Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Road to Damascus and Paul's Commission

Luke relates the events of, and Paul's descriptions of, the Damascus Road experience on different occasions in Acts (9, 22, 26). And when you compare the accounts, you see significant differences. You have at least two choices: you collapse everything that Paul describes into that event (taking a lead from 26); or, you look for another conceptualisation of what Paul saw as his commission. I would maintain that viewing the Damascus Road experience as the discrete event, the singularity in which Paul's commission is transacted is not the way that Luke portrays it. The Lukan accounts give us the following:
  • Paul is confronted by Jesus on the Road and commanded to 'enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do'. Paul is blind for three days at Judas' house, and fasts during this time (9:9). As a devout Pharisee, Paul's reaction is to seek God; over this period he is surely reflecting on the implications of Jesus being alive - mainly that his claim to be the Messiah was in fact true! During this period Paul is reflecting upon the Messianic sciptures and begins to reinterpret them in the light of what's just happened; this would be one of his first reactions.
  • Ananias then goes to meet Saul in response to a vision, in which the Lord explains to Ananias that Paul will be a messenger to the Gentiles (9:15). Ananias is portrayed as a devout disciple of Christ. He surely relays to Paul the content of the vision: including the fact that Paul has been called to go to 'Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel' (note the order). For Paul, the import of Ananias' words was that he should be a witness to all men (pros pantas anthropous, 22:15). Here, in Judas' house, is the embryo of Paul's missionary thought and strategy. Again this would lead Paul to reflect on the OT to find justification there for Ananias' vision. Paul would already possess a well-rehearsed eschatology which included the Messianic Age and the Gentiles and the revelation at the Road and via Ananias prompt a cycle of eschatological reinterpretation.
  • However, Paul's commission is not yet complete. After three years in Damascus he returns to Jerusalem (9:26f) and is in the Temple praying. In a vision he is now explicitly commanded by Jesus himself to go to the Gentiles, ethne or 'nations' (22:17f). This is a explicit prioritisation of 'Gentiles, kings and the sons of Israel'. Did Paul see this as an ethnic or geographic command? Paul's practice of beginning in the synagogues of the various cities on his itinerary indicates that it was perhaps not merely ethnic, but strongly geographic. Paul was an apostle to the non-Jewish 'nations', including the 'sons of Israel' dwelling there.
  • So, how are we to understand Paul's narration before Agrippa? Here he telescopes the whole process of his call into the event of the Damascus Road (26:14f). This is a compressed account, as Longenecker sees it, including within the narrative structure of the Damascus Road both the contribution of Ananias and the experience in the Temple. In this account, 'Paul did not emphasize details of time or human aid in this third account of his conversion. What Paul did emphasize was the lordship of Christ and the divine commission Christ gave him' (Longenecker).
If we take Acts 26 as the lead for the Damascus Road experience, where everything is explained in that moment, we have difficulty with the Temple vision and we leave unrecognised the important human contribution of Ananias.