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Apologetics Press :: Alleged Discrepancies

They Heard Him—They Heard Him Not?
by Alden Bass

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In the account of the Lord’s appearance to Saul on the road to Damascus—recorded by Luke in Acts 9, and then related in Paul’s address in Acts 22—some have charged that there is a contradiction. Acts 9:7 records that the men traveling with Saul (known later as the apostle Paul) heard a voice; while Paul states in Acts 22:9 that they did not hear a voice. This alleged contradiction is a favorite of atheist Dan Barker—a denominational-preacher-turned-infidel—whose self-proclaimed mission since the early 1980s has been to inform humanity of what he refers to as “the delusion” of Christianity. On his Web site, Barker has listed the above “contradiction” (as well as other alleged Bible discrepancies) as one that documents the fallibility of the Bible and therefore the non-existence of God. Barker is right about one thing, of course. If the Scriptures contain errors in their original autographs, then they cannot be considered as inspired of God. It is, therefore, imperative that we investigate these claims of biblical errancy so that we may know whether our faith in God and His Word is genuine or misplaced. If it is a genuine faith to which we cling, then these points of error that have been charged to the Bible must be answered.

Admittedly, at first glance the two passages under consideration may seem to be in direct opposition. Apologists have acknowledged this difficulty for many years, and have offered at least two plausible explanations. First, some scholars appeal to the original Greek text, and suggest that Acts 22:9 has been mistranslated. The verse reads as follows: “And they that were with me beheld indeed the light, but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.” According to this view, however, the verse actually should read: “And they that were with me beheld indeed the light, but they understood not the voice of him that spake to me.” If this translation were correct, it would put to rest any suggestion of contradiction. Mr. Barker, however, has refused steadfastly to accept such a solution, and has argued that the Greek word for “hear” (akouo) does not mean “understand” (except in a few special situations such as 1 Corinthians 14:2). There are other passages, he has noted, where akouo does mean “understand,” but in each case it is linked explicitly with the word “understand.” As an example, he has cited Matthew 13:13, which reads: “Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing [akouo] they hear [akouo] not, neither do they understand.” Mr. Barker believes that if the second akouo meant “understand,” then it would not have been necessary for Luke to include the last phrase, “neither do they understand.” According to the article on his Web site dealing with this matter, “this underscores the fact that grammar is not enough to determine when akouo might be translated loosely” (Barker, 1994). I would like to note, though, that had Matthew omitted the last phrase, we still would have understood the second “hear” to mean “understand.” Otherwise, Jesus would have been saying, “They hear my words, but they do not hear my words.” In similar fashion, we can understand the passages under consideration to mean, “the men perceived a voice, but they did not understand the words spoken.”

Barker made note of a similar passage in Mark: “Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not?” (8:18), and then asked: “If Acts 22:9 should be translated ‘not understand,’ then why not here?” (1994). But inserting “understand” in place of “hear” in this passage causes no difficulty whatsoever; after all, that is the meaning of the text. Barker has concluded from all these passages (Matthew 13:23; 15:10; Mark 4:12; 7:14; Acts 28:26-27; Romans 15:21) that it is the New Testament practice to pair “hear” and “understand” when akouo is intended to mean “understand,” and, since Luke did not pair the two, he must have meant that the men literally “did not hear” a voice. Therefore, he says, Acts 22:9 contradicts Acts 9:7.

