Sunday, July 29, 2012

Acts, Chapters 25 & 26: Kangaroo Court

Chapter 25

Festus finally arrives and the chief priests immediately ask that the proceedings be moved to Jerusalem so they can kill Paul en route. Festus says no, he'd rather go to Caesarea, and invites the ones who want to testify against Paul to join him.

Ten days later, he leaves for court. The Jews have a lot of complaints, but no evidence. Paul simply says he hasn't done anything wrong. So Festus asks him if he wants to come to Jerusalem for yet another trial, and Paul's like, 'Uh, this is the secular court. They want to try me in the religious courts. I'll stay where I am, thanks.' He appeals to Caesar, so Festus decides to shuffle him along through the bureaucracy to Caesar.

A couple of days later, the king and his sister arrive to pay their respects to Festus. Festus asks the king's advice about Paul. The king agrees to act as an appeals court. The next day, Festus introduces the king with a flowery speech.

Chapter 26

The king, Agrippa, invites Paul to speak on his own behalf. Amazingly, he starts off by sucking up to Agrippa, saying I know thee to be expert in all customs and questions which are among the Jews: wherefore I beseech thee to hear me patiently (v. 3). He gives his life story, about how he was a fanatical Pharisee who became a fanatical Christian, And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made of God, unto our fathers (v. 6). He wonders why anyone would find it weird that god would raise people from the dead. Someone's been reading too much vampire fanfic.

He talks about how he used to persecute the early Christians (or Jewish heretics, to be more accurate) until he had a hallucination epiphany on the road to Damascus and became a new kind of zealot. Now he's been caught and put on trial, but he still finds people to hector. Festus responds with perhaps the most hilarious thing anyone has said in this entire book, an admittedly low bar to jump over: Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad (v. 24).

Paul insists he isn't crazy and asks Agrippa if he believes the prophets. Agrippa says Paul has almost converted him, and Paul says he'd love to talk at all of them until they're so worn down they also convert just to shut him up.

Agrippa calls a recess and takes his sister and Festus off to the side to whisper that if Paul hadn't appealed to Caesar, he'd be free by now.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Acts, Chapter 24: Good Ol' Boys

Ananias spends the rest of the week gathering evidence and supporters to take to the governor so he can charge Paul with blasphemy. Someone named Tertullus is elected to speak for the prosecution: Seeing that by thee we enjoy great quietness, and that very worthy deeds are done unto this nation by thy providence, we accept it always, and in all places, most noble Felix, with all thankfulness (v. 2-3) which, if you count the number of riots and near riots just in the first few books of the New Testament, you know is an utter load of horsehooey. These people are congenitally incapable of 'living in quietness.'

Case in point: right now, they want to persecute Paul. They first tried with the captain of the guards in Jerusalem, but he just took Paul away for his own safety. Rather than just accept that in 'quietness,' they've taken things up the chain of command. They want Felix to question Paul himself to assess his crimes.

Paul says he only got to Jerusalem 12 days ago and he wasn't stirring the pot at all, nor do they have any proof that he was. He claims to believe in the same god as his accusers and that he follows all the Mosaic laws.

As for what he was doing in the temple, well, he'd been away for many years, see, and he just wanted to clear his conscience and make some sacrifices. When the priests found him in the temple, he wasn't rabble-rousing. He was just hanging around with a group of Asian Jews who haven't brought any charges against him. He says he's already been before the Jewish court, which found him not guilty. In fact, the only objectionable thing to Jewish law that he's done is say  Touching the resurrection of the dead I am called in question by you this day (v. 21)

Felix decides he can't decide anything until he gets the captain's story, so he delays trial once again. He lets Paul out on his own recognizance, and comes to him a few days later with his wife Drusilla. After speaking to Paul for awhile, he sets him free, but warns him he may be called back in future. Hoping for a bribe, he calls Paul back often over the next two years, until he's replaced by the most perfect Dukes of Hazzard name in the history of the world: Porcius Festus (v. 27), who keeps Paul in prison as a way of garnering favour with those 'quiet' Jews. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Acts, Chapter 23: Hell yeah! Moments

Paul tells the audience he's lived his life with a clear conscience and is smacked in the mouth. Hell yeah! Paul curses the chief priest, Ananias and calls him a hypocrite. The others ask him if he knows he's cursing the high priest. Paul does not, and is chastened, because cursing rulers is against the law. Other people are fine, just not leaders. Great moral compass, this book.

