Monday, October 26, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part Two)

The first part of this essay can be accessed in the archives under October 2009.

Having defined sin as turning away from God, Paul creates a causal relationship between sin and death by offering Adam’s mortality as precedent and every death since as proof of sin’s universality. The “wickedness, evil, greed, and depravity” [1:29] that one normally associates with sinful behavior is presented more as a symptom of death than sins in and of themselves. By the reasoning, Paul writes, that “death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command” [5:14].

It is during this first period that Paul finds the inspiration for his own gospel of salvation for the Gentiles. Though no Law yet existed, Abraham was able to attain righteousness (or cleansing of sin) through his faith in the existence and omnipotence of God. This justification (literally, to be made just) through faith serves as Paul’s model for non-Jewish salvation as he notes that “Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness” [4:9] As Abraham exhibited that faith before he entered into the covenant with God, outwardly manifested through circumcision, “he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them” [4:11].

As for the Law, Paul argues that it serves only to make one aware of sin, while doing nothing to compensate for humanity’s inherently sinful nature. In fact, The Law made being human (or at least being Jewish) more intolerable as it defined precisely what actions were sinful so that those who broke it (ie everyone) could understand why they were being punished with death. For Paul, that is what law does. It defines negative behavior and then assigns the appropriate punishment for it. Deprived of the option of being truly cleansed of sin, humanity is/was lost to a spiral of unmet expectations.

We know that the law is spiritual, but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living with me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my spiritual nature. For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot carry it out. [7:14-18]

The only solution, by this arrangement is in becoming a slave to something other than sin; a new possibility created by God in the resurrection of Jesus. Just as Abraham’s righteousness was “credited to him” by virtue of his faith in God and exhibited outwardly through circumcision, so may the believer, then, have righteousness credited to them by virtue of their faith in Jesus the Christ, as exhibited through a baptism in his name. Now while we can easily understand while the ritual pruning of a man’s foreskin might impress the sincerity of his faith upon an otherwise skeptical God, what is it about baptism specifically that conveys righteousness upon its recipients?

The key, for Paul, is remarkably simple in its construction. Death is the sentence for sin which itself is universal to the human condition. In dying, Jesus paid the literal price for his own sins (death) but, in resurrection, is now free from humanity’s sinful nature. Baptism in his name, then, is a baptism “into his death” [6:3], creating a new state of righteousness wherein one’s “old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—as anyone who has died has been freed from sin” [6:6,7].

The first half of that argument is so easily answered by common sense that it is hardly an argument at all for no reasonable person, whatever their belief, could argue that the dead might be capable of continuing to sin past the end of their life. This argument only remains ironclad, however, if one does not suppose that a person might be raised from the dead because, as far as anyone could really tell, it had never happened. That is what makes the belief in Christ’s resurrection so critical to the foundation of Christian belief. If one can believe that God made a special exception in raising Jesus from the dead and allowed him to ascend into heaven with his now-sinless nature intact, then it is just as reasonable to assume that He did so in order that humanity might be baptized into that death that they might escape their hitherto inescapable sinful nature as well. In that belief, the believer dies to their old self and is reborn, with Jesus’s sinless nature indwelt within them, into a new condition by which they are no longer a slave to sin but a slave to righteousness.

In one sense, sin carries out its own form of Judgment in that it is the root cause of death. Salvation from sin, according to Paul, goes beyond merely freeing the believer from their naturally sinful state. If justice can be said to exist, then it must exist in its highest form within any God responsible for creating all things. This means that in addition to death, which is caused by sin, sinners must also undergo a separate judgment by God whereby they are again punished for their sins. Those with clearly formed pictures of fiery lakes and eternal damnation may be surprised to find how vague Paul is, at least in his Epistle to the Romans, about when that judgment will take place and what form it will take.

In the opening chapter, Paul underscores the urgency of his gospel by proclaiming that the “wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men” [1:18]. Initially, it appears that this wrath is the catalyst for all the forms of evil and depravity that humans naturally embrace, with the final judgment being death itself, the “wages” of all sin. Later, though, Paul adds on a second component when he speaks of “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” [2:5]. He reveals no details about when this day of judgment is due to occur, only saying that there “will be great trouble and distress for every human being who does evil” [2:9] on this day when “’God will give to each person according to what he has done’” [2:6].

