Did They Hear a Voice or Not (Acts 9:7 and 22:9)?
In a thought-provoking discussion on inerrancy in the comments on a previous posts, Acts 9:7 and 22:9 were brought up. These passages describe the same event, yet seem to provide contradictory details. Are these two passages a clear indication of a contradiction in Scripture? To frame the issue, note how the NASB translates these two passages.
The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one (Acts 9:7, NASB).
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 (Acts 22:9, NASB).
The problem is not clear in the NASB translation, because the translators made an interpretive decision to translate the Greek verb for “hear” (ἀκούω) in Acts 22:9 as “understand” (which is a legitimate translation at times). To see the issue more clearly notice how the KJV translation translates both passages.
And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man (Acts 9:7, KJV).
And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me (Acts 22:9, KJV).
Thus, it appears that at Paul’s conversion the people with Paul heard a voice. Yet, when Paul later recounts his conversion, he says they did not hear the voice. What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?
Here are some introductory thoughts on the issue:
1. Luke is the author of both accounts, and as author, if he deemed the accounts to be contradictory, he could have either not included those details, or else changed them.
2. Luke was the long-time travel companion of Paul, and it is likely that he finished writing Acts while accompanying Paul in Rome or soon afterwards. This coincides with #1, for Luke would have had direct access to information of both accounts from Paul himself. Thus, it is unlikely that Luke would have contradicted himself having Paul to verify his record.
A Common Solution for the Issue
One attempted solution is to look to the original language and note that in Acts 9:7 the verb “hear” (ἀκούω) is used with “voice” (φωνή), which is in the genitive case. This argument stresses that the genitive case (the describing case) draws attention to the sound of the voice. On the other hand, Acts 22:9 uses the same verb, but with “voice” in the accusative case. The accusative case is said to call attention to the understanding or comprehending of the sound. Thus, it is the different case usage which indicates this is not a contradiction.
While it is true that the root distinction between genitive and accusative cases may indicate these distinctions, it is not always the case in Hellenistic Greek (which is the time period the NT is written in). Although Acts does tend to reflect more of an Attic style in its Greek usage (where these case differentiations do often occur), the point is not worth pressing since there is a better explanation of the two passages.
The Preferred Solution
The preferred solution to this apparent contradiction is to allow the flexibility of the normal usage of (ἀκούω) “hear/sound” and (φωνή) “voice/sound” to be nuanced by the context in which it appears.
For example, depending on context, ἀκούω “to hear, understand” can refer to the actual process of hearing (e.g. Matt 13:16; 2 Tim 2:2); or, it can also refer to a specific comprehension or understanding (e.g., Matt 11:15; 1 Cor 14:2; Gal 4:21).
In addition, φωνή “voice/sound” has a flexibility between a specific auditory voice (e.g., John 5:25; 10:4; Luke 17:15); or, it can be an indistinct noise or sound (e.g., 1 Cor 14:7; Rev 14:2; cf. 1 Samuel 7:10 in the LXX of thunder).
We have similar phenomena in English. For example, I can say, “Did you hear that?” as a legitimate question as to whether or not someone was paying attention. Or, as I have often done when surprised by someone in a conversation, I will ask others, “Did you HEAR that?” Now, I know everyone in the conversation actually heard already, but now my question reflects whether or not the true import of what was said has been understood by everyone. The same words can be used with different nuances.
In a similar sense, the contexts of Acts 9:7 and 22:9 may easily allow for Acts 9 to state that the men heard a voice or sound, and yet Acts 22:9 can just as easily stress the fact that the men did not understand what was being said. Further support for this view comes from the fact that Paul is speaking in Aramaic to the crowd (cf. Acts 22:2). In Aramaic the, like Greek, the same word is often used of both hearing and understanding. When Paul’s speech was translated into Greek, it would be a most natural choice to use ἀκούω “hear/understand” as the translational equivalent for the Aramaic “hear/understand.”
In sum, the NASB translation is accurate to nuance the differences between Acts 9:7 and 22:9 being a matter of understanding on behalf of Paul’s travel companions. It is simply not possible to use this as an example of a clear contradiction, because it does not take into consideration the normal flexibility of language, nor of the translation of Paul’s Aramaic in Acts 22. Hence, both passages should be allowed harmonize by stressing different aspects of Paul’s conversion experience.