Paul’s basket escape from Damascus: the nonsense of the Acts narrative

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by Neil Godfrey

Paul in 2 Corinthians informs readers that his escape from Damascus was an escape from the governor under King Aretas.

Luke in Acts informs readers that Paul’s escape from Damascus was an escape from Jews hiding in ambush at the city gates.

Pervo exposes the nonsense of Luke’s narrative and suggests why he chose to re-write 2 Corinthians the way he did.

Think and ask how plausible it is for a murder plot to arise in the synagogues the moment Paul was converted to and began preaching his new faith — but before thinking and asking that, do recall that according to Acts the Jerusalem authorities could be relied on to write a letter ordering Paul’s detention and extradition. (Paul himself was in Damascus with just such a letter.)

Think and ask how plausible it is for the Jews to win the connivance of the Syrian state authorities to prepare an ambush for Paul outside the guarded gates of Damascus. Why not simply do him in while he was asleep or in the streets?

Think and ask how plausible it would be for Paul, who by some unexplained manner discovers this ambush plot, decides to make an urgent risky escape instead of just waiting them out while making more and more converts as he did so.

Then think and ask again:

Who would have organized “the Jews” to set the ambush outside the gates of the city — and in particular, organize this while the one they wanted to kill or capture continued unmolested inside the city to preach at will?

If there was a “Jewish” plot against Paul why would he have been so keen to escape Damascus and flee to Jerusalem, the very centre of Jewish authority, of all places?

Add to this the tendency of the author of Acts to regularly blame “the Jews” for all of Paul’s problems;

and add the coincidence of “the relatively rare words” [lowered in a basket through an opening in the wall] joining the Acts and 2 Corinthians accounts, along with the unlikeliness of either a pro- or an anti- Pauline oral tradition preserving these words across the divide;

and ask if the simplest explanation is that the author of Acts has re-written or “corrected” 2 Corinthians.

This is Pervo’s micro discussion of this question. He embeds it in the broader discussion of what the author of Acts normally does in comparison with the sorts of stories we find in Paul’s letters. But have omitted that side of it for this quickie post. Check the book.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Paul’s basket escape from Damascus: the nonsense of the Acts narrative”

  1. Thanks, Mark. Another possible — and possibly related — explanation for the anomaly of Paul having disciples at the time of his escape is that the author’s Paul was the Paul from the correspondence. 2 Corinthians 11 lists the escape from Damascus as one of many of Paul’s exploits that were pursued in his care for his churches — Paul is describing his adventure as a leading apostle with a cv to impress even the other apostles, and this is the Paul in the mind of the author of Acts that inadvertently slips out in the retelling of this episode.

    (As for the similar anomaly of Jesus’ reference to his time in Capernaum in Luke 4, Tyson discusses Baur’s argument that this is evidence that Marcion did not mutilate our canonical Luke but that canonical Luke is a patching and rearrangement attempting to counter the gospel known to Marcion.)

  2. Perhaps the author of Acts is explaining why it took so long for Paul to get to Jerusalem. He couldn’t leave Damascus as the exit was guarded.

  3. Neil, you have stated in your blog that Paul went immediately to Jerusalem after his conversion:

    If there was a “Jewish” plot against Paul why would he have been so keen to escape Damascus and flee to Jerusalem, the very centre of Jewish authority, of all places?

    Please explain why Paul states in Galatians 1:17 that he “did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before… but went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus”. KED

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