Did Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus hear the voice of Jesus?

Posted on Nov.28, 2008. Filed in Acts. Average rating: 4.0 / 10 (Rate It).

Acts contains several accounts of the conversion of Paul (formerly called Saul) from zealous persecutor of the church to an apostle of Jesus. The accounts are very similar, generally describing Paul falling to the ground in response to a bright light, Jesus commissioning Paul and sending him to Damascus for instructions, and a temporarily blind Paul then being led away by his companions. One discrepancy between the accounts, however, concerns whether the companions heard the voice of Jesus.

In the first account, the companions hear the voice but see no one:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. [Acts 9:3-8 (NRSV)]

In the second account, the companions see the light but don’t hear the voice:

‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.’ [Acts 22:6-11 (NRSV)]

So did Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus hear the voice or not? If they did, then Acts 22:9 contains an error. If they didn’t, then Acts 9:7 contains an error.

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    Isn’t it possible to say that Paul simply makes a mistake here, and the Bible accurately reports it?

  2. 2

    Good observation; like it!

    I’ll add it as a possible inerrantist response.

  3. 3

    The response based on ambiguity in ακουω looks like it might have legs.

    Matthew 13:13 is relevant here: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.'” [NRSV]

    In the phrase “hearing they do not listen”, the verb ακουω is used twice, but the NRSV has used two different English verbs to reflect the fact that it’s being used in two different ways.

    This gives support to the idea that ακουω has a sufficient range of meaning that hearing is something that you can both do and not do at the same time.

  4. 4

    I have my doubts about attributing misspeaking to Paul. That response has been offered here and in the other problem regarding Paul’s own account of what happened on the road to Damascus. It is one thing to say that Stephen misspoke. There are mistakes in Stephen’s monologue, two of which have been singled out here and here. These do not present a problem for inerrancy.

    It is quite another thing to say that Paul misspoke.

    Paul had apostolic authority. Luke’s writings are included in the cannon largely because of his association with Paul. So it’s odd to say that Luke correctly reports Paul’s conversion and correctly reports Paul’s own incorrect rendition of that conversion. I think this is one place where indirect speech reported by Scripture must be harmonized with the direct testimony of Scripture.

    I suppose that this is a long-winded way of voting for the second inerrantist response above.

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