Book Review: David Bomar, Journeys of the Apostle Paul

Bomar, David. Journeys of the Apostle Paul. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 154 pp.; Hb.  $29.99  Link to Lexham Press

The essays in this volume are collected from a five-part series on Paul’s missionary journeys originally published in Bible Study Magazine, edited by David Bomar. After a brief section on the Paul’s Damascus (including two short essays on Acts 9:1-22), the book is divided into units based on the three missionary journeys and the trip to Rome.

Journeys of the Apostle PaulSince the front cover of the book puts Craig S. Keener at the head of the contributor list, it is disappointing to find only two brief contributions at the beginning and end of the book: “Who Was Saul of Tarsus?” And “Rome: To the Empire and Beyond.”  Keener suggests Paul was motivated to preserve his Jewish traditions by nationalistic zeal modeled by the Maccabees and Phinehas (Numbers  25:11). Keener explains why the book of Acts ends so abruptly by pointing out Luke’s narrative reaches a climax in Rome, but it also ends with a foretaste of the continuing mission to the nations.

Five essays on Paul’s ministry are scattered throughout the volume. First, Eckhard J. Schnabel “Paul the Missionary: Preaching to Everyone, Everywhere” (p. 46-49), including a chart of sixteen phases of Paul’s ministry suggested by Schnabel in his Early Christian Mission (IVP Academic 2004).

Caryn Reeder’s “Paul the Traveler: A Day’s Journey with Paul” (p. 61-61) Braves what it might have been like for Paul and his companions to travel 18 to 20 miles a day. As she points out, staying in an in was always dangerous; they were well known for lice, fleas, robbers and prostitution. During the second missionary journey put often stayed with members of the Christian community.

James W. Thompson’s “Paul the Pastor: Cultivating Faith, Nurturing the Church” touches on themes from his 2006 monograph, Pastoral Ministry according to Paul (Baker). For many of his churches, Paul focused on nurturing church is like a family. He considered the members of his church his children, and he took it upon himself to raise them in the faith.

Randolph Richards contributed a section to Rediscovering Paul (Second Edition, IVP Academic, 2017) on Paul’s letter writing, summarized here as “Paul the Writer: Spreading the Gospel through Everyday Letters” (p. 96-101). While admitting it is difficult to place into a timeline, he lists Galatians is the earliest letter in his chart of the Pauline letters (although the date range overlaps with 1-2 Thessalonians). He discusses letter writing as a collaborative effort, since most of Paul’s letters reflect the ministry team. The section briefly discuss is the process for writing letters, and there are illustrations of papyri documents (although not a letter, the editors chose to use p46 as one of the oldest New Testament manuscripts).

Brian M. Rapske distills his monograph Paul in Roman Custody (Eerdmans, 1994) int two pages, “Paul the Captive: Even in Chains, He Remained Christ’s Ambassador” (p. 131-35).  According to Rapske, “Imprisonment, far from being an interruption to or disqualification from ministry, was a true expression of it” (p. 132).

The book includes four essays each from Caryn A. Reeder, Joseph R. Dodson and Timothy Gombis. In addition to her essay on Paul the Traveler, “Who Were the Pharisees,” “Who Were the Christians Saul Persecuted?” and “Thessalonica: Turning the World Upside Down.”  Two of these sections were entitled “backdrops.” Unfortunately, these are the only two background essays in the book.  Joseph R. Dodson contributes “A New Hope and Divine Direction,” “Lystra: A Visit from the Gods?”, “Troas & Philippi: Who’s Calling?” and “Mediterranean Sea: A Tale of Two Storms.” Gombis wrote “The Jerusalem Council: The Good News Crosses Ethnic Borders,” “Philippi: Defamed & Vindicated in a Roman Colony,” “Miletus: Paul’s Emotional Farewell,” and “Caesarea: Threat, Trial, and Vindication.” Since he has four essays like Reeder and Dodson, I wonder why Gombis was not on the front cover of the book.

David B. Schreiner, has two essays, “Antioch: Paul’s Gateway to the West” and “Corinth: Paul’s Boomtown.” Stephen Witmer also contributes two essays, “Pisidian Antioch: The Good News of Salvation,” and “Troas: A Life-Giving Miracle” as does Andrew Sutherland, “Athens: Preaching Christ in a Place with Many Gods” and “Jerusalem: Receiving the Unexpectedness of God.”

