Closed and open ways

The individual believer’s effort to achieve some semblance of balance between (1) The Way and (2) the world can constitute a very real struggle.  In our better moments, believers wish with all heart and mind to be God’s people in the world.  We try; we fail; we (mostly) try again; we fail again.  And we wonder what it’s supposed to feel like, to look like.

A sister Christ-follower recently wrote of her unique environment.  She is distinctive in some ways and is fully aware that she exists in the world alongside people who do not necessarily share many of her values.  She certainly recognizes as “Christian” some around her who exhibit even more distinguishing features, as well as some who don’t appear to be very different at all.  She also recognizes that her mode and certain choices are not the only “way.” ¹

On this point, one might look into the philosophy and history behind the various strata of Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite believers—groups that have made it a point, in most cases, to be visibly distinct from those around them.  The Amish are particularly closed to outsiders, while most Mennonites are open in heart—but some Mennonites seem to have boundaries that aren’t as porous as they think.  (I have no idea about the Hutterites, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t as many of them around, for whatever reason.) 

We once visited a couple of very “closed” fellowships . . . paired terms that set up a verbal conflict, to some degree.  One of them not only advertised being “KJV only” but had a strict policy of forbidding children—even guests’ children!—to be in the main hall during the sermon.  (See this post for an account.  If I do say so, some of it makes for fairly entertaining reading.)  This church group struck us as downright closed.  Leaving alone the conceptual problem with treating the sermon as somehow more reverential than the prayers or the scripture readings, it was a pretty “distinctive” policy—one that led to a courteous-as-we-could-be exit.  Another group we visited took the closed “eucharist” tradition to a new extent (funny how those who have a fundamental connection with reforming the Roman Catholic tradition can fall into the same old ill-conceived patterns):  they sat in a tight circle, excluded us as visitors, and had their “closed communion” while we waited uncomfortably.  These ways are a far cry from Jesus’ way.

It is unthinkable to me that a group of Christians would purpose to be closed in any way, although conscientious adherence to teachings and scruples may result in some closed postures.  In other words, there is a difference between (1) setting out to exclude others and (2) ending up excluding others because of loyalty to principles.

As we try, weakly, to be part of a movement once known as The Way—see e.g. Acts 9:2, 18:25, 19:9, and 19:23—we want to be open to others, employing open-arms postures and practices.  We ought to be inviting toward others.  Some boundaries may come into view, but, as Witherington has it, they need to be “porous enough” to allow others in.


¹ I very much like this sister’s use of the word “way” in this context.  I would take this opportunity to point out that in the present discussion, “way” implies something different than the same word’s connotations in, say, Acts or Mark’s gospel.

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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.  

In transition (part 1)

In this previous post, I speculated about whether Priscilla and Aquila were Jews or Christians or something in between when they were in Corinth (Acts 18).  That was four months ago, and our class has “advanced” by only four chapters since then.  I take the class’s slow pace as a generally positive sign, although tangents do occur because our teacher takes an inviting stance.  At this juncture in the study, I have yet stronger perceptions of one of the key features of Acts:  its display of the transitional history from a Jewish to a Christ-based system of belief and practice.  In this regard, I think of Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18) and Apollos (18/19), the “Jerusalem conference” (Acts 15), and another, apparently mini-conference (Acts 21:17ff).  Through out this collection of stories, transition was in progress.

The narrative progresses.  At the end of Acts 21, Paul is bound by a prisoner’s chains and is brought before a Jewish mob.  He speaks to these Jews, mounting his own defense in a rhetorically sound manner.  What’s curious to me is the different cloaks he puts on at the beginning and end of this story.

Is Paul a Jew or not?  A Christian?  Is he Greek or Roman or what?  The answer may be “yes, all of the above.”  He is primarily a Christian, but he uses the other identifications and identities for his good purposes.  First, he makes a point of speaking Greek, positioning himself as educated and perhaps a “man of the world.”  To the Jews, he becomes a Jew, speaking Aramaic.  At the end, he asserts his Roman citizenship.  Will the real Paul please stand up?  He’s not exactly in transition, but he does seem chameleonic in this story.

