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.