Luke reports three accounts of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in the book of Acts. The first is in Acts 9:1-9. The second appears in Acts 22:6-11. And the third is recorded in Acts 26:12-20. Below are these three accounts reprinted as they appear in the King James Version:
1And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
2And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
3And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:
4And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
5And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
6And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
7And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.
8And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
9And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
6And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.
7And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
8And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.
9And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.
10And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.
11And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus.
12Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,
13At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me.
14And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
15And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
16But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;
17Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,
18To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
19Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:
20But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judæa, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
Notice how Luke attributes additional words to the Lord Jesus to Paul in his third account than in his first two. In the first account, Jesus tells Paul to “arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:6). In the second report, Luke describes Jesus telling Paul to “arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do” (Acts 22:10). But notice in the third account how Luke quotes Jesus as saying much more to Paul than in the previous two accounts:
And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee; Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me (Acts 26:15-18).
This added information in the third report from Luke is understandable, considering the context. In Acts 26 Paul is relating to Agrippa the reason behind his imprisonment and the ruckus he had created with the Jews at the Temple. Luke reports that Paul got into hot water with his pious Jewish peers for not only preaching against the Law of Moses but also for allegedly bringing “Greeks also into the temple, and pollut[ing] this holy place” (Acts 21:28). So grievous was Paul’s perceived profaning of the temple that his zealous would-be executioners immediately took him outside the precincts of the temple to summarily dispatch him (Acts 21:30-31). Fortunately for Paul the clatter alerted the Roman authorities, who took him into their custody before he could be killed (Acts 21:32-40).
As such, Paul had a lot of explaining to do on his part. Why was he so hated amongst his Jewish peers to the point of blood lust? Furthermore, as a Jew what business did he have associating with Gentiles? Paul gives Agrippa the answer, as reported by Luke: Jesus had specifically charged Paul to witness unto the Gentiles, and to win them over from their Satanic paganism to forgiveness and sanctification through Christ. Hence, we can infer, Paul gave this additional detail to Agrippa because of its expediency and relevance to his defense before the Gentile king. It certainly would have done Paul no good to relate this revolutionary (not to mention blasphemous) information to his Jewish enemies in Acts 22. As a matter of fact, these same Jewish foes patiently listened to Paul’s story until he described a hitherto unrecorded vision in the Jerusalem temple wherein he was commissioned by the Lord to depart unto the Gentiles. Upon hearing this unbearably shocking detail they cut him off and were driven to madness as they demanded his life (Acts 22:17-22). Furthermore, Luke had no need to provide this information in Acts 9 since he has yet to detail the ministry of the Apostles to the Gentiles beginning in Acts 10. It would throw off the development of the narrative history for Luke to provide a full account of the Lord’s words to Paul before the reader even knows what is going on with the Gentiles in the first place. But, once Luke has firmly established Paul’s role as the apostle to the Gentiles, and given the immediate context of Paul’s account to Agrippa, it makes perfect sense why he would omit this information until the third account in Acts 26.
What does all this have to do with Joseph Smith’s own theophany in 1820? Critics of Joseph Smith are eager to point out that his first recorded account of his vision written in 1832 is not as detailed as his accounts written in subsequent years, especially his 1838 account that was later canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. Surely, these critics contend, Joseph Smith was evolving his story over time to suit his purposes. His story becomes grander and more spectacular with each telling, in what can only be Joseph’s desperate attempt to bolster his prophetic legitimacy in the face of widespread apostasy and doubt within the Church.
However, this argument is unwarranted, and is especially dangerous for sectarian critics of Joseph Smith. I shall allow the esteemed Professor Richard L. Anderson to explain, since he has done a better job in succinctly demonstrating the sectarians’ dilemma than I could ever hope to:
Critics love to dwell on supposed inconsistencies in Joseph Smith’s spontaneous accounts of his first vision. But people normally give shorter and longer accounts of a vivid experience that is retold more than once. Joseph Smith was cautious about public explanations of his sacred experiences until the Church grew strong and could properly publicize what God had given him. Thus his most detailed first-vision account came after several others–at the time that he began his formal history that he saw as one of the key responsibilities of his life (see JS-H 1:1 2, 17 20). In Paul’s case there is the parallel. His most detailed account of Christ’s call is the last recorded mention of several. Thus before Agrippa, Paul related how the glorified Savior first prophesied his work among the gentiles; this was told only then because Paul was speaking before a gentile audience (see Acts 26:16 – 18). Paul and Joseph Smith had reasons for delaying full details of their visions until the proper time and place.
Thus, for me at least, when faced with anti-Mormon allegations against the authenticity of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the phrase “he who lives in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones” comes to mind.
: Richard L. Anderson, Parallel Prophets: Paul and Joseph Smith.