Recently, David Ashton commented here on Vridar:
May I annoy our totalitarian mythicists even further by suggesting that Paul, also a real person, experienced a reparative hallucination, precisely because of a pre-crucifixion hostility to Jesus and his activists, although he may not have engaged Jesus in debate or observed him directly in person. Jacob Aron suggests that Paul’s Damascene Light was the result of a fireball (“New Scientist”, April 25, 2015, pp. 8-9); not so much a medical epilepsy as a meteoric epiphany.
I’m not a mythicist, but I do think the Doherty/Carrier theory is worth considering. I confess I did bristle a bit at the term “totalitarian.” You’d think that ten years as a cold warrior would inoculate me from such charges. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a blog with a more permissive comment policy than Vridar’s. So, I suppose that’s why I responded with the flippant:
Oooh, a fireball! I don’t see why a story invented by the author of Acts requires an ad hoc explanation as to “what it really was.”
But perhaps I was too hasty. Let’s take a look at this story more closely and see if we can learn anything from it. When I checked on line, I could find only brief summaries, so in the end I had to rent the article, Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance (Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3), for 48 hours. Yes, even stuff like this gets trapped behind paywalls.
A flash and a crash
The author, William K. Hartmann, holds a PhD in astronomy and works at the Planetary Science Institute. He suggests that the narratives of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus accurately describe an atmospheric encounter with some object that produced a bright light and a big boom, similar to the Tunguska Event of 1908 or the more recent encounter with the Chelyabinsk meteor. For your entertainment, we present a video compilation from the Chelyabinsk event.
Hartmann presents himself as an expert in such events, and asks us to consider the possibility that what Luke (the supposed author of the Acts of the Apostles) described during Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was similar to what happened in Tunguska or Chelyabinsk. Recognizing that he may ruffle some believers’ feathers, he writes:
Because the event on the road to Damascus marked a crucial step in a major world religion, iconographic or symbolic circumstances have accumulated that make the case rather different from most known fireball events. I make two responses to this: First, this article is not intended to address religious or theological issues, but merely to compare a set of reported first-century observations with what is now known, as we might do with any other reports in historical texts. Let us assume for the moment a working hypothesis of a fireball event, and test it against modern knowledge. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 369)
I admit that I’ve deliberately prejudiced the jury by showing (above) what an actual large meteor event looks like. Later on, you’ll see how Hartmann distorts and harmonizes the stories in Acts to fit his thesis. He continues:
Second. a fruitful “scholarly/historical” approach to first-century Biblical texts can be traced back to 1774-1778, when the writings of a German professor of Oriental languages, Hermann Reimarus, were posthumously published (Schweitzer 1906, Ch. 2). Reimarus had developed the then revolutionary idea that New Testament texts can be addressed and analyzed as surviving copies of historical memoirs “written by believers” (his words), perhaps with various later interpolations, rather than as divine dictations. Reimarus’s approach led to better understanding of the historical settings and origins of the surviving texts themselves (Schweitzer 1906; Ehrman 2003), and allowed the possibility that at least some specific, unusual events, described as supernatural at the time, could have been rare natural phenomena. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 369)
I find it odd that Hartmann chooses Hermann Samuel Reimarus as a starting point for his understanding of Acts, but then declines to read or quote from his Fragments, even though this work is freely available on the web, and it’s a quick, fun read.
Hartmann’s paper relies on Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (not the latest revision) and Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities. I’m not saying these books aren’t worth reading — just that if you’re an amateur who’s interested in the NT in general and in Acts specifically, you would do better picking an introductory text on the New Testament and a few commentaries on Luke and Acts. And by all means, resist the urge to pick up the first copy you can find of The Quest. Get the Fortress Press edition with the extra chapters on the historicity of Jesus. True, Hartmann does at one point cite Delbert Burkett’s gigantic volume, An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity, but only in reference to the authentic letters in the Pauline tradition.
Hartmann’s case rests on the assumption that Luke did not invent the story (or stories, since he repeats it three times) of Paul’s conversion in Acts, and that it probably really did happen. In this respect, his attitude reminds us less of Reimarus and more of the great rationalist, Heinrich Paulus. Both Hartmann and Paulus seem peculiarly predisposed to the rationalist position, which depends on a kind of childlike acceptance of the texts as eyewitness reports of real events, combined with an excitable imagination.
