The author of Luke and Acts introduces a man named Saul[i] At his feet are laid the garments of Steven, a follower of a new Jewish movement called the Way, a name given to the followers of Jesus the risen Christ.[ii] It was this same Jesus who was the source of all the “about turns” we have so far encountered in parts one to three of this series. The writer of Acts makes it clear that the fatal stoning of Steven before Saul is all done with Saul’s full approval.[iii] When we arrive at Acts 9, we encounter this same Saul on the road to Damascus with official papers giving him permission to arrest and extradite the Christians who had fled from the persecution in Jerusalem, and to bring them back for either imprisonment or execution[iv] for blasphemy. Paul’s (Saul’s) “about turn” is perhaps one of the greatest that has ever occurred. The argument for its veracity is very strong on its own merit, even before combining it with those others which we have studied. In part five of this series, we will examine the force of their combined impact, but in this post we will examine it in isolation.
There are three New Testament accounts of the events surrounding Saul’s mysterious conversion, all by the author of Luke and Acts. First, in Acts 9, the author gives an account in his own words.[v] Then he relates two instances in which Paul himself recounts the same experience—first before an angry assembly of Jews in Jerusalem,[vi] and then before a king named Agrippa.[vii] In Acts 22 we have Paul telling an angry Jewish crowd that on the road to Damascus he saw a light,[viii] and that he and the Jews with him fell to the ground. Paul explains that he heard a voice speaking in the Hebrew tongue, saying “Saul why are you persecuting me?” When he heard this voice he said “Who are you, Lord?”[ix] Paul meant by this “Lord God,” (Adonai in Hebrew, Kurios in Greek) creator of all things.[x] Paul understood that this man who stood before him in His transfigured glory was not only Jesus the man, but Jesus the God man.[xi] A very brief time after, Paul came to realize that those early Christians were not blasphemers, but genuine worshippers of Jesus the living God and Saviour.[xii]
Paul then explains to the angry crowd that although those with him saw the light, they did not hear (as in understand) the phoneis.[xiii] Phoneis is a Greek word translatable either as “sound,” “voice,” or “articulated voice.” [xiv]Yet, in contrast, the author of Luke and Acts says in chapter 9 that those with Paul did hear the phoneis. But here the author, unlike Paul, unless we very unnecessarily assume a contradiction, is using the alternative Greek meaning “sound.”[xv] The fact that the author does not change Paul’s account to match his own lends great support to his credibility as an honest historian.[xvi]
The author of Acts is pointing out that although those accompanying Paul could not understand what the voice was saying, they did hear it, that is, the hollow meaningless vibrations of the voice. This contrasting irony then conveys the distance of rebellious
from Jesus, and in a deeper sense speaks of the “ears that hear yet do not
hear”. This primarily refers to those Jews who do not comprehend what God has
done in Christ. It hearkens back to the words of Steven in Acts 7 when he was
addressing the Sanhedrin. Here Steven declares to those highly influential Jews
who afterward stoned him to death: “You do always resist the Holy Spirit.” Israel
This incident on the Damascus road also bears an uncanny similarity to the Day of Pentecost, where Peter, and those with him, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke to Jewish people from every nation under heaven in their own languages. Their voices and words were understood in many languages at one time, yet some of the listeners seem to have heard nothing but sounds, gibberish, for they thought that the speakers might be drunk.[xvii]
Right after this ironic contrast, we immediately have the author of Luke and Acts recording yet another irony. After Paul cries out “Lord” his eyes are opened to the truth, but in stark contrast to this, Paul could not see Jesus, for he was physically blinded. The blindness has a double meaning. First, it means Paul is physically blind, but Jesus and the author of Acts both intended it to symbolize his spiritual blindness up to this time as well.[xviii] So here in Acts 9 we have two striking ironies: the irony of “meaning” versus “hollow sound”, and the two kinds of blindness. Yet we are still not done with the ironies in Acts; yet another follows in rapid succession. Jesus instructs Saul to enter Damascus and proceed to a house on a street called Straight.[xix] The name of the street itself virtually declares that this man called Saul, who has walked a crooked way in the sight of the Lord, will now walk the “straight path,” the path followed by the people of the Way.
