Monday, September 14, 2009

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

The earlier portions of this essay can be accessed from the archive on the right side of the screen under September of 2009.

[This essay will reference the New International Version until otherwise noted. Seriously, my cat ate my homework.]

As Saul languished, a disciple in Damascus named Ananias had a vision in which the Lord told him to seek out Saul in order to lay hands on him and heal his blindness. Ananias, already knowing Saul’s reputation as a persecutor, overcame his fear of the Lord long enough to make sure they were talking about the same Saul before being assured that “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles” [9:15]. Thus reassured, Ananias went and “placing his hands on Saul” told him that, “the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” [9:17]. His sight was immediately restored and, we are told, Saul rose and was baptized before finally partaking of food and drink again.

Before analyzing that section, let’s skip back to the twenty-second chapter again where Paul recounts this event:

A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said, “The God of our father has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.” [22:12-15]

In the first version of this story, the voice of the Lord came to Ananias, just as it had to Paul to give him instruction. Moreover, Ananias is identified as “a disciple” who, in addition to being given dispensation to cure Paul’s blindness, also facilitated his receiving of the Holy Spirit. It was only after he had been filled with the Holy Spirit that Paul “got up and was baptized” [9:16]. This is a complete reversal of every conversion up to this point. By convention and sometimes the threat of damnation, only the Twelve had the authority to facilitate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and, then, only after baptism. The second version glosses over Jesus’s visitation to Ananias altogether and leaves the reader with the impression that he was less a devoted Nazarene and more an independent actor on God’s behalf. No mention is made of the Holy Spirit though Ananias does exhort him to “get up, be baptized, and wash your sins away, calling on his name” [22:16] while giving no clue as to who might have performed that baptism, if not Paul himself.

In contrasting Paul’s conversion with other disciples of the Christ, it would not be difficult to understand why his acceptance into the order might have been troubled from the outset. When coupled with his reportedly bloody history with the believers, it comes as no surprise that troubled quickly turned to murderous as he entered the synagogues of Damascus and began to preach that “Jesus is the Son of God” [9:20]. Note, however, the ambiguity as to the identity of his detractors as he begins his ministry.

All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. [9:21,22]

From reading that passage, one is left with the impression that it was, in fact, non-converted Jews who were the most angered by Saul’s conversion. Yet, as evidenced by the fluidity with which Ananias was transformed from a “disciple” in the first story to a “devout observer of the law” in the second, one can’t help but wonder if Saul’s detractors might not have also been from among the converted in Damascus. Typically, outspoken Nazarenes were persecuted by the temple authority but, Luke writes that, “after many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him” [9:23]. This threat was real enough that, according to legend, Saul had to be smuggled out of the city by being lowered in basket through the wall that he might escape. In Stephen, we have seen the temple incite a mob in order to effect a murder. In Ananias and Sapphira, we saw people killed (presumably by God) in order to maintain discipline among the sect. Of these two groups, who had the greatest motivation to kill Saul whether for his blasphemy or his apparent hypocrisy?

After being run out of Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem but, Luke tells us, “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was really a disciple” [9:26]. Only through the intercession of Barnabas, one of the converted elect, was Paul first introduced to the Apostles and then, brought into the fold of believers. This arrangement, unconventional as it was, does not appear to have been a tenable one as Saul “moved freely about Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” [9:28]. Since the murder of Stephen, there is no mention in the Acts of preaching or miracles being performed in Jerusalem. The strategy, as Luke would have us see it, appears to have been to blend in and act like the law-observing Jews that they largely still were.

Saul, perhaps emulating Stephen who had been killed in his presence, did not do this and, a verse later, we are told that “he talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they wanted to kill him” [9:29]. It leads one to wonder what it was about Saul that made everyone he came in contact with want to kill him (a condition that did not diminish with age). Perhaps unwilling at this time to undergo another major persecution, the Apostles “took him down to Caesaria and sent him off to Tarsus” [9:30] with no mention of a mission or a purpose for his voyage except to get back to where he once belonged. The church, Luke writes, “enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers in the fear of the Lord” [9:31].

Though Saul’s departure from Jerusalem and resultant peace sounds like a resolution to the first act of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke sticks a curious addendum on to the ninth chapter regarding Peter that sets up the next period in the Church’s tumultuous history. In it, Peter performed two miracles; one in Lydda where he healed a paralytic man and then, to Joppa, where he raised a woman named Tabitha from the dead. While it is probably notable that this is the first resurrection in the New Testament since that of Jesus himself, Luke’s purpose here seems to be to show Peter in motion himself away from Jerusalem. It also suggests, as Luke often does, an interest in showing women of the faith as part of the tapestry of believers. Lastly, it places Luke in a very particular place from which the next, improbable segment of the church’s history could evolve.

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