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

in Biblical Interpretation
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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.

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

in Biblical Interpretation




 Susan NiditchAncient Israelite Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press1997) pp. 35-45; Frances Flannery-Dailey Dreamers Scribes and Priests: Jewish Dreams in the Hellenistic and Roman Eras (JSJSup 90; Leiden: Brill 2004) pp. 53-56; Susan Garrett No Ordinary Angel: Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus (New Haven: Yale University Press 2008) p. 30.


 John A. DarrHerod the Fox: Audience Criticism and Lukan Characterization (JSNTSup, 163; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic1998) pp. 20-21.


 MillerConvinced That God Had Called Us pp. 11-12.


 Flannery-DailyDreamers p.17- 22. Flannery-Dailey states that dreams in the ancient world were thought to be “actual meetings with a transcendent reality” (p. 17) and that a “message dream is a theophany” (p. 22). See also Johannes Lindblom “Theophanies in Holy Places in Hebrew Religion” HUCA 32 (1961) pp. 91-106 (93).


 Hanson“Dreams and Visions” p. 1414.


 Hanson“Dreams and Visions” pp. 1415-19.


 Marguerat“Saul’s Conversion” 139.


 Charles W. Hedrick“Paul’s Conversion/Call: A Comparative Analysis of the Three Reports in Acts,” JBL 100.3 (1981) pp. 415-32 (425 427-32); Haenchen The Acts of the Apostles p. 322; Gerhard A. Krodel Acts (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament; Minneapolis: Augsburg 1986) pp. 172-73; Joseph A. Fitzmyer The Acts of the Apostles (AB 31; New York: Doubleday 1998) pp. 426 706.


 Witherup“Functional Redundancy in the Acts of the Apostles” p. 78; Walsh “‘Realizing’ Paul’s Visions” pp. 31-33. Robert L. Brawley concludes that Paul’s characterization in Acts is intentionally ambiguous the discrepancies between the three vision accounts both subordinate and do not subordinate Paul to the apostles (Centering on God: Method and Message in Luke-Acts [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox 1990] pp. 155 158).


 A.H.M. KesselsStudies on the Dream in Greek Literature (Utrecht: HES1978) pp. 203-205.


 Corley“Interpreting Paul’s Conversion” pp. 7-8. Walter Friedlaender notes that horses are not present in the oldest depictions of the scene specifically in Byzantine manuscripts of the ninth and mosaics of the twelfth century (Caravaggio Studies [Princeton: Princeton University Press 1955] p. 3).


 John ShearmanRaphael’s Cartoons in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel (London: Phaidon1972) p. 44 cited in Hornik and Parson Illuminating Luke vol. 3. p. 66.


 William E. Wallace“Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo’s Pauline Chapel,” Artibus et Historiae 10.19 (1989) pp. 107-121 (107).


 Wallace“Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo’s Pauline Chapel” p. 119.


 Wallace“Narrative and Religious Expression in Michelangelo’s Pauline Chapel” p. 119.


 Helen LangdonCaravaggio: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux1999) p. 184.


 Andrew Graham-DixonCaravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (New York: Penguins2011) p. 214.


 Graham-DixonCaravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane p. 216.


 Howard HibbardCaravaggio (New York: Harper & Row1983) p. 126.


 Walsh“‘Realizing’ Paul’s Visions” pp. 38-39.


 Graham-DixonCaravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane p. 217. See also Friedlaender’s conclusion that this unusual combination of biblical scenes imitates Michelangelo’s frescos in the Pauline Chapel (Caravaggio Studies p. 7).


 Grietje Sloan“The Transformation of Religious Conversion from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation: Petrarch and Caravaggio,” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 15.1 (1988) pp. 131-49 (143 146) emphasis mine. Sloan sees a connection between the Cerasi Conversion and Protestant religious traits that were developing at this time.


 Kee“The Conversion of Paul” p. 55; Walsh “‘Realizing’ Paul’s Visions” p. 30.


  • View in gallery
    Conversion of Saul/Paul, Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520). c. 1700. Copyright: Works in the Public Domain. Photo Credit: The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (97.P.7).

  • View in gallery
    Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). Conversion of Saint Paul. Completed 1549. Fresco. Cappella Paolina. Photo Credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.

  • View in gallery
    Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da) (1573-1610). The Conversion of Saint Paul. Coll. Odescalchi Balbi di Piovera. Photo Credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.

  • View in gallery
    Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi da) (1573-1610). The Conversion of Saint Paul. 1600-1601. Cerasi Chapel. S. Maria del Popolo. Photo Credit: Scala/Art Resource, NY.

  • View in gallery
    Chris Cook, Conversion of St. Paul (undated). Photo credit: Chris Cook.

  • View in gallery
    Ernest Vincent Wood III, The Conversion of St. Paul (2006). Photo credit: Ernest Vincent Wood III.

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