Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons – II

Part 2

We continue our journey through those wacky “Acts of the Apostles.” Last time, we looked at how the first Christians (technically “pre-Christians”) were, literally, communists; about the horrible deaths of Ananias and Sapphira–convicted of holding back some funds from the commune; and the death of the very loquacious Stephen who filibustered himself into a stoning.

Today we’ll see how Paul bores a man into falling off a balcony, the million-dollar book (er…magical scroll) burning, and a “knock knock” joke about Peter on the lam.

Without no further ado…

Paul bores a young man into falling off a 3rd-story window ledge

Paul was no stranger to the ill effects of endless blathering as we learn in Chapter 20, during his third missionary journey.

On his way to Macedonia, Paul and Luke stop in Troas (near ancient Troy) for a week. As he was to leave the next morning, he can’t stop himself from preaching to his entourage, “prolonging his address until midnight.” (20:7) A young man named Eutychus was so overcome with weariness at Paul’s droning on “at great length” that he fell asleep and toppled down from the third story to the ground, where he was pronounced dead.

Paul, a tentmaker or possibly weaver by trade, seems to know more than anyone else there about death signs and simply tells the crowd “Do not be alarmed, life is still in him.” (20:11). Unfazed, the entourage has a late night snack while Paul continues preaching till daybreak and then departs. Turns out the boy was alive and all were “not a little comforted.” Tip: Get ready for a night of de-caf coffee when Paul is on a preaching roll.

Million-dollar book burning in Ephesus

There was a certain Sceva, a Jewish high priest in Ephesus who had seven sons engaged in exorcisms. Meanwhile Paul and his bro’s were working more than the usual miracles, literally healing nearly everyone in sight, so much so that they didn’t even need to be “in sight.” Indeed, all Paul had to do was send his “handkerchiefs and aprons” to the sick to eject the evil spirits causing disease. Since those who refused to believe were labeled “obstinate” it’s easy to imagine that Paul & Co. were not pleased with the competition from Sceva. The Jews and Gentiles of Ephesus convinced the rogue exorcists to confess their practices:

19 And many who had practised magical arts collected their scrolls and burnt them publicly and they reckoned up the prices…and found the sum to be fifty thousand pieces of silver. (Acts 19:19)

Roman denarius, c 75 CE, with image of Vespasian

While it’s a tricky business to calculate what a piece of silver from around 65 CE might amount to in terms we can understand, various estimates range around $20 per piece, thus making 50,000 pieces worth in the neighborhood of $1,000,000 to $1,082,000 depending on whether we’re using  Greek drachmas, the Roman denarius or the Hebrew silver shekel as our basis. So according to Luke, there were magical papyrus scrolls worth a million bucks lying around in Ephesus. Papyrus must have been pretty dang valuable. (As the old Egyptian joke goes, “Hey, that stuff doesn’t grow on trees, y’know!”)

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” – Peter on the lam

In Chapter 12 Peter is being held in prison by Herod Agrippa I. Not only are there four sentries guarding the door but he is sleeping between two soldiers and bound with two chains. It would take a true Houdini to get out of this…unless you have an angel visiting in the night.

As luck would have it, just such an angel is on hand to free him and, after reminding him to put on his sandals, off they go. They pass through various guarded gates until they’re out on the street, at which point the angel deserts him. Peter finds his way to the house of Mary, mother of John Mark (the apostolic deserter), and knocks at the outer door.

Here’s the fun part. The maid, Rhoda, comes to the door to answer the knock and immediately recognizes Peter’s voice. And even though she knows he must have escaped Herod’s prison and is now on the lam, “in her joy she did not open the gate.”

Nope. Instead she runs inside and announces that Peter’s outside at the gate. Peter continues knocking until the householders eventually come get him but they’re so noisy that Pete has to shush them, reminding them that he’s on the lam.

Knock knock

Who’s there?


Peter who?

C’mon man, Peter, you know, Cephas?

Cephas who?

Stop fooling around you morons and let me in…and keep your blessed voices down!

I guess you had to be there to appreciate the joke.

cartoon by Jeff Hayden, posted in “The First Gentile Church”

Unfortunately for the guards, the next morning Herod orders them put to death. Not long after, Herod is struck down by an angel and is eaten by worms. (Acts 12.)

*The idea for this headline came to me one day as I was out by the pool studying the Qur’an. I had a paperback English translation, a larger English-Arabic version, my Arabic alphabet cheat sheet and a mobile device that I used for translation aid, commentaries and phonetic/oral help. A neighbor saw all my gear and asked if I was studying the bible. I figured it was too complicated to explain my project, which at times included the Book of Mormon and the history of early Christianity, so I just said, “Yeah, but for all the wrong reasons.”
The majority of scholars date Luke–Acts to 80–90 CE or as late at 120 CE, on various grounds, e.g. looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, and does not seem to be aware of Paul’s letters (which began circulating late in the century); if, however, it does show awareness of Paul and also of Josephus, then a date early in the 2nd century is more likely.[13] In either case, there is evidence that it was still being substantially revised well into the 2nd century.” [WP – Acts of the Apostles]
Mack (1995) dates Acts to 120 CE (p167); Spong (1996) dates Acts to 90-95 CE (p171); Vermes (2000) dates to 90-100 CE (p127); Charlesworth (2008) dates 80-90 “or perhaps 90-110” (References are to books in my personal library)
Clearly, whoever the gentile-by-birth author of Luke-Acts was, he was far removed from the times and places he wrote about, including Luke’s gaffe at 5:19 about “tile roofs” (roofs were actually reeds and packed mud, see Korb 2010)
Spong (1996) sees a “midrash” of the Ananias story in Jeremiah’s story of Hananiah, “lying in the name of the Lord, and deceiving the people” where “the deceiver should be shortly cut off by death.” (Jeremiah 28: 15-17). Seems like a stretch to me, though Isaac Asimov (1969) seems to agree.
“Midrash” by the way, is the Jewish tradition dictating that everything to be venerated in the present must somehow be connected with a sacred moment in the past (Bringas p172). Spong (1996) quite persuasively makes the case that the entire NT is essentially a midrash of Hebrew Sabbath lectionaries (weekly scripture readings). In this light, Acts is a lectionary book written midrashically, designed to complement and parallel gospel readings. (p177) The Jewish practice of reading appointed Scriptures on given days or occasions dates back to the time of Moses and continues in Catholic masses among other liturgies.
The “magical papyrus scrolls” were also called “Ephesian letters.” Apparently, the Ephesians were greatly addicted to magic. Magic characters were marked on the crown, cincture (belt), and feet of Diana; at the preaching of Paul, many who used curious [magical] books, burnt them. (Acts 19.)

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