Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 3: “Pondering Paul”

INTRODUCTION

In his classic biography of the 16th century German Reformer Martin Luther, Roland Bainton describes a pivotal moment in Luther’s life. 

On a sultry day in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxon village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower, then a crashing storm. A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried in terror, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.”[1]

According to Bainton, Luther felt bound to this vow, thinking that he had “been summoned by a call from heaven to which he could not be disobedient.” Two weeks later, having gotten his affairs in order, he joined an Augustinian monastery, much to the chagrin of his father.[2]

Were you to search all of Luther’s extant writings, you would never find this story told. That is, Luther is not the source for this tale – at least not directly. Yet many biographers of Luther and historians of the Reformation employ this narrative as if it were the gospel truth. Stephen Nichols, an evangelical author associated with Ligonier Ministries, wrote in his 2006 book on the Reformation that this scene on the road to Erfurt was “[a]n early turning point in Luther’s life,” who took the thunderstorm “to be the very judgment of God upon his soul,” prompting him to enter monastic life wherein his “struggles intensified,” leading him to a veritable existential crisis that brought him to faith – true Reformation-style faith – in Christ.[3] Similarly, in Eric Metaxas’ 2017 biography of Luther, which one historian described as an attempt to portray the Reformer as “a hero cast in a Whiggish mold” and was a work “full of overblown claims,”[4] the storm takes on cinematic flavor. Metaxas writes, 

The raging electrical storm so frightened [Luther] that all of the worst phantasms of his demise and damnation were before him, as real as and more frightening than the raging storm, and the great weight of it all simply became unbearable. When an impossibly close blast of lightning struck, Luther collapsed to the wet ground in abject terror and cried out to Saint Anne. “Hilf du, Sankt Anna!” he shouted. “Help me, Saint Anne!” And then into the rain and wind he shrieked the words that would change his life and the future of the world, words none heard but him. “Ich will ein Monch warden!” he shouted. “I will become a monk!”[5]

Neither Nichols nor Metaxas provide a source for this scene on the way to Erfurt. As already indicated, they didn’t get it from Luther himself. So, where did this story come from? 

Before he became an Augustinian monk, Luther lived in the “high-powered academic town” of Erfurt[6] where he studied law. He befriended Crotus Rubeanus, a fellow student who would later become a famous scholar.[7] Over a decade after Luther’s decision to become a monk, and just a couple of years before the famous incident at the Diet of Worms, Rubeanus wrote a letter to the “reverend and beloved Martin,” describing him as a “defender of true piety” and acknowledging that his work was divinely inspired.[8] He wrote to Luther, 

Divine Providence intended this when, as you were returning from your parents, a thunderbolt from heaven prostrated you like another Paul on the ground before the town of Erfurt and forced you from our company, sad at your departure, into the walls of the Augustinian fold.[9]

This is the earliest known reference to the storm story: not a letter from Luther but a letter to him. It would not be unreasonable to think that Rubeanus heard it from Luther, although it is interesting that in his version there is no vow to St. Anne. But we would be remiss if we did not note the rhetorical function of the story, at least in the mind of Rubeanus. As historian Scott Hendrix explains, Rubeanus compared Luther’s experience “to the conversion of St. Paul in order to give Luther quasi-divine sanction for resisting Rome.”[10] In other words, Luther is cast as a sixteenth century apostle Paul who would in the eyes of many rediscover the gospel and take on the impiety of Rome. But if Luther was, to quote Rubeanus, “another Paul,” who then was the original? 

Welcome to an extended episode of Amateur Exegesis.

PROBLEMS IN PAULINE BIOGRAPHY

In the last episode, we discussed the prescript of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, we went over two of the senders in the superscription (Silvanus and Timothy), the adscription (“to the church of the Thessalonians”) and the greeting (“grace…and peace”). Paul himself we left for this week’s and next week’s episodes, episodes that will be longer than usual. As for Paul, who was he? How had he become a follower of Jesus? What was he like before he became a follower? What was he like after? When was he born? When did he die? Was he married? Did he have children? Where was he educated? Was he educated? What did he look like?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others and much depends on our sources. For example, we don’t find in the documents that comprise the New Testament any physical description of the apostle Paul. However, in one ancient narrative, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, we read this description of him: 

“And [Onesiphorus] saw Paul coming, a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, of noble mien, with eyebrows meeting, rather hook-nosed, full of grace. Sometimes he seemed like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel” (Acts of Paul 3.3).[11]

While scholars have noted that such an elucidation of Paul’s physical characteristics “is unparalleled in ancient Christian literature,”[12] its historical value lay less in what it says about Paul and more in what it says about ancient Christian conceptions of him.[13] This is because the Acts of Paul belongs to the late second century CE, not the middle of the first in which Paul lived and died. 

