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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Conspiracy Theory

I’ve been enjoying the account of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became the apostle Paul, the writer of many books in the New Testament. The book of Acts tells Paul’s story several times, each version bringing out new details not recorded in the others.

Atheists and detractors like to point out alleged contradictions in scripture; anything that might be interpreted, however implausibly, with sufficient elasticity as to make less than perfect, logical sense of the biblical narrative. Such things are accounted for variously as factual mistakes, copyist’s errors or conspiracies among believers to commit pious fraud.

TheThinkingAtheist.com is a great place to go if you want to see the sort of thing that passes for bible criticism among those who have already made up their minds before reading a single verse.

One beauty cited there is the following:
“Who Did the Angel Speak to Regarding the Birth of Jesus?
Matthew 1:20 ‘But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’
The angel appeared to Joseph.
Luke 1:28 ‘In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” ’
The angel spoke to Mary.
Um, really? This is a contradiction? Scripture records two occasions upon which an angel spoke to a parent of the Lord. Is it really that odd that God would send separate messages to both parties involved in raising his son? You be the judge. It makes perfect sense to me.(1)

But back to the apostle Paul: All experiences of saving faith probably differ in some respect from one another, but Saul’s was truly unusual in that during his conversion experience he actually saw the risen Christ. Plenty of others saw the risen Christ too: the New Testament recounts 12 separate occasions on which the Lord appeared to witnesses after his resurrection. Paul, writing to the Corinthians about the singular importance of the resurrection to the Christian faith, says:
“He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now … then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles and last of all … to me also.”
While it is certainly possible that the Lord appeared to others about whom we’re not told, it is clear that he did not make a habit of appearing to those who did not already believe he was the son of God. Those who had already believed during the Lord's life and ministry were strengthened in their faith. Those who had rejected him do not appear to have received a second opportunity to revise their opinions.

Saul was the exception.

In Acts 9, Luke gives an abbreviated account of Saul’s experience around noon that day on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Christ:
“Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ ”
We read that the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. But Paul definitely saw someone and later says, ‘He appeared … to me also’. It was not just a voice from heaven; Paul compares his apprehension of the Christ to that of all the other apostles who had lived and walked with Jesus for three years in the flesh; the impression made on him was that vivid.

I find it intriguing that in the lengthier accounts later in Acts, given in Paul’s own words to a mob of Jews in Jerusalem on the stairs to a Roman barracks (Acts 22) and to King Agrippa (Acts 26), different details from that conversion day emerge. When I say ‘different’, I do not mean contradictory, but you will observe variations between accounts. Whether these are contradictions or simply the same man’s story told at three different points in his life with different details emphasized for different audiences is up to you to decide. The latter explanation seems more rational to me, since it was Luke who recorded all three accounts. It cannot have escaped the author’s notice that the words he penned emphasized and drew out different aspects of Saul’s experience. It probably did not escape the notice of the Christians who read the book in its earliest incarnations and could easily have made all three accounts tally to the word if they were disposed to do so. I suspect it would be quite remarkable if a ‘thinking atheist’ in 2013 suddenly came across a discrepancy unnoted by believers who have memorized and studied these words for 2000 years.

In all three accounts, Luke gives us the Lord’s words, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This, the Lord’s response to Saul’s question “Who are you, Lord” (“I am Jesus [the Nazarene] whom you are persecuting”), and the commission given to Paul (“rise”, “arise”, “enter the city”, “it shall be told you what you must do”) are the only words the three passages have in common. All three accounts: (i) question why Saul is persecuting the speaker; (ii) declare the name of the speaker to be Jesus of Nazareth; and (iii) indicate that Saul has been chosen for a specific purpose, a purpose not made specific in Acts 9 but laid out in detail in Acts 26.

Acts 9 gives the bare bones of the story. Luke is writing to his friend Theophilus about (by implication) all the things that Jesus continued to “do and to teach” after his ascension, through his apostles rather than personally and directly as he had done for three years. As such, Luke’s purpose is probably to establish the back story of the apostle Paul and to move through the narrative of the early church’s development, giving us the main players and the necessary information to understand how the Lord was building his church.

Acts 22 records Paul’s testimony to his fellow Jews (“Brethren and fathers”, 22:1). He speaks in Hebrew. He ties all aspects of his story into things his fellow Jews would understand: “I am a Jew, brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers”; “the High Priest and all the council of the elders can testify”; “a certain Ananias, a man who was devout by the standard of the Law”; “he said, ‘The God of our fathers …’ ”. Everything about Paul’s recounting of his salvation experience was calculated to be easily understood by those who had grown up in similar conditions and with similar religious training to Paul. In fact, even the murderous mob listened attentively until he reached the contentious part of the Lord’s instruction to him: “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles”. After this, they suddenly decided Paul should “not be allowed to live”.

Acts 26 is Paul before King Agrippa, a Gentile. Knowing that Agrippa is familiar with all things Jewish, he recounts certain details from his Acts 22 testimony, but with new emphasis since he seems to sense how close Agrippa is to the kingdom. (Agrippa says, “In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian”; one could reasonably draw the conclusion that he is under conviction.) To Agrippa, and Agrippa only, Paul gives this detail of the Lord’s words to him that day on the Damascus road: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads”.

The Lord told Saul that he knew better, that his conscience was troubling him even as he persecuted the church of God and, in effect, Christ himself. Paul gives this detail to a man whose conscience, no doubt, was troubling him as well. In fact, Agrippa concludes, “This man is not doing anything worthy of death or imprisonment”.

There are many other ‘differences’ in the three passages that tell Paul’s conversion story, but none that I can see that fail to advance a specific, intelligent purpose in Paul’s efforts to spread the word of his Lord.


(1) There are certainly portions of scripture that give rise to legitimate questions in the mind of even a genuine believer searching for understanding; things that need to be prayed over, studied, discussed and analyzed, and that may never be fully comprehended this side of heaven. That sort of spirit of honest inquiry and desire to understand is light years from simply throwing mud pies at the wall in the hope something sticks.

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