Picturing Saul’s Vision on the Road to Damascus: A Question of Authority

In: Biblical Interpretation
Deborah Thompson Prince Bellarmine University, USA

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Saul’s vision of the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) has been a popular theme for artists over the centuries because it expresses something meaningful to both the artists and their audiences. Meaning, however, changes over time. My aim in this article is to explore how and why the narrative of Acts asserts the authority of Saul’s vision and how audience perception of this authority evolved over time, as evident in artistic representations of Saul’s vision. By employing literary and rhetorical analysis, I will clarify the claim that the author of Acts employs this vision as a reliable message from God by exploring two related issues: (1) the centrality of the life of the community to the function of the vision; and (2) the establishment of credibility by means of the shared visionary experiences of unrelated corroborative witnesses. However, as many visual interpretations of Saul’s vision indicate, the conception of this vision encounter as divine guidance for a whole community did not continue to be a central part of its value for later Christians. On the contrary, Paul’s personal authority and/or transformation become(s) the significant outcome of the vision for later audiences. Therefore, this article will also engage in the study of reception history to show how perception of the authority granted to this vision changed over time and ultimately reframed the power of the vision by elevating the transformation of the individual over the transformation of the community.

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