I also find curious the presentation of Ananias.  He is clearly a Christian, both in Acts 9 and here.  (He does not appear in the 2nd retelling in Acts 26.)  There is no other way to understand his feelings and actions.  What I notice here is that Ananias seems to be presented as a character in transition—neither Jew nor non-Jew.  What do we know of his background?  Please come back for Part 2 in a day or two.

 

Lines of demarcation

A church bulletin from nearly a quarter-century ago included an article about drawing circular “lines” around those with whom one agrees.  We might call these “lines of fellowship” (in a popular but slanted use of the word “fellowship”).  I found the piece in a file.  Here it is:

img_20160307_093922_865.jpg

 

You don’t even have to take time to read the whole thing to get the point.  The circle-lines show who was out and who was in.  It’s no accident, of course, that the circles get smaller.  The layout helps to make the point clear, eventually coming to the point of including only the one person who was drawing the lines.

Some exclusionary lines may on occasion be necessary, but I figure we should at least draw them faintly and humbly, and it’s probably better not to draw many lines at all.  The question of who’s in and who’s out is better left to God.

When considering the narratives of the gospels and Acts, I have in recent years been thinking about the line of demarcation between Jew and Christian.  It may seem easier to consider Jews as outside the Christian “circle” from the beginning, but I’m not sure that that line-drawing is any more helpful than the kind depicted above.  I found interesting that Ben Witherington, a well-respected commentator now in his prime, had written this:

That Apollos is identified as a Jew by Luke has fueled the speculation that he is not here presented as a Christian, which is unlikely in light of what else Luke says.  The term “Jew” here then would primarily be an ethnic, not a religious term.  

I try to keep from facile assumptions about immersion qua Christian initiation, but I am still curious as I encounter Witherington’s phrasing “ … he may have become a Christian on an occasion when he was visiting other Alexandrian Jews in Jerusalem at the synagogue of the freedmen (Acts 6:9).”  If not immersion, which is apparently not the case with Apollos, what would mark “becoming a Christian”?  Public profession of some sort, one might suppose. . . .

No hard-and-fast lines or immutable patterns may be derived from Acts 18 for determining who’s inside a circle.  Whatever the historical case in Alexandria for Apollos,

  • the text says he had not been immersed but did “have” the “Holy Spirit” (whatever that means)
  • the text doesn’t see fit to note that Priscilla and Aquila immersed him

I am better off not sharpening my pencil to draw lines of demarcation between not-Christian, almost-Christian, maybe-once-Christian, and/or actually Christian.  It could very well serve God’s purposes better to see the scenario as more fluid, less rigidly bound.  What could have happened if Priscilla and Aquila had simply excluded Apollos as a “non-Christian because of X” makes me very uncomfortable.

It’s not as though I think everyone’s in; it’s just not up to me to draw the lines.

Getting beaten up: speculation on textual variants

A textual problem appears in Acts 18:17, in which the ruler of the synagogue, Sosthenes, is taken hold of and beaten.  There are three significant variants that I hadn’t taken time to notice until these were pointed out in our group study.  (Several reputable English versions—including RSV, ESV, REB, and NASB—don’t even point out this variant, and that may be the result of editorial decisions to ignore certain text “families” in translation and/or printing processes.)  Here are the three possibilities, roughly rendered in English:

  1. They all took hold of Sosthenes…
  2. All the Greeks took hold of Sosthenes …
  3. All the Jews took hold of Sosthenes …

Which is correct?

The three oldest, most complete manuscripts and one significant papyrus support the first reading.

Four significant Eastern-tradition texts and many minuscules support the second.

Two relatively insignificant minuscules support the third.

So, the crowd that beat Sosthenes (the second synagogue chief in this story) could be Jewish or Greek Corinthians, or some combination; the text isn’t clear on this point.

According to the textual apparatus contained in the UBS Greek text printed in 1983 and based in part on the Nestle Aland 26the edition text, this is a relatively uncertain textual situation, being graded with a {C}, whereas {A} or {B} would indicate that one option was considerably more likely than the other(s).

Here, my knowledge of textual apparatus and criticism grinds to a crawl…. In my previous experience of instances in which Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Vaticanus agree, as they do in Acts 18:17, the level of certainty tends to be higher.  Since the certainty level is a {C}, I assume that the particular combination of manuscripts and papyri that support #2 indicates an equally strong textual tradition (at least to some scholars … academic bias can kick in on points like this).

