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In Acts 22:9 (NASB):

"And those who were with me saw the light, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me."

And Acts 9:7 (NASB):

"The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the a voice but seeing no one."

I know the root word used (ἀκούω) can mean "hear" OR "understand", but in both verses that same root word is used.

So why does Acts 9:7 translate to "hearing" but Acts 22:9 translates to "understanding". Is there any reason other than alleviating the apparent contradiction for the translation?

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  • Acts 9:5 (KJV): “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”. A lot of people probably don’t understand what this means when they read it. Commented Mar 18 at 22:37

3 Answers 3

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The OP is correct that there appears to be contradictions between these two verses as shown in the table below.

Note the apparent "problems" here:

Acts 9:7 Acts 22:9
Heard the voice Did not hear a voice
saw no one saw a light

Thus, superficially, there appears to be a double contradiction here; until we read more precisely what Paul is saying:

Hear vs Not Hear

It is true that in more than half the instances of the operative verb ἀκούω, a literal "hear/listen" or equivalent is appropriate. However, BDAG and most lexicons list a significant number of cases where the meaning is clearly "comprehend/understand".

Thus, it is entirely possible, even probable that "understand" is the intended meaning because we know that from Acts 9:7, Paul's companions did indeed hear a sound but did not understand what was heard. Whether this was because:

  • the voice spoke in a language unknown to the companions but known to Paul (eg, Aramaic??), or
  • the voice was uttered in such a way as Paul could only understand the words and not the companions
  • the companions were too overcome with fear that they did not distinguish the words

... we are not told; but any of these possibilities are credible, perhaps even all three.

See vs Not See

This apparent contradiction is similar - Paul saw Jesus but the companions saw a light but could not distinguish what the image in the light was. Thus, it is correctly reported that they saw a light but saw no one.

Thus, no real contradiction remains.

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  • +1. Interesting read. Not really a scripture I've put much thought to.
    – Jason_
    Commented Mar 18 at 10:37
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    I'll refrain from a downvote but I do object to the denigration of the issue on the basis that is a favorite of the "uninitiated". This site claims to welcome even atheistic viewpoints, not to mention those who - like myself - are believers who accept the idea that scriptures, though God-breathed, do sometimes contain contradictory statements. Commented Mar 18 at 14:12
  • @DanFefferman - you are correct - I will remove that comment. Many thanks for your gentle rebuke.
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 18 at 20:42
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These are not the only problems with the account of Paul's conversion, which is not described in detail by Paul in his own writings, but only by second-hand accounts in Acts. Famous believer-turned-skeptic Bart Ehrman summarizes:

The account of Acts 9 is retold by Paul in both chapter 22 and chapter 29. The historical problems it presents have long intrigued and perplexed scholars. For one thing, the three accounts differ in numerous contradictory details. In one account Paul’s companions don’t hear the voice but they see the light; in another they don’t see anyone but they hear the voice. In one account they all fall to the ground from the epiphanic blast, in another they remain standing. In one account Paul is told to go on to Damascus where a disciple of Jesus will provide him with his marching orders, in another he is not told to go but is given his instructions from Jesus himself on the spot.

Paul's own description of his conversion does not mention the Damascus road and seems to contradict Acts' report of his receiving instruction in the city (Acts 22:10). He does not "confer with flesh and blood" but goes immediately to Arabia.

But when God, who had set me apart from the womb of my mother and had called by through his grace was pleased to reveal his son to me, so that I might preach him among the gentiles, immediately I did not consult with flesh and blood. Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me. But I went off to Arabia and again, then, returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:15-17)

Some scholars find ways to reconcile the accounts. Others question whether is necessary to perform such mental gymnastics. For them, the simple solution is to accept the fact that Luke received various accounts of Paul's conversion and included them in his narrative, even though they do not agree in some respects.

Conclusion: The question may be answered in two ways: 1) Although there are apparent contradictions, if one reads carefully this is not actually the case. [see @Dottard's answer] 2) There are indeed contradictions, because the accounts have different sources; and it is only natural that they disagree as to details.

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  • Bart Ehrman may not be as impenetrable as he sounds. I have seen him devastating his Christian opponents in many Youtube channels. Yet, once I saw him debating with James White (a Calvinist?), but in between, I heard him say in a feeble voice that whatever he stated in that debate were his “personal opinions”! Commented Mar 18 at 15:58
  • I find him to be an excellent teacher. Usually he is quite capable of distinguishing his personal views from what he teaches as a scholar. Commented Mar 18 at 20:37
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       Acts 26:14

And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue,.....

Conclusion: The men travelling with Paul were perhaps Roman soldiers assigned to be guards to the high priest and therefore Paul (Ch.9:1-2). They would not have understood the Hebrew words Jesus spoke to Paul. Another possibility is an example from the book of Daniel Ch.10:7. We are not told every detail from the point of view of those that accompanied Paul, other than they all saw a bright light and temporarily fell down. Combining Acts Ch. 9,22,& 26 along with Gal.1:12-19, reveal a full picture. The revelation that Paul received was not all immediate to his blinding. It took place progressively, and I only bring this up, not pertaining to the question of the OP, but to address some of the contradictions mentioned in the answers. Therefore there are really few if any contradictions.

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