Is there a contradiction in Paul’s conversion story? Critics of the Bible have often pointed to Paul’s conversion story as an example of a Bible contradiction. In different telling’s of the event, it seems people hear or see different things. How can both these accounts be accurate? If the Bible is inerrant, then shouldn’t the stories match exactly?
There are three passages that relay the events of Paul’s conversion. For this comparison, we are only using the first two. The first is found in Acts chapter 9. The second is found in Acts chapter 22. Let’s take a look at both verses before we continue and see what they do and do not say.
Acts 9:7–8 (NKJV)
7 And the men who journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice but seeing no one. 8 Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.
Acts 22:6–9 (NKJV)
6 “Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light from heaven shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ 8 So I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’
9 “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.
What Did They See, And What Did They Hear?
It seems we have two different issues in play here. What did those with Paul see, and what did those with Paul hear. Let’s first look at what was seen. In the Acts 9 verse, it says the men heard a voice, but saw no one. In Acts 22, the men saw a light, and hear the voice of Him who spoke.
This seems fairly easy to resolve. And it doesn’t take much to see what happened. In the first telling in Acts 9, Luke is simply referring to the person of Christ. None of the men with Paul saw the Person. They did however see the light that surrounded Paul. I think that is a fairly straight forward and easy to understand explanation.
But What About What They Heard?
Ok, you might say, maybe you can explain what everyone saw. But how do you explain what everyone heard? That seems to be a clear contradiction!
Again, we need to look at what was said, and what wasn’t said. In Acts 9, the men heard “a” voice. But notice that we are not told they heard the “They heard the voice of Him who spoke”. In addition, the Greek word used by Luke for “hear” is akouō, which can also be translated as “understood”. Many translations like the ESV, NIV, NET, and NASB actually translate it as understood. It seems that what occurred was that the men heard a noise, but could not understand what it was saying or who was speaking.
Did Luke Know What He Was Doing?
We have just made a reasonable case that shows there actually is no contradiction in these verses. One final piece of evidence to consider is the author himself. Luke is relaying all three of the accounts. If he were making things up, it’s likely that he would have repeated the same story 3 times for consistency’s sake. The fact that the details vary slightly convey that he was accurately recording Paul’s words on the matter. And as many people do when telling the same story over and over again, they tend to not tell it the same way every time.
So no, there is no explicit contradiction in Paul’s conversion story. We have the same account told with an emphasis on different portions of the event.