In his first letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul testified that Christ appeared to him after being raised from the dead (1 Cor. 15:8). This experience transformed him from a leading opponent and persecutor of the church to its most famous missionary. The record indicates that Paul spent the last three decades or so of his life after this experience traveling around the Roman Empire testifying to others about the truth of the Gospel based on the reality of what he had experienced. He finally died a martyr’s death in Roman custody.
Some critics say that Paul’s experience was only a subjective, spiritual vision rather than an objective, physical experience and that Paul never claimed to have a physical encounter with the risen Christ. Furthermore, since Paul used the same language in describing his experience that he used for the appearances to the other apostles, that raises the possibility that the others also experienced visions of some kind. This would put Paul at odds with the Gospel writers who reported the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus as bodily appearances. This is the theory proposed by Gerd Lüdemann in his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. In his view the experiences of the apostles began as visions but then later developed into stories of bodily appearances.
To examine this claim, we need to look at what Paul actually said about his own experience as well as what the author of Acts said about it, as these are our primary sources.
How did Paul describe his experience?
It is sometimes argued that Paul only testified to having a vision of light of some kind and not to actually seeing Jesus. The problem with this argument is that Paul never says anything about having a vision of light in his own letters. The reference to light with respect to the appearance to Paul comes from the three accounts of the event in Acts. However, this is also the same source (Luke-Acts) which makes it clear that the post-mortem appearances of Jesus were physical and also makes it clear that what Paul experienced was an objective phenomenon rather than simply an inner, mystical vision of some kind. Paul himself testified to having seen Jesus in 1 Cor. 9:1. The word which Paul uses for “see” in that verse is the word for ordinary sight. In fact there is nothing in Paul’s letters which indicates that he considered the event which led to his conversion to be a purely subjective vision.
Some critics point out that Paul describes his experience as a vision in Acts 26:19: “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” But this is a strange move by the skeptic who assumes that Acts is a later, fictionalized account. If Acts is accurate, then the experience was an objective one. Here the skeptic must assume that the ostensibly objective aspects of the event were fictionalized, while the word that Paul used in his speech to King Agrippa to describe it was really what Paul said, which is simply forcing the evidence to fit the skeptic’s theory. But even here the skeptic doesn’t have a strong case. The word which is translated “vision” here is optasia. It’s not clear that this word refers to a subjective, inner vision. There is another word, the word hopama, which is more likely to carry that meaning. The word hopama is used to describe the vision of Ananias in Acts 9:10-12, the vision of Peter in Acts 10:3f. when he was in a trance, Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia in Acts 16:9, and another vision in Acts 26:19. Most interestingly, this is also the word used in Acts 12:9 when Peter was released from prison by an angel, and the text says “Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision [hopama].” Here the word hopama is specifically used to refer to something which Peter supposed was not really happening – the word the author of Acts uses to describe a vision which is not objectively real. It is not the word used to describe Paul’s vision.
How does the author of Acts describe Paul’s experience?
Critics have also pointed to discrepancies in the three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts. The first account (Acts 9:1-22) is a narrative of the event, while the other two (Acts 22:1-21 and 26:9-23) are public speeches in which Paul recounts the experience. It’s important to keep in mind that these accounts are all found in the same source, from the same author. Thus it isn’t the same kind of argument as alleged discrepancies in the Gospels, where one author has supposedly contradicted another. For example, one alleged discrepancy between these accounts is that in Acts 9:7 it says the men travelling with Paul heard the voice but saw no one, while in Acts 22:9 it says they saw the light but did not hear the voice.
This alleged discrepancy can be resolved by looking at the case endings of the word “voice” in each verse in Greek. In 9:7 “voice” is in the genitive case while in 22:9 it is in the accusative case. In classical Greek this was an important distinction – with genitive it would mean they heard the voice in the sense of perceiving sound, while with the accusative it would mean that they didn’t hear in the sense of understanding (we do something similar in English when we say, “do you hear what I’m saying?” and really mean “do you understand what I mean?”). Thus some English translations render 22:9 as saying that Paul’s companions didn’t understand the voice. Thus it’s possible for them to hear and not hear at the same time, because it is a different sense of “hear” being used.
As for what the companions did or did not see, in 22:9 it says they saw the light whereas in 9:7 it says they saw no one. There is no contradiction here, and in fact even skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann concedes that this verse implies that Paul did see someone, namely Jesus himself.1 But there is no contradiction in the accounts of what the companions saw. Moreover, the three accounts in Acts all agree that Paul’s travelling companions were also affected by the phenomenon. For the skeptic to appeal to those accounts to support the “vision” hypothesis but then deny the parts that refer to Paul’s companions being affected is special pleading.
There is another problem with the theory that the apostles had visions which were later developed into bodily appearances. In Acts 7 there is an account of Stephen’s vision of Jesus at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). There is no hint in this passage that this was a physical appearance of Jesus that affected anyone else – it was only experienced by Stephen. Yet this account did not develop into a physical post-mortem appearance. The author of Acts is obviously familiar with the category of visions (which is also the case for Peter’s vision in Acts 10), and these are separate from the category of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. So the critic is being inconsistent in his or her handling of the evidence by saying that the experience of the apostles were visions which inexplicably developed into physical appearances by the time the Gospels were written.
So the post-resurrection appearance which Paul described is reported as being an objective phenomenon which affected others, and in which Paul says that he saw Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1). Paul did not describe this as a vision, nor did the author of Acts. In order to arrive at this conclusion, the critic must simply ignore the evidence or treat it selectively rather than following the evidence wherever it leads. Moreover, this experience produced such a radical change in Paul’s life that he changed his name (from Saul) and spent the last three decades of his life travelling around the Roman Empire at great personal risk to tell others about it, ultimately dying by execution in Roman custody.
To summarize, the idea that Paul only testified to having an inner, subjective vision of Jesus at his conversion is not supported by Paul’s writings nor by the accounts in the book of Acts which clearly indicate that the encounter was objective. If the writer of Acts was a companion of Paul (which will be an issue in a forthcoming post) and Paul was in fact the source of the accounts in Acts, then that completely undermines the argument that Paul had a subjective vision along with the other apostles and that the accounts later developed into physical appearances. In fact the earliest sources we have uniformly testify to the post-resurrection appearances as objective, physical phenomena which were experienced not only by individuals, but also by groups of people.
1. Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 66.