By Hector Molina
Did Saul actually fall off his horse on the road to Damascus?
He more than likely did not. It is commonly assumed that Rabbi Saul was thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus. This assumption has been reinforced by several artistic depictions, including Caravaggio’s “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” and "Conversion of St. Paul" (1601). However, nowhere does the New Testament make mention of Saul being thrown from his horse. In fact, it doesn’t even make mention of Saul traveling by horse!
Each of the three accounts of Saul’s miraculous conversion (Acts 9:3-4, 22:6-7, 26:12-14) asserts that Saul, upon seeing the light from heaven, fell to the ground. Most people assume that because Saul was en route to Damascus, he must have been traveling by horse at the very moment when the heavenly light appeared. This blinding light caused him and those accompanying him to fall from their horses to the ground. This is highly improbable. The reason being that St. Luke, the author of Acts, in two of his three accounts of the conversion of Saul, furnishes us with a clue that sheds light on what Saul was more than likely doing when he fell to the ground. See if you can pick it out.
“As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 22:6-7)
“Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (Acts 26:12-14)
Each of these passages establishes the exact time of day when the heavenly light appeared that caused him to fall to the ground. It was midday. An important detail to be sure. Some commentators point out that this was to show that there was no delusion from nightly appearances. In other words, because it was broad daylight, his eyes could not have played tricks on him. Others posit the theory that Saul was more than likely not riding his horse at noon because that was an established time of prayer. We know that Pharisees prayed three times throughout the course of the day in imitation of King David, who wrote:
“But I call upon God, and the LORD will save me. Evening and morning and at noon.” (Psalm 55:16-17)
[Note: These three times were, nine in the morning, which was their third hour of the day, (see Acts 2:15); the sixth hour was at twelve o’clock (see Acts 10:9); the ninth hour was our three in the afternoon, which was the time of the evening sacrifice (see Acts 10:30)]
Every day at noon, pious Jewish men recited prayers while standing on their feet and facing toward Jerusalem as was their custom (see Dan. 6:10-11). As author Dr. Taylor Marshall suggests in his book: "The Catholic Perspective on Paul", it is quite possible that Saul, the zealous Pharisee that he was, observed midday prayer on that day as he traveled along the road to Damascus. This would have meant that he was likely standing erect and facing south to Jerusalem when he was blinded by the light of Christ and fell to the ground.
Quite an appropriate time to have an encounter with God, wouldn't you say?
Saint Paul, pray for us!
(Note: This blogpost originally appeared on the Catholic Answers Blog on September 19, 2014)