Both Metzger’s Textual Commentary and Omanson’s Textual Guide to the NT prefer reading #1 with a {B} certainty level but support the idea that the Greeks did the beating.  The latter also resource recognizes a joint possibility expressed in Barrett’s commentary:  “that the Jews beat Sosthenes for his inefficiency, the Greeks because he was a Jew and out of favour with the authorities.”

The long & short is that this matter is uncertain; any preference involves speculation.  (The third textual variant is unlikely, although it could indicate a later school of thought that sought to clarify the identity of the “all.”)

Favoring the “Greek posse” understanding:  the Roman government official Gallio might have wanted to quell the ruckus if it were all-Jewish, especially given the history, mentioned earlier in Acts 18, of the Jews’ having been kicked out of Rome.  But he did not stop the beating, according to the text, so perhaps it was the Greeks.  In that case, the pax had been disturbed that day by those Jews, so letting the Greeks teach them a lesson might have been palatable to the governor.  On the other hand, the general Roman stance on Jewish affairs was indifference, so it’s easy to imagine that Gallio would have let a an all-Jewish fight go unchecked.

I slightly favor the view that says it was Jews who beat Sosthenes.  I figure the beating could have been a sort of preemptive strike to make sure this newer synagogue chief wasn’t “lost” to the Christ-followers, as the converted Crispus had been a few months (and verses) before. Moreover, the Jews might have been miffed enough over Gallio’s apathy to try to irritate him by causing a flap.

Originally, I’d been ignorant of the fact that there even was another possibility, textually speaking.  Having taken another week and a half to consider this, I still lean, but with a little less tilt.  Now, it’s more because of my sense of the overall narrative, as Paul moves from Jew to Gentile.  I’m not sure that Luke would have bothered to mention Greeks beating Sosthenes, whereas he is often interested in negative Jewish reactions to the spread of the Christian message.¹

Either way, it seems likely that this Sosthenes was later converted:  it’s an unusual name, and Paul refers to a Sosthenes when writing the first letter to the Corinthians about 3-4 years later.


¹In one light or another, this negative reaction factor is seen, for example, in chapters 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, and more.

Priscilla & Aquila: when and where?

Sometimes I write in order to process thoughts.  Spoiler alert:  my current answer to a question I’m pondering is “we don’t know.”

In the process of reading and considering the account of Corinth in Acts 18, someone raised this question:  Were Priscilla and Aquila already Christians, or possibly still Jews, when Paul met them in Corinth?   I thought about it a little more, and I think it’s a good question, so I have a few thoughts about it.  But first, the text:

After this, he left Athens and went to Corinth, where he found a Jewish man named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul came to them, and being of the same occupation, stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade.  He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath and tried to persuade both Jews and Greeks. (Acts 18:1-4, HCSB)

So, we have Paul arriving in Corinth, a major city, where the duo, Aquila and Priscilla, had already set up shop.

The expulsion of the Jews from Rome by the emperor is mentioned.

Aquila is identified text as a Jew.

Priscilla is not identified as a Jew, but it would be reasonable to assume she was also, at that point, and in at least the ethnic-heritage sense.  On the other hand, it has been noted that, later in Acts 18, as well as in Rom 16:3 and in 2Tim 4, her name appears first, and she might have been more articulate and/or more advanced in Christian faith.  It’s therefore easy for me to imagine that, in Corinth, she was ahead of her husband faith-wise.

Were both Aquila and Priscilla Jewish by faith when Paul met them, or were they already Christian?

Could Prisca/Priscilla (the latter form is diminutive, nicknamey) have been moving in/toward Christian faith while still in Rome, with Aquila lagging behind?

Could Paul have easily latched onto this pair (with whom he shared a trade learned while he was a Jew) while they were both yet Jewish in faith?

Now, for some context.  I wondered whether the Acts text hints one way or the other.  I perceive these items highlighting the Jewish faith in Acts 18:

  • mention of the Jews’ having left Rome
  • focus on the synagogue and its leaders

In addition, the occurrences in Ephesus—immediately subsequent in Acts, and the first, involving these same two people—involve not one, but two spotlights on “partial knowledge.”  Partial knowledge is just what a Jew-before-faith-in-Jesus has, so perhaps there is a contextual hint there that Priscilla and Aquila had partial faith as Paul (and we) meet them, too.

