In the Book of Acts, we see the miraculous conversion of Paul from a Christian persecutor into an apostle of Jesus Christ. But there are three accounts of his conversion in Acts that, on the surface, appear to be in conflict each other. (9:3-9, 22:6-11, 26:13-18)
Bart Ehrman brings this up as a supposedly irreconcilable contradiction: “…the three accounts present numerous contradictory details. In one version Paul’s companions do not hear the voice but they see the light; in another they hear the voice but do not see anyone. In one version they all fall to the ground from the epiphanic blast; in another they remain standing. In one version Paul is told to go on to Damascus, where a disciple of Jesus will provide him with his marching orders; in another he is not told to go but is given his instructions by Jesus. Clearly, we are dealing with narratives molded for literary reasons, not with disinterested historical reports.” (The Triumph of Christianity, pg. 51)
So how do we reconcile these issues with the account? First of all, let’s deal with the differences between the follower’s reactions to Paul’s vision of Jesus. Translations differ in Acts 22 on how Paul’s followers reacted to the vision. Many translations (NIV, ESV, NASB, ISV) render the Greek word being used here as “understand” instead of “hear.” So they would have heard what Jesus said to Paul, but were unable to interpret what he said.
Luke also uses the word “hear” in a similar way in Luke 6:27 - “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” He obviously uses the word “hear” to mean understand or listen with intent, so the word is interchangeable for it’s use in this passage. There are also various solutions to harmonize the accounts of the followers seeing the light. They would have seen the light, but not Jesus himself.
A second possibility is that Luke was simply quoting from Paul as he was recounting his conversion story in a quicker and less detailed account. We cannot simply assume that Paul had the correct information of his own conversion. Such an event would be pretty traumatic, and given that Paul did not eat or drink for three days after being blinded by the vision, the text would seem to imply such trauma. Can we really fault Paul for not remembering every aspect of his miraculous conversion?
A third solution is that Paul’s companions did not tell him that they had heard the voice. It’s possible they may have denied hearing it for fear of the implications of what they had heard. It should be noted how these followers disappear from the narrative after they deliver Paul to Damascus. It could be that, our of fear of persecution, they abandoned Paul and tried to convince themselves that they did not see what they saw. Then this information would have somehow gotten transferred to Luke who then included it in his accounts.
This does not mean that Luke was using faulty sources for his narrative, as he obviously would have noticed the differences between the accounts. This leads us to our fourth possibility which is that Luke was intentionally writing a contradiction in order to magnify Paul and put down the importance of his companions.
Ronald Witherup has done extensive research into this kind of literary method, known as “functional redundancy,” where a writer deliberately alters the narrative to keep his audience interested in the story. This was a common practice in Greco-Roman literature and so we should not be surprised when Acts does the same. (Ronald Witherup, "Functional Redundancy in the Acts of the Apostles" from Journal for the Study of the New Testament 48, 1992, pg. 67-86)
The next supposed contradiction is whether or not the followers were standing during the vision or knocked back. But this is a simple one to refute. J. B. Lightfoot argued that this passage is probably only an idiomatic expression that suggests that the followers were ‘frozen in their tracks’, not that they were physically standing up the entire time: “Here in Acts 9:7 — stood speechless, εἱστήκεισαν ἐνεοί, i.e. are arrested in the moment, all fell to the ground — the after effects, – ἡμῶν πάντων καταπεσόντων εἰς τὴν γῆν, Acts 26:14.” (The Acts of the Apostles: A Newly Discovered Commentary, 2014, pg. 150)
The last supposed contradiction is that Paul’s commission came from Jesus in one account, but came from Ananias in the others. But such an argument really begins to stretch the validity of the sceptics claims. One should give charity to the author of Acts and his literary license to telescope his accounts of Paul’s conversion. Luke has the all the freedom and authority to use functional redundancy in his accounts of Paul’s conversion.
As N. T. Wright points out, the differences are "…best explained by Luke's following a Hellenistic convention of style according to which variation in a narrative lends interest." (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 388)
So there are more than enough arguments to resolve these supposed contradictions in the Book of Acts. Some sceptics further claim that Acts contradicts Paul’s own words in Galatians chapter 1. But Ben Witherington points out that “One must recognize that Paul’s letters and Acts are different in genre, and thus simple comparisons do not take into account this difference and are not likely to prove satisfactory.” (The Acts of the Apostles, pg. 307)
Two accounts written about 2 decades apart, to different audiences, in different styles and for different purposes will obviously result in minor changes to the narrative, depending on who Paul and Luke were writing to. Such arguments stem from unnecessary skepticism that would never apply to any other piece of Greco-Roman literature.
Is the authenticity of the New Testament compromised by whether Paul’s followers were standing or fallen down? If this is the best the sceptic can do, then they have a lot of work ahead of them. So in short, there are no contradictions in the narrative of Paul’s conversion. They can easily be harmonized by taking into account the cultural, linguistic and literary context.