Sunday, October 25, 2015




This is the twenty-seventh entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with Saul coming to terms with his encounter with the Risen Lord.
For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.




3. Contents:
E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Saul’s Conversion (9:10-22):
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11 The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. (NRSV)


Acts does not indicate how Christianity arrived in Damascus, when it arrived, or how many Christians were there. But as this scene opens, we are introduced to a disciple of Jesus, Ananias. God speaks to Ananias in a vision, a process which occurs regularly in Acts (see 10:3,17,19; 16:9). Just as the call of  the double name, “Saul, Saul,” is indicative of a theophany, so is Ananias’s “Here I am, Lord” in response to the vision he receives, as found in a number of places in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 22:1, 31:11, 46:2; Exodus 3:4) (Gilbert, JANT, 216-17). The most significant example might be 1 Samuel 3:4, 10 (Johnson, Acts, 164).

In the vision, “the Lord” tells Ananias to “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:11-12). There is today a Straight Street in Damascus and there is no reason to think that this is not the same (or near to the) street of Saul’s day. Indeed, as in many ancient cities, streets often continue along the same path hundreds, even thousands, of years later (Page, Acts, 138). This detail “lends local color” says Richard Dillon (Dillon, NJBC, 744), but Luke Timothy Johnson says while the details lend veracity, they are also indicative of good story telling (Johnson, Acts, 164). Although, if Saul had such a religious experience, why not add the local color according to the traditions passed down? There is no reason in a case like this to name a street that was irrelevant to the story.

Other “local color” or “veracity” is seen in the detail about Saul being from Tarsus, a city of Cilicia in southwest Asia Minor, today in Turkey, and then the capital of the Roman province of Cilicia. A number of Stoic philosophers came from the school of philosophy in Tarsus (Page, Acts, 138-39).

Ananias is told that Saul will be expecting him, and then Luke indicates another vision Saul has had. Luke Timothy Johnson makes a fascinating point: although Saul is cast as an oppressor in Acts 8-9, he is open to God’s call with the first revelatory experience and with another vision (Johnson, Acts, 164). Saul, it seems, simply needed direction on the straight path; he has always been open to God. The “laying on of hands” which Ananias is instructed to perform is a means of choosing someone for a divine task (as well as healing).

Ananias will push back at the Lord’s request, saying, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name” (Acts 9:13-14). Dillon believes that verses 13-16 are inserted by Luke in an account that originally went directly from an obedient listening Ananias in verse 12 to Ananias carrying out God’s command in verse 17. Dillon sees verses 13-16 as Lucan insertions or a “a redactional enlargement” of the story, but believes that Acts 9:15-16 are especially important because they lay out Paul’s election as apostle to the Gentiles, the heart of Acts of the Apostles, especially the second half of the text (Dillon, NJBC, 744). Dillon does not seem to be suggesting that these verses are entirely Luke’s creation, but emerge perhaps from another source. It is important to keep in mind, though, that Paul in his letters would see his experience of the Risen Lord as his commission and that Ananias would be right to be properly scared of Saul. It seems reasonable. Ananias’s fear does fit, of course, with others like Abraham and Moses, who in their fear speak to God and dispute their own call or election.

The overarching actor here is God, who is directing Ananias and Saul’s healing (see Luke 4:40, 13:11-13). A couple of other points should be made, though, before moving on. The followers of Jesus for the first time in Acts are called saints (hagiois) or “holy ones” (Johnson, Acts, 164). This is intended to include all disciples of Jesus. Also, Saul is said to have exousia, or “authority” from the chief priests, the first time his actions are given this official power. Finally, the phrase “all who invoke your name” is linked to Acts 2:21, where it is said “all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Johnson, Acts, 164).

Ananias’ protests lead to “the Lord” instructing him, saying “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).  Johnson says that the literal translation of Saul’s chosenness here is “a vessel of election for me” (Johnson, Acts, 165). Saul is being sent to the Gentiles (ethnê), kings and Israel, that is, it seems to everyone, though Luke will concentrate on the call to the Gentiles in Acts, even if not exclusively as we will soon see.

