Before I move on to the next hypothesis, it’s worth taking a brief detour to examine the story of Saul, who is better known as the apostle Paul, and his alleged encounter with Christ. The story is told three times in Luke’s book of Acts, and in each version, there are important differences which appear to be contradictions. Paul also gives more details in his own letter to the Galatians, and they appear to contradict Luke’s account! This can serve as an interesting test case regarding the reliability, or otherwise, of the accounts, and what to do with apparent contradictions or mistakes.
The first version of Paul’s encounter is narrated by Luke: “Now as he was traveling he came near to Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him; and falling to the earth he heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. To be kicking against the goads is hard for you.’ And trembling and astonished, he said, ‘Lord, what do you want me to do?’ And the Lord answered him, ‘Rise, and go into the city, and what you must do shall be spoken to you.’1 But the men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing indeed the voice but seeing nobody. But Saul arose from the earth and, opening up his eyes, he could see nothing; and they led him by the hand into Damascus; and he was without sight for three days, and he did not eat or drink.”2
In the second version, Paul told the story himself while he was addressing a crowd of Jews in the Hebrew language near the Temple in Jerusalem. This version contains a major difference. “And it happened to me that, as I was traveling and getting near to Damascus, about midday, suddenly out of heaven a great light shone around me; so I fell flat, and I heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ And those who were with me saw, indeed, the light,3 but they did not hear the voice of the one speaking to me.” 4
In the third version, Paul was making a defense of himself before King Agrippa: “At midday on the way I saw, O King, a light from heaven, greater than the brightness of the sun, shining around me and those traveling with me. And when we had all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? To be kicking against the goads is hard for you.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise, and stand on your feet, for this is why I have appeared to you: to appoint you as a servant and witness of both the things you have seen, and the things I will show you, delivering you from the people and from the nations to whom I am now sending you.” 5
Now, there seems to be a clear contradiction between the first two versions. In the first account, the men with him hear the voice: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing indeed the voice, but seeing nobody.” However, in Paul’s account before the Jews near the Temple, the men traveling with Paul don’t hear the voice! “And those who were with me saw, indeed, the light, but they did not hear the voice of the one speaking to me.”
There are three possible explanations. The first is simply that Paul made a mistake. When Paul was telling his story before the crowd, a few decades had already passed since his alleged encounter with Christ. It is therefore remarkable that Paul’s recall of the event was still fairly accurate after such a long time, although he got something wrong. He was, after all, human. He was also under a lot of pressure, since the crowd he was addressing had just tried to kill him.
Luke could have edited out Paul’s mistake, so the two versions of the story were consistent; but if this first explanation is correct, Luke chose instead to accurately record the thrust of Paul’s words, including his mistake. Intriguingly, there are also a few variations on the wording of manuscripts here, but they do not edit out this contradiction.
The second explanation is that Luke made the mistake. However, I think this is unlikely. He narrated the first version of the story, so he could have easily compared the two versions. Furthermore, since he was compiling a written account of early Christian history, which would be important to the Christian community, at least a few people would have probably checked the manuscript before his book was circulated widely. I think they would have caught Luke’s mistake, even if Luke himself didn’t.
The third explanation, and one that some translators seem to favor, is that when Paul said “they did not hear the voice of the one speaking to me,” he meant they didn’t understand what the voice was saying. In his account before King Agrippa, Paul said the voice spoke to him in Hebrew, so maybe his associates didn’t understand the language.
However, I think the first explanation is more convincing. The initial account mentioned what Paul’s companions heard but didn’t see, and there is no reason to suppose Paul intended these things to have a different meaning when recounting his story before the crowd. Furthermore, if Paul meant his companions didn’t understand the voice, he could have used a less ambiguous word.
In short, I think Paul probably made a mistake, and Luke accurately recorded it. Would skeptics prefer that mistakes made by people like Paul are covered up, or that they are accurately recorded? That Paul got something wrong after a few decades is hardly an argument to show that Luke or Paul are unreliable. In fact, I’d say the opposite is true. Paul was human, and got a detail wrong after about two decades. Luke chose not to edit out the mistake, which enhances Luke’s reliability.
If Paul’s story remained mostly intact after a few decades, apart from one particular detail, how much more would the Christian community, consisting of hundreds of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death and alleged resurrection, be able to preserve an accurate account of the things Jesus said and did, even by word of mouth for a while?
Another potential issue with Paul’s conversion experience is that the words spoken to him by Jesus are different in the version before King Agrippa. Jesus seems to have a more extensive conversation with him.
However, this isn’t a contradiction. In the initial experience as narrated by Luke, Paul encounters the risen Christ, but only a little later is he told the reason why. However, in the version of the account he gives before King Agrippa, Paul recounts it all as one experience, perhaps for the sake of brevity. He is more likely paraphrasing Jesus, rather than giving an exact word for word account of what Jesus said to him.
Perhaps it is also an editing decision by Luke. I doubt Luke wrote down every word that Paul spoke before the Jewish crowd or King Agrippa. He was probably giving a condensed version, and so what he chose to include would reflect Paul’s motive for speaking to each audience, as well as Luke’s own knowledge that he would be telling Paul’s conversion story three times in the same book.
Incidentally, this also explains the differences between the gospels. The authors were primarily compilers and editors, recording the thrust of Jesus’ words and deeds, but not necessarily aiming for a word for word transcription at all times.
Many scholars believe the four gospels were written with different audiences in mind. Matthew was likely writing to Jews who believed in the prophecies found in the Hebrew scriptures. He put emphasis on how the circumstances of Jesus’ life fulfilled scripture in some way. Part of Matthew’s motive for selecting material was to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.