The foundation of Paul’s theology is that everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, has committed sin and, because of that sin, is condemned to die. Paul believes that Jesus will return to usher in a new era of divine peace on Earth and that, in so doing, would reunite the living and the dead for judgment under God’s authority. While evidence outside of the Epistle to the Romans also suggests that Paul believed this would happen within his lifetime, he is vague about that aspect of Jesus’s return saying only that it would “take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ as my gospel declares” [2:16].

Thus when Paul declares the necessity of salvation, he is essentially arguing on two different fronts simultaneously. Humanity must be saved from its own sinful nature because the effect of sin is death and death, as we all know, is bad. Humanity must also be saved from God’s judgment by being justified into righteousness through baptism into Jesus’s death. As Jesus became sinless and righteous in transcending death, so must each believer embrace the atonement that his death represents in order to shield them from God’s holy judgment. Without the resurrection, none may hope to become righteous enough in God’s eyes to avoid punishment but, in seeking righteousness through Christ, all may hope to receive “glory, honor and peace” [2:10].

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Great Books: Paul's Epistle to the Romans (Part One)

Epistle to the Romans by Paul of Tarsus
Time: Written in the middle of the first century of the Common Era.
Location: Most probably Corinth.
Great Ideas: Sin, Judgment, and Love

This essay will quote from the New International Version of Romans which can be found in its entirety online here.

Paul’s contributions to the New Testament are so tantalizing because he represents the first time that a shaper of the gospel of Christ is allowed to speak to us directly. This is not to say that no one had written on or about Christ before Paul fired up his amanuensis and became, in the literary sense, himself immortal. There is evidence that a variety of documents (a “Sayings” Gospel, a “Miracles” gospel, a “Cross” gospel) were produced by the early fold of believers who emerged on the other side of Jesus’s crucifixion and proclaimed his resurrection. Those writings, however, were eventually synthesized, redacted, and expanded upon by writers who were approaching the topic decades after the fact; each with their own brand of theology to promote and set of narratives to which they attended. The Gospels, in this sense, represent work by committee even if the final product was penned and shaped by one man or woman’s hand.

More treacherously, from a critical analysis standpoint, not every Epistle attributed to Paul is inarguably his own work. An examination of the merits of the various sides of that particular argument is in order if one seeks to fully appreciate who Paul was and what his message means. That discussion is only necessary, however, if one is writing on the whole of Paul’s work or writing about an Epistle whose authorship might be worthy of some scrutiny. Gratefully, no doubt for writer and reader alike, we are not.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans must be appreciated as one of the cornerstones of Christian theology, if not the document that defines what Christianity is and how it differs from the Jewish and Hellenic traditions that Paul synthesizes even while repudiating them. It captures a tectonic moment in the development of human thought in a manner that is passionate and unimpeachably sincere; sometimes breathtaking in its concise but elegantly structured arguments. It bears the voice of a mind possessed by genius which, if Romans' historical bonafides weren’t already impeccable, might be the most compelling argument for its attribution to as an actual work of Paul’s.

It is a work that serves many functions. It is a declaration of Paul’s intention to assert his theological influence on the congregation of believers who lived in Rome. It is an introduction to the basic principles of his unique gospel (or “good news”) for those who would hear it. It includes pragmatic advice on how to deal with different tensions that might arise within the church. It deals directly with the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Paul draws heavily from the Torah to legitimize his claim that Judaism should cede to The Way described in his gospel of baptism in the death of the resurrected Jesus Christ. While all of these goals shape and contribute to the Epistle to the Romans, three Great Ideas adequately house most of Paul’s themes and provide us with adequate structure to examine the work thematically rather than in a more limited linear fashion. To this end, we’ll examine Paul’s writings in Romans on the topics of Sin, Judgment, and Love.

The first task that a writer (whether physicist, theologian, or philosopher) must face in dealing in abstractions is to define, with as much precision as language might allow, the parameters of their interpretation of a given term. Paul’s gospel hinges its urgency upon the idea that every human being is sinful and is in need of redemption through Jesus in order to escape God’s judgment. To accept even the premise of the argument, the onus is on Paul to first explain what sin is and why salvation from might be necessary before we might consider the efficacy of the solution that he provides to its inexhaustible influence.

Though his descriptions of behaviors that arise from sin are more eye-popping on the page (and thus more likely to distract the reader from the simplicity of his message), Paul lays a definition on the line in the very first chapter, writing that:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men were without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator…{1:20-25]

Those hoping for an Aristotelian clarity that might read like, “Sin is the product of X,Y, and Z” will, of course, be disappointed by the layers that must be parsed in order to get at Paul’s meaning. Recall, however, that he is a Hellenic Jew writing to an audience of Greek, Jewish and Roman Christians. Not all of them accept as fact, as Paul certainly did, the indisputable literality of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, yet all must be able to accept the salvation equation as applicable to their own worldview.

To a converted Jew, like Paul, the equation is most simple. Though Adam had “clearly seen” God’s “eternal power and divine nature,” he chose to exchange “the truth of God for a lie” by eating from “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” [Genesis 2:17] from which God had forbidden him. Paul reinforces this idea of sin entering the world through Adam’s disobedience later when he remarks that it “entered the world through one man” [5;12]. Interpreted more radically, Adam did not sin against God in his act of disobedience for sin did not yet exist and, by Paul’s reckoning, only God may create something from nothing. In committing an act from which he was forbidden, Adam placed his own interest above that of God’s, serving at the behest of “created things rather than the Creator” with the “created things” in question being himself. In so doing, he exchanged “the truth of God for a lie” and thus, sin was born in the fundament of human nature.

To a converted Greek, the task was more complex. For in the ascent and decline of classical Greek culture, a god’s position in the grand scheme of things was subject to constant revision. Though Zeus was acknowledged as the king of the gods, he was eclipsed in public acclaim by many others, including Athena, Apollo, and later Dionysus. Many philosophers questioned openly the existence of the gods and, while their worship remained an important part of Greek culture, reason became a god of its own, producing irrefutable knowledge that, in many cases, supplanted what could only before be believed. As Greek political influence waned, however, so went the assuredness that knowledge was a better ally than gods, imaginary or otherwise, whose power could not be resisted. Luke puts this very idea into Paul’s mouth in the Acts of the Apostles as he visits Athens and entreats its philosophers and believers alike to join him in worshiping the Unknown God who:

…made the world and everything in it [and who] is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. [Acts 17:24]

By the same logic, Paul suggests that since the creation of humanity, all nations have been able to see “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature” but have allowed that vision to become distorted into images derived from nature, from animals and from humanity itself. Without the Law, given solely to the Hebrews as part of their unique covenant with God, Greeks were left to do the best they could with the information they had and things didn’t turn out too well. Now, their gods had been subsumed into Roman ones along with the rest of their once-dominant culture. Turning away from a supposed innate human understanding of God’s eternal qualities in favor of the gods’ more mercurial ones would, by this interpretation, be the source of sin.

It bears mentioning that something fundamentally new had been emerging in the Mediterranean culture in the century surrounding the time in which Jesus and Paul both lived, taught, and died. While the Persian and Egyptian cultures, long before the time of Alexander, had embraced the idea of mortals actually achieving godhood while they yet lived, the Mediterranean culture (excluding Egypt) had shown great resilience to the idea. Greek and Roman culture alike preferred elevating only the rarest of mortals to the status of divinity and usually conferred upon their death, rather than as justification for the authority of their reign. Every would-be conqueror from Thrace to Rome might claim divine parentage but men were men and gods, for the most part, remained gods.

In the span of one long lifetime (or two average ones), the lure of divine authority as a tool of governance had proven too tempting to endure and the Romans began incrementally importing these ideas into the Roman culture and all the places that it touched. Moreover, even as their claim to living divinity became more strident, the Julio-Claudian Caesars became more depraved in their abuse of common decency in the governance of their people. How difficult an argument was it for Paul to make to Greek or Roman alike that if this was their people’s conception of a god, then it was tragically deviant from the “eternal power and divine nature” that were inherent in “God’s invisible qualities?”

Monday, October 12, 2009

Author Sketch: Paul of Tarsus

Paul (the Apostle, also known as Saint Paul)
Born in Tarsus sometime shortly before or after the beginning of the Common Era
Died between 62-65 CE in Rome
Work under Consideration: Epistle to the Romans.

Other things that happened in Paul’s lifetime:

Herod Archelaus is deposed as ethnarch of Judaea and the territory, annexed by Rome.
London is founded.
Caesar Augustus dies and is succeeded by Tiberius, Caligula and Nero.
Buddhism introduced to China by the Emperor, Ming-Ti.

The writer known as Paul is one of the more elusive figures of history. Unlike our two previous New Testament writers (Matthew and Luke), there is absolutely no doubt that a man named Paul once existed and was responsible for at least some of the works credited to him as an author. Though he never met Jesus, the man who walked the Earth, Paul was instrumental in moving the gospel of his resurrection beyond its Jewish sectarian roots and into the free market of ideas wherein it eventually spread like wildfire from one end of the Roman Empire to the other.

Also unlike Jesus, Paul, as a writer, operated on the periphery of history—our image of him a composite formed from autobiography, demi-hagiography, anthropology, and good old fashioned guessing. He was born in Tarsus sometime just before or after the beginning of the Common Era. It was already an ancient city when Saul (or Paul as he would later be known) was born, with roots stretching back at least seven hundred years that had been molded by nearly every ascendant empire along the way, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, and Roman alike. It was known, in Paul’s time, as a center of learning, attracting philosophers and rhetoricians to schools that flourished against its metropolitan backdrop.

Of the many disharmonious “facts” assumed about Paul by various writers, there is little dissent on the fact that he was, indeed, Jewish, probably born into the tribe of Benjamin. Assuming that his father was a practicing Jew, we can also assume that Paul was educated in written Hebrew and, quite possibly, spoken Aramaic. He describes himself in the Epistle to the Galatians as “advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age” and “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” [Gal. 1:14, NIV]. At some point fairly early in his life, Paul left Tarsus and came to Jerusalem, presumably to be closer to the temple to further his studies. By all accounts, including his own, he became involved in the persecution of the Nazarene sect, also referred to as The Way, which proclaimed the forgiveness of sins through the resurrection and name of Jesus the Christ. Luke suggests in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul had authority given to him by the temple to imprison followers of the Way and, is shown, at one point to be part of a mob that stoned the believer, Stephen, to death.

On a journey to Damascus to persecute followers of the Way, Paul claimed to have had an auditory hallucination wherein Jesus commanded him to go and preach his gospel to non-Jews. Paul preached the gospel of the resurrection in Christ’s name, by his own account, for three years, before returning to Jerusalem and meeting with the heads of the church there. Eventually, Paul entered into a missionary partnership with Barnabas, an elder from the Judean church, to begin spreading the gospel outside of the Jewish homeland. They found their greatest success together in Antioch where, in time, a church of sufficient size and influence to rival the original movement was founded and cultivated. Using Antioch as a base of operations, Barnabas and Paul spread the gospel through Syria and Asia Minor, creating seed churches wherever they could convert believers.

Later, Paul headed a mission of his own that spread the gospel further into Greece until he was able to establish a strong church at Ephesus. The exact details of how Paul wound up in Rome, only to be made into a scapegoat by Nero for the great fire in 64 CE and executed, are unclear. While Luke claimed that Paul was a Roman citizen, little extracanonical evidence has surfaced to support this claim. By whatever means, it is widely accepted that Paul was a part of the Roman church if not its sole and proprietary founder.

Though some of his writings are still with us today, Paul is something of a cipher onto which the reader is able to project his or her own ideas about Christianity. Some read in his writing an obviously rabbinical understanding of the Torah and cite his teachings as the clear link of continuity between Judaism and Christianity. Others, perhaps less invested in his identity as a Jew, see his mission to preach among the Gentiles as a rejection of Judaism, both as a religion and as a culture. Classicists find in his work writings an obvious synthesis of Jewish religion and Greek philosophy. It is perhaps this stereoscopic quality to his writing that has contributed to its endurance among the canon of Western thought for nearly two thousand years since his passing.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

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

The first nine sections of this essay can be found in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009. Parts Ten and Eleven can be found in October 2009.

Eventually, Felix was replaced by a new governor, Festus whom Luke initially portrays as especially sympathetic to the Jewish interests coming out of Jerusalem. By his account, the first matter of business that the temple brought up with Festus was that of Paul and gave the new governor an opportunity to passively allow them to kill him without bloodying his own hands. If, they suggested, Festus could convince Paul to have his trial moved to Jerusalem then they would finally be able to kill him either on route or on site, thus reinforcing yet again the idea that it was Roman authority that was keeping Paul alive. When Festus presented this option to Paul, our intrepid hero was, of course, too clever by half to fall for such chicanery, insisting that:

“I am now standing before Caesar’s court, where I ought to be tried. I have no done any wrong to the Jews, as you yourself know very well. If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But, if these charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!” [25:10].

Once Festus recognized Paul’s right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome under Roman law, there was no more talk about the angry Jerusalem faction trying to murder him. Instead, we are treated to a curious interlude in which Paul was brought before Festus and two of his guests, King Agrippa and his sister Bernice to again state his case and, in the process, re-tell the story of his conversion and mission. Agrippa was the king of Chalcis and the last of the rulers spawned from Herod the Great to preside over any portion of Judea. Though his kingdom was small, he had also received from Nero the right to administer the temple and appoint its high priests, including Ananias who had been trying to have Paul killed since his arrival in Jerusalem.

Though Luke invests considerable detail into his description of the meeting between Paul, Agrippa, and Festus, the text here does little to advance what Paul has already told other, perhaps less sympathetic audiences. The purpose of this section appears to be giving Paul the opportunity to convince the man responsible for administrating the temple of the unblemished Jewish-ness of his mission. Though Festus cut Paul’s testimony off, proclaiming that his “great learning is driving you insane” [26:24], Agrippa later comments that “’this man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment” [26:31] before grimly remarking that “this man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.’” [26:32].

As we noted before entering into this last seven-chapter section of the Acts of the Apostles, how the text is interpreted rests almost solely on the historicity of Paul’s supposed Roman citizenship. Nowhere in the text is this schism illustrated more clearly than in this passage. Beginning from the position that the claim was and is true, Paul played an elaborate game of legal chess in order to ensure that his mission and his message will eventually reach Rome. The reality that he was eventually executed by the state in 64 AD (though inarguably for reasons that had nothing to do with the nature of his teachings or beliefs) is secondary to the fact that, along the journey, he is brought before great men of ascending importance and was able proclaim the gospel of Jesus the Christ to them without being disproven or recanting his belief.

From the other side, one can argue that the final portion of the Acts is a fiction designed to create the impression that Paul’s inevitable march towards his own death in Rome at Nero’s hands was one of God’s own design and Paul’s own choosing. Just as Jesus refused to call down a legion of angels to lift him from the cross and spare him the suffering required of the final sacrifice, so did Paul refuse to capitulate, bribe, or otherwise wrangle his way out of the sequence of events that eventually led to his martyrdom. Those searching for clear evidence for Luke’s tampering with the narrative to bolster his own themes need only recognize that he includes many details to which none inside the order, including Paul himself, would have been privy. In the passage that closes out chapter twenty-six, Luke writes:

The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. They left the room, and while talking with one another, they said, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.” Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free, if he had not appealed to Caesar.” [26:30].

While it is, of course, imminently convenient for King Agrippa to have made this observation out loud, this passage shows a clearly omnipresent narrator that does not harmonize well with the third-person narration that most of this section otherwise assumes. One could argue that if God is omniscient, then He would have been able to tell future believers of this exchange. The New Testament is, however, not typically shy about telling us when the heavens speak to humanity, not to mention which element of the Trinity was cited for authority and to whom precisely it was spoken. So, either God/Jesus/Holy Spirit eavesdropped in on this conversation, delivered it, verbatim to Luke (or some tradition from which he derived his history) and then was not credited later on for this miracle or this section, if not the entire story (if not the entire final seven chapters of the Acts) rests on remarkably shaky historical ground, undermined by literary license being exercised by its mortal author.

Once Paul finally left Caesarea for Rome, the Acts of the Apostles makes its last, and perhaps strangest, tonal shift. Dropping deeply back into his “we” voice, Luke details the journey from Judea to Rome with a nearly compulsive attention to detail—including the names of every city that Paul visited as a prisoner along the way. From the outset, the voyage by sea is fraught with difficulty, as if to show that though God intends to allow Paul to complete his destiny, He must still show that the ship which bears him towards it is under His authority. Paul managed to survive numerous storms, a shipwreck and a lethal snake bite while cheerfully making his way towards his own doom. By the time he arrived, it is difficult to tell that he is under arrest at all as Luke informs us that at Puteoli (the last stop before Rome), “we found some brothers who invited us to spend a week with them” [28:14]. In fact, though no mention of a mission to Rome had been previously mentioned, Luke notes that “the brothers there [Rome] had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appias and the Three Taverns to meet us” [28:15].

