Monday, September 28, 2009

Great Books: Acts of the Apostles (Part Nine)

Parts 1-8 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

After leaving Philippi, Paul and Silas traveled to Thessalonica where Luke tells us that “there was a Jewish synagogue” [17:1] in contrast with Philippi where there was none. The sequence of events upon their arrival is so familiar to us by now that the scant specifics that Luke shares about Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is of more interest than the eventual “Jewish” mob that forms and chases them out of town by threat of violence. They quickly moved on to Berea where Luke tells us that the people “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians” [17:11] and were more receptive to, at least, debating with Paul over the relative merits of Judaism and Christianity. Like Derbe before it (on Barnabas and Paul’s initial mission trip), violence is only shown to erupt when “Jews in Thessalonica heard that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea” [17:13] and again turned “the crowds” against him. While no specific act of violence is described (again in contrast to previous and similar episodes), the outcome is novel enough to bear examination.

We’ll set up this analysis with the observation that after Paul and Silas are forcibly ejected from Philippi, Luke drops the “we” phrasing of Paul’s movements that began after the mission into Macedonia.

After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. [16:10]

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica where there was a synagogue. [17:1]

If we are to place some meaning in Luke’s specific usage of both voices, then it is reasonable to wonder if “Luke” wasn’t left behind in Philippi, perhaps as a teacher to help grow the church seeded there. This casts inevitable doubt on the absolute historicity of those events upon which he is reporting but is not a primary witness. The predictable sequence of events in each new place that Paul visits (right down to the variations on the basic theme that occurs first in Derbe and then reenacted at Berea) is suggestive that Luke is more interested in forming an archetype that journalistic reportage anyway. Moreover, as we will see once Paul begins his inexorable journey towards Rome, when Luke does include himself by the usage of the “we” voice, the story does not become more plausible but, in fact, more laden with the patina of myth-making as already evidenced by Silas and Paul’s miraculous non-escape from prison and declaration of Roman citizenship at Philippi.

It is with this spirit of genial skepticism about historicity that we then re-engage Luke’s narrative. After the unruly Thessalonian Jews had riled up the Bereans against Paul’s teaching, Luke writes that, “the brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who accompanied Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible” [17:14,15]. With no other information about who these “brothers” might have been, the simplest explanation is that it was the newly converted at Berea who, in fact, paid for Paul’s passage to the coast. This might also explain why Silas and Timothy are left behind and told only to join him in Athens as soon as they could. With no specific act of violence described to propel Paul from the city, we might even imagine him frustrated with the slow progress of this mission (in contrast to that he shared with Barnabas) and, perhaps, his relative lack of financing. How severe was the schism that arose between Paul and Barnabas? Did it effect his ability to count upon the church at Antioch to bankroll both his and Barnabas’s mission to Cyprus (of which we hear absolutely nothing) with equal vigor?

Upon Paul’s arrival in Athens, we run into a story unit that is strangely asymmetrical in comparison to most others in the Acts. Unsurprisingly, Paul was “distressed to see that the city was full of idols” [17:16] but his usual act of preaching the gospel in the synagogues is met is not met by the usual histrionic hostility that accompanies nearly every other mission story. In fact, Luke ignores Paul’s mission to the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles altogether and focuses, instead, on Paul’s debates with philosophers in the marketplace and, ultimately, in the Areopagus in Athens. The Areopagus was, in fact, a court for trying certain kinds of legal cases in the city, but at no point does Luke suggest that Paul is on trial for anything. The dialogue between Paul and the sages of Athens is presented as more of an exchange of information between equals as Luke writes that:

Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas) [17:21]

In Paul’s response, though embroidered with some sharp writing, there is exactly one idea that would have represented any meaningful departure from what Jews had been saying in Athens for a long time prior to Paul’s visit. At the end of a speech about the nature of God, Paul adds that, “He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead” [17:31] though he only refers to the object of this resurrection only as “the man he has appointed” to “judge the world with justice” [17:31]. Though Luke does name a few believers gained from this trip, no mention is made about seeding a church or any meaningful outbreak of violence. More importantly, Paul leaves Athens before Silas and Timothy’s arrival, begging the question of whether (in a city of Athens’ size, jammed to the walls with philosophers, magicians, Jews, atheists, and every other imaginable variety of believers in something), Paul found little ground on which to plant the faith and elected to move on to more fertile soil.

Now separated from his traveling companions, Paul made his way to Corinth where he threw his lot in with a Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla who had recently emigrated to the region from Rome. If we had any doubts about the solvency of Paul’s missionary efforts at this point, Luke essentially confirms it in the opening verses of chapter eighteen when he writes that “Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them” [18:2,3]. This is the first time in the Acts of the Apostles that we hear of Paul engaging in manual labor to earn his keep though it is feasible he was making tents in Tarsus when Barnabas brought him back into the ministry. After an unspecified amount of time, Silas and Timothy finally arrived to join him, Paul is said to have “devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ” [18:5]. Luke indicates that Silas and Timothy came to Paul from Macedonia, not Berea where he left them. Perhaps their delay in joining Paul was due to a trip to the church at Philippi to secure fresh funding for their mission?

At first, the course of events in Corinth follow the standard Pauline form. Paul began preaching in the synagogue. The unconverted Jews grew angry until Paul disavowed them, declaring that their “blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles’” [18:6]. Allied with a Gentile named Titius Justus (notice the conspicuously Roman name), Paul established a long-term church in Corinth, spending over a year and a half, by Luke’s account, teaching there. At some point, the inevitable Jewish uprising against him landed him in the court of proconsul Gallio on a charge of “persuading people to worship God in ways contrary to the law,” by which we can presume they meant the law of Rome and not the law of the temple. But, before Paul can even defend himself, Gallio dismissed the case as frivolous. In a rare reversal of fortunes, it is the ruler of the synagogue, Sosthenes, who is taken out in front of the court and beaten. Whatever the actual course of events may have been, it is probably not without reason that Luke chooses Corinth to indicate Paul vindication by Roman authority against the Jews that perpetually harassed him.

