Mention of the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus brings to mind figures such as Peter, John, the remaining members of the Eleven, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, Salome, Cleopas, and his companion. Paul might at most be granted an honorable mention. After all, he did not see the stone that had been rolled away. He did not hear the angelic announcement, “He is not here, for he has risen!” He may have never peered into the empty tomb. In the forty days after the resurrection during which Jesus presented himself to his disciples with many infallible proofs, Paul was admittedly absent.
Nevertheless, Paul insists that he is a witness to the resurrection on a par with these other witnesses. The account of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to Paul is given in detail three times in the Book of Acts and is repeatedly alluded to by Paul himself in his letters. These various accounts and references are remarkably consistent and early. Thus Paul is not only a valid witness to the resurrection of Jesus, at least as far as the canons of history are concerned, he is one of the most important of all of these witnesses.
The Post-Resurrection Appearance to Paul
Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to Paul is described in detail in Acts 9:1–19; 22:6–16; and 26:12–23. After the initial report of the experience, Luke might have saved significant effort and space by simply saying , “And Paul reported to the crowd/Agrippa how Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus” or something to that effect. Luke’s insistence on recording the incident in detail three times in Acts highlights the importance of the incident in Luke’s thought.
Scholars sometimes become intensely focused on differences between the three accounts and overlook their great similarity. Two or more accounts agree on the following :
- Occasion (9:2; 22:5; 26:12) – Paul was traveling to Damascus to extradite arrested believers to Jerusalem for trial.
- Time (22:6; 26:13) – Event occurred at about noon or mid-day
- Place (9:2–3; 22:6; 26:13) – Event occurred on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus, near Damascus.
- Appearance (9:3; 22:6; 26:13) – A light from heaven flashed around Paul.
- Reaction (9:4; 22:7; 26:14) – Paul (and his companions) fell to the ground, apparently in reverence.
- Initial Dialogue (9:4–5; 22:7–8; 26:14–15) – A voice asks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Paul replies, “Who are you, Lord?” Lord replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Only slight variation exists between the three dialogue summaries. The 22:8 account adds the title “the Nazarene.” The 26:14 account adds: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (Verses in this article, unless other wise noted, are from the HCSB translation.)
- Lord’s command (9:6; 22:10) – The Lord commanded Paul, “Get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
- Aftermath (9:8–9; 22:11) – Paul a) is blinded by the intensity of the light, b) must be led by hand into Damascus, and c) fasts for three days.
The differences relate primarily to the experience of the bystanders and Paul’s call to the Gentile mission. In 9:3, the bystanders heard the voice but saw no one. In 22:9, the bystanders saw the light, but heard nothing. No real tension exists in the two accounts of the bystander’s visual experience. Luke simply indicated that they saw the brilliant light but not the person (Jesus) who spoke from the light. The contradiction in the two accounts of what the bystanders heard is merely apparent. The account in 9:3 indicates that the companions heard a voice, but the account in 22:9 clarifies that only Paul understood the words spoken by the voice.
Since 26:14 specifies that the voice spoke in the Hebrew (or Aramaic) language, one wonders if Paul’s companions were Hellenists who lacked fluency in the language that Jesus spoke. Acts 6:9 and 7:58 shows that Paul partnered with the leaders of the Synagogue of the Freedmen in the stoning of Stephen. These Jews (and likely Gentile proselytes) were from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia. This specific synagogue was likely formed because of the language barrier that made participation in normal synagogue worship difficult for Hellenists. When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his conversion, he focused his ministry on Hellenistic Jews (9:29), probably from this same group. This would have been a most fitting group for Paul’s message if some of their own number had seen the light and heard the noise on the Damascus Road. Although the data are not sufficient to determine why the bystanders heard but did not understand the voice that spoke to Paul, this explanation is at least plausible.
Another difference appears in that the first two accounts indicate that Ananias heard and then transmitted to Paul his divine call to take Christ’s name to the Gentiles (Acts 9:6,15; 22:10, 15). However, the final account has Christ commission Paul directly :
For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and of what I will re veal to you. I will rescue you from the people and from the Gentiles. I now send you to them to open their e yes so the y may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that by faith in Me the y may receive forgiveness of sins and a share among those who are sanctified (Acts 26:16b –18).
In order to posit that this account contradicts the earlier accounts, one would have to assume that Luke forgot the content of the previous accounts even though the same essential account had been recorded twice and even though the last account only preceded the episode of Paul’s appearance before Agrippa by four chapters! On the other hand, Luke would likely have mentioned Jesus’s direct commission to Paul in at least the initial account if such a commission had been given in order to set the stage for Paul’s Gentile mission. Thus the best explanation for the difference between the first two accounts and the final account is that Luke retrojected the commission given by Jesus through the prophet Ananias into the Damascus Road episode in order to abbreviate the account strategically. Such “telescoping” would have been legitimate since the two earlier accounts laid out the e vents in their original historical sequence so that readers were prepared to spot the telescoping and since Jesus’s statement “Get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (9:6; 22:10) verified that the charge given through Ananias did indeed bear the Lord’s authority.