Paul realises that the council is made up of Pharisees and Sadducees and claims he's one of the latter. Yesterday he was a Roman. Could you be both? Do I care? No, because this is fiction. Anyway, this causes strife amongst the two groups, not over Paul, but over whether resurrection is possible and angels exist. History is on the side of the Sadducees, who say no to both, but not in this book. The Pharisee scribes now start up, saying if Paul has been talking to angels, they should leave him alone, because otherwise they're fighting god.

The Roman soldiers, fearing that Paul will be torn to pieces, bring him back into the castle. God comes and tells him he's happy with his work in Jerusalem, so he's sending him to Rome.

Meanwhile, 40 Jews vow not to eat or drink anything until they've killed Paul. They go to the chief priests and tell them to call Paul down again tomorrow for questioning, and they'll kill him then.

Paul's nephew overhears this and manages to sneak into the castle to warn his uncle. Paul gets him to tell the captain of the guards, who orders 400 men to take Paul to Caesarea at 3 o'clock in the morning and deposit him with Felix, the governor. Felix reads the letter and decides he'll deal with Paul when his accusers arrive.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Acts, Chapter 22: Only torture the slaves

Paul addresses the crowd in Hebrew. He gives them a brief autobiography: born Saul, in Tarsus, a former persecutor of Christians, he used to go up to Damascus to bind them up and take them to Jerusalem for punishment, until one day, he's heading up there once again when a spotlight shines down from on high and Jesus cried out Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? (v. 7). Oddly, no one who was with him that day heard the voice of Christ, they just saw Saul, soon to be Paul, talking loudly to himself. Anyway, he goes blind then and his followers have to lead him to Damascus, where a man named Ananias restores his sight. He converts and is baptised.

When Paul gets back to Jerusalem, he goes to the temple to pray and falls into a trance, which is the third sign of mental illness after hearing voices and hysterical blindness, for those of you keeping track at home. Anyway, he hears yet another voice telling him to get out of Dodge, and he protests that he's well known as a persecutor, so people will doubly believe him now that he's a sincere Christian. 

The mob is not convinced, so they all throw their clothes off and throw dust in the air. Now I'm just thinking everybody's insane. It's like a biblical Florida. The captain pulls Paul back into the castle and orders him questioned with whips. Paul asks them if it's legal for them to torture a Roman who hasn't been convicted of anything. This gets their attention. They go to the captain, who asks Paul if he's really a Roman. Yup. Freeborn. So they untie him and bring the chief priests back. Stay tuned for tomorrow's episode, when we'll see the conversation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Acts, Chapter 21: Spring Break

Paul starts on the Girls Gone Wild leg of his tour, stopping off at the Greek party spots of Kos and Rhodes to evangelise. And yeah, it was probably every bit as annoying as the dude in the video. At one point, the whole crowd marches off to the beach to pray amongst the nubile co-eds who only want to drink and flash their moneymakers and not think about eternal salvation when there are free shots around, okay?

The next day, Paul splits. The rest of the group, which shifts back and forth between using the first person plural and the third person plural, and is currently running with the former, goes on to Caesarea to pray with Philip and his four crazy daughters. They all prophesy, but it's okay because they're on the right team. Otherwise they'd be possessed by demons and in need of exorcism.

While they're hanging out there, another prophet named Agabus shows up. He's a big fan of 50 Shades of Grey, because the first thing he does is take off Paul's belt and bind his hands and feet with it, saying the holy ghost has predicted that the Jews of Jerusalem are going to do this same thing to Paul and give him to the gentiles.

Paul's followers beg him not to go to Jerusalem, but he says he's ready to die. So they all go in a little posse and arrive at the home of someone called James. They exchange stories, and James gives Paul a warning that his unstoppable force has met its immovable object, specifically the Jews who are every bit as zealous about their laws as Paul is about Jesus, and how unhappy they are that he's been teaching the Jews in more multi-culti environments that they don't have to keep to the book anymore, even down to circumcision. James has a plan involving four men who are under some sort of vow, possibly Nazarites. He wants Paul to shave his head and join them, so people will think he's obeying the law now. As for the gentiles, they've written to them and told them they have to follow all 613 laws.