This larger scriptural context may or may not shed much light on the early days in Corinth, but it does make me muse a little . . . maybe ol’ Aquila, at least, wasn’t fully Christian until after Paul had been in Corinth a few months (see 18:11).  Or maybe both of them weren’t full-believers yet.  With hindsight, and with observations of historical progressions and patterns based on other sources, we might develop an opinion one way or the other.  Luke’s first audiences probably would not have been able to do that.

Both historical and textual sources leave me wondering.  The answer is probably a flat “We don’t know when A & P became Christian.”  Now, the next question is “Does this matter, and if so, why?”

I think it matters because
Investigative questions like this are interesting.  Personally, I both need and want this kind of stimulation.  Many others of you are also interested in this kind of thing, I know.  It could very well be that this matter has already been well researched via historiographical, archaeological, and textual data, and my “answer” herein may be proven lacking.  Although I am attempting to bring exegetically based reasoning to bear here, I know virtually nothing of archaeology, and I haven’t even thoroughly considered the little I do know of early Christian history in the 40s and 50s.  Most of what I’ve written above is speculative and perhaps not much more than “interesting.”

But it also matters because
One of the pervasive themes of Acts is the spread of the Christian message outward from Jerusalem and Jews, showing The Way’s progression from being a Jewish-originated sect to being a world-altering faith-group.  Maybe the stories of Aquila and Priscilla—and Apollos, too—serve as part of the larger picture of motion from Jew to Greek, and from Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus as Messiah to some (e.g., Crispus the synagogue-presider, 18:8), who came to believe in Him.

Questions like this matter because it causes us to come face to face with the chronological and geographical realities that shaped the early Christian movement.

B. Casey, 1/7/16

Divinities, demons, religiousness

Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him.  Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?”  Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.”

. . .

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. . . .

– Acts 17:18,22 | NRSV (emph. mine -bc)

In these verses resides a small matter in which I became interested after last week’s Acts class, taught by Dr. Paul Pollard.  First, a couple of requisites:

The antecedent of the word “divinities” (v18) is δαιμονίων | daimoniōn.
The antecedent of the word “religious” (v22) is δεισιδαιμονεστέρους | deisidaimonesterous.

I noticed that daimoniōn and deisidaimonesterous contain the same root.  And thus began a short chase.

Among many exegetical fallacies that may plague interpreters of the scriptures, there exists a “root fallacy” (spotlighted by  D.A. Carson) that deserves mention here.  The root fallacy “presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components” (Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 28).  The mere presence of the spelled-out root in the two words above does not guarantee that the two are related in meaning.  Carson also appeals to the English pairs pineapple/apple and butterfly/butter to show that component parts can have nothing to do with the meaning of the whole.

An etymological relationship with the English word “demon” might well perk up my neophyte ears and give me a hook, but I’d hasten to point out that the meaning of “demon” isn’t germane here.  It’s also an example of the “semantic anachronism” fallacy (Carson, 33).  One could amble or jog down a trail that led to a conclusion that Paul was speaking here of demons in the current-day-movie sense, but this would be an invalid exegetical move.

The use of both daimoniōn and deisidaimonesterous in the same Acts 17 micro-context, though, could be significant.  Stay with me for a minute to see whether I might or might not be onto something.

The word behind “divinities” could mean demons or deities or gods or demons or spiritual beings.¹

The word behind “religious” could have either a positive or negative connotation:  devout, religious, or superstitious. 

In this case, there seems to be little reason to think the latter term would be negative.  After all, why would Paul start with something inherently negative when seeking to reveal more of God to the Athenians?²  The more positive sense of “religious” rather than “superstitious” is supported both by our class’s teacher and by the BDAG lexicon, which was likely one of his sources.

