Tag Archives: Acts of the Apostles

Did Paul See a Fireball on the Road to Damascus?

the Conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus...

The Conversion of Saul on the Road to Damascus — by Michelangelo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, David Ashton commented here on Vridar:

May I annoy our totalitarian mythicists even further by suggesting that Paul, also a real person, experienced a reparative hallucination, precisely because of a pre-crucifixion hostility to Jesus and his activists, although he may not have engaged Jesus in debate or observed him directly in person. Jacob Aron suggests that Paul’s Damascene Light was the result of a fireball (“New Scientist”, April 25, 2015, pp. 8-9); not so much a medical epilepsy as a meteoric epiphany.

I’m not a mythicist, but I do think the Doherty/Carrier theory is worth considering. I confess I did bristle a bit at the term “totalitarian.” You’d think that ten years as a cold warrior would inoculate me from such charges. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a blog with a more permissive comment policy than Vridar’s. So, I suppose that’s why I responded with the flippant:

Oooh, a fireball! I don’t see why a story invented by the author of Acts requires an ad hoc explanation as to “what it really was.”

But perhaps I was too hasty. Let’s take a look at this story more closely and see if we can learn anything from it. When I checked on line, I could find only brief summaries, so in the end I had to rent the article, Chelyabinsk, Zond IV, and a possible first-century fireball of historical importance (Meteoritics & Planetary Science, 50, Nr 3), for 48 hours. Yes, even stuff like this gets trapped behind paywalls.

A flash and a crash

The author, William K. Hartmann, holds a PhD in astronomy and works at the Planetary Science Institute. He suggests that the narratives of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus accurately describe an atmospheric encounter with some object that produced a bright light and a big boom, similar to the Tunguska Event of 1908 or the more recent encounter with the Chelyabinsk meteor. For your entertainment, we present a video compilation from the Chelyabinsk event.

read more »

Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?

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By Fra Angelico, “Life of Stephen: Ordination and Distributing Alms” — making sure the Hellenist widows get a fair deal.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog is a sincere effort to share biblical scholarship with a wider lay readership. He has most recently pointed to a site that promises to address biblical issues for a general readership and even has an “ask a scholar” section: Bible Odyssey. Hurtado’s interpretations are (in my view) quite conservative. I think one should raise questions when a scholar’s explanations for so many questions coincidentally support traditional Christian dogma. I don’t suggest that all of his views should be suspect for that reason alone: I have found some of his analysis into how soon Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divine figure to be very strong. But I think Biblioblogs fail to fully respect readers when they present just one view of scholarly research as if that one view were “the correct” one.

Vridar was started as an attempt to share “the other side” of so much scholarly research in biblical studies. When I first took up learning so much about scholarly studies into the nature and origins of the Biblical literature I found that it was so difficult to wade through so much that was logically suspect or short on clear evidence. There was so much assumption, specious reasoning, possibilities that were transformed to probabilities and then to facts, circular argument . . . . and most of it was (suspiciously) essentially consistent with conventional religious dogmas.

So when I read The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication — a post in which Larry Hurtado argues that the only difference between the Hellenists in Acts and other Jewish members of the first church was that they hailed from the Diaspora and hence spoke Greek — I felt compelled to submit the following comment:  read more »

Luke’s “Ahistorical” Widows, Hellenists and Deacons

The most important thing we need to know when reading any book is what kind of work it is. Is Luke’s Acts history or novel? If it is history, what sort of history? Above all, what did “history” mean to writers/readers in the Roman world of the first and second centuries CE?

