I often talk about the direct evidence offered by the Apostles in the Book of Acts. These men clearly saw themselves as eyewitnesses and relied upon their observations of Jesus when communicating the truth to others. First and foremost, the disciples saw themselves as eyewitnesses of the Resurrection. But Paul, a late arrival to the team of Apostles, also claimed to be qualified as an eyewitness. Was his claim legitimate? I recently received this question from a friend related to the eyewitness status of the Paul, because a strict reading of two passages describing Paul’s experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus might lead one to think Paul never actually saw Jesus at all:
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God just as you all are today. I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and putting both men and women into prisons, as also the high priest and all the Council of the elders can testify. From them I also received letters to the brethren, and started off for Damascus in order to bring even those who were there to Jerusalem as prisoners to be punished. “But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’ And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.
Can Paul be an eyewitness if he never actually saw Jesus in the first place? I think there are two good reasons to accept Paul’s status as an eyewitness and his position as an Apostle:
Eyewitnesses Testify to More Than Visual Experiences
I’ve interviewed a number of witnesses over the years, and many of them did not actually see something relevant to the case. Some simply heard something, smelled something, or even felt something. In one case from the early 1980’s, the testimony of an officer who felt the hood of a suspect vehicle became incredibly important to our case. Witnesses often offer a variety of empirical observations at trial, testifying to what they saw, heard, felt or smelled. Paul’s status as a witness is not dependent on his visual observations.
Paul Did Actually Testify to a Visual Experience
Even though Paul clearly described what he heard on the road to Damascus, we shouldn’t be too quick to reject the reasonable inference related to his visual observations of Jesus. The passages in Acts describe Paul’s observation of “a light from heaven” and it is unclear if Paul was able to see a form or shape at this point. There is good reason to believe Paul did actually see the form of Jesus, however, based on his later descriptions in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 15:3-8
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. (The emphasis is, of course, mine)
Now it’s certainly possible that Paul simply identified the bright light as Jesus on the basis of the words he heard, but it is interesting that Paul listed himself in the context of hundreds of eyewitnesses who actually saw Jesus. Paul did this repeatedly, labeling himself as a witness who, along with the other eyewitnesses, testified to the resurrection of Jesus:
1 Corinthians 15:12-15
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. (Again, the emphasis is mine)
The Apostles transformed the world with their testimony of the Resurrection; they were living eyewitnesses who never flinched when challenged to recant. Direct evidence of this nature is powerful and persuasive. Paul joined the ranks of these early eyewitnesses because he too had a transformational experience with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. That’s why it’s reasonable for Paul to take his place alongside the other apostolic eyewitnesses.