Paulus even had a rational explanation for the supposed resurrection of Jesus. Schweitzer explains:
The lance-thrust, which we are to think of rather as a mere surface wound, served the purpose of a phlebotomy. The cool grave and the aromatic unguents continued the process of resuscitation, until finally the storm and the earthquake aroused Jesus to full consciousness. Fortunately the earthquake also had the effect of rolling away the stone from the mouth of the grave. The Lord stripped off the graveclothes and put on a gardener’s garments which he managed to procure. That was what made Mary, as we are told in John 20.15, take him to be the gardener. (Schweitzer, 2001, p. 52)
In Biblical studies, the great wave of rationalism pretty much ended with David Friedrich Strauss, but in the mind of the general public, it never faded away completely. Every Christmas some amateur crackpot wants to explain how the Star of Bethlehem was really a comet, and every Easter that same crackpot tells us that the darkness during the crucifixion was really a solar eclipse.
Can we trust Acts?
So, how does Hartmann assess the reliability of Acts? First, he argues that the book must have been written in the 60s, since it never mentions the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. And we can probably trust the stories inside since:
As mentioned above, the main author/compiler is believed to be Luke, a physician who accompanied Paul on at least some of his proselytizing journeys (ca. 40-60 C.E.) throughout much of the Mediterranean world, including Turkey, Greece, and Rome. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 371)
Here, he’s reiterating his earlier assertion:
This third-person account [of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-9] may have been written by Luke, a physician and later acquaintance of Saul, who probably heard Saul describe his adventures. Luke is usually cited as the author/compiler or Acts. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 369)
As a source for those two sentences, Hartmann cites Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, but provides no page number. A paper that cites another work without specific page numbers should never pass scholarly review. Yet I’ve seen this practice more often than you might expect. Authors who do this sort of thing are tacitly saying they’re just too busy to find an exact reference, and they raise the suspicion that they have never read the book in question.
In fact if Hartmann had read Lost Christianities, he would have known that Ehrman refers to Luke as the “supposed” or “alleged” author of Acts, and that the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters frequently disagree. For example:
The apostle Paul consistently portrayed himself as the apostle to the Gentiles and insisted that they not keep the Law (e.g., Gal. 2:15, 5:2–5). As to who may have been responsible for teaching that Peter himself urged “the dissolution of the law,” one again does not need to look far: The New Testament book of Acts, allegedly written by Paul’s own traveling companion Luke, portrays Peter as taking just that position (Acts 10–11, 15).
Ehrman, Bart D. (2003-10-02). Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (pp. 183-184). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Hartman appears completely unaware of Ehrman’s acknowledgment that “Acts, like the Gospels, is driven by a theological agenda that sometimes affects its historical accuracy,” and that “there are also major discrepancies in important issues involving Paul’s activities, the nature of his proclamation, and the overall portrayal of his character.” (Ehrman, 2003, p. 172, italics mine)
The significance of this evidence for our survey should be obvious. Scholars widely recognize that the Acts of the Apostles may be driven as much by a theological agenda as by a concern for historical accuracy. For that reason, it cannot be used uncritically to provide a historical basis for the classical understanding of the relationship of orthodoxy and heresy.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2003-10-02). Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (p. 172). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis mine.)
Nor would Ehrman agree with the idea of Acts being written in the 60s CE. Instead, he argues for 80-85 CE. He also notes that “there are many reasons for doubting that the author of Acts was really one of Paul’s companions” (Ehrman, 2004, p. 148, bold emphasis mine).
Paging Dr. Luke
Finally, Ehrman would not agree with Hartmann’s assertion that Luke was a medical doctor.
For a long time, scholars were convinced that corroborating evidence could be found in the vocabulary used throughout Luke-Acts. It appeared at first glance that the two books used an inordinate number of medical terms (compared to other writings of the New Testament), indicating, perhaps, that the author was a physician. As it turns out, this impression is altogether false. When scholars actually went to the trouble of comparing the medical terminology with that found in works by other Greek authors of the period, they discovered “Luke” uses such terms no more frequently than other educated writers of his day. (Ehrman, 2004, p. 150, emphasis mine).