InPraiseChnOrigns2Todd Penner, Professor of Religious Studies at Austin University, has written a richly informative study of historiographical writing in antiquity as it is relevant to our appreciation of Acts, in particular to Luke’s account of Stephen and the Hellenists, Acts 6:1-8:3. This is the section most scholars of Christian origins consider historical at some level. Usually they suspect Luke was attempting to cover-up real events of unsavory divisions within the early church. Penner has a different perspective. Those little details that other scholars see as evidence of a cover-up Penner sees as quite coherent contributions toward Luke’s larger literary and theological narrative. But other scholars have generally not read Acts with any significant understanding of its literary character and have accordingly misread literary sails as archaeological trowels. Penner’s book is In Praise of Christian Origins:

There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.

The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting)

Acts 6 opens with a problem in the church. Some of the widows are being neglected. read more »

Paul’s Letters As Sources for Acts (Acts Seminar Report)

The Acts Seminar Report (Acts and Christian Beginnings) maintains that, contrary to the view that has long been widely held among biblical scholars, the author of Acts (with the routine caveats we call him Luke) did know and use the letters of Paul.

datingActsI begin with some comments by one of the Acts Seminar Fellows, Richard Pervo, in his 2006 work, Dating Acts, because thy sum up some of the apparent reasons scholars have traditionally rejected the idea that Luke knew (or used) the letters of Paul.

[Morton S.] Enslin states that rejection of Paul’s letters as a source for Acts was a result of the reaction against the Tübingen school and claims that this reaction became like its polar opposite, “une sort de these qui n’a pas besoin de demonstration,” [=”A type of thesis that requires no proof”] the “assured result of higher criticism.” (p. 54)

Scholars who have considered Luke to be primarily an historian have argued that he could not have known of the letters

because they would have clarify some issues and correct some errors. (p. 137)

Those who have seen him as a theologian have been able to argue that Luke’s Paul was so different from the Paul of the letters that Luke must have chosen not to use the letters

because they presented a different theology. (p. 137)

Pervo, however, was able to note that a growing appreciation of Luke as an author allows us to acknowledge that as a creative writer Luke was free to use or not use sources as he willed. Scholars have also come to increasingly accept that even as an ancient historian his purposes differed from those of modern historians.

I love Pervo’s conclusion, and I am sure Thomas Brodie (whose latest publication I have been blogging about) would, too:

That is to say that the question can no longer be dismissed by resorting to the shoulds and woulds that posit what Luke would have done and how he should have used Paul. Statements of this nature reveal what their proponents would do, but shed no light upon ancient practices in general or upon Lucan practice in particular. They are egocentric and anachronistic.

Especially painful for some has been the inevitable conclusion that, if Luke knew Pauline letters, he ignored them at some points and contradicted them at others. Why this experience should be more painful than it is with regard to the Gospel of Mark — which Luke also ignored at some points and contradicted more than once — is not perfectly clear, but there can be no doubt it has been a burden.

As Enslin says, “The common denial . . . that Luke knew or used the Pauline letters needs fresh consideration instead of automatic repetition.” As the followers of the Artemis of Ephesus allegedly learned (Acts 19:21-40), constant reiteration of a claim does not make it valid or effective. (pp. 54-55, my formatting and bolding, italics original)

So why would Luke have created such a different Paul from the one found in the letters? And why would he have used the letters to create that different Paul? I’ll return to that question at the end of this post.

It’s time to look at what the Acts Seminar says about the evidence. (It’s brief. I could not hope to cover Richard Pervo’s 100 pages of packed argument and illustrative tables here. I have posted a few detailed arguments, however, coincidentally by another who was a Seminar Fellow, Joseph B. Tyson: How Acts Subverts Galatians; Dating the Book of Acts, 6, late date reconsidered (Paul’s letters).)

Words Taken Out of Paul’s Mouth

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The Author of Acts

Dennis E. Smith

Dennis E. Smith

Dennis E. Smith, one of the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, published as Acts and Christian Beginnings, includes in that publication a short essay on on the identity of the author of Acts (pp. 9-10).

