Here’s a definitive response from Fr. Echert in “Experts” EWTN.
Paul’s conversion in Acts
Question from daniel on 05-18-2004: How is it that the same writer (Luke) in the same book (Acts) writing about the same event (Paul’s Damascus experience) tells it differently each of the three times it is told? Was Luke accurately telling what Paul was relating, or was the reporting inaccurate?
Answer by Fr. John Echert on 05-20-2004: The Book of Acts recounts St. Paul’s mystical experience of Christ on the road to Damascus three times: once as described by the narrator and twice according to St. Paul’s own description (Chapters 9, 22, 26). We read in the first account:
9:1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 9:2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 9:3 Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. 9:4 And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 9:5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; 9:6 but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.
In a subsequent account, we are told that those who were with Saul did not hear the voice:
22:7 And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, —Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 22:8 And I answered, —Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, —I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’ 22:9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me.
The question naturally arises as to whether those who were with Paul heard the voice from heaven or not. Since both accounts are written by Luke, who was systematic and skilled in writing, this seeming contradiction is all the more striking. First of all, let us admit that the distinction as to who is relating the episode–the narrator or as spoken by St. Paul–can account for minor differences due to perspective, while of course we recognize that Luke as author of Acts has recorded and written all three. But obviously it was not a true contradiction from Luke’s perspective, since he wrote it as he did. It would seem that the solution may lie in what is meant by “hearing." In the Greek, the word for hearing can mean to physically hear and it can also mean, by extension, to perceive or understand what is heard. As such, both accounts can be accurate but from two perspectives: those with Paul heard some sound from the heavens but it was only intelligible to Paul, for whom the message was intended. A similar situation can be found in Jn 12:27-30, in which the voice of God is perceived as thunder by some and the voice of an angel by others, but is clearly intelligible to Jesus and perhaps to the apostles as well – at least to St. John the Evangelist.
Some further examples of this two-fold way of hearing or understanding this Greek word (akouo) are the following:
St. Paul writes the following in his first letter to the Corinthians: “14:2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands (akouo) him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.
As recorded by St. Matthew our Lord used this Greek verb interchangeably: “13:13 This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing (akouo) they do not hear (akouo), nor do they understand (suniami).
This reminds me of a modern idiom I heard years ago out in Washington D.C. One radio station used to run an ad in which the speaker said, “I hear what you are saying but I do not hear what you are saying.” The translation: I hear words from your mouth by they make no sense to me. A simple analogy but accurate, I think.
Beyond the issue of the Greek meaning of the word for “hearing” there is the additional consideration of the Greek word for “voice,” (phona) which appears grammatically different in Acts 9 and Acts 22. Sometimes “voice” is rendered as “sound” or “noise” which in not intelligible and other times it is a voice which is understood. So we see that the Greek text of the Word of God is ambivalent enough to account for any apparent discrepancies as we may perceive them within the limits of an English translation. © Thanks, Daniel Father Echert