Posted: 21 Jan 2011 11:00 PM PST
READING PAUL'S IMPROMPTU DEFENSE to the crowd (Acts 22), one is struck by the sparse simplicity of the narrative. But two details urge reflection here:
First, we must ask why the crowd turns nasty when it does. When Paul starts to address the people in their mother tongue, Aramaic, initially "they became very quiet" (Acts 22:2). They listen to the entire account of his conversion and call to ministry without breaking out in anger. But when Paul says that the Lord himself told Paul, "Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles" (Acts 22:21), the unleashed malice of the mob will be satisfied with nothing less than his death. Why?
Inevitably, the answers are complex. Some of the pressures Jews felt to remain distinctive from the Gentiles were doubtless sociological: their self-identity was bound up with kosher food laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision, and the like, and a man like Paul, who was perceived to be reducing those barriers, was threatening their self-identity. But the heat of their passion cannot be explained by merely horizontal analysis. At least two other factors must be acknowledged. (1) For devout, conservative, Jerusalemite Jews, what was at issue was the Law of God, the exclusive primacy of the temple, their understanding of Scripture. From their perspective, Paul was destroying what God himself had set up. He was entangling the people of God in compromises with pagans. Not only was he jeopardizing their identity, he was blaspheming the Almighty, whose people they were and whose revelation they were appointed to obey and preserve. (2) At the same time, it is hard to miss the element of ownership: these people were acting as though God was so exclusively the property of ancestral Jews that Gentiles could not get a look in. From Paul's perspective, this entailed a profoundly mistaken and even perverse reading of the Old Testament, and a sadly tribal vision of a domesticated God. Of course, their error is often repeated today, with less justification, by those who so tie their culture to their understanding of Christian religion that the Bible itself becomes domesticated and the missionary impulse frozen.
Second, we must ask why Paul stands on his Roman citizenship here, avoiding a flogging, while on occasion he simply takes the beating. At least one of the reasons is that he tends to appeal to his legal status when doing so is likely to establish a precedent that will help to protect Christians. One of Luke's arguments in these chapters is that Christianity is not politically dangerous; rather, it is repeatedly legally vindicated. Paul, thinking of his brothers and sisters, acts, as usual, for their benefit.
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