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

Saul’s road-to-Damascus experience: twelve films May 18, 2015


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:






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:








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:



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:



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:



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:




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:






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:





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:





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:





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:



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:






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.

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