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.

Related Articles

  1. Key Concepts of Paul in Salvation
  2. Paul’s Life – Background and Chronology
  3. Paul’s Missionary Journeys
  4. The Early Church from Movement to Organization

Author: MD Harris Family Institute

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

24 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.
    Sure…

  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. Luke does not claim to have interviewed anyone. Luke claims to have gathered information from sources that can trace their information back to the origins. And, when we open up Luke/Acts, we see clear evidence of literary dependency on Matthew, Mark, and Josephus. The reliance on Josephus, in particular, points to a rather late date of composition, too late to be plausibly written by Paul’s traveling companion.

    It’s also clear from the text that this person is part of the aristocracy, having an educational background that virtually no physicians had at this time.

  13. 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?

  14. Hi Bethany,

    You seem to be of the opinion that if someone does not agree with X, that there is no reason for them to argue against X. But, if that were true, no one would ever question anything, and we would all be a lot more foolish because of that.

    The main point of the New Testament is not lost amid the sea of minor errors and discrepancies, but the clearly human origins of these texts seems relevant to assessing whether the main point of the documents is trustworthy.

  15. Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and to a lesser extent, Apollos, worked together as a team and carefully discipled their most devoted followers. They had eternal consequences in mind. Obviously, there was a different emphasis of details given to their different audiences. Similar to the differences of details emphasized among the four canonical Gospels. Peter would have known about these differences from the disciples trained under Paul (the accepted canonical 2 Peter 3:15). Paul’s disciples occasionally connected with the apostles in Jerusalem, so they all knew what was going on in various parts of the continent. If there had been any problems or discrepancies in what was taught or written, those problems would have been corrected. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is shaping the experiences and the subsequent writing of the accounts (Acts 5:3-4; 2 Thessalonians 2:2). Sins and errors were corrected during the apostles’ time.
    Stay focused on Jesus Christ and his priorities of salvation from sins and discipleship. Our Eternity depends on that. None of us want to look back on our lives and regret our choices and statements (Luke 16:22-29). BTW, this is not a parable. Jesus did not use proper names in any of his parables. Jesus’ warning are clear. Today is a blessed opportunity to focus on Jesus and talk about him to everyone around us. Read the Gospel to your family, friends, and co-workers every day. ✝📖😇📣👨‍👩‍👦‍👦

  16. unbelievable. Arguing over such things as this. I agree with Bethany 100%. Her comment was probably the most sensible one on here. You can nitpick, use your big words to try and impress and stress your theological intelligence, but it doesn’t change a thing. The Bible is God’s Word, you take it by Faith. Salvation is so simple that even a child can understand it, but after a ‘theologian’ gets a hold of it with his ‘great wisdom of knowledge’ and rips into it bit by bit he has twisted it up so much no one can understand it. If anything by doing this you are presenting the Bible to the world as a phony meaningless book. Be careful.

  17. Solomon reminds us that puffing oneself up is vain. The charge “use big words to try and impress and stress your theological intelligence” is misplaced. The Bible encourages us to glorify God with our hearts, souls, and minds.

    God’s word is eternal and has outlasted the most ferocious efforts of man, from Diocletian to Mao, to make people believe that it is a “phony, meaningless, book.” As it has for thousands of years, the Bible will remain when everything else has fallen.

  18. my comment was not directed at you in any way, but not quite sure what you meant about the “ use your big words to try and impress and stress your theological intelligence” being misplaced.

  19. Grandma’s Biscuits,

    Thank you for writing back. If I may be permitted to assume that your name reflects your talents and interests, I suspect that you make marvelous biscuits! Bakers bake as best they can so that eaters can be blessed by their work, and likewise writers write as best they can so that readers can be blessed by their work. Impressing others is rarely the intent.

  20. Some say that Paul’s conversion is suspect and that he did not preach the same message as Jesus. Jesus spoke to primarily the Jews seeking to bring them to Him as the Messiah. Had they done so, the Millennium may have started then and we would not be here. It was not meant to be. After the Cross the message was the same for Jews and Greeks as the Gospel is to the Jew first and then to the Greeks. Receive forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ. The Jerusalem Council gave us four things to abstain from as we did not have to become Jews. The Jews struggled with the Gospel and had trouble with the Law and traditions not being needing hence the conflict in Romans 14 and 15 when the Church was comprised of both Jews and Gentiles.

