Sunday, September 20, 2009

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

Parts 1-5 of this essay can be accessed from the archive on the right of the screen under September 2009.

As Saul and Barnabas returned to Judea with the love offering from the church at Antioch, Herod Antipas began seizing members of the sect for imprisonment and eventual execution. It is worth noting that the last few times we’ve seen Peter, it’s been back in Galilee. While he has escaped the persecution of the temple in Judea, that places him directly back in Antipas’ kingdom and, in some ways, subject to more danger than the temple might present as they had to work in concert with Roman authority. After executing James, Antipas was soundly praised by the non-converted Jews and, in response, he had Peter arrested as well. Luke is uncharacteristically vague about the exact timeline here. By placing Peter's arrest directly after the story about Saul and Barnabas bringing the money to Judea, his implication seems to be that the events with Peter unfolded well after their arrival. He ambiguously opens that section though, writing that, “it was about this same time” [12:1] that Herod began his arrests. Is it possible that Agabus’s prophesy that brought them running with money collected from the Antioch church was a veiled plea for money to help James and, perhaps, Peter himself?

According the Luke’s account, of course, it turns out that Peter didn’t need any help escaping from prison. Despite the heavy guard placed to watch Peter (who already had a reputation for miraculous escapes from jail), he is nonetheless visited on the day before his trial (and likely execution) by an angel of the Lord who helps him make his escape.

The purpose of our analyzing the Acts of the Apostles is not to go through and disprove every miracle as inauthentic. It is possible (and, indeed, many believe) that the facts it lays out are, by their very nature, beyond reproach and accept each miracle in turn as indisputable facts by virtue of their inclusion in the New Testament. However, the two passages that follow Peter’s escape from prison do suggest some interesting sub-textual readings worth at least investigating even while recognizing them as essentially speculation.

After Peter escaped from prison, Luke writes that:

He went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!” “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.” But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, there were astonished. Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place. [12:12-17]

One can’t help but notice the paralls between this story about Peter and those surrounding Christ’s own, post-resurrection. Both are identified as being alive by a woman, who rushes to tell others who, in turn, do not believe her story. Notice also the ambiguity with which Luke glosses over where exactly Peter fled to or in whose company he might have traveled after his appearance among the disciples. More ominously, Peter is only mentioned once again in the Acts of the Apostles. Traditional church doctrine adheres to the idea that Peter eventually traveled with Paul to found the Roman church and was later executed by Nero, like Paul, for his crimes against the state. Though there is little means by which to prove this didn’t happen, the event itself, like Paul’s death is not contained within the Acts of the Apostles.

Yet, there is an event directly juxtaposed against Peter’s escape from prison about which we can know something. Herod, in some kind of political dispute with the people of Tyre and Sidon, called a diplomatic summit to resolve these differences. Upon addressing “the people” (though not clear whether Luke is referring to the people summoned to his court or just, you know, the people), someone in the crowd shouted that Herod spoke with the voice of God. Because he did not refute the man’s claim (and thus show deference to God), Herod was stricken down by the Lord for his lack of humility and “was eaten by worms and died” [9:23].

The problem is, history is pretty clear about the eventual fate of Herod Antipas and it was not death-by-angel-smiting. Instead, he was eventually found guilty of treason by Caligula and, around 39 CE, was stripped of his authority, his money, and exiled to Gaul where he died a few years later. One could make the argument that this fate might be the metaphoric equivalent of “an angel of the Lord struck him down” but then that indulgence just leads us back to questioning whether these inclusions of the “angel of the Lord” into various jailbreaks and auditory visions might not also be allegorical rather than objective in their inclusion into the story. Luke also finishes up the chapter after discussing Herod’s fate by recording that “When Barnabus and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark” [12:25], suggesting again that Herod’s death had already occurred before they left though his death actually occurred some years later and well-outside of the radar of history. The historical accountability of Herod’s removal does give us a framework to state with some certainty that the events described up to this point probably occurred within six years or so of Jesus’s crucifixion.

All but one section of the remaining fifteen chapters of Acts deals with Saul’s missions to recruit believers to the newly-dubbed Christian religion. It is valuable to note that, at this point in Saul’s ministry, his role is, in some ways, subordinate to that of Barnabas. Barnabas, unlike Saul, was from the original Twelve Witnesses and was one of the direct recipients of the tongue of fire via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and, by older Church protocols, one of the few authorized to oversee the two-fold initiation process of baptism and indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Strangely, though, this formula is evoked with decreasing frequency once the narrative of the ministry leaves Judea.

The evangelizing duo made their first post-Antioch ministry in Cyprus, the island upon which Barnabas was born, where they had to get past another Jewish sorcerer named Elymas. In the description of this passage, we are treated to the first usage of the name by which Saul of Tarsus would eventually be best known, Paul, and given some insights into the nature of Paul and Barnabas’s partnership.

The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind, and for a time you will be unable to see the light of the sun.” Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord. [13:8-12]

Notice that Barnabas is listed first in their partnership but it is Saul who takes things to the next level and directly calls out Elymas. Elymas’s punishment also mirrors Paul’s own experience on the road to Damascus and is one of only a few examples in the New Testament of God causing blindness, rather than healing it.

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