A Contradiction in Acts?

In my Acts reading at the moment, I’ve reached Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and his defence before the crowd in which he recounts the appearance of the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus.  It is a fascinating encounter.

Paul’s first words on hearing the voice asking “Why are you persecuting me” are: “Who are you Lord?” Lord can be the designation of a human master, but it is also the word used in the Greek OT to translate “Yahweh” (God’s name as disclosed to Moses).  Paul would have been familiar with the OT appearances of Yahweh to his people, and as a Pharisee would presumably have had no reason to rule them out as impossible in his own time.  He is prepared to encounter Yahweh, and the shock is in the next statement from the voice: “I am Jesus…”

The “I am” is the same as in the “I am” sayings in John’s gospel and echoes the Greek translation of Exodus 3 where Yahweh reveals his name to Moses.  I think it may be that we are supposed to see this as the moment when Paul encounters Yahweh and realises that Jesus is Yahweh come as a man (as I thought all this, I then had a hazy memory of having heard it before in a NT foundations course and realised that I would have to forgoe the honour of being the first to discover this…).

I then read on.  As I struggle with the Greek I often use an English version to check how I am doing, usually the ESV.  I did this with Acts 22:9 where Paul says regarding his experience in the ESV:

Now those who were with me saw the light but did not understand[c] the voice of the one who was speaking to me.

This made me go back to my Greek because I was pretty sure that the Greek said “did not hear” – and sure enough it is the regular Greek word for “hear” used.  The footnote (c) in the quote above suggests “or hear with understanding”.  This made me more than a little puzzled as I didn’t really see why such extra effort was needed to translate the perfectly clear Greek “saw the light but did not hear the voice”.  I checked a couple of other versions:

GNB: The men with me saw the light, but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.

NRSV: Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.

Then being of suspicious mind I had an idea, a vague memory of a difficulty in Acts, and looked up Acts 9 where Luke recounts Paul’s conversion story:

Acts 9:7 (ESV)  The men who were travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.

The ESV translates the Greek as “hear” in Acts 9, but then in Acts 22 seems to interpret “hear” as “understand”, presuambly to avoid a contradiction between the two accounts.  I don’t mind  this – it is a plausible way to understand what Paul says, but I do object to the footnote not making it clearer that this is what they have done.  The ESV claims to be as literal as possible – but here the GNB has a strong claim to be more literal than the ESV. It worries me that the ESV have translated it like this here, because I think it would be better to leave the reader to puzzle over the discrepancy in wording, rather than attempting an interpretation that appears to be aimed at smoothing over a difficulty without saying what is being done.

I don’t think that this is particularly typical of the ESV, but it is a warning that maybe even the best of translations have glitches – inspiration is in the “originals”, not the transalation. In this case I think the apparent contradiction is best preserved, as in GNB or NRSV because it makes us think.  Here is how it made me think…

I then pondered the difference.  In Acts 9 it says the men heard the voice, but saw no-one.  In Acts 22 they saw the light, but did not hear the voice.  In terms of what they saw there is clearly no problem.  They see a light, but they do not see Jesus.

In terms of hearing there is a more obvious difficulty.  Do they hear or not hear the voice?  The ESV is a possible solution – they hear but don’t understand – and presumably has some justification in terms of the range of meaning of “hear” in Greek otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen it.  Another solution occured to me in the word for “voice”.  This word can also be translated “noise”.  It is possible that the men heard a “noise”, but did not hear a “voice”.  From Luke’s perspective outside the scene, the men heard something – but Paul reporting from his viewpoint knows they did not actually hear the words.  This would have some parallel in John 12, where God speaks to Jesus, and some know the noise as a voice, but others just say that it thundered.  I’ve just checked the Message, and it looks like this is the angle Eugene Peterson takes, so it’s nice to know I might not be completely off beam…

This then reminded me of some of the encounters between Yahweh and people in the OT, where there is a great difficulty in saying what is actually heard and seen.  Moses sees God face to face, as a man a friend – and yet no-one can see God’s face and live.  The elders of Israel eat with the God of Israel – having just been cordoned off from approaching Sinai earlier on in the story.  It is as if words run out when God is really encountered. Something can be described, and yet something is beyond words.  Could the difficulty in Acts be because Paul is struggling to put into words what such an encounter involved?

There is also one futher possibility – which is that Paul under the stress of his arrest simply puts it the wrong way around, and Luke seeking to record accurately, records the mistake, and sees it as useful to make us think through all these issues.  After all, there is no requirement on us to believe that every statement Paul ever made was correct. At the start of 1 Corinthians he ends up having to correct himself over who he baptised.  The effect would then be to strengthen confidence in Luke’s historical accuracy, while at the same time forcing us to think more about what was involved in Paul meeting Jesus, and coming to understand that Jesus was Yahweh.

I think that is what difficulties in the bible should do – they should make us think more about what is being said, and what could be meant by them.  My ideas may or may not be right – but being forced to think about how two accounts which seemingly contradict might fit together is a really useful thing to have to do.

The moral of the story is – check different translations if you come across something that looks like a contradiction, and compare parallel accounts, and then think about how words are being used, and what point the author may have wanted to make.  Do that before trying to just make them say the same thing, and also before you write them off as hopelessly muddled – and you may find that you can take them both in the most obvious way.  You could do most of what I have done here by comparing English versions, and checking a commentary/interlinear – so don’t let not knowing Greek put you off.

This entry was posted in Bible.

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