    I have given my testimony many times and sometimes I forget details or leave them out depending on the audience or how much time I have to give it. The core is always to the same. I went to church to get a guy off of my back and ended up saved and in bible college a few years later. Is my testimony invalid? I don’t think so.

    Whatever discrepancies you feel is there is in his account of his salvation, it is evident by the change in Paul’s life that he was saved. Ananias was sent to give Paul instructions by Christ. Paul’s ministry was accepted by and endorsed by the Jerusalem Council, which was made up of men that were saved, filled with the Spirit and anointed by God to guide the Body of Jewish believers. Peter still struggled with the fear of men to where Paul had to call him out in Galatians. Peter, though he struggled with some of Paul’s message still accepted him and his teachings as being from God. He then wrote the doctrines of the church and only outdone by Luke if you accept Luke as the author of Hebrews. I believe it was Paul. Indeed, the people that were with Paul on that road may not have known what was happening, but they would have affirmed that Paul changed from Saul very rapidly.

    People do not like Paul’s teachings in this age so any chance that can be had they will seek to discredit him. Some are the offspring of the Judaizers that Paul contended with in much of his writings. Others are often hyper-feminists who do not like what he says about the roles of men and women in the home and especially these days, the church. I will throw some more gas on the fire by saying that there is a fourfold, not five-fold ministry. I do not believe that there are the offices of pastor and teacher, but rather one pastor-teacher based on the construct of the passage and that kai between two nouns can be translated as and or even. Looking at 1 Timothy 3 the translation of pastor-teacher is in alignment with Paul’s teaching of the office and the lack of pastor in the list of gifts in Romans, but teacher is present. The pastor was the teacher in the church meaning a woman could not hold that office. Chaplains are pastors of chapels so that is ruled out well. Indeed, a woman in a teaching ministry is usurping the man as it is his calling to teach no matter who is the student. Older women are to teach the younger in Titus and the curriculum is in the passage. Theology or doctrinal teaching is not in that list. That irritates people and so call Paul a misogynist and that validates their false beliefs.

  21. Dr. Schultz,

    Thank you for your extensive and well-conceived comments. I share your respect for the accuracy of Scriptures, both Luke’s work in Acts and Paul’s in the Epistles. As Christians, we must acknowledge that these discrepancies are real. They provide reasons for some to justify disbelief, though many of these would be inclined to disbelieve anyway.

    Each generation fancies themselves wiser and more moral than their forebears, and assumes that they have nothing for which their successors will be ashamed. Thus, we disparage earlier scholars, historians, and archaeologists who took these accounts at face value despite the discrepancies. The idea that a new discovery will answer our questions seems impossible. We believe that our generation is the wisest and ours is the final word.

    Your suggestion that perhaps Paul just forgot some details is also valid. Who among us has not misremembered something from our past? Skeptics would argue that such misremembering refutes the inerrancy of Scripture. The bottom line, of course, is that we simply do not know how to harmonize the accounts. Those who choose to hold to the inerrancy of Scripture do so, and those who do not do not.

    Regarding Paul and women, some women, including my late grandmother, disliked Paul for the reasons that you noted. It is sad for them, since they forfeit the riches that God poured out through Paul. Please refer to my article on God’s Design for Men and Women in the Church at https://mdharrismd.com/2020/10/15/gods-design-for-men-and-women-in-the-church/.

  22. I did not mean to make Paul look like he forgot. That is me. I only used that to show that in my case, not Paul’s, is that at any given time I could forget a detail in giving my testimony one place, but remember it at another time. Paul would not forget, for the Spirit was writing through him. Thus, it would be more of choosing what to relay at the given time and place. Because the Word is verbal-plenary inspired what is written was meant to be written in the way it was written Indeed, these things though they appear to not be harmonious are not meant to be harmonious by our understanding. As far as we know, no one brought that up to Paul. I suspect he would be conflicted between laughing at the inquirer and shaking his head. Of all the deep teaching given to us by Paul for the naysayers to attack, they look at this. Sometimes maybe, these things were written so that it would highlight for us those that are professing to be wise are foolish.

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