On this point I highly recommend “Luke and the Horse Doctors” (JBL, Vol. 52, No. 1), in which Henry J. Cadbury gently suggests that, based on his vocabulary, the author of Luke-Acts could just as easily have been a large animal veterinarian as a physician.
I bring up these points, because Hartmann could easily have found an apologist posing as a conservative scholar who believes in the historicity of Acts, rather than a critical scholar who has refuted every one of Hartmann’s assertions. I won’t feign surprise here, since this sort of thing is common in Biblical studies — whether it’s common in the study of meteors is another question.
Hartmann uses a familiar argument which we might term selective historical accuracy. Apologists deflect our attention away from Luke’s historical mistakes — such as the worldwide census or the anachronistic references to Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:36-38) — and focus our attention instead on the things he got right.
In support of our use of Acts as a source, the accounts of Paul’s travels include at least some details that have testable historical veracity. For example, Acts 18:12-17. describing one of Paul’s frequent arrests by local authorities, mentions that during a case in the Achaia, near Corinth, he was judged by a Roman official named Junius Gallio. Latin inscriptions confirm that Gallio was the proconsul in Achaia in the interval 51-52 A.D., or possibly 53 A.D.; Gallio is known also as the brother of the famous Roman philosopher, Seneca, mentioned above [Encyclopedia Britannica 1990]. (Hartmann, 2015, pp. 371-372)
The author of Acts got Gallio’s name right; ergo we should trust Acts? No, the problem remains: In the absence of external corroboration, how do when know when “Luke” is historically accurate and when he is not?
We could ask the same question about the stories of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Acts provides three versions of the story, all of which differ on particular points. Does this bother Hartmann? Not at all:
The fact that the book of Acts contains three separate accounts of the same event suggests the book was assembled from multiple documents recounting Paul’s story, synthesized into one “book” by Luke or later editors. At the same time, it suggests that the author/compiler kept all three versions because of the importance of the event to Paul’s story. The three versions work to our advantage, as they give us three quasi-independent accounts. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 372, emphasis mine)
Now that’s some real weapons-grade apologetics. See, if you find inconsistencies in the text, you don’t despair; you just claim multiple attestation and take a victory lap. And there’s more:
[Luke] asserts that Paul’s “light from heaven” appeared in the presence of other travelers, and that his resulting temporary blindness was witnessed by the community in Damascus, and that Paul told the story in public gatherings, in front of Roman officials and even in Herod Agrippa’s court. To fabricate such a story a few decades later would have been risky, since details might have been subject to confirmation with the other surviving witnesses and/or perhaps with Roman court records. Based on such evidence, we proceed with our working hypothesis that some anomalous event did happen, and that modern scholars, knowing what we know today about celestial events and human responses, might usefully attempt to analyze it. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 372, emphasis mine)
Against this rationalization, I would counter that the evangelists, including Luke, invented many stories and didn’t worry at all about getting caught. The worldwide (πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν) darkness at the crucifixion never happened. The census that forced Joseph to travel to Bethlehem never happened. Herod’s slaughter of the innocents never happened. The zombie parade in Jerusalem never happened.
The proper way to proceed is not to sweep the discrepancies in the three versions of Paul’s conversion under the proverbial rug, or even to try guess which of the three stories is “authentic,” but to assess what purpose they might serve. What do these differences tell us about the author’s narrative and theological intentions?
Hartmann’s assessment of the versions
But rather than worry about those authorial intentions, Hartmann would rather treat the three versions as if they were witnesses in an attempt to figure out what actually happened. In the section called Key Observations, he asks what he considers “important questions,” and analyzes the text for a plausible answer. These questions and discussions start on p. 373 and continue until p. 377.
I’m going to separate these questions into two types: those in which all three stories generally agree, and those in which they contradict each other. Then I’ll compare Hartmann’s (H) and my (T) analysis.
- Did all the witnesses see the bright light?