What strikes me most is that Luke used deisidaimonia for “religious”/”devout” when he could just as easily have chosen threskos,³ perhaps some adjectival form of sebazomai, or another word.  The word in 17:22 is unique in the NT, occurring only once.  (The word also occurs 2x in Philo and 1x in the OT pseudepigrapha.)  Might Luke be showing some connection between [1] what Paul was accused of by the Athenians (being a proclaimer of some unknown divine beings) and [2] that which Paul in turn recognized that the Athenians were already doing?  Although the “root fallacy” warns us that no connection may be assumed, Luke’s having chosen these two words in relating the event may connect them.  Put more simply (pardon the transliterations),

  • Paul was accused of proclaiming foreign “daimons.”
  • Paul recognized that the Athenians were “daimon-observant” already.

I’ve made too much of this, but it piqued my interest.  Pollard agrees that the “root fallacy” notion suggests caution and also pointed out the lack of proximity between the two words.  (If they were found within the same verse or at least closer to one another, a verbal connection would be more likely.)

Pollard has further noted his interest in the fact that . . .

“Paul (Luke) used two words that commonly occur in the NT with different meanings from the normal.  One is daimonion (usually translated ‘demon’ but here as ‘divinity’) and the other, therapeuo (v. 25), usually is translated ‘heal’ in the NT but here must be translated by the meaning ‘serve.'”

He has certainly pinpointed a notable textual feature there, and I’ve begun to note Luke’s uses of therapeuo and iaomai, another word with overlapping meanings, also consulting lexicons.  One similar use of therapeuo occurs in the LXX, in Isaiah 54:17.

Taking it a bit further
It was pointed out that Epimenedes, in Cretica (ca. 600BCE) used the expression agnoston theon (not-known god) in arguing that Zeus was immortal.  As Paul addressed the Athenian philosophers on their soil and in their terms, he might have had this Greek literature in mind.  Archaeological evidence of altars to the “unknown deity” exists, to say the least.

Missiologically speaking, I wonder whether in our time we might act wisely toward Muslims by assuming a somewhat uncomfortable thing:  that the deity they address as Allah is God-not-yet-fully-known by them.

Why rhetorically assume Allah is not the creator God?  Assuming Allah is a label for the same creator might just serve as a bridge.  We might assume that knowledge of the identity of God is nascent and lacking, not categorically ill-conceived, in those who trace their faith-line back to Ishmael.  Not that I think Islamic and Christian theologies have much in common besides belief in one God, but one has to start with building a bridge somewhere.

It seems to me that Paul established a similar bridge by starting with the “not-known god” of the Athenians as he sought to reveal to them more about YHVH.


¹ So, the word daimoniōn is not inherently negative.  Himerius, a later writer, once prepended the adjective πονερ̀ος (evil, bad) to the word daimoniōn.  If daimoniōn were inherently negative, it would be as redundant as “feline cat” or perhaps “sugar diabetes” to say “evil daimoniōn.”  On the other hand, this Himerius text is from the 4th century CE, so the word could easily have shifted in meaning by then.

² The KJV rendering of deisidaimonesterous is “superstitious.”  That translation, now difficult to substantiate, could have resulted from not comprehending that daimoniōn (divinities) could specify either evil spirits or beneficent spiritual beings.  If you assumed the Athenians were limited in their spirituality to thoughts of evil demons (17:18), you might also have assumed they were incapable of anything other than superstition (17:22) related to said demons.

³ Although threskeia is used only rarely in the NT, Kittel notes that threskeia, threskos, and ethelothreskeia are common in extra-biblical Greek writings.  The neutral applicability of these terms in Greek culture of the time is another reason Luke might have chosen chosen a word from this cognate group, since the Athens incident was in a patently Greek context.

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.”

~ ~ ~

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.

Context and language

A few semi-connected, context-related musings will begin tonight and continue for two more days.

The historical context of Paul and Silas (Acts 16)
A. The python spirit of 16:16 is a curiosity that has been obscured by most English versions.  Many agree that the allusion is more specific than to a random sort of “foretelling” or “divination.”  A writer for Charisma Magazine goes way (way!) too far into the current day, so no convenience link is provided here, but there was quite a tradition out at the Oracle at Delphi, Greece.  It was related to Apollo and priestesses who were thought to advise visitors, including dignitaries, through a “pythian” or “python” spirit.  See next post for observations about a couple of related literary elements.  Spoiler alert:  I don’t think Paul was merely “annoyed” or “irritated” on a personal level.