Smith begins by noting that the first writer we know who identified the author of Acts as Luke, a companion of Paul, was Irenaeus who wrote in the late second century. We can read Irenaeus making this assertion in Against Heresies, 3.14.1:

But that this Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel, he himself clearly evinces, not as a matter of boasting, but as bound to do so by the truth itself. For he says that when Barnabas, and John who was called Mark, had parted company from Paul, and sailed to Cyprus, “we came to Troas;”(10) and when Paul had beheld in a dream a man of Macedonia, saying, “Come into Macedonia, Paul, and help us,” “immediately,” he says, “we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, understanding that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel unto them.

So Irenaeus was the first to rely upon the prima facie inference of the “we passages” in Acts and conservative scholarship through to the twenty-first century, despite twentieth century research into the the matter, has not uniformly advanced in learning since.

Dennis E. Smith points out that Irenaeus was

evidently thinking of the person mentioned in Col 4.14, Phlm 24, and 2 Tim 4.11

who was named Luke and who was a close companion of Paul. Irenaeus was also of the belief that the real Paul wrote all three of those letters and was also the author of the Gospel of Luke. Modern scholarship has largely followed the reasoning and conclusion of Irenaeus insofar as the same author who wrote Acts was also responsible for the Gospel of Luke, but (contrary to what one may expect from web and blog-active New Testament scholars)

few have accepted the theory that a companion of Paul was the author.

So critical readers here can be assured that, according to the word of Smith and Tyson and contrary to some prominent web/blogging scholars, “the majority of critical scholars” do not accept that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul. read more »

The Point of the Dionysiac Myth in Acts of the Apostles, #1

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (...

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (Lynn Odell) from The Baccahe, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The previous post in this series set out the evidence that there are correspondences between the canonical Acts of the Apostles and Euripides’ famous play Bacchae. This post continues presenting a lay version of classicist John Moles’ article, “Jesus and Dionysus”, published in 2006 in Hermathena.Do the allusions to the Bacchae and the Dionysiac myths and rituals in Acts actually “do” anything? Are they meaningless trappings, perhaps mere coincidences of imagery, or do they open the door to a new dimension of understanding of the work of Acts. If they “do” something meaningful that enhances our appreciation of what we read in a coherent and consistent manner then we have additional evidence that we are seeing something more than accidental correlations with the imagery and themes of the Dionysiac cult.

Anyone who does not know the play Bacchae can read an outline of its narrative in my earlier post linking it to the Gospel of John, based on a book by theologian Mark Stibbe.

We begin with some general points about the practice of imitative writing before addressing the significance of the use of Bacchae in Acts. Where I have added something of my own (not found in John Moles’ discussion, or at least not in the immediate context of the point being made) I have used {curly brackets}.

Why should we expect Luke to have written like this?

This conclusion should not surprise: similar intertextuality marks [Luke’s] engagement with the Septuagint, or, among Classical authors, with Homer. Hence, just as Classical texts are intensely ‘imitative’ in the sense of ‘imitating’ other Classical texts, so too is Acts. (p. 82)

At the end of this post we look at Luke’s literary predecessors who likewise drew upon Bacchae through which to frame their narratives of imperial efforts to impose paganism upon the Jews.

What are the chances of the author of Acts using this Greek play?

* 2 and 3 Maccabees

** Horace, Epictetus, Lucian

Bacchae remained for centuries a popular tragedy: it had been exploited by Jewish writers as a tool through which to explore the relationships between religion and politics, between Judaism and pagan (Dionysus) religion;* and by Stoic and Cynic philosophers** in philosophical and political contexts. The author of Acts (let’s call him Luke) knew of both these groups.

Are we really to expect Luke’s audience would have recognized all of the allusions?

* Origen (ca 249 CE), in Contra Celsum 2:34, noted thematic parallels with Bacchae.