There are single essays from Matthew D. Aernie, “Transformed by the Messiah,” Thomas W. Davis “Cyprus: A Turning Point in the Apostolic Mission” John Barry, “Paphos: The Gospel Advances with Power, Susan Wendel, “Jerusalem: The Challenge of the Gospel.” The essay on “Tyre and Caesarea: ‘The Lord’s Will Be Done’” appears to be anonymous.

Four other essays deserve mention. In “Ephesus: Shaking the Foundations,” Lynn H. Cohick suggests “Paul’s years in Ephesus revealed the typical pressures he faced in several common results of his gospel message” (p. 95). Preaching the gospel provokes opposition, whether this be from Jews who have a different understanding of Judaism than Paul, or Gentiles who simply fail to understand the life-changing power of the gospel.

Ruth Anne Reese Focus his attention on The Collection (“Macedonia & Achaia: Paul’s Collection for the Jerusalem Church”).  She points out that without Paul’s letters, we would not know about this collection for the poor with a generous giving of Paul’s churches (p. 104). In fact, her essay focuses on the importance of generous giving to the poor in Paul’s letters. She does not deal with the perplexing question of what happens to the collection once Paul finally reaches Jerusalem.

Holly Beers deals with Paul’s testimony before the Sanhedrin in Acts 22:30-23:11 (“Jerusalem: Testifying About the Messiah”). By claiming that the real reason that he was on trial is his believe in the resurrection of the dead, Paul is able to argue that the Messiah Jesus makes the reality of God’s kingdom available to everyone.

Joshua W. Jipp contributes on “Malta: Stranded, Shipwrecked, and Still Sharing the Gospel.” This episode is central to the thesis of his recent Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Eerdmans, 2017). According to Jipp, Paul is does not demonizing the locals he encounters on Malta, but rather he operates “within the pagan culture and religious mindset” in order to reach them with the message of the risen Christ (p. 147)

Conclusion. This book is beautifully published as an 9×11 inch hardback with rounded corners. Text pages have large margins with are occasionally used for quotations from the text on the left margin and a running geographical timeline (locations, not dates) on the right margin. Map pages use the whole page and new units have a fold-out page tracking that leg of Paul’s journeys. The individual essays are no more than two or three pages each including illustrations. This is something like a coffee table book in the best sense possible.

By way of criticism, the illustrations are good but could have been improved. The photograph of Saint Paul’s columns at Paphos is beautiful, for example. But I would have preferred to have more full-sized photographs of locations associated with Paul’s travels. There is no real need for a 9×11 print of a David Roberts illustration from 1839 (p. 53) or a seventeenth century painting of Paul (p. 85) while including no photographs of Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea or Athens. I suspect part of the reason to keep the cost of the book low. The image credits at the end of the book indicates all illustrations are public domain except for seventeen, and seven of the image credits listed are from wikicommons.org.

Nevertheless, this is an intriguing book which will be helpful for tracking Paul’s missionary journeys as one reads through the book of Acts.

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Unity of Luke-Acts in Current Scholarship

That we should even be talking about Luke-Acts or “Luke and Acts” is an open question in contemporary scholarship. It has become common in Luke-Acts studies to discuss several potential ways in which Luke and Acts can be read together. Following the outline of Pervo and Parsons (Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts), there are five factors to consider when discussing the unity of Luke and Acts.

First, authorial unity is almost universally accepted. Recently, however, Patricia Walters challenged this consensus in her 2009 monograph The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts. She argued the summary statements in Luke and Acts indicate two different authors. Walters’s study has been frequently reviewed so it is not necessary to fully examine her argument here. I agree with the common criticism her sample texts are too small to be significant. Although Walters’s study has convinced few, it is at least possible Luke and Acts come from two different authors.

