The Conversion of Paul

The Making of the “Untimely” Apostle

Luke presents no fewer than three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts, once as a historian in Acts 9:1–16 and twice as a reporter in Acts 22:1–16 and Acts 26:4–18.[1] While they all agree in principle, they are by no means identical in detail. Some scholars explain these discrepancies as residual “tensions” arising from “corrections and improvements” Luke made to harmonize three contradictory accounts.[2]

However, I am persuaded that each account is a careful selection of parts from a larger and coherent whole, each one carefully tailored by Luke to its context and progressively unfolding his theological and literary purposes for the book of Acts.[3] Consider the following similarities and differences between these three accounts:

1. Christophany: In each account, the risen Lord Jesus identifies himself to Paul with flashes of light and a voice from heaven, but Paul’s companions cannot understand the voice (Acts 9:5–7; 22:6–9; 26:12–15). Also, “it is not accidental that the three versions agree verbatim only in the dialogue by which the glorified Christ identifies Himself with His Church.”[4]

2. Turning Point: Each account becomes a turning point of the book. In the first, Paul becomes the primary earthly protagonist. With the second, his arrest galvanizes his Jewish enemies and opens the door to Rome. At the last, his Roman destiny is confirmed.

3. Role of Ananias: With each successive account, the role of Ananias is diminished. In the first account, the Lord summons Ananias to Paul, and Ananias lays hands on Paul to deliver his commission from the Lord (Acts 9:10–17). In the second account, Ananias only delivers the Lord’s commission to Paul (Acts 22:12–16). By the third account, Ananias has completely vanished from the story.

4. Jews and Gentiles: At the beginning, Paul is a “chosen instrument” to testify before “the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15 NASB). By the end, however, Paul claims that Jesus is rescuing him from the Jews and sending him to the Gentiles (Acts 26:16). In other words, Paul’s mission has been redirected from Jews to Gentiles and kings.

5. Prophet and Servant: Only Paul’s final testimony before King Agrippa relates him to the prophets of old and identifies his mission with that of Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh: “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18; cf. Is 35:5; 42:7, 16).

These observations shed much light on Luke’s purposes for three conversion narratives. First, because the risen Christ appears to Paul in the initial event and appears in each of Paul’s later testimonies, each successive narrative is a platform for Luke’s ultimate protagonist (i.e., Christ himself) and a vehicle for Luke’s theology of the resurrection.[5] Second, this threefold account amounts to a ringing endorsement of Paul’s apostleship as an eyewitness of the risen Christ. Finally, these twin purposes resolve in the reader’s realization that Paul’s ministry is one of the primary thrusts of Christ’s redemptive work into the Church age. Paul truly is an ambassador for Christ.[6]

[1] Walenty Prokulski, “Conversion of St Paul,” Cathol. Biblic. Q. 19.4 (1957): 453–473.

[2] Charles W. Hedrick, “Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts,” J. Biblic. Lit. 100.3 (1981): 415–432.

[3] This is to say nothing of the natural variation we should expect between Paul’s two oral accounts themselves. It seems reasonable that Paul would have tailored his testimony to his audiences, but we will restrict our analysis to Luke’s narration for the purposes of this assignment.

[4] David M Stanley, “Paul’s Conversion in Acts,” Cathol. Biblic. Q. 15.3 (1953): 315–38.

[5] Indeed, Paul’s entire trial and the reason for these testimonies, as he conceives of it, is a matter of resurrection from the dead. “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). “I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating ... that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22–23).

[6] Stanley, “Paul’s Conversion in Acts.”