Acts 8:1b-4 – Persecution Scatters the Disciples

This persecution is directly related to the death of Stephen in chapter 7. Since Stephen’s sermon was a statement of judgment against the leadership of Israel for their resistance to the Holy Spirit. There is a progression of resistance in Acts 1-8.  First the apostles are warned, then they are arrested and beaten, then Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin, and lynched.  Now the whole church of Jerusalem is being suppressed.

Saul is the ringleader of this persecution – he begins to “ravaging the church” (ESV). This verb (λυμαίνω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it had the sense of a violent oppression (1 Chron16:10) or even rape (Judith 9:2, 4 Mac 18:8). Keener indicates the word can be applied to torture as well (2:1484). It seems odd from a modern, western perspective to employ violence to suppress sub-group within a religion, although there are plenty of examples of violent clashes between various Christian groups over the centuries. The fact Saul will use such violent measures against the Jesus movement indicates he thought it was a dangerous belief which had to be suppressed by any means. (Saul is just as zealous as those who persecuted Peter in Acts 5, see my comments on that passage).

DandelionBut who exactly is scattered? The apostles are not “scattered,” but remain in Jerusalem. Since Saul led the group which killed Stephen, it seems as though conservative Hellenistic Jews are continuing the persecution.  Since Stephen and Philip are examples in Luke of Hellenistic Jews who have accepted the apostolic message, it also seems likely that this persecution targeted Hellenistic Jewish believers.

Keener recognizes the Hellenists were the special targets of persecution, although Luke says Saul was attaching “all the church.” Keener sees this as another example of Luke’s hyperbolic use of “all” in both the Gospel and the book of Acts (2:1468). Some Hebrew Christians may have been effected even if Saul targeted the Hellenists.

The people persecuted are scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria.”  This may indicate that those who lived relatively nearby left Jerusalem and simply returned to their homes on account of the persecution.  We will find out later that these Hellenistic Jews went as far as Antioch and Damascus as well.

Why do the apostles stay in Jerusalem? It is quite possible that the apostles took Jesus’ final commission to them seriously and stayed in Jerusalem because they were to evangelize the world starting in Jerusalem. If the persecution that Luke describes in Acts 8:1-3 targeted Hellenistic Jews, then it is possible that the Apostles were not seen as a threat.  F. F. Bruce thought the apostles felt their duty remained in Jerusalem in spite of persecution (Acts, 162-3). There is no indication that Saul was hunting down people like Peter and John, but rather those who were associated with Stephen – Philip for example.

Is there enough evidence to decide Saul was targeting only Hellenistic Christians (like Stephen and Philip)? If he was targeting Hellenists, what was his motivation?

Acts 9 – Saul in Arabia

I promised to post this a bit earlier in the week. I recently received a copy of Eckhard J. Schnabel, The Missionary Work of Paul (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2008)which as a good section on Paul’s Arabian period (pages 60-64).  I cannot recommend this text enough.  It is a slimmed down version of Schnabel’s epic 2-volume Early Christian Mission, if one can consider a 500 page book “slimmed.”   For this period in Paul’s career, see also Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, “Paul in Arabia,” CBQ 55 (1993): 732-737 and Hengel and Schwemer, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch.

After the initial ministry in Damascus, Paul spends a period of time in Arabia. The location of these three years is not modern Saudi Arabia, but rather Syrian Arabia (Edom and Moab), likely within the Nabatean kingdom of Aretas IV. It is possible that the ministry in Arabia is not limited to Arabia, but rather that Paul used Damascus as a base of operations for ministry in Arabia over the three year period. Aretas IV wanted to arrest Paul according to 2 Cor 11:32-33, compare Acts 9:23-25. We know Aretas IV ruled Nabatea from 9 B.C. until A.D. 40.

Nabateans were believed to be descended from Ishmael, while the Idumeans were descended from Esau. The Idumeans were forcibly converted in the late second century by John Hyrcanus, the Hasmonean king of Judea. Herod the Great’s mother was a Nabatean princess (Kypros), and Herod Antipas married the daughter of Aretas IV (Syllaios). This was the woman he divorced in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip. This marriage was condemned by John the Baptist (leading to his death) and lead to tensions between the Nabatean kingdom and Judea in the mid-thirties. Aretas and Herod Antipas in fact met in battle, Aretas was victorious.

Schnabel has an excellent map of the Nabatean kingdom (62). The northern limit is just short of Damascus and included the ten cities of the Decaopolis all of the territory on the east of the Dead Sea, and included the Sinai Peninsula. Aretas’ territory covered the north-east portion of the modern Saudi Arabian peninsula. Paul’s ministry likely was to the most northern portion of this region, the modern country of Jordan. For details on the Nabatean / Judean conflicts, see Josephus, War, 1.181; Antiquities 14.7.3 (121) 15.6.5 (184); on Salome see 16.7.6 (220).

Paul must have engaged in gentile ministry at this time since he states in Ga. 1:15-17 that he was obedient to the calling of God to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. This ministry must date to about A.D. 32/33, a time when Jew-Nabatean tensions were at their height. It is little wonder that Aretas IV sought to arrest Paul. His ministry would be seen as trying to win Nabateans to a Jewish religious sect

Acts 9 – The Calling of Saul

The audio for this week’s evening service will be 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.

Was Paul “converted” to Christianity?  There is a problem with this description, since i implies he more from one religious belief to another (perhaps as a Catholic might “convert” to Protestant, or a pagan might convert to Christianity.)  What the question really asks is – “how much of Paul’s worldview changed on the Road to Damascus?”  When we examine Paul’s own theology and compare it to Pharisaical Judaism, the status of his “conversion” is less obvious.  It is possible to describe Paul as a Pharisee who now believed Jesus was the Messiah.  Who was working out the implications of this new belief while doing an evangelistic ministry.  Yet there do seem to be major breaks with Judaism, especially in the treatment of Gentile converts.  What Paul is preaching is not really a sub-set of Judaism, whatever it may appear in the earliest years.

The traditional view of Paul’s conversion is that he underwent a spiritual and psychological conversion. If Romans 7:7-25 deals with Paul’s apparent struggle with sin prior to his conversion, then we do have a spiritual and psychological reversal in Paul’s conversion.  Paul is described in the traditional view as a Pharisee that struggled with sin and the guilt of not being able to keep the Law.  His conversion releases him from the weight of the guilt of his sin; he experiences justification by faith and converts from Judaism to Christianity.

Critics of the traditional view often note that Paul’s experience is described in terms of Augustine’s conversion or Luther’s.  Both men found their experience parallel to Paul’s and meditated deeply on what God did in their lives to release them from the weight of their guilt. Their conversion experience colored their theology of salvation.  Since Augustine and Luther are massively influential theologians, their view of Paul’s conversion has influenced later theology.

Beginning with Krister Stendhal, a new view of Paul’s experience has emerged.  Rather than a conversion from one religion to another, Paul received a call of God that is quite parallel with the prophetic calls of the Old Testament, especially that of Jeremiah. This view sees the Damascus Road experience as a theophany, not unlike what Isaiah experienced in Isaiah 6.  Paul experienced the glory of God and was called to a prophetic ministry. Paul never left Judaism, Stendahl argued, he remained a faithful Jew who was fulfilling the role of being the “light to the Gentiles” from Isaiah.  In this view, Paul received a new calling, but still served the same God.  He was to remain a Jew who was called by God to be the witness to the gentiles as anticipated in the prophecies of Isaiah.  Paul is therefore not “founding a new religion” but rather a new understanding of the Jewish Law.  His gospel is a new interpretation of the Old Testament and Judaism, he simply changed parties within Judaism..

The problem with this new view of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is that it does not do justice to the radicalness of Paul’s Gospel! To reject circumcision even for Gentile converts is not a minor re-interpretation of the Jewish Law, it is a radical change that is unanticipated in the prophets. The reaction of the Jews in Acts is key.  Everywhere Paul announces that God has called the Gentiles to be saved without circumcision, they riot and attempt to kill Paul.

Philippians 3:7-8 make it clear that Paul is not just moving to another party within Judaism, but rather that he is rejecting his Pharisaic roots completely.  He is breaking with his past way of life and his past theology.  While there are many points of comparison between Paul’s theology and Judaism, there are far more radical breaks with the Judaism of the first century.

It is, however, problematic to think that Paul is converting from Judaism to Christianity. Paul seems rather clear in Galatians that he was called by God to be the apostle to the Gentiles in a way that is quite distinct from the apostles in Jerusalem that were called by Jesus.  He stresses his independence clearly in Galatians. He never joins the Jerusalem church, nor does he receive his commission from them, but he seems to be called by God to do something quite different – to be the apostle to the Gentiles. Despite the expansion of the apostolic witness to Hellenistic Jews and God-Fearers, the Twelve do not appear in Acts to do ministry outside of the house of Israel.  Galatians 1-2 seems to be saying that there was a tacit agreement between Paul and Peter marking the “boundaries” of their ministerial territory.  Paul will go to the Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Ephesians 3:1-6 seems to be the clearest statement of the uniqueness of Paul’s ministry.

It is probably best to see Paul’s Damascus Road experience as both a conversion and a call.  But to think of the categories “conversion” and “call” in modern Christian categories is a mistake, Paul’s experience in Acts 9 is quite unique in salvation history.