Second, literary unity refers to reading Luke and Acts together as a unit. Since Cadbury’s The Making of Luke-Acts in 1939, it has become customary to refer to Luke and Acts with a hyphen, or perhaps a slash, as if to say there is a single book with two parts. An analogy might be Josephus’s multi-volume Antiquities of the Jews or The Jewish War.  In both cases there are themes and interests running through all of the books in the series and it is quite clear Josephus intended his Antiquities as a unit. In fact, there are no real segues in Antiquities at the beginning of a new book. In the case of Luke-Acts, there is an intentional allusion to the first book at the beginning of Acts and many have observed some literary connections between the end of Luke and the beginnings of Acts. Luke Timothy Johnson focuses on the literary aspects of Luke-Acts in his commentary, the most significant to him are similar miracles by Jesus, Peter and Paul. In fact, these are the only parallels most commentators notice between Luke and Acts. Johnson does state that “Acts should be read in the light of the Gospel: just as Luke’s first volume can best be understood in the light of these literary patterns established in the first section of Acts” (13).

Third, it is possible to accept a single author but reject literary unity based on the genre of each book. Mikeal Parson and Richard Pervo issued just this challenge to the consensus view in their 1993 monograph Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts (Fortress 1992). Parsons and Pervo do not deny the same author wrote both books, but they question whether the genre of Luke is the same as Acts. If it differs, were the books intended to be read as a unit? For Pervo, “The unities of Luke and Acts are questions to be pursued rather than presuppositions to be exploited” (Pervo, Acts, 20)

Fourth, unity may refer to the purpose of the two books. Did a single author intended a single, overarching purpose for a unified two volume work? For Johnson, “As a whole, Luke-Acts should be read as an Apology in the form of a historical narrative” (Acts, 7). Yet the purpose of Luke may be narrowed to Jesus and his death on the Cross, while Acts concerns the spread of the message of the Cross throughout the Roman world. These may be related purposes, but they are not necessarily the same.

Fifth, even if some or all of these other unities prove true, it is possible to challenge the unity of Luke-Acts by using a relatively new approach, Reception History. Kavin Rowe, for example, argues no one in the early church ever read a book called “Luke-Acts” as a single unit. Canonically, the two were always separated and it was not until modern scholarship that anyone thought to read them as a unit. Building on the work of Andrew Gregory, Rowe examines Gregory’s two exceptions which appear to read Luke and Acts together, and concludes these are not true exceptions at all. Both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon focus on the authority of the Gospel of Luke rather than Acts. In fact, for Rowe, there is no evidence Luke and Acts were ever circulated as a unit. Acts sometimes introduced the Pauline or Catholic epistles, but no manuscript collected Luke and Acts as a two-part book.

Nevertheless I suggest there are a number of intra-textual links between Luke and Acts that support a literary unity between the two books. The introduction to both books certain link them together as a two-part work. A real problem for reading the two books together (whether hyphenated or slashed) is that there is no evidence the two books were ever considered together in the early church. In every New Testament canonical collection, Luke is placed with the gospels, Acts is set off on its own (sometimes as an introduction to the Pauline collection, but not always). Even if Luke intended them to be read together, until the modern era, no one read a book called “Luke-Acts.”

 

On Acts and Reception history, see C. Kavin Rowe, “History, Hermeneutics and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” JSNT 28 (2005): 131-157; Luke Timothy Johnson, “Literary Criticism of Luke-Acts: Is Reception-History Pertinent?” JSNT 28 (2005): 159-162; Markus Bockmuehl, “Why Not Let Acts Be Acts?: In Conversation With C. Kavin Rowe.” JSNT 28 (2005): 163-166; Andrew Gregory, “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts.” JSNT 29 (2007): 459-472. [1] Andrew F. Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century (WUNT 2/169; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). Gregory responds to Rowe’s use of this work in “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” JSNT 29 (2007): 459-72.

Acts 28:30 – The Main Theme of Acts

The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But the idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books.

Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

Acts 28 – Nothing Will Hinder the Gospel

The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.

To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue to give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).

apostle_paulBut the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.

“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).

If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, and continue to harass him when he returns to Jerusalem in the late 50s.

While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.

We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.

The book ends by telling us nothing is restraining the gospel. Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment and there is nothing Rome can do to stop the gospel from going “to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 28:11-16 – Paul in Rome

Front of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls - Roma - Italy

Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome

Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem.  As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus.  Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.

It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost.  We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.

Ben Witherington suggests Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785).  This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus.  It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.

The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community.  To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem?  What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome?  (Or anywhere, for that matter.  In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!)   There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received?  Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him?  If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year.  Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.

This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul.  Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.”  He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.