With this victory under his belt after a longish string of disappointments, Paul sailed, along with Aquila and Priscilla to Ephesus. Though he entered the synagogue there for his usual round of debates, he abruptly left Aquila and Priscilla behind there in Ephesus and sailed, himself, on to Caesarea. Luke is very cagey in the details on this visit, saying only that he “went up and greeted the church, and then he went down to Antioch” [18:22]. By the church it is unclear if Luke means a church at Caesarea or, more likely, the elders in Jerusalem. No other detail is given. Nor does Paul’s visit to Antioch, an auspicious occasion in returning to the place from whence his mission set sail, earn more than a mention before he is off again, “strengthening” the churches in Galatia and Phrygia (from his first mission with Barnabus).

Back in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla must have been doing some church building of their own for Luke writes that “a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus” who “had been instructed in the way of the Lord” [18:24,25]. This sudden appearance of a charismatic teacher, schooled outside of Barnabas and Paul’s sphere of influence but not necessarily that of the Judean sect, provides some unexpected details about the contrast between these two early strains of Christian orthodoxy.

He spoke with a great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately. [18:25,26]

The obvious question is, how might a ministry based on the “baptism of John” have differed from the strain of Christianity that the new church at Corinth was embracing? Luke is kind enough to illustrate this difference in the opening verses of the following chapter as Paul returned to the Ephesus, only to find new believers, presumably won over to the faith by Apollos, in need of further instruction.

He found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” the replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. [19:1-7]

This account makes it sound like that there was an apocalyptic messianic tradition centered on John the Baptist that survived his death and had spread, perhaps in tandem with that of Jesus of Nazareth. It is one of the few instances where Paul is shown as a baptizer into the faith as opposed to a teacher of the gospel and, likewise, one of the only accounts of Paul presiding over the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In fact, though the early Judean church had been very specific about the two-tiered initiation of baptism and then indwelling, Luke seems to indicate that the baptism itself was the catalyst for the Holy Spirit to fill these well-meaning disciples.
Paul's Second Mission

Click to enlarge

Thursday, September 24, 2009

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

Parts 1-7 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September 2009.

With the prickly circumcision issue resolved, Paul and Barnabas’s presence was not so urgently required at the church in Antioch. Even as Paul and Barnabas began planning a trip to revisit the churches they had seeded previously, a schism suddenly appeared between them. Barnabas insisted they take his cousin, John Mark (who had bailed on them in Perga the first time) but Paul wasn’t having any part of it. So, with no other explanation, they “parted company” with Barnabas returning to Cyprus with John Mark and Paul taking Silas along with him on a tour of the new churches.

At Lystra, Paul was introduced to another young disciple, Timothy who was, likewise, selected to continue on with him and Silas. Luke adds in a confusing detail here that Timothy was born of a Jewish mother but a Greek father and, as such, was not circumcised. Before he is allowed to join the wandering ministry, Timothy was circumcised by Paul. This seems odd based on all the energy that Paul had expended to justify the faith of uncircumcised Gentiles and now, he insisted on Timothy’s adherence to the Law. Perhaps his motive was simply pragmatic. He needed Jews to convert Gentiles away from attending the synagogue. Uncircumcised, Timothy was a converted Gentile. Circumcised, he was a converted Jew.

About six verses into the sixteenth chapter, strange things start happening in the Acts of the Apostles in both a narrative and structural sense. Before moving ahead to describe the extent of these changes, it will be valuable to briefly reconsider what types of information it has delivered up to this point. The book opens with Jesus and the apostles in the forty day period after the Resurrection but prior to the Ascension. For several chapters after, it is a story about the early church in Jerusalem and the persecution that they eventually suffered at the hands of the temple authorities. With Stephen’s death, the church decentralizes with only the Twelve Witnesses remaining in Jerusalem while the elect among the converted fanning out through Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Syria to spread the message. Eventually, even Peter leaves Jerusalem to shore up support for the Nazarene sect in the outlying areas of its influence. In so doing, he sets a precedent for converting Gentiles into the tradition.

As early as Stephen’s murder, Saul (Paul) is introduced as a character and, for the first half of the book, functions as a supporting actor rather than a principal player. After being threatened with murder by pretty much anyone he spoke to after his conversion, Paul is sent to Tarsus with no recognizable orders beyond, “Don’t come back.” Later, it is Barnabas who goes to Tarsus, retrieves Paul from his exile and, together, they found a church in Antioch. One can reasonably extract from the subtext that it is the financial intervention of that church (which has yet to undergo any of the persecutions that have plagued the Jerusalem church almost since its inception) that saves Peter from execution at Herod’s hands. Whether the balance of power within the church truly did so or not, the focus of the Acts of the Apostles undoubtedly shifts to Antioch from that point forward. It details the Acts of Paul and Barnabas with almost no interest for what may or may not be happening in Judea until someone from the “old school” shows up and starts condemning folk. As long as Barnabas and Paul were working together (with Barnabas shown if begrudgingly in the text as the dominant partner), there was still a continuity tying the old church and the younger ones together. After their schism, Paul takes Silas, also from the original sect but positioned far lower in the hierarchy than Barnabas, on as a traveling companion but there is no longer any doubt about who is in charge. In short, Acts has gone from being a story about the early church after Jesus’s ascension to a narrative about what Paul did.