Don’t think, however, that Luke’s knowledge of the way other authors used Bacchae and his own similar use of it in Acts means his audience must have been restricted to a sophisticated elite. Surely he would have expected some of his audience to recognize the allusions — and we know that some of them did* — but that does not mean he must have expected all of them to have done so. We will see that in Acts itself may contain the message that “while Christianity does not need great learning, it can hold its own in that world”: compare the charge against Peter and the original apostles that they were “unlearned” even though they were “turning the world upside down” with the charge leveled at Paul that when he clearly presented much learning to his accusers, that “much learning had made him mad”.

Why would Luke make use of a Greek play in a work of history?

Acts consists of a “highly varied literary texture”. {Pervo’s work demonstrating the characteristics of the Hellenistic novel that are found throughout much of Acts has been discussed on this blog.} Ostensibly the work is a form of historiography, but if so, we can note that in some types of historiography “tragedy” finds a very natural place. Herodotus’s Histories, for example, is one ancient instance of historical writing in which myth is part and parcel of the narrative. {Some scholars have also described it as a prose work of Greek tragedy.} Dennis MacDonald has identified certain Homeric influences in Acts and these Homeric episodes are themselves bound up in motifs and themes of classical tragedy.

How do the Dionysiac parallels highlight key elements in the Acts (and Gospel) narrative(s)?

First, note the key elements that are highlighted by the Dionysiac parallels: read more »

Jesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity

euripides-bacchaeJesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity” by classicist John Moles was published in Hermathena No. 180 (Summer 2006), pp. 65-104. In the two years prior to its publication the same work had been delivered orally by John Moles at Newcastle, Durham, Dublin, Tallahassee, Princeton, Columbia, Charlottesville and Yale.

The names Moles thanks for assistance with this work are many: Loveday Alexander, John Barclay, Stephen Barton, Kai Brodersen, John Dillon, Jimmy Dunn, Sean Freyne, John Garthwaite, Albert Henrichs, Liz Irwin, Chris Kraus, Manfred Lang, Brian McGing, John Marincola, Damien Nelis, Susanna Phillippo, Richard Seaford, Rowland Smith, Tony Spawforth, Mike Tueller and Tony Woodman.

John Moles begins his article with two questions. The first of these is a dual one:

Is Acts influenced by Dionysiac myth or ritual and does it quote the play Bacchae?

Old questions, yes, but they are still being raised in the literature, as Moles indicates with the following list:

E.g. Nestle (1900); Smend (1925); Fiebig (1926); Rudberg (1926); Weinreich (1929) ; Windisch (1932); Voegeli (1953); Dibelius (1956) 190; Hackett (1956); Funke (1967); Conzelmann (1972) 49; Colaclides (1973); Pervo (1987) 21-2; Tueller (1992); Brenk (1994); Rapske (1994) 412-19; Seaford (1996) 53; (1997); (2006) ch. 9; Fitzmyer (1998) 341; Dormeyer-Galindo (2003) 49 ff.; 95; 365; Hintermaier (2003); Lang (2003); (2004); Weaver (2004); Dormeyer (2005).

The second question is the one that is the main point of the article and the one given the most space in answering:

If the answers to the above are affirmative, what are the consequences?

I have it on authority that John Moles is not a mythicist so those who read this blog with a jaundiced eye can look elsewhere for material that serves their agenda.

Broad thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

John Moles lists the following:

  1. the disruptive impact of the ‘new’ god
  2. judicial proceedings against the ‘new’ god and his followers
  3. ‘bondage’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  4. imprisonments of the ‘new’ god’s followers
  5. their miraculous escapes from prison
  6. divine epiphanies
  7. warning that persecution of the ‘new’ god or his followers is ‘fighting against god’
  8. a direct warning by the unrecognized ‘new’ god to his persecutor
  9. ‘fighting against god’ by the ‘new’ god’s persecutor
  10. ‘mockery’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  11. general human-divine conflict
  12. kingly persecutors
  13. a kingly persecutor who arrogates divinity to himself
  14. divine destruction of impious kingly persecutor
  15. rejection of the ‘new’ god by his own, whom he severely punishes
  16. the destruction of the palace/temple
  17. adherence of women to the ‘new’ religion
  18. Dionysiac ‘bullishness’

Though some of these parallels need justification, as Moles points out, it is clear that the two texts “share numerous important themes”. The possibility that the Bacchae influenced Acts is thus not implausible.

