Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Acts, Chapter 16: Holy earthquakes of convenience

Paul comes to Lystra, where he meets Timothy, a young disciple of mixed heritage: Jewish and Greek. Paul wants to take him along, but first gets him circumcised, which is somehow supposed to make the Jews like him more? Well, it works, so I guess having his foreskin cut off as an adult was worth it.

They decide to go into Asia, but the holy spirit forbids it. Asia here means a part of modern-day Turkey. They try to cross over the Bosphorus into Bithynia, but the spirit is adamant. So instead they stay in Troas, in the east of Turkey.

One night, Paul has a dream that a man from Macedonia asks him to come there. According to Google Maps, it's about a 500-km drive on modern roads, no biggie. Shouldn't take them more than the day or so they claim it takes. On the sabbath, they go down to the river and start chatting up the women collecting water there. One of them is called Lydia, and she's a seller of purple (v. 14) and a believer. Her ardor only increases when she speaks to Paul. He baptises her and she asks them to stay at her house.

Later, while they're praying, they meet a woman possessed by a spirit of divination (v. 16), who is very profitable for her handlers. She starts following them, shouting These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation (v. 17) until Paul gets tired of it and exorcises the demon. This causes the leaders of the divination cartel to arrest Paul and Silas and take them to the magistrates, claiming they're a nuisance. The magistrates strip them and beat them and throw them into the stocks, but, undaunted, our two intrepid disciples keep pissing off the whole town, praying and singing and annoying the other prisoners until even god is fed up and destroys the prison with an earthquake.

The warden wakes up and sees all the cell doors open and makes to kill himself with a sword, but Paul calls out Do thyself no harm: for we are all here (v. 28). He converts immediately and he and his family are all baptised that very night.

The next day, word comes to let Paul and Silas go, but Paul refuses to leave until they come and let him go personally. So they do, and also beg them to just go on their way and leave them in peace. After saying goodbye to Lydia, they depart.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Acts, Chapter 15: So much for perfect harmony

Certain men, whose names we are of course not privy to, decide that except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be save (v. 1). S/Paul, who seems to be firmly in the 'Paul' camp now, and Barnabas, rush off to Jerusalem to argue with them, stopping in just two places to convert gentiles.

In Jerusalem they tell the story of what happened with the hunger hallucinations and all that, but those pesky Pharisees argue that it's only fine to convert gentiles as long as they get circumcised and follow Jewish law. There's more arguing until Peter stands up and says that god has been speaking through him to spread the gospel to the gentiles, and god has also sent them the holy ghost. He also points out that none of them exactly likes following Jewish law, so why put it on the gentiles as well?

Next, Barnabas and Paul stand up to tell their story, followed by James, who asks why it's necessary to make conversion difficult and suggests that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood (v. 20). So they write a bunch of letters, which we will find in the following several books, and head back to Antioch, where they declare that circumcision and following Jewish law will no longer be necessary. Except where it's convenient, like in the case of homosexuality. The people rejoice at how easy this new religion is. 

After awhile in Antioch, Paul gets itchy feet and suggests to Barnabas that they should visit all the places they visited before on their tent revival tour. Barnabas suggests taking John, sometimes Mark, sometimes Jamarcus if you're feeling funky, along. But Paul is still smarting from that time that John-Mark deserted them in Pamphylia, and has decided he's no longer a good Christian. Paul and Barnabas have sharp words and go their separate ways, Barnabas and Mark to Cyprus and Paul and Silas to Syria and Cilicia.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Acts, Chapter 14: The Road to... Attalia?

S/Paul and Barnabas go to Iconium, where they preach in the synagogue. But then some dastardly unbelieving Jews stir up the gentiles and convince them that S/P & B are a couple of lying liars. The dissent spreads through the entire city, until everybody has chosen a side. Then the gentiles and the priests grab S/Paul and Barnabas and try to stone him. But like some bad Western film, they escape in an unspecified fashion and head to Lycaonia.

