‘Meanwhile 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 who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.’ (Acts 9.1, 2)
It’s common not to ask too many questions of the Biblical text, in some traditions none at all. So most Christians read and understand the Bible straight, and accept what it says as accurate. The fact that virtually all of the Bible is uncorroborated by any external independent source is not on the agenda of most Christian readers. We only have the Bible’s word for it. There is much to be unpacked here, but this article only opens up a segment of the book of Acts.
Christians largely read the Biblical text through a privileged theological framework that sits in a historical vacuum, notwithstanding scholarly critical work on the text itself. In fact, the text is either catching up with or creating the story, it is not reporting, nor history, despite what Luke (the author of Acts) says at the beginning of his Gospel. It’s all about the story, this is how we really read the Bible, you don’t need to be a Jew or a Christian (Jews and Christians read it rather differently) to get its meaning or where it’s coming from, a degree of non-attachment may help. Of course, there are differences between scholarly and religious readings.
So, back to Acts 9. Until recently I had not challenged the opening of Acts 9, until I talked to some rabbis in a Scriptural Reasoning session. From a Jewish perspective, the quoted words at the beginning of this article make no sense, as follows:
· The Temple (the home of national cultic sacrifice) and the synagogues, in the religious culture of the first century CE, were different religious environments. If this is not stretching an inter-religious comparison too far, the Temple was the national cathedral and the synagogues were chapels.
· The synagogues were also independent, locally run, owned and constituted. As such, synagogues were independent, the Temple had no jurisdiction over them, even in Judaea and especially in Galilee (despised in Temple/Jerusalem circles for its ‘mongrel’ culture/ethnic mixing). In light of this, it is incredible that anyone could imagine that the Jerusalem Temple could have jurisdiction over synagogues in foreign cities in different provinces of the Roman Empire. This may not have occurred to many Christians. Jewish readers will indeed be thinking that we follow ‘strange tales’!
· Paul’s letters from the high priest would therefore have got him nowhere, though of course he never delivered them. However, these letters also imply that he would have been authorised to perform some kind of ‘ecclesiastical’ arrest (there is no evidence of such a thing, even in Jerusalem, where the Temple guards were only able to arrest Jesus with support from the Roman authorities). In Paul’s case, apparently, he was also empowered to put them in fetters and march them back to Jerusalem under some kind of unknown extradition arrangements. The account also talks of him seeking to bring back numbers of people, so he must have had some kind of security detail, it was literally an incredible operation. This account is entirely manufactured, it is hard to think that there is even a grain of truth in this story. This is how Scripture works.
Every serious Bible reader, scholar, preacher, theologian, Christian leader should be addressing this question which is central to the beginnings of Christianity, when they have to deal with this text. I have never come across anyone doing this in church.
There is no argument that Paul (previously Saul) was antagonistic to the early Christians but it must be pointed out that the story of his journey to Damascus has been hyped up. Hyping up is normal in both scripture and historical writing, it is worrying if readers are not aware of this and if it perpetuates myths about our religious neighbours/predecessors.
However, the story doesn’t start in Acts 9. The chapter opens with ‘meanwhile’, i.e. after the interlude between Philip and the eunuch in the desert. The beginning of chapter 8 is similar to the beginning of chapter 9
‘That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.’ (8. 1–3)
The mention of Stephen means that we need to keep moving backwards in this story. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, has been killed, according to Acts by an angry mob. However, before engaging with Stephen we note that Saul (Paul) is already at work in Jerusalem, breaking into people’s homes (on what legal basis?), arresting them (general power of arrest, with or without the assistance of unmentioned Roman police?) and putting them in prison. The prisons would have been run by the Roman authorities, it seems more than unlikely that the peaceful early Christians posed any threat or had broken any Roman law. Still, it must be acknowledged that the account, as in Acts 9, contains some description of a purported legal process.
The Stephen-Saul-Paul persecution arc begins in Acts 6:
‘Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly [this secrecy may be worth commenting on …] instigated some men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” They stirred up the people as well as the elders and the scribes; then they suddenly confronted him, seized him, and brought him before the council.’ (6.8–12)
Stephen faces opposition from the (immigrant) Jewish community who accuse him of blasphemy, a religious crime of no interest to the real political and legal authorities, the Romans. Jewish religious leaders are involved in him being brought before the ‘council’. The accusation against him, unlike the quoted charge of blasphemy, references the charge against Jesus in the Gospels (Synoptics).
Moving into chapter 7, the high priest asks Stephen to answer the accusation. He responds with a long ‘sermon’ telling any reader of the Hebrew Bible, and especially religious Jews, what they already know, this seems patronising and unnecessary. He goes on to accuse this gathering of Jewish religious authorities, and any other Jews who may have been present, but no Romans, that it was them who murdered the ‘Righteous One’ (a Messianic title). Understanding his accusation as anything other than ‘You Jews killed God’s Messiah’ seems like special pleading and this text needs a warning for all its Christian readers before they ally themselves too closely with Stephen. Consider exactly how much tension was built up during his long sermon! Though it seems unlikely that he would have got through it without interruption.
The narrative then goes further and says that he tells everyone that he can see Jesus in heaven standing next to God. They are, reportedly, so enraged that they drag him out of the city, some distance, in large and noisy numbers, under full view of numerous Roman soldiers where they stone him. Now, Luke has already told us in his Gospel (chapter 23) that in response to similar words from Jesus — ‘the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God’ (Luke 22.69) — the religious authorities take Jesus to Pilate for legal action, followed by the ridiculous farce of him being taken to Herod Antipas (the New Testament is sketchy on political-jurisdictional borders), they pointedly do not take matters into their own hands, though this does not stop Stephen blaming them, of course he never read Luke’s story. As the story continues the religious authorities and the people, reportedly, call for the Roman death penalty (crucifixion), despite some (bizarre) resistance from Pontius Pilate (always keen to execute people and recalled to Rome on one occasion for his excesses).
The question is therefore, if Luke goes to such trouble in his Gospel, probably manufacturing several incidents along the way, to show that the Jewish authorities were unable (as historically they were) to kill Jesus by their own hands, why do they do so with Stephen? Every Gospel-reader should ask this question, and wonder what is going on in the book of Acts. This is a foundational narrative which should be shaking things up today.