This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 7 August 2015 to 25 August 2015.


General Audiences



Papal Tweets

  • “Mary is full of grace. She is a sure refuge for us in times of temptation.” @Pontifex 13 August 2015
  • “Mary’s life shows that God accomplishes great deeds through those who are the most humble.” @Pontifex 15 August 2015
  • “When we experience the merciful love of the Father, we are more able to share this joy with our neighbour.” @Pontifex 18 August 2015
  • “Reading the Gospel each day helps us to overcome our selfishness and to follow Jesus our Teacher with dedication.” @Pontifex 21 August 2015
  • “A Christian who is too attached to riches has lost his way.” @Pontifex 25 August 2015

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 3 July 2015 to 11 August 2015.


General Audiences



Papal Tweets

  • “The most powerful witness to marriage is the exemplary lives of Christian spouses.” @Pontifex 30 July 2015
  • “Hospitality in families is a crucial virtue today, especially in situations of great poverty.” @Pontifex 1 August 2015
  • “Let us allow the love of God to take deep root within us. In so doing, we will be able to give ourselves to others.” @Pontifex 4 August 2015
  • “We learn many virtues in our Christian families. Above all, we learn to love, asking nothing in return.” @Pontifex 6 August 2015
  • “We are all sinners. Let us be transformed by God’s mercy.” @Pontifex 8 August 2015
  • “The encounter with Christ can completely change our life.” @Pontifex 11 August 2015

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elijah-broom-treeSunday’s readings contain an interesting illustration of the way that the Bible can use numbers.

In the Old Testament reading, Elijah is on the run from the evil queen Jezebel and he goes out into the wilderness and asks God to let him die.

Instead, God sends and angel who makes Elijah eat and drink two times in order to strengthen him for a journey.

Then we read:

He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.

One of the first things that you learn about the geography of the Holy Land is that it’s tiny by American standards. From north to south, the modern state of Israel is only 290 miles long, and its width varies between 9 miles and 85 miles.

With distances like that, a journey of 40 days and 40 nights is remarkable.


Some Basic Math

The fact that the text says Elijah travelled day and night would presumably indicate at least 10-12 hours a day, leaving time for breaks and sleep.

A normal person can walk around 3 miles per hour, so that would be 30-36 miles a day.

After 40 days of that travel, one would have gone 1,200 to 1,440 miles, which would be enough to take one far outside the Holy Land.

Since the number 40 is used in the Bible to indicate significant periods of time, this raises the question of whether the number is being used here simply to indicate a long journey rather than being meant literally.

Fortunately, we can shed some light on the question


dan_beersheba_overviewWhere was Elijah starting from?

Although the verse we need isn’t included in Sunday’s readings, we know where Elijah was starting from. According to 1 Kings 19:3-4:

Elijah was afraid and fled for his life, going to Beer-sheba of Judah. He left his servant there and went a day’s journey into the wilderness, until he came to a solitary broom tree and sat beneath it.

So Elijah fled from Jezebel (queen of the northern kingdom of Israel) down to Be’er-sheva, which was on the southern border of Judah.

Indeed, the phrase “from Dan to Be’er-Sheva” was proverbial in biblical times as a way of referring to the entire Holy Land, from north to south.

So Elijah has fled to a city in the far south and then gone a day’s journey farther into the Negev desert. That’s where he had his angelic encounter at the broom tree.


Where was Elijah going?

The text tells us that he went to “the mountain of God, Horeb.”

In the Old Testament, Horeb appears to be another name for Mt. Sinai, “the mountain of God” where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Unfortunately, the location of Mt. Sinai/Horeb isn’t entirely clear.

A prominent tradition identifies it with Jabal Mousa, a tall mountain in the south of the Sinai Peninsula, by St. Catherine’s Monastery.

This is not the only proposed location, however. There are other locations—also in the Sinai Peninsula, as well as outside of it.

The plausible ones are either closer to Be’er-Sheva, though, or not much farther away, so we can use the location of the modern Mt. Sinai to get a reasonable approximation of Elijah’s maximum travel distance.

(Note: You could suppose that the author of 1-2 Kings meant a different and otherwise unknown Mount Horeb—one located 1,200-1,440 miles away—but this is not suggested by the text, which appears to refer to the same mount of God on which Moses received the Ten Commandments.)


beershevatomtsinaiHow far did he go?