Luke’s source for these accounts was likely Paul himself. Luke’s Prologue to his two -volume work clearly states that the author engaged in careful investigation that included interviews of eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1–4). Both Acts and Paul’s letters demonstrate that Luke had frequent and direct access to Paul’s testimony. The first-person plural pronouns in travel narratives in Acts show that Luke was often a traveling companion of Paul. Luke was present with Paul during the time that he wrote his Prison Epistles (Col 4:14) and the two had grown so close that Paul referred to him as “the loved physician.” Furthermore, Luke’s reports of Paul’s experience are confirmed by references in Paul’s letters (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8).
The Nature of This Appearance
Scholars perennially debate whether the appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Paul was an objective or subjective experience. The Acts accounts support viewing the experience as objective. The bystanders saw the light from heaven (though they did not see Jesus) and fell to the ground along with Paul. They also heard the voice (though for reasons not explicitly identified they did not understand the words uttered by the voice). These factors indicate that the appearance of Jesus to Paul was not a mere vision experienced only in his imagination.
Some scholars argue that the evidence in Acts is at odds with statements in Paul’s own letters. Bruce Chilton concluded from the words “uncover his Son in me” (Gal 1:16) that Paul’s experience was not an objective event that other people witnessed (or could have witnessed ) together with him, but was a “personal moment of disclosure,” a “mystical breakthrough.”1 This interpretation of the Greek preposition en in the phrase translated “in me” in Galatians 1:16 has become common. Those who affirm this view generally seem to assume that the Greek preposition en is the equivalent of the common English gloss “in.” This assumption is reinforced by the gloss used in many modern translations.
“[God ] was pleased to reveal his Son in me . . .” NIV
“[God ] was pleased to reveal His Son in me . . .” HCSB
“[God] was pleased to reveal His Son in me . . .” NASB
Although the NRSV and the ESV (I will argue correctly) translate the clause “[God ] was pleased to re veal his son to me” (italics mine), both refer to marginal notes that state “Gk . in me” and “Greek in” respectively. The notes give the impression that the Greek preposition is the equivalent of the English preposition “in” and would seem to suggest that the translators adopted an alternative rendering for theological purposes rather than linguistic reasons.
A surprising number of evangelical commentators have adopted this translation, although they qualify the interpretation. F. F. Bruce, Gordon Fee, Don Garlington, William Hendriksen, Bruce Longenecker, and Leon Morris argued that, although Paul’s Damascus Road experience was objective, the prepositional phrase en emoi meant “in me” and emphasized the internal revelation that accompanied the event.
Although this interpretation is more commonly assumed than argued, the occasional arguments offered in support of the interpretation are unsatisfying. Longenecker, for example, argues that the en emoi of 1:16 corresponds to the en emoi of 2:20 (“Christ lives in me”) which is equivalent to “in our hearts” in 4:6 and thus emphasizes the internal reality of the Christian experience. However, this argument fails to account for the fact that the grammatical contexts of each of these phrases is quite different. One cannot assume that the prepositional phrase functions with “God was pleased to reveal” in the same way that it functions with the statement “Christ lives”(2:20) or “God sent the Spirit of his Son” (4:6). Examination of the use of the preposition in combination with the verb apokaluptō (“reveal”) or synonymous constructions in other contexts is a better approach hermeneutically than merely examining instances of en emoi without sensitivity to the grammatical context.
The major Greek lexica and grammars show that the Greek preposition en is capable of a bewildering variety of different meanings. The preposition sometimes serves as a substitute for the normal dative of indirect object or dative of advantage. Several of these resources list Galatians 1:16 as an example of this usage (Nigel Turner; BDAG; BDF). If this is correct, Paul’s autobiographical statement would simply mean that “God was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” This usage of the preposition is frequent when the preposition has a personal object and is used with verbs from the semantic domain “reveal” or “make known.”
A computer search using Accordance identified 13 instances in the LXX in which verbal constructions within this semantic domain (apokaluptō, gnorizō, phaneroō, or phaneros with various copula) were modified by en phrases (Judg 5:2; 1 Sam 6:2; 2 Sam 6:20; 22:16; 1 Kgs 8:53; 1 Chr 16:8; 1 Macc 15:9; Ps 76:15; Prov 3:6; 11:13; Ezek 16:36; 22:10; Isa 64:1). The preposition marks location (1 Kgs 8:53; 1 Chron 16:8 [poss. indirect object]; Ps 76:15 [poss. indirect object]; Prov 3:6; Ezek 22:10; 1 Macc 15:9), identifies the means or cause (1 Sam 6:2; 2 Sam 22:16; Ezek 16:36), or serves as a marker for the indirect object (Judg 5:2 [ Vaticanus]; 2 Sam 6:20; Prov 11:13; Isa 64:1).