But could we not suppose that all these ironies were mere coincidences: hearing and sound, eyes opened, eyes closed, and a street called Straight?[xx] It must be remembered that this call of Paul’s is of even greater importance than the call of the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Ezekiel, and that the author of Acts conveys this same kind of prophetic imagery in all three reports of Paul’s Damascus experience. It should also be remembered that the early Christian biographies of Jesus are filled with this kind of imagery when relating the meaning of the coming of the Messiah. We hear things like “sight to the blind,” “ears that will not hear,” and at the very beginning of the book of Mark we find the call of John the Baptist, who will prepare the way of the Lord and make the “crooked straight”[xxi] The author of Mark quotes this from chapter 40 of Isaiah, which features this kind of prophetic imagery.[xxii] Even when the Gospel simply relates that a blind man has been given sight in the physical sense, it almost always has the double meaning that now that Messiah has come, and the eyes of the blind in Spirit have been opened. Here too we see the striking similarity of the imagery of the crooked and straight with the street called Straight. And to this we must add the people of the Way, the road to Damascus, the “crooked way versus the straight,” and the saying of Jesus that “narrow is the way that leads to life.”[xxiii]
Luke and Acts record that Jesus, in a vision, tells the highly respected Christian, Ananias, that Paul is having a vision of him, Ananias, laying hands on him. Jesus then instructs Ananias to go to the house of Judas to a man called Saul of Tarsus.[xxiv] At first, Ananias is bewildered, so much so that he reminds the Lord that Saul has the extradition papers. But Ananias obeys when Jesus assures him that Paul is a chosen vessel of the Father to bear his name before the Gentiles.[xxv]
Here, then, comes the incredible about turn, where Saul becomes Paul, where a life of persecuting Christ is transformed into a life of being persecuted for Christ’s sake, where a life devoted to proclaiming salvation through strict observance of the law becomes a life devoted to proclaiming a salvation apart from the law which can never be accessed by obedience to it.[xxvi] Paul turns from a life devoted to a zealous defence of the worship of a God who dwells in the Temple at Jerusalem, to the declaration of the Spirit of God dwelling, not within the temple, but within a people who are followers of the Way[xxvii] We see then that the Saul’s about turn meant a radically new way of seeing, and therefore a whole new way of speaking and doing. Yet it was based on a transformed understanding of all he had known beforehand. Like those early followers of Jesus, God had opened his heart and mind to an understanding of the scriptures.[xxviii]
The evidence for the veracity of Paul’s about turn, even in isolation, is persuasive. In conclusion, we shall list the evidences in point form:
1. Jesus tells Ananias that Paul is a chosen vessel who must suffer many things now that he has met Jesus on the
road. Acts is
filled with Paul’s suffering and so are his own writings. In every letter of
Paul, we hear words to this effect: “Paul, called to be an Apostle to the Gentiles…”
The strongest evidence of all the many letters Paul wrote, and what they reveal
about his zeal, joy, and love, and about his suffering for the sake of those he
addressed in his letters. They are utterly permeated with this zeal and the
deeply felt commission to the Gentiles, and also to the Jews. Damascus
2. The variations between Luke’s own account of Paul’s conversion and those of Paul lend credit to the historical integrity of the author of Luke and Acts.
3. The prophetic imagery shared by the gospels, prophetic literature, and the
account.[xxix] These all point to the reality of Paul’s call
on that road and to the commission to the gentiles that he received. Damascus
4. The irony and timing of the ironic puns appear to point not to coincidence but to providence.
5. The fact that Julius Caesar did sanction the extradition of Jews back to Jerusalem confers a powerful historical plausibility to both Paul’s own claims, and claims of the early Christians such as Ananias.
Now if the critic wants to assert that these writings are not speaking of real events, and that the entire twenty six books of the New Testament Cannon are fictitious, it will not do to use arguments based on Paul’s psychological guilt or hallucinations. In so doing, it would appear that such critics acknowledge the basic authenticity of the account and of Paul’s “about turn,” the reality of which opens the door to the argument here given.
[i] Acts 9:`1
[iii] Ibid. 7:58, 22:20-24.
[iv] Julius Caesar in 47 BC renewed the rights of the Jewish authorities and religionists to extradite Jews that left
unlawful circumstances, or who were wanted for crimes against . (See F.F. Bruce, “Apostle of the
Heart Set Free”, (Grand Rapids: Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 1988).
P. 72. Jerusalem
[v] Acts. 91-18.
[vi] Ibid. 22:1-16.
[vii] Ibid. 26.8-18. The call of Jeremiah in 1:6-7 is almost identical to the call of Paul in Acts. 26:16-17.
[viii] In his own words, Paul said he was “apprehended by Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:12) Paul calls it a light brighter than the sun. (Acts 26:13)
[ix] Ibid. 22:6-7.
