Monday, September 28, 2009

Great Books: Acts of the Apostles (Part Nine)

Parts 1-8 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

After leaving Philippi, Paul and Silas traveled to Thessalonica where Luke tells us that “there was a Jewish synagogue” [17:1] in contrast with Philippi where there was none. The sequence of events upon their arrival is so familiar to us by now that the scant specifics that Luke shares about Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is of more interest than the eventual “Jewish” mob that forms and chases them out of town by threat of violence. They quickly moved on to Berea where Luke tells us that the people “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians” [17:11] and were more receptive to, at least, debating with Paul over the relative merits of Judaism and Christianity. Like Derbe before it (on Barnabas and Paul’s initial mission trip), violence is only shown to erupt when “Jews in Thessalonica heard that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea” [17:13] and again turned “the crowds” against him. While no specific act of violence is described (again in contrast to previous and similar episodes), the outcome is novel enough to bear examination.

We’ll set up this analysis with the observation that after Paul and Silas are forcibly ejected from Philippi, Luke drops the “we” phrasing of Paul’s movements that began after the mission into Macedonia.

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. [16:10]

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica where there was a synagogue. [17:1]

If we are to place some meaning in Luke’s specific usage of both voices, then it is reasonable to wonder if “Luke” wasn’t left behind in Philippi, perhaps as a teacher to help grow the church seeded there. This casts inevitable doubt on the absolute historicity of those events upon which he is reporting but is not a primary witness. The predictable sequence of events in each new place that Paul visits (right down to the variations on the basic theme that occurs first in Derbe and then reenacted at Berea) is suggestive that Luke is more interested in forming an archetype that journalistic reportage anyway. Moreover, as we will see once Paul begins his inexorable journey towards Rome, when Luke does include himself by the usage of the “we” voice, the story does not become more plausible but, in fact, more laden with the patina of myth-making as already evidenced by Silas and Paul’s miraculous non-escape from prison and declaration of Roman citizenship at Philippi.

It is with this spirit of genial skepticism about historicity that we then re-engage Luke’s narrative. After the unruly Thessalonian Jews had riled up the Bereans against Paul’s teaching, Luke writes that, “the brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who accompanied Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible” [17:14,15]. With no other information about who these “brothers” might have been, the simplest explanation is that it was the newly converted at Berea who, in fact, paid for Paul’s passage to the coast. This might also explain why Silas and Timothy are left behind and told only to join him in Athens as soon as they could. With no specific act of violence described to propel Paul from the city, we might even imagine him frustrated with the slow progress of this mission (in contrast to that he shared with Barnabas) and, perhaps, his relative lack of financing. How severe was the schism that arose between Paul and Barnabas? Did it effect his ability to count upon the church at Antioch to bankroll both his and Barnabas’s mission to Cyprus (of which we hear absolutely nothing) with equal vigor?

Upon Paul’s arrival in Athens, we run into a story unit that is strangely asymmetrical in comparison to most others in the Acts. Unsurprisingly, Paul was “distressed to see that the city was full of idols” [17:16] but his usual act of preaching the gospel in the synagogues is met is not met by the usual histrionic hostility that accompanies nearly every other mission story. In fact, Luke ignores Paul’s mission to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles altogether and focuses, instead, on Paul’s debates with philosophers in the marketplace and, ultimately, in the Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus was, in fact, a court for trying certain kinds of legal cases in the city, but at no point does Luke suggest that Paul is on trial for anything. The dialogue between Paul and the sages of Athens is presented as more of an exchange of information between equals as Luke writes that:

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas) [17:21]

In Paul’s response, though embroidered with some sharp writing, there is exactly one idea that would have represented any meaningful departure from what Jews had been saying in Athens for a long time prior to Paul’s visit. At the end of a speech about the nature of God, Paul adds that, “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” [17:31] though he only refers to the object of this resurrection only as “the man he has appointed” to “judge the world with justice” [17:31]. Though Luke does name a few believers gained from this trip, no mention is made about seeding a church or any meaningful outbreak of violence. More importantly, Paul leaves Athens before Silas and Timothy’s arrival, begging the question of whether (in a city of Athens’ size, jammed to the walls with philosophers, magicians, Jews, atheists, and every other imaginable variety of believers in something), Paul found little ground on which to plant the faith and elected to move on to more fertile soil.