Nowhere is this transition made more clear than in the early portion of chapter nine where Luke writes that:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia to help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. [16:6-10]

Buried within that very matter-of-factly written passage is no less than three miracles of a grand order by the standards of the early chapters of Acts. First, the Holy Spirit “kept” them from moving the ministry into Asia. Second, the spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go into Bithynia and lastly, Paul had a clairvoyant vision of needy souls in Macedonia. Luke, however, provides no tactile details about these miracles (in stark contrast to Peter’s vision about the Gentiles for example) but speaks as if things of this nature were happening everyday and, thus, not worth cataloguing in any depth.

More importantly to the contour of the narrative, Luke strikes that unmistakable “we” in the final line and it sticks for long portions of the book up through its end. While some have argued that this was a convention of travelogues of the period, his use of the first-person plural is so pervasive as to seem deliberate which, in itself, raises new questions. Who is we? While wandering around from Asia Minor, did Paul come in contact with Luke, the supposed author of this history? If so, are we to suppose that what follows is more accurate than what came before as Luke was en eyewitness rather than a collator of historical traditions? The answer (which will likely never be known) becomes urgent as the historical plausibility of what unfolded next becomes more strained.

The journey from Asia Minor to an area north of the mainland of Greece began more calmly than most of Paul’s missionary jaunts. Entering the city of Philippi, Paul and his followers executed Jesus’s original mission strategy to the letter, locating one friendly ear (in this case “a woman named Lydia…who was a worshipper of God” [16:14]) and setting up shop in her house to reach out to potential converts. Luke is careful to note that, on the Sabbath, Paul and the companions do not go to the Synagogue (which Philippi lacked) to preach but, instead, “outside the city gate to a river, where we expected to find a place of prayer” [16:13].

Nonetheless, on the way to the river, Paul was confronted numerous times by “a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future” who insisted on following behind them, proclaiming that, “’These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’” [16:16,17]. Luke tells us that Paul “became so troubled” that he turned around and exorcised the demon of prophesy from her in the name of Christ. Before we get to the ramifications of his actions, let’s consider for a moment what Luke is already telling us. Paul is trying to keep a low profile and is not, as he had in Asia Minor, storming into the strongholds of Jewish authority and declaring them all unclean sinners. Is Paul troubled because there is a demon inside the woman or because she is broadcasting information that he would prefer to transmit from person-to-person?

After the spirit had been exorcised from the young girl, her owners dragged Paul and Silas into the marketplace, presumably to extract compensation for the loss of revenue her “cleansing” would represent to them. Predictably enough, “the crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them stripped and beaten” [16:22]. That night, as the pair sang hymns to the Lord in their cells, a great earthquake is said to have struck and the door to freedom popped open even as their chains were miraculously removed. When their jailer saw that the jail could no longer hold them, he began to commit suicide at the loss of his prisoners. Before he could, however, Paul told him they were all still there, to which the jailor responded by falling to his knees and asking them, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” [16:30].

Again, it is fruitless to argue with miracles. Whether factually accurate or merely suggestive of less-overt levers of power being manipulated, this is, in fact, the third jail break in the Acts of the Apostles and, by this point, if someone had suggested that there was now an angel with the full time position of pulling these jobs, no one would have batted an eye. The response from the authorities the following day, however, does suggest that in the interim something beyond a jail break that never actually went down had softened their position against the disciples.

When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.” [16:35]

In light of Paul’s track record preaching among the unconverted, his treatment at Philippi was mild. He got a flogging and spent half the night in stocks but it is not merely the relative timidity of the indignities he suffered that makes his response to those magistrates so jaw-droppingly game-changing.

Paul said to the officers, “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” [16:37]

Paul, a Roman citizen? To drop that into the story, some twelve chapters after his character’s introduction is the narrative equivalent of Jesus neglecting to mention he was Jew until he was about set to travel into Jerusalem. As so much of what unfolds from this point forward hinges on the question of Paul’s claim to be a Roman citizen, it actually skews one’s interpretation of the rest of the Acts of the Apostles along three lines of critical inquiry: Did Paul ever really claim to be a Roman citizen or was that a later invention? If Paul did claim to be a Roman citizen, was it true? If Paul was a Roman citizen, why did he wait until Philippi to mention it?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

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

Parts 1-6 of this essay can be accessed in the archive to the right of the screen under September of 2009.

After their early success at Paphos, Paul and Barnabas sailed northward to Perga, a coastal city in the region of Pamphylia. Here, the disciple John (known as Mark) mysteriously drops out of the mission and returns to Jerusalem. Luke spends only one dependent clause on the event but it figures so prominently later in the book, that it offers cause to pause and wonder why. Perhaps he was sent by the church in Judea to report on the Gentile mission as it unfolded and what he had seen in Antioch and Paphos had given him some unspecified cause for concern? Maybe he didn’t do well with sea travel?

Whatever the reason, Paul and Barnabas traveled northward from Perga to Pisidian Antioch (not to be confused with the other Antioch where the home church remained). Upon their arrival, their mission seemed at first quite peaceful. Attending the Synagogue on the Sabbath, they were invited to offer a “message of encouragement for the people” [13:15]. It is notably Paul, not Barnabas who stands to proclaim the name of Christ. Opening with a historical narrative about the Jewish people that would have been well familiar to the “Men of Israel and Gentiles who worship God” [13:16] that were his audience, Paul then unveiled his good news about Jesus.

Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that the message of salvation had been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath…We tell you the good news: What God has promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children by raising up Jesus…Therefore my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses. [13:26,27,32,38,39]

According to Luke’s account, the sermon as a big hit and they were invited back the following week to speak again on the redemption from sin offered through Jesus’s name. When the Sabbath rolled around, Luke tells us that “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul and Barnabas were saying.” [13:45]. Just a few verses earlier, we are told that “many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism” were inspired by Paul’s message but, by verse forty-five, it is the “Jews” (from which we may infer, Jews who didn’t think the Law was in need of an update) who rejected them.

