You are here
Why Are There Different Accounts of Paul's Conversion?
One of the most important events in the book of Acts is the dramatic vision Saul received as he was on the road to Damascus. This event shaped Paul’s life and ministry, and he would refer constantly to his vision in his public defenses and epistles throughout the New Testament.
Similar to Paul, Joseph Smith had a dramatic vision in 1820 that shaped the rest of his life, and like Paul, he was persecuted for telling others about his vision. The persecution against Paul, for example, happened almost as immediately as he began to preach the gospel, to the point that many Jews in Damascus now “took counsel to kill him,” requiring Saul to escape the city by being “let … down by the wall in a basket” (Acts 9:23, 25). Joseph Smith similarly reported that “a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling” overtook many of the religious leaders of his day who had learned about his vision (Joseph Smith—History 1:23).
So similar were the two men’s lives that Joseph Smith found solace in comparing his vision and experiences with those of Paul:
I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise. (Joseph Smith—History 1:24)
Interestingly, both Joseph Smith and Paul left several accounts of their visions, told at different times to various audiences throughout their lives.1 Each account of these visions shows a remarkable level of consistency while simultaneously adding new, unique details. By comparing the different accounts of Paul’s transcendent vision, several details can be better appreciated.2
For example, in each telling of his vision, Paul and his convert and companion Luke are consistent in describing the Lord’s message to Paul. Although the placement of some of the phrases varies in each account, the Lord consistently says, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” And, in all three accounts, Jesus identifies Himself as “Jesus whom thou persecutest,” with some variation in Acts 22 to read, “Jesus of Nazareth.”3
However, some accounts expand on the Lord’s instructions to Saul in greater detail than others. In Acts 26, Paul recounts how the Lord instructed Paul regarding the Lord’s will for Paul:
But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me. (Acts 26:16–18)
This account makes it clear that a significant part of this vision involved Paul seeing the resurrected Lord, who appeared to him. In Acts 9 and 22, the Lord’s actual presence in the light that Paul saw is implied but not explicitly stated until Paul is speaking with Ananias (see Acts 9:17; 22:14). This detail is also confirmed in Paul’s epistles, as Paul repeatedly testifies that he has “seen Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1).4
Another key detail is Paul’s subsequent visit to and baptism by Ananias, which are mentioned in both Acts 9 and Acts 22. While Acts 9 mentions Ananias’s preparation to receive Paul, Acts 22 includes a much more detailed account of Ananias’s words to Paul, including his instructions to be baptized (see Acts 22:13–16). While Paul’s visit with Ananias is briefly mentioned in Acts 9:17–19, it is more fully understood and appreciated when viewed in conjunction with this more detailed account. Similarly, Paul does not mention his immediate visit to Damascus in great detail in Acts 26, moving on rather quickly to recount his later missionary service instead, requiring us to refer to his previous two accounts to understand the significance of what happened there.5
Another key point worth noting is found in the two most prevalent details in Paul’s visions: the great light and the voice Paul heard. In all three of the accounts of Paul’s vision, these elements are present, and even “they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me” (Acts 22:9). One possible discrepancy is found, however, in Acts 9:7, where it is recorded that “the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.”
This detail is cleared up in the Joseph Smith Translation, though, which clarifies that the men saw the light but did not hear the voice. Robert J. Matthews has noted, “This version is surely the correct one, because both the message and the vision of the Lord were intended only for Saul. His companions saw the light, however, and knew for themselves that something unusual was taking place. They could testify to this event and thus help support Saul’s declaration of it.”6
Ultimately, Paul’s different accounts of what could be termed his “first vision” show that while some variations exist in each account, all are to be understood as reliable accounts of an actual event. Like the multiple accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, differences in each account are not ultimately contradictory but mutually enhance one another and help us understand this vision when read as complementary to one another.
Because the Lord “speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding” (2 Nephi 31:3), Paul and Joseph Smith each offered different accounts of their visions to different audiences, highlighting what was most important for their needs at that time. The Lord works with His children on an individual basis, and so His prophets similarly choose to work with their different audiences in ways that will be best received by each audience.
This fact in no way challenges the historicity of these important visions by these mighty servants of God. Rather, it helps us recognize how good the Lord has been to all of us in our lives and needs, and how He is constantly at work to help us all to come unto Him, personally and collectively.
John A. Tvedtnes, “Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 2 (2012): 73–86.
Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment, Making Sense of the New Testament: Timely Insights and Timeless Messages (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), 285–286, 307–308, 312–313.
Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2007), 24–30.
Sidney B. Sperry, Paul’s Life and Letters (Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1955), 13–20.
- 1. Also worth recognizing is the fact that Alma the Younger gave multiple accounts of his vision throughout his life. Alma’s circumstances leading up to this vision as well as the message Alma received can also be compared with Paul’s. For an analysis of Alma’s vision and its accounts, see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Are There Multiple Accounts of Joseph Smith's and Alma's Visions? (Alma 36:6–7),” KnoWhy 264 (January 20, 2017). For access to the four firsthand accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, see the josephsmithpapers.org. For a detailed analysis of these accounts, see Dean C. Jesse, “The Earliest Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens: Accounts of Divine Manifestations, 1820–1844, 2nd ed., ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Studies; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2017), 1–36, and James B. Allen and John W. Welch, “Analysis of Joseph Smith’s Accounts of His First Vision,” in Opening the Heavens, 37–77.
- 2. For a chart that lists all these details, see John W. Welch and John F. Hall, “Comparing Conversions: Paul and Alma,” in Charting the New Testament (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies), chart 15-17.
- 3. See Acts 9:4–5; 22:7–8; 26:14–16. Quotations taken from the account in Acts 26.
- 4. For a brief discussion on this detail, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2007), 26.
- 5. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment, Making Sense of the New Testament: Timely Insights and Timeless Messages (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2010), 312, note that this was likely done “in an attempt to avoid the previous accusations that he had been an agitator among the Nazarenes.”
- 6. Robert J. Matthews, “‘Unto All Nations’ (Acts),” in Studies in Scripture, vol. 6 of 8, Acts to Revelation, ed. Robert L. Millet (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1987), 33.
Get the latest updates on Book of Mormon topics and research for free