Did Paul's Men Hear a Voice?
By Dan Barker
[This article was first published in the Skeptical Review, 1994. Greek characters in the original have been transliterated here.]
In the 9th chapter of Acts, Luke tells the story of the conversion of Saul, saying that "the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man." In the 22nd chapter of the same book, Luke quotes Paul's own words regarding the same experience: "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake unto me."
There is an apparent contradiction here: Luke says "hearing a voice," but Paul says, "They heard not the voice." If the translation is correct, then Luke has made a mistake. (We can assume that Paul, the primary source, is more trustworthy.)
There are two approaches that defenders of the bible have used in an attempt to clear up this discrepancy. The first approach claims that the word "hear" should be translated "understand" in Acts 22:9, meaning that although the men heard the voice, they did not hear (understand) the voice. The second defense claims that the word "voice" should really be translated "sound" in Acts 9:7, meaning that the men heard something, but did not know it was a voice.
"Hear" or "Understand"?
I play professional piano part-time. Although I sometimes use electronic keyboards in jazz bands, I much prefer the acoustic piano, especially for solo work. Nothing matches the beauty of physically produced tones resonating in a real, acoustic piano of quality wood. The overtones mix in the air like no computer has been able to duplicate.
The word “acoustic” comes from the Greek word akouo (pronounced "a-koo-oh”), meaning "to hear." (I pronounce Greek the way a contemporary Grecian would say it. The old, scholarly pronunciation was just a guess.) To hear physically, acoustically. Both Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 use akouo.
Akouo does not mean "understand." New Testament Greek possesses other words for "understand." The main one is suniemi (sin-EE-i-mee), which is "to understand in the sense of putting things together” (the word means "to send together"). There are also noeo (no-EH-oh), from the word for "mind"; ginosko (gi-NO-sko), which means "to know"; and others. These verbs have noun counterparts: for example sunesis (understanding), related to suniemi. The word akouo has no noun counterpart that works as a synonym for "understanding."
However, this does not mean that "hear" cannot be rendered loosely as "understand" in some special cases. We do it in English in the informal phrase, "I hear you." We also use "see" sometimes in this manner: "Do you see what I mean?" Words denoting physical senses can sometimes be interpreted in a "mental" way, poetically or loosely.
But the only way to do this is by context. It can't be done by grammar. Akouo always means "hear" at the literal level, but it might sometimes figuratively be understood as "understand," depending on its usage in a particular passage.
Akouo never means "not to hear."
There is only one instance where the King James Version (KJV) translates akouo as "understand." First Corinthians 14:2: "For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth (akouo) him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries." The New International Version (NIV) puts it this way: "Indeed, no one understands him; he utters mysteries with his spirit." It seems, in context, that "understand" can be used here because, although there is obviously some physical hearing involved, there is an ambiguity about how a "mystery" spoken by a "spirit" could be perceived. In any event, there is no indication that nothing is heard.
The Greek in Acts 22:9 is: ten de phonen ouk ekousan (EE-koo-san, aorist [past tense] of akouo, 3rd person plural). The KJV and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) say that the men did not "hear" the voice, but the NIV and Living Bible (LB, a paraphrase, not a translation) say that the men did not "understand" the voice. On what grounds do the NIV and LB use such a translation? The passage is not poetic. In fact, in the parallel Acts 9:7, telling the same story, the NIV and LB do use "hear," from the verb akouo with the same object. There is nothing in the context of either Acts 9:7 or Acts 22:9 to warrant a looser, informal, or poetic translation of akouo.
There are a few places in the New Testament where akouo (hear) and suniemi (understand) act as synonyms, but the connection is explicit. In Matthew 13:13, Jesus reportedly said: "Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing (akouo) they hear (akouo) not, neither do they understand (suniemi)." If the second occurrence of akouo means "understand," all by itself, then it would not have been necessary for Luke to add, "neither do they understand." This underscores the fact that grammar is not enough to determine when akouo might be translated loosely.
The NIV and the LB wish us to think that Paul's men "heard but did not understand" the voice. But "hear" and "understand" are coupled together all through the New Testament as a contrast of two different words. Matthew 13:23 says, "But he that received good seed into the good ground is he that heareth (akouo) the word, and understandeth (suniemi) it." Matthew 15:10: "Hear (akouo) and understand (suniemi)." Mark 4:12: "and hearing they may hear (akouo), and not understand (suniemi)." Notice that Mark did not use ouk akouo (“not hear”) when he wanted to say "not understand." For similar constructions see also Matthew 13:15; Matthew 13:19; Mark 7:14; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:26,27; Romans 15:21.