And when did Paul die anyway? How did it happen? How old was he? These too are difficult to answer given the available evidence. To know how old Paul was when he died we need two pieces of information: the year of his birth and the year of his death. Regarding the year of his birth, the data is virtually non-existent: “We are especially ignorant about Paul’s early life,” writes J. Albert Harrill.[14] Harrill ventures a guess of about 10 CE, placing the apostle in his twenties when he first becomes a follower of Jesus. E.P. Sanders conjectures that because Paul “was in the prime of his life” around the middle of the first century CE, then perhaps he was “born around the same time as Jesus or a little later,” anywhere from 4 BCE to 4 CE.[15]

At the other end of Paul’s life we have somewhat better information but not by much. The earliest source that alludes to Paul’s death comes from the end of the first century in the epistle of 1 Clement.[16] There the anonymous author writes to the Corinthians of “the greatest and most righteous pillars [who] were persecuted and fought to the death” (1 Clement 5:2).[17] He begins first with the apostle Peter (v. 4) before moving on to Paul (vv. 5-7) about whom he writes, 

After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the east and in the west, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the west. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance (vv. 6-7).

But when did this happen? And how did Paul die? At the end of the second century, the Alexandrian Christian Clement offers a timetable of sorts, set in the polemical context of tracing the proto-orthodox movement back to Jesus himself. He wrote, 

For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. 

And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero. (Stromata 17)[18]

Other early Christians agreed, not only placing the end of Paul’s life during the reign of Nero but also at the emperor’s hands. Writing sometime in the late third or early fourth centuries, Lactantius, a tutor of Constantine’s son Crispus, placed the lives of Peter and Paul squarely in the period of the reign of Nero. In his version of events, Peter is killed once Nero realizes that the pagan cults are being emptied through conversion to Christianity. “[H]e was the first of all to persecute the servants of God,” Lactantius writes. “He crucified Peter and killed Paul” (The Deaths of the Persecutors 2).[19] This places the death of Paul sometime between 54 CE when Nero’s reign began and 68 CE when his reign ended. 

And how did Paul die? Tertullian, writing in the late second or early third centuries, claimed that Paul was beheaded (Scorpiace 15). In the Acts of Paul and Thecla which we referenced previously in this episode, a defiant Paul tells Nero that should he kill him then and there he would rise again and appear to him (Acts of Paul 3.11.4). Not long after this, Paul is praying toward the east with his hands raised when his executioner comes. He goes silent and bends his neck to take the blow. We then read this: “When the executioner cut off his head milk splashed on the tunic of the soldier” (3.11.5). Word of this miraculous occurrence reaches Nero who doesn’t know what to make of it. And then in front of the emperor and a host of others, Paul himself appears just as he said he would: “Caesar, behold here is Paul, the soldier of God,” the apostle says. “I am not dead but live in my God. But upon you, unhappy one, many evils and great punishment will come because you have unjustly shed the blood of the righteous not many days ago” (3.11.6). 

Despite these concrete narratives and statements, they are still not well supported, amounting to guesses as to the fate of Paul. The lesson here is clear: historical sources make or break chronologies. And for the book ends of Paul’s life, our sources aren’t great. If we want to reconstruct the life of Paul, then we have to be content with not knowing a great deal. It is certainly entertaining to read these later narratives and they are instructive of what Christians in later generations thought of their faith’s premier advocate, but our interest here is historical. What can or can’t we say about Paul with confidence? And what exactly are the sources we have available to use in our reconstruction? As far as New Testament documents go, we have two main sources of information for Paul: his letters and the Acts of the Apostles. It is to the latter, the book of Acts, we now turn.

PAUL IN THE BOOK OF ACTS: PART ONE

Of the twenty-seven documents that make up the New Testament, only five of them are narratives: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles. Though some have contested it,[20] the author of the Gospel of Luke and the author of the Acts of the Apostles seems to have been the same person. Christians in the second century identified this author as Luke,[21] the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) who had been a travelling companion of the apostle Paul (Philemon 1:24; cf. 2 Timothy 4:11). Many Christians today find this attribution correct. 

The Genre of Acts

What kind of work is the Acts of the Apostles? For starters, the name “Acts of the Apostles” was probably not original to it. It first appears in the second century from the pen of the apologist Irenaeus who refers to it using this title in the third volume of his work Against Heresies (3.13.3). As a title, Acts of the Apostles is, as Margaret Aymer explains, “somewhat misleading.”[22] Though his letters demonstrate he thought of himself as an apostle (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:1, 9:1-2, etc.), the criteria for apostleship laid out by the author of the book of Acts excludes Paul from being one (Acts 1:12-26). Only once in all of the book of Acts does the author refer to Paul as an apostle (Acts 14:14).[23] In all likelihood the book of Acts was originally without a title: “Even in the Hellenistic period,” wrote Hans Conzelmann in his commentary on Acts, “a title is superfluous for a Greek book.”[24]

The genre of the book of Acts has been hotly debated for some time now and there are seemingly as many proposals as there are proposers. Scholars have suggested and defended a wide range of ancient genres into which the Acts of the Apostles might fit:[25] biography, novel, epic, and historiography. Yet one of the main difficulties is the flexibility of genre even in ancient times,[26] resulting in overlap that at times defies rigid categorization. Consequently, no single proposal “has emerged as the critical opinio communis,” writes Mikeal Parsons in his commentary on Acts.[27] Instead, scholars are increasingly recognizing the book of Acts as a “popular” work, one that is “[u]nrestrained by the conventions governing elite literature,” wherein “popular writers were able to blend genres and create new ones.”[28]For example, in her recent volume Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives, scholar Christy Cobb writes that the author of Luke-Acts “drew from genres such as biographies, epics, and novels when composing both texts.” For scholars like Cobb, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were “a part of the developing menippean genre,” [29] a kind of smorgasbord of genres that eventually lead to the formation of the ancient novel.[30] Reading Acts as a menippean text, Cobb writes, “provides a possible solution to the debate on the genre of Acts, as it incorporates both the novelistic and historical aspects of the narrative and preserves the aretological and pedagogical value of the text.”[31] Cobb’s proposal is by no means definitive but it does attempt to do justice to the fact “that Acts represents a blending of genres.”[32]

The issue of the genre of Acts may seem like an academic rabbit trail, impertinent to reading Paul’s story within its pages. But the reason identifying genre is so important is because it helps to frame how we understand what we read. To put it another way, genre informs our expectations of what we read. By employing a variety of subgenres, each with their own characteristics, the book of Acts emerges not as objective history but as artful story telling not without its own motivations. So, when conservative apologists (correctly) assert that the author of Acts gets a host of things correct about the Mediterranean world,[33] those correct observations should be set in the wider context of the genre, or better genres, of the book of Acts with all their complexities. In other words, these things require an appreciation of nuance.

The Story So Far 

In his first appearance in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s name isn’t Paul but Saul. Having angered the Jewish council with a lengthy and poignant sermon rehearsing Israel’s complicated history and relationship with its god (Acts 7:2-53), Stephen is taken outside the city of Jerusalem by an angry mob to be stoned to death (vv. 54-58a). Encumbered by their coats, the stone-wielding men take them off and, to quote Acts 7:58, “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” They then proceed to stone Stephen to death (vv. 59-60). But why was Stephen targeted? How has the story progressed to this point? 

As I discussed earlier, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are connected to one another. In many ways, the book of Acts is a sequel to the Gospel. It is this interconnectedness that led the prolific biblical scholar Henry Cadbury to coin the moniker “Luke-Acts” for the pair.[34] The Gospel of Luke, based in part on the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, tells the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. Its closing scene, in Luke 24:50-53, depicts Jesus rising into heaven after which the disciples return to Jerusalem and the temple. The book of Acts picks up on this, summarizing the ground covered in the previous volume of the Gospel (Acts 1:1-3) and adding additional details. For example, the disciples witness two angels who declare that Jesus will return from heaven one day (vv. 10-11). More importantly, in v. 8 Jesus tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In the narrative that follows, this progression becomes the program for the narrative.[35] Upon returning to Jerusalem, the disciples appoint a new member to replace Judas Iscariot (vv. 12-26). In ch. 2, the holy spirit that had been foretold both by Jesus (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5) and according to the apostle Peter, the prophet Joel (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32 LXX) descends upon them: a baptism of both spirit and fire (Acts 2:1-4; cf. Luke 3:16). This possession by God’s spirit causes them to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4) and creates the impression among the locals that these believers are intoxicated (vv. 5-13). In response, Peter offers a sermon (vv. 14-36) wherein he explains that what is happening is part of God’s salvific program and that should they wish to avoid God’s judgment they must acknowledge that the one they had crucified is the one God made to be both Lord and Messiah (v. 36). In response, some who heard Peter join the ranks of Jesus’ followers by undertaking the rite of baptism: “So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized,” writes the author of Acts, “and that day about three thousand persons were added” (v. 41). Later, in v. 47, we are told that the church continued to grow daily. 

Much of the narrative from chs. 2-5 focuses on Peter: he heals a disabled man at one of the temple’s gates (3:1-10), he speaks to a crowd alongside John in Solomon’s Portico (vv. 11-26), he is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin where he proclaims the gospel of Jesus to those within earshot (4:1-22), he confronts a dishonest couple – Annanias and Sapphira – for withholding proceeds from the sale of land from the apostles (5:1-11), and he, along with the other apostles, face persecution at the hands of the high priest and his minions, a scene that ends without any violence whatsoever thanks to Gamaliel – not a Jesus follower (5:17-42). So far in the story, the narrative has focused on Jerusalem and its population of Jews. But beginning in chapter six, the story slowly begins a shift in emphasis. [36]

A rift forms between Diaspora Jews[37] who follow Jesus and Palestinian Jews who follow Jesus over neglect of widows in food distribution (6:1). The Twelve convene, and they decide to form a group of seven men who will take over the tasks of caring for the widows and other concerns so that the disciples can focus on prayer and teaching (vv. 2-4). One of the seven is Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” according to the narrator (v. 5). Stephen is able to work miracles but runs afoul of the Jews who arrest him and claim that he was speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (vv. 8-15). “Are these things so?” the high priest asks him in 7:1. Rather than give a “yes” or “no,” Stephen delivers a sermon that begins with Abraham and ends with the present moment as he stands before the council (vv. 2-53). The end of Stephen’s homily summarizes perfectly Israel’s history as he sees it: 

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (vv. 51-53).

The narrator vividly depicts the response of the council: “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (v. 54). It is at this point in the narrative of Acts that we meet Saul, better known as Paul. 

Paul Before His Damascus Road Experience

Most of us are familiar with what happens to Paul later on in the narrative of Acts, when he encounters Jesus on the way to the city of Damascus. But what information about Paul’s life before that moment can we glean from the book of Acts? Three things in particular stand out.

First, Paul is a Roman citizen by birth. When he stands before the Roman tribune, a military officer stationed in Jerusalem who was responsible for a garrison of soldiers (Acts 21:32; 22:22-29), the tribune asks Paul if he is a Roman citizen to which Paul replies in the affirmative. “It cost me a large sum to get my citizenship,” he tells Paul. “But I was born a citizen,” he replies. This may seem like a rather innocuous and irrelevant piece of information to most modern people. For example, in the United States those born on American soil or to American parents are automatically considered citizens. But this was not the case for the vast majority of people born in the Roman Empire. Harrill estimates that during the time of Paul, less than one percent of Mediterranean people were Roman citizens.[38] To become one, either your parents had to be citizens, in which case you would have received a birth certificate indicating your status; you were a slave of a Roman citizen and freed; you performed a special service for the empire; or you were discharged from military service.[39] Citizens enjoyed a variety of privileges including the right to vote in the city of Rome, freedom from certain types of punishment like scourging, and the right to appeal to Rome directly, bypassing local authorities.[40] Paul invokes these privileges at certain points in the story of Acts and when characters in the story find out that Paul is a citizen their reaction to him markedly changes (e.g. Acts 16:37-39).

Second, Paul is a Pharisee. “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees,” Paul tells the council in Acts 23:6. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that was first formed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods during a time of “pronounced Jewish sectarianism.”[41] According to Josephus, the Pharisees believed, among other things, in the immortality of the soul and the existence of post-mortem rewards and punishment (Antiquities 18.13-14). In Acts, Paul describes the Pharisees as “the strictest sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5) and states that he trained at the feet of Gamaliel (22:3), a first-century Jewish teacher known not only from the book of Acts (cf. Acts 5:35-39) but also from the Mishnah (e.g., m. Sota 9.15, m. Pesachim 10.5). And it is Paul’s training as a Pharisee that is used to explain the third thing that stands out about Paul’s life before his encounter with Jesus.

Third, Paul is a persecutor of the church and, as Paula Fredriksen points out, as far as the Paul of Acts is concerned, persecution means execution.[42] Returning to the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 reveals quite a bit about Paul’s role in that affair and what transpired afterward. Many readers glance at v. 58 which describes the stone-throwers laying their coats “at the feet of a young man named Saul” as being just an interesting detail meant to do little more than introduce Saul into the narrative of Acts as one holding the coats of Stephen’s killers. But that phrase, “at the feet,” does some heavier lifting than suggesting Saul was an attendant at an outdoor cloakroom. Elsewhere in Acts, “at the feet of” a person or persons suggests submission to and acknowledgement of an authority. For example, early in the book believers who sold their land and houses are said to have “brought the proceeds of what was sold” and “laid it at the apostle’s feet” (4:34-35). And as I just mentioned a few minutes ago, Paul claims that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (22:3). Therefore, “at the feet” functions as a circumlocution for authority.[43] This coheres with how Paul depicts himself when he stands before Agrippa in Acts 26: “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison,” he reports, “but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death” (v. 10). Paul is thus depicted as a member of the Sanhedrin, not simply their agent.[44]

The Aftermath of Stephen’s Death and the “Conversion” of Saul

Following Stephen’s death, the author of Acts reports that “Saul approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). And this marks the beginning of something new in the story of Acts. Whereas in chapter five, the persecution endured by the disciples ended up with no real consequences, the death of Stephen is a spark that ignites the fury of persecution: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem,” the text reports. And juxtaposed the image of lamenting believers burying their beloved Stephen in v. 2 is the image of Saul “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” who “he committed…to prison” in v. 3. But as quickly as Paul had entered the story he departs it, and the rest of chapter eight is devoted to two stories involving a colleague of Stephen named Philip (cf. 6:5). The first involves the preaching of the gospel in Samaria (vv. 4-25), evoking the words of Jesus from 1:8 – “You will be my witnesses in…Samaria.”[45] The second story (vv. 26-40) anticipates what becomes the main thrust of the remainder of the book of Acts: the mission to the gentiles.[46] It is against this backdrop – the progression from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we read the story of Paul found in chapter nine. 

It opens ominously with the words “Saul, still breathing threats and murder” (v. 1). The use of the Greek adverb eti – rendered as “still” in the NRSV – lets the reader know that though Saul has not been mentioned since the beginning of ch. 8, he certainly hasn’t been dormant.[47] Far from it for, as we learn, he has received permission from the high priest to extend his work as a veritable inquisitor from the environs of Jerusalem to the Diaspora city of Damascus in Syria “so that if he found any who belonged to the Way”, v. 2 reports, “men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” That Damascus held a Jewish population is unsurprising,[48] but, given the narrative of Acts up to this point, the existence of followers of “the Way,” a metonym for the Jesus movement, in the city is. Regardless, Damascus is where he is headed and, as we will soon discover, he finds followers of the Way there. 

As he approaches the city, a light suddenly flashes from heaven: “He fell to the ground,” the narrator tells us, “and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (vv. 3-4) We aren’t told that Saul saw anyone; in fact, the details of the narrative militate against the idea. He instinctively inquires, “Who are you, Lord?” to which the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (vv. 5-6). Saul is then instructed by Jesus to go into Damascus and wait further instructions. In v. 7, we find out that Saul was not travelling alone and therefore there were witnesses to what had just transpired: “they heard the voice, but saw no one.”[49] And neither did Saul for, v. 8 reports, “though his eyes were open, he could see nothing” and was led by the hand to the city where for three days he fasted (v. 9). “He who a moment ago was so powerful has now become utterly powerless,” wrote Ernst Haenchen.[50]

Meanwhile, in Damascus dwelled a follower of Jesus named Ananias. Ananias has a vision of Jesus that begins with the Risen One speaking this disciple’s name. “Ananias,” Jesus calls. “Here I am, Lord,” the man replies (v. 10). The scene is reminiscent of ones we find in the Jewish scriptures: “Abraham,” God spoke to the patriarch in Genesis 22:1.” “Here I am,” Abraham replied” (cf. 1 Samuel 3:2-18). Jesus tells Ananias to go to Straight Street to the house of Judas for there he will find “a man of Tarsus named Saul” in prayer (v. 11). “[H]e has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight,” Jesus explains in v. 12. The author of Acts here uses a technique sometimes referred to as “mutually interpretive visions”[51] or “corresponding visions”[52] which are, in the words of Luke Timothy Johnson, “a masterful way of merging individual experiences into a shared narrative.”[53]Interestingly enough, it is also a motif that became typical of ancient fiction.[54] Its use, Mikeal Parsons notes, “highlights God’s control of the action.”[55]

Despite this request from Jesus, Ananias is reluctant. After all, he tells his Lord, Saul has a reputation of doing horrible things to those who invoke Jesus’ name (vv. 13-14). But Jesus reassures Ananias that this Saul – the man who viciously persecuted the saints – has become one himself and will be the means by which the gospel is spread to the “Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (v. 15), a ministry which entails suffering (v. 16). Ananias follows Jesus’ command, locates Saul, lays his hands on him, and tells him that the one who appeared to him on his way to Damascus is the one who has sent Ananias to heal him of his blindness (v. 17). “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored,” we are told in v. 18. Saul is then baptized and fed (v. 19). 

We could spend a number of episodes dissecting these nineteen verses from Acts 9 alone but time does not permit. We should, however, highlight a few things that will aid us in our discussion of Paul later. Allow me to enumerate them: 

  • Saul is described as a persecutor of the church and a violent one at that. To recall the words of Paula Fredriksen, for the Paul of the book of Acts, persecution means execution.[56]
  • Saul’s mission to Damascus was purportedly done with the authority of the high priest of Jerusalem.
  • This authority included the right to arrest followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem, no doubt to stand trial.
  • It is outside of Damascus that Saul encounters the risen Christ.

These details will be of interest when we examine Paul’s own claims about his “conversion” experience found in his letters.

Paul in Damascus and Jerusalem

According to Acts 9:19, Saul spent “several days” with Jesus followers, dubbed “disciples,” in Damascus and, v. 20 reports, “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” The irony of all this is not lost to those in the synagogue: “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” they ask (v. 21) His preaching to the Jews of Jesus’ divine sonship creates in them anger and, “[a]fter some time had passed,” they plot to kill him (v. 23), “the first of several Jewish plots” that he would experience over the course of his life (e.g., Acts 20:3, 19; 23:30).[57] When word of the plot reached Saul’s fellow believers, they sneaked him out one night, lowering him through an opening in a wall, tucked away in a basket (vv. 24-25). 

Saul makes his way back to Jerusalem and tries to connect with Jesus followers there, but they haven’t forgotten what Saul had done before he had left for Damascus (v. 26). Recall that in 8:1-3, following the death of Stephen of which Saul had approved, a “severe persecution” had broken out against believers in the city and Saul himself was conducting house-by-house searches for those who followed the Way. The trepidation, like that of Ananias, is understandable. It is Barnabas who brings Saul before the apostles and tells them of the former persecutor’s newfound faith: he “described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (v. 27). Though not explicit in the text, Saul’s activity in vv. 28-29 suggest that the apostles gave their stamp of approval on Saul joining their ranks.[58] But Saul’s preaching, as in Damascus, gets him into trouble with Greek speaking Jews in the city and, as in Damascus, he is whisked off to safety, this time headed for the city of Tarsus: home. But this time, he returns home as a follower of Jesus, having been “legitimized by Jerusalem.”[59]

Before we continue, we should notice a couple of things about this part of Paul’s story in Acts. First, we see some recurring patterns. In both Damascus and in Jerusalem, Saul preaches first to the Jews who, in turn, plot to kill him. He is then rescued by believers to move on to somewhere else. Second, Paul is brought before, not a singular apostle, but the apostles. This will be important later. 

Paul and Barnabas: A Dynamic Duo 

With Tarsus, the story of Paul in Acts pauses and the narrative shifts back to Peter, the one who had been the book’s main protagonist up until chapter seven. Time does not permit us to examine the significance of all that transpires in chapter ten, but it is summed up nicely in 11:38 after Peter reports what transpired in Caesarea: “When [the apostles] heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” A few verses later and Barnabas, who had been sent to Antioch by the church in Jerusalem, leaves for Tarsus to find Saul and bring him back to Antioch (vv. 22-26). There the pair remain for a year where, v. 26 reports, “the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” A prophet from Jerusalem predicts that a famine would affect all the world (which Luke reports happened during the reign of the emperor Claudius) and so the disciples in Antioch decide to send relief to those living in Judea by way of Saul and Barnabas (vv. 27-30). 

Following the martyrdom of James, the imprisonment of Peter and his miraculous escape, and the death of Herod by an angel from God (12:1-23), Saul and Barnabas in 12:25 either return to Jerusalem if you’re reading manuscripts like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus or from Jerusalem if you’re reading Codex Bezae[60] or P74.[61] The thorny textual issue aside,[62] at the beginning of chapter thirteen Saul and Barnabas are in Antioch, not Jerusalem, where at the urging of the holy spirit they are commissioned to preach the gospel by the church there (13:1-3). They end up on the island of Cyprus at a city called Paphos where they encounter a magician named Bar-Jesus who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus. (vv. 4-7). It is at this point in the narrative of Acts that the author informs the reader that Saul was “also known as Paul” (v. 9) and from now on we hear only of Paul, not Saul.[63]

In 13:14, “Paul and his companions” (v. 13) wind up in Antioch in Pisidia where Paul attends the local synagogue and preaches a message about Jesus (vv. 14-41). He is initially well-received but the following sabbath is faced with persecution and driven out of town by instigation of the Jews (vv. 42-50). They reach Iconium where the pattern repeats: Paul and Barnabas go to the local synagogue, they preach about Jesus, and are met with resistance spurned on by gospel-rejecting Jews (14:1-7). Ditto for Lystra (vv. 8-20). 

The Council at Jerusalem

After a scene in which Paul and Barnabas enjoy some respite in Antioch of Syria (vv. 21-28), the narrative of chapter fifteen edges back to Jerusalem into the central section of the book of Acts, a “watershed” moment.[64] “From this point on,” writes Conzelmann, “the apostles disappear, even in Jerusalem itself.”[65] Moreover, as Acts is intended to tell the story of how the church went “from a community that is (a) Palestinian, (b) Jewish, and (c) Torah observing into a movement that is, for the most part, (a) diasporan, (b) gentile, and (c) nonobservant of the Torah,”[66] this section plays a pivotal role. 

The story begins not in Jerusalem but in Antioch where believers from Judea arrive in town and teach that gentiles, in order to be saved, must undergo the rite of circumcision (15:1). In other words, these non-Jews must become Jewish proselytes if they want to be saved. Charles Talbert points out that the position of this pro-circumcision party was not without some support from the Hebrew scriptures: Abraham, a gentile, was circumcised (Genesis 17:10-14), circumcision was a requirement for those who wished to become one people with Israel (Genesis 34:15-24), and those non-Jews who wished to celebrate Passover with Israel had to be circumcised (Exodus 12:44, 48).[67] But, as Talbert goes on to say, “diversity of opinion existed in the first century” regarding the question of circumcision for non-Jews.[68] For example, according to the book of Jubilees, without circumcision an individual was bound for destruction (Jubilees 15:26-27) while in other Jewish traditions (e.g. t. Sanh. 13:2) the view seems to have been that some Jews thought that gentiles could be saved without circumcision.[69] For these believers from Judea, the answer was clear: gentiles must be circumcised.[70] It is interesting to note, however, the way in which the author of Acts describes these pro-circumcision believers. They aren’t “individuals…from Jerusalem” but rather “individuals…from Judea.” The author of Acts, Conzelmann observes, “uses the general term ‘Judea’ to indicate that they were not agitating under orders from the Jerusalem church.”[71] Their stirring up of trouble and creating of dissension (v. 2) is set in contrast with the unified front of the apostles in Jerusalem as well as the notion that Paul’s theology about gentiles was in line with that of the Jerusalem church. 