Amazingly, Paul actually does it. But after a week, the Jews grab him, crying out to their fellow Jews that this is the guy who's been sullying the temple with Greeks and their delicious, delicious tzaziki. They're about to kill him when word reaches the chief of police that there is yet another riot going on. He runs down to the commotion with some soldiers. The Jews leave off beating Paul and he asks what's going on. When no one has a coherent story, he arrests Paul and brings him into the castle. Paul asks in Greek for a word with the captain, which is surprising in that all the disciples are supposed to be completely uneducated. In fact, the captain has no idea who he is, and mistakes him for an Egyptian terror cell that ran off into the desert. But no, Paul introduces himself and asks to address the people. They let him, but his words will have to wait for tomorrow's entry.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Acts, Chapter 20: Auto-defenestration

Am I still only on Acts? Jeez, the New Testament is going slow.

Paul keeps on rolling and hectoring. At one point, he starts talking at breakfast and keeps going until midnight. It's so fun that someone called Eutychus falls asleep and tumbles out the 3rd floor window and dies. Paul, not wanting to get a reputation for killing his followers, revives him and keeps talking until dawn. His followers, realising that pitching themselves out the window is futile, keep listening.

He starts off again after dawn, determined to get to Ephesus and then on the Jerusalem for Pentecost. In Ephesus, he complains about how those damned Jews are always persecuting him, although if I recall yesterday's chapter correctly, it was actually the silversmith's guild the last go-round.

He tells them he won't see any of them again, so he hopes they're saved, because he's no longer responsible for their salvation. He also tells them that after he's gone shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock (v. 29) and warns them against false prophets. He reminds them that It is more blessed to give than to receive (v. 35) and they escort him, crying, to his ship.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Acts, Chapter 19: Book-burning

Paul goes to Ephesus, where he finds some believers who have nevertheless never heard of the holy ghost. He asks them how far they've read in the book, and they say they stopped at John the Baptist. He reminds them that John was only a placeholder until the real messiah came along in the form of Jesus. So he lays his hands on them, and they immediately start speaking in tongues, which, by the way, never stops being creepy.

Paul also spends some time arguing in the synagogue, but when that doesn't go anywhere, he moves on to a school. Thank god I'm not American so school prayer was never an issue when I was a student. Anyway, within two years, everyone in Asia has been harangued by Paul. He also heals people with just a touch of a handkerchief or an apron, which was probably the most convincing part, frankly, given there was no medicine.

Some vagabond Jews, exorcists (v. 13) decide in the name of science to see if Paul's feats are replicable and try it out on one of the chief priest's seven sons. Alas, the demon replies Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? (v. 15). The poor crazy guy then leaps on them, tears their clothes off, and chases them, naked, out of the house. The other Jews and Greeks, fearing mental illness, turn to Jesus, because heck, nothing else is working. All the magicians, which is the closest you can get to a doctor if you don't have germ theory or anatomy classes, bring their books and burn them, an estimated loss of 50 000 pieces of silver. 

Paul continues on his peripatetic way, pissing people off. One of them is Demetrius, a silversmith who decorates the temples for Diana. He calls the other silversmiths together and notes that Paul is destroying their business, because hardly anyone wants silver shrines anymore. This throws the city into confusion, and they all rush to the theatre with two of Paul's travelling companions. When Paul himself shows up for his next hectoring session, his followers won't let him in. 

Inside the theatre, it's chaos, with some people saying one thing, others another, and most of them not even knowing why they're there. A Jew named Alexander, about whom nothing else is known, is thrust forward to explain, but the Greeks are in a right state and instead spend two hours chanting Great is Diana of the Ephesians (v. 34)

Finally the town clerk manages to settle them down by saying that of course no one is trying to take Diana away and so they shouldn't do anything rash. He points out that Paul's companions haven't done anything, so Demetrius and his followers should settle this in the sane way: lawsuits. This placates everyone, so they all go home. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Acts, Chapter 18: Garment shaking as insult

Paul leaves Athens and goes to Corinth, where he meets a couple of Italian Jewish tentmakers who have been exiled by the Roman emperor, Claudius. Their names are Aquila and Priscilla. He stays with them and makes tents, because apparently that was his trade before he became a zealot. On sabbath days, he hectors people in the synagogue. Eventually they get tired of him, at which point he shook his raiment (v. 6), which I guess is some kind of insult, and declares he's done and he's going off to harangue the Gentiles. The Jews tell him not to let the door hit him in the ass on his way out.

