Sunday, September 13, 2009

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

The first two installments of this essay can be read here (part 1) and here (part 2).

After Stephen’s martyrdom, Luke indicates that a new level of persecution fell upon the church. In response, the believers were sent away with only the Twelve witnesses/disciples left behind to maintain a presence in Jerusalem. The narrative then switches to Phillip, one of the seven elected to teach from among the converted, who goes to Samaria and finds success spreading the gospel. It is curious that Samaria is listed as the first outreach center as the Samaritans are so widely impugned in the Gospels that one has only to put the word Good” in front of Samaritan to know precisely which Samaritan we mean. Could it be that the Nazarene sect’s persecution in Jerusalem won them sympathetic ears among those who might otherwise be foes?

Luke makes no mention of this irony, writing only that, “the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Phillip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did” [8:6]. Even this little information gives us a pretty good idea of what Phillip’s ministry would have looked like; beginning with an exhortation to repent and be baptized in Jesus’s name, followed by the baptism and indoctrination of the new believers. It is not certain if Phillip continued the communal model of the first Jerusalem congregation though the conspicuous absence of any mention of food or bread breaking suggests that he did not.

While in Samaria, Phillip met “a man named Simon who had previously practiced magic in the city” [8:9] and not only converted him but took him on as a disciple. This relationship is interesting for a couple of different reasons. First, it reiterates, if not confirms, the idea that there was a whole social/vocational class of people who performed miracles among the sick and the poor that we might associate more specifically with the authority of the Christ. When Phillip arrives preaching and performing miracles, there was already an expectation among the people for what he was and what he could do for Simon, “had amazed the nation of Samaria” and “they all gave heed to him, from the least to the greatest, saying ‘This man is that power of God which is called Great’” [8:10]. A somewhat skeptical reading of this passage might even suggest that Phillip brought Simon over to his cause first and, by so doing, was able to make a deep impression on the people through his conversion.

After the body of believers there reached a certain threshold, Peter and John came down from Jerusalem to facilitate in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit among them. This indicates at least a two-step initiation into the fold, first baptism in the name of Jesus and then, a meeting with the higher ups to confirm membership and receive the indwelling of the Hold Spirit through the laying on of hands. This passage makes it abundantly clear that while Phillip (and we presume Simon) had the authority to preach, heal, and perform other miracles in Jesus’s name, only one of the twelve witnesses (ie someone who had received instruction from Jesus after his resurrection) could oversee the commission of the Holy Spirit to a new believer. One can understand Simon’s motivation for the pragmatic offer that follows but Peter’s response is especially telling.

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot it in this matter, for your heart is not right with God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” [8:20-22]

Simon, a career magician with an excellent reputation among the Samaritans, treats the laying on of hands to impart the Holy Spirit like a new craft in his trade and is, quite reasonably, willing to pay the originators for the right to use it. The text is ambiguous about who exactly had the authority to baptize in Jesus’s name; perhaps, only the seven elected from the converted, but probably more. The ability to bestow the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was given, initially, only upon the Twelve. Setting aside the theological concerns for a moment, Peter’s response indicated that the Twelve saw their unique role in the two-part initiation process as fundamental to maintaining control over the faith as it spread beyond Jerusalem. Luke spends the rest of the eighth chapter on another anecdote regarding Phillip’s conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza that offers little in the way of new information.

Chapter nine, however, is a pivotal one in the Acts of the Apostles as it shifts the narrative away from the Twelve or their disciples and on to a man named Saul. Luke actually references Saul twice in Acts before this chapter, identifying him in passing, first, as present at Stephen’s martyrdom [7:58] and then as an actor in the persecution of the church at Jersualem [8:3]. In fact, it is Saul’s actions against the church that provides the clearest picture that Luke is willing to give us as to what forms that persecution took. Saul, he writes, “laid waste to the church, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” [8:3].

One of two things is true about these attestations. Either the temple could convey the authority to punish (by beating, imprisonment, etc) those who strayed from orthodoxy or they could not, with mounds of evidence supporting both positions. Whole truth and nothing but the truth or not, Luke states this outright, insisting that:

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. [9:1,2]

Stephen’s stoning had seemed like a spontaneous event, though it began in a formal interrogation/trial setting. He was not stoned in the temple but dragged from it and stoned by an anonymous angry mob. The Gospels reiterate over and over that Jews lacked the authority to have a man put to death without Roman involvement. Yet, nowhere is Rome mentioned or implicated in this persecution. Now, we are invited to believe, the temple has the authority to beat and/or imprison whomever they like and can commission others to do this work for them.

Whatever his commission or motive, Saul set famously out on the road to Damascus where he had a very unexpected experience. Saul’s conversion on the road is so central to the Acts of the Apostles overall that the story is told twice, first in chapter nine and second, from Paul’s own lips in the twenty-second chapter. For the purpose of better understanding Luke’s vision of Paul, we’ll look at the two versions side-by-side, watching for additions or subtractions from the story.
In chapter nine, Luke writes:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and, suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city and you will be told what to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And, for three days, he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. [9:3-9]

There are five important elements to the story here: the light, the falling down, the voice, the acknowledgement of patronage, and the blindness. Note also that the men accompanying him positively hear the voice, positively do not see Jesus himself (or anyone else for that matter), but ambiguously do not see the light that blinds Paul.

In chapter twenty-two, Paul recounts his story to a group of Jews who, mere verses earlier, were trying to kill him.

“As I made my journey and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ And I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.’ Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said unto me, ‘Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do.’ And when I could not see because of the brightness of the light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus.” [22:6-11]

All five of the fundamental story elements are perfectly intact from above and delivered in the same order. Light, falling down, voice, acknowledgement of patronage, blindness. But this time, the voice is now not perceived by those who traveled with Paul. Ideologically, this makes more sense because if men also commissioned to persecute Nazarene Jews heard an omniscient voice tell their boss to stop and go await further instructions, they would likely have either made a similarly famous conversion or just knifed him on the spot and gone on with their duties. The difference is subtle but important. In the first account, Paul’s experience with Jesus is a public one. While he alone is spoken to and blinded, all present hear what is said. In the account taken, presumably, from Paul’s own lips, that public miracle becomes a more private one, making his role in it second only to Jesus and, more importantly, making it difficult to prove or disprove since no one but Paul himself heard anything at all.

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