Road to Damascus: A Bible Contradiction?

Two descriptions of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—in the same book—do not agree! How can we understand this apparent Bible contradiction?

Acts tells more of the history of the New Testament Church of God than any other book of the Bible. And it records how God stopped Paul from persecuting the Church.

As students of the Bible know, the apostle Paul was also called Saul, his Hebrew name. Acts 13:9 says, “Then Saul, who also is called Paul,” and from then on the Bible generally calls him by his Greek name Paul. For the purposes of this article, we will use “Paul,” since the apostle is best known by that name.

Paul terrorizes the Church

As Acts 9 explains, Paul was a relentless antagonist of the fledgling Church of God. Acts 9 shows that the word persecution hardly does justice to what Paul did to Church members; he went after them murderously, intent on using the full weight of the law to arrest any believer he could find. He spared neither man nor woman from being captured and transported in restraints to Jerusalem for trial.

Damascus is about 140 miles northeast of Jerusalem; it must have been a long journey on the dusty roads of the first century. Rome gave the Sanhedrin authority to control Jewish affairs, which included dealing with this “new faith.” Therefore, the synagogues of Damascus were subject to the authorization the Sanhedrin had given Paul to arrest Christians who had fled Jerusalem. One can imagine the terror Paul caused believers, their families and the Church of God in general.

Paul later wrote he should be thought of as the least of all apostles, due to the horror of the persecution he inflicted (1 Corinthians 15:9). His previous actions initially caused Paul much difficulty being accepted into the Jerusalem Church community after his conversion. Paul later told and retold the account of his conversion on the road to Damascus when he came under persecution for converting to the same beliefs he initially harassed.

The road to Damascus

Acts 9 tells us that on the road to Damascus, Paul was stopped in his tracks—literally! Jesus apparently subdued Paul and his associates by using a brilliant light. Hearing a voice from heaven, along with the powerful light blast, an astonished Paul perceived someone saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).

Paul clearly understood what Jesus said

The instinctive reaction would be to ask, “Who are you, sir?” (“Lord” in verse 5 is the equivalent of “sir” in today’s language—not a reference to God.) That is what Paul asked. Jesus then identified Himself, rebuking the up-to-then arrogant Paul, telling the man that by persecuting Church members, Paul had been persecuting Jesus personally!

Humbly, Paul asked what Jesus wanted him to do, and Jesus gave Paul specific instructions. Now we are at the point of the Bible contradiction—or the seeming contradiction.

Here we are told the others did not understand

At this point, the record says, “And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one” (verse 7, emphasis added throughout).

Now, fast-forward many years. Paul has been converted and become a powerful apostle in the Church. The tides were turned when a mob in Jerusalem seized Paul on a false rumor about his faith in the true God. They were in the same murderous mood he once felt when persecuting believers. Only the last-minute intervention by soldiers assigned to the temple spared Paul from the mob’s intentions.

But then Paul asked to address the crowd.

Here we are told the men did not hear Jesus’ voice!

This is found in Acts 22. In telling the story of how he came to believe in this way, he recounted the voice from heaven on the road to Damascus. Only he appears to have changed the details. He said, “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” (Acts 22:9).

A small point? Perhaps, but Jesus said, “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), meaning there are no loose threads, which, if pulled, rip to pieces the authority of the Bible.

Luke is the sole author of Acts. He wrote in Acts 9:7 about Paul’s partners in crime “hearing a voice”—the voice from heaven. Luke later wrote in chapter 22:9 that those with Paul “did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.”

Do these two accounts of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus present a Bible contradiction? Let’s take a closer look to see.

A closer look at the words

The Greek word for “hear” in both Acts 9:7 and 22:9 is akouo. It is the usual word meaning “to hear” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1985).

And the same word is used for “voice” in both verses, phone. The same resource defines it as “a sound” and explains it can be used of the voice of God, Christ, angels, humans and even things like the wind.

But you don’t have to be an expert in Greek grammar to solve the mystery of the apparent contradiction. Do you know what the best interpreter of the Bible is? The Bible itself! We should allow the context to help us determine the meaning.Therefore, researching the original language doesn’t always immediately resolve the seeming Bible contradiction. Did Paul’s associates hear the voice from heaven? Did they understand the words Jesus spoke to Paul?

Vine’s does note, however, that in “Acts 9:7, ‘hearing the voice,’ the noun ‘voice’ is in the partitive genitive case [i.e., hearing (something) of], whereas 22:9, ‘they heard not the voice,’ the construction is with the accusative. This removes the idea of any contradiction. The former indicates a ‘hearing’ of the sound, the latter indicates the meaning or message of the voice (this they did not hear)” (“Hear, Hearing”).

The best Bible interpreter

But you don’t have to be an expert in Greek grammar to solve the mystery of the apparent contradiction. Do you know what the best interpreter of the Bible is? The Bible itself! We should allow the context to help us determine the meaning. It is unmistakably plain that Paul heard and understood the words, because he responded and acted upon the words.

The solution to the apparent contradiction comes from Paul. He said the people with him “did not hear the voice” that spoke to him. The only way for the two accounts to make sense is that the associates heard only a sound, while Paul heard distinct words.

Commentators get the point

Matthew Henry in his commentary adds the following: “They heard a voice, but saw no man; they heard Paul speak, but saw not him to whom he spoke, nor heard distinctly what was said to him: which reconciles it with what is said of this matter, Act 22:9, where it is said, They saw the light and were afraid (which they might do and yet see no man in the light, as Paul did), and that they heard not the voice of him that spoke to Paul, so as to understand what he said, though they did hear a confused noise.”

The NKJV Study Bible notes: “The men who had accompanied Paul heard the sound but could not understand the words that were being spoken to Paul” (2007, comments on Acts 22:9).

No attempt to hide shows authenticity

Some might argue that this apparent contradiction shows the book of Acts might not be genuine. To the contrary, writes A. Robertson in Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament, “It is one of the evidences of the genuineness of this report of Paul’s speech that Luke did not try to smooth out apparent discrepancies in details between the words of Paul and his own record already in ch. 9” (1927, comments on Acts 22:9).

That is, if Acts was not genuinely inspired, someone attempting to pass it off as such would have attempted to make the distinction plainer by choosing different words. Not fearing any contradiction, Luke used the same words, knowing that the reader would realize what sense the author meant by the words in each context by comparing the accounts.

“Mystery” solved! There is no Bible contradiction between Acts 9 and 22 in the descriptions of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.

About the Author

Roger West

Roger West is a retired pastor serving with the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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