What happened to Saul on the road to Damascus?

This is the 26th entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with the beginning of Saul’s conversion experience.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.

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3. Contents:

E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Saul’s Conversion (9:1-9):

1Meanwhile 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 who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  (NRSV)

With the beginning of chapter 9, though it might not be apparent initially, the focus of Acts is changing to Saul and the Gentile Mission. We will be told later that Saul is also called Paul (Acts 13:9), but at this point we only know that the one who was earlier persecuting the Christians is on his way to continue this persecution in Damascus when he has an experience of the risen Lord. Saul’s conversion is the classic example of conversion in the Christian tradition, joined some centuries later by that of St. Augustine, in which a religious experience brings a person into a direct and overwhelming encounter with the divine.[1]

Saul at the beginning of this scene is on his way to Damascus to root out any disciples of the Lord, or followers of “the Way” (hêhodos) Acts 9:2). As Gary Gilbert notes, this title for the Christian community probably is derived from their understanding that they are following “the divine appointed path” as seen in Deuteronomy 5:33, 10:12, 30:16, Isaiah 42:24, Zechariah 3:7 and in some Dead Sea Scrolls (CD 20.18 and 1QS 9.17-18) (Gilbert, JANT, 216-17). Saul obviously does not accept the disciples of the Lord as “the Way,” though we are not ever told precisely why. Does he believe that Jesus is not the Messiah? That the disciples of Jesus are blasphemers? That they do not follow the Torah, or Law of Moses fully and properly? These are questions we ought to return to as we continue on with our study of Acts, though it is possible that no definitive answer is possible on the basis of Acts (or even when we bring in Paul’s own letters).  

According to this account Saul’s authority is not personal, though, but dependent upon the high priest, for he “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). There is an underlying question, however, and that is what sort of judicial authority the high priest would have to bring people from Damascus to Jerusalem. As Luke Timothy Johnson, says, “It is not at all certain, historically, that the chief priest had such powers of extradition” (Johnson, Acts, 162). On the other hand, we do know of “letters of commendation” which Paul speaks of in his own letters (2 Corinthians 3:1, Romans 16) and which are noted in 3 John also. Saul certainly could have obtained letters, but the political situation in Damascus and the relationship of the high priest to the political authorities in Damascus and the synagogues there is not clear.[2] Would Jews in Damascus have to honor the authority of the high priest in Jerusalem if their political authorities did not? Or would Saul have acted extra-judicially? Dillon states that “such authority of the high priest cannot be documented by the witnesses usually cited” (Dillon, NJBC, 744).

What is also unclear, since Luke chooses to give us no background information, is how the disciples of the Lord spread to Damascus and how many are there. This is a sign of how selective Luke is in sharing information that does not fit with his own historical and literary agenda. He has used the Ethiopian eunuch account and Philip’s foray into Samaria to give us the first sense of the Gospel moving beyond Jerusalem and Judea (Dillon, NJBC, 743), but clearly “the Way” is already in Damascus. Who brought it there? When did they? Luke evinces no curiosity regarding these questions.

These historical, political and judicial questions quickly become moot, though, in the light of Saul’s conversion experience.

3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."

Unexpectedly, the persecutor “suddenly” experiences “a light from heaven” (Acts 9:3). Johnson points out that “suddenly” (exaiphnes) also appears in Luke 2:13 with the appearance of the heavenly choir and in Luke 9:39 when a boy is overcome by a spirit (Johnson, Acts, 162). There is an immediacy to this word and usage which indicates on its own the spiritual realm. But Saul does not just see a flashing light, he hears a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4). Gilbert says that common elements of divine appearances in Judaism include flashing light (4 Maccabees 4:10), falling to the ground (Daniel 10:9; Ezekiel 1:28), double naming (Genesis 22:11, 46:2, Exodus 3:4, 1 Samuel 3:4, 10) and divine commission (Genesis 12:1, 22:2), which Saul receives in Acts 9:6 (Gilbert, JANT, 216-17).

The voice that Saul hears asks him, “Why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Theologically, this is a redolent question, for it indicates that persecution of the disciples of the Lord is persecution of the Lord himself. If we accept that Saul did indeed have this religious experience of the risen Lord much as Luke describes it, we might see here the origin of Paul’s later understanding of the church as body of Christ, since persecution of one is persecution of the other.

Saul, though, does not know the voice and asks, “Who are you, Lord?” (Acts 9:5). There is a double meaning to Lord (kyrios), as it might simply be a term of honor, such as “Sir,” or it could of course indicate God. Saul might intend as a simple honorific initially, but when Jesus identifies himself (“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”) and then commissions Saul (“But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do"), along with all of the other elements of divine manifestation present in this account, we are to understand kyrios as indicating Jesus’ divinity.[3] Dillon’s claim that Saul’s question indicates that the “dazzling light” was “nonrevelatory” does not make sense of the evidence here (Dillon, NJBC, 744). The light was not ordinary in Luke’s description but extraordinary, however one interprets it.

There are auditory and visual components to this experience, but “the men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one” (Acts 9:7).  Although the religious encounter is expressed by means of physical senses, not all of the elements of the sensory experience are available to those with Saul. They hear it, but see no one. The fullness of it is a spiritual experience to which only Saul has access. This encounter, however, will be described again in Acts 22:1-21 and 26:9-18 and it will be important to pay attention to how it is outlined in these two occurrences also, for Luke himself will not be consistent in his description of the experience or who sees and hears what.

In Acts 9:4, Saul “fell to the ground”  - not from a horse, even if Caravaggio’s glorious painting has burned the image in our minds –  and the scene is coming to an end when “Saul got up from the ground” (Acts 9:8). But “though his eyes were open, he could see nothing,” an example of the link between spiritual and physical sight. Saul is in a liminal state, still not clear about his encounter with Jesus and until he gains spiritual sight, he will not have physical sight. His companions “led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:8), no longer able to persecute, his personal mission brought to an end; he arrives in Damascus not with ferocity, but led like a child. He has been brought low in spirit and body (Dillon, NJBC, 744).

“For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).  Paul is undergoing a kind of spiritual death and the lack of food and drink indicates the liminality of his experience, between the spiritual and the physical (Johnson, Acts, 164). When will he awake to new life?

Next entry, Saul must come to terms with his spiritual encounter.

John W. Martens

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[1] Whether this experience is a “conversion” or a “call” has led to much discussion in recent scholarship, much of it centered on whether Saul becomes a “Christian” or remains a Jew who recognizes Jesus as the Lord and Messiah. It is too complex for our purposes here to discuss this completely, though it is obvious, I think, that Saul’s mode of behavior and  living out of Judaism shift at some point, which Paul himself in his letters attributes to an encounter with Jesus (Galatians 1:12, 15-17). As a result, I feel comfortable using both terms. For those wishing to check out some of the major works in this area, please see the late Alan Segal’s Paul the Convert: the Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee and Pamela Eisenbaum’sPaul was not a Christian: the Real Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

[2] Page, Acts, 136 cites a source, not by name, stating, “By decrees of Julius Caesar and Augustus the high priest and Sanhedrin at Jerusalem had jurisdiction over Jews resident in foreign cities.”  The ancient source for this is not named, however, and I am aware of no such source.

[3] Johnson, Acts, believes that Saul “recognizes that he is involved in a theophany” from the beginning (163).

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