There is nothing in Acts 22:9--nothing grammatical, contextual, or explicit--to indicated that akouo should be translated anything other than "hear." In fact, the same words (often the very same phrase: ouk ekousan) occur throughout the New Testament, but neither the NIV nor the LB use "not understand" in those instances. Look at Matthew 13:17 (NIV): "Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear (ouk ekousan) it." If Acts 22:9 should be translated "not understand," why not here?
Look at Mark 8:18 (NIV): "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?" The phrase "fail to hear" is ouk akouete: "You do not hear." Again, if Acts 22:9 should be "not understand," then why not here?
Other examples are John 5:37 (NIV): "You have neither heard his voice nor seen his form"; and Romans 10:18 (NIV): "Did they not hear (ouk ekousan)?" (See also Mark 6:11, Luke 10:24, Luke 16:31, John 10:8, Acts 9:12, Romans 15:21.) Why is the NIV not consistent? Why does it use “understand” only in Acts 22:9?
If Luke had wanted Acts 22:9 to mean "not understand," he should have said so, either explicitly (with suniemi or other verb for “understand”) or contextually. If he had wanted to contrast the two meanings, why didn't he follow the New Testament practice of pairing akouo and suniemi?
"Voice" or "Sound"?
I once brought up this contradiction on an Arizona radio show where I was debating James White, a self-styled Christian apologist. White immediately retorted that since phone (“voice”) is in two different cases in these verses, it was meant to be understood differently: "voice" in one in stance, but "sound" in the other.
He is right about the two different cases, but he is wrong about what this means. Greek scholars who have more than a superficial knowledge of the language would never use this argument.
Acts 9:7 has tes phones (tees fo-NEES) and Acts 22:9 has ten phonen (teen fo-NEEN) for "the voice." The first is in the genitive case, and the second is in the accusative.
Although the KJV and the NRSV use "voice" in both verses, the NIV and the LB translate phones as "sound" in Acts 9:7. They appear to be suggesting that the genitive case should change the meaning of "voice." A number of Christian apologists, such as Gleason Archer, have used this argument.
But they are wrong. In this instance, the genitive case does not change the meaning of the word in any way.
In many inflected languages, such as Greek, there is a flexibility of case usage (declension). Some verbs take their direct objects in more than just the accusative case. This is explicitly true of akouo, which can take either the accusative or the genitive., with no change in meaning.
If the apologists are right and the genitive cases does change the meaning here, then this would create dozens of contradictions elsewhere in the New Testament where such flexibility of case is common.
For example, the writers of Matthew and Luke both relate Jesus's parable of the wise man who built his house upon a rock. Matthew 7:24 quotes Jesus: "[W]hosoever heareth these sayings (tous logous) of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man." Luke 6:47, telling the same story, quotes Jesus: "Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings (ton logon), and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like." Both writers related the same speech, but they used different cases for “sayings,” the object of akouo. Matthew used the accusative and Luke used the genitive.
This is not a contradiction. There is a tiny inexactness about what declension Jesus might actually have used when he spoke these words in history (if he indeed spoke them in Greek, or spoke them at all), but there is no discrepancy. Matthew and Luke, each reconstructing the scene from memory (or perhaps from notes, or translating from Aramaic), can be allowed some personal leeway in their choice of declensions. The Greek allows for such flexibility.
Another example is when Matthew and Mark each report the appearance of Jesus before the high priest. Matthew 26:65 quotes the high priest: "Behold, now ye have heard his blasphemy (blasphemian)." Mark 14:64 reports the story, quoting the high priest: "Ye have heard the blasphemy (blasphemias)." The writer of Matthew used the accusative for the object of akouo and the writer of Mark used the genitive. Again, there is no contradiction--just an impreciseness about what actual word was spoken by the high priest.