According to Google, the distance from Be’er-Sheva to Mt. Sinai is 417 km or 260 miles.

Of course, that’s along the modern road system, but we’re dealing with an approximation, so 260 miles will do.


How long did it take him?

Since Elijah had already gone one day into the Negev when he had the angelic encounter at the broom tree, and since he travelled another 40 days and 40 nights, that would be 41 days total.


What was his travel speed?

Using the numbers above, Elijah’s travel speed would have been 6.3 miles per day (260 / 41 = 6.3).

If that represents 12 hours of walking a day, that would be half a mile per hour.

That’s painfully slow.

A normal walking speed is around 3 miles per hour, so Elijah would have needed to walk only around 2 hours a day in order to cover the distance in 40 days.

This would hardly be day and night travel, and that suggests that the description of it as taking “40 days and 40 nights” is a stock description meant to indicate a long journey and not meant to be taken literally.

It’s rather like when we say, “Thanks a million”—using a stock number to indicate great thanks.

(Note: You could suppose that Elijah encountered extraordinarily difficult travel conditions that slowed his progress to a crawl—like slogging through sheeting rain or mud the whole time—but this is not suggested by the text. The author of 1-2 Kings would be expected to indicate such extraordinary conditions, and he doesn’t. He just says Elijah travelled, without indicating that it was an unbelievably difficult trip.)


Confirmation from Deuteronomy?

If Elijah was able to travel at a normal walking speed for 10-12 hours per day then he would make 30-36 miles per day.

He would thus be able to do 260 miles in between 7 and 9 days.

A less determined person only putting in 8 hours of walking a day, rather than travelling day and night, could make 24 miles in a day and cover the 260 miles in around 11 days.

That’s very significant, because in Deuteronomy 1:2 we read:

It is eleven days’ journey from Horeb by the way of Mount Seir to Kadesh-barnea.

The precise location of Kadesh-barnea is also debated, but it is clear that it was on the southern border of Israel, placing it near Be’er-Sheva.

Deuteronomy thus gives us a remarkable confirmation of the approximate time it would take to travel from Be’er-Sheva to Mt. Horeb: It’s something like 11 days under normal travel conditions, not 40 days and 40 nights.


Ancient Expectations

This is also significant because the ancient audience would have known that.

Not only would many in the audience (particularly those from Judea) have known the approximate distances and travel times, many would have known Deuteronomy’s statement!

The same applies to the author of 1-2 Kings (they were originally one book), who was clearly literate and who records the finding of “the book of the Law” in the temple in 2 Kings 22:8-10. The author even refers to the mountain as “Horeb” rather than “Sinai”—which is the way that Deuteronomy overwhelmingly refers to it.

Both the author and the audience were thus in a position to recognize the description of Elijah’s journey as taking 40 days and 40 nights as a stock number representing a long journey rather than a literal description.

This illustrates how ancient expectations differ from modern ones regarding the use of number: The ancients were willing to use numbers in a literary or symbolic way in different circumstances than we do.


Modern Expectations

If we fail to recognize this then, compared to the ancients, we can come off as overly pedantic, like Mr. Spock or Mr. Data—insisting on numerical precision while utterly missing the point.

The point of the text is: God strengthened Elijah for a long journey, not how long the journey literally took.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that numbers are always literary or symbolic in ancient texts—the 11 days mentioned in Deuteronomy isn’t.

But it does mean that they can be, and we need to be sensitive to the context to tell us what the ancient author intended.

This applies, particularly, to skeptics wanting to accuse the Bible of being inaccurate.

Sometimes the Bible just uses numbers differently than we do today, and if we fail to recognize this, the fault is ours, not the Bible’s.

Got that?

Thanks a million.

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francis-readingPope Francis recently gave a general audience in which he discussed the situation of those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment.

His remarks are particularly significant in light of the upcoming Synod on the Family and the proposals to give Holy Communion to those in this situation.

They also attracted attention because he stressed that people in this situation are not excommunicated.

Here are 10 things to know and share . . .


1) Where did the pope make his remarks and where can I read them?

He made them at his Wednesday general audience on August 5, 2015. They are part of a series of catecheses he has been doing on the family.

You will eventually be able to read them at the Vatican web site here.

However, at the time of this writing there is only a brief summary of his remarks as a placeholder until the Vatican’s English translation can be prepared (usually a delay of a week or more).

Until then, here is the Italian original, and you can read Zenit’s English translation here.


