Did Paul’s Companions Hear the Voice?

paul-road-to-damascus

Today I taught lesson 38 on Acts 21-28. We basically did a close reading of chapters 21 and 22, tracing the end of Paul’s third missionary journey, his return to Jerusalem, his report of his mission to James (the Lord’s brother) and the elders, their concern that Paul is perceived as not requiring that Jewish Christians live the Law of Moses (Gentile Christians already being excused from such observance by the Jerusalem Decree), and their proposal that Paul accompany four men who were completing a nazirite vow to the temple and participate in the purification rites with them so the Jews could see with their own eyes that Paul was observant. I can see what the leadership was thinking, and it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it didn’t work (and I mean, not at all). Paul was recognized in the temple, which led to an immediate riot, and Paul would have been killed on the spot had the Roman authorities not intervened. He requests an opportunity to speak to the assembled Jews, which he is given, and thus makes the first of four defense speeches in this reading (the others being before Festus, the Sanhedrin, and Herod Agrippa II).

Paul’s four defense speeches are all similar, if tailored somewhat to the disparate audiences he was addressing. In each he describes his personal history as a Jew who persecuted the Christians (that “way”). He then recounts his vision of Jesus and subsequent conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Part of that description is in verse 9 of chapter 22:

And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice [tEn de phOnEn ouk Ekousan] of him that spake to me. (Acts 22:9)

Note that according to this text his companions on the journey did not hear the voice that he did. But this seems to contradict an earlier telling of the account from Acts 9:7:

And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice [akouontes men tEs phOnEs], but seeing no man. (Acts 9:7)

So which is it, did they hear a voice or did they not? (This was not a question I broached as part of my lesson, which is why I’m raising it here.)

There is a potential way of resolving this apparent contradiction, which has to do with the case of the object of the verb in each account. Greek is a highly inflected language that uses cases to describe the way a noun is being used in a sentence. English generally does not use cases in that way, although it sometimes does, such as in its personal pronouns. For instance, he, his and him are not three separate words but one word in three separate cases (subjective/nominative, possessive/genitive, objective/accusative).

In each of the Acts passages above, the verb is akouO “to hear” (a participle in the Acts 9:7 version), and in each “the voice” is an object of the verb. The difference is that in 9:7 “the voice” is in the genitive case, while in 22:9 it is in the accusative case. So the idea is that the genitive case refers to the mere perception of the sound, whereas the accusative case describes the intellectual apprehension of what the voice is saying. So the proposed distinction, which depends on the case of the object of the verb, is one between (merely) hearing and understanding (with comprehension).

The NIV follows this approach, in 9:7 reading “they heard the sound but did not see anyone” and in 22:9 reading “my companions saw the light, but did not understand the voice.

While on the surface this seems like a nifty resolution to the apparent contradiction, there is a problem with it: the proposed distinction between the cases as objects of the verb akouO does not seem to hold elsewhere in Hellenistic Greek in general, and the New Testament in particular. That is, there are lots of examples of akouO + genitive indicating understanding, such as Mt. 2:9:

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

Conversely, there are lots of examples of akouO + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place, such as Mt. 13:9:

When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side.

So I would file this under “nice try but no cigar.” The contradiction stands. Which to me is not a big deal at all; we all know that human perception and memory are inherently fallible. The mere existence of a contradiction in the telling of the story to my mind by no means entails that the visionary experience of the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus did not actually happen.

Comments

  1. DeepThink says:

    Makes me feel better about Joseph’s differing accounts of the First Vision.

  2. Yes, another NIV harmonization that doesn’t quite hold up. I remember seeing this and also coming across the counter-argument.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Daniel Wallace, a conservative Christian scholar at the Dallas Theological Seminary, makes the counter argument in his Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. I agree with his position.

  4. The JST fixed some Biblical contradictions, or, some other “odd” passages (The Lord “Repented” after being called out by Moses? Fixed), but, this one didn’t get fixed.

    I did hear about one Christian writer person, that was going to “flat iron” out contradictions in the Bible, he felt there were no contradictions at all, in the Bible. That’s going to be hard to do with these 2 passages.