In light of this conflict over the role of circumcision, the church in Antioch appoints Paul and Barnabas (and some others) to go to Jerusalem and inquire of the apostles themselves (vv. 2-3). Upon their arrival, the delegates report their evangelistic success (v. 4) but not without a word from the other side: “But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses’” (v. 5). The gentiles, in their view, must become proselytes to Judaism if they wish to truly be followers of Jesus. 

A council is convened, and a debate ensues (vv. 6-7a). Then Peter, one of the apostles, presents his case against prescribing circumcision for gentiles. “It is an argument from experience,” Talbert notes,[72] and depends upon Peter’s experiences found in Acts 10 and 11. In v. 8, Peter notes that God gave the gentiles he encountered the holy spirit and, “in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us,” (v. 9) that is, between gentile followers of Jesus who are uncircumcised and Jewish followers of Jesus who are. He closes by reaffirming his belief that Jewish and gentile Jesus followers are saved the exact same way: through the grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 11). In this scheme, circumcision has no place. After all, Peter asks in v. 10, why would anyone want to place on their necks the yoke that neither they as Jews nor their ancestors were able to bear? 

Following Peter’s rousing speech, Paul and Barnabas regal the council with “the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (v. 12), language that not only confirms Peter’s testimony[73] but reaffirms that the gentile response is the work of God himself.[74] But the meeting doesn’t close with Paul and Barnabas but with James, the brother of Jesus. He opens by first summarizing Peter’s speech, referring to him as Simeon (v. 14). “Simeon” (as opposed to “Simon”) is an Aramaicism[75] and an indication that the author of Acts is trying to portray James as speaking Aramaic rather than Greek.[76] Peter’s speech, James claims, is in agreement “with the words of the prophets” (v. 15). He then proceeds to quote a pastiche of texts, the bulk of which come from Amos 9:11-12 as it is found (with some modification) in the LXX (vv. 15-18).[77] As Talbert points out, the language of rebuilding the “dwelling of David” is an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus and the statement that “even all the Gentiles” will seek the Lord speaks to the conversion witnessed by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas in their journeys.[78] Following his citation of Holy Writ, James first states negatively that the requirement of circumcision and Torah observance generally should not be required of “those Gentiles who are turning to God” (v. 19). He then affirms that instead gentiles should “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (v. 20). “The Gentile Messianists are to behave in this way,” writes Talbert, “not because the law says so but because it is the minimum that will allow Jews who observe the law to associate with Gentiles who do not.”[79]

The Band Breaks Up

After James’ speech, the council decides that they will send two of their own, Silas and Judas called Barsabbas, to accompany Paul and Barnabas on their journey back to Antioch (v. 22). The two are to deliver a letter “to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (v. 23) that explains the purpose of their visit and lays out the rules decided upon by James, Peter, and the rest (vv. 24-29). Upon delivery of the message, both Silas and Judas are well received and, after spending some time in town, return to Jerusalem, leaving Paul and Barnabas behind (vv. 30-35). 

According to v. 36, Paul approached Barnabas with the suggestion that they return to those cities wherein they had proclaimed the word of the Lord to check on their status. Barnabas wants to bring along John Mark who, in chapter thirteen, had abandoned Paul’s mission to Perga for Jerusalem (13:13). Paul, reeling from this desertion, dissents, creating a rift between Barnabas and himself (15:38). “The disagreement became so sharp,” writes the author of Acts, “that they parted company” (v. 39). Barnabas takes John Mark and heads for Cyprus; Paul takes Silas who we met earlier in the chapter and heads for Syria and Cilicia (vv. 40-41). But this disagreement between the two is not devastating to the mission of the gospel: “Far from harming the mission, the parting thus occasioned actually doubles it,” Haenchen reminds us.[80] With the addition of Silas to Paul’s missionary band, the movement toward the epistle of 1 Thessalonians begins. As I noted in episode two, the “Silvanus” of the letter’s prescript is no doubt the “Silas” of the book of Acts. 

NEXT TIME 

What does the future hold in store for Paul and Silas? How does Timothy, also mentioned in the prescript of 1 Thessalonians, enter into the situation? In the next episode, we’ll continue our brief discussion of Paul’s story in the Acts of the Apostles up to the mission to Thessalonica in ch. 17. We’ll preface that discussion with an overview of 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10, the beginning of the epistle’s proem. That’s next time on Amateur Exegesis


[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 21.

[2] Bainton, Here I Stand, 34. 

[3] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 26, 30-31.

