Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul

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Abstract: Some critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have noted that the different accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, though written by the prophet himself, vary in some details. They see this as evidence that the event did not take place and was merely invented to establish divine authority for his work. They fail to realize that the versions of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus, in which the risen Christ appeared to him, also differ from one another. Indeed, they vary more than Joseph Smith’s accounts of his experience. This article examines those variants.

Some critics have suggested that Joseph Smith contradicted himself in different accounts of his first vision. In one, for example, he says that the Lord told him that all the churches were wrong, while in another he says that he had already come to this conclusion before going out in the woods to pray. I see no real contradiction between Joseph Smith believing, when he went to pray, that he should join none of the churches, and the Lord confirming that thought by revelation. After all, he went into the woods to get an answer. If his mind was already made up and he merely needed confirmation, this fits the pattern described in D&C 9:8, where the Lord said, “you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right.” The point of the official published version of Joseph Smith’s story is that he received a revelation on the issue. But even that version does not preclude the idea that he had already determined the answer and needed confirmation.

In one account, Joseph says that he saw “the Lord,” while in another he notes that he saw “two personages.” Similarly, one account mentions that he saw “angels,” a fact omitted in the others. Rather than viewing this as contradictory, I see it as merely a matter of emphasis. I have done the same thing when recounting events in my life, sometimes omitting details that are irrelevant to the point I am trying to make or that do not suit the audience or the medium of expression. But this does not mean that I am inventing the story. As for the variants “the Lord,” “two personages,” and “angels,” we can note that, in the Bible, the Lord is often said to be an angel (which merely means messenger).1 As late as 1880, John Taylor used verbiage similar to that of Joseph Smith, speaking of the Prophet’s first vision. While mentioning the Father and the Son, like Joseph, also using the term Lord: “as a commencement the Lord appeared unto Joseph Smith, both the Father and the Son, the Father pointing to the Son said ‘this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, hear ye him.’ ”2

Other LDS scholars have already effectively dealt with the variants in the different accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision, and while I recommend them to the reader, I shall not rehearse their words here.3

The real subject of the present paper is another “first vision,” the one experienced by the apostle Paul while en route to Damascus. As with Joseph Smith’s first vision, we have several accounts of what happened to Paul in three books of the New Testament (Acts 9:1–30; 22:5–21; 26:12–20; Galatians 1:11–24; and 2 Corinthians 11:32–33). Not surprisingly, these accounts are at variance one with another. Indeed, there are fewer differences between the various accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision than between the five different accounts of Paul’s first vision and his trip to Damascus.4

We begin with a chart that compares the different accounts of Paul’s experience, in order that the reader may better visualize the gaps and variants.

Acts 9: Acts 26: Acts 22: Galatians 1
11 But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.
12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,
2 And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
12 Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, 5 As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished. 13 For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it:
14 And profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.
3 And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 13 At midday, O king, I saw in the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me and them which journeyed with me. 6 And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. 15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace,
4 And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
5 And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
6 And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.
14 And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.
15 And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.
16 But rise, and stand upon thy feet: for I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee;
17 Delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee,
7 And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?
8 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest
16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:
[continued below]
18 To open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me.
7 And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. 9 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.
19 Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: 10 And I said, What shall I do, Lord? And the Lord said unto me, Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.
8 And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus.
9 And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink.
11 And when I could not see for the glory of that light, being led by the hand of them that were with me, I came into Damascus
10 And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.
11 And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,
12 And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.
13 Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:
14 And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.
12 And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there.
15 But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:
16 For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.
17 And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. 13 Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him.
14 And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth.
15 For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.
18 And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.
19 And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.
16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord
20 And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.
21 But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?
22 But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ 20 But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
23 And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him:
24 But their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him.
25 Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.
2 Corinthians 11:
32 In Damascus the governor under Aretas the king kept the city of the Damascenes with a garrison, desirous to apprehend me:
33 And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.
26 And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.
27 But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.
17 And it came to pass, that, when I was come again to Jerusalem, even while I prayed in the temple, I was in a trance;
18 And saw him saying unto me, Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: for they will not receive thy testimony concerning me.
19 And I said, Lord, they know that I imprisoned and beat in every synagogue them that believed on thee:
20 And when the blood of thy martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by, and consenting unto his death, and kept the raiment of them that slew him.
Galatians 1:[continued]
17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.
20 Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.
21 Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia;
22 And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ:
28 And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem.
29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him.
30 Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus.
21 And he said unto me, Depart: for I will send thee far hence unto the Gentiles. 23 But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed

In most cases, as in Joseph Smith’s different accounts of his first vision, there are no outright contradictions in the different versions of Paul’s first vision, but some information given in one account is often left out of others. For example, while Acts 22:6 and 26:13 indicate that the vision occurred about noon, Acts 9:3 does not give the time of day. Acts 9:1–2 says that Paul got letters from “the high priest,” Acts 26:12 says it was “from the chief priests,” and Acts 22:5 says it was “the high priest . . . and all the estate of the elders.” This is the very same kind of supposed “contradiction” in Joseph Smith’s account of whom he saw in his vision. And yet neither Joseph’s nor Paul’s accounts are really contradictory.

Also significant is the fact that the words of Jesus to Paul, as recorded in Acts 26:15–18 are much more extensive than the words attributed to him in Acts 9:5–6 and 22:7. Indeed, if these are intended to be verbatim accounts, then there are clear contradictions. Note the following comparisons:

Acts 9:4–5 Acts 26:14–16 Acts 22:7–8
Jesus:
“Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Jesus:
“Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”
Jesus:
“Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?”
Saul:
“Who art thou, Lord?”
Saul:
“Who art thou, Lord?”
Saul:
“Who art thou, Lord?”
Jesus:
“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”
Jesus:
“I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.”
Jesus:
“I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest”
Saul:
“Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”
Saul:
[no response]
[conversation ends here]
Jesus:
“Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.”
Jesus:
“But rise, and stand upon thy feet:” [Here Christ details Paul’s mission, with no indication that he should go “into the city.”]