Detailed thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

Moles lists three “crucial cases”. read more »

Stephen — The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 2

Stephen disputing with Jews of the synagogue of the Freedmen and others in Jerusalem - by Vittore Carpaccio

Following from The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in Acts – 1 . . . .

Stephen makes a most awkward fit into the narrative that follows the Acts 6:1-7 when we try to make sense of the account as history. There are two options that I see:

  1. Either the author of Acts is attempting to weave a narrative about Stephen that he has inherited from a tradition that is incompatible with his propaganda narrative about the growth of the church
  2. Or the same author or redactor who made a botch of trying to reverse the traditional order known to Mark and Matthew of Jesus appearing first in the Capernaum synagogue and later facing opposition in his hometown — an attempt that led to a number of anomalies and loose ends in his narrative — finds himself in Acts in something of a similar pickle with the way he attempts to explain a persecution event that is quite implausible historically with incompatible fictions.
  3. Or I am sure there are any number of other alternatives but I’m only counting to two for purposes of this post.

In this post I explain the argument for the first option as it appears in Paul and James by Walter Schmithals and conclude with a few thoughts from the alternative argument.

For Schmithals there is “no doubt for his account of Stephen’s martyrdom . . . Luke is making use of an existing tradition.” The reasons?

  1. The mention of the Hellenistic Jews who dispute with Stephen (Acts 6:9) is not accounted for by anything that has preceded (Stephen himself is not introduced as a Hellenist Jew).
  2. The description of Stephen as a powerful preacher is inconsistent with his introduction in 6:1-7 where it is the apostles whose job is to preach leaving the task of almsgiving to Stephen and his fellows. read more »

The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 1

The Scripture for today is Acts 6:1-7

1. In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

This marks a change in the scenario the author has painted in the previous five chapters. Till now the church has been portrayed as harmoniously united. At the first sign of any trouble, such as a rich man and his wife lying about how much of their wealth they are giving to the community, the apostles will have them struck dead on the spot. Miracles like these created so much excitement that multitudes more rushed to join up with such an idyllic group.

Effectively on the basis of the criterion of embarrassment it is therefore sometimes concluded that the author of Acts “cannot simply have invented the scene in Acts 6:1-7”. The scene is said to “conflict with his special purpose.” (Schmithals, Paul and James, p. 16)  Not so. Luke’s purpose is to write an origin tale to show how certain things came to be the way they were in his own day and how the “true faith” — even/especially that said to be taught by Paul — was founded on the “perfect” foundation of Jesus and the original Jerusalem church led by the apostles. Some such episode had to be found as surely as the author of Genesis had to introduce the tempting serpent and “fall” of Adam and Eve to get the story rolling.

But let’s accept an author of Acts who is working with material, tradition, whatever, that obliges him to write Acts 6:1-7. What might this passage mean? read more »

Acts, the Areopagus and the Introduction of New Gods

The south side of Areopagus in the ancient ago...

Areopagus: Image via Wikipedia

Literary allusions and influences are generally not about one-to-one correspondences of plot or character details. Authors are for most part motivated to write something new, something that interests them and their audiences, and that means drawing upon familiar written and oral words and weaving them into new creations. Perhaps a good comparison could be drawn from those music programs that trace the history of certain genres of music through the decades. One soon learns that even “the new and different” is really a re-mix of the old from here, there and somewhere else that has been repackaged and presented in a very new way.