H: “The available data imply that the whole party saw the light.” (p. 373) Hartmann notes that the first version is “noncommittal.”
T: Two versions say Saul’s companions did see it; one says nothing. I conclude Luke imagines a scene in which the traveling party stops abruptly. Now, whether that’s because they saw a light or because Saul, their leader, apparently saw something and fell to the ground simply doesn’t matter. The traveling companions are peripheral characters.
- What was the nature of the light?
H: “All three accounts say the light came ‘from heaven.‘” (p. 373) Hartmann believes that the descriptions of light shining or flashing all around them proves that the light came from the sky and was brighter than the sun. He also infers that since Luke used the words “flashed” and “shown [sic] round” it could mean that the “light source was moving, and that the travelers first noted shadows swinging around them (a striking, disorienting effect also well seen in some videos of the Chelyabinsk event).”
T: Luke is describing a christophany, and like theophanies of the Old Testament (e.g., the manifestations of YHWH at Sinai) he’s naturally going to describe a bright light, shining (past tense, shone, not shown) from on high. Hartmann raises an intriguing question as to whether Luke conceived of this light as moving. The author of Acts describes it using the two Greek verbs:
περιαστράπτω (periastraptō) — Strong’s Concordance is spot on with “to envelope in light.”
περιλάμπω (perilampō) — To illuminate all around.
The second verb also appears in Luke’s gospel, when the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds. We should not imagine a moving light, sweeping around the shepherds, but rather a cylinder or cone of light that surrounds them. The same is true for the character of Saul in Acts. Hartmann wants the light to move like a rapidly streaking meteor, but Luke’s terminology as well as the descriptions of other divine encounters would argue against it.
- Did the witnesses encounter or report a human figure?
H: “No. In spite of the fact that medieval religious imagery, mentioned earlier, propagates images with celestial personages in the sky, we have a specific assertion from the original manuscript [sic] that the witnesses around Saul ‘saw no one.'” (p. 374)
T: I agree with Hartmann that Saul’s companions saw no one, but not because of the testimony of supposed witnesses in the “original manuscript.” I hope that he realizes that all NT texts are reconstructed, and that we have no autographs, but I suspect he might not. No, the traveling companions do not hear a voice (in version 1) or see a figure because this is Paul’s christophany. They play a minor role, chiefly to make sure Saul’s conversion has witnesses and to explain how he makes it all the way to Damascus despite his blindness.
The bigger question, which Hartmann’s article addresses only indirectly, is whether Saul saw a human figure. For quite some time, I had thought that Luke consistently wrote that the light was so bright that it immediately blinded Saul. And so we have the passage in Acts 9:8, in which he gets up and opens his eyes, but can see nothing. Similarly, in the second version, Paul says:
And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus. (ESV)
For Luke’s overall story, this plot contrivance makes sense. In Paul’s letters, he insists he has seen the Lord and that he has received his instruction by direct revelation. However, Luke will have none of that. Paul may have been called, but seeing the figure of Jesus was reserved for the original apostles.
However, a closer reading of Acts reveals less agreement among the various passages. In the last version of the Road to Damascus story, Paul tells King Agrippa nothing about the supposed blindness discussed in the other two versions. (Hartmann also notices this discrepancy.) In fact, Paul informs the king that Jesus told him:
15b. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
16. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you,
17. delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles — to whom I am sending you
18. to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (ESV, emphasis mine)
Rather than Saul becoming blind, in the final version he becomes the means by which the Gentiles will open their eyes. In the first two versions of the story, Saul is instantly struck blind by a light greater than the midday sun. In the third, he sees the risen Lord. Not only that, but he gets his entire set of orders from Jesus all at once. Since he isn’t blind, and he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do, the third story makes the mythical character of Ananias superfluous.
Moreover, back in chapter 9 when describing Saul’s experience, Ananias says:
9:17b. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (ESV, emphasis mine)
And Barnabas says essentially the same thing:
9:26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
9:27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. (ESV, emphasis mine)
Perhaps Luke himself was harmonizing the stories. He may have been trying to find a compromise between the Pauline Christians, who swore that Paul saw Jesus in the same way that the apostles did, and other Christians who believed that the Twelve had special access to the living Jesus and that a select number of disciples saw the risen Lord, but only before the ascension. The middle ground would entail the following: Paul saw the risen Lord as a bright light, and heard his voice from heaven.
