Thursday, September 24, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Eight)

Parts 1-7 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September 2009.

With the prickly circumcision issue resolved, Paul and Barnabas’s presence was not so urgently required at the church in Antioch. Even as Paul and Barnabas began planning a trip to revisit the churches they had seeded previously, a schism suddenly appeared between them. Barnabas insisted they take his cousin, John Mark (who had bailed on them in Perga the first time) but Paul wasn’t having any part of it. So, with no other explanation, they “parted company” with Barnabas returning to Cyprus with John Mark and Paul taking Silas along with him on a tour of the new churches.

At Lystra, Paul was introduced to another young disciple, Timothy who was, likewise, selected to continue on with him and Silas. Luke adds in a confusing detail here that Timothy was born of a Jewish mother but a Greek father and, as such, was not circumcised. Before he is allowed to join the wandering ministry, Timothy was circumcised by Paul. This seems odd based on all the energy that Paul had expended to justify the faith of uncircumcised Gentiles and now, he insisted on Timothy’s adherence to the Law. Perhaps his motive was simply pragmatic. He needed Jews to convert Gentiles away from attending the synagogue. Uncircumcised, Timothy was a converted Gentile. Circumcised, he was a converted Jew.

About six verses into the sixteenth chapter, strange things start happening in the Acts of the Apostles in both a narrative and structural sense. Before moving ahead to describe the extent of these changes, it will be valuable to briefly reconsider what types of information it has delivered up to this point. The book opens with Jesus and the apostles in the forty day period after the Resurrection but prior to the Ascension. For several chapters after, it is a story about the early church in Jerusalem and the persecution that they eventually suffered at the hands of the temple authorities. With Stephen’s death, the church decentralizes with only the Twelve Witnesses remaining in Jerusalem while the elect among the converted fanning out through Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Syria to spread the message. Eventually, even Peter leaves Jerusalem to shore up support for the Nazarene sect in the outlying areas of its influence. In so doing, he sets a precedent for converting Gentiles into the tradition.

As early as Stephen’s murder, Saul (Paul) is introduced as a character and, for the first half of the book, functions as a supporting actor rather than a principal player. After being threatened with murder by pretty much anyone he spoke to after his conversion, Paul is sent to Tarsus with no recognizable orders beyond, “Don’t come back.” Later, it is Barnabas who goes to Tarsus, retrieves Paul from his exile and, together, they found a church in Antioch. One can reasonably extract from the subtext that it is the financial intervention of that church (which has yet to undergo any of the persecutions that have plagued the Jerusalem church almost since its inception) that saves Peter from execution at Herod’s hands. Whether the balance of power within the church truly did so or not, the focus of the Acts of the Apostles undoubtedly shifts to Antioch from that point forward. It details the Acts of Paul and Barnabas with almost no interest for what may or may not be happening in Judea until someone from the “old school” shows up and starts condemning folk. As long as Barnabas and Paul were working together (with Barnabas shown if begrudgingly in the text as the dominant partner), there was still a continuity tying the old church and the younger ones together. After their schism, Paul takes Silas, also from the original sect but positioned far lower in the hierarchy than Barnabas, on as a traveling companion but there is no longer any doubt about who is in charge. In short, Acts has gone from being a story about the early church after Jesus’s ascension to a narrative about what Paul did.

Nowhere is this transition made more clear than in the early portion of chapter nine where Luke writes that:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia to help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. [16:6-10]

Buried within that very matter-of-factly written passage is no less than three miracles of a grand order by the standards of the early chapters of Acts. First, the Holy Spirit “kept” them from moving the ministry into Asia. Second, the spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go into Bithynia and lastly, Paul had a clairvoyant vision of needy souls in Macedonia. Luke, however, provides no tactile details about these miracles (in stark contrast to Peter’s vision about the Gentiles for example) but speaks as if things of this nature were happening everyday and, thus, not worth cataloguing in any depth.

More importantly to the contour of the narrative, Luke strikes that unmistakable “we” in the final line and it sticks for long portions of the book up through its end. While some have argued that this was a convention of travelogues of the period, his use of the first-person plural is so pervasive as to seem deliberate which, in itself, raises new questions. Who is we? While wandering around from Asia Minor, did Paul come in contact with Luke, the supposed author of this history? If so, are we to suppose that what follows is more accurate than what came before as Luke was en eyewitness rather than a collator of historical traditions? The answer (which will likely never be known) becomes urgent as the historical plausibility of what unfolded next becomes more strained.

The journey from Asia Minor to an area north of the mainland of Greece began more calmly than most of Paul’s missionary jaunts. Entering the city of Philippi, Paul and his followers executed Jesus’s original mission strategy to the letter, locating one friendly ear (in this case “a woman named Lydia…who was a worshipper of God” [16:14]) and setting up shop in her house to reach out to potential converts. Luke is careful to note that, on the Sabbath, Paul and the companions do not go to the Synagogue (which Philippi lacked) to preach but, instead, “outside the city gate to a river, where we expected to find a place of prayer” [16:13].

Nonetheless, on the way to the river, Paul was confronted numerous times by “a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future” who insisted on following behind them, proclaiming that, “’These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’” [16:16,17]. Luke tells us that Paul “became so troubled” that he turned around and exorcised the demon of prophesy from her in the name of Christ. Before we get to the ramifications of his actions, let’s consider for a moment what Luke is already telling us. Paul is trying to keep a low profile and is not, as he had in Asia Minor, storming into the strongholds of Jewish authority and declaring them all unclean sinners. Is Paul troubled because there is a demon inside the woman or because she is broadcasting information that he would prefer to transmit from person-to-person?

After the spirit had been exorcised from the young girl, her owners dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace, presumably to extract compensation for the loss of revenue her “cleansing” would represent to them. Predictably enough, “the crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them stripped and beaten” [16:22]. That night, as the pair sang hymns to the Lord in their cells, a great earthquake is said to have struck and the door to freedom popped open even as their chains were miraculously removed. When their jailer saw that the jail could no longer hold them, he began to commit suicide at the loss of his prisoners. Before he could, however, Paul told him they were all still there, to which the jailor responded by falling to his knees and asking them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” [16:30].

Again, it is fruitless to argue with miracles. Whether factually accurate or merely suggestive of less-overt levers of power being manipulated, this is, in fact, the third jail break in the Acts of the Apostles and, by this point, if someone had suggested that there was now an angel with the full time position of pulling these jobs, no one would have batted an eye. The response from the authorities the following day, however, does suggest that in the interim something beyond a jail break that never actually went down had softened their position against the disciples.

When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” [16:35]

In light of Paul’s track record preaching among the unconverted, his treatment at Philippi was mild. He got a flogging and spent half the night in stocks but it is not merely the relative timidity of the indignities he suffered that makes his response to those magistrates so jaw-droppingly game-changing.

Paul said to the officers, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” [16:37]

Paul, a Roman citizen? To drop that into the story, some twelve chapters after his character’s introduction is the narrative equivalent of Jesus neglecting to mention he was Jew until he was about set to travel into Jerusalem. As so much of what unfolds from this point forward hinges on the question of Paul’s claim to be a Roman citizen, it actually skews one’s interpretation of the rest of the Acts of the Apostles along three lines of critical inquiry: Did Paul ever really claim to be a Roman citizen or was that a later invention? If Paul did claim to be a Roman citizen, was it true? If Paul was a Roman citizen, why did he wait until Philippi to mention it?

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