Nor does the fact of literary allusion of itself suggest that the topic being written about is fiction. One is quite entitled to write a history of a modern event and draw on allusions from Shakespeare or Homer in the process. Where the line is crossed is where the entire narrative can be most simply explained in terms of literary allusions and ideological interests. Whether that line is crossed is the case with Paul before the Areopagus I do not know. I have not taken the time to give it proper consideration. But surely Lynn Kauppi’s discussion is one part of the discussion that cannot be ignored. (Nor am I suggesting that Kauppi himself rejects the historicity of Acts 17. I have no idea if he does or not and his thesis I am addressing here does not allow me to know his thoughts on the question of historicity.) And in the process of preparing these posts I have had opportunities to catch up with what others have had to say about this Areopagus episode — e.g. Talbert, Kirsopp Lake, Haenchen — and have uncovered a range of ideas that are too broad to include in these posts here. The question of historicity is another one I may take up in another post when I have time to collate the contributions of these and Lynn Kauppi among others.

But in the meantime let’s continue with what I intended to be just one quick post but that has turned itself into some sort of mini-series now. I am discussing the thesis of Lynn Kauppi that the author of Acts 17 (let’s call him Luke) was writing with conscious allusions to (among other literary sources to be discussed another time perhaps) the fifth century BCE play Eumenides by Aeschylus. This post follows on from the previous two posts. read more »

Paul and Orestes before the Areopagus: the resurrection

Continuing from my previous post . . . .

.

Resurrection ἀνάστασιςin both Acts and Eumenides

A number of scholars have remarked upon the reference to the resurrection in Eumenides by Aeschylus when commenting on the reference to the resurrection in connection with Paul’s appearance in the Areopagus before the Athenians.

F. F. Bruce, in The Book of Acts, p. 343, when commenting on the scoffing Paul received after mentioning the resurrection, recalled the scene in Aeschylus’ play that likewise mentioned the resurrection in connection with a hero appearing before the Areopagus. Most Athenians, Bruce said, would, on hearing of Paul’s mention of the resurrection, have agreed with the sentiments expressed in the play by

the god Apollo, . . . on the occasion when that very court of the Areopagus was founded by the city’s patron goddess Athene: “Once a man dies and the earth drinks up his blood, there is no resurrection.” Some of them, therefore, ridiculed a statement which seemed so absurd.

The footnote supplied points to Aeschylus, Eumenides, lines 647-8, where the same Greek word, ἀνάστασις, is used in both the play and Acts 17:18, 32.

Similarly Charles H. Talbert in Reading Acts, p. 157, makes note of the same observation:

Scoffing is a typical response to speeches by fringe figures . . . Given the assumptions of Paul’s auditors, scoffing is an entirely appropriate response. Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48, relates how, on the occasion of the inauguration of the court of the Areopagus, the god Apollo says, “When the dust hath drained the blood of man, once he is slain, there is no return to life.”

Lynn Kauppi sees more in the link between Aeschylus and Acts than a background pointer to a common belief among Athenians of the day. He suggests that the way “Luke” weaves the allusions into the scene of Acts 17:16-34 gives reason to think that his audience “may have observed an allusion to the Athenian literary tradition.” (The Greek text is from Perseus and the English translation from Kauppi’s manuscript.) read more »

Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus inspired by the Muses

Erinyes (Furies)

Some years ago I somehow stumbled into an email exchange with a doctoral student on the other side of the world who kindly let me preview a chapter of the thesis he had been working on. Since I recently noticed his thesis has since 2006 been commercially published as Foreign but Familiar Gods: Graeco-Romans Read Religion in Acts I feel free to share the contents of that chapter now.

Lynn Kauppi argues that the scene in Acts where Paul is brought before the Areopagus to explain himself partly on the impression that he is introducing new gods to Athens was inspired by a scene in a play well-known to Greek speakers of the day.

The play is Eumenides, the third in a trilogy of plays composed by Aeschylus around the 450’s bce. The name Eumenides refers to devotees of the Furies (Erinyes). These Furies pursued and tormented one who had murdered his own mother.

