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].

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