Mark was likely writing to Romans, who knew little of Jewish scriptures. They did, however, understand power and leadership, so Mark emphasized the power and dynamic action of the Christ, the Son of God.
Luke addressed his gospel and book of Acts to one person, Theophilus, but he probably knew his works would reach a wider audience. Luke was likely a Greek, and had Greek people as his intended audience, who loved culture and truth. Both of his books are rich with cultural references, historical details and individual experiences to gain the attention and interest of his audience. Luke wanted to place Jesus into a clearer historical context, and placed emphasis on the ordering of events.
John was probably writing to the whole world, but especially believers. He placed a high value on being an eyewitness to most of the things he wrote about. He focused in particular on Jesus’ message of love and truth. He also brought Jesus’ roles into clear focus: Jesus is the Word, who was in the beginning with God. He is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the light of the world, and the Lord who came to the Temple, as foretold by Malachi.
In other words, each gospel writer selected the words and events that would be most relevant to his audience, and that aligned with the overall purpose of his particular book. The same was true of Paul when he was writing or speaking to different audiences.
Now, what happened to Paul after his alleged encounter with the risen Christ? There seems to be two contradictory accounts. According to Luke’s version in the Acts of Apostles, Paul was converted near Damascus, stayed for some days with the disciples in Damascus, and then right away he began preaching in the synagogues that Jesus was the Son of God. After many days, certain Jews plotted to do away with him, and they were watching the city gates day and night; but his disciples let him out through an opening in a wall, lowering him in a basket. He then went to Jerusalem, and Barnabas led him to the apostles.6
However, Paul himself seems to tell a different story in his letter to the Galatians: “But when it pleased God, the One separating me from my mother’s womb and calling me through his grace, to reveal his Son by me, so that I would preach him among the nations, I did not immediately submit to flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem, to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem, to relate my story to Peter, and I stayed with him fifteen days. But I did not see the other apostles, except James the brother of the Lord. But the things I am writing you, look! in the sight of God, I am not lying. After that I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. But I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea that were in Christ, and they had only heard that ‘the one persecuting us before is now preaching the faith which he ravaged before.’ And they glorified God because of me.” 7
I would suggest that these aren’t two contradictory accounts. They are complementary, each being told with a different aim in mind. Luke’s purpose in writing Acts was to give an account of how the disciples became witnesses of Jesus “both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 8 His version of what happened after Paul was converted agrees with Paul that he “did not immediately submit to flesh and blood,” but began preaching in the synagogues about the Christ, no man giving him authority to do this.
However, Luke omits the part about Paul going to Arabia. This isn’t surprising, since Paul only mentions it in passing; so Luke simply leaves out this detail, because it doesn’t appear to be relevant to the commission Jesus gave to his disciples.
Luke’s version says that after “many days” Paul went to Jerusalem. The events in the book of Acts aren’t usually dated, because Luke is concerned with the events themselves, rather than the exact timing of them. Therefore the expression “many days” simply meant a certain period of time, which could have been years. Indeed, there is a prophecy in Hosea that says for “many days” the people of Israel would dwell without a king or sacrifices.9 It turns out, those “many days” were about 2,000 years! Just as in that prophecy, Luke omits the exact length of time, which Paul supplies. The “many days” turned out to be three years.
But according to Luke, when Paul came to Jerusalem, Barnabas led him to the apostles; so why does Paul say he only met Peter, and “did not see the other apostles, except James the brother of the Lord”? Again, there is no contradiction. “James the brother of the Lord” wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles, but Paul here counts him as an apostle. This shouldn’t be surprising, since Paul considered himself to be an apostle as well, even though he wasn’t one of “the Twelve.” Peter also was a representative of “the Twelve.” Thus, from Luke’s perspective, Paul met with the apostles. There is no reason why it had to be all of the original apostles.
The reason Paul’s account seems different is that his reason for giving it is very different from Luke’s. Paul’s point was that “the gospel that is being preached by me is not according to a man; for neither did I receive it from a man, nor was I taught it, except through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”10 This is why he emphasizes that he didn’t initially get his authority from men, including the apostles.
In other words, the two versions of Paul’s story are easy to reconcile once we realize the different motives behind them. Luke simply omits details that don’t contribute to his wider theme, namely the spread of the good news about Jesus. Paul gives more details, to make the point that his authority to preach Christ came directly from Jesus, and not from men.
My reason for spending an entire chapter on this issue is, skeptics like to point out apparent contradictions they find in the Bible, but they usually fail to take the context of the words or the purpose of the writer into account.
When writing about an event or recording a person’s words, writers have to decide what details to include or exclude, and whether to quote someone exactly, or whether to paraphrase or give the general thrust of what they say. My aim with this chapter has been to provide an example of how apparent contradictions can usually be resolved, when we have a better understanding of purpose and context.
However, in the case of Paul’s conversion story, I think we have found a genuine mistake. Under intense pressure, Paul probably did slip up in his speech to the crowd. He was, after all, human. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, could have edited out Paul’s mistake and we would probably never know about it. But if Luke’s aim was to accurately record the thrust of the events surrounding the early Christian story, then he chose, for better or worse, to preserve Paul’s mistake.
1 Some translations have a shorter version of this verse: “And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise, and go into the city, and what you must do shall be spoken to you.’” 2 Acts 9:3-9. 3 Some translations add “and became afraid” here. 4 Acts 22:6-9. 5 Acts 26:13-17. 6 Acts 9:10-30. 7 Galatians 1:15-24. 8 Acts 1:8. 9 Hosea 3:4-5. 10 Galatians 1:11,12.