Contradiction: Paul Conversion Testimony

Let’s take a look at one of those “contradiction” controversies. In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul’s testimony about his conversion to following Jesus three different times. The first time is the event itself, and the second and third are retellings by Paul before the authorities. There seems to be a discrepancy between them. 

Let’s look at variations between English translations (NLT and KJV).

Original Event:
Acts 9:3 (NLT) As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” 5 “Who are you, lord?” Saul asked. And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! 6 Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one!

Acts 9:3 (KJV) And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. 7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.

Everything here is basically the same but the testimonies of Paul recalling this event are translated with a slight difference between versions.

Testimony 1:
Acts 22:6 (NLT) “As I was on the road, approaching Damascus about noon, a very bright light from heaven suddenly shone down around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked. “And the voice replied, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, the one you are persecuting.’ 9 The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me.

Acts 22:6 (KJV) And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. 7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 8 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. 9 And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.

In Acts 9:7, and 22:9 the story says seemingly different things about how Paul’s companions responded when Jesus spoke to Paul from the blinding light on the way to Damascus. In Acts 9:7 it says, the men with Paul, heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one, but in Acts 22:9 it says the men with Paul, didn’t hear the voice speaking to him. Did they hear the voice or not? Could they physically not hear an audible voice, or did they simply not understand? Before we move on to the last testimony, let’s take a look closer look at the NLT translation of Acts 22:9, things are worded a little differently.

Acts 22:9 (NLT) The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me.

Notices here say they “didn’t understand it”. That sounds different from “not hearing”. Back in the 1600s when the Elizabethan English of the KJV was spoken there may not have been much of a difference since hearing and understanding can sort of be interchanged. In modern American English vernacular, we often use an idiom that says, “it went in one ear and out of the other”, in reference to when someone hears the information but didn’t retain or understand it. So I believe the difference in wording is simply the result of era and culture changes with language and Acts 22:9 is basically saying though they may have physically heard the voice like Acts 9:7 says, they didn’t understand it. Acts 9:7 is the same in both KJV and NLT so the difference only appears in Acts 22:9. There is one last testimony to look at in Acts 26.

Testimony 2:
Acts 26:12 (KJV) Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.

Acts 26:14 (NLT) We all fell down, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic,[or Hebrew] ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is useless for you to fight against my will.

The final testimony clears things up. It clarifies in Acts 26:14, that Jesus spoke to Paul in Hebrew. Paul’s companions may not have spoken that language and instead spoke Greek which was more common for laypeople at that time. This is why he mentioned what language the voice spoke. Hebrew was mainly spoken and understood by Bible scholars rather than the common people. Paul was a bible scholar, a Pharisee who studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), so he knew Hebrew and was a well-educated polyglot. This implies that his companions heard the voice but didn’t understand the language, yet Paul heard and understood.

There is a note in the NLT about whether or not the voice spoke Hebrew or Aramaic since different English translations use different words there. I will get to that in a moment but first, let’s deal with another “contradiction” of how the people reacted when the light shined.

In Acts 9:4 it says “he [Paul] fell to the ground”. Acts 22:7 says “I[Paul] fell to the ground”. Acts 26:14 says “We [Paul] and his companions fell to the ground”. Did just Paul fall or did they all fall when the light suddenly shined on them? First thing Acts 9 is written from a narrator’s perspective (Luke) since he is just telling a story of the historical event. Acts 22 and 26 are transcriptions of Paul’s testimony before the authorities. This is why there is a shift from the third person to the first person. Now, if I said to a person that had a blue ball in a box and said to another I had two balls in a box. Then when I opened the box there was one red ball and one blue one, did I lie? No, there were two balls in the box and at least one was blue so both things were true at the same time. Paul is included in the “we” of Acts 26:14, so they all fell. In Acts 26 he mentions the companions in verse 13, but in the other passages, he mentions the companions at the end of the event. So it’s natural for him to say we after mentioning the others. If only he fell then he would have said “I” even after mentioning his companions. The “we” includes Paul and the “I” excludes the companions when explaining the event in the first two passages since they weren’t mentioned yet. It doesn’t make sense to say “we” before introducing the fact that there was more than one person. Acts 26 is giving us extra info that we didn’t have before, showing us a fuller picture. In this passage, Paul is emphasizing that there was even a language difference between him and his companions. Paul’s audience in Acts 26 is a Gentile King (King Agrippa), but in Acts 22 he is addressing the Jewish people in Jerusalem in their own native language, so the audience is different in each event, which is why he is including different details in each testimony.

Lastly, we must ask the question why did they all fall? It was a reaction to the light suddenly shining, and it’s stated that they all saw the light in Acts 26:13. This infers that they all saw it and fell. Someone may point out that in Acts 9:7 the companions were “standing speechless” while in Acts 26:14 they “all fell”, is this contradiction? Well, we know Paul was blinded in all three sections of Acts and was led to Damascus by his companions because he couldn’t see, so they had to have gotten up at some point to guide him to the city. Paul is the only one that needed help since only he was blinded by the light. Furthermore, Paul is the only one that understood the voice and talked to the voice speaking, so it makes sense that Paul stayed on the ground in reverence while talking to Jesus. Meanwhile, the companions got up and stood there, covering their eyes, waiting for Paul to finish talking to the foreign voice in the light.

Did the voice speak Hebrew or Aramaic? Modern translation like the NLT says Aramaic but there is a footnote that says “Hebrew” which is in older translations like the KJV. According to the concordance of this passage, the Greek word used for Hebrew/Aramaic is Hebrais (Ἑβραΐς). That word is translated as Hebrew consistently in the KJV but Aramaic in some modern translations like the NLT. Why? It appears in the new testament three times in reference to the Hebrew language, in Acts 21:40, 22:2, and 26:14. The concordance explains that this word is not the Hebrew of the Old Testament but rather a Chaldee dialect that was used by laypeople in the region at the time. Aramaic is a part of the Semitic language family just like Hebrew and they use the same alphabet but they have different spelling and pronunciation for shared words. The newer English translations are just distinguishing it from Old Testament Hebrew, while the KJV authors just saw it all as relative the same since it has the same alphabet and is spoken by the same people.

Old Testament Hebrew was not spoken commonly for a long time because the Israelites adopted the language of Aramaic from Persia after the Babylonian Exile (6th Century BC). The language itself was preserved in written form by scholars and scribes but it was not spoken by commoners. Acts 26:14 is distinguishing that the voice spoke a language that only Paul could understand. Whether or not that was scribal Hebrew or Aramaic is still debated, but an argument can be made that it was the scribal Hebrew that trained Sanhedrin members would have been familiar with, and Paul was a trained Pharisee so he would have known Old Testament Hebrew. In the end, when gathering these scriptures together it seems pretty clear that whatever language Jesus was speaking to Paul, was not spoken by Paul’s companions, so they heard it with their ears but they didn’t understand. There’s no contradiction here.

The Greek text for Acts 26:14
Hebrais (Ἑβραΐς)
Hebrew Displacement by Aramaic
Another article on the subject