Section 6: Visions, Why Two or Three, Instead of One?
As to the matter of fact designated by the words Paul's conversion, so far as regards outward conversion, the truth of it is out of all dispute:—that he was converted, i.e. that after having been a persecutor of the votaries of the new religion, he turned full round, and became a leader. Whether the so illustriously victorious effect, had for its cause a supernatural intercourse of Paul with Jesus after his resurrection and ascension, and thence for its accompaniment an inward conversion—in this lies the matter in dispute.
From those, by whom, in its essential particular, the statement is regarded as being true, a natural question may be—If the whole was an invention of his own, to what cause can we refer the other vision, the vision of Ananias? To what purpose should he have been at the pains of inventing, remembering, and all along supporting and defending, the vision of the unknown supposed associate? Answer.—To the purpose, it should seem, of giving additional breadth to the basis of his pretensions.
Among that people, in those times, the story of a vision was so common an article,—so difficultly distinguishable from, so easily confounded with, on the one hand the true story of a dream, on the other hand a completely false story of an occurrence, which, had it happened, would have been a supernatural one, but which never did happen,—that a basis, so indeterminate and aërial, would seem to have been in danger of not proving strong enough to support the structure designed to be reared upon it.
On the supposition of falsity, the case seems to be—that, to distinguish his vision from such as in those days were to be found among every man's stories, as well as in every history,—and which, while believed by some, were disbelieved and scorned by others,—either Paul or his historian bethought himself of this contrivance of a pair of visions:—a pair of corresponding visions, each of which should, by reference and acknowledgment, bear witness and give support to the other: a pair of visions: for, for simplicity of conception, it seems good not to speak any further, of the antecedent vision interwoven so curiously in the texture of one of them, after the similitude of the flower termed by some gardeners hose in hose.
Of this piece of machinery, which in the present instance has been seen played off with such brilliant success upon the theological theatre, the glory of the invention may, it is believed, be justly claimed, if not by Paul, by his historian. With the exception of one that will be mentioned presently,11 no similar one has, upon inquiry, been found to present itself, in any history, Jewish or Gentile.
The other pair of visions there alluded to, is—that which is also to be found in the Acts: one of them ascribed to Saint Peter, the other to the centurion Cornelius.
Paul, or his historian?—The alternative was but the suggestion of the first moment. To a second glance the claim of the historian presents itself as incontestable. In the case of Peter's pair of visions, suppose the story the work of invention, no assignable competitor has the historian for the honour of it: in the case of Paul's pair of visions, supposing that the only pair, the invention was at least as likely to have been the work of the historian as of the hero: add to this pair the other pair—that other pair that presents itself in this same work of this same history—all competition is at an end. In the case of even the most fertile genius, copying is an easier task than invention: and, where the original is of a man's own invention, copying is an operation still easier than in the opposite case. That an occurrence thus curious should find so much as a single inventor, is a circumstance not a little extraordinary: but, that two separate wits should jump in concurrence in the production of it, is a supposition that swells the extraordinariness, and with it the improbability, beyond all bounds.
11See Chapter 17 Section 5, 4. Peter's and Cornelius's visions.