But even that explanation may not set the issue completely straight, because in Acts 23:11, Jesus appears right next to Paul:
23:11 The following night the Lord stood by him and said, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.” (ESV)
We should note that the text does not say that Jesus stood before Paul but at his side. Did Paul actually see Jesus in the dark of night? Maybe not. It seems we’re being told it was night and that Jesus was next to him so that we will infer that Paul only heard him.
But then consider the words of Ananias in Luke’s second telling of the story.
22:14 “And he [Ananias] said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth.” (ESV, emphasis mine)
Acts, then, remains ambiguous. Selected readings could theoretically please any faction. Did Paul see Jesus? No, he was immediately blinded by the light. Or yes, since Jesus literally tells Paul, “You have seen me.” No matter how you ultimately decide this matter, you will need to approach it using theological, narratological, redactional, form-critical, and source-critical tools. If you follow Hartmann’s method — treating the conflicting stories as if they were witnesses to an actual event seen from different perspectives — you’ll miss the point entirely.
- What was the nature of the sound?
H: “In all three versions, the sound is mentioned in the sentence after the celestial light flashes around them.” (p. 374) Hartmann wants the stories to read as if the light appears suddenly, moves around Saul and his companions, and then goes away. This reading, may be correct, but it goes against other stories of divine encounters in which the light remains shining down from heaven until the theophany has concluded.
He also claims the stories tell us that they heard a loud sound (rather than a voice from heaven). He writes: “This is typical of a fireball explosion, in which the sounds of the explosion, and/or shock wave, arrive after the luminous phenomena.” (p. 374) At this point Hartmann digresses into a discussion of the Greek used in all three stories, the aim of which is to harmonize the three accounts. For his naturalistic rationalization to make any sense, he needs the text to say that there was a loud noise that Saul/Paul, as a religious zealot, mistook as the voice of the Lord, while his companions understood nothing.
T: Hartmann wants it both ways. He wants the Greek to mean a loud sound to the people standing close to Saul, but a loud voice to Saul himself. The problem for Christian fundamentalists is that the stories are inconsistent.
At this point, we need to address a problem in Hartmann’s paper. He cites various Greek experts from the past — Archibald Thomas Robertson, Marvin Richardson Vincent, Joseph Henry Thayer, and Ray Summers — in an attempt to show that all three versions of the story say the same thing with respect to some sort of sound from heaven. Before I started researching the issue, I did not fully appreciate the extent to which the conversion stories in Acts have aroused so much anxiety among conservative inerrantists. Longtime readers of Vridar may recall that I enjoy language quirks, and this one is no exception.
The question at hand has to do with whether the voice (or sound) is in the genitive or the accusative case. Here we see how far and how long apologists will go in order to harmonize disparate accounts. Hartmann concludes his analysis with a quotation from Ray Summers. He says that it’s “widely cited,” which is true, but almost exclusively in apologist literature. As to whether the words in question refer to a sound or a noise he writes:
“[Ray Summers] discusses the correct translation of the two versions . . . and concludes ‘both constructions say the same thing; the companions of Saul did not understand what the voice said to Saul; to them it was unintelligible sound.'” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374)
Oddly enough, although he refers to Summers’ book, Essentials of New Testament Greek, in the text, he does not do so in the bibliography. He appears to be quoting from online apologists’ pages. I was baffled, because I couldn’t find this quotation anywhere in Summers’ works using online resources, so I ordered the 1950 printing of Essentials of New Testament Greek, which arrived yesterday (16 May). Here’s what it says:
Some verbs take their [direct] object in a case other than the accusative. ἀκούω [akouō] may take its object in the genitive or the accusative. Usually, ἀκούω with the genitive means “to hear without understanding,” while with the accusative it means “to hear with understanding.” This probably explains the difficulty involved in Acts 9:7 and 22:9. The incident is the experience of Paul in seeing the light and hearing the voice on the road to Damascus. Acts 9:7 states that Paul’s companions hear the voice (ἀκούω with the genitive); Acts 22:9 says they did not hear the voice (ἀκούω with the accusative). Thus both constructions say the same thing: the companions of Paul did not understand what the voice said to Paul; to them it was an unintelligible sound. (Summers, 1950, p. 51, emphasis mine)
These few sentences have provided aid and comfort to the apologist cause for decades, but Summers’ fanciful argument is incorrect. Note that in the 1995 revision, heavily edited by Thomas Sawyer, this part was excised. Now we’re merely told that a certain class of verb can take either the genitive or the accusative, and that:
A parallel to this exists in English where one states “I have heard of that” in contrast to “I heard that.” (Summers, 1995, p. 52).
