Thursday, May 02, 2019

The Damascus Road experience

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from the sky shone around him. 4 And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. 8 Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:1-9).

5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can bear me witness. From them I received letters to the brothers, and I journeyed toward Damascus to take those also who were there and bring them in bonds to Jerusalem to be punished.

6 “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me. 7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 11 And 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 (Acts 22:5-11).

12 “In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from the sky, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. 14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ 19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, (Acts 26:12-19).

1. How should we interpret the Christophany that triggered Paul's conversion? Was it a subjective vision? Or did Jesus appear to Paul physically? If you were a movie director, how would you visualize the scene? What would you show the audience? 

2. A critic might say the question is pointless since Acts is pious fiction. I'm not going to take the time to defend the historicity of Acts. There's the classic monograph by Colin Hemer, the multi-volume work edited by Bruce Winter, and Craig Keener's encyclopedic commentary. In addition, there are commentaries in the pipeline by Richard Bauckham, Stanley Porter, and Loveday Alexander which will presumably include erudite defenses of its historicity.

Approaching this from another angle, if Luke is writing fiction, why does he create an apparent discrepancy between 9:7 and 22:9? Likewise, why does he make Paul's traveling companions have a somewhat different experience of the Christophany than Paul? Why not fabricate multiple independent witnesses who share the same sensory impressions? 

3. Suppose, for argument's sake, that Jesus didn't physically appear to Paul. Suppose this is an apparition of the dead. Although in that case it can't be used as a prooftext for the Resurrection, it would still mean that Jesus survived death. Not only is he still alive, but he appears to Paul in the trappings of a theophany. Moreover, an apparition would still be consistent with the Resurrection. So even on that interpretation, the Christophany is incompatible with naturalism or mythicism. 

4. Is the Christophany inconsistent with Jesus physically appearing to Paul? According to the three accounts, Paul and his traveling companions individually sensed something with their eyes and ears. They all saw something and heard something. That suggests a public, objective event. A mind-independent phenomenon, caused by an external stimulus. Something you could record on camera if you were there. 

5. Does the luminosity imply a psychological vision rather than a physical manifestation? No. The Christophany is reminiscent of the Transfiguration, where a physical Jesus becomes incandescent. 

6. Did Paul just see light, or did he see the figure of Jesus? The statement in 9:7 suggests a point of contrast between what Paul saw and what his traveling companions saw. He saw something they didn't. He saw more than they did. 

7. Regarding the apparent discrepancy, the intended distinction seems to be that they heard sound or heard a voice, but couldn't make out what was said. Does that imply a subjective vision? 

i) It was an overwhelming experience. What if they were too stunned to listen? Consider people who say that when their doctor told them they had cancer, they stopped listening after the word "cancer"? Another possibility is that God controlled what they perceived. 

ii) But here's another consideration: Paul is going to Damascus to take into custody Syrian Jews who converted to Christianity. He can handle the Greek or Aramaic side of the conversation, but what if he picked traveling companions whose first language is Syriac to interrogate Syriac speaking converts? When Jesus speaks to Paul in Aramaic, they might not understand what was said. On a related note:
"Arabs" traditionally lived outside Damascus, especially in the mountainous regions; the "Arabian mountains" stood above Damascus. Paul's forays into "Arabia" could have gone much further than this. Some ancient writers included in "Arabia" (a term often used broadly) not only traditional Nabatea but also all the cities of the Decapolis…Language might also pose a potential barrier, though Paul could have found people who understood him. Although most Nabatean inscriptions are in a Nabatean form of Aramaic, Nabateans seem to have traditionally spoken an ancient dialect of Arabic, attested in their names… C. Keener, Galatians (Baker 2019), 93-94,96. 
8. Why was Paul blinded but they were not? Why did they only see light? Since we weren't there, we can't say for sure. But here's one way to reconstruct the scene: as they are walking, Paul momentarily turns around (due to subliminal divine prompting) and bam: the Christophany explodes into view. He is facing the Christophany while his traveling companions have their back to it. They don't turn around because it's painfully bright. 

Paul sees Jesus, in a glaring nimbic aura, before it blinds him. Just like staring directly at the sun doesn't instantly blind the viewer, but if you look at it for too long, you will go blind. 

9. The time of day means they were wide awake when it happened. It wasn't a trance or revelatory dream. 

10. Because the KJV uses the word "heaven", modern versions tend to copy that since Bible translations are commercially conservative; they avoid changes that would upset customers used to a traditional, venerable version. But "heaven" is ambiguous and prejudicial. It can mean several different things:

i) The abode of God/saints/angels

ii) An event that originates in heaven

iii) The sky

iv) A pious circumlocution for God

The Greek word doesn't imply that Paul saw Jesus in heaven (i). The description of the event, judging by its impact on Paul and his traveling companions, suggests light from the sky. That's reminiscent of the Ascension, where Jesus is suspended in midair, until the Shekinah envelops him. 


