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Protective silences in Acts 9:19-27

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  • Richard Fellows
    What do listers think of the suggestion that the story of Paul s escape from Damascus was told in such a way as to protect those who helped him evade arrest? A
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 27, 2008
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      What do listers think of the suggestion that the story of Paul's escape from Damascus was told in such a way as to protect those who helped him evade arrest?

      A comparison of Acts 9:19-27 with 2 Cor 11:32-33 and Gal 1:15-18 shows that Acts is strangely silent on two important points.

      1. Acts makes no mention of Saul's visit to Arabia.

      2. Acts does not mention the ethnarch under Aretas. He mentions a plot by the Jews to kill Saul, but says nothing about the involvement of civil authorities.

      Also, Acts 9:19-27 contains a number of oddities that are hard to explain:

      3. Acts 9:25 abruptly introduces disciples of Saul. Luke has said nothing about Saul acquiring disciples up to this point.

      4. Acts 9:26 strangely skips Saul's journey from Damascus to Jerusalem and gives no information on the interval between his departure from Damascus and his arrival in Jerusalem.

      5. Barnabas introduces Saul to the apostles (Acts 9:27), but we are not told why Barnabas was better informed about Saul than were the apostles. It is likely that Barnabas had come into contact with Saul in Damascus, but Luke is silent on this.

      6. It is odd that the disciples in Jerusalem did not believe that Saul was a disciple, especially as his conversion was three years earlier and if he had made disciples.

      Mark Goodacre has offered an explanation of points 3 and 4 here: http://ntgateway.com/weblog/2006/09/chronological-clue-in-acts-925.html , but I think he creates more problems than he solves. I would like to propose an alternative explanation that I think alleviates all 6 points listed above. I suggest that the gaps in Luke's account result from the need to protect those who had helped Paul evade arrest.

      From Gal 1:18 we learn that Saul went up to Jerusalem 'three years' after his calling. Those three years were spent in Arabia and Damascus. Acts 9:26 also records this visit of Saul to Jerusalem and says that the disciples there were afraid of him because they did not believe that he was a disciple. If Saul had spent most of these three years making disciples in Damascus, the Jerusalem church would surely have come to know of it and would have realized that his calling was genuine. Therefore Saul probably spent most of those 'three years' in Arabia, outside of the communication network of the church, and had not made converts in Damascus. Those described as 'his disciples' in Acts 9:25 were therefore probably companions of Saul who had come to the faith through his preaching in Arabia, rather than Damascus. This is supported by the fact that Acts mentions no conversions in Damascus. Also, the term 'his disciples' here is unique. It is the only place in Acts where disciples are ascribed to a single individual. If Saul's preaching had produced converts in Damascus they would probably have joined the existing church there and it is doubtful that they would have considered themselves to be 'his disciples'. But if, as suggested above, Saul worked in isolation from other believers in Arabia, it would be natural that his converts there would be described as 'his disciples'. Gal 1:17 also makes good sense if we assume that Arabia was outside of the network of the church, since Paul here is asserting his independence of those who were believers before him.

      The five silences listed above make sense if we suppose that Luke or his sources wanted to protect the Arabian believers and the wider church from the charge that they aided Saul when he was wanted by the civil authorities. If Luke had written that Saul's Arabian converts had helped him to escape arrest, he would have put the Christian movement in general, and the churches of Arabia in particular, under suspicion. Acts was probably written with wide circulation in mind, and Luke would have had no way to prevent copies from falling into the hands of potential persecutors. Luke or his source is therefore silent about the role of the civil authorities, to avoid giving away this sensitive information to anyone who did not already know it. He further omits all reference to Arabia, to hide the identity of the disciples who helped Saul escape from Damascus. He is forced to introduce these disciples abruptly without revealing their origin. Luke skips forward from Saul's escape from Damascus to his Jerusalem visit (Acts 9:25-26). This is now explicable since discussion of Saul's journey from Damascus to Jerusalem would have endangered those who helped him evade capture. Furthermore, Luke or his sources would not want to implicate Barnabas and this may explain why Acts makes no mention of Barnabas's association with Saul in Damascus. Thus, all five strange silences can be understood as measures taken by Luke (and/or his sources) to protect those who had helped Saul escape arrest.

      Of course, Paul does write that he had been lowered in a basket to escape arrest. However, Paul was writing to Corinth and did not expect his letter to circulate outside of Achaia. Furthermore, Paul is silent on who lowered his basket and does not even reveal whether they were believers. Thus he does afford his accomplices protection. It is only by combining information from Acts, 2 Corinthians and Galatians that we are able to point the finger at Saul's Arabian converts. Each individual text gives them protection, and that was all that was needed.

      There are good reasons to suppose that Luke takes similar measures to protect those who harboured Peter when he was a fugitive, as I have argued before. Notice, for example, how Luke simply says that Peter went to 'another place' (Acts 12:17) and is silent about the destination.

      All this is important because it resolves the conflicts between Paul's letters and Luke's account of the period immediately after Saul's calling. Furthermore, the internal tensions in Acts that point to protective silences are evidence of the historicity of Acts. If Acts was a creative fiction, as some believe, we would expect the author to have created a smoother narrative.

      Richard Fellows


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