[4] Carlos Eire, “Slaying the Dragon of the Dark Ages” (12.18.17), nytimes.com.

[5] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, electronic edition (New York: Viking, 2017), Chapter Two: Lightning Strikes.

[6] Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 30.

[7] Hendrix, Martin Luther, 29.

[8] “Crotus Rubeanus to Luther – October 16, 1519,” in Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 1 – 1507-1521, Preserved Smith, translator (Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1913), 229, 233.

[9] “Crotus Rubeanus to Luther – October 16, 1519,” in Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 1 – 1507-1521, 233.

[10] Hendrix, Martin Luther, 33.

[11] Translation taken from The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M.R. James, J.K. Elliot, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[12] János Bollók, “The description of Paul in the Acta Pauli,” in The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, Jan N. Bremmer, editor (Kampen, the Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing Co., 1996), 1. 

[13] J. Albert Harrill, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 108.

[14] Harrill, Paul the Apostle, 24.

[15] E.P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 4; cf. Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, “Introduction,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, second edition, Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), xix-xx.

[16] On the dating of 1 Clement, see The Apostolic Fathers, Bart D. Ehrman, editor and translator, Loeb Classical Library (London: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:23-25; The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, third edition, Michael W. Holmes, editor and translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 35-36.

[17] Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, third edition, Michael W. Holmes, editor and translator.

[18] Translation taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 2 – Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, Philip Schaff, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004).

[19] Translation taken from The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 54 – Lactantius: the Minor Works, Sister Mary Francis McDonald, translator (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America Press, 1965).

[20] E.g., Patricia Walters, The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts: A Reassessment of the Evidence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[21] For an overview, see John Nolland, Luke 1 – 9:20, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1989), xxxiv-xxxv.

[22] Margaret Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, revised and updated, third edition, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 536. 

[23] Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” 536; Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 29.

[24] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, translators, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987), 3. 

[25] Mikeal Parsons, Acts, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15; cf. Daniel Marguerat, The First Christian Historian: Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 26-30.

[26] Barbara Shellard, New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources and Literary Context (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 17.

[27] Parsons, Acts, 15.

[28] Pervo, Acts, 18.

[29] Christy Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 16.

[30] Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power, 42

[31] Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power, 45.

[32] Parsons, Acts, 15.

[33] E.g., Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 255-260; Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World, updated and expanded (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2017), 86-89.

[34] E.g., Henry J. Cadbury, “Lexical Notes on Luke-Acts I,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 44 no. 3/4 (1925), 214-227; cf. Marguerat, The First Christian Historian, 43.

[35] James D.G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 10-11.

[36] Daniel R. Schwartz, “Paul in the Canonical Book of Acts,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, 189.

[37] Cf. Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 45.

[38] Harrill, Paul the Apostle, 98.

[39] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 62-63.

[40] Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 63.

[41] Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Israel among the Nations: The Persian Period,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Michael D. Coogan, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 277.

[42] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 82.

[43] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 140.

[44] Pervo, Acts, 630; cf. Parsons, Acts, 341.

[45] Charles Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, revised edition (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 74.

[46] Cf. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 159.

[47] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 162; Pervo, Acts, 240.

[48] Erich S. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 106.

[49] Against the image of Paul’s traveling companions as some kind of police escort, Ernst Haenchen (The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, Bernard Noble and Gerald Shinn, translators [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971], 322n5) writes that “[t]o imagine Paul roving outside Judaea with a squad of Jerusalem temple-police is enough to place this hypothesis in the realm of fantasy.”

[50] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 322.

[51] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 164.

[52] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 72.

[53] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 164.

[54] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 72. Parsons (Acts, 129) provides examples of this motif in ancient literature.

[55] Parsons, Acts, 129.

[56] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 82.

[57] Parsons, Acts, 134.

[58] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 332.

[59] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 75.

[60] D and others read apo.

[61] P74 and others read ex.

[62] For an overview, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 350-352.

[63] On Paul’s two names in the Acts of the Apostles, see the classic article by G.A. Harrier entitled “Saul Who Also Is Called Paul,” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 33 no. 1 (January 1940), 19-33. See also Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul, John Bowden, translator (London: SCM Press, 1991), 105n73-106; Margaret Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 543.

[64] Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, 195.

[65] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 115.

[66] Schwartz, “Paul in the Canonical Book of Acts,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, 188.

[67] Talbert, Reading Acts, 128.

[68] Talbert, Reading Acts, 128.

[69] See Parsons, Acts, 208-209.

[70] Talbert, Reading Acts, 129.

[71] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 115; cf. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 442-443.

[72] Talbert, Reading Acts, 130.

[73] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 447.

[74] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 263.

[75] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 117; cf. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, 203.

[76] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 447.

[77] On the modifications made to the text, see Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 265.

[78] Talbert, Reading Acts, 131.

[79] Talbert, Reading Acts, 133. Dunn (The Acts of the Apostles, 204) states that “the Noahide laws…became the basis for association.” 

[80] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 474.

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