To these critics, Paul fired back that “we had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” [13:46]. While the Gentiles are described as “glad and honored” [13:48] to have received this less-exacting invitation into the faith than the more orthodox Jews offered, the unconverted appealed to the “God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men in the city” [13:50] to expel Paul and Barnabas from the city. Echoing Jesus’s instruction to the disciples, the duo “shook the dust from their feet in protest against them” [13:51] and left. It bears mentioning that when Jesus spoke of shaking the dust from one’s shoes in the Gospel According to Matthew, it had a very specific purpose and meaning.

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off of your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment that for that town. [Matthew, 10:14,15].

By this tradition, Pisidian Antioch should have become a villa non grata so it is curious to note that, near the end of their mission together, Paul and Barnabas are listed as having swung through again to strengthen “the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to “the faith” [Acts 14:21].

Regardless, upon leaving the city, the pair traveled southeast to the city of Iconium where a truncated version of the events in Antioch before it unfolded. They arrived, preached the gospel, won some believers until “a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews…to mistreat them and stone them” [14:5] became known and they were, again, forced to flee. Continuing along the same southeasterly vector, they arrived at the city of Lystra where entirely different but equally catastrophic occurred.

As Paul was teaching (we presume in the Synagogue as before), he became aware of a man in the audience who was unable to walk that he “saw had the faith to be healed” [14:9]. Paul cried out to him, “’Stand up on your feet!’ At that, the man jumped up and began to walk” [14:10]. Now this got the folks in Lystra all worked up and their newfound interest in Judaism of whatever type was momentarily forgotten as they decided amongst themselves that Zeus and Hermes (Barnabas and Paul respectively) had come to visit them in human form. It is noteworthy that while Barnabas hasn’t been quoted as saying anything of merit beyond recommending Paul as a disciple to the church immediately after his conversion, he is portrayed inadvertently here as still being Paul’s superior.

While the duo react in horror to this crowd of God-fearing Gentiles trying to sacrifice to them, a group of Jews, now massing from places to which the mission had already been like Pisidian Antioch and Iconium came in and turned an even larger crowd against Paul and Barnabus. Their fortune reversed instantly as that crowd, “stoned Paul and dragged him outside of the city thinking he was dead” [14:19]. Fortunately for Paul and his companions, he was only mostly dead and eventually he got up and returned to the city, presumably in secret, before leaving for the city of Derbe where Luke reports that they “preached the good news…and won a large number of disciples.” [14:21].

Luke writes that, after Derbe, Paul and Barnabus then retraced their steps back through the very cities in which they had nearly been killed. Their mission this time, though, seems to be quite different than before as they “appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord in whom they had put their trust” [14:23]. These visits were no doubt enacted quietly and without the public ruckuses that had characterized their first contact with each new city. Luke makes no mention of synagogues in this passage and uses the word, ‘church’ for the first time in conjunction with some place other than Antioch. After seeding these new churches, the weary duo turned themselves back towards Antioch, their home away from Jerusalem.

While they were gone from Antioch, elders had been dispatched from Jerusalem to bring the church in line with the teachings of the original sect in Judea and Galilee and the news was anything but good. In order to be considered fully converted, the Gentiles of Antioch were told that “’Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’” [15:1]. One can only imagine Paul and Barnabus’s horror in returning from converting a huge mass of Gentiles to the faith to hear their own followers quaking at the idea that they had to be circumcised. That one dictate of the Law is no doubt what kept so many of those God-fearing Gentiles now eager to become Christians instead from becoming Jews in the first place. No doubt concerned for the validity of those new churches they had risked life and limb to establish, they headed to Jerusalem to settle this dispute with the central authority of the church.

While we must assume that some large faction of the Judean church was objecting to the conversion of uncircumcised Gentiles, what debate Luke records at the Council in Jerusalem is mostly sympathetic to Paul and Barnabas. Only one mention is made of “some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees” [15:5] who argued against them. This description is interesting though because it supports the idea that the Pharisaic opposition to Jesus’s mission was based largely in the fact that his message appealed to its traditional base and he was, in effect, splintering their power among the people to the benefit of their oppositional party, the Sadducees. Now, maybe ten years later, we see the Nazarene sect intermingled with those same elements, suggesting that at least some of the original believers still considered themselves to be law-abiding Jews first and disciples of Jesus the Resurrected Christ second.

Based on Peter’s vision regarding the conversion of Gentiles and the support of key members of the inner circle, the Council resolved the circumcision question with a surprising and simple mandate for potential believers to follow. Captured in letter form within the Acts of the Apostles, their message for the Antioch church read:

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friend Barnabas and Paul—men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. [15:24-29]

There should be little doubt that this came as no small relief to the body of believers already deeply invested into the church at Antioch and, we are told, “the people read it and were glad for its encouraging message” [15:31]. Judas and Silas remained for an unspecified period of time and then “were sent off by the brothers with the blessing of peace to return to those who had sent them” [15:33] though Silas, we’ll soon discover, was likely not among those who returned. Perhaps it is too cynical to assume that “the blessing of peace” might be a metaphor for “a big wad of cash” not unlike the one that they had sent when prophesies of famine had inspired a similar love offering. Perhaps it was also the promise of this “blessing” that settled the circumcision issue so quickly in the Gentiles favor.

Barnabas and Paul's Mission (click to enlarge)

1. Jerusalem

2. Tarsus, Paul's home.

3. Antioch, site of the first Christian church.

4. Paphos of Cyprus, Barnabas's home.

5. Perga, important port city in the region of Pamphylia. John Mark returns to Jerusalem.

6. Pisidian Antioch

7. Iconium

8. Lystra and Derbe.

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.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

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

The first four parts of this essay can be accessed from the archive on the right side of the screen under September of 2009.

Up to the conversion of Saul, the ministry of the early church was, in many ways, an extension of Jesus’s own ministry as they continued to baptize, heal, and teach among the Jews to fill a populist vacuum created by the temple’s complicity with Roman authority. Taking the Gospels and the Acts at face value, the church had taken on essentially three innovations since Jesus’s ascension; performing their miracles and teaching in Jesus’s name, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit with the spiritual gifts that came with it, and the creation of a community that lived, worked, and, perhaps, dwelt apart from the Jewish society as a whole. With Saul’s conversion and acceptance into the fold, the very nature of the ministry changed though Luke places the initiative for that alteration in the hands of the leader of the early church, Simon who is called Peter.

After raising Tabitha from the dead, Peter remained in Joppa, a city not far from Lydda where he performed the miracle and, from all indicators, began seeding a new church there. Meanwhile, in Caesarea, a man named Cornelius had a peculiar vision that the voice of God was commanding him to seek out Peter in Joppa. Luke includes some interesting details about Cornelius that makes the passage worth investigating.

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. [10:1,2].

Three important details about Cornelius jump out immediately. First, he is given a name, unlike the anonymous centurion who impressed Jesus with his faith from Matthew’s gospel. Second, he is not only a centurion from the Italian regiment, meaning that, in all likelihood, he was actually Roman and not just a member of the Roman army. Finally, he is described as being “god-fearing” (a term that shows up with increasing regularity as the New Testament proceeds along), meaning that though he was not Jewish, he exhibited great sensitivity to and even longing for the uniquely personal relationship that the Jewish God promised above and beyond the impersonal worship of the “pagan” gods. These facts are important not because they may or may not be factual, but because this is what Luke wants us to know about the man who would set a remarkable precedent within the early church. These qualities, in a sense, are also his qualifications.

After receiving his command from above, Cornelius sends to of his men to Joppa to fetch Peter. Peter, as it turned out was having a vision of his own. Praying on the roof of a believer’s house while he waited for a meal to be prepared, Peter had one of the most detailed visions contained within the Acts of the Apostles—a vision concerning the future of the church.

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven. [10:11-16]

It is important to note that neither God nor Jesus are explicitly identified as the source of this vision. In fact, unlike Jesus’s words to Paul in the auditory vision that led to his conversion, these words are not given the red-ink treatment, indicating words of the divine. As the soldiers arrived at the house asking for him, Peter heard the voice again, this time identified by Luke as “The Spirit” [10:19], urging him to go with the men for they were sent, at least indirectly, by the source of his vision. When Peter arrived at Cornelius’s house, he found not only an open-minded centurion but “his relatives and close-friends” [10:24] who were, no doubt, also mostly not Jewish. The Jewish faith, of which Peter was certainly once considered a lawful and observant member, did not allow for him to meet with, let alone eat with, non-Jews. Nonetheless, Peter said:

“You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean…I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” [10:28,34,35]

With this one rhetorical flourish, Luke would have us believe, Peter, as directed by the Holy Spirit, changed the course of not only the early church but of human history. Peter told those in the house that God had given to the people Israel a message of “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ” [10:35]. He offered a short timeline of Jesus’s ministry on Earth, including specifically that his ministry began in Galilee, spread throughout Judea, and followed that of John the Baptist. He suggests that God had “anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit” and that Jesus had used that power to “do good and healing…because God was with him” [10:38]. He asserted that “we are witnesses of everything he did” (meaning, the Twelve are the witnesses) but leaves the identity of Jesus’s murderers conspicuously vague, saying only that “they killed him by hanging him on a tree” [10:39].

As Peter delivered this first sermon to the Gentiles, a most surprising thing happened:

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. [10:44-48]

Now, there is no disputing the idea that (before Saul) only the Twelve had the power to facilitate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. In this sense, there are two interpretations that might be taken away from this passage. Either Peter, through his somewhat privileged connection to God, was able to extend this blessing upon them by virtue of his own will or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within these Gentiles was a completely unexpected side-effect of their being exposed to the “good news,” the literal translation of the word, gospel. Again, as with the conversion of Saul, baptism occurs only after the spontaneous indwelling of the Holy Spirit and almost as an act of decorum rather than necessity. Of course, this innovation to the ministry was the cause of great concern to the “circumcised believers” and Peter was compelled to return to Jerusalem to recount the story of what had happened and, no doubt, defend his own involvement in something that was clearly not Jewish and clearly not in observance of the Law. What was remarkable and clearly new about what he had done was that he had not converted Gentiles to Judaism. He had converted them to something quite different and this may have been the moment (though Luke explicitly places it elsewhere) that the church stopped thinking of themselves as a sect of Judaism and started thinking of themselves as Christians.

This notion is reinforced in the following section which again shifts our attention away from Peter and the Judean church and outwards into areas occupied by a great many peoples from many different backgrounds and worldviews. Luke writes that those who had been forced out of Jerusalem by the backlash from Stephen’s ministry had spread into many different lands including Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch but is careful to note that they shared the good news “only with Jews” [11:19]. Some of those converted, however, began preaching the message to Greeks living in Antioch and from among these “god-fearing” pagans, a new church began to emerge. Note that Luke never suggests that, because of what Peter did, disciples were authorized to make this transition. Instead, it is presented as almost an inevitable outgrowth of the ministry as it spread among believers separated by great distances.

When news of the somewhat unorthodox church that had developed at Antioch got back to the Twelve in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to investigate the validity of their faith. Heartened, we may assume, by this strange outcropping of predominantly non-Jewish believers, Barnabas went looking for the one man with a similarly unconventional conversion who might help forge a bridge between these two cultures—none other than Saul of Tarsus.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch. [11:25,26].

One wonders what exactly Saul was doing in Tarsus when Barnabas arrived to bring him into the ministry. No mention is made of a fledgling church at Tarsus so it is tempting to assume that Saul had merely spent the time wondering what the purpose of his conversion was if his fate, for the moment, was to sit hundreds of miles away from where his new-found faith might matter. Now, with Barnabas to mentor him in the orthodoxy of the Jerusalem sect, Saul was finally able to channel some of that unspent energy into teaching new believers. In the curious mixture of Jews and Gentiles converted to believers by the “good news,” guided in the tradition by Barnabus and steered into uncharted waters by Saul, something truly new emerged.

Chapter eleven closes with yet another curious addendum (Luke loves those), reporting that:

During this time prophets some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help to the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. [11:27-29]

While a community of believers spread all over the world could not live communally as Peter and the others had done immediately after Jesus’s ascension, an early precedent was set that enrollment in the church still carried certain monetary obligations. We may accept the gift of the Antioch church as the goodwill gesture described by Luke without dismissing the pragmatic subtext that this generous gift, delivered by Barnabas (Saul’s original sponsor) and Saul to the elders in Jerusalem probably went a long way towards legitimizing Saul’s usefulness if not authority within that body.

Monday, September 14, 2009

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

The earlier portions of this essay can be accessed from the archive on the right side of the screen under September of 2009.

[This essay will reference the New International Version until otherwise noted. Seriously, my cat ate my homework.]

As Saul languished, a disciple in Damascus named Ananias had a vision in which the Lord told him to seek out Saul in order to lay hands on him and heal his blindness. Ananias, already knowing Saul’s reputation as a persecutor, overcame his fear of the Lord long enough to make sure they were talking about the same Saul before being assured that “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles” [9:15]. Thus reassured, Ananias went and “placing his hands on Saul” told him that, “the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit” [9:17]. His sight was immediately restored and, we are told, Saul rose and was baptized before finally partaking of food and drink again.

Before analyzing that section, let’s skip back to the twenty-second chapter again where Paul recounts this event:

A man named Ananias came to see me. He was a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living there. He stood beside me and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight!” And at that very moment I was able to see him. Then he said, “The God of our father has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard.” [22:12-15]

In the first version of this story, the voice of the Lord came to Ananias, just as it had to Paul to give him instruction. Moreover, Ananias is identified as “a disciple” who, in addition to being given dispensation to cure Paul’s blindness, also facilitated his receiving of the Holy Spirit. It was only after he had been filled with the Holy Spirit that Paul “got up and was baptized” [9:16]. This is a complete reversal of every conversion up to this point. By convention and sometimes the threat of damnation, only the Twelve had the authority to facilitate the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and, then, only after baptism. The second version glosses over Jesus’s visitation to Ananias altogether and leaves the reader with the impression that he was less a devoted Nazarene and more an independent actor on God’s behalf. No mention is made of the Holy Spirit though Ananias does exhort him to “get up, be baptized, and wash your sins away, calling on his name” [22:16] while giving no clue as to who might have performed that baptism, if not Paul himself.

In contrasting Paul’s conversion with other disciples of the Christ, it would not be difficult to understand why his acceptance into the order might have been troubled from the outset. When coupled with his reportedly bloody history with the believers, it comes as no surprise that troubled quickly turned to murderous as he entered the synagogues of Damascus and began to preach that “Jesus is the Son of God” [9:20]. Note, however, the ambiguity as to the identity of his detractors as he begins his ministry.

All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. [9:21,22]

From reading that passage, one is left with the impression that it was, in fact, non-converted Jews who were the most angered by Saul’s conversion. Yet, as evidenced by the fluidity with which Ananias was transformed from a “disciple” in the first story to a “devout observer of the law” in the second, one can’t help but wonder if Saul’s detractors might not have also been from among the converted in Damascus. Typically, outspoken Nazarenes were persecuted by the temple authority but, Luke writes that, “after many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him” [9:23]. This threat was real enough that, according to legend, Saul had to be smuggled out of the city by being lowered in basket through the wall that he might escape. In Stephen, we have seen the temple incite a mob in order to effect a murder. In Ananias and Sapphira, we saw people killed (presumably by God) in order to maintain discipline among the sect. Of these two groups, who had the greatest motivation to kill Saul whether for his blasphemy or his apparent hypocrisy?

After being run out of Damascus, Paul went to Jerusalem but, Luke tells us, “they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was really a disciple” [9:26]. Only through the intercession of Barnabas, one of the converted elect, was Paul first introduced to the Apostles and then, brought into the fold of believers. This arrangement, unconventional as it was, does not appear to have been a tenable one as Saul “moved freely about Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” [9:28]. Since the murder of Stephen, there is no mention in the Acts of preaching or miracles being performed in Jerusalem. The strategy, as Luke would have us see it, appears to have been to blend in and act like the law-observing Jews that they largely still were.

Saul, perhaps emulating Stephen who had been killed in his presence, did not do this and, a verse later, we are told that “he talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they wanted to kill him” [9:29]. It leads one to wonder what it was about Saul that made everyone he came in contact with want to kill him (a condition that did not diminish with age). Perhaps unwilling at this time to undergo another major persecution, the Apostles “took him down to Caesaria and sent him off to Tarsus” [9:30] with no mention of a mission or a purpose for his voyage except to get back to where he once belonged. The church, Luke writes, “enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers in the fear of the Lord” [9:31].

Though Saul’s departure from Jerusalem and resultant peace sounds like a resolution to the first act of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke sticks a curious addendum on to the ninth chapter regarding Peter that sets up the next period in the Church’s tumultuous history. In it, Peter performed two miracles; one in Lydda where he healed a paralytic man and then, to Joppa, where he raised a woman named Tabitha from the dead. While it is probably notable that this is the first resurrection in the New Testament since that of Jesus himself, Luke’s purpose here seems to be to show Peter in motion himself away from Jerusalem. It also suggests, as Luke often does, an interest in showing women of the faith as part of the tapestry of believers. Lastly, it places Luke in a very particular place from which the next, improbable segment of the church’s history could evolve.