2) What did the pope say about divorced and remarried couples not being excommunicated?

He said:

[I]n fact, these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated! And they are absolutely not treated as such: they are always part of the Church.


3) Is he correct?

Yes. The idea of excommunication is commonly misunderstood as not being able to take communion. While the Church does not permit people who have divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive communion (unless they are living as brother and sister), this is not the same thing as excommunication.

Excommunication is a canonical penalty that has various legal effects which are described here.

Excommunication does not cancel one’s membership in the Church, and divorcing and remarrying without an annulment does not incur excommunication.

Therefore, people in this situation are not excommunicated, and even if they were, they would remain part of the Church.

Consequently, they are to be treated as such.

The pope is absolutely correct.


4) How did Pope Francis introduce his remarks on the subject of the divorced and remarried?

He said:

[T]oday I would like to focus our attention on another reality: how to take care of those that, following the irreversible failure of their marital bond, have undertaken a new union.

The Church knows well that such a situation contradicts the Christian Sacrament. However, her look of teacher draws always from her heart of mother; a heart that, animated by the Holy Spirit, always seeks the good and salvation of persons. See why she feels the duty, “for the sake of truth,” to “exercise careful discernment.” Saint John Paul II expressed himself thus in the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio (n. 84), pointing out, for instance, the difference between one who has suffered the separation and one who has caused it. This discernment must be made.


5) Did John Paul II refer to these things in Familiaris Consortio?

Yes. He said:

Pastors must know that, for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally, there are those who have entered into a second union for the sake of the children’s upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid.

He went on, in the same section, to say:

However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.

Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”


6) Did Pope Francis cite any particular reasons, apart from the good of the spouses, why these situations need to be looked at carefully?

Yes. He called attention, in particular, to how children are affected (something also mentioned by John Paul II). Pope Francis said:

If, then, we look at these new bonds with the eyes of little ones – and the little ones are looking – with the eyes of children, we see even more the urgency to develop in our communities a real acceptance of persons that live such situations.  Therefore, it is important that the style of the community, its language, its attitudes are always attentive to persons, beginning with the little ones. They are the ones who suffer the most, in these situations. Otherwise, how will we be able to recommend to these parents to do their utmost to educate the children in the Christian life, giving them the example of a convinced and practiced faith, if we hold them at a distance from the life of the community, as if they were excommunicated? We must proceed in such a way as not to add other weights beyond those that the children, in these situations, already have to bear! Unfortunately, the number of these children and youngsters is truly great. It is important that they feel the Church as a mother attentive to all, always willing to listen and to come together.


7) What did Pope Francis say the Church’s response has been?

He said:

In these decades, in truth, the Church has not been either insensitive or slow. Thanks to the reflection carried out by Pastors, guided and confirmed by my Predecessors, the awareness has greatly grown that a fraternal and attentive acceptance is necessary, in love and in truth, of the baptized that have established a new coexistence after the failure of their sacramental marriage; in fact, these people are not at all excommunicated, they are not excommunicated! And they are absolutely not treated as such: they are always part of the Church.

Pope Benedict XVI intervened on this question, soliciting careful discernment and wise pastoral support, knowing that “simple recipes” do not exist (Address to the 7th World Meeting of Families, Milan, June 2, 2012, answer n. 5).


8) What did Benedict XVI say in the passage that Pope Francis quotes?

He said:

Indeed the problem of divorced and remarried persons is one of the great sufferings of today’s Church. And we do not have simple solutions. Their suffering is great and yet we can only help parishes and individuals to assist these people to bear the pain of divorce.

He went on to say:

As regards these people – as you have said – the Church loves them, but it is important they should see and feel this love. I see here a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not “excluded” even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist; they should see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the Church. Perhaps, even if it is not possible to receive absolution in Confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide. This is very important, so that they see that they are accompanied and guided. Then it is also very important that they truly realize they are participating in the Eucharist if they enter into a real communion with the Body of Christ. Even without “corporal” reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his Body.


9) What did Pope Francis say about how people in these situations should be received?

Building on the remarks of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, he said:

Hence the repeated invitations of Pastors to manifest openly and consistently the community’s willingness to receive and encourage them, so that they live and develop increasingly their belonging to Christ and to the Church with prayer, with listening to the Word of God, with frequenting of the liturgy, with the Christian education of the children, with charity and service to the poor, with commitment to justice and peace.