  5. Mike in Georgia says:

    Balaam’s ass comes tomind Numbers 22.

  6. Correction

    Balaam’s ass comes to mind. Numbers 22.

  7. Clark Goble says:

    DeepThink I think that is a very good comparison. What’s weirder about Acts though is it is written by a single author presumably at a single time. (I don’t think anyone’s proposed multiple authorship arguments to Acts that I know of – and given how much of an incentive there is to write a paper along those lines for scholars that seems significant) So this is a contradiction by Luke and leaves me asking, “why?”

    I obviously don’t mind errors. We’re all fallible and the scriptures are no exception. Heaven knows I’ve contradicted myself regularly. Sometimes in a single comment. But I’m writing much more quickly and less carefully than I expect Luke was. Further if there was this mistake you’d think someone would have noted it and mentioned it to Luke. (Maybe not) It’s curious no matter what interpretation one gives it.

  8. I’m a corporate attorney who does not cross-examine witnesses, but I’ve watched courtroom dramas that include cross-examination and I did do mock court in law school. Questions for the author of Acts (presumably Luke)?

    Were you with Paul during the vision? Did you hear the voice? How many were there? Is it possible that some heard the voice and others did not? Did you talk to Paul about this? How many of this companions did you interview? How long ago was the vision (viz a viz when you wrote the book of Acts)? How much time elapsed from the vision to when Paul made his defense? Does Paul actually know whether or not his companions heard his voice? How much time elapsed from when the vision occurred to when Acts was written? How much time from the defense of Paul to the writing of the book of Acts? Were you there for Paul’s defense? Were you taking notes? If the account of Paul’s defense is hearsay, can you prove that whoever told you this story accurately recorded Paul’s words? How long after the defense did you interview this person? Did they have any written notes? Were they confident that they remembered the event accurately at this level of detail? Any chance that the actual record is correct, i.e. Paul’s companion’s did hear the voice but when Paul made his defense he said they did not hear the voice (and we could speculate for a while on why Paul would have stated an incorrect fact in his defense, but it may just be that Paul was having a bad day and misspoke on a relatively minor point). Etc. Etc.

    Bottom line for me: there are discrepancies, especially on points like this. We should expect these discrepancies. We should generally stop treating every detail in the scriptures and in Church history as being 100% positively accurate, especially when the detail was first recorded decades later.

    I remember Bruce R.’s final farewell address. I’ve seen/read it at least a couple of times since I first saw the original. I think I could write out at least some of what he said and I think the overall “jist” would be correct, but I’m sure that some of my account would be wrong. I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast the morning of his address. I don’t remember what color tie he wore, but I would guess he wore a dark suit and red tie. I know he wore glasses. But that may just be that I remember his wearing his dark glasses on so many other occasions.

    Scholars think that the book of Acts was written sometime around 80 AD, which is more than 10 years after Paul’s defense in the temple and decades after the vision.

    Mormon is often abridging from numerous other records, and we usually know nothing about when those other records were written or how historically accurate they are or are meant to be. A 21st century professional historian might describe a certain battle differently then the way it was described by the commander who wrote a letter to his superior after the battle was over.

    Take notes next time you are in sacrament meeting. Ask your spouse to do the same. After you are done, compare the notes. Any differences?

    I’m not saying that all details are wrong, I am saying that we should not in all cases assume that all details are correct. We sometimes tend to think that the NT authors followed Jesus around with a camcorder and then just transcribed the video after the fact. Our efforts to receive revelation while reading the scriptures or to find new things we’ve missed before sometimes heightens our tendency to focus too much on details. I do it myself all the time.

  9. ^^ yes. We need to recalibrate our expectations about the nature of scripture. Dialogues are unlikely to be verbatim reports , for example. Scripture is not an encyclopedic repository of the platonically perfect ethics, ideals, and doctrines. It is, rather a human-but-inspired record (of sorts) of God’s line-upon-line, accommodationist dealings with fallen humans. It’s not all history , and we easily misread ancient genres, especially with books like Jonah.

  10. Bah, I’m in the spam queue. Too many links.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    David Day, I enjoyed your “cross examinatation” questions. Very enlightening!