Sunday, January 31, 2021

Nothing New Under the Sun

If the shifting political and social narratives of the last several years have not convinced you that the vast majority of the general public are being lied to deliberately and repeatedly, then probably nothing will.

For myself, I am convinced that no matter the subject, just about the only story that isn’t accurate in any given news cycle is the one being told to us by politicians, corporations and media; the one which is said to be most popularly acceptable, and the one its authors are at greatest pains to preserve by censoring any contradictory information or expression of opinion that might make it less persuasive.

These days the popular narrative may even be a brazen 180 degree falsehood, but more often than not it contains a recognizable kernel of truth that serves to make a bigger lie appear more plausible.

Acts 23 contains two classic examples of men putting a political spin on the truth to serve their own purposes.

From Death Penalty to No Fault

We begin in verse 9 with the attempt to shift the narrative by some of the scribes in the party of the Pharisees. The mob crying for Paul’s death has been putting forth the lie that Paul has defiled the temple by bringing foreigners into it (false), and that his teaching is anti-Jewish, anti-Law and anti-temple (technically not completely incorrect, but severely spun for effect), in hope of persuading his Roman captors to turn him over to them. In fact, the real motive of the Jewish religious leadership is the same sort of feverish jealousy to protect their own positions which characterized their reaction to the Lord Jesus.

Now, Paul has brought up the subject of resurrection, dividing Pharisees (who believed in it) from the ruling party of the Sadducees (who did not). Immediately, a group of scribes on the side of the Pharisees perceive that in Paul they have an ally against the Sadducean heresy, and this suddenly seems to them a much more important issue than whether or not Paul has actually defiled the temple (which they have been completely unable to demonstrate in any case). So they cynically attempt to shift the narrative. The new story from their side of the theological divide is “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?”

That’s a 180 degree reversal of the narrative on the basis of one sentence from the mouth of the apostle Paul. We go from “He should not be allowed to live” to “We find nothing wrong in this man.” Amazing! Nothing at all has changed about who Paul is and what he is teaching, but at least some of his accusers have gone from clamoring for the death penalty to advocating for his immediate release. And while the new story is not successful in getting Paul freed, it provides enough commotion that the council session is quickly terminated and Paul is again taken safely back into Roman custody. Imagine the confusion of the poor uninformed onlookers, who have no idea what the real story is.

So then, a sudden reversal in narrative may be an indication that its proponents are liars.

My Tribune Wrote Me a Letter

Then there is the letter of Claudius Lysias, the tribune of the Roman army who has arrested Paul and determines to send him off to the next man up the chain of command, Felix the governor, both to keep Paul safe from the mob, and probably also to divest himself of a situation that was becoming a political hot potato. So he tells Felix a story that is partly truthful but totally self-serving: “This man was seized by the Jews and was about to be killed by them when I came upon them with the soldiers and rescued him, having learned that he was a Roman citizen.”

The heroic rescue from the mob was true enough, but Claudius Lysias had no idea he was rescuing a fellow Roman citizen from the angry Jews. In fact, he was initially convinced Paul was an Egyptian revolutionary leader and had subsequently ordered him to be flogged prior to even hearing his story, in contravention of Roman law. Luke reveals that Claudius Lysias recognized his error and feared the consequences, but had no interest in admitting the mistake to a superior. So when he tells his tale, he simply moves the revelation of Paul’s Roman citizenship forward in time a little to make himself the hero of the story rather than the goat.

That’s an impressive little bit of detail-shuffling, and it had the virtue of becoming a permanent part of the public record. We should probably remember that when we hear things in the media like “That false accusation has been debunked.” The public record contains all kinds of things, every one of them written by human beings with agendas. There is no guarantee the popular narrative is true even when it has the imprimatur of a public official on it.

So then, self-serving statements may also be an indication that they are promoting a suspect narrative.

Getting the Real Story

It amuses me to be reminded that this feature of public discourse is nothing new. Technology has made it easier in some respects (spreading lies faster and farther) and harder in others (spreading alternative viewpoints almost as effectively), but technology is only the most recent servant of the lie. Lies have been the most powerful weapon of mankind’s greatest enemies since the Garden of Eden.

Thankfully, as far as these stories go, the Holy Spirit provides us with an insider in Luke, who has preserved accurate versions for our instruction. Luke rarely editorializes about incidents like this. He simply records them as he heard them or as the facts were providentially presented to him. While he provides the occasional clarifying aside in order to give insight to readers from other cultures who may not understand the ins and outs of the internecine bickering of Jewish religious factions, his storytelling is refreshingly free of obvious attempts to manipulate his audience, very much unlike those he was writing about.

Whatever Luke’s intentions in writing these things, they serve to remind us we are wise to reserve judgment about the things we read and hear, even when they come from “official sources” and are held to be authoritative.

These days, the only document in which I have complete confidence is the word of God.

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