is written.
    Thank you. rodd

  5. Paul spoke in Aramaic language before Jews not Hebrew….for his testimony.

  6. I’m with Marcus on this. And to say that, “Far from being proof of a fabrication, the differences in the accounts demonstrate the reliability of the account”, is sheer sophistry ! Paul doesn’t even preach the same gospel as Jesus. Jesus preached the “Gospel of the Kingdom”. Paul preached what he often called, “my gospel”. Check it out yourself using a concordance to check out every NT reference to “gospel”, and see how Paul preached a different gospel to Jesus.

  7. Years separated Paul’s telling and retelling of his conversion. All three are true! The main points being A bright Light which blinded him; he fell to the ground, and Jesus spoke to him and his life was changed. Don’t strain at a gnat and swallow a camel!

  8. The discrepancies within Acts are already suspicious enough. On top of that, Acts contradicts Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Acts has Paul returning to Jerusalem where he “tried to meet with the real apostles”. But in Galatians he stresses rather strongly that he did NOT return to Jerusalem and did Not seek to meet with the apostles, but went to Arabia. Thereafter he returns to Damascus for three years before finally meeting with Peter and James.
    Yet in Acts, he forgot all about that and claims to have gone right back to Jerusalem?
    Acts has Paul recount his travels to the finest details, citing conversations from years earlier verbatim; but completely forgets his travel to Arabia and a three year stay in Damascus.

  9. Luke’s 3 stories more or less align. The real challenge is to make Luke align with Paul. Is Paul right to insist that only 2 Christians in Jerusalem had met him, or is Acts right to present Paul as the greatest enemy of the church in Jerusalem? Is Paul telling the truth when he says he went away to Arabia for 3 years before meeting with anyone, or is Acts right that he traveled directly to believers?

    If this was the only place where they disagreed, perhaps we could do some mental gymnastics to make them fit together, but this is part of a pattern. Paul says he split with Barnabas because of theological disputes; Acts says it was merely a personnel disagreement. Paul tells us Peter is a hypocrite who makes Christ worthless by his teachings; Acts tells us they lived happily ever after once Peter cheerfully conceded on all points of dispute. Either Acts or Paul are telling us the real story. My guess is that Paul, writing less than a decade after the events, is a more reliable witness than a test written no earlier than 93 CE.

  10. The authorship of any of the books of the new testament are attributed as such, but there is no proof that they “wrote” the given texts. Actually, to the contrary. It is assumed that the texts were gleaned from books that were compilations of works, sayings, and history. But to say “The Book of Luke” was written by Luke is silly.

  11. I am not sure of your meaning here. Historians and other academic authors use source material, but that does not mean that they did not write their book. Luke probably interviewed people and may have used existing documents, but that neither diminishes his authorship nor the authority and veracity of what he wrote.

  12. I am stunned at the rebuttals! If you don’t believe the bible, why do you argue it? And if you DO believe the bible, why do you question it? What is your purpose? It is the Word. Regardless of the translations, and the discrepancies among them, the main point is not lost, is it?

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