Saul’s road-to-Damascus experience: twelve films

ad-saul-jesus

The first written reference to the resurrection appearances of Jesus appears not in the gospels but in the epistles of Paul. Specifically, it appears in I Corinthians 15, where Paul passes on a list of the people who have witnessed the risen Jesus — and then, at the end, he writes that Jesus appeared to him, too, “as to one abnormally born.”

That last detail is significant, as there is no record of Jesus appearing to Paul in a manner that matches his resurrection appearances to the other apostles.

The gospels emphasize the physicality of the resurrected Jesus, even as they show that his body is now more than merely physical: he can appear behind closed doors and disappear at will, but he also eats the apostles’ food (Luke 24), lets the women clasp his feet (Matthew 28) and invites Thomas to touch his wounds (John 20).

What Paul saw, as far as we know, was very different. In Acts 9, 22 and 26, we are told that Paul witnessed a bright light and heard a disembodied voice on the road to Damascus. And in Acts 22, Paul adds the detail that, when he returned to Jerusalem a few years later, he “fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking” to him.

Thus, many scholars have supposed that when Paul said Jesus appeared to him “as to one abnormally born”, it was his way of acknowledging that his experiences of the resurrected Jesus — all of which took place after the Ascension — were different in some way from the resurrection appearances to the other apostles.

How to make sense of all this is beyond the scope of this blog post. But the ambiguity around these passages comes to mind now because a teaser at the end of last night’s episode of A.D. The Bible Continues revealed that next week’s episode will show Jesus appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus in some sort of bodily form:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h16m51s34

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h17m09s154

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h17m18s44

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h17m39s249

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h17m53s124

Not surprisingly, The Bible — the miniseries produced by the makers of A.D. two years ago — also showed Jesus appearing in full bodily form on the road to Damascus:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h23m38s10

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h23m44s70

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h24m08s44

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h25m03s75

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h25m12s185

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h25m40s203

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h25m51s67

There are a few notable differences between these two adaptations, most obviously the fact that Paul is riding a horse in The Bible but appears to be walking in A.D.

A.D. also makes a much clearer visual distinction between Jesus’ appearance to Paul and his earlier appearances to the apostles, insofar as Jesus radiates light in this scene in a way that he never did during his earlier appearances (though his tomb did glow from within at his resurrection, just before the angel rolled the stone away).

But The Bible and A.D. both differ from most other film adaptations of this scene that I can think of, simply because they show Jesus standing by the side of the road. Most other films have adhered to the description of a bright light found in Acts.

Here is a quick rundown of all the film adaptations I am familiar with:

In Life of St. Paul (1938), Paul and his companions are walking when a light shines on him and he falls to the ground, and we hear the voice that speaks to him:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h58m51s151

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h59m14s133

In the Living Bible (1957) series, Paul and his companions are walking along when a light descends on them; we hear what Paul hears, but we never see what he sees:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h32m19s211

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h32m32s130

In Roberto Rossellini’s Acts of the Apostles (1969), Paul is walking along when a bright light knocks him to the ground, and his brief conversation with the voice, which we hear too, takes place entirely within a close-up of Paul’s face on the ground:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h55m24s227

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h55m30s96

In Peter and Paul (1981), a strong wind causes Paul’s horse to throw him off, and Paul looks at a bright light and talks to it, though we do not hear what Paul hears:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h50m32s245

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h51m59s131

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-11h52m06s204

In A.D. Anno Domini (1985), a lightning bolt causes both Paul and his traveling companion to fall off their horses, but only Paul sees the bright light and is blinded; Paul describes the voice he heard afterwards, but we do not hear it ourselves:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h24m16s243

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h24m41s185

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h25m19s140

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h25m57s16

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h26m12s154

In The Visual Bible’s Acts (1994), a bright light causes Paul to be thrown off his horse, and Jesus appears to him but is obscured by the light radiating from himself:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h16m42s30

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h16m59s199

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-12h15m06s131

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-13h17m44s94

In The Emissary (1997), Paul is thrown off his horse when he sees a lightning storm in the distance, and the light in the sky is overlaid with a distorted image of Jesus’ face:

emissary1

emissary2

emissary3

emissary4

In Paul the Apostle (2000), we see overlapping images of Paul on his horse, a bright light obscured by clouds, Paul falling off his horse and discovering he is “blind”, and a series of point-of-view shots of people and horses as camera negative images:

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-19h12m32s203

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-19h12m57s196

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-19h13m46s233

vlcsnap-2015-05-18-19h14m00s82

In Saint Peter (2005), Paul hears a voice call his name (and that’s all we hear), and he falls off his horse and thrashes around for a bit:

saintpeter-paul1

saintpeter-paul2

In Damascus (2008), a bright light causes Paul to be thrown off his horse, and he sees the light and hears a voice, which we can see and hear too:

damascus1

damascus2

damascus3

damascus4

damascus5

And then we have The Bible and A.D. The Bible Continues, both of which show Jesus standing by the side of the road. The only other film I know of that shows Jesus standing on the ground is The Visual Bible’s Acts, which at least obscures him behind some light. The Emissary also hints at Jesus’ face, but similarly obscures the face behind the visual effects and, uniquely, puts the face of Jesus in the sky.

(It may be worth noting that Acts and The Emissary were both produced as sequels to Jesus movies — the Visual Bible’s Matthew (1993) and The Revolutionary (1995), respectively — and thus had actors ready to play the part, just as The Bible and A.D. The Bible Continues both heavily promoted the casting of their own Jesuses.)

Charles T. Dougherty once observed that Catholics tend to picture Paul riding on a horse while Protestants tend to picture him walking to Damascus, but that distinction isn’t entirely borne out by these films. Most of these films, including the more Protestant ones, tend to show Paul on horseback, perhaps because it’s more dramatic to show him falling off a horse than to simply show him stumbling as he walks.

Of the three older films that do show Paul going to Damascus on foot, two — Life of St. Paul and the Living Bible — were indeed produced by Protestants, but the third, Rossellini’s Acts of the Apostles, was produced within a Catholic context.

Also worth noting: Virtually all of these films show Paul traveling in the company of at least one other person when he has his road-to-Damascus experience, but Paul is alone in the brief glimpse we get from next week’s episode of A.D. It is possible that the Paul of that series does have traveling companions, though, and that they are somewhere offscreen in these particular shots. As ever, we shall see.

One final note: All of the films listed above were produced for television, went straight to video, or were produced as part of a series of faith-based short films. To my knowledge, Paul’s road-to-Damascus experience has never been depicted in a mainstream theatrical feature film. So it will be interesting to see how that Hugh Jackman movie handles this material, if it does get made in the end.

"Interestingly, the director of this film, Andrew Hyatt, previously directed a movie called Full of ..."

Watch: Paul, Apostle of Christ is ..."
"Joey, ya like movies about gladiators?Personally, I'd like to see a biblical movie that casts ..."

Watch: Paul, Apostle of Christ is ..."
"And not to mention that a lot of these movies are NOT originally 1.33 display ..."

Disney cartoons, aspect ratios, bad transfers.
"I'm still hoping that it's released in the US this year. Hoping the same for ..."

Watch: The makers of Mary Magdalene ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment