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.

No comments:

Post a Comment