Was the Apostle Paul a Liar?

Paul’s conversion testimony found in three separate areas of Acts show Paul’s experience with people, his desire to follow God and preach the Gospel to everyone he sees, and his excitement about explaining what God has done to, and for, him.  Paul’s conversion happened after Jesus resurrection.  Although naming himself an “apostle”, Paul was not one of the original twelve disciples (1 Corinthians 9:1-2).

In the Book of Acts, the three accounts of Paul’s conversion show differences that, as with any Biblical story, has caused controversy.  There is more detail in the three accounts in Acts than in any of Paul’s personal letters.  Each story is told a different way as well.

In the Acts 9 version, Paul’s conversion story is shared through third-person narrative.  This means that the person telling the story was not involved in the story.  In the story, Jesus appears to Paul and his party along the Damascus road.  In this version, the men he was with heard “no voice” (KJV, NAB) or “sound” (NIV).  During this encounter, Paul lost his sight.  Paul’s men took him into Damascus where Ananias healed his sight. (Acts 9:1-19)

In the Acts 22 version of the story, Paul is addressing a crowd telling the story.  There are some small differences between this and the Acts 9 version.  In this version it appears as though Paul’s men saw the light themselves but heard nothing.  Also, in this version, Paul impresses more upon Ananias’ reputation rather than on his belief in Christ.[1]

In the Acts 26 version of Paul’s conversion testimony, Paul is addressing Agrippa to defend himself and Christianity.  Agrippa believes that Christianity is more like a secret society and Paul needs to change his views. [2]  This version is more succinct and to the point so as to not belabor the king any more than he already is doing.

As we look at the differences in the accounts, the version of Bible one reads will determine the context in which we view the differences.  In the NIV, in Acts 9, the editors of that Bible use the word “sound” instead of “voice” in 9:7.  And in 22:9, the word “understand” is substituted for the word “hear.”  The original verb used “akouo” can mean both “understand” or “hear.”[3]  In some cases, the verb can mean to both hear and understand, in others it is simply used to mean “hear.”  This could mean, then, that the party could have heard the voice but simply not understood it.

As for “sound” and “voice,” using the word “sound” instead of “voice” allows Paul’s party to have heard a sound without hearing a voice, thus bridging the gap between Acts 9:7 and 22:9.  According to Richard Longnecker, the period readers would have understood that everyone heard the voice but only Paul could understand it.[4]

The big question is whether Paul lied.

Paul did not lie.

His story did not substantially change.  He simply provided the necessary details to the groups he was speaking with at the time.  In Acts 9, the story is told from an outsider’s standpoint.  In Acts 22, it is given to a crowd of Jews and in Acts 26 it is given as a defense of Christianity.  Each of these stories are very similar and yet share different purposes behind the grace and salvation of Christ.

This could be seen as a testament that Christ is able to share His grace with us, regardless of where we are, what we are doing, what we have done, or how we view Him.  It is an example of God’s love for this human race.  It is a story that each of us could share through our own personal testimonies (see my post about my own conversion testimony).

[1] C.K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles:  Introduction and Commentary on Acts XV-XXVIII, Continuum, 2004.  Pp. 1029-1031.

[2] Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts:  A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles.  Smith & Helwys, 2005.  Pp. 208-209.

[3] Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1891.

[4] Richard N. Longnecker, The Ministry and Message of Paul, Zondervan, 1971.  P. 32.

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