What Did Saul’s Companions See and Hear on the Road to Damascus?
As Saul journeyed toward Damascus in hopes of persecuting more followers of Jesus Christ, “suddenly a light shone around him from heaven” (Acts 9:3). Saul “fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’” (9:4-5). Interestingly, Luke, the penmen of Acts, records how those who journeyed with Saul, “stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no one” (9:7, emp. added). Critics of the Bible’s divine inspiration allege, however, that Saul contradicted Luke when he recounted these events in Jerusalem years later. As Saul (whose name by that time had been changed to Paul) gave his defense before the Jewish mob, he mentioned that “those who were with me indeed saw the light…but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me” (22:9, emp. added). Skeptics contend that Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 are contradictory. After all, how could Saul’s companions hear but not hear, and see but not see?
The fact is, whether skeptics want to admit it or not, people regularly (and honestly) talk of “seeing” and “not seeing,” as well as “hearing” and “not hearing”—even in reference to the same things at the same time. The justifiable difference, however, is in the sense in which the words are used. A man with rather poor vision and without glasses may not be able to “see anything.” But the same man with the same blurry vision may technically be able to “see something.” He can see light and darkness. He can see the blue sky. He can see fuzzy figures. He might even be able to read a document held close to his eyes. But could he make out a person’s face from 15 feet away? Could he effectively work as a night watchman? Could he safely drive a car? Certainly not with, say, 20/80 vision. Thus, in one sense the man can “see,” while in another sense “he’s blind.” Likewise, those accompanying Saul to Damascus “saw the light” (Acts 22:9), but they saw “no one” (9:7).
But what about Luke and Saul’s different details regarding what the men heard? Did they stand speechless, “hearing (akouo) a voice” (9:7) as Luke recorded, or did they “not hear (akouo) the voice of Him who spoke,” as Paul informed the Jerusalem mob in Acts 22:9? If it could be proven that the Bible writers never used words figuratively and/or in different senses, then skeptics would certainly have a valid criticism. But as we’ve already seen, and as could be pointed out throughout Scripture (e.g., two different uses of the word “day” in one verse in Genesis 1:5), the Bible writers (and those whom they quoted) often used words in a variety of ways—just as mankind has for millennia. A husband may “hear” everything his wife says, but really not “hear” anything she says. A distracted high school student can “hear” everything his algebra teacher has taught during a given class period. But how will he answer his mother that evening when she sees him struggling with simple algebra equations and asks, “Did you not hear anything your teacher said today?” In a strictly literal sense, he could say, “I heard every word my teacher said.” However, in an appropriate, but figurative sense, he could say, “I didn’t hear anything she said.”
Interestingly, Jesus once spoke of those who, “seeing (blepo) they do not see (blepo), and hearing (akouo) they do not hear (akouo), nor do they understand (suniemi)” (Matthew 13:13). To whom was Jesus referring? Those individuals who could literally see and hear Him, but who did not understand Him—they did not see and hear Him in the deeper, more meaningful way that He desired. Of particular interest is the fact that Jesus used the Greek terms for seeing and hearing in different senses. If Jesus could use these words differently, pray tell, what would keep Luke and Saul from using them thusly?
Regarding Acts 9:7 and 22:9, Saul’s men obviously heard something (a sound of some kind; see Robertson, 1930, pp. 117-118), yet they did not hear (i.e., understand) the voice of the Lord as did Saul. What fair and just jury could not easily come to this same conclusion were Luke and Saul put on trial for their differences in the accounts of Jesus appearing to Saul and his men on the road to Damascus?
Robertson, A.T. (1930), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman).