Bart Ehrman has pointed out that the popular view of Paul and his conversion makes it difficult for historians to evaluate what actually happened to make him “turn around.” In the scriptural record Paul does not present himself as a guilt-ridden legalist whose realization that the law was impossible to keep led him to find forgiveness in Christ and motivated him to bring the good news of release to those burdened with guilt complexes like his own. Ehrman calls this view “fiction” and “widespread misperception” and instead directs us to Paul’s own accounts found in Acts chapters 9, 22, and 26. The problem is that these accounts are difficult to harmonize; as they differ in several details. Paul’s recounting of the event is suspect because he is remembering the event long afterward and reflecting upon it in light of his later experiences. Such a conundrum finds a parallel in our own Mormon foundation narrative of Joseph Smith’s first vision. In Joseph’s case, he leaves at least seven narratives, each a bit different, each a bit contradictory of the others.
In grappling with these accounts over the years, I’ve come across some disturbing information. Let’s boil it down to say that the human brain does not hold an accurate account of an event in the mind for even a short time. Psychological studies have shown that it is impossible to tell the difference between an accurate memory and one that has been altered or distorted by the imagination. This is a frightening prospect, folks! We cannot be sure of our own memories. Yikes. On the other hand, this information makes it not surprising that Joseph’s (and indeed Paul’s) recitals vary in so many details.
Looking back on my own conversion story, I have been unsettled to recognize this same pattern. I wrote an account of my conversion to the LDS Church the same month I was baptized at age 19. This was tucked away in a diary for many years. At age 25, I wrote the story of my conversion for a Relief Society activity. Recently I also reflected upon the event in some of my writings. These three narratives were penned over the period of 30 years, and I did not refer to the earlier versions when writing any one of them.
Shockingly to me, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, I described events and motivations very differently. In each, I felt I was relating the same episode, but upon scrutiny I can see that experiences over the intervening years have caused me to reinterpret.
In analyzing the Pauline accounts, Ehrman points out that we are faced with the quandary of determining which is the most accurate. This has been a difficulty for LDS scholars in evaluating what really happened in the Sacred Grove as well. Ehrman approaches the dilemma by “considering aspects of Paul’s worldview that would have been confirmed by an encounter with a man raised from the dead and aspects that would have been reformulated in light of the experience.” It occurs to me that this would likewise be an interesting way to investigate the First Vision accounts.
So, which is the most “true?” I can only look at my own conversion chronicles and speculate. Those trained in history and primary sources might give greater credence to the earliest statement. There are good reasons for so doing. But immediate reflections upon an experience, especially a profound, moving, or shattering one, may be colored by emotions which obscure reality. Perhaps my later Relief Society account, with the added perspective of several years of Church membership, presents the truth a little more accurately. Or, did the paradigm shift I experienced after an intense faith journey render me better able to describe the event more authentically?
Can the truth of personal narrative ever be determined? Is it better to make a shift from historical investigation to literary contemplation? If we do this, we might apply the use of symbolism, metaphor and emblem. Whether or not these encounters with Deity were factual in detail they hold profound meaning as archetypes — the human meeting his Creator, the ascension myth fulfilled. Alternately, we could view the stories from the point of view of a social scientist or behaviorist. Such a position might hold the potential to explain relationships of power and fraternity among the Prophet Joseph, or the Apostle Paul and their followers and compatriots.
Finally, is it detrimental to use personal narrative as a determination of what really happened? Should a personal story stand as foundation text for our religion? Perhaps you will say this is a sandy foundation, or perhaps, with its potential for expansion, allusion, figuration and identification, you will find there is none better.