2 June 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 24:1-26:32. A note on the three accounts of Saul’s conversion.
It is surprising that, within the comparatively small compass of his story of Acts, Luke should have included three accounts of Saul’s conversion – first as part of his unfolding narrative (9:1-19), secondly in Paul’s words to the Jewish crowd in Jerusalem (22:5-16), and thirdly, again in Paul’s words, before Agrippa (26:12-18). ‘Luke employs such repetitions’, wrote Haenchen, ‘only when he considers something to be extraordinarily important and wishes to impress it unforgettably on the reader. That is the case here.’ If the repetition is explained by the importance of the topic, however, how shall we explain the variations between the three accounts?
They certainly indicate that Luke was no lavish literalist; he saw no need to ensure that each account was a precise, word-perfect replica of the others. On the contrary, since each time the story is told, the audience and therefore the purpose of telling it are different, this is naturally reflected in the detailed presentation. Our study of how a single author (Luke) tells the same story differently will help us to understand how the three synoptic evangelists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) could also tell their same stories differently. In this way Luke’s practice throws light on ‘redaction criticism’, that is, on how the work of a redactor (editor) may be influenced by his theological purpose in writing.
The skeleton of the story of Saul’s conversion is identical in all three accounts. All three tell us (i) that Saul had launched a campaign of violent persecution against the followers of Jesus, and that the high priest had sanctioned it; (ii)that on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus a bright light from heaven flashed around him and that he fell to the ground; (iii) that the voice of the risen Jesus addressed him with the question, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’, that Saul asked, ‘Who are you, Lord? and that Jesus replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’; and (iv) that Saul was told to ‘get up’, and that he received a subsequent commission, indicating that he had been chosen and appointed to be Jesus’ witness to the Gentiles.
But some parts of the story vary widely, each adding details which the others lack. I will refer to the three accounts as successively A (9:1-19), B (22:5-16) and C (26:12-18). As to the place of conversion, A and B say ‘near Damascus’, C only ‘on the road’. As to the time, B and C say ‘about noon’, while A has no time reference at all. In relation to the light, all three say that it came ‘from heaven’, but only C describes it as ‘brighter than the sun’. In relation to the voice, only C says that it spoke in Aramaic and adds the proverb about kicking against the goads. Only B records Saul’s second question. ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ A and B both say that he was blinded, but only A tells how he was healed, whereas C mentions neither the blinding nor the healing. A and B refer to Saul’s baptism, but C does not.
These variations are all fairly trivial; their different details supplement and do not contradict each other. Two others, however, are regarded by some commentators as discrepancies. The first concerns the experience of Saul’s companions. A says that they stood speechless, but C that they fell to the ground. B says that they saw the light, but A that they did not see anyone. A says that they heard the voice, but B that they did not hear (or understand) the voice of the one that was speaking to Paul. It is not difficult to harmonize these apparent discrepancies, however. Presumably the men first fell down with Saul, and then stood up with him also. As for the vision and the voice, they saw the light but not the person of Jesus (as Saul did), and they heard a noise without being able to make out any words. (cf. Dt. 4:12; Jn 12:28-30). Alternatively, as Chrysostom suggested long ago, ‘They…heard the voice of Paul, but saw no person to whom he answered’.
Tomorrow: A note on the three accounts of Saul’s conversion (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.