I’ve been distracted from my scheduled reading and planned posts to go back and fill in some gaps to what I wrote yesterday about Paul being cut from the Saul of the OT.
This post outlines some of what I take to be the main ideas from the first part of Paul à Patras by Maurice Mergui.
Paul’s life reads like real history or real biography. Paul is a known character when we think of him alongside the persons in the gospels. The gospel figures read more like foils set up to fulfill prophecies, teach us lessons, and so forth. Even their names are often clearly symbolic and they act out the meanings of their names almost the way we expect parables or children’s stories to read. But Paul, he has a psychology — and one that we may not always like. He has a setting, a real place in history and we know the places he visits — Antioch, Athens, Rome. He has a real name, a Roman one. He has health problems. We are told of the exact street name he was to meet someone in Damascus. All this smacks of reality.
At the same time there are real quirks in the story of Acts. The account of Paul’s conversion is told to us three times; the story is told in the third person and then suddenly without explanation switches to the first. The main character is called Saul and then suddenly he is called Paul and stays with that name to the end; geographical errors appear as when Malta is set in the Adriatic; and there are contradictions to what he wrote in his letters. Paul is both diminished and exalted in our sources. But such anomalies and contradictions are considered generally at one level to be marks of authenticity.
The story of Acts itself bears reflection. From the first chapter we have the band of disciples gathered together, determined to maintain their number of 12, commissioned to preach the message of Jesus to the end of the world. They are given the miracle of tongues to make this possible. But then from chapter 9 everything focuses on just one man, a certain Paul, who persecutes the followers of Jesus, is himself converted, changes his name, and sets out to preach the gospel. And his story it is right through to the end of the book. And the turnover event was the road to Damascus experience, an event that is told to readers three times.
So what’s this all about? Why such a break or change in story half way through?
Why does Acts “lose the plot” half way through?
Maurice Mergui regrets the way many scholars have, he claims, misunderstood and misrepresented another scholar, Georges Perec. Mergui, appealing to Perec’s insights, asks us to imagine the following scenario.
Imagine that you want to produce a story that will draw simultaneously on three different themes.
- The grandeur and the fall of the Jewish people
The reign of Death followed by the end of his power
The triumph of paganism being succeeded by the universal conversion of pagans
But keep in mind: the rule is that each of these three themes must be addressed simultaneously, not one after the other, in the narrative. Mergui tells us that Perec believed that the Book of Acts achieved this three-fold aim.
Acts tells the story about the demise of the Jewish people and the replacement of Judah by the new “Judaism” from the pagan world. This is echoed in the symbolism of the story opening with the replacement of Judas (the namesake of the Jews) with a new apostle. The twelve gather in Jerusalem for the start of the new quest. The story moves on to the breaking from the requirement for gentiles to be circumcised, ends with the hardening of the Jews, and the prediction that from that time forward it would be the gentiles who would hear the message.
At the same time, a new question pervades Acts. The resurrection of Jesus has relegated death to a new status. (Or idolatry to a new status — as we will see.) Jesus has conquered death and delivered humanity from sin. So what do we make of death now that Jesus is resurrected? Jesus delivered humanity from sin, thus rendering death powerless, since its power is in sin. The answer, of course, is that when Jesus returns death will be finally extinguished – and this is the good news that is to be preached to the ends of the earth.
But the idea of death being reversed is too abstract.
Midrash, Mergui writes, repudiates abstract ideas. (It is like a dream, according to Freud.) Midrash, a good story, needs a concrete figure. And that is why Christian midrash forged the character of Paul. Paul represents
- Paul represents Jews being replaced by gentiles;
and he also represents death on the way to being changed;
and he is the paradigm of conversion.
This “midrashic” tale is possible because the author has found a versatile figure in the person of King Saul (pronounced “shawl” in Hebrew, the same as Sheol, Hades). (Later Mergui discusses the use of another figure, Rahab, to add to the layers of Paul’s role.)
Through King Saul the author of Acts has found the ideal figure from which to draw the one he wants to convey his threefold theme of Acts:
- Replacement of the Jews by the Gentiles
- Replacement of death by resurrection (or idolatry by healing)
- Replacement of the name and character of Saul by Paul
At the beginning of the story it appeared that the plan of God was to move events and persons in one direction. But as so often happens in the OT, God suddenly decided to take history into another direction. There was a change in genealogical lineage. A new generation, a new path.
Compare the beginning of the Book of Samuel. Eli, the chief judge, is trusted with the leadership of Israel but his sons are reprobates, so the promise is transferred to Samuel instead. Then Saul is made king, but he himself is replaced by David.
King Saul to Persecutor Saul
The themes in 1 Samuel are woven through the story in Acts. Saul the king is a giant physically but he is brought low. The Saul of Acts is changed to Paul, meaning “small” — because the gentiles, his acolytes, are symbolic minors compared with the Jews.
King Saul massacred the priests of Nob along with their families; Saul in Acts violently persecuted the Christians.
When King Saul was converted he became “another man” (1 Sam. 10:6). (In the previous post I think I referenced both Sauls falling flat on the ground, one at the voice of Samuel from beyond the grave, the other at the voice of the resurrected Jesus).
Paul is an allegory of conversion. He is accordingly filled with impossibly antithetical traits: he is both Hebrew and Roman, both young and old (Phil. 1:9), great and small, persecuting and persecuted, binding and bound, sick and healer of others.
What happens after the victorious death of the messiah? Isaiah 25:8 explains:
He swallows up death victoriously!
The messiah must come like everyone in the world to death. But for the first time he conquers death (sheol). Narratively, death, sheol, is visited by the saviour. Just as in various apocryphal writings Sheol or the grave is visited by Jesus. In our canonical texts, too, Saul-Paul (pronounced “sheol”) is visited by the Saviour. That is the scene on Paul’s journey to Damascus.
What is the result of this visit of Jesus to “Sheol” on that road to Damascus? Sheol is defeated. Saul, who is sheol, falls to the ground, becomes converted, begins to announce the resurrection from the dead. That is why Paul “falls to the ground”. King Saul likewise fell to the ground, as in 1 Sam 28:20
Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground
After his conversion all the reversals emerge: the interrogator becomes the interrogated; the binder becomes bound; the persecutor is persecuted; blind, he sees; grand and high, like the OT Saul, he is changed to “small”, Paul, etc.
The fall of Paul is at the same time the fall of Saul and the Jewish people. It explains the term “abortion” that we read about in a letter of his.
The “midrash” is of the same kind as we see in the story of Jonah. The theme is not that very different between the two. The city of Nineveh hears the word of God and repents. In Acts it is Death itself (Saul/Sheol) that receives the word and changes. Paul is an extension of Jonah.
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