Sunday, February 3, 2013

What Happened on the Damascus Road?

I used to believe the Bible was God's letter to mankind. That it was truth itself and could never be contradicted. I accepted that the stories contained therein actually happened in the manner described. I was sure the books were recorded (and translated) accurately through the centuries. Any appearance of error or confusion was merely a faulty interpretation. 

This approach worked for me the first 15 times I read the Bible in its entirety. Until one day I reread the story of Saul's Damascus Road experience. And I was flummoxed. 

The story of Paul's "conversion" from Judaism to Christianity appears three times in the book of Acts. None of these agrees with the others, or with Paul's own account of his calling by Jesus in his Epistle to the Galatians. Let's compare the stories.

Acts 9, told by narrator:

First, Saul gets letters from the high priest authorizing him to go to Damascus and drag male or female Jewish Christ-followers back to Jerusalem for prosecution and imprisonment. (No word on how this was going to be accomplished. Were the Roman authorities in Syria in the habit of letting the Sanhedrin make kidnapping raids from Judea? The writer doesn't explain the political and legal details he so relished in The Gospel of Luke. We know the Sanhedrin there lacked the authority to put anyone to death.)

Anyway, "a light from the sky suddenly blazed around him, and he fell to the ground. Then he heard a voice speaking to him”. His companions “stood there speechless, for they had heard the voice but could see no one." Saul got up, but was blinded so they led him into Damascus where he remained sightless for three days until a disciple named Ananias came, at Jesus' request, so that Paul could see again and "be filled with the Holy Spirit."

Afterward, “Saul stayed with the disciples in Damascus for some time. Without delay he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues. . .proving beyond doubt that this man is Christ.” But “the Jews made a plot to kill Saul”, so the Christians helped him escape and sent him back to Jerusalem.  “When Saul reached Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples. But they were all afraid of him" until Barnabas properly introduced him and explained the situation.  

“After that Saul joined with them in all their activities in Jerusalem” until again there were “several attempts on his life”. At that point the brothers gave him a ride to Caesarea and "sent him off to Tarsus.”

Acts 22, told by Paul to a Jerusalem mob:

At the beginning of Paul's account, “a light from the sky suddenly blazed around me. I fell to the ground, and I heard a voice. . . My companions naturally saw the light, but they did not hear the voice." 

Saul ends up in the city: “I was blinded by the light. . . my companions had to take me by the hand and so I came to Damascus." A devout Jew named Ananias comes to visit and has a fuller message. "Get up and be baptized! Be clean from your sins as you call on His name.” No word on healing here. 

Paul doesn't say any more about Damascus: “. . . after my return to Jerusalem. . . I fell into a trance and saw Jesus. . . He said to me, ‘Make haste and leave Jerusalem at once. . . Go, for I will send you far away to the gentiles.”

Acts 26, Paul to Governor Festus and King Agrippa:

"I saw a light from the sky, blazing all about me and my fellow-travellers. We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice”. No remarks on blindness at all in this version. "... First in Damascus and then in Jerusalem, through the whole of Judea, and to the gentiles, I preached”.

Galatians 1, Paul's own account:

In this letter, Paul describes how he received the gospel “as a direct revelation from Jesus”. 
It “pleased God. . . that I might proclaim [Jesus]” to the Gentiles. “I did not even go to Jerusalem to meet” the apostles but “went away to Arabia and later came back to Damascus.” Not until three years later did Paul go “to Jerusalem to see Cephas” and met no one else save “James, the Lord’s brother”.

All this I am telling you is, I assure you before God, the plain truth. Later I visited districts in Syria and Cilicia, but I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judaea. All they knew. . . was the saying: ‘The man who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.'"

So. . . what actually happened? 

Was there a voice? Who heard it? Was there a light? Who saw it? Was Paul near Damascus, or somewhere else? Was he alone or with companions? Did he go to Jerusalem next, or Arabia? Did the apostles in Jerusalem know him before as a zealous hatchet man for the Sanhedrin, or did they only hear of him as a Jew-turned-preacher up north? Did Barnabas introduce him to all the brothers in Jerusalem, or did he quietly meet with just Peter and James? 

If Paul was an actual person, then there are actual answers to these questions. The Bible does not give the facts, instead offering something more like "choose-your-own-adventure". If Paul was the author of Galatians, and if he wrote the truth, then the author of Acts wrote fiction. (And vice versa.) If Acts is a historical "novel", what can we conclude of the Gospel of Luke, penned by the same writer and the only book to bring up Mary's virginity? Paul's letters, after all, are the oldest documents of Christianity, and he never mentions Mary, much less makes a claim that Jesus was conceived without human sperm. Nor does Paul mention Christ's ascension into the clouds, a story only told in--you guessed it--Acts and Luke (and added later in a postscript to the Gospel of Mark).

What do you think actually happened on the Damascus Road?


  1. The Bible does not give the facts, instead offering something more like "choose-your-own-adventure". - you make me smile. :-)

  2. And such adventures we have, right? :-)

  3. I had someone argue this as proof that Paul was a false prophet/apostle.