The biblical icon of the Good Shepherd (John 10:11-18) summarizes the mission that Jesus received from the Father: to give his life for the sheep. This attitude is also a model for the Church, which receives her children as a mother that gives her life for them.

He then quotes his own apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:

“The Church is called to be the House of the Father, with doors always wide open [...]”

No closed doors! No closed doors!

“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community. The Church [...] is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, n. 47).


10) What significance do these remarks have for the upcoming Synod on the Family and the proposals to give Holy Communion to people in these situations if they are not living as brother and sister?

They do not appear to have a decisive significance, one way or the other.

On the one hand, Pope Francis does not mention such proposals. In fact, he is frank in saying that “such a situation contradicts the Christian Sacrament.” He also stresses continuity with his predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and he quotes from passages where both of these predecessors explicitly reject giving Holy Communion to people in these situations if they are not living as brother and sister.

On the other hand, he does not quote from those parts of the passages, and he also is clear that he wants to find ways to help such people have more involvement with the Church—particularly in light of the effect that their situation has on their children.

There is thus not a decisive indication of what he is likely to do, either way, though on balance the text of this audience seems to favor continuity with the Church’s historic practice more than it indicates any forthcoming change on this point.

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This Thursday commemorates the mysterious event known as the Transfiguration.

This event is hard to understand. Why did it happen? What did it mean?

Here are 10 things you need to know.


1. What does the word “transfiguration” mean?

The word “transfiguration” comes from the Latin roots trans- (“across”) and figura (“form, shape”). It thus signifies a change of form or appearance.

This is what happened to Jesus in the event known as the Transfiguration: His appearance changed and became glorious.

Before looking at the Transfiguration itself, it’s important that we look at what happened immediately before it in Luke’s Gospel.


2. What happened right before the Transfiguration?

In Luke 9:27, at the end of a speech to the twelve apostles, Jesus adds, enigmatically:

“There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

This has often been taken as a prophecy that the end of the world would occur before the first generation of Christians died out.

The phrase “kingdom of God” can also refer to other things, though, including the Church–the outward expression of God’s invisible kingdom.

The kingdom is embodied in Christ himself and thus might be “seen” if Christ were to manifest it in an unusual way, even in his own earthly life.


3. Did such a manifestation occur?

Yes, and it is the very next thing that Luke relates: the Transfiguration.

Pope Benedict states that it has been . . .

. . . convincingly argued that the placing of this saying immediately before the Transfiguration clearly relates it to this event.

Some—that is to say, the three disciples who accompany Jesus up the mountain—are promised that they will personally witness the coming of the Kingdom of God ‘in power.’

On the mountain the three of them see the glory of God’s Kingdom shining out of Jesus. On the mountain they are overshadowed by God’s holy cloud. On the mountain—in the conversation of the transfigured Jesus with the Law and the Prophets—they realize that the true Feast of Tabernacles has come. On the mountain they learn that Jesus himself is the living Torah, the complete Word of God. On the mountain they see the ‘power’ (dynamis) of the Kingdom that is coming in Christ” (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1, p. 317).

We thus may have the key to understanding Jesus’ mysterious statement just before the Transfiguration. He wasn’t talking about the end of the world. He was talking about this.

In fact, Luke notes that the Transfiguration took place “about eight days after these sayings,” thus stressing its proximity to them and suggesting that it was the fulfillment of this  saying, concerning the fact that some of them would see the kingdom of God. Mark gives a different number of days, saying it was “after six days” (Mk. 9:2), but these both approximate a week.


4. Who witnessed the Transfiguration?

The three who are privileged to witness the event are Peter, James, and John, the three core disciples. (Andrew was not there or not included.)

The fact that Jesus only allowed three of his disciples to witness the event may have sparked the discussion which swiftly ensued about which of the disciples was the greatest (Luke 9:46).

Click here to watch a video about how Jesus answered this question.


5. Where did the Transfiguration take place?

Luke states that Jesus took the three “on the mountain to pray.”

This mountain is often thought to be Mt. Tabor in Israel, but none of the gospels identify it precisely.

Click here to learn more about Mt. Tabor (though be aware that the gospels do not actually say which mountain it was).


6. Why did the Transfiguration take place?

The Catechism explains it this way:

Christ’s Transfiguration aims at strengthening the apostles’ faith in anticipation of his Passion: the ascent onto the ‘high mountain’ prepares for the ascent to Calvary.