Now separated from his traveling companions, Paul made his way to Corinth where he threw his lot in with a Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla who had recently emigrated to the region from Rome. If we had any doubts about the solvency of Paul’s missionary efforts at this point, Luke essentially confirms it in the opening verses of chapter eighteen when he writes that “Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them” [18:2,3]. This is the first time in the Acts of the Apostles that we hear of Paul engaging in manual labor to earn his keep though it is feasible he was making tents in Tarsus when Barnabas brought him back into the ministry. After an unspecified amount of time, Silas and Timothy finally arrived to join him, Paul is said to have “devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” [18:5]. Luke indicates that Silas and Timothy came to Paul from Macedonia, not Berea where he left them. Perhaps their delay in joining Paul was due to a trip to the church at Philippi to secure fresh funding for their mission?

At first, the course of events in Corinth follow the standard Pauline form. Paul began preaching in the synagogue. The unconverted Jews grew angry until Paul disavowed them, declaring that their “blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’” [18:6]. Allied with a Gentile named Titius Justus (notice the conspicuously Roman name), Paul established a long-term church in Corinth, spending over a year and a half, by Luke’s account, teaching there. At some point, the inevitable Jewish uprising against him landed him in the court of proconsul Gallio on a charge of “persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law,” by which we can presume they meant the law of Rome and not the law of the temple. But, before Paul can even defend himself, Gallio dismissed the case as frivolous. In a rare reversal of fortunes, it is the ruler of the synagogue, Sosthenes, who is taken out in front of the court and beaten. Whatever the actual course of events may have been, it is probably not without reason that Luke chooses Corinth to indicate Paul vindication by Roman authority against the Jews that perpetually harassed him.

With this victory under his belt after a longish string of disappointments, Paul sailed, along with Aquila and Priscilla to Ephesus. Though he entered the synagogue there for his usual round of debates, he abruptly left Aquila and Priscilla behind there in Ephesus and sailed, himself, on to Caesarea. Luke is very cagey in the details on this visit, saying only that he “went up and greeted the church, and then he went down to Antioch” [18:22]. By the church it is unclear if Luke means a church at Caesarea or, more likely, the elders in Jerusalem. No other detail is given. Nor does Paul’s visit to Antioch, an auspicious occasion in returning to the place from whence his mission set sail, earn more than a mention before he is off again, “strengthening” the churches in Galatia and Phrygia (from his first mission with Barnabus).

Back in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla must have been doing some church building of their own for Luke writes that “a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus” who “had been instructed in the way of the Lord” [18:24,25]. This sudden appearance of a charismatic teacher, schooled outside of Barnabas and Paul’s sphere of influence but not necessarily that of the Judean sect, provides some unexpected details about the contrast between these two early strains of Christian orthodoxy.

He spoke with a great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. [18:25,26]

The obvious question is, how might a ministry based on the “baptism of John” have differed from the strain of Christianity that the new church at Corinth was embracing? Luke is kind enough to illustrate this difference in the opening verses of the following chapter as Paul returned to the Ephesus, only to find new believers, presumably won over to the faith by Apollos, in need of further instruction.

He found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” the replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. [19:1-7]

This account makes it sound like that there was an apocalyptic messianic tradition centered on John the Baptist that survived his death and had spread, perhaps in tandem with that of Jesus of Nazareth. It is one of the few instances where Paul is shown as a baptizer into the faith as opposed to a teacher of the gospel and, likewise, one of the only accounts of Paul presiding over the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In fact, though the early Judean church had been very specific about the two-tiered initiation of baptism and then indwelling, Luke seems to indicate that the baptism itself was the catalyst for the Holy Spirit to fill these well-meaning disciples.
Paul's Second Mission

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