the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus as painted by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Conversion of Paul the Apostle, was, according to the New Testament, an event that took place in the life of Paul the Apostle which led him to cease persecuting early Christians and to become a follower of Jesus. It is normally dated by researchers to AD 33–36. The phrases Pauline conversion, Damascene conversion and Damascus Christophany, and road to Damascus allude to this event.
New Testament description
Within the New Testament, Paul’s conversion experience is discussed in both Paul’s own letters and in the book known by the title Acts of the Apostles. According to both sources, Paul was never a follower of Jesus and did not know Jesus before his crucifixion. Instead, he severely persecuted the early Christians. Although Paul refers to himself as an”Apostle” of Jesus, it is clear that Paul was not one of “The Twelve” apostles.[1 Cor. 9:1-2] Paul’s conversion occurred after Jesus’ crucifixion. The accounts of Paul’s conversion experience describe it as miraculous, supernatural, or otherwise revelatory in nature.
Paul’s life before conversion:
Before his conversion, Paul, then known as Saul, was a “zealous” Pharisee who “intensely persecuted” the followers of Jesus. Some scholars argue that Paul was a member of the “Zealot” party. Says Paul in his Epistle to the Galatians:
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
— Galatians 1:13–14, NIV
Paul also discusses his pre-conversion life in his Epistle to the Philippians, and his participation in the stoning of Stephen is described in Acts 7:57-8:3.
The conversion in Paul’s letters
In his surviving letters, Paul’s own description of his conversion experience is brief. In his First Epistle to the Corinthians,[9:1] [15:3-8] he describes having seen the Risen Christ:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
— 1 Cor. 15:3–8, NIV (emphasis added)
Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians also describes his conversion as a divine revelation, with God’s Son appearing in Paul.
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.
— Galatians 1:11-16, NIV (emphasis added)
The conversion in Acts of the Apostles
Acts of the Apostles discusses Paul’s conversion experience at three different points in the text, in far more detail than in the accounts in Paul’s letters. The book of Acts records that Paul was on his way from Jerusalem for Syrian Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus, with the intention of returning them to Jerusalem as prisoners for questioning and possible execution. The journey is interrupted when Paul sees a blinding light, and communicates directly with a divine voice.
Acts 9 tells the story of Paul’s conversion as a third-person narrative:
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
— Acts 9:3–9, NIV
The account continues with a description of Ananias of Damascus receiving a divine revelation instructing him to visit Saul at the house of Judas on the Street Called Straight and there lay hands on him to restore his sight (the house of Judas is traditionally believed to have been near the west end of the street). Ananias is initially reluctant, having heard about Saul’s persecution, but obeys the divine command:
Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul (c.1631) by Pietro da Cortona.
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
— Acts 9:13–19, NIV
Paul on trial before Agrippa (Acts 26), as pictured by Nikolai Bodarevsky, 1875.
Acts’ second telling of Paul’s conversion occurs in a speech Paul gives when he is arrested in Jerusalem.[Acts 22:6-21] Paul addresses the crowd and tells them of his conversion, with a description essentially the same as that in Acts 9, but with slight differences. For example, Acts 9:7 notes that Paul’s companions did not see who he was speaking to, while Acts 22:9 indicates that they did share in seeing the light (see also Differences between the accounts, below). This speech was most likely originally in Aramaic, with the passage here being a Greek translation and summary. The speech is clearly tailored for its Jewish audience, with stress being placed in Acts 22:12 on Ananias’ good reputation among Jews in Damascus, rather than on his Christianity.
Acts’ third discussion of Paul’s conversion occurs when Paul addresses King Agrippa, defending himself against the accusations of antinomianism that have been made against him.[Acts 26:12-18] This account is more brief than the others. The speech here is again tailored for its audience, emphasizing what a Roman ruler would understand: the need to obey a heavenly vision,[Acts 26:19] and reassuring Agrippa that Christians were not a secret society. [Acts 26:26]
The Conversion of Saint Paul, a 1600 painting by the Italian artist Caravaggio.
The Conversion of Paul, in spite of his attempts to completely eradicate Christianity, is seen as evidence of the power of Divine Grace, with “no fall so deep that grace cannot descend to it” and “no height so lofty that grace cannot lift the sinner to it.”It also demonstrates “God’s power to use everything, even the hostile persecutor, to achieve the divine purpose.”
