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Resolving a Bible Difficulty: What Happened at Paul’s Conversion?

Jimmy Akin

The book of Acts records St. Paul’s conversion in the following terms:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus [Acts 9:3-8].

There are several interesting things here.

No Horse!

One is that there is no mention of St. Paul riding on a horse. You frequently hear people recounting how Paul was knocked off his horse at the time of his conversion, but this is an image that comes from art—not the Bible. He isn’t likely to have been riding a horse, for at the time horses were more commonly used in warfare—such as for drawing chariots. They were not commonly ridden.

The passage doesn’t mention Paul riding any animal. He was likely travelling on foot, as suggested when the text simply says that he fell to the ground when the heavenly light flashed around him.

It’s also suggested by Jesus telling him to “rise and enter the city” (no mention of getting back on an animal) and by him being “led by the hand” into Damascus by his companions. If he’d been riding on a beast (e.g., an ass), they presumably would have put him back on the animal and then led the beast—not taken Paul by the hand to guide him.

A Bible Difficulty?

Many people have commented on a Bible difficulty that arises from this passage when it says:

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one [Acts 9:7].

This is worthy of comment because, later in the book when Paul is recounting his conversion, he says:

Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me [Acts 22:9].

What did they see? What did they hear?

The difficulty that needs to be solved concerns what the men with Paul saw and heard.

The first is not difficult, for the two passages don’t contain any apparent discrepancy. The first says that they didn’t see anyone and the second says that they did see light. There is no contradiction because one can easily see light without seeing a person.

What the men heard presents more of a difficulty, because the first passage says they were “hearing the voice” while the second says that they “did not hear the voice.” That looks like a contradiction. Is it?

Greek to You and Me

Whenever we encounter something that looks like a contradiction, it’s wise to check the original language, which in this case is Greek.

Examining the two passages, we find that both of them use the same two terms: akouO (hear) and phOnE (voice). This means that we can’t solve the dilemma by appealing to the fact that the passages are using different terms, because they aren’t. They both use the same verb for hearing and the same noun for what is being heard.

That doesn’t mean we can’t resolve the discrepancy, though, because these terms have more than one meaning in Greek.

  • AkouO can mean hear, listen, understand, obey, know, and other things.
  • PhOnE can mean sound, tone, voice, cry, solemn declaration, etc.

Since we have a single author (Luke) writing both passages in a single book (Acts), a logical inference is that Luke probably meant the terms to be taken in different senses.

Are there two different senses in which the terms can be taken that would make sense of the passages? You bet.

The Likely Solution

The most likely solution is that in the first passage, akouO is to be taken to mean “hear” and phOnE is to be taken to mean “sound,” while in the second passage, akouO is to be taken to mean “understand” and phOnE is to be taken to mean “voice.” On this reading, Acts 9:7 says that the men were hearing a sound but didn’t see anyone while Acts 22:9 says that they saw light but did not understand the voice.

This would parallel John 12:28-29, where the Father speaks to Jesus from heaven and some in the crowd perceive it as thunder: They heard a noise, but they didn’t perceive it as an intelligible voice—the clearer perception being reserved for those God wanted to have it.

This appears to be the most probable solution. Thus some translations render the two passages like this:

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone (Acts 9:7, NIV).

My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me (Acts 22:9, NIV).

These translations are perfectly acceptable, as “hear” and “understand” are common meanings for akouO,while “sound” and “voice” are common meanings for phOnE.

Be Cautious Beyond This Point

While we have identified the probable solution, we should be careful not to press it too far. Some have proposed that there is a feature in the Greek that makes the solution even more certain. According to some older grammars and commentaries, the verb akouO’s meaning changes in a way that is relevant here depending on the grammatical form of the noun that follows it.

In Greek, nouns take different forms, known as “cases,” depending on the role they play in a sentence (the same is true of nouns in Latin, German, Russian, and many other languages). Two of these cases that Greek uses are known as the genitive and the accusative.

According to some, when akouO is followed by a noun in the genitive case, it stresses the hearing of the sound but not the understanding of it. By contrast, these individuals hold, if akouO is followed by a noun in the accusative case, it highlights the understanding of the sound.

It so happens that in Acts 9:7 the noun phOnE is in the genitive case, and in 22:9 it is in the accusative. This is then taken as evidence confirming the solution proposed above: In the first passage the companions are said to hear the sound while in the second they are said not to understand it.

The problem is that these claims are not at all clear from the way the verb is used in New Testament Greek. Daniel Wallace, one of the foremost contemporary scholars of New Testament Greek, writes:

[I]t is doubtful that this is where the difference lay between the two cases used with akouO in Hellenistic Greek: the NT (including the more literary writers) is filled with examples of akouO + genitive indicating understanding (Matt 2:9; John 5:25; 18:37; Acts 3:23; 11:7; Rev 3:20; 6:3, 5; 8:13; 11:12; 14:13; 16:1, 5, 7; 21:3) as well as instances of akouO + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place (explicitly so in Matt 13:19; Mark 13:7/Matt 24:6/Luke 21:9; Acts 5:24; 1 Cor 11:18; Eph 3:2; Col 1:4; Phlm 5; Jas 5:11; Rev 14:2). The exceptions, in fact, are seemingly more numerous than the rule!

Thus, regardless of how one works through the accounts of Paul’s conversion, an appeal to different cases probably ought not form any part of the solution [Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 133-134].

We should thus be cautious of case-based arguments concerning the solution to this difficulty. This does not mean, however, that we haven’t identified the correct solution. The most likely solution remains that the terms are simply being used in different senses in the two passages.


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