Acts 28:1-6 – Paul on Malta

Just as Paul had prophesied, all the passengers make it to the shore. There they are met by the people of the island of Malta. The island was known as Μελίτη in Greek and Melite Africana in Latin. About 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Tunis, the island is only about 100 square miles. Since Carthage controlled the island from the sixth century B.C., Keener suggests they spoke Punic. He cites bi-lingual inscriptions from the period as evidence Punic was the majority language on the island (Keener, 4:3668). Some have argued the island was actually Kephallenia, but most commentators disagree with this identification. (Kephallenia does have poisonous snakes, see below on this issue.)

Luke describes as “barbarians.” The word βάρβαροι simply meant they did not speak Greek. Most English translations avoid the stigma of the word by translating the word “native people,” I prefer “the locals.” Do not think of these people as a tribe of savages from some old movie! These are likely local fisherman who saw the ship grounded and were waiting to give whatever aid necessary to the survivors.

The locals are “unusually kind” (φιλανθρωπία) toward the castaways and help to build fires to warm up. The word is rare in biblical literature, usually referring to the kindness or clemency of a foreign ruler towards their people (3 Macc. 3:15; TDNT 9:109). For example, Josephus used the word when describing “the generous and clement conduct of the Romans” (JW 2.399). The word is used by someone making a public speech honoring his benefactor, praising them for their generous patronage. Acts 27:3 used the adverbial form of the word for the kindness of Paul’s Roman escort Julius when he permitted Paul to visit friends in Sidon. They may be barbarians, but they demonstrate “they have the best of Hellenic manners” (BDAG).

While gathering wood for the fire Paul is bitten by a viper. The locals think this is a deadly snake and assume Paul is a murderer since he survived the storm only to be bitten by a snake (v. 4). Most commentators will point out there are no poisonous snakes on Malta (supported by the modern Times of Malta). BDAG suggests this was “vipera ammodytes, commonly known as sandviper.” But this sort of thing is typical of a good Greek story, the guilty cannot outrun their fate. The gods will avenge the murderer. Most modern translations capitalize Justice (ἡ δίκη), acknowledging the people are referring to divine Justice.

But Paul is not guilty, he simply shakes off the snake and goes about his business. When he does not die immediately, the locals watch him to see if he “swells up and dies.” Since he does not, they conclude that he is a god (v. 6). This is not the first time Paul has been mistake for a god (at Lystra, Acts 14:8-10). In both cases the local people do not understand a miracle and make assumptions about the source of Paul’s power based on their own worldview.

This is as far as Luke takes the story, but it is not surprising that Christian readers have wondered about this snakebite. Some have argued this is a fulfillment of Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents with their hands” and healing the sick by the laying on of hands. Aside from the textual problems associated with long ending of Mark, Paul does not strictly speaking pick up the snake, but in the next story he does lay hands on a sick man and he recovers. Luke 10:19 does say Jesus gave his disciples “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” Various writers in church history have considered this verse and the snake in Acts 28 as an allusion to the power of Satan (see Keener 4:3674 for references). I would suggest the story in Acts has influenced the author of the longer ending of Mark, Paul overcomes poisonous snakes and heals the sick, demonstrating his apostolic authority.

What is the point of this story of unusual hospitality? Joshua Jipp suggests this is an example of a common motif, “unwitting hospitality” toward a god. He argues Luke is drawing a contrast between these barbarians (who treat Paul with unusual hospitality) and the Jews in Rome in 28:17-25 who reject Paul and his Gospel.

For Luke, there is nothing which can stop Paul from getting to Rome. Paul has survived an assassination attempt, a terrible storm and shipwreck, and hidden (and possibly satanic) dangers on an unknown island. Whatever the danger to Paul’s life, God will protect him and bring him to the court of the Empire.

 

Bibliography: Joshua Jipp, “Hospitable Barbarians: Luke’s Ethnic Reasoning in Acts 28:1-10,” JTS 68 (2017): 23–45).

Acts 27 – Lost at Sea

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts, about 3000 miles in all.  Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points.  This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells.  A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel.  If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus.  Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire” (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 968).

Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, some scholars argue that Luke is patterning this story after an archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time.  But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul had to go to Rome and the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)! While Luke has written this story along the lines of a story expected by a Greco-Roman reader, there is nothing implausible about the whole adventure.