This construction appears 19 times in the New Testament, mostly in Pauline literature. The uses likely belong to the categories of time (2 Cor 11:6; 2 Thess 2:6; 1 Pet 1:5), location ( John 9:3; 2 Cor 2:14; 4:10, 11; 1 Tim 3:16; 1 John 4:9; Col 3:4), instrument or means (Rom 1:17; 1 Cor 3:13; 2 Cor 11:6; 1 John 3:10; 4:9), manner (Eph 6:19), and indirect object (Rom 1:19; 1 Cor 11:19; 2 Cor 5:11). Verses listed twice (2 Cor 11:6; 1 John 4:9) contain two en phrases that modify the verbal construction.
The use of the en phrase with verbal constructions related to revelation in the LXX, NT, and particularly elsewhere in Paul restricts the interpretive options considerably. The preposition en is never used elsewhere in the LXX or the New Testament with these constructions to indicate a mere internal, subjective experience. Chilton’s treatment of the preposition involves a mechanical approach to exegesis that simply equates en with “in” and ignores the complexity of Greek syntax. Based on other biblical uses, the en phrase most likely functions as the equivalent for the indirect object.
J. B. Lightfoot argued that the preposition here means “through” and serves to identify Paul as the agent through whom God revealed the Son to others. Nigel Turner acknowledged this possibility (though he affirmed the indirect object view). A few modern commentators such as Timothy George have adopted Lightfoot’s interpretation. However, this view finds no support in biblical parallels. Although the en was used in the constructions examined above to express means or instrument, no clear examples express personal agency. In fact, some grammarians such as Daniel Wallace have argued that the preposition may never express personal agency in the NT. Thus scholars such as Udo Schnelle are correct in claiming that en emoi in Galatians 1:16 “is to be translated as the simple dative.”2
Even if the use of en to mark an internal and subjective experience were a legitimate syntactical option, clear statements elsewhere in Pauline literature would preclude such a view. For example, Paul argued that he was as surely an apostle as were the Twelve and the Lord’s brothers : “Am I not an apostle ? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord ?” (1 Cor 9:1). The Greek grammar of both questions implies a positive response. The logic of Paul’s argument is that Paul’s status is equivalent to that of the Twelve and the Lord’s brothers because the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Paul was equivalent to that which the other apostles witnessed. This is also implied by Paul placing himself along with Cephas, the Twelve, the five hundred, James, and the rest of the apostles on the list of those to whom the resurrected Jesus appeared. Paul’s statement that “He also appeared to me” (1 Cor 15:8) offers a more robust description of the nature of the Damascus Road experience than the casual reader may realize. “Appeared” is the same verb used in 15:5,6, and 7 to describe those who discovered the empty tomb, saw the resurrected Jesus in the upper room, and ate with him on the shores of the sea of Galilee. The adjunctive “also” closely links Paul’s experience with the previously listed experiences and further suggests that Paul’s experience was very similar to theirs. It is important to note that both of these statements are contained in one of the letters of Paul that is most widely regarded as authentic even by skeptical critical scholars and is quite early (probably mid-50s).
Paul regarded the crucifixion of Jesus as essential to the gospel (Rom 1:1–8; 1 Cor 15:3–4) and thus crucial for the forgiveness of sinners (1 Cor 15:17). He saw the resurrection of Jesus as the basis for the believer’s hope for resurrection (1 Cor 15:20–28) and courage in the face of deadly persecution (1 Cor 15:29b –34). As Paul preached the resurrection of Jesus, he did not have to rely merely on the testimony of others. Paul evidently appealed to his own eyewitness account of Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance. This is implied by the charge “For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and a witness of what you have seen and of what I will reveal to you” (Acts 26:16).
Paul clearly emphasized the fact that he “had seen the Lord on the road and that he had talked to him” when he returned to Jerusalem and it was on this basis that first Barnabas and later the disciples in Jerusalem accepted Paul (Acts 9:26–28). During his first missionary journey, Paul preached Jesus’s resurrection and appealed to the eyewitness testimony of the Galilean disciples to substantiate that resurrection. His words “And we ourselves proclaim to you the good news of the promise that was made to our ancestors” (Acts 13:32) show that Paul is identifying himself as an equally reliable witness to the resurrection. Jesus’s resurrection featured prominently in Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica (Acts 17:3), Athens (17:31), and evidently in Corinth. Paul’s question in 1 Corinthians 9:1 assumes the church’s familiarity with his Damascus Road experience despite the absence of previous references to it in the extant letters to the Corinthian church and this implies that testimony to Jesus’s post-resurrection appearance to Paul was standard fare in his preaching. This cumulative evidence shows that Paul should be regarded as one of the most important witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.
About the Author
CHARLES L. QUARLES, PhD, is Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Theology and the Director of PhD Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has published several books on Jesus, Paul, and New Testament themes.
1 Bruce Chilton, R abbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2004), 51.
2 Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 90.
[Editor’s Note: Resurrection image from Luca Giordano’s Resurrection, c. 1665, found at Wikipedia Commons.]