Upon his arrival, Paul called together “the leaders of the Jews” [28:17] and, again, defended the legality (from a Jewish perspective of his teachings). Surprisingly, the elders of the Jewish church expressed surprise at his treatment at the hands of the temple in Jerusalem, telling him that “’we have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of the brothers who has come from there has reported or said anything bad about you” [28:21]. While some are shown to accept his message, others, as their Judean brethren before him, rejected it when Paul proclaimed that “’I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!’” [28:28]

By Luke’s account, Paul spent two years in Rome, preaching to open-minded Jews and Gentiles alike while living under house arrest. Though Luke spends enormous amounts of time in the Acts of the Apostles pointing to the inevitability of Paul’s eventual execution, no mention of it is made within the book itself—closing only with the statement that “boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” [28:31].

Monday, October 5, 2009

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

Parts One through Nine of this essay can be found to the right of the screen in the archive under September 2009 and Part Ten in October 2009.

The last seven chapters of the Acts of the Apostles are the most difficult to analyze from a truly objective standpoint. Much like the cornerstone of the Christian faith, the subject of Jesus’s resurrection, there’s no good middle ground to occupy as one reads it because the answer to the question of whether or not Paul was actually a Roman citizen is ultimately an unknowable one. Entire books, in fact, have been written, both for and against, on this very topic and yet, slightly less than two thousand years later, there is no incontrovertible proof for either case. Many, however, on both sides of the argument, take what evidence they have, add a smidgen of belief or disbelief and come away with the sense that they do, in fact, have incontrovertible proof. If, for example, one believes that every word in the Bible, by virtue of its inclusion in the Bible, is absolute truth, then there is only one interpretation available. In contrast, if one believes that every word in any book must be examined from a number of perspectives (historical, contextual, literary, etc) to determine its meaning, as opposed to its literal veracity, then the question becomes more difficult (as in, nigh impossible) to resolve.

In recounting the details of Paul’s journey from Miletus to Jerusalem and all that happened after, Luke reverts back to the “we” voice in describing the ordeal, often including almost insignificant details that give it that “You were there” quality. Luke includes the name of every city that Paul visited on the journey, like mini-shout outs to the Christian communities along the way, until, in the eighth verse of chapter twenty-one, Paul finally arrived in Caesarea. All along the way, believers begged Paul not continue on to Jerusalem, increasing that sense that something bad awaited him at the end of the road. Just in case this theme might be lost on less diligent readers, Luke recounts a meeting with the prophet Agabus that spells it right out.

Coming to us he [Agabus] took Paul’s girdle and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’” [21:11]

When Paul eventually arrived at Jerusalem, we are told that he was “received warmly by the brethren” but, curiously, only James is mentioned by name among them. Paul shared with them, first hand, stories of his ministerial success and, by Luke’s account, they “glorified God” [21:20]. This celebration was short-lived, however, as, they responded to Paul with a dire warning about his reputation among the Jews of Jerusalem.

“You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; they are all zealous for the law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs. What then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come.” [21:21, 22].

While the prophesy from Agabus might lead the reader to believe that it is the unconverted Jews who pose Paul the greatest threat, a careful reading of that passage suggests that it is the converted who, in fact, are the danger. They suggested to Paul that he, along with four of the brethren, should engage in a week-long ritual of purification, including sacrifice at the temple, in order to exhibit his deference to the Law in a public way. Though Paul followed through on their suggestion, it was to no avail as “Jews from Asia” incited the crowd against him and, as it had so many times before, a riot broke out and Paul was nearly killed. In line with Luke’s thematic development for the second half of Acts, it was Roman authority that stepped in and prevented Paul from being murdered by the mob. Not able to make any sense of why the mob was trying to kill Paul, the tribune removed him from the temple and tried to get a sense of what was going on from him. Paul replied only that he was “a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city” [21:39] before asking that he be allowed to address the crowd that had just tried to murder him moments earlier.

