Q. On the road to Damascus, did Paul’s traveling companions hear the voice that spoke to Paul?
A. Yes, but they could not understand what the voice was saying.
Saul of Tarsus (more commonly known by his legal Roman name, Paul) was a Pharisee who persecuted followers of Jesus Christ (who were known for awhile as those “belonging to the Way”) until he had a life changing experience on the road to Damascus. According to what Luke wrote in Acts, this is what happened:
“As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’
And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.’ The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice [footnote: Or sound] but seeing no one.” (NASB)
– Acts 9:3-7
Later we are told more specific details via the record of Paul’s statement to the people of Jerusalem:
“‘But it happened that as I was on my way, approaching Damascus at about noontime, a very bright light suddenly flashed from heaven all around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said to me, ‘I am Jesus he Nazarene, whom you are persecuting.’
And those who were with me saw the light, to be sure, but did not understand the voice of the One who was speaking to me.’” (NASB)
– Acts 22:6-9
There are two different Greek words used in these passages. In Acts 9 and Acts 22, the word used to mean “sound” or voice” is phone (Φωνη), which can mean: “through the idea of disclosure; a tone (articulate, bestial or artificial); by impl. an address (for any purpose), saying or language: – noise, sound, voice.”
Colloquially speaking, it could easily be used to refer to both a sound that was heard but not comprehended (as in Acts 9) and an address to Paul that wasn’t received by others (Acts 22).
The scenario is quite easy to understand through a simple example: Occasionally one of my siblings will mutter something from the distance and although I can clearly hear their voice, I can’t “hear” what exactly they are saying.
Just consider how often somebody says something in the middle of a crowd and another person responds, “What?” Evidently they hear enough of the person’s voice to know that something is being said, but they don’t clearly understand what the message is.