[x] For some reason the early Jewish scribes did not want the name of the Lord to be pronounced, so they completely removed the vowels and messed up the consonantal and vowel patterns of His name. Because they did not know how to pronounce the name, they substituted the word Adonai meaning Lord. In the Septuagint it is often translated into Greek as Kurios Theos, meaning Lord God. So Paul, replying in Hebrew, would not have said Kurios, but rather Adonai referring to what we usually pronounce as Yahweh. This strange construction in Hebrew of the name of the Lord is called the “Tetragrammaton.” God’s name cannot be Jehovah since there is no J sound in Hebrew, but it has long been used this way as a transliteration.
[xi] Paul later declares in Colossians that all the fullness of the Godhead (theoteitos) dwells bodily (somatikos) (Col. 2:9). This realization of the implications of this may have deepened later but was no doubt rooted in the risen Christ appearing to him on the
[xiii] It must be remembered that Paul reports that Jesus spoke in Hebrew. Contextually speaking, Luke makes it clear that Paul means that he alone understood the meaning of the words. So Paul explains to those angry Jews that the people who had accompanied him to
did not hear, meaning understand, the voice. (See Liddel and Scot Greek, Greek
English Lexicon (Oxford, Oxfosrd University Press, first edition, 1889
impression 1985). Damascus
[xiv] Acts 22:9 Phoneis (fwnhs) is the Greek word that can mean either voice as understood, voice in general, or sound. Sound is the most common meaning. G E Marshal and myself translate it this way (see Alfred Marshall, “The Interlinear Greek English New Testament” (London:England, pub by Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd, 1964).
[xv] Liddel and Scott, Greek English Lexicon, Seventh Edition. (
Clarendon Press, 1985 England
[xvi] Ibid. 9:7. Those with Paul heard the sound of a voice, but did not see Jesus, the speaker.
[xvii] Ibid. 2:1-13.
[xviii] Ibid. 9:3-4, 7-8, 26:18. Even if Luke did not intend this as an ironic pun, the pun and the irony remain for the reader. The next two puns following immediately after seem intentional, and therefore it is more consistent to suppose the first irony with sound is equally intentional. We must not forget that Luke and Acts are God breathed even though God allows the author to express himself according to the gifts God has given him. In Acts 26:18 the author records Paul as saying that God sent him to open the eyes of the Gentiles. (anoiksai –to open ofthalmus-eyes, anoixai ofqalmous ).
[xix] Ibid. 9:11, The Greek word for straight almost always is to be translated simply as straight (euthus-euqus) or straight towards, as for example straight towards Jesus.
[xx] The street called straight is still in Damascus and still called by that name. (see FF Bruce ibid.)
[xxi] See also the symbolism of crooked in Ps 125:5, “the path of the crooked”. Same imagery in Prov. 2:15,5:6,10:9,Ecc7:13,Isa 59:8, Lk:3:5
[xxii] Isaiah 40:1-5.
[xxiii] Mathew 7:13-14.
[xxiv] Ibid9:8-18, 22:12-17, 26:16-18. There is an interesting example of the authenticity in that before King Agrippa Paul knows that Agrippa would not likely be interested in the reputation of Ananias. He therefore omits it in explaining his conversion. But when Paul addresses the angry Jews it is advantageous for him to mention the highly respected Jew Ananias, and he does so. This may indicate that Theophilus, the receiver of the book of Luke and Acts, might be of Jewish extraction, seeing as in his own account the author includes the role of Ananias except when addressing King Agrippa, who likely would not care.
[xxv] Ibid. 9:13-15.
[xxvi] Ibid. 15,
3:20-25, Rom. Rom. 6:15. Phil.
3:6-9, Col.1:1, I Tim. 1:1, 2 Tim. 1:1, l Tit.1:1.
[xxvii] Ibid. 7:47-51, I Cor. 3:16, I Cor. 3:17, Eph. 2:21.
[xxviii] I Cor. 15: 1-5. Paul makes it clear that he received the revelation directly from Jesus, then later took a journey to
seems clear that Jesus himself gave Paul the understanding of the scriptures
that guided all his future statements from the Torah and from the LXX. Gal. 1:16.
[xxix] The prophetic call of Paul is very similar to the call of Jeremiah: “A prophet to the nations I appointed you and wherever I command you to go you will go and to whomever I command you to speak you will speak” (Jer. 1:4-6) Compare with Acts 26:16 -18 and Acts 22:14-16, 9:15-18. Compare also the Acts material with Isaiah 35:16, sent to open the eyes of the blind and that the deaf may hear. Also compare with Isaiah 61:1-5, Mathew 12:15-21, and Is. 42:7-16. This is only a small sampling of the similarities of calling from God and prophetic imagery found in the Torah, the New Testament, and Paul`s conversion on the Damascus road.