The transforming effect of Paul’s conversion influenced the clear antithesis he saw “between righteousness based on the law,”which he had sought in his former life; and “righteousness based on the death of Christ,” which he describes, for example, in the Epistle to the Galatians.
Nature of the conversion experience
The Bible says that Paul’s conversion experience was an encounter with the resurrected Christ. Alternative explanations have been proposed, including sun stroke and seizure. In 1987, D. Landsborough published an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, in which he stated that Paul’s conversion experience, with the bright light, loss of normal bodily posture, a message of strong religious content, and his subsequent blindness, suggested “an attack of [temporal lobe epilepsy], perhaps ending in a convulsion … The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal.”
This conclusion was challenged in the same journal by James R. Brorson and Kathleen Brewer, who stated that this hypothesis failed to explain why Paul’s companions heard a voice (Acts 9:7), saw a light,[Acts 22:9] or fell to the ground.[Acts 26:14] Furthermore, no lack of awareness of blindness (a characteristic of cortical blindness) was reported in Acts, nor is there any indication of memory loss. Additionally, Paul’s blindness remitted in sudden fashion, rather than the gradual resolution typical of post-ictal states, and no mention is made of epileptic convulsions; indeed such convulsions may, in Paul’s time, have been interpreted as a sign of demonic influence, unlikely in someone accepted as a religious leader.
Differences between the accounts
An apparent contradiction in the details of the account of Paul’s revelatory vision given in Acts has been the subject of much debate. Specifically, the experience of Paul’s traveling companions as told in Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 has raised questions about the historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles, and generated debate about the best translations of the relevant passages. The two passages each describe the experience of Paul’s traveling companions during the revelation, with Acts 9:7 (the author’s description of the event) stating that Paul’s traveling companions heard the voice that spoke to him; and Acts 22:9 (the author’s quotation of Paul’s own words) traditionally stating they did not.
Biblical translations of Acts 9:7 generally state that Paul’s companions did, indeed, hear the voice (or sound) that spoke to him:
And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
—Acts 9:7, King James Version (KJV)
The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one.
—Acts 9:7, New American Bible (NAB)
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
—Acts 9:7, New International Version (NIV)
By contrast, Catholic translations and older Protestant translations preserve the apparent contradiction in Acts 22:9, while many modern Protestant translations such as the New International Version (NIV) do not:
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.
—Acts 22:9, King James Version (KJV)
My companions saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
—Acts 22:9, New American Bible (NAB)
My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
—Acts 22:9, New International Version (NIV)
“Hear” or “Understand”?
Critics of the NIV, New Living Translation, and similar versions contend that the translation used for Acts 22:9 is inaccurate. The verb used here — akouō (ἀκούω) — can be translated both “hear” and “understand” (both the KJV and NIV translate akouō as “understand” in 1 Cor. 14:2, for example). It often takes a noun in the genitive case for a person is being heard, with a noun in the accusative for the thing being heard. More classically, the use of the accusative indicates hearing with understanding. There is indeed a case difference here, with Acts 9:7 using the genitive tēs phōnēs (τῆς φωνῆς), and Acts 22:9 using the accusative tēn phōnēn (τὴν φωνὴν). However, there has been debate about which rule Luke was following here. On the second interpretation, Paul’s companions may indeed have heard the voice (as is unambiguously stated in Acts 9:7), yet not understood it, although New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace finds this argument based on case inconclusive.
“Voice” or “Sound”?
A similar debate arises with the NIV’s use of the word “sound” instead of “voice” in Acts 9:7. The noun used here — phōnē (φωνῆ) — can mean either. By translating 9:7 as “they heard the sound” instead of “they heard the voice,” the NIV allows for Paul’s companions to have heard an audible sound in Acts 9:7 without contradicting the statement in Acts 22:9 that they did not hear a comprehensible voice .
The New American Standard Bible, New Century Version, and English Standard Version maintain the “hear”/”understand” distinction while using “voice” in both passages. On the other hand, the Holman Christian Standard Bible has “sound”/”voice” with “hear” in both passages, and The Message adopts a similar translation, but with “sound”/”conversation.” The French La Bible du Semeur distinguishes between entendaient (“heard”) and compris (“understood”).
Although it is possible that there is a contradiction in these two passages unnoticed by their author, Richard Longenecker suggests that first-century readers probably understood the two passages to mean that everybody heard the sound of the voice, but “only Paul understood the articulated words.” Similar comments have been made by other scholars.