He soon finds himself in the home of a man with the improbably perfect rap name of Justus, whose house abuts the synagogue. He also manages to convert the chief priest, Crispus, and several other members. So much for distancing himself. 

One night, god comes to Paul in a dream and tells him to keep up the good proselytising, and not to worry, because he's moved plenty of eager converts into this city. All goes well for the next 18 months, until some dude named Gallio takes over as governor, at which point the Jews arrest Paul and take him to court. But Gallio just sort of scoffs and tells them to come back when there's a serious crime taking place, and to deal with it themselves. The Greeks take Sosthenes, now the chief ruler of the synagogue, and beat him, which does not please Gallio. 

Paul stays for another few months, then goes to Syria with Aquila and Priscilla. He also shaves his head, because he's taken some sort of vow. The commentaries are really vague, so I'm not going to think too hard, either. Then he goes to Ephesus to harangue people in the synagogue. Amazingly, they want him to stay, but he refuses, because there's a feast in Jerusalem that he doesn't want to miss. 

In his absence, someone named Apollos shows up and starts preaching, but he isn't very well-versed in the scripture, so Aquila and Priscilla try to give him some lessons. After awhile, he decides to leave as well to go and argue with the Jews in a new place.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Acts, Chapter 17: How NOT to deal with culture shock

Our little band of merry zealots comes to Thessolonica, where they find a synagogue and immediately go inside to start arguing with people on the sabbath that Jesus is the Messiah. A few people believe him, including some of the Greeks and some of the women leaders.

But of course, some of the Jews are resentful that someone has come along and interrupted their peaceful Saturday of arguing amongst themselves, and they rustle up a mob to attack the house where Paul and Silas are staying, which belongs to one Jason. Of course the wily apostles have already hidden, so the crowd finds only Jason at home. Nonetheless, they drag him before the tribal elders to accuse him of harbouring the people who are causing the social unrest, claiming that Jesus is the king when obviously Caesar is the only king. Plus, if you, you know, actually read some of the history of Jews in the Roman empire, you know they were plenty capable of fomenting their own social unrest, thank you very much.

The city fathers arrest Jason and his friends and only let them go when they post bail. They go home and ship the apostles off to Berea, where they instantly find a new synagogue congregation to harangue. This group is slightly less hostile and sets about to poring over the scriptures looking for evidence that Jesus could really be the Messiah.

Somehow, the Jews of Thessolonica find out that Paul & Co. are in Berea, through Facebook party photos or some such means, and go there to stir shit up. Paul pretends to flee in a boat, but Silas and Timotheus stay behind.

Paul soon comes to Athens, where he sends for Silas and Tim. As he's waiting, he looks around and sees a city full of sin and idolatry. You know who else did that? Sayyid Qutb, who looked around dry, square, Greely Colorado in 1949, saw a den of iniquity, and went back to Egypt to lead the Muslim Brotherhood. I mean, culture shock and ethnocentrism are not new. Anyway, Paul's reaction to his culture shock is to go out to the synagogues and marketplaces and argue with people. The philosophers, who have cornered the market on sitting around arguing in public, regard him with amused disdain, saying What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection (v. 18). They take him to a city council meeting and ask him to speak, because as cosmopolitan sophisticates, this is how they respond to new ideas, rather than running him out on the rails like those podunk Thessalonicans.

But Paul has no social graces, only fervency, so he immediately starts hectoring them that they're overly superstitious and worship demons. He tells them god doesn't live in temples, although that certainly seemed to be the point of the temple back in um, Numbers? or possibly Leviticus? I'm getting close to 500 posts, so it's hard to keep track. We're told god doesn't need anything from us, and he decides exactly when we'll live and die, and where we'll live. He did all of this so we can seek him out, because he's planning to end the world soon.

Some of the council members mock Paul, others invite him back at an unspecified future date. But apparently not enough of them are convinced, because Paul flounces off, despite winning some new converts.