In the first play of the series King Agamemnon returned home victorious from the Trojan war but was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play their son Orestes was moved by his sister and the god Apollo to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother.

The third play, the one said to contain the influences on the author of Acts, contains the resolution of the moral conflicts built up in the first two plays. On Apollo’s advice Orestes flees to Athens seeking escape from the torment of the Furies. Meanwhile the ghost of Clytemnestra rises up from the dead to rebuke the Furies for not completing their just vengeance on her son.

In Athens Orestes is met by the goddess Athena who listens to his case and also hears the counter-claims of the Furies. Unable to determine the rights and wrongs of the matter alone she founds the court of the Areopagus to help her decide the case. Orestes appears at this court, the Areopagus, along with his prosecutors, the Furies, and his defender, the god Apollo. The court is divided so the goddess Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of Orestes, thus cleansing him from the stain or pollution of blood-guilt and setting a precedent for mercy over justice. When the Furies threaten to destroy Athens in retaliation a shrine is established for them and a procession is held in their honour by the Athenians.

The outline of the play does not encourage the modern reader to suspect it may contain an influence on the author of Acts.

But Kauppi argues that the play was well-known in the early Christian era and did influence other writings of the time; and that a Graeco-Roman reader of Acts would likely recognize allusions in the play to “the resurrection” from the dead, the role of the Areopagus in examining the central character and the theme of the introduction of new gods into Athens. read more »

Bible and the Argonauts. ch.5 (Book 4)

Continuing my little series of posts reading the Bible in the context of popular ancient fiction, specifically with the Argonautica.

Book 4 — Seaton’s translation of the fourth and final book of the Argonautica. (Ignore the chapter numbering in the title.) This post covers only the early portions of this book.

Escape adventure and happily disbelieving reunion

Having thrown her lot in with Jason Medea flees her father’s palace under cover of darkness fearing his wrath. As she rushed forth from her home,

the bolts of the doors gave way self-moved, leaping backwards at the swift strains of her magic song. . . . Quickly along the dark track, outside the towers of the spacious city, did she come in fear; nor did any of the warders not her, but she sped on unseen by them.

Peter is not a semi-divine being as Medea is (she is a granddaughter of the sun god Helios and has magic powers) so he needs an angel to help him out when it is his cue to enter this Hellenestic adventure motif of fleeing for his life, past guards unseen, with doors opening of their own accord: read more »

How Acts subverts Galatians

There are two different stories, their differences well known, of the circumstances surrounding Paul’s conversion and the later Jerusalem Conference in the New Testament.

The Two Conversions

In the Book of Acts (9:1-30) we read that

  1. Paul was persecuting the church until —
  2. Paul was struck down by a divine call on his way to Damascus,
  3. that he was baptized in Damascus by a lowly disciple (Ananias),
  4. and after some time (“many days”) he fled to Jerusalem because of Jewish persecution,
  5. His contacts in Jerusalem were limited but only on first arriving
  6. until Barnabas acted as his Janus-like gateway by taking him to the apostles
  7. who, we learn elsewhere in Acts, were led by Peter and James
  8. Brethren took him away to Caesarea and then to Tarsus to protect him from the Hellenists

In the Epistle to the Galatians (1:13-24) we read a different story.

  1. Paul used to persecute the church until —
  2. Paul says Christ revealed himself by revelation “in him”,
  3. that he then went to Arabia.
  4. Only after he had been in Arabia did he return to Damascus.
  5. After three years in Damascus he went to Jerusalem because he wanted to see Peter
  6. His contacts in Jerusalem remained limited — the Judean churches did not see Paul
  7. He met Peter (staying with him 15 days) and James only.
  8. Paul then returned to the regions of Syria and Cilicia.

One can conclude that the author of Acts did not know of the Galatians letter. But I think it more likely that the author of Acts composed a narrative polemic against the letter. Each of the differences can be accounted for as a polemical response to some point in the Galatians account. . . . read more »