In the town, they meet a man who has been crippled since birth. The bible is always very careful to point this out so so as to avoid awkward conversations such as this one, from Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Christ said, ‘There’s a man called Jesus. A holy man, a healer. If he came here—’
      ‘Waste of time,’ said the leper. ‘There’s a dozen or more beggars who come here every day, pretending to be cripples, hiring themselves out to the holy men. A couple of drachmas and they’ll swear they’ve been crippled or blind for years and then stage a bloody miraculous recovery. Holy men? Healers? Don’t make me laugh.’
Anyway, S/Paul just looks at the man and says, Stand upright on thy feet (v. 10), which totally works! Of course, we don't get the second part of the conversation, also from The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
‘But he did heal someone,’ said the lame man. ‘Old Hiram. You remember that. He told him to take up his bed and walk.’
      ‘Bloody rubbish,’ said the blind man. ‘Hiram went as far as the temple gate, then he lay down and went on begging. Old Sarah told me. He said what was the use of taking his living away? Begging was the only thing he knew how to do. You and your blether about goodness,’ he said, turning to Christ, ‘where’s the goodness in throwing an old man out into the street without a trade, without a home, without a penny? Eh? That Jesus is asking too much of people.’
This creates tons of new converts, though to what exactly they think they're converting is questionable, given that they rename Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercurius, because he was the chief speaker (v. 12). Then the town's chief priest of Jupiter finds some cows to sacrifice and this is one of the few incidents in the entire bible that makes me actually laugh, especially S/Paul and Barnabas' response, which is to run around shouting at people to stop, because they're just human and the point of this new religion is to give up all these vanities (v. 15) and only think about god. Just as they succeed in convincing the people not to have a barbecue, though, their pursuers show up. They stone S/Paul and drag him away. The other disciples manage to rescue him and they flee to Derbe. Then they go on a long road trip through what is now Turkey, preaching and praying. I'm sure it's every bit as entertaining as a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road to... movie.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Acts, Chapter 13: Cypriot vacation

A bunch of dudes are all living together in the church at Antioch, preaching and fasting. One day, the holy ghost reserves Barnabas and Saul for some special tasks he wants done. So after more fasting and praying, they head off to Cyprus with John as their assistant.

As they proselytise their way around Cyprus, the eventually come to a place called Paphos, where they find a sorcerer called Barjesus, who is an assistant to the local Roman official, Sergius Paulus. Sergi wants to hear all about god, but the sorcerer, who is now suddenly called Elymas, interferes. Saul (or possibly Paul, are we all good and confused now?) looks at the sorcerer, calls him a son of the devil, and blinds him. Didn't this just happen with another sorcerer? Or did I stumble into an episode of Passions? Anyway, it's enough to convince Sergi.

S/Paul and Barnabas move on to Perga, but John goes back to Jerusalem. But then they get bored in Cyprus and head back to Antioch, where they settle into the synagogue again. On the sabbath, the chief priests send them a message asking them if they want to address the people. So S/Paul stands up and recites the history of the Jews from the time of Moses, because that never gets boring with repetition, and the story of Jesus, making sure to link him to David and the psalms. He warns us that when David died, god found corruption in him, but that Jesus was perfect and uncorrupted. He also assures them that belief in Jesus allows them to be square with god, unlike the laws of Moses, and urges them to repent.

When the Jews leave, a bunch of gentiles clamour outside the synagogue for S/Paul and Barnabas to come and preach at their church next weekend. Nearly the entire city shows up to hear the preaching, which makes the Jews green with envy. S/Paul and Barnabas coolly tell them they had their chance and didn't listen, so now they're spreading the word to the gentiles as well. So the Jews banish them and they go to Iconium.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Acts, Chapters 11 & 12: Dividing the world by the foreskin

Chapter 11

When word that Peter has been making nice when the gentiles gets out, they that were of the circumcision (v. 2) are NOT happy. Peter has been rehearsing his hunger hallucinations story and has it down pat. And then he proceeds to recap the events of the last chapter, which I already did, in my entry, so I'm not going to do it again.

Anyway, his story convinces the other apostles that gentiles are cool now, which is good, because Stephen is still on his anti-heretic rampage. But they also keep getting reports of converts to their new religion. So they send Barnabas out to Antioch to check. Barnabas is full of the holy spirit (read: super-irritating) and wins more converts and decides to go to Tarsus to find Saul/Paul and bring him back to Antioch with him. There they found the first christian church. Lots of people come to visit the church, including the unfortunately-named Agabus, a cheery little rain cloud of a man who predicts a severe famine throughout the Roman world, which happens during Claudius' reign. The Antioch christians send what they can.

