In transition (part 2)

Into my early twenties, I actually thought there were 364 days in a year.  It was my own stupidity that led me to think that, but it was such a nice, even number, so I figured it must be leap years that had the odd number (365) of days.  Don’t ask me why I never bothered to realize that it was an odd number of months that had an odd number of days (31); that fact alone should have clued me in to the odd number of days in a normal year.  The point of this paragraph is to show how dumb ideas get started—in me, at least.

Another dumb assumption on my part was that the Ananias of Saul’s conversion was a gentile.  I’m now pretty sure I’ve been wrong (yet the text itself doesn’t say for sure).  Ananias is, after all, a Hebrew name, isn’t it?[1]  Everyone else around me seems to assume he was a Jew, but I assumed a believer in Damascus would be a gentile, temporarily forgetting about the dispersion of Jews mentioned in Acts 8:1b.  Even though Judea and Samaria are the only regions mentioned in connection with that dispersion, I do imagine that Jews got as far as the large city of Damascus, as well.  It does seem logical that Ananias would have been Jewish by birth, but there’s also a chance that Ananias was less Jewish than transitional.  

What do we know about this man?  I learned that a dubious list of Hippolytus, a Roman bishop of the late 2nd century, shows this Ananias to have been one of the seventy (Luke 10).  Not that either Hippolytus or this list is to be viewed as accurate or authoritative, but his list does at least present a possibility.  We learn from the biblical text that Ananias was fearful or at least wary of Saul (Acts 9:10-14), having heard of what he’d been doing to adherents of the new Christian sect.  Does this mean that Ananias had been in Jerusalem recently?  Not necessarily:  word could have traveled to Damascus about the establishment-sanctioned persecutions.

We also have two brief notes about Ananias in 22:12:  he was 1) a devout man according to the law, and 2) well spoken of by all the Jews there.  Those are interesting observations!  Taking them in reverse order:

  • Ananias’s reputation among the Jews could mean that he was considered one of them, but one can also read the label as contrastive, i.e., that he, as a non-Jew, was well spoken of by the other people group.  There are approximately 75 other occurrences of “the Jews” in Luke-Acts, and a great many of them seem to use the expression in order to set up a contrast with others rather than to describe the “in” group (e.g., “But when the Jews of Thessalonica learned that the word of God had been proclaimed by Paul . . .” [17:13]).  More observation and study is warranted here.
  • More germane, I think, is that the expression “devout man according to the Law” is not the typical one used to describe God-fearers (or proselytes) among the Greeks.  It is not the phrase sebomené ton Theon (an example of which is seen in 16:14).  The alternate aner eulabés kata ton nomon (roughly, “man devout according to the Law”) used of Ananias in chapter 22 is a less common expression.  I find it intriguing that, in the NT, the term εὐλαβὴς  | eulabés only appears in Luke-Acts, and only three other times—all of which refer, more or less, to people who were sympathetic to the Christian cause:
    • the inimitable prophet Simeon (Luke 2)
    • the devout Jews gathered on Pentecost (Acts 2)
    • the men who buried the martyr Stephen (Acts 7)

What I suspect, based on this terminology, is that both Paul and Luke are presenting Ananias as something other than distinctly Jewish (although presumably Jewish by birth) or categorically Christian (although the man clearly was Christian by faith).  The point isn’t that Ananias himself was in transition, although he could have been more or less Torah-oriented than Paul; rather, it’s that his role in the narrative(s) is transitional.  He was obviously instrumental in Saul’s transition, but more to the point here is that Paul painted him in a way that might make him more palatable to any “open-minded” Jews in the crowd.  The phrase might be seen as a rhetorical choice made within an overall speech designed to persuade Jews to believe in the Lord Jesus.

Another angle on this narrative is to consider the points of view of the characters in the story, alongside Luke’s literary point of view.  What was Paul’s purpose in saying what he said, and what was Luke’s later purpose in the presentation of this event?  If Luke wanted to highlight a transition from Jewish faith into Christian faith, he might include certain details.  If however his purpose were to paint a picture of Paul or the Jews, the story might sound somewhat different.

What would old Ananias say if we could ask him, “Were you Jewish?”  I think he’d say something along these lines:

Well, I hadn’t thought about it exactly that way.  I was born a Jew, yes.  But by that time, I was in transition, and, although I was still “in the closet” as far as some of the Jews in Damascus were concerned, few of my Christian brothers and sisters who knew me well would have thought of me as Jewish.  I believed with all my heart in Christ as Kurios.

[1] Cf. Hananiah in Daniel chapter 1 and the high priest Ananias in Acts 23.  

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