Christ, Head of the Church, manifests what his Body contains and radiates in the sacraments: ‘the hope of glory’ [CCC 568].


7. What does Luke–in particular–tell us about this event?

Luke mentions several details about the event that the other evangelists do not:

  • He notes that this happened while Jesus was praying.
  • He mentions that Peter and his companions “were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”
  • He mentions that Peter made his suggestion to put up booths as Moses and Elijah were departing.


8. Why do Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain?

Moses and Elijah represent the two principal components of the Old Testament: the Law and the Prophets.

Moses was the giver of the Law, and Elijah was considered the greatest of the prophets.

The fact that these two figures “spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” illustrates that the Law and the Prophets point forward to the Messiah and his sufferings.

This foreshadows Jesus’ own explanation, on the road to Emmaus, of the Scriptures pointing to himself (cf. Lk. 24:27, 32).


9. Why was Peter’s suggestion misguided?

The fact that Peter’s suggestion occurs when Moses and Elijah are preparing to depart reveals a desire to prolong the experience of glory. This means Peter is focusing on the wrong thing.

The experience of the Transfiguration is meant to point forward to the sufferings Jesus is about to experience. It is meant to strengthen the disciples faith, revealing to them in a powerful way the divine hand that is at work in the events Jesus will undergo. This is why Moses and Elijah have been speaking “about his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

Peter misses the point and wants to stay on the mountain, contrary to the message the two heavenly visitors have been expounding.

As a seeming rebuke of this, a theophany occurs: “A cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’”


10. What can we learn from this event?

The Transfiguration was a special event in which God allowed certain apostles to have a privileged spiritual experience that was meant to strengthen their faith for the challenges they would later endure. But it was only a temporary event. It was not meant to be permanent.

In the same way, at certain times in this life, God may give certain members of the faithful (not all of the faithful, all the time), special experiences of his grace that strengthen their faith.

We should welcome these experiences for the graces they are, but we should not expect them to continue indefinitely, nor should we be afraid or resentful when they cease.

They may have been meant only as momentary glimpses of the joy of heaven to sustain us as we face the challenges of this life, to help strengthen us on the road that will–ultimately–bring us into the infinite and endless joy of heaven.

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pope-francisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 11 June 2015 to 28 July 2015.


Daily Homilies (fervorinos)



Papal Tweets

  • “Now is the time for a change in mindset and to stop pretending that our actions do not affect those who suffer from hunger.” @Pontifex 15 July 2015
  • “When everything falls apart, only one thing sustains our hope: God loves us, he loves everyone!” @Pontifex 17 July 2015
  • “The Church is called to be ever more attentive and caring toward the weak.” @Pontifex 21 July 2015
  • “The one who helps the sick and needy touches the flesh of Christ, alive and present in our midst.” @Pontifex 23 July 2015
  • “Christian witness is concrete: words without actions are empty.” @Pontifex 25 July 2015
  • “Dear young friends, do not be afraid of marriage: Christ accompanies with his grace all spouses who remain united to him.” @Pontifex 28 July 2015

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This version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 7 July 2015 to 12 July 2015.




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pauls-conversionThe book of Acts records St. Paul’s conversion in the following terms:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him.

And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.

Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus [Acts 9:3-8].

There are several interesting things here.


No Horse!

One is that there is no mention of St. Paul riding on a horse. You frequently hear people recounting how Paul was knocked off his horse at the time of his conversion, but this is an image that comes from art—not the Bible.

He isn’t likely to have been riding a horse, for at the time horses were more commonly used in warfare—such as for drawing chariots. They were not commonly ridden.

The passage doesn’t mention Paul riding any animal. He was likely travelling on foot, as suggested when the text simply says that he fell to the ground when the heavenly light flashed around him.

It’s also suggested by Jesus telling him to “rise and enter the city” (no mention of getting back on an animal) and by him being “led by the hand” into Damascus by his companions.

If he’d been riding on a beast (e.g., an ass), they presumably would have put him back on the animal and then led the beast—not taken Paul by the hand to guide him.


A Bible Difficulty?

Many people have commented on a Bible difficulty that arises from this passage when it says:

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one [Acts 9:7].

This is worthy of comment because, later in the book when Paul is recounting his conversion, he says:

Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me [Acts 22:9].


What did they see? What did they hear?