Closer to home are Acts 9:4, Acts 22:7, and Acts 26:14, the story of Saul's conversion itself. (It is told three different times.) Acts 9:4: "And he fell to the earth and heard a voice (phonen) saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Acts 22:7: "And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice (phones) saying unto me." Acts 26:14: "And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice (phonen) speaking unto me." Notice the different cases. Paul himself, telling the same story, uses two different cases. They cannot have meant two different things. In fact, the NIV and the LB agree, translating both the accusative and the genitive as "voice" in all three instances.
If the defenders of Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 are correct when they say that the difference in case changes the meaning of the word, then the above examples would show Paul contradicting himself. They have shot themselves in the foot.
To be fair, there are a few places where phone can allowably be translated as "sound," but this is determined by context rather than case. Phone is used 140 times in the New Testament. It is translated "voice" 131 times in the KJV. The other 9 times it is translated "sound" or "noise," but each of these is clearly figurative, referring to something that is not a person: "the noise (phone) of thunder," "sound (phone) of wind," "wings," etc. (Notice that although the KJV translates Revelation 6:1 as "sound of thunder" (phone, dative case), the NRSV, NIV, and LB use "voice." Here, where there actually is a poetic justification for using “sound,” they don’t take it.)
Neither thunder nor wind actually have a "voice," so it is permissible to use "sound”--even though the literal “voice” would better preserve the original poetic imagery, closer to the stylistic literary intention of the writer. But in Acts 9:7 there is no such context. In fact, Luke goes out of his way to insist that it was a person: "hearing a voice, but seeing no man." (My emphasis) If Paul's men thought they had heard some impersonal noise like thunder or wind, then it would not have been necessary to add the phrase "but seeing no man."
Why should the NIV and the LB use "sound" in this instance? There is no linguistic or contextual reason. It appears that they have simply wanted to paper over a troublesome discrepancy.
Why Do the Translations Disagree?
The NIV and LB translators cannot claim a new, more advanced understand of Greek. The NRSV was published after the NIV and LB, and it uses "voice." (From what I can tell, the NRSV seems to be the most popular translation among scholars.)
The motives of the NIV and LB translators are made clear in the preface to each book. The NIV, translated by a team of evangelical scholars (instigated by the National Association of Evangelicals), is introduced with these words: "We offer this version of the Bible to him in whose name and for whose glory it has been made. We pray that it will lead many into a better understanding of the Holy Scriptures and a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ the incarnate Word, of whom the Scriptures so faithfully testify."
If there is a contradiction in the New Testament, then it could not "faithfully testify" anything.
The NIV team was extremely selective in choosing its scholars: "[T]he translators were united in their commitment to the authority and infallibility of the Bible as God's Word in written form. They believe that it contains the divine answer to the deepest needs of humanity, that it sheds light on our path in a dark world, and that it sets forth the way to our eternal well-being." This is not the agenda of a team of objective scholars. This is evangelism.
If there is a contradiction in the Bible, the NIV translators, confessedly committed a priori to infallibility, could never see it! (Some skeptics might be tempted to use the phrase, "There is none so blind as he who will not see," but I would never stoop to such ad hominem tactics.)
The Living Bible does not claim to be a strict translation. It is a paraphrase by Dr. Kenneth Taylor, who admits in his preface: "[W]hen the Greek or Hebrew is not clear, then the theology of the translator is his guide, along with his sense of logic. . . . The theological lodestar in this book has been a rigid evangelical position."
What if an atheistic or skeptical organization were to translate the bible, putting together a team of staunch materialists, systematically excluding conservative or evangelical scholars, announcing a "rigid skeptical position, "claiming to be "united in our commitment to the fallibility of the bible," and advertising the "hope that this translation will lead many astray from faith into a solid doubt of the reliability of Scriptures"? The evangelicals would sream! Such prejudice clearly would taint the objectivity of the process.
One of the most popular evangelical verses is Revelation 3:20 (I used this often in my own evangelism), where Jesus is quoted as saying: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice (phones), and open the door, I will come into him." The genitive case is used here, yet the NIV uses "voice" and the LB says "hears me calling." Neither uses "knocking" or "sound." They are not consistent. They only invoke the phony "genitive-case argument" ad hoc, where it suits their inerrancy agenda.
Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 are contradictory. In their confessed missionary zeal, the translators of the NIV and the Living Bible, and other evangelical apologists, have dishonestly tampered with the meaning of scripture, using a specious argument in order to deceive the readers and disguise an embarrassing discrepancy.