  1. Topography has the potential to simultaneously explain some of the factors involved. Let's say Paul is walking in front of his companions. They're going over a hill. Paul can see over the hill, but his companions can't. He can see Jesus before the light begins shining. They can't. Since Paul is closer to Jesus, the light affects him more (blinding him, but not them), and he hears more of what's said. Or there may have been a scenario involving a bend in the road rather than a hill. Or it could have been a scenario like what Steve described, with Paul walking behind the others. Trees or other objects could have been involved in determining what was seen and when. And so on.

    In addition to topography, there are issues like where people were looking at the time and how far apart they were walking. Notice that it's so easy to think of multiple potential scenarios that would explain what we read in Acts.

    But it does require more thinking than would be necessary if somebody were making up an account that they wanted to be more easily understood and accepted. The complexity of these accounts suggests their authenticity. In fact, there are a lot of reasons for thinking the accounts are historical. For example:

    - There's no competing account.

    - Luke's reliability.

    - Why fabricate an account in which Paul's companions don't convert?

    - Why fabricate an account in which Paul's companions don't see the risen Christ and don't hear all that was said?

    - Why not make the physicality of the appearance more obvious, as with earlier resurrection appearances, like the earlier ones in Luke and Acts?

    - Why make the events so complicated (as discussed above)?

  2. Regarding the physicality of the appearance, I'll add some points to Steve's. Acts tells us that Paul saw Jesus, not just a light (9:27, 22:14). Paul says the same in his letters (1 Corinthians 9:1). Resurrection in Paul's letters and early Christianity in general involves the raising of the physical body that died, so a physical appearance of Jesus would make more sense than a non-physical one in that context. Similarly, the context of the remainder of Luke and Acts and earlier resurrection appearances in general is a context in which all of the earlier appearances were physical ones. So, it makes more sense for the appearance to Paul to be physical than it does for the appearance to be non-physical. The objective, physical nature of how Paul and his companions heard Jesus' voice, with different people having heard him to different degrees, makes more sense if the voice came from Jesus' body than if Jesus wasn't physically present. And passages like Acts 22:15 group the hearing and seeing involved together, suggesting that both the hearing and the seeing of Jesus were of a physical nature. 22:14 refers to the voice coming from the "mouth" of Jesus. That terminology normally refers to a portion of the human body. Jesus is a human who was speaking in the context of a resurrection appearance, which involves a raised physical body, so the reference to a mouth in 22:14 is most naturally taken as a reference to Jesus' being bodily present during the appearance to Paul. There's no reason to think that something like an anthropomorphism is involved in 22:14. The passage is most naturally taken to refer to Jesus' bodily presence. Furthermore, Paul groups the appearance to him with the appearances to others (1 Corinthians 15:5-8), and early Christian tradition, reflected in a large number and variety of sources, portrays the appearances to the other resurrection witnesses as bodily appearances. Like Paul's writings, the book of Acts portrays Paul as a resurrection witness in the same category as the others (13:31-32, 22:15), and those other witnesses are said to have seen bodily appearances of Jesus.

  3. Jesus spoke to Paul in Hebrew not Aramaic. Hebrews 26:14.

  4. Replies
    1. I think the Koine Greek says Ἑβραΐδι (Hebraidi). My understanding is it could refer to either Hebrew or Aramaic. The ESV translates it as Hebrew, while the NIV translates it as Aramaic. Other translations translate it as Hebrew but place Aramaic in the footnotes as a possible alternative translation. It's probably debatable. In any case, whichever it is, I don't see how it changes Steve's point.

  5. We should also take into account the multifaceted later corroboration of Paul's experience: Ananias' paranormal knowledge of what had occurred, the healing of Paul's blindness, Paul's acquisition of the ability to perform miracles, etc. And the evidence we have for Paul's apostleship, like the miracles he performed and the confirmation of his apostleship from other apostles, gives us reason to trust Paul's interpretation of what he experienced, which he describes as a resurrection appearance. Paul, like early Christianity in general, defines resurrection as involving the raising of the physical body that died.

  6. William Lane Craig discusses several relevant issues in his paper "The bodily resurrection of Jesus".

  7. I really don't see the problem between 9:7 and 22:9. The men with Saul "saw no one" it doesn't say light, and they heard the voice in 9:7 but did not understand in 22:9. These terms are equivocal and if I remember correctly the equivocation goes over into the greek word akuo as well.

  8. "and he [Paul] has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight" (Acts 9:12).

    1. On the one hand, Paul was blind after his Damascus road experience. On the other hand, Paul was able to see (in a vision) after his Damascus road experience.

    2. Suppose Paul's Damascus road experience was a hallucination, an altered state of mind, or similar. What kind of a hallucination would cause blindness? At the same time, what kind of blindness would allow one to see and see so clearly?