Acts 13:6-17 – The Blinding of Bar-Jesus

Barnabas and Saul arrive at Paphos they are challenged by a “sorcerer and false prophet” named Bar-Jesus, or Bar-Joshua. Bar-Jesus was a counselor for Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul on Cyprus.  Thus Bar-Jesus was a very powerful man in the government His name means “son of the Savior,” but he is also known as Elymas, meaning “Wise” in Arabic.

Sergius Paulus wishes to meet with Saul, but Bar-Jesus opposes this meeting.  Paul is described as “full of the Spirit” as he condemns Bar-Jesus.  Paul accuses him of trickery and deceit, and perverting the ways of the Lord.  Paul then blinds the man, and he had to be led away. This is in itself a rather unique event in the New Testament, but the miracle is also a symbolic act.   There are a number of miracles in the New Testament which are more or less “prophetic acts.”  Jesus heals a blind man in Mark 8:22-26 who begins to see, then sees fully.  This is a picture of the understanding of the disciples at that point in the gospel of Mark.  The result is that the Gentile man who is not a God-Fearer believed and was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

Luke uses the Blinding of Bar-Jesus at this point in Acts to signal a major shift to Gentile mission.  Luke begins to refer to Saul and Paul.  The change occurs in the middle of the conflict with Bar-Jesus.   Likely Saul was always also known as Paul, but it is at this critical part of the story when Luke chooses to change names in the narrative.  This indicates a major shift in the progress of salvation history, from the Jews to the Gentiles.

Luke also switches the order of the names from this point on in the book; up until this event, Barnabas and Saul have traveled together, now Paul and Barnabas will travel on to Antioch.  The only exception is at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, likely because Barnabas took the lead in speaking with James.  On a literary level, Paul is the main human character for the rest of the book; the blinding of Bar-Jesus is the transitional point in the whole book.

Paul and Bar-Jesus are in many ways similar: both were blind and both encounter the truth of the Gospel of Jesus.  As Darrell Bock says, “Elymas is where Paul was years earlier” (Acts, 446).  But Bar-Jesus is radically off-base from the Law.  He is a sorcerer and working for a Roman official.  While Paul condemns this one man for his unfaithfulness, he is also pointing his finger at the whole of the Jewish nation; Paul too was in error concerning the nature of Jesus as the Messiah.

It is critical to note that Bar-Jesus is blind only for a time, not permanently.  So too, Israel is only set aside in the progress of salvation, they are not “cut off forever.”  If this is a symbolic miracle indicating that the Jews are “blinded” to the gospel, it also promises a restoration of the Jewish people in the future.

Today at CNN: Crossan on Jesus

CNN News ran a story today on John Dominic Crossan’s “Blasphemous views” on Jesus.  Since this is a news story, there is little substantive here.  The emphasis is more on reactions to Crossan and his personal struggle with his scholarship and faith. In the interest of full disclosure, I have always enjoyed reading Crossan. My interest in Historical Jesus studies and Christian Origins was sparked largely by his Historical Jesus and the Birth of Christianity.  I do find myself at odds with him on virtually every point, however.  In a Gospels class, a student once called Crossan “my favorite whipping boy.”  While I am not sure I ever whipped him, I do use him as a foil too often in dealing with Historical Jesus issues. But then that is the nature of John Dominic Crossan, he says things boldly and attracts attention.

I have several observations on this article.  First, the article is out of date.  For example, the author cites his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography as “recent” (my copy is the 1995 edition from Harper).  My guess is that the writer of this piece has the 2009 re-packaging of the book in mind, failing to notice that it is now over 15 years old.  Second, the article mentions his association with the Jesus Seminar, despite the fact that this too is old news.  As is well known, the Jesus Seminar has always been on the fringe of scholarship, even in Jesus Studies.  Third, while his involvement in A&E Bible programs is mentioned, there is nothing on the more substantive debates with N. T. Wright.  These were significant dialogues and were both friendly and scholarly. The impression I get from the article is that the Christian community only pours out hate and derision on Crossan.  This is not the case at all, the dialogue has been positive for more conservative scholars (which is just about everyone when you are talking about the Jesus Seminar.  Last, I think it is good that the article used a quote from Ben Witherington in the SideBar, although there is no indication when or where Witherington said this.  There is also no distinction between Witherington the radical conservatives who threaten Crossan at the beginning of the article.  For the writer of this article, there are only two options, but Ben Witherington is (in reality) not one of the knee-jerk conservatives who vilify Crossan (or anyone for that matter).

My guess is that this sort of article pops up in March since the Easter Season is starting.  Nothing generates page hits at Easter like saying that Jesus was taken down from the cross, thrown in a garbage dump and eaten by dogs.  But there is nothing new here, certainly nothing which is News.  Glad to see Crossan still getting media attention, I just wish the media paid attention to a broader spectrum of scholarship.

Psalm 57 – Grace Me, O God!

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at Sermon.net, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)   For the next three Sundays Rush Creek Bible Church have its annual Missions Conference, I will return to the Psalms series on March 27. ]

The header for Psalm 57 indicates that David is reflecting the opportunity he had to kill king Saul in 1 Sam 24. There are a few verbal allusions to 1 Samuel.  For example, David says that Saul hunts him like an animal (24:11) and calls upon the Lord to judge the case (24:12, 15).  These elements are found also in Psalm 57 (hunted, verse 6; God as Judge, verse 2).

In 1 Sam 24, Saul renewed his search for David in the wilderness with a force of 3000 men.  David has managed to avoid Saul for some time, but now he is trapped in a cave at En-Gedi, a spring near the Dead Sea.  The whole area around the Dead Sea has deep wadis with numerous caves, so David and his men likely split up and find places to avoid Saul’s troops.

Saul enters a cave to relieve himself, and it just happens to be the very cave David and a few of his men are hiding.  David’s men are convinced that God has brought Saul into the cave so that David and kill him, but David himself is not convinced.  He cuts a tassel from Saul’s robe and allows Saul to leave.  He then calls out to Saul, “bows to the earth and paid homage” to Saul (1 Sam 24:8).  David asks Saul why he listens to those who are slandering him by saying that he wants to kill Saul.  David had a clear opportunity to assassinate the king, but he did not because Saul is in fact the Lord’s anointed.

Saul is moved by David’s speech and confesses that he is pursuing David unjustly.  He knows that David will be king, but he does not want his sons to be killed (“you might not kill me but you might kill my sons once you are king”).  David swears he will not harm Saul’s family (which is a repeat of his covenant with Jonathan), but he refuses to return to Saul’s court.  David continues live in the Negev where his personal wealth and power continues to grow.  When Saul dies, David is made King of Hebron and he controls the entire area of Judah.

David begins this prayer with a cry for mercy (verse 1a).  The Hebrew word for mercy (חנן)includes the idea of gracious and favor as well as pity.  Unlike New Testament Greek, which has words for mercy and grace, Hebrew blends these ideas into one word.  Both the ESV and NIV translate the Hebrew as “mercy,” but perhaps this might be better as “be gracious to me, O God.”  Terrien therefore suggests the translation “Grace me, O God! (Psalms, 433).

The word is used for “finding favor in the eyes of a superior,” often a king or God, as when Joseph speaks to Potipher in Gen 39:4 or even David to Jonathan in 1 Sam 20:3.  In these examples, a human asks a superior human for some favor which the superior may or may not grant. There is no veiled threat (“you owe me a favor”).  Rather, the inferior partner must come before his superior humbly and “beg a favor.”  While we use the phrase in English, it does not have the same social connotation as it would have in the Ancient Near East.  It is possible this language is drawn from the formal speech of a royal court:  “To have found hen is the prerequisite for stating a request” (TLOT, 441).

In this Psalm, David is crying out for God to act graciously is in a desperate situation which could end his life.  The speaker obviously hopes that God will hear this cry for help and respond, but God is not obligated to act graciously because of the good character of the one making the request.  He approaches God as the ultimate King from whom he seeks a gracious favor, rescue for his violent enemies.

As such, Psalm 57 is a model for prayer for God’s people today.

The Case for Expository Preaching

Joe Hellerman has a nice article on the Talbot Faculty blog, “Making the Case for Expository Preaching.”  First of all, I did not know that the Talbot faculty had a blog, so this is a good find for me.  Second, I took a couple of classes from Joe Hellerman when I was at Talbot and frequently heard his admonition to emphasize Expository preaching.  In fact, until I read this post, I thought I developed these ideas myself, but I soaked them up in Exegesis of Gospels, I am sure.   I particularly like his description of the two “extremes,”  I clearly fall into the second extreme and often fail to make the connection from the tenth century B.C. to the present situation of the church.

I am glad for this reminder that the content of our preaching firmly rooted on the Bible alone, yet spanning the gaps of time and culture to impact our culture today.

Podcast: AdHoc Podcast #8

I was unaware of the [ad hoc] Christianity Podcast until I received a ping-back from their site.  Hosted by Travis Jacobs, Steve Douglas, and Matthew Raymer, the podcast is a discussion of various topics making the rounds of biblical and theological blogs.  I listened to Episode #8 this morning and enjoyed the round-up very much.  Some of the blogs I follow, most were new to me.  The three hosts share some favorites and give good criticism and recommendations.  They certainly live up to the podcast name, Episode #8 goes from philosophy to theology to textual criticism and back again to biblical studies.  They favorably reviewed my post on Almsgiving and Cornelius, which of course is a great thrill.

Fortunately links are provided on their page so the listener can follow-up there discussion.  Check out the blog, or find the podcast on iTunes.

Acts 12 – Persecution in Jerusalem

If Luke has been tracking the story of the movement of the Spirit to the “fringes” of Judaism, then we might wonder what the point of chapter 12 is in that development.  It is possible to see persecution from Herod (Agrippa I) as a demonstration of how far out of step the leadership of Israel was with the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Herod was considered to be the best of his line with respect to Jewish roots.  But as we shall see, he was quite Roman in his thinking. With this story, we have in many ways crossed the line to “outsiders,” and it is therefore quite surprising to find the “King of the Jews” on the outside of the growing movement of the Spirit.

Because the death of Herod Agrippa is well know from Josephus, we can date the events of this chapter fairly precisely to A.D. 43-44, some 14 years after Pentecost.  If Herod is celebrating Claudius’ birthday, then he died about Aug 1, 44 and Peter was arrested in April of 44.  If Herod was celebrating the founding of Caesarea, then he died about March 5 and Peter would have been arrested the previous year at Passover (April 43).

The king Herod of Acts 12 is Agrippa I.  Later in Acts we meet Agrippa II (Acts 25-26; Agrippa II’s full name was Marcus Julius Agrippa).  Born about 10 B.C., Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great, the son of Aristobolus and Bernice. He was raised in Rome, and was a friend of Caligula and Claudius as well as Tiberius’ son Drusus. He was able to exploit the relationships in order to gain wealth and power. He sought the favor of Caligula to the point that the Emperor Tiberius imprisoned him for six-months on charges of treason.  In A.D. 41 Agrippa used his relationship with Caligula to help prevent the installation of a statue of the emperor in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Caligula was assassinated, Claudius made Agrippa ruler over considerable territory in Judea.

We are not told why he persecuted the church in Jerusalem, although it may be that Agrippa was in some respects interested in his Jewish roots.  This piety was demonstrated upon his return to Judea.  He donated a golden chain, given to him by Caligula when he was freed from his imprisonment, to the Temple.  In addition, he undertook the sponsorship of a large number of Nazarite vows in the temple (Antiq., 12.6.1, Schürer 2:155).  During a Sabbath year, Agrippa read from the book of Deuteronomy and was moved to tears when he read the words of Deut 17:15, forbidding the appointment of a stranger over the “brothers” (i.e., a non-Israelite over Israel.)  The crowd which witnesses this responded “Thou art our brother!” (See m.Sota 7.8).  According to Josephus:

“He loved to live continually at Jerusalem, and was exactly careful in the observance of the laws of his country. He therefore kept himself entirely pure; nor did any day pass over his head without its appointed sacrifice.” Antiq. 19.7.3

Schürer argues that Agrippa was favorable to Pharisism and even to some extent a Jewish nationalism (2:159).  This may be plausible given his zealous persecution of the Jewish Christians in Acts 12.

James’ death is about eleven years after the martyrdom of Stephen.  It therefore appears that the people of Jerusalem no longer support the Jewish Christians. Witherington makes this point:   the city of Jerusalem has “turned against” the Jewish church (Acts, 386 ).   Agrippa is therefore demonstrating his piousness by pursuing the leaders of the Christian community.  Luke demonstrates that the leadership of Israel has rejected the gift of the Spirit.

Bibliography: David C. Braund, “Agrippa” ABD 1:98-99; Schürer , 2:150-159.

Acts 10 – Cornelius and Almsgiving

In my previous post, I sided with the consensus view that there were God-fearing Gentiles in Synagogues in the first century, although I am hesitant to describe this as a semi-official class, nor do I think there was a significant number of these Gentiles. Part of my reason for this is the controversy which developed as Paul’s mission began to have success among the Gentiles.  If there was one or two Gentiles who wanted to worship in the Synagogue with the Jews that was manageable.  But by the time Galatians is written, there are so many Gentiles accepting Christ that some begin to wonder about their relationship to the Law.

Cornelius, however, is described as a pious Jew.  He performs“acts of kindness” not unlike Tabitha in Acts 9:36.  Since the Angel tells Cornelius that these acts of kindness have come before the Lord, it appears that there is some connection between his efforts and his vision.

The giving of alms was thought to atone for sin in Second Temple period Judaism, (in addition to the Sirach texts below, see Tobit 14:10).  This is important since he is unable, as a Gentile, to worship in the Temple. His only access to an “atoning sacrifice” is through prayer and alms – the equivalent of sacrifice for a Jew (Witherington, Acts, 348).

  • Sirach 3:14 For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins;
  • Sirach 3:30 As water extinguishes a blazing fire, so almsgiving atones for sin.
  • Sirach 16:14 He makes room for every act of mercy; everyone receives in accordance with his or her deeds.
  • Sirach 29:12 Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from every disaster;
  • Sirach 40:24 Kindred and helpers are for a time of trouble, but almsgiving rescues better than either.

When asked what was the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the Shema, but as a second command he said “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:28-34).  This reflects the common thinking of first century Judaism.  The importance of charity and love as a practical outworking of the shema is seem in the many commands in the Old Testament concerning treatment of the poor.

As Ed Sanders points out, this love of neighbor and stranger is not a nebulous feeling of goodwill, it is to be expressed in concrete and definable actions: do not slander, oppress, rob, etc. (Judaism: Practice and Belief, 231).  If one’s heart is right before God, then one will take care of the poor; alternatively, if one is not taking care of the poor, then it is obvious there is a heart-problem.

I think this is a very “Old Testament” story, if I can describe it in that way. Peter is like Elijah or Elisha, going to a righteous outsider.  But this righteousness is expressed in terms of the Hebrew Bible and the Covenant with Israel. Cornelius is on the boundary between what it means to be Jew or Gentile.  In some ways he is a model Jew, compared to Herod Agrippa or even Simon the Tanner.