The words of Ananias reported in Acts 9:17 are also at great variance with those found in Acts 22:13–16.

Acts 9:26–30 has Paul coming from Damascus to Jerusalem, where Barnabas introduced him to the apostles, after which he went to Caesarea, then Tarsus. But Paul later wrote to the Galatians (Galatians 1:17–21) that he went first to Arabia, then returned to Damascus and went to see Peter and James three years later before going on to Syria and Cilicia (where Tarsus was located). The much abridged account in Acts 26:20 has him coming from Damascus to Jerusalem and throughout Judaea, with no mention of seeing the apostles. In Acts 22:17–21, we read that Paul came to Jerusalem, where he was praying in the temple when the Lord warned him to flee. Elsewhere, in 2 Corinthians 11:32–33, Paul adds a detail missing from all the other stories, telling how he escaped from Damascus by being let down in a basket through a window.

The point I wish to make is that if we are to allow the Bible to give different versions of Paul’s first vision and his reaction thereto (including different versions of the conversations that took place), it seems unreasonable for anyone to criticize Joseph Smith for similar variants in the different accounts of his first vision.

  1. E.g., Genesis 22:15–16; Exodus 3:2–7. []
  2. John Taylor. 1880. “Discourse by President John Taylor. Delivered in the Salt Lake Assembly Hall, at the Quarterly Conference, Sunday Afternoon, January 4, 1880,” Journal of Discourses 21:61–71. []
  3. For a book-length treatment, see Milton V. Backman Jr., Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts (2nd ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980). The following articles also deal with the subject: Richard L. Anderson, “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969): 373–404; Milton V. Backman Jr., “Awakenings in the Burnt-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision,” BYU Studies 9/3 (Spring 1969): 301–20; Richard L. Bushman, “The First Vision Story Revived,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4/1 (Spring 1969): 82–93. See also Steven C. Harper, “Evaluating Three Arguments against Joseph Smith’s First Vision” at http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/evaluating-three-arguments-against-joseph-smiths-first-vision/. []
  4. One can also truthfully say that there are greater differences in the various accounts of Christ’s resurrection found in the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) than in Joseph Smith’s accounts of his first vision, but it is not our purpose to delve into that subject in this paper. []
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About John A. Tvedtnes

John A. Tvedtnes earned degrees in anthropology, Middle East area studies, linguistics, and Hebrew, and studied Egyptian and Semitic languages at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He taught at the University of Utah, the BYU Salt Lake and Jerusalem centers before joining the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, which became BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. John has lectured at several other universities and has presented dozens of symposium papers in Israel and the USA. Though most of his ten books and 300+ articles address LDS subjects, his writings have been published by four universities and several professional societies. John retired in 2007 as senior resident scholar for BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship.

3 thoughts on “Variants in the Stories of the First Vision of Joseph Smith and the Apostle Paul

  1. John T’s comments are very much on point and well-argued, even though he didn’t point out the obvious discrepancy between Acts 9:7 (men heard the voice) and 22:9 (men heard not the voice). These are the very kinds of variants one finds in the recording by others (in this case Luke) of the same event.
    However, there are also parallels with Old Testament events included, e.g.,
    (a) Acts 9:4, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” sounds very much like David’s question to King Saul at I Samuel 26:18 “Wherefore doth my lord thus pursue after his servant?”
    (b) Acts 9:25 and II Corinthians 11:33 both have Saul being let down in a basket from a window in the wall in order to escape Damascus, just as Joshua 2:15 has two Israelite spies being let down from a window in the wall of Jericho.
    Given the careless way in which some people account for the variants in Joseph’s accounts of his First Vision, one might well expect them to equally carelessly deal with biblical variants (and parallels).

  2. Having read books on and studied all the variants of the first vision, I personally don’t have a problem with any of the differences between them. They show simply that they were written at different times for different reasons which emphasize different points. As an example, I served in Viet Nam during 1971-1972. What I first felt and what I wrote and talked about regarding those experiences is much changed between 1972 and 2012. I have given talks about those experiences to priesthood classes, young women classes, and other groups such as military class graduations. Were the talks identical? No, I made sure to emphasize the points I thought pertinent for each group That didn’t mean the experiences were different, it simply meant my each presentation was different based on whatever the point was that I was trying to get across to that particular audience. That is the perspective that I have about the variants of the first vision. I believe that Joseph Smith (and later scribes) were simply trying to communicate different points to different audiences. That doesn’t mean the events didn’t happen.

  3. [In one account, Joseph says that he saw “the Lord,” while in another he notes that he saw “two personages.”] Of course, this supposed inconsistency is rather silly to pick at, and I’m sure it has been debunked many times over, but it seems to me that when Joseph first encountered the Heavenly messengers, he didn’t know who they were until they identified themselves, and it may yet have taken a while for the reality of it to sink in that he had been visited by God the Father and Jesus Christ when he saw those two separate beings. Joseph would, of course, relate having spoken to the Lord on that occasion, whether in recorded histories or unrecorded discussions, but when setting out to record a definitive history years later (to clear up distortions, etc.), he is recording events in a manner AS HE WAS EXPERIENCING THEM. In other words, describing the unfolding scene as he recalled it happening at the time: “I saw two personages…” who later identified themselves (one called the other “my beloved son”).

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