In point of fact Koine Greek apparently allowed for the use of the genitive or accusative with no difference in meaning. On the other hand ancient Greek did differentiate between the two. In Attic Greek, the accusative refers to a “thing heard,” while the genitive refers to the “person from whom it is heard.” (See Liddell and Scott online at the Perseus Digital Library.) According to Blass and Debrunner:
The classical rule for ἀκούειν [akouein] is: the person whose words are heard stands in the genitive, the thing . . . about which (or whom) one hears is in the accusative. . . The NT wavers between genitive and accusative in phrases meaning ‘to hear a sound’ . . . (Blass and Debrunner, 1961, p. 95, § 173.)
Hartmann summarizes by claiming that if we harmonize the three accounts, the smashed-together combo tells us “that all of the party witnessed the phenomenon, but that, excluding Saul, the other witnesses saw no one and heard no one speaking — consistent with a fireball.” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) He argues that they all saw the light and heard a loud sound of some sort. But that is not what the text says.
Version 1: Saul’s companions saw the light and heard the voice.
Version 2: Saul’s companions saw the light but did not hear the voice.
Version 3: Not mentioned.
The NIV and many other modern English versions translate the Greek word for heard (ἤκουσαν [ēkousan]) in Acts 22:9 as understood. But let’s be honest. If they weren’t trying to harmonize the accounts, they wouldn’t do that. The verb to hear (ἀκούω [akouō]) occurs in some form or other 430 times in the NT. The NASB and the NIV translate it as “understand” only twice: once here in Acts and once in 1 Cor. 14:2.
True to form, the NIV carefully harmonizes versions 1 and 2 by having the men (V1) hear a sound but (V2) not understand a voice, even though the words are the same in both cases. If we would venture to make any distinction at all between the two versions, we might appeal to the ancient Greek custom of using the genitive case for people and the accusative case for things.
Version 1: The object of hearing is in the genitive — φωνῆς (phōnēs). Genitive is for people, but the NIV translates it as “sound.”
Version 2: The object of hearing is in the accusative — φωνὴν (phōnēn). Accusative is for things, but the NIV translates it as “voice.”
As mentioned above Greek experts generally agree that this case distinction was not as common among speakers of Koine Greek. Whether Luke was following this rule or not, the meaning in Acts 9:7 is plainly obvious: “. . . but they did not hear the voice of the one talking to me.“
Hartmann fantasizes that “voice” in these contexts “may have a usage here something like English idiomatic usages, such as ‘the voice of the guns,’ or ‘the thunder told us to go inside.’” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) However, the grammar of 9:7 indicates the opposite. We have the present participle “speaking” as part of a prepositional phrase “of the one speaking,” which describes “the voice.” It is not an idiomatic expression; it literally means “the voice of the one speaking.”
- Do New Testament precedents exist for one witness conceiving of a divine voice speaking to him while others heard only a thunderous sound?
H: “Yes. . . John 12:27-29 portrays an incident . . . in which Jesus is speaking to a crowd, and some enthusiasts among them said that ‘a voice came from heaven,’ possibly an angel, speaking about glorifying the name of God. John then remarks, however, that ‘The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered.'”(Hartmann, 2015, p. 374) Hartmann argues that this passage in John “greatly strengthens” his fireball hypothesis. In particular it means that we have a first-century Christian writer who thought a sound from heaven could be interpreted by one person as an intelligible voice and by others as a meaningless roar.