We have already analyzed the largest portion of Paul’s defense before the people in an earlier section of this essay, as it recounts the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. The people took little interest in Paul’s story, insisting that he be killed until their ruckus compelled the tribune to again remove Paul and, this time, to be “examined by scourging, to find out why they shouted thus against him” [22:24]. Just as the soldiers were about to torture the “truth” out of Paul, he, once again, dropped the bomb upon which the plausibility of much of the rest of the book rests.

“Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen, and uncondemned?” When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? For this man is a Roman citizen.” So the tribune came and said to him, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” The tribune answered, “I bought this citizenship for a large sum.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” So those who were about to examine him withdrew from him instantly; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. [22:25-29].

Believing, at least according to Luke’s account, that he had inadvertently imprisoned and nearly beaten a Roman citizen without due process, the tribune called together “the chief priests and all the council” to meet with Paul and, one presumes, bring this tumultuous disagreement to an end. This meeting, while hardly bringing the controversy to a close, does reveal some interesting things not only about Paul (or what Luke wishes us to believe about Paul) but also the fault lines along which the factions of the temple were arrayed. Paul astutely observed that as some of those who stood in judgment over him were Pharisees while others were Sadducees and exploited the differences between them to break up the united front that they all once represented against him. With the council unable to reach a decision in concord in regards to Paul’s claims, the tribune again orders Paul back to the barracks where he could be protected by Roman authority. Luke also writes that Paul received a message from the Lord, saying “’Take courage for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome’” [23:11]. Though Luke (and presumably Paul before him) attributes this message to the Lord, it is not included among those words of Christ printed in red to indicate the divinity of their source.

With the religious authority at Jerusalem effectively deadlocked, a plot arose among the Jews to kill Paul. Paul’s nephew caught wind of this plot and, once again, Roman authority intervenes to remove Paul from Jerusalem to Caesarea, the Roman seat of governance, in order to protect his life. With this move, Paul’s fate passes from the hands of the unnamed tribune into those of the governor, Felix who, in turn, summoned those who would accuse Paul to a special session at Caesarea to determine his guilt or innocence. This time, Paul’s accusers are named as Ananias, the high priest, along with “some elders and a spokesman, one Tertullus” [24:1]. After having dispensed with the formal niceties of sucking up to Roman law, they laid out an arguably weak case against Paul, accusing him of being “an agitator among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” [24:5] and of having profaned the temple. Rather than offering evidence of these claims, they insisted that “by examining him yourself you will be able to learn from him about everything of which we accuse him” [24:8].

Though it is clear from Luke’s writing that Paul considered himself and other Christians to be believers in something distinct from traditional Judaism, he played the part of the innocent shrewdly in his own defense.

This I admit to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing in everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets, having a hope in God which these themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust…Now after some years, I came to bring to my nation alms and offerings. As I was doing this, they found me purified in the temple, without any crowd or tumult. But some Jews from Asia—they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, if they have anything against me. Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, except this one thing which I cried out while standing among them, ‘With respect to the resurrection of the dead I am on trial before you this day.’” [24:14-21]

Felix, unlike the tribune before him, is said to have “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way” [24:22] and, rather than settling the matter at once, had Paul put under what might be called loose arrest. While waiting for a tribune named Lysias to arrive, Felix is said to have summoned Paul a second time to plead his case in private. Luke also suggests that this was Felix’s not-so-subtle way of letting Paul know that if he would but bribe him adequately, that this whole matter might disappear overnight. In the course of just a few verses, two years pass and Felix was replaced by another governor, Festus, while Paul languished in legal limbo.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

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

Parts 1-9 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

In some ways, Paul’s ministry at Ephesus followed the all-too familiar contour of beginning in the synagogue where he angered the devout Jews and peeled off followers from among the God-fearing Gentiles until he (symbolically or not) abandoned the Jewish audiences and taught only among the Gentiles. However, Luke also offers stark contrasts between Paul’s mission and that he shared before with Barnabas. First, as he had before at Corinth, Paul spends a good deal of time (over two years) in Ephesus. The early strategy of raising a ruckus, establishing a seedling church, and then get beat up or run out of town is replaced by another; namely, preaching in the synagogues until resistance reaches a certain level and then moving the ministry in the home of well-placed citizens in the city that can provide legal and social protection while deeply planting the teaching of the church into those followers over a longer period of time.