Chapter 12

Herod the king, possibly the same one from Matthew, but more probably his grandson or nephew or something, is persecuting the new christians. First, he kills James, brother of John. It would really help if these people would adopt last names or just get different first names. Then, because that makes the Jews happy, and as Bart D. Ehrman has demonstrated, just keeping them from rioting is a daily chore, he arrests Peter. Ever the drama queen, he assigns 16 soldiers to watch him, intending to start the trial after Easter. 

While Peter is in jail, the new christians pray unceasingly.

The night before his trial, Peter is asleep between to soldiers, and also chained to the wall. An angel with a flashlight shows up, boots him in the side, and tells him to come along. The chains magically fall from his wrists. Peter thinks it's all a vision. The angel leads him to the gate, which he opens with an 'Open Sesame!' Then the angel disappears and Peter comes to.

He makes his way to one of the Marys' houses, where a bunch of people are praying. A chick named Rhoda comes to the door. She recognises Peter's voice, but rather than open the gate, she runs screaming her head off into the house. The others don't believe her, thinking it's a Peter-shaped angel. Finally, though, the do go to the door and they all lose their shit when they see who it is. Peter doesn't want to come in, only telling them to tell the other apostles that he's out.

The next day, there is a great kerfluffle as Peter's absence is discovered. Herod is furious that his Easter present to the Jews has been spoiled and has those responsible put to death. Then he heads down to his villa in Ceasarea to pout. While he's there, he picks a fight with Tyre and Sidon. The people send one of his servants as a peace envoy, because he controls their food supply.

One day, Herod sits on his throne all dressed up and makes a speech. The people shout that his voice is like that of a god, which causes the real god to kill him, right then and there, and feed him to worms because he doesn't give god credit for his speech. That'll teach him to plagiarise.

Meanwhile, Barnabas and Saul/Paul, return to Jerusalem with John, possibly Mark.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Acts, Chapter 10: Circumcision is not the answer

Cornelius is a Roman centurion living in Caesarea. He and his family are very devout. One day, at the oddly specific time of nine o'clock, he hears the voice of god saying that his prayers and alms have been selected as that day's offering, like a first-century post code lottery. Only instead of a new car or swimming pool or something, his reward is that he gets to send to Joppa (Jaffa today) for Simon Peter, currently residing with Simon the Tanner, who will tell him what to do. God I hate riddles. Why can't god just tell him what to do right now? Why does he have to send someone all the way to Joppa? I smell plot contrivance.

Anyway, Cornelius is either too lazy or too busy to go to Joppa himself, so he sends some servants along. As they approach the city, Peter goes up onto a roof. He's hungry, but as his breakfast is being prepared, he falls into a trance. His hunger visions start off with a Magic Carpet being ridden by all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air (v. 12). God tells him Rise, Peter; kill, and eat (v. 13). Peter initially refuses, because he's still a good Jew and many of the animals in this cornucopia are forbidden by Leviticus. God rebukes him, saying everything he makes is clean, but Peter continues to refuse, until the magic carpet is re-levitated back to heaven. Peter doesn't understand what this hunger fantasy means, but he doesn't have time to think about it, because Cornelius' slaves have arrived at the gate. The holy spirit tells him to go and answer, because they've been sent by god. 

Peter lets them in, and the next day they head back to Caesarea. When they arrive, Cornelius bows down to worship him, but Peter briskly nips it in the bud. He's his usual arrogant self, saying he'd never normally go into a gentile's house, but he's making an exception because of what god said up on that rooftop when he was starving. But he doesn't actually know what Cornelius wants. Cornelius informs him that he was also fasting a few days ago when a man in shiny clothing appeared. Does anyone see a pattern here of hunger leading to weird hallucinations? Anyway, Cornelius repeats the story and turns the question about why he's here back on Peter. Peter proclaims this incident as a sign of how god shows no favouritism, he accepts people from any ethnic background. He reminds us of the entire Jesus story, at one point using the expression quick and dead (v. 42), which I always thought meant people who could draw their guns fast, not the living versus the dead, which is what that expression really means. Live and learn.