T: At first blush, Hartmann’s argument here seems to make sense. But his superficial analysis begins to break down on closer examination. First, the scene in the Fourth Gospel is a highly stylized, highly formalized refutation of Mark’s story about Jesus praying for the cup to pass from him. In John, he says exactly the opposite. Why would he turn away from the path to the crucifixion, when that’s his purpose for being on Earth?
Hartmann wants us to assume that Saul’s companions also heard thunder, so that the two authors are describing the same sort of event:
[W]e have here a first-century writer portraying as plausible the idea that some people in a crowd might hear what could be described as a thunderous noise, yet others in the same crowd could conceive and report it as a divine voice. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 374)
The crowd (ὄχλος [ochlos]) appears unexpectedly in v. 29. It serves a particular theological purpose, namely to show that the mob cannot understand the voice of God. A few in the crowd thought they heard an angel’s voice, but apparently did not comprehend the message. Only the disciples near Jesus (according the preceding text, Philip and Andrew) actually heard and understood the voice, which is the point of the entire exercise.
We might think at first that the voice is talking to Jesus and for his benefit, but as always John’s Christ has a direct line to his father (“I and the father are one”), and the purpose of such communication is to edify others.
Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine.” (John 12:30, ESV)
The main point to understand is that we’re reading a stylized, carefully structured myth, intended to convey theological truths. Further, even if we concede the general point that a first-century author imagined a sound from heaven could be perceived as a voice to some, but as thunder to others, the point is moot. There is no “thunder” in any version of the Paul’s conversion story. In each case, it is a voice from heaven. The only question is whether that voice conveys a private message from Jesus to Saul, or whether the delegation traveling with him heard it as well.
- Who fell to the ground and when?
H: “Perhaps the most plausible synthesis is that most or all of the travelers, including Saul, were knocked to the ground by a shock wave, and/or fell from fear and emotional shock, but that in the first moments after the flashing light and noise, some of the others began to stand before Saul did.” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 375) Hartmann imagines the traveling companions slowly getting up, probably grumbling and scratching their heads. He reminds us that in the Chelyabinsk event, the blast was strong enough “to blow people off their feet.“
T: Hartman tries to find harmony where there is clear disagreement.
Version 1: “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless . . .” (Acts 9:7a, ESV)
Version 2: “And when we had all fallen to the ground . . .” (Acts: 26:14a, ESV)
Again, these discrepancies exist because for the author and first readers of Acts, it doesn’t matter what these peripheral characters do. Did they remain standing, or did they fall to the ground? Did they hear the voice or not hear the voice? Both. Neither. Take your pick. Who cares? They exist only for their narrative and theological functions. The number of people in the party doesn’t matter. Their names don’t matter. They have no lines. They have no backstory. What happened to them after they took Saul to Damascus? They did what all fictional, peripheral characters in legends and myths do: they disappeared.
- What was the nature of Saul’s blindness?
H: “[The second version in Acts 22] is important because it indicates that the blindness was caused specifically by looking at the bright light. The others, not blinded, must have avoided this problem, presumably by looking away or shielding their eyes, as was common at Chelyabinsk.” Hartmann also addresses the problem of time. In V1, Saul is blind for three days, but in V2, he receives his sight as soon as he meets with Ananias in Damascus. He dances around the problem with creative arithmetic and hand-waving.
Hartmann’s approach requires creative ways to explain away conflicting details. As we’ve seen above, that requirement has led him to the less-than-adequate scholarship of apologists. Of course, their goal is to prove the foregone conclusion of biblical inerrancy, while his is to generate evidence that will prove a rationalistic explanation for a supposed supernatural event.
Perhaps the strangest of Hartmann’s assertions comes next. He imagines that Saul (unlike any of his companions) suffered from a case of photokeratitis — what we commonly call “snow blindness.” Prolonged exposure to intense light can cause the cornea to become sunburned. He writes:
Roughly 45-54 [hours] later [i.e, after the “fireball”], in Damascus, as Saul began to recover his vision, “something like scales” fell away from his eyes. This striking phrase beautifully matches severe photokeralitis, with epithelial desquamation. This match is one of the strongest lines of evidence that the first-century accounts are reporting, as best they can, real phenomena. (Hartmann, 2015, p. 380)
T: The New Scientist article brings us back to reality.