Luke emphasizes a more supernatural side of Paul’s ministry during his time in Ephesus. While this trend continues to surface as Paul’s ministry moves on from Ephesus, Luke’s description of some of his time there offers a tantalizing glimpse at the effect of Paul’s residence there over a longer period of time.

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul. Handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon possessed…The evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. [19:11-13,15-17]

Neither of these stories highlight Paul’s own supernatural agency but more how people’s impression of him opened up the possibility of miracles through faith. The simplest explanation for this is that Paul’s reputation, in some cases, may have exceeded the reach of his own teachings and encouraged people on the outer ring of the circle of believers to project their own ideas and beliefs on to him. This could be and was only possible because Paul spent a considerable amount of time among the people of Ephesus and built up a certain cult of personality that had been lacking in his early missionary efforts.

After his successes at Ephesus, Paul decided that it was time to head back to Jerusalem, by way of Macedonia and Achaia. Before his departure, the obligatory riot against the believers there had to erupt but this time, the disturbance was instigated not by unconverted Jews but by the idols makers of the city who saw Paul’s teachings as dangerous to the future durability of the vocation. The details that Luke includes in the story are notable in their departure from nearly every other act of mob violence that had occurred up to that point. Paul’s disciples are dragged into the public theater and threatened. But, as Luke writes:

Paul wanted to appear before the crowd but his disciples would not let him. Even some of officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. [19:30,31]

Most notably, Paul is increasingly shown as having friends in high places who can protect him from these mobs. In the end, it was not Paul but “the city clerk” [19:35] who calmed the Ephesians and not by the authority of God, but by the authority of Law, specifically Roman law.

"If then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls…As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events, In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it." [19:38,40]

Thus, indirectly, Paul is shown to be under the protection of Roman law and, more importantly, the Gentiles are portrayed as being intrinsically more reasonable than the “Jews” who mobbed up on Paul every chance they got.

After leaving Ephesus, Paul returned to Macedonia (Philippi) and, after spending some time “speaking many words of encouragement to the people” [20:2], he then moved on to Greece. His plans to sail to Syria were stifled “because the Jews made a plot against him” and so he returned to Macedonia again, this time collecting disciples to join him in his journey and, in time, they all met in Troas.

It is at this point that Luke resurrects the “we” voice in discussing their travels and, as before, the story of Paul’s journey makes an uncharacteristic shift towards the supernatural with Paul as the agent rather than merely the inspiration. Luke tells the story of Eutychus, a young believer in Troas, who, while listening to Paul’s teaching, fell asleep and, inconveniently, out of a third story window to the ground below. Though Eutychus “was picked up dead,” Paul rushed to him and, embracing the young man, cried out, “’Don’t be alarmed…he’s alive!’” [20:10]. While less dramatic than Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead after having been buried for some period of time, this is the first time that Paul is shown to raise the dead and, factual or not, strengthens the narrative ties that link Paul’s march toward Jerusalem with that of Jesus before him.

When Paul left Troas, he made a meandering journey from there to Miletus and then summoned the elders of the church at Ephesus to join him for a final meeting before he left for Jerusalem. This meeting is momentous in the Acts of the Apostles as it draws the book’s second act, as it were, to a close. Pragmatically, it is notable that Paul called for the elders of Ephesus as it shows that this was the congregation he considered to be his own or, more generously, the congregation of which he thought of himself most a member. His message to them can, itself, be broken into three parts: a declaration of his works among them, a prophecy of his impending arrest and eventual execution, and a moving recognition that this would likely be the last time they were see one another. The details of these speeches reveal not only a great deal about Paul’s ministry but also what elements of it Luke wants us to remember as the book moves into its final section.

I served the Lord with great humility and with tears, although I was severely tested by the plots of the Jews...I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. [20:19,21]

And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. [20:22,23]

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will ever see me again…Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. [20:25,34]

These passages bear all the hallmarks of a transition from one period into the next, careful recapitulating the important themes of Paul’s second mission while heightening the reader’s anticipation of what comes next. It should come as little surprise that the chapters following exhibit a marked shift in tone with the establishment of new formulas and altered perspectives and voices from which the story is narrated.