When Did Paul Get Converted?
Paul’s own account of things in Acts 26 would seem at first glance to bear this out. In his defence to King Agrippa (26:12-18) he explains that he had a “heavenly vision” in which Jesus appeared to him, told him to get up, and commissioned him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, so that they might have their sins forgiven and be sanctified by faith in Christ. From this account on its own, it would seem that Saul fell to the ground as a persecuting Pharisee, and got up again a few minutes later as a Christian missionary.
Luke’s account in Acts 9, famously, is somewhat different. There, Luke tells us that after falling to the ground, Saul was told to go into Damascus, and there he would be told what to do. If all we had was this story, we would probably conclude that his commission as an apostle to the Gentiles came via Ananias in Damascus, rather than on the road - in other words, at the same time as his recovery of sight and receiving of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, from this account alone we would have no way of knowing when Saul was converted, since the narrative gives us no clues either way on that: “Brother Saul” was a standard Jewish address and does not indicate either saving faith or the lack of it, and the cry “Who are you Lord?”, coming as it does before Saul even realises who is speaking, simply shows that Saul recognises the subject of the vision is a superior sort of being. The timing of his conversion, whatever we understand by that, is unclear from Acts 9.
It is Paul’s version of the story in Acts 22, however, which shows how the timings of these somewhat different accounts are to be reconciled. There, we find clear indications that the whole story has been compressed in the Acts 26 account, with Paul, speaking to Agrippa in his trial, avoiding unnecessary details by collapsing two encounters into one. (It may be that Paul does the same in Galatians 1:12, since the details and timings of his “revelation” are not the main point). The Acts 22 version reads:
And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ 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.
And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he 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; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptised and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:10-16)
This fuller version makes it clear that the Damascus road “conversion experience” was not, in reality, a conversion experience. Rather, it was a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ that left Saul without sight, without the Spirit, without forgiveness and without a commission - but, crucially, with the instruction to go into Damascus and receive further instructions. (We know from Acts 9 that he spent the three days in between praying and fasting, and presumably wondering what had happened, as we might imagine any pious Jew would). On speaking to Ananias, Saul gained his sight, received his commission, was filled with the Spirit, and was told to get baptised and wash away his sins, calling on Jesus’ name. As such, it would be truer to say that Saul had a “Straight Street conversion” than a Damascus Road one.
It might not seem like it matters. Perhaps it doesn’t. But two implications follow from this, if I’m right. The first is that it is possible to have a dramatic encounter with God, yet wander around in darkness and confusion for a while wondering what has happened, waiting until that day when a Christian obeys the prompting of God and explains the gospel and how to respond to it. (I imagine missionaries in Islamic countries, among others, know what I’m talking about here). The second is that whatever else we may say about the timing of receiving the Spirit, we should probably not use Saul/Paul as an example of someone who clearly received the Spirit after his conversion, since from what we can tell when the three stories are read alongside each other, the four elements of his conversion (calling on the name of Jesus, washing away his sin, being baptised and receiving the Spirit), as well as his commission to the Gentiles, came together when he met Ananias.
In other words, the “Damascus road conversion” may be no more real than Caravaggio’s horse. Sorry about that.