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.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

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

The first portion of this essay can be read here.

After the account of Peter and John’s first interrogation by the temple, the Acts of the Apostles offers a second glimpse into the early organizational structure of the early church. Luke, by this point, has already alluded once to the communal nature of the church, with members selling all of their worldly possessions and placing the proceeds into a pool to meet the needs of all who proclaimed the faith. If that point was already made, however, the urgency by which that arrangement was kept is clearly illustrated in the contrasting stories of Joseph and Ananias and Sapphira.

Joseph, a Cypriot from the tribe of Levi, is offered as an example of one who “sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” [4:37] and received, in return, the full support of the community and a fancy new nickname proclaiming his dedication. The fifth chapter of Acts, however, presents a darker side of this arrangement as, we are told, a believer named Ananias sold a piece of property and lied about the selling price in order to keep some of the money for himself. Peter was not amused.

Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. [5:1-5]

A few hours later, his wife, Sapphira is called in (not yet knowing her husband was already dead), repeats the lie and is similarly killed on the spot by God for her complicity. Luke does not shy away from the horror of the story as he describes Peter telling her, “Hark, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” [5:9] in the moment before she dies. Read even within a confined context of just the book of the Acts, this represents a serious departure from nearly every miracle performed by Jesus, the Apostles or, in fact, any disciple in the remainder of the New Testament. It seems to imply that Peter, in addition to the power of healing, offering the forgiveness of sin, and facilitating the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (all in Jesus’s name) now possesses the ability to kill someone instantly, though, notably it is not Jesus but God and the Holy Spirit who are evoked in the act. Whatever Luke’s purpose for including this story in his Acts of the Apostles (be it even the fact that it happened exactly the way he describes), he can not be far from the truth when he writes at the end of the story that “great fear came upon the church and upon all who heard of these things” [5:12].

Peter and John continued their public ministry, gathering in Solomon’s Portico near the entrance of the temple and performing conspicuous miracles so, we are told, people began lining the sick up along the path so “that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them” [5:15]. Their fame among the people became too great for the temple authorities to ignore and so they were seized and thrown into prison. It is notable that Luke identifies in this passage (for the second time in the Acts of the Apostles), the Sadducees as responsible for the church’s persecution whereas the Pharisees had played the role of antagonist against Jesus. Their plans to frighten Peter and John with a stint in the pokey goes sour when “an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out” [5:19], proclaiming that they should go into the temple and teach. This indignation set off a second informal trial against Peter and John wherein they were accused of intending “to bring this man’s blood upon us” [5:28] through their teaching. Peter and John are portrayed as resolutely refusing to discontinue their ministry as they “must obey God rather than men” which infuriated the council. Luke writes that a Pharisee named Gamaliel, however, urged caution to the council in dealing with them and, in so doing, inadvertently reveals something important about the historical context in which the Nazarene sect existed.

And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men. For before these days, Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” [5:35-39]

While the relative merits of Jesus’s ministry on earth may be debated in contrast to that of Theudas or Judas of Galilee, what makes the early Christian movement unique, at least in Luke’s eyes, is its staying power beyond the removal (whether by death or by ascension) of its prime mover. In that sense, Jesus was indisputably (if metaphorically) resurrected as his message continued to harangue the temple authorities long after his disappearance from the city and, indeed, the Earth. Gamaliel’s argument for leniency also suggests to us that Jesus’s ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons was not created in a vacuum but was considered, at least by his critics, as belonging to a tradition of unregulated prophets who had always existed in the Jewish culture as a counterbalance to the legitimized corridors of religious and political authority. Swayed by Gamaliel’s warning, the council sufficed itself with giving the dynamic duo a vigorous beating and then released them again with the same warning to desist preaching and healing in Jesus’s name.

After this second visit to the council, the church underwent something of a transformation as the Twelve created a new hierarchy of disciples elected from the body of followers who had been converted since Jesus’s ascension. On the surface, this decision appears to have been motivated by sheer necessity as the Apostles complain that it “is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” but what happens immediately after suggests that the church was drawing more attention (and thus more persecution) from the temple authorities and its leaders knew that they would have to abandon Jerusalem as the epicenter for their movement if they were to continue growing at the rate they had enjoyed thus far.

Among these elected “deacons” was Stephen, a man described in the Acts as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” who, in time began to work “great wonders and signs among the people” [6:5,8]. In response to Stephen’s growing fame, a number of the church’s detractors began a whisper campaign against Stephen until he was brought before the council for teaching that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [the temple], and will change the customs which Moses delivered us” [6:14]. Stephen’s self-defense was radically different from Jesus’s as he delivers a short synopsis of the history of the Jewish people from the time of Abraham up through Solomon. Though renounced by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, this passage lays the groundwork for a theological idea known as progressive revelation wherein it is suggested that God revealed his plan for humanity in stages; stages of which orthodox Judaism (as practiced in the 1st century) was nothing but a vestigial hold-over and Christianity, the most recent and presumably final iteration. Through most of his defense, Stephen embedded this idea into a conversation about the physical temple and its evolution from a tent in the wildness to the architectural wonder produced during Solomon’s reign, noting at the end that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made of hands” [7:48]. Then, he ditched the metaphor and went, instead, for the jugular.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your father’s persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. [7:51-53]

As the council members seethed at the implication of his defense, Stephen took that moment to look upward and announce that he could see, at that moment, Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That, by Luke’s account, was all the abuse they could stand and “they cast him out of the city and stoned him” [7:58]. Considering what a big deal the council had made about not having the authority to sentence Jesus to death, we might assume that this stoning was implemented by extra-legal means by a mob not directly traceable back to the temple. One can also consider the possibility that executing a lesser-known man like Stephen may have presented less of a threat to their reputation among the people of the Jerusalem than silencing a recognized prophet and miracle worker.

