The conversion of Saul/Paul is so important to the author of the Book of Acts that he presents the story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26). Each version is different, and this fact has led some critics to say that the accounts are contradictory. But is that necessarily the case?
First, we must note that there are several common elements in the three versions:
- Saul is on his way to Damascus to gather up Christians.
- He sees an intense light.
- The Lord asks why Saul is persecuting him.
- Saul asks who the speaker is.
- Jesus reveals that it is he.
What are the differences? Darrel Bock, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:
The biggest differences in the accounts have to do with whether the men traveling with Saul see the light and hear nothing (22:9) or stand speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (9:7). . . . Another difference is that Ananias does not appear at all in the Acts 26 account. . . . Another key difference between the accounts is that Saul does not mention his call to reach the Gentiles in the account given in Acts 9, whereas he shares this detail in Acts 22 and 26.
Bock then argues that each of these differences can be reconciled. About the different experiences of the men traveling with Saul,
The elements at play here can be reconciled (Witherington 1998, 312– 13), as for instance in the following way: The men hear a sound, but it is not intelligible to them; they also see a light but not Jesus himself. Only Saul sees someone in the light and is able to discern a speaking voice in the sound. Saul’s companions experience something less than the full event, which means that the appearance is neither an entirely private vision nor a fully disclosed public event. It is a public event whose details are for one man alone, Saul of Tarsus.
John Polhill, in Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary, agrees with Bock:
Paul’s traveling companions served as authenticators that what happened to Paul was an objective event, not merely a rumbling of his inner psyche. They heard a sound, but they did not see the vision of Jesus. Acts 22:9 says that they saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke with Paul. The two accounts are not contradictory but underline the same event. Paul’s companions heard a sound and saw a light. They could verify that an objective heavenly manifestation took place. They did not participate in the heavenly communication, however, neither seeing the vision of Jesus nor hearing the words spoken to Paul. The revelation was solely to Paul.
Regarding Ananias being left out of Acts 26, Bock writes, “This may be in part because the book has already mentioned him in detail twice, in Acts 9 and 22. Luke chooses not to be redundant on this detail, and so he provides a telescoped account.”
Regarding Saul not mentioning his call to the Gentiles in Acts 9, “Ananias notes in 9:15 that Saul would be called to a Gentile mission, so we probably have another example of telescoping. Another possibility is that Luke chose not to note this detail in his third-person narrative because the Gentile mission had not yet taken place, but this argument is somewhat weakened by the mention of the mission to Ananias. In any case, Saul’s not mentioning his Gentile mission in Acts 9 is simply an outcome of Luke’s literary choice, the exact reason for which is not clear.”
As is common in ancient retellings, each version has some variation so that each adds something to the reader’s understanding. Witherington (1998, 303– 15) has a helpful discussion of the relationship between these three accounts. He stresses that all of them are summaries and are not intended to provide comprehensive information.