Thursday, May 7, 2009
The appearance to Paul is one of the most controversial ones listed. Many skeptics suggest that Paul’s claimed experience was not an experience of the risen Christ in person, but was rather a vision or a “spiritual” experience. In other words, Paul made no claim to having had an physical encounter with Christ in the real world. This, they say, also means that Paul thought of these other appearances to the apostles in the same way – merely as some sort of undefined vision. The stories in the Gospels arose later, and are of a different nature altogether than the claims made in this early church creed that Paul uses. The first question, then, is what was the nature of Paul’s experience? Is it true that Paul only reported a spiritual vision rather than a physical encounter with Christ? Let’s examine the evidence.
Paul’s encounter with Christ on the way to Damascus is recorded 3 times in the book of Acts: once when it is narrated, and twice when Paul is recorded as giving speeches about it to others. In addition, Paul alludes to his experience three times in his own letters: once in Galatians and twice in 1 Corinthians. So if critics want to make a case that Paul only reported having a vision of some kind, this is the primary data.
The three descriptions of Paul’s experience in Acts are found in 9:3-9; 22:6-11; and 26:12-16. There are several important features of all three descriptions. One of the first things to note is that in every case the men who were with Saul (Paul’s pre-Christian name) also experienced something. In none of these descriptions is this simply a private experience that only Paul was privy to. Something supposedly happened in the real world. But what exactly? Each of the descriptions include a bright light described as being “from heaven” and a voice. Unlike the light, it is not said where the voice came from. In the first account, we are told that the men heard the voice but saw no one. In the second account, Paul specifies that the men saw the light but did not hear the voice. In the third account it says the light shone around them all and they all fell to the ground.
So it’s clear that what is being described here is a real-world event and not a private vision that was only taking place in Paul’s mind. But the question is raised as to whether the men heard the voice or not. Luke wrote both accounts, so it’s unlikely he would have left them this way if it was an actual contradiction. As Ben Witherington points out, in classical Greek the verb akouo (“to hear”) can be used either to hear the sound of something or someone, or to hear and understand. In the former case it’s used with the gentive form of the noun, while in the latter it’s used with the accusative.[i] This is what we find in Acts: in 9:7 the genitive of the noun is used, while 22:9 it’s in the accusative. The men with Paul heard something, but it was not intelligible to them.
But another important clue to what happened is that it specifically says in Acts 9:7 that the men with Paul saw nobody. But why say this unless Paul himself DID see somebody? It seems to imply that Paul saw somebody but the men with him did not, though they did, apparently, see a bright light (perhaps obscuring their sight temporarily). But there are other clues as well. As N.T. Wright points out, Barnabas describes Paul’s experience to the other apostles in Acts 9:27 as him having “seen the Lord on the road.”[ii] But more importantly, in 1 Cor. 9:1 Paul says, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?”
Perhaps the skeptics strongest argument comes from Acts 26:19, where Paul says “So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision”. This should settle it, right? Paul had a vision, not an objectively real experience. Actually, it turns out not to be the case. The word Paul uses here is the Greek word optasia, which is used four times in the NT. Besides this occurrence, it is found in Luke 1:22; Luke 24:23; and 2 Cor. 12:1. In the cases in Luke it appears to refer to appearances of angels which appear to be objectively real. This is especially clear in 24:23 where it refers to the angels at the tomb which appeared to the women. 2 Cor. 12:1 is ambiguous, although Paul himself says he doesn’t know if the experience described there was “in the body” or “apart from the body.” But the important thing is this is NOT the word used to describe visions which clearly were simply spiritual or private in nature, such as the vision of Ananais in Acts 9:10 (and the parallel vision of Paul in 9:12), the vision of Cornelius in Acts 10:3, and the vision of Peter in Acts 10:17. These all use the word opama. And actually in Acts 12:9, when Peter is miraculously released from prison, we read “And he went out and continued to follow, and he did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision (opama).” So here it is clear that the word opama is a vision that is not objectively real. This is not the word that Paul used to describe his vision of Jesus, which would be better described as heavenly appearance.[iii]
Thus the idea that the appearance of Jesus to Paul was just a spiritual vision of some kind is just mistaken. All of the accounts make it clear that it was experienced by Paul’s companions as well, though their experience apparently differed from his in some ways. We also have the implication that Paul saw a person, and elsewhere he says specifically that he has seen Jesus. Yes, Paul’s experience was different in many ways from the experiences of the other apostles (and he describes it with the word ektroma – “untimely born”), but still at it’s core involved seeing Jesus physically.
More importantly was the effect of this experience in changing Paul from a violent persecutor of this new sect to one of its leading proponents. Even skeptics recognize that Paul had an experience of some kind that transformed him from a violent zealot bent on destroying the Christian faith to its most famous missionary, one who endured persecution, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom for his proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah who had risen from the dead. A change of this magnitude and with such suddenness can only be explained by a life-changing event. Paul testifies to what that life-changing event was: “He appeared to me also.”
[i] Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (312).
[ii] Wright, 389-390.
[iii] Witherington, (746).