Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Silencing Skepticism: Contradictions in Conversion

In "One Donkey Or Two?" we looked at a common objection raised by skeptics, claiming that Matthew's account of Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem contradicted those of the other gospel writers. Whereas the former misinterpreted an Old Testament prophecy and depicted Jesus riding astride two donkeys simultaneously, Mark, Luke and John interpret the prophecy correctly and record only one donkey. We learned, however, that Matthew did not misinterpret the prophecy, nor did he contradict the other gospel authors, and instead merely included a detail the other authors left out.

The number of such seeming contradictions skeptics allege occur throughout the pages of Scripture is enormous, and though I believe they are all easily answered, responding to each one blog post at a time would take more time than I am capable of comitting to the endeavor. As such, when it comes to these alleged contradictions I'm going to try and pick up the pace a bit, and answer more than one at a time. However, I will always include additional resources so you can research more deeply if you so choose.

Today we'll look at three alleged contradictions in Scripture surrounding Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. First, in the book of Acts Luke records his account of Paul's conversion in which his companions did not hear Jesus, and also records Paul's descriptions of the event later, in which he says his companions did hear Him. Second, in Luke's account Paul's companions stand speechless, but in Paul's they fall to the ground. Third, we're told by Luke that Paul didn't see Jesus on the road, but in his letter to the Corinthians Paul claims he did see Jesus.

As we'll see, skeptics' objections notwithstanding, Luke did not contradict himself. A close examination of the original Greek words penned by Luke reveals that Paul's companions heard the voice speaking to Paul but did not understand the words it spoke. Luke's wording does not require that Paul's companions were standing, only that they were "rooted to the spot." And Paul does not contradict Luke when he says in his letter that he saw the risen Jesus.


Luke records Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, as well as Paul's account of his experience later, and in his account Paul appears to contradict Luke's depiction of what had actually happened:

"The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice [of Jesus] but seeing no one." (Acts 9:7, emphasis and addition mine)

"'And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.'" (Acts 22:9, KJV, emphasis mine)

In Luke's record of what Paul experienced, his companions heard the voice of Jesus, but when Paul tells others about what happened to him, he says his companions didn't hear the voice. You'll notice that I quoted the KJV in citing the second passage because the NASB and some other translations render it slightly differently:

"'And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.'" (Acts 22:9, NASB)

Other translations, including the NIV, Amplified, NLT, ESV and the New Century Version render the verse similarly. The implication is that whereas Luke says Paul's companions heard the voice of Jesus, Paul tells his listeners that his companions didn't understand the voice they heard. This, obviously, would solve the apparent contradiction easily. Some skeptics don't accept this, however:

"Some translations of the Bible (the New International Version and the New American Standard, for example) try to remove the contradiction in Acts 22:9 by translating the phrase quoted above as 'did not understand the voice...' However, the Greek word 'akouo' is translated 373 times in the New Testament as 'hear,' 'hears,' 'hearing' or 'heard' and only in Acts 22:9 is it translated as 'understand.' In fact, it is the same word that is translated as 'hearing' in Acts 9:7, quoted above. The word 'understand' occurs 52 times in the New Testament, but only in Acts 22:9 is it translated from the Greek word 'akouo.'

This is an example of Bible translators sacrificing intellectual honesty in an attempt to reconcile conflicting passages in the New Testament." (Paul Carlson, "New Testament Contradictions")

Personally I find the skeptics' claim somewhat amusing, for it is the same author who records both the conversion and Paul's description of the conversion. "Luke was not stupid. It strains credulity to suggest that he made an 'error' such as is suggested and didn't even realize that it was there" ("Paul's three conversion accounts," Tekton Education and Apologetics Ministry). Indeed, I think we should at minimum acknowledge the possibility that there is no contradiction since the apparent contradiction is introduced by the same author in the same book:

"But first, let us remember who it was who wrote the Book of Acts and if Luke did not notice any contradiction between these verses, then it is quite possible that there is NO contradiction, whatever, in the Greek text which the author wrote down, and that, once again, the fault lies with the way in which it has been translated into English." ("APPARENT CONTRADICTIONS IN SAUL'S CONVERSION STORY," Open-Bible Ministries)

There are a variety of solutions to this seeming contradiction, but I think the simplest explanation makes the best sense: the modern translations appropriately tell us Paul's companions did not understand what it is they heard. Despite Carlson's demand to the contrary, ἀκούω (akouō) CAN refer to understanding by hearing. It's used in John 8:43 where Jesus says, "Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear [ἀκούω] My word." Clearly those to whom Jesus spoke heard His words, but they didn't understand their meaning.

Likewise, given that this seeming contradiction appears within the same work written by the same author, and given that the word ἀκούω can refer to both simple hearing and a kind of hearing that involves understanding, there is no reason to insist on a contradiction here. Luke simply tells us Paul's companions heard the voice of Jesus, and Paul tells us that though they heard the voice, they did not understand the words they heard.


Another inconsistency appears between Luke's account of Paul's conversion and Paul's description given to King Agrippa:

"The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one." (Acts 9:7, emphasis mine)

"'And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice...'" (Acts 26:14, emphasis mine)

So it would appear that Luke's account depicts Paul and his companions standing, whereas Paul tells King Agrippa that they had all fallen. Again, let's remember that it is the same author recording both Paul's experience and Paul's description of the experience. It seems unlikely that Luke would not notice the contradiction in what he was writing. In point of fact, there are two very easy answers to this problem.

First, there's absolutely nothing in Luke's description of the event itself that says Paul's companions didn't fall to the ground. There's nothing to prevent us from understanding that they fell to the ground with Paul initially, but then arose and stood motionless and speechless. This is one perfectly reasonable solution to the apparent contradiction.

