Prison escapes in Acts — and the non-escape at the end

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by Neil Godfrey

Have just begun reading Plots of Epiphany: Prison-Escape in Acts of the Apostles by John Weaver. What persuaded me to pick this title up for my next read was its concluding chapter.

Weaver writes:

The exegesis in the previous four chapters has demonstrated that miraculous prison-escape was a conventional feature in traditional stories of cult foundation. (p. 281)

Prison-escapes were a distinctive class of divine epiphany “in which divine power and presence were manifested through liberation of the god’s emissaries.” Conventional characteristics of ancient epiphanies:

  • anthropomorphic manifestation of the deity
  • association with visionary experiences
  • appearance of preternatural light
  • utterance of commissioning words
  • fearful response of bystanders

Prison-escapes in Acts “conform to a widely attested ‘myth of resistance’ portraying the embattled establishment of the Dionysian cult in the ancient world.” Detailed analysis of Acts 5, 12, and 16 demonstrate “remarkable degree” of correspondence to this foundational mythos. These are, in each of the prison-escapes in Acts (5, 12, 16), the following:

  • they are embedded in broader narrative scenario in which God’s emissaries are persecuted and imprisoned for their introduction of the Christian message and cult
  • the central event of each prison-escape is the result of miracle — which either releases God’s agents or changes the hearts of the jailors
  • obduracy of authorities before the epiphany leads to warning or divine retribution
  • each ends with reaffirmation of the Christian cult’s continued growth

Prison-escapes also are similar to the Greco-Roman mythological traditions:

  • the deity is a traveler — prison-escapes are linked with establishment of new cult sites
  • prison-escapes are not just for release of the hero but for the purpose of proclaiming the deity’s message
  • effect on authorities suggests a retributive divine justice against hubris and impiety

So what to make of Acts’ concluding with Paul’s prolonged stay in prison?

Acts 16 first hints at Luke’s change of narrative theme: In Acts 16 jail is momentarily transformed to a place of worship and proclamation of the gospel.

Acts 21-28: imprisonment has finally become a means for evangelization, and Luke’s “valorizing portrayal of Paul’s person and proclamation.”

The prison escape is no longer necessary for the expansion of the cult. Imprisonment itself becomes the means of evangelization. Prison-escapes have passed their use-by date. Imprisonment, not escape from prison, spreads the gospel to — and in — Rome.

It is an exception that proves the rule of the Lukan prison-escapes: freedom for mission in a polis is the central function of the Lukan prison narratives, whether this is accomplished through miraculous rescue or through providential opportunity for mission from within prison. (p.287)

First thoughts:

Now that sort of analysis undermines claims that the author concluded with Paul still imprisoned because he either never finished his story or was still waiting to find out what was going to happen to Paul. Indeed, it would on the contrary argue for a case that Acts was written at a time when Christians could regularly find themselves in prison. The evidence for that scenario I believe is much more secure for the second century than the first.

I can see another re-reading of Acts coming up. One is beginning to think that any ending other than the one we have would be totally wrong — a misreading of modern tastes and theological assumptions into the text.

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Neil Godfrey

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