B. A military history and presence likely pervaded in Philippi.  The word στρατηγοῖς | strategois is used several times to refer to the authorities as this story unfolds.  This word is relatively rare, is used for the captain of the temple in Acts 4 and 5, and is at least etymologically connected to the word for “soldier,” although presumably it has different connotations.  Many retiring Roman soldiers populated the city.

C. An earthquake occurred (16:26), and Luke’s portrayal of this one may hint at the supernatural; on the other hand, earthquakes are known to have occurred naturally and regularly throughout the region.

D. I learned from reading . . .

  • that inscriptions in Latin have been found at roughly double the rate of other cities–strengthening the perception that this was a uniquely Roman colony-city
  • that Philippi was famous for its school of medicine (further, there is some suspicion that it might have been Luke’s hometown)

Next:  a few items from the literary context of Acts 16

Learnings in Acts 16

In a mini-fit of preparation, I spent 10-15 minutes with Acts material the afternoon before class.

I.  During class, I was glad to find that I’d seen in advance some of the same textual notables as our teacher. . . .

  • Two mentions of Lydia form bookends around a long section in Acts 16.
  • The juxtaposition of the expressions “Holy Spirit” and “Spirit of Jesus” reminded me that aspects of God are not always termed identically.  (Nor do the scriptures explicitly claim threeness per se.)  Still, in Acts it is clearly seen that God’s Spirit is acting despite the new physical absence of God’s Son from earth.
  • The mention of the “vision” sent me looking back at other such epiphanies/theophanies/dreams/visions/visitations in Acts.  The word (which is related to one word for seeing) occurs 11x in Acts, in the course of 6 different events.  It seemed to me that visions help to mark some significant incidents or directions of “missionary” activities in Acts 9, 10, and 16.  Paul’s conversion, Peter’s move toward Gentiles, and Paul’s call to Macedonia all use this terminology.  Acts 7’s speech by Stephen also uses the same word in referring to Moses’ theophanic vision of God in the burning bush.  The appearance of the Spirit in Acts 2 is not phrased the same way and so might not be classed as a theophany by those who classify such things, yet it’s clearly an instance of God’s “showing up.”  It is interesting to tie all these together, noting similarities and differences.

II.  The teacher also brought new matters to my attention that I had not seen or considered. . . .

Geography—no matter how much or little I remember about “Asia Minor” (today’s Turkey) or Greece or Israel, there is usually new insight to be gained from considering locations and physical/topographical aspects of narrative.

Macedonian history—and, particularly, the historical request of the Macedonians for Philip the Great to come to save them from the threat of the warriors from Thrace.  This mention made me wonder if there were a relationship with Paul’s vision:  in both cases, someone from Macedonia is begging for help.  I’d believe it if I heard that Paul learned the history while traveling, and then that the spirit of God worked through a dream in his subconscious—a dream in which the request for spiritual help resembled the request for military help from Philip 350 years prior.

Different “we” theories—famously in Acts, some passages use 1st personal plural pronouns while others use 3rd person for Paul and/or his companions.  The notion that a) the “person” variation is a function of Luke’s stylistic choice as a writer was vaguely familiar, but I had not heard the theory that b) Luke had possibly collected and “re-tooled” fragments of other travel narratives (unrelated to Paul) and presumably had been rather carelessly inconsistent.  Still, the most logical choice seems to be that c) Luke was himself with Paul during some phases and not others—thus the 1st person plural “we” sometimes but not other times.  The class teacher noted that there are no “we” passages until well into the narrative.  (Such insights are “academic” yet quite accessible to all!)  If it were anything other than Luke’s actually having been with Paul at those very times, it seems odd that Luke would have waited until chapter 16 to start changing the style or utilizing other people’s writings.

Observation of Lydia’s household’s conversion and immersion is significant on several fronts.  Primarily, it was suggested that Luke/Acts may be presenting the notion that all the Empire was Caesar’s “household,” and that even houses/households were being penetrated and changed by the good news of Jesus.

In sum: 

  1. I was gratified that I had seen in advance some of the same things the teacher had drawn out to present to the group.
  2. There is always more to learn, deeper insight to gain, a new handle that allows grabbing onto a text better, and I absolutely learned during this class.

Bible study is rewarding, progressive (in that one can attain to more and “better” with some experience and guidance) and perpetually challenging and educational.

B. Casey, 10/22/15