Raj Das-Bhaumik of Moorfields Eye Hospital in London says the condition is common among welders whose eyes are exposed to bright sparks, but the symptoms aren’t exactly as Hartmann is suggesting. “You wouldn’t expect bits of the eye to fall off; I’ve not come across that at all,” he says. It’s possible that the thin skin of the eyelids could burn and peel off, he says, but that is unlikely to happen in isolation. “If this were a meteorite, I’m sure you’d have other damage as well.” (Jacob Aron Magazine issue 3018)
What are the odds?
Hartmann anticipates our reaction to his thesis. How likely is it that someone like Paul would have seen a once-in-a-century event that blasted him to the ground and blinded him? (An event, by the way, that nobody else saw or reported.) But he wants to turn the question around:
If such a dramatic atmospheric explosion happens over land areas on the order of once every century, then from the asteroid’s point of view, one might note that some entry events will be visible to thousands of persons, so we should ask, “What are the chances that no influential figures in history have ever been emotionally affected by such events, especially in eras when people spent more time outdoors in contact with nature?” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 380)
Really? Is that what we should ask? We can easily concede that some famous persons saw and were emotionally affected by comets, meteors, eclipses, etc. But that concession tells us nothing about whether Paul saw this particular event at this particular time.
We have shown that Hartmann has distorted the evidence in Acts to fit his thesis. He misinterprets the light “shining around” Saul as a light in motion. He misinterprets the voice from heaven (also heard by his companions, or not heard by them, depending on the version) as a loud sound, namely the blast of a massive object roaring across the sky. He imagines that people recovering from snow blindness have “scales” fall from their eyes.
We’ve further shown that Hartmann may have cited Ehrman, but he could not have read the book that he cited, since it refuted all of his points about Luke and Acts. Indeed, later in the paper Hartmann cited an erroneous passage in the 1950 version of Summers’ Greek textbook, lured to it by apologists who continue to use it as “proof” of inerrancy.
Finally, he seems completely unaware that many scholars have pointed out the similarities between the conversion stories in Acts and their obvious parallels in the OT (Ezekiel 1:4), the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 3), and even in pagan works (Euripides’ The Bacchae). For more details see Robert M. Price’s “The Legend of Paul’s Conversion.”
We find one of the strongest parallels in the New Testament itself, in Luke’s own story of Jesus’ baptism:
But the sequence as a whole parallels the baptism of Jesus by John. Why does Luke bother to tell us that Paul was staying on the well-known “street called Straight” (Acts 9:11), if not to hint at John the Baptist’s urging to “prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight” (Luke 3:4)? Paul’s vision of Jesus reflects Jesus’ own vision of the descending Spirit (Luke 3:22). As Jesus receives the Spirit at his baptism, so does Paul at the hands of Ananias (Acts 9:17). And Ananias even administers a baptismal rite aimed at washing away sins (Acts 22:16), just as John does (Luke 3:3). Finally, the very name Ananias (Hananiah, Hanan-yahu) is the merest disguise for John (Yah-hannon), the theophoric suffix replacing the identical prefix. (Price, 2009)
Critical scholars long ago discarded the practice of rationalizing events in scripture, an exercise we now recognize as naive and pointless. If you want to understand these myths, you cannot harmonize them and hammer them into what you want them to say; you must confront them as they are. The stories in Acts finally make sense when you take the time to learn where they come from and what function they serve. That is your source of illumination, not some make-believe fireball that streaked across the sky two thousand years ago.
Blass, Friedrich and Debrunner, Albert
A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1961
Ehrman, Bart D.
Lost Christianities, Oxford University Press, 2005
The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press, 2004
Hartmann, William K.
Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance, Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3, 2015
Price, Robert M.
“The Legend of Paul’s Conversion,” rmp at Mindvendor (web site), 2009
The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2001
Essentials of New Testament Greek, Broadman Press, 1950
Essentials of New Testament Greek (with Thomas Sawyer, ed.), B&H Academic, 1995
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