Acts 27 – The Storm

Paul and his companions were booked as passengers on a grain ship bound for Rome.  There was no such thing as a passenger ship, so this was a commercial vessel and Paul’s passage was likely commandeered by the Romans (Dunn, Beginning form Jerusalem, 995).  It is possible these was a financial bonus for delivering grain to Rome before the end of the sailing season, explaining why the captain attempted to sail so late in the season.  Acts 27:9 tells us that they did not sail until after the Day of Atonement (“the Fast”), which is late September, early October.  Paul advises they not sail until spring, since after mid-November sailing to Rome would be impossible.

Ancient boats were not built to handle sailing into the wind, and the sailors try to keep the ship together during the storm.  Verse 17 describes the lashing of ropes to hold the ship in one piece, it is difficult to know how they did this. The area to the south of Crete was a kind of “Bermuda Triangle,” a part of the sea feared by the sailors.  They were in no real danger of going that far south, but they knew that the sandbars were dangerous.  Cargo is tossed overboard, then the extra equipment.  This was done to lighten the load (although one wonders if the extra weight would keep them from being overturned).  The clouds are so thick that they cannot make a sighting on stars or the sun, so they have no way of knowing which way the are headed.  The sailors become despondent, thinking they are not going to survive.

Paul speaks again and tells the captain that he has been told “by an angel” that they will all survive.  There is a bit of “I told you so” in his speech, but it is not an angry condemnation either.  Paul  knew what he was talking about in the first place, and now his knowledge was based on something more that sailing skill, it was based on divine revelation!

Paul encourages them, and tells them that he knows from an angel of God that they will survive, even though the ship will be destroyed.  Why an angel?  In other cases, the Lord simply speaks directly to Paul.  This is likely an accommodation to the Roman sailors who would have no idea who “The Lord” is, or respect his revelation over their own superstitions and beliefs.  An angel can be taken as a “divine messenger” here.

Paul’s message (verses 23-25) is that they will all survive because the God he serves has told him so. This speech is a remarkable statement of faith:  It is the God whom Paul belongs that will save the people on the ship.  The God Paul worships is the God who is in divine control of these events.  Paul is once again promised that he will stand trial before Caesar despite the fact that the ship will run aground.  No one will be lost even if the ship is destroyed.

Acts 27 – Travel to Rome

There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts, about 3000 miles in all.  Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature.  Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome.  It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll.  There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.

That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail.  Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility.  Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt.  So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points.  This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells.  A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.

But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel.  If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus.  Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus?  Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?

Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.”  Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way.  As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire” (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 968).

Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey.  Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway.  Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.

There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time, but this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story.  Paul had to go to Rome and the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way.  Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!

While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is to demonstrate nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.

Acts 26:16-18 – Paul and The Reasonable Faith

In Acts 26 Paul re-tells his story to Festus, the new Roman governor. While there are a few differences, the story of Paul’s conversion is fairly consistent.  He had persecuted followers of the Way until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, whey he was commissioned to be the “light to the Gentiles.”

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” (v. 24)  The Greek verb (μαίνομαι) has the sense of going too far with something, or even speech which appears crazy to an outsider (such as the reaction of outsiders to tongues in 1 Cor 14:23).  It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.

Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational words” (v. 25)  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy.   The noun Paul chooses refers to the “exercise of care and intelligence appropriate to circumstances” (BDAG).  The noun Paul uses (σωφροσύνη) has the sense of a reasonable  conclusion based on the evidence, as opposed to someone who has crazy visions which he over-interprets to mean far more than it does.  Paul is not dreaming up some fairy tale, his conclusions are based on some rational thought and some very real evidence.

Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel.  What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate.  This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).

To me, this is one of the most applicable sections of Acts – Paul’s faith is described by a Roman as “crazy” for believing what he does, but Paul says that he is “rational.”  I am deeply troubled by many Christians who reject reasonable thought based on evidence as a basis for Christian faith.  Too many prefer to call emphasize a “relationship with Jesus” rather than rational claims of truth about the nature of reality.  Christianity, as Paul is describing it here in Acts 26, is rational and reasonable.  Christianity, as presented in the media, or as practiced by many Americans, is irrational.  Paul would be ashamed of most of what passes for Christianity in contemporary evangelicalism.

I think that it is time to remember that God gave us minds and equipped us to think.  If we did that, what would change?