Second, the Greek word rendered "stood" in Luke's description of the event is ἵστημι (histēmi) and does not necessarily refer to "standing" in the sense we understand it to mean. In Matthew 12:26 Jesus asked, "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand [ἵστημι]?" In Matthew 18:16 He quoted the Old Testament, saying, "BY THE MOUTH OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES EVERY FACT MAY BE CONFIRMED [ἵστημι]."

The meaning of ἵστημι in Jesus' words above has to do with being "firm" or "established." The lexicon lists as one of its definitions, "to make firm, fix establish," and "to cause a person or a thing to keep his or its place." Therefore, "As for the stance of Paul's companions, Haley notes 'the word rendered "stood" also means to be fixed, to be rooted to the spot. Hense, the sense may be, not that they stood erect, but that they were rendered motionless, or fixed to the spot, by overpowering fear'." (Bumbulis, Smith, and White, "Countering Biblical Contradictions, 91-100")

Either way, whether Paul's companions fell to the ground and then "stood," or whether they fell to the ground and were "rooted to the spot," there is no reason to insist that there is a contradiction here.


There is one more alleged discrepancy in Scripture regarding Paul's conversion, between Luke's account and something Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians:

"Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus." (Acts 9:8, emphasis mine)

"Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Corinthians 9:1, emphasis mine)

"and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also." (1 Corinthians 15:8, emphasis mine)

Luke, then, depicts Paul as rising from the ground blind, unable to see anything, but Paul tells the Corinthians that he did see Jesus (by rhetorically asking "Have I not..."), that Jesus appeared to him. The alleged contradictions we looked at previously were written by the same author, thus suggesting from the outset that they were not, in fact, contradictions. We have no such luxury here because Luke authored the book of Acts, but Paul is the author of the letter to the Corinthians.

This is actually not a contradiction at all. It doesn't even really appear to be. It seems pretty clear to me that while other passages are more difficult to harmonize, this is an example of skeptics grasping at straws, throwing mud at the Bible and hoping it sticks. Here's a more complete quotation of Luke's account of Paul's conversion:

"As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground...The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus." (Acts 9:3-8, emphasis mine)

It is not until Paul rises that he is blind; certainly he and his companions saw the heavenly light which flashed around him. In fact, he says as much: "'But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me...And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me'" (Acts 22:6-9, emphasis mine). And, "'at midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining all around me and those who were journeying with me'" (Acts 26:13, emphasis mine).

It is evident that the light Paul saw was the risen Jesus Christ. Paul didn't say he saw Jesus in the form of a man, just that he saw Him. It's unreasonable to insist that this is a contradiction simply because Luke says Paul saw a light and not a human form. But what makes the skeptic's claim additionally absurd is that when Paul recounts his experience, he says he saw Jesus again later:

"'But since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me and came into Damascus. A certain Ananias...said, "The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth."...It happened when I returned to Jerusalem and was praying in the temple, that I fell into a trance, and I saw Him saying to me, "Make haste, and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about Me."'" (Acts 22:11-18, emphasis mine)

Ananias prophesied that Paul would "see" Jesus, and, sure enough, Paul "saw Him" in Jerusalem. So at his conversion, Paul saw Jesus appear in the form of a bright light. Later, he again saw Jesus, this time presumably in human form, in a vision. At least twice, then, Paul saw the risen Lord, and so Paul's words in his letter to the Corinthians is not a contradiction.


Yet again we've seen the skeptic's claim demolished that the Bible contradicts itself. These answers have been around for a long time, and yet they continue to be raised as if Christians weren't aware of them. This goes to show that, for the most part, those who object to Scripture on these grounds are at best intellectually dishonest with themselves, trying desparately to hold on to any reason to reject the Bible as being true, and at worst are trying to deceive others into abandoning the historic Christian faith.

In a recent episode of the Preterist Podcast, Dee Dee Warren replayed an appearance she made on the Unbelievable radio program. I've been hooked ever since, going back and listening to archived episodes. What's great about Unbelievable is that it brings Christians and non-Christians together in cordial debate. I HIGHLY recommend this program, and have found my faith strengthened as a result.

I'm not digressing; I mention Unbelievable for a reason. I've listened now to several debates between mainstream Christians and non-Christians, including three which bear mentioning: a liberal Christian (so liberal one struggles to understand how the term "Christian" is applicable), an atheist, and a Mormon. In each case, the non-Christian objected to the reliability and inerrancy of Scripture on the grounds that it has been proven to contain numerous contradictions. In fact, the ones I've been going through are some of the very ones they pointed to in their debate.

Now, as I said, the very clear and coherent answers I've given to these contradictions are nothing new. They've been around for a long time, and anybody who has seriously looked into them is aware of the answers. They may find the answers unsatisfactory, and that's perfectly fine; I think they're being unreasonable. The point is, it is patently false to say that it has been "proven" that the Bible contains numerous errors. That is simply a factual error. Just because you aren't satisifed by the answers Christians give does not mean that any such thing has been proven.

There are a great many more alleged contradictions to examine, but remember all this as we continue to look at them. A few are somewhat difficult to harmonize, but the vast majority are very easy and were harmonized very easily and logically long, long ago. If someone tells you that the Bible has been proven to contain numerous errors, simply ask for specifics, jot them down, and ask him if he is willing to allow you to respond after you've looked into them. Email me or do a bit of research on the internet and you'll find an answer. Don't worry or be nervous: as we've seen, the bark of skeptics is bigger than their bite... and their bite is increasingly weak.


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