Barker does not stop at Acts 22:9, however, because there is yet another possible approach to explaining this alleged contradiction. Whereas some scholars believe that “understand” should be used instead of “hear” in Acts 22:9, others are of the opinion that it is Acts 9:7 that has not been translated as accurately as possible. Accordingly, the verse should read: “And the men that journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing the sound [as opposed to “the voice”] but beholding no man.” Barker has disputed this translation (which is based on a difference in the Greek cases), and has suggested that “Greek scholars who have more than a superficial knowledge of the language would never use this argument” (1994). Apparently, however, Mr. Barker did not do his homework prior to writing his article. [Those who criticize the Bible the loudest often are those who have read it the least!] Various highly respected Greek scholars—who know far more about the language of the first-century world than Dan Barker—have proposed this very argument as a solution to the alleged discrepancy. In fact, the man known affectionately among theologians as the “dean of Greek scholars,” A.T. Robertson, wrote in regard to the difference in cases:

In 22:9 Paul says that the men “beheld the light” (to men phos etheasanto), but evidently did not discern the person. Paul also says there, “but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me” (ten de phonen ouk ekousan tou lalountos moi). Instead of this being a flat contradiction of what Luke says in 9:7 it is natural to take it as being likewise (as with the “light” and “no one”) a distinction between the “sound” (original sense of phone as in John 3:8) and the separate words spoken. It so happens that akouo is used either with the accusative (the extent of the hearing) or the genitive (the specifying). It is possible that such a distinction here coincides with the two senses of phone. They heard a sound (9:7), but did not understand the words (22:9) [1930, pp. 117-118, parenthetical items in orig.].

Consider also the words of Greek expert Ray Summers:

Some verbs take their object in a case other than the accusative. There is a variety of usage at this point. Akouo may take its object in the genitive or the accusative. Usually akouo with the genitive means “to hear without 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 heard the voice (akouo with the genitive); Acts 22:9 says they did not hear the voice (akouo 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 unintelligible sound (1950, p. 51).

Numerous other Greek scholars have expressed the same viewpoint (see, for example: Arndt and Gingrich, 1957, pp. 31-33; Blackwelder, 1958, p. 139; Kittel, 1993, p. 216; Thayer; 1979, pp. 22-23; Vincent, 1975, p. 571; and Vine, 1985, p. 296). The word “hear” in Acts 22:9 can be used to indicate that it was a sound—not a voice—that the men heard on the road to Damascus.

Finally, we should look at the simplest and most straightforward evidence. Interestingly, we have been given a parallel to the event recorded in Acts 9—John 12:28-29. Here, just as in the passage in Acts, we have Jehovah speaking from heaven to a man (Jesus, in this instance). After the Lord spoke, notice the people’s response as recorded in verse 29: “The multitude therefore, that stood by, and heard it, said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel hath spoken to him’.” So amazing and frightening was the sound of God’s voice that the multitude was not quite sure what to make of it. The voice must have reverberated like thunder, yet it was discernible enough that some mistakenly thought it was the voice of an angel. Had the crowd been interviewed, some would have said, “We heard no voice, only thunder,” while others would have responded differently by saying, “Well, it sounded to us like a voice, maybe the voice of an angel.” Both groups of people undoubtedly heard something when God spoke, but not everyone present understood what was said. The same is true of the men who traveled with Saul on the way to Damascus. They heard something, but not everyone present understood what was said.

If these types of alleged contradictions were approached with the same “innocent-until-proven-guilty” attitude enjoined in a court of law, they would disappear like an early morning mountain fog hit by a hot, glaring, noonday Sun. Could Paul possibly have meant that the travelers did not “understand” the voice the heard? Certainly he could have. No one can rule out such a suggestion, especially in light of the account in Acts 9 where it is clear that the men did perceive a voice (rather, a sound) but did not comprehend any of the words spoken. As the old adage says, when a passage is removed from its context it becomes merely a pretext. Only when a passage is examined in light of all the biblical teaching on a particular subject can the details of the situation be known completely.


Arndt, William and F.W. Gingrich (1957), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).

Barker, Dan (1994), [On-line], URL:

Blackwelder, Boyce W. (1958) Light from the Greek New Testament (Anderson, IN: Warner).

Kittel, Gerhard (1993), Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Robertson, A.T. (1930) Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman).

Summers, Ray (1950), Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Broadman).

Thayer, Joseph (1979), Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Vincent, Marvin R. (1975), Word Studies in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Vine, W.E., Merrill Unger, and William White, Jr. (1985), Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson).

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