Monday, September 7, 2009

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

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles
Author: Attributed to “Luke”

Place: City of origin difficult to absolutely pinpoint but touches on most of the Eastern Mediterranean at one point or another

Date written- Placed by different scholars in a period ranging from circa 60 CE to early in the 2nd century.

This essay will reference from the Revised Standard Version of the New Testament.

It’s cruel, in a way, to read the Acts of the Apostles apart from the Gospel According to Luke to which it is usually tethered by virtue of sharing an author. The historical elements at the beginning of the Book of Acts line up more cleanly with the ending of Luke’s Gospel while the book, as a whole, continues building on themes that are uniquely Lukan and is richer for the connection. Still, if the work stands the test of time then it must do so on its own merits and, through the excavation of those singular qualities that belong to Acts alone, we may better appreciate the contribution that the author commonly thought of as Luke made to the canon of early Christian writing.

Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension left early church fathers with something of a dilemma and the opening chapter of Acts addresses its two major components with startling precision. After his resurrection, Jesus spent forty days with his disciples in Jerusalem (unlike the Galilean setting that concludes the book of Matthew) in which, it is said, that he taught them about the kingdom of God that was to come. The common wisdom among Jews of the time was that the Messiah would come to unify them both culturally and militarily and, from that platform, they would retake their homeland that had been overseen by others for over four hundred years. How then, if Jesus had ascended to heaven, could he be the Messiah? Moreover, if Jesus’s intention was to show his divinity to the people of Israel, why did he leave the dissemination of his message in the hands of his followers instead of just taking it to the people himself, as he had done in his earthly ministry?

Luke’s author supplies both questions and most of the answers when he writes:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” [1:6-11]

The kingdom of heaven, then, was to arrive upon Jesus’s next return to Earth and, echoing Jesus’s preaching on the kingdom of heaven towards the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, the onus fell upon the believers to remain vigilant while accepting that not one among them might truly predict the hour of his return. The kingdom of heaven (or kingdom of God, as Luke prefers) was something more profound than just the re-establishment of this dynasty or that dynasty to rule in the stead of the Greeks, Egyptians, Romans or whomever. His reasons for leaving this leg of the ministry in the hands of his “witnesses” rather than carrying the message himself remains somewhat hidden, though perhaps covered under the banner of the plan unfolding on God’s time rather than that of mortals.

Before carrying that ministry to the people in Jesus’s name (rather than his physical presence), the disciples drew lots to fill the position in the organization left open by Judas’s suicide, choosing Matthias who had “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” and could serve like the others as “a witness to his resurrection” [1:21,22]. While this may seem like mundane housekeeping before the dinner party, the Jews had, when still in possession of their own political sovereignty, chosen their leader by lots. By specifying this method for the selection of a new peer, Luke seems to suggest that the Apostles were taking it back to the old school in defiance of monarchical or imperial methods of rule that had taken root in their culture.

Luke makes note of two basic promises that Jesus made before his ascension; first, that he would return and, second, in his absence, they would receive power from the Holy Spirit. They must have been impressed at the speed with which the second promise was fulfilled, for at the festival of Shavuot (celebrated forty-nine days after Passover to commemorate Moses’s reception of the Torah from God and also tied into harvesting traditions), they were made aware and then filled by the Holy Spirit. This momentous day in the history of the early church, known in the Christian tradition as Pentecost (translated literally, “the fiftieth day”) begins with a private miracle and concludes with a public one.

And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. [2:2-4]

Luke’s goes on to tell us that “devout men from every nation under heaven” lived in Jerusalem at that time and they all heard what the Apostles were saying in the own native tongue. In listing the nations of those who heard (Parthia, Medes, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Romans, Crete, and Arabia), Luke reveals something about the world these men occupied that is rarely discussed in the Gospels where the only three ethnic players mentioned are Jews, Romans, and Samaritans. In contrast, the disciples’ newfound ability to speak to men (and occasionally women) of many nations, whether fact or metaphor, foreshadows the universal nature of Christianity’s appeal.

Peter used this platform to outline clearly the first precepts of the early church. After proclaiming Jesus as the Christ as predicted by scripture, he bluntly stated that, “Let all the house of Israel know that assuredly God has made him [Jesus] both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you have crucified” [2:26]. So when Peter exhorted people to repent of their sins and ask forgiveness, at least in this context, it wasn’t penance for some nebulous original sin related to the Garden of Eden. It was for having crucified the very person God had sent to free them from slavery, both mental and physical. The only remedy, as far as Peter was concerned, was to “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” [2:28]. Though this baptism is the only prerequisite for salvation that Luke enunciates at the point in the book, a curious addendum on the end of chapter two provides a clearer glimpse after what happened after.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. [2:44-47]

This, in effect, was an amplification of Jesus’s own ministry except it remained in Jerusalem and, if Luke is to be taken at his word, soon resulted in a whole tribe of communally-nested followers of Christ who would attend the Temple en masse, perhaps to discourage discrimination from other sectarians. Under these circumstances, it is no surprise that Peter and the others should run up against many of the same political factions that saw to Jesus’s crucifixion.

After Peter and John perform a conspicuous healing outside of the temple, they are brought before the religious authorities residing there to justify upon whose authority they were able to bring about this miracle. This is exactly the same concerns they had about Jesus, a magician of sorts who healed the sick and offered the forgiveness of sins outside of the brokered sacrifice and prayer for which the temple was responsible. Peter was obviously not trying to placate them when he proclaimed that, “this man has been healed…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead” [4:10].

Faced with a miracle that they could not refute, The temple authorities were forced to let the Apostles go with a stern warning to “not speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” [4:18]. This commandment was, of course, ignored and only added to their zeal in spreading the message among, by Luke’s own account, men and women of every country who dwelt in Jerusalem.