The difficulty that needs to be solved concerns what the men with Paul saw and heard.

The first is not difficult, for the two passages don’t contain any apparent discrepancy.

The first says that they didn’t see anyone and the second says that they did see light. There is no contradiction because one can easily see light without seeing a person.

What the men heard presents more of a difficulty, because the first passage says they were “hearing the voice” while the second says that they “did not hear the voice.”

That looks like a contradiction.

Is it?


Greek to You and Me

Whenever we encounter something that looks like a contradiction, it’s wise to check the original language, which in this case is Greek.

Examining the two passages, we find that both of them use the same two terms: akouō (hear) and phōnē (voice).

This means that we can’t solve the dilemma by appealing to the fact that the passages are using different terms, because they aren’t. They both use the same verb for hearing and the same noun for what is being heard.

That doesn’t mean we can’t resolve the discrepancy, though, because these terms have more than one meaning in Greek.

  • Akouō can mean hear, listen, understand, obey, know, and other things.
  • Phōnē can mean sound, tone, voice, cry, solemn declaration, etc.

Since we have a single author (Luke) writing both passages in a single book (Acts), a logical inference is that Luke probably meant the terms to be taken in different senses.

Are there two different senses in which the terms can be taken that would make sense of the passages?

You bet.


The Likely Solution

The most likely solution is that in the first passage, akouō is to be taken to mean “hear” and phōnē is to be taken to mean “sound,” while in the second passage, akouō is to be taken to mean “understand” and phōnē is to be taken to mean “voice.”

On this reading, Acts 9:7 says that the men were hearing a sound but didn’t see anyone while Acts 22:9 says that they saw light but did not understand the voice.

This would parallel John 12:28-29, where the Father speaks to Jesus from heaven and some in the crowd perceive it as thunder: They heard a noise, but they didn’t perceive it as an intelligible voice—the clearer perception being reserved for those God wanted to have it.

This appears to be the most probable solution. Thus some translations render the two passages like this:

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone (Acts 9:7, NIV).

My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me (Acts 22:9, NIV).

These translations are perfectly acceptable, as “hear” and “understand” are common meanings for akouō, while “sound” and “voice” are common meanings for phōnē.


Be Cautious Beyond This Point

While we have identified the probable solution, we should be careful not to press it too far.

Some have proposed that there is a feature in the Greek that makes the solution even more certain. According to some older grammars and commentaries, the verb akouō’s meaning changes in a way that is relevant here depending on the grammatical form of the noun that follows it.

In Greek, nouns take different forms, known as “cases,” depending on the role they play in a sentence (the same is true of nouns in Latin, German, Russian, and many other languages).

Two of these cases that Greek uses are known as the genitive and the accusative.

According to some, when akouō is followed by a noun in the genitive case, it stresses the hearing of the sound but not the understanding of it.

By contrast, these individuals hold, if akouō is followed by a noun in the accusative case, it highlights the understanding of the sound.

It so happens that in Acts 9:7 the noun phōnē is in the genitive case, and in 22:9 it is in the accusative.

This is then taken as evidence confirming the solution proposed above: In the first passage the companions are said to hear the sound while in the second they are said not to understand it.

The problem is that these claims are not at all clear from the way the verb is used in New Testament Greek.

Daniel Wallace, one of the foremost contemporary scholars of New Testament Greek, writes:

[I]t is doubtful that this is where the difference lay between the two cases used with akouō in Hellenistic Greek: the NT (including the more literary writers) is filled with examples of akouō + genitive indicating understanding (Matt 2:9; John 5:25; 18:37; Acts 3:23; 11:7; Rev 3:20; 6:3, 5; 8:13; 11:12; 14:13; 16:1, 5, 7; 21:3) as well as instances of akouō + accusative where little or no comprehension takes place (explicitly so in Matt 13:19; Mark 13:7/Matt 24:6/Luke 21:9; Acts 5:24; 1 Cor 11:18; Eph 3:2; Col 1:4; Phlm 5; Jas 5:11; Rev 14:2). The exceptions, in fact, are seemingly more numerous than the rule!

Thus, regardless of how one works through the accounts of Paul’s conversion, an appeal to different cases probably ought not form any part of the solution [Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 133-134].

We should thus be cautious of case-based arguments concerning the solution to this difficulty.

This does not mean, however, that we haven’t identified the correct solution. The most likely solution remains that the terms are simply being used in different senses in the two passages.

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