Literary items in Acts 16

The literary context of Acts 16
The slave girl who had the “python spirit” (see last post) is said to have called attention to Paul and Silas as “servants of God the Most High” (douloi tou theou upsistou).  Although a similar phrase is seen in other spots, this exact phrase is uncommon in NT writings and may be a verbal formula used only when a character in the narrative seems to be introducing an element other than the known/revealed Judeo-Christian God: 

  1. “Legion” in Mark 5 and Luke 8
  2. Melchizedek in Hebrews 7
  3. The pythian slave girl here in Acts 16:17

I wonder, then, what this girl meant.  Perhaps she was not serving as a bona fide witness of God in support of Paul, and that Paul did not merely become irritated with a bothersome girl’s voice.  Despite the direction of many English versions toward having Paul merely “annoyed,” the range of meaning for the verb the verb διαπονηθεὶς | diaponetheis includes notions of being troubled or deeply distressed.  The BDAG lexicon gives this additional meaning:  “to feel burdened as the result of someone’s provocative activity.”

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Paul and Silas are said to have been “praying and singing hymns” while in prison.  This is an unusually compelling scene, any way you slice it, but I had noticed that it involves an interesting and to-me-awkward verb combination.

“Praying” is a present middle/passive participle (a “verbal adjective”)

“Singing hymns” is an imperfect active indicative verb (there’s no noun for “hymns”).

It ought to go without saying (but might not!) that this hymning cannot, should not, may not be tied to any more or less specific genre or body of worship music of any era.  Moreover, no one has any solid legs to stand on with regard to the musical stylings of antiquity.  We simply have no idea (and never will) what the vocalizations sounded like on that night in Philippi.

I wondered whether the verb hymnoun required any music at all, and I do think, after a little investigation, that such a possibility exists, although it is remote.  A few meanings and usages extend to the non-musical oral, perhaps espec. in the LXX, and one of the four NT uses, Heb 2:12 has often been translated “praise,” i.e., without a necessary musical implication.  Could the sense of “being in the process of hymning” here incline toward the metaphorical side, not requiring intentionally intoned, sustained vocal sounds?  (A mafia accomplice rats out someone else and is said to “sing,” but there is no music.  [I’m not suggesting the mafia existed in 1st-century Philippi!]  In Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” praise is heard, but no music.)

Whether “singing” as we conceive of it was heard among the prisoners that night, all the lexicographers’ possibilities of meaning involve addressing God out loud with an integral component of praise.  Whether musical sound was occurring doesn’t matter a whole lot.  I might take a wild stab at translating the expression this way:  “About midnight Paul and Silas were praise-fully vocalizing requests to God. . . .”  Or maybe this:  “About midnight Paul and Silas were crying out prayer-filled praisings to God. . .”  I can’t figure out how to use my software to find instances of these two types of verbs used in succession, so I don’t know how frequent an occurrence it is or how other instances are well rendered in English.  I hope someone who knows more Greek has a moment to chime in here, particularly about the translation of these tenses when seen together.

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Discussion at Bible class included musings around the jailer’s oft-quoted question, “What must I do to be saved?”  Notwithstanding the “gospel tracts” titled with this very question, it is a distinct possibility that the jailer had no thought for spiritual needs at that moment.  No textual justification appears for the supposition that the jailer had previously heard Paul’s preaching.  We might more logically assume that he had heard some of the praying-slash-singing, but even that is a bit speculative, since the construction of the jail and the residence is unknown, and I doubt they had ductwork or intercoms that would have carried they audio into the house.

The word “saved” is one of those ostensibly religious words like “church” and “worship” and “servant.”  Yet not a one of those words is exclusively used in the NT documents to denote something spiritual.  Specifically, the word “saved” and its cognates are used variously in Luke-Acts.  In Luke, nearly half of the uses appear to refer to physical deliverance or rescue, and perhaps 1/3 of the uses in Acts appear to refer to something other than the theological.

Here in Acts 16, it’s quite possible that the jailer does not ask for spiritual salvation (whatever that would have meant to him . . . possibly salvation from the earthquake-related judgment of some Roman god?).  Whatever was in the jailer’s heart and mind when he fell on his knees in front of two prisoners—really weird prisoners who didn’t try to escape!—it is clear from the text that Paul and Silas ended up seizing the day for the spread of the good news.

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Of structure in the text . . .  As mentioned here in an earlier post, two mentions of Lydia form bookends around a long section in Acts 16.  That Lydia’s and the Philippian jailer’s households are portrayed as being “saved” wholesale is significant spiritually, of course, but is also striking in literary terms:  1) a woman’s whole household and 2) a male Roman government authority’s household are presented as receptive, grateful recipients of what God has to offer through Paul’s activities.  Further, as our teacher has highlighted, the household metaphor was far-reaching in the 1st-century Roman world, and the Empire was seen as Caesar’s household, as it were.  The mid-level context in Acts 16 shows an emphasis on the household and the effect of Jesus on it.


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