Saul’s mission is laid out before Ananias and us readers in these two verses. Just as Jesus also directs his disciples in Matthew 10:18, 28:19 and Mark 13:9-10 to expect persecution, so the persecutor is warned what will come his way now as a disciple. As in Luke 21:12-19 and Mark 10:42-45, for example, the key element is a combination of suffering and service and persevering in these tasks, as it was for Jesus also (Johnson, Acts, 165).

Ananias fulfills his task: “He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 9:17). Note that the laying on of hands both physically heals Saul and fills him with the Holy Spirit. (Johnson, Acts, 165). As often in Acts, the Holy Spirit comes even before baptism. Calling him “brother” means he has been accepted as a member of the disciples; whatever concerns Ananias had previously, Saul is now one of the family.

When Ananias laid hands on Saul “immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized” (Acts 9:18). Does Luke intend the scales metaphorically or literally? Johnson says metaphorically, but I am not certain. I wonder if both are intended; after all, Saul really cannot see according to Luke (Johnson, Acts, 165). Scales are also found in Tobit 3:17 (“So Raphael was sent to heal both of them: Tobit, by removing the white films from his eyes, so that he might see God's light with his eyes; and Sarah, daughter of Raguel, by giving her in marriage to Tobias son of Tobit, and by setting her free from the wicked demon Asmodeus”) and in Tobit 11:13. Actual scales (or something like them) seem to be intended. Only then is Saul baptized, and by this point he is already a brother.

Now Saul eats “some food” and “for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus” (Acts 9:19). In Acts 9:8-9, Saul does not eat, displaying fasting which is often associated with visions, religious piety, and spiritual transformation, but now Saul must eat to regain his physical strength. We are given no details, but he also spends some time with the disciples of Jesus in Damascus, vouched for one would suspect by Ananias.

This time in Damascus does not seem to align perfectly with Paul’s claims in Galatians 1:15-18:
15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days;

It is not clear how much weight should be put on either account to have all of the historical details of a momentous series of events. It is true that Saul’s time with Ananias does not make sense of “I did not confer with any human being,” but Paul might be intending only apostles in Galatians. As to the other travels, we will take those up in the next entry.

After Saul’s’ baptism, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20). Saul the persecutor becomes quickly a missionary for the Way instead of a persecutor of the Way. Luke tells us that, “all who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’” (Acts 9:21).

People, naturally, were confused, or amazed, given that Saul came to arrest disciples of Jesus and  now he was convinced by the same claims that led him to persecute the Way. Saul is described as “the man who made havoc” (ho porthêras), a military word according to Page (Page, Acts, 140). Even more significantly it is related to a word Paul uses in Galatians 1:13, eporthoun, where the phrase with this verb is translated “{I was} trying to destroy it {the Church}.” This verb porthêo is not found in the LXX except to describe Antiochus Epiphanes’ violence against Jerusalem in 4 Maccabees 4:23 and 14:4, indeed a military setting (Johnson, Acts, 171). It is a powerful word for Saul’s activities.

But, says Luke, “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah” (Acts 9:22). Saul became “more powerful,” and the Greek verb is endynamoô, which might refer to the Spirit filling Saul (Johnson, Acts, 171). His “power” must refer to his oratory or debating skills, for the Greek verbs used later in this verse, synchynô (“confuse”) and symbibazô (“demonstrate” or “teach”), indicate only his skill in argumentation (Johnson, Acts, 171) not political or community power.

At the heart of Saul’s teaching is that Jesus was the Messiah. Gary Gilbert notes that the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah often “provokes opposition among Jews,” though of course, Saul and supposedly those who follow him in Damascus are all Jews too (see: Acts 17:3-5; 18:5-6; 28; Gilbert, JANT, 216-17). In fact this is the first time Luke uses Ioudaios as a group separate from the followers of Jesus (Johnson, Acts, 171). Luke is beginning to present “Jews” and the followers of Jesus as separate groups.


Next entry, Saul escapes Damascus and goes to Jerusalem, Caesarea and Tarsus.
John W. Martens

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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine - The Good Word