As he's speaking, the holy spirit possesses everyone in the room, much to the astonishment of the circumcised men who came with Peter. Yes, the bible really does divide you up based on what the tip of your penis looks like. No it doesn't care if you don't have a penis. Anyway, these men are amazed that even gentiles can receive the word and speak in tongues. They ask Peter to baptise them, and to stay awhile. And so begins the conversion of the gentiles as well as the Jews.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Acts, Chapter 9: Hysterical Blindness

Saul still isn't satisfied that he has persecuted enough heretics, so he convinces the high priest to send a letter to all the synagogues saying if they have any among their ranks, to send them bound and gagged to Jerusalem. As Saul is walking to Damascus, a spotlight suddenly shines on him and the voice of Jesus asks why he's persecuting him. Saul, terrified, asks what he should do. Jesus tells him to keep going to Damascus, where he'll find out. When he stands up, he's blind.

Saul is blind for the next three days, and also refuses to eat or drink. We leave him for a brief scene with Ananias, who Jesus also visits, to instruct him to go and find Saul and restore his sight. Ananias is reluctant, having heard the stories of Saul's persecutions, but Jesus says it's all part of his mass-conversion plan.

So Ananias finds Saul and restores his sight. Saul immediately converts to the new religion. He spends a few days resting, eating, and talking to his new disciples, before heading out to spread the word. People are instantly suspicious, remembering how just last week he was acting as the grand inquisitor. So, as is the human response to confusing things everywhere, they decide to kill him. However, his disciples catch wind of the plot and, while the gates are being watched, they lower him from the wall in a basket.

When he gets to Jerusalem he tries to join the disciples, but they're like, 'Uh, just last week you were arresting us. Fuck off.' But one of them, Barnabas, takes pity and tells the others that he's really serious. So they accept him, and he starts preaching and arguing with the Greek Jews, who decide to kill him, so the disciples have to send him away again, this time to Caesarea, then to Tarsus. Immediately afterwards, peace breaks out in the church. Coincidence? I think not.

Next we have a scene with Peter, who is travelling, travelling, travelling. At one point, he stops in Lydda, to heal a man with palsy. This converts the entire town. Next, a woman named Dorcas dies in Joppa. The church members, hearing Peter is nearby, send for him, and he restores her life. More people convert. At the end of the chapter, he's staying with someone called Simon the Tanner, whose house I actually saw near Tel Aviv.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Acts, Chapter 8: Aren't sorcerers just other people's messiahs?

Saul is thoroughly approving of Stephen's death, though he doesn't participate himself because he's too busy watching everyone's clothes. This marks the beginning of a great persecution of Jesus' followers, who scatter throughout Israel. Only the disciples stay in Jerusalem.

The bible is extremely bad at sustaining a single thought, so the next verse is about how a group of men takes Stephen's body and buries it. Then we're immediately back on Saul, who starts going house to house arresting members of the new religion. Then we're told again that they've scattered around Israel. One of them, Philip, ends up in Samaria, where he preaches and, most importantly, drives out unclean spirits. His rival is a man named Simon, whom the bible calls a sorcerer, but whose followers no doubt called a prophet or a messiah, who has bewitched the people. In the end, Philip wins out, and the people start getting baptised, including Simon, who knows when he's been beaten.

When the apostles hear that Samaria has been won, they send Peter and John to pray to the holy ghost to enter into the people there. Apparently if you've been baptised, that's not enough, you also need the holy spirit, though no one seems clear as to what it actually does. Anyway, the apostles lay their hands on the new converts and the holy spirit enters them. Simon sees this and, being a wily charlatan, holds out some money and asks for the same power. Alas, he doesn't know what kind of cult he's dealing with yet, so Peter witheringly tells him that his money is no good because his heart isn't pure, and advises him to repent. Simon asks them to pray to god for his salvation, but we don't know if they did.

In the next scene, the disciples go back to Jerusalem to preach among the Samaritans, and Philip receives a message to go to Gaza. Once there, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is Queen Candace's treasury secretary. This eunuch has been praying in Jerusalem, and is sitting in his chariot reading about Isaiah, which speaks to either the quality of the roads or the quality of the shock absorption technology of the time, but either way it's pretty impressive. The holy spirit tells Philip to go over and join the eunuch in his chariot. So, in the manner of annoyingly friendly seatmates on long journeys everywhere, Philip trots along next to the chariot and asks the eunuch about what he's reading. Now, in this situation I usually look around for a free seat or just tell the person I'm working so please leave me alone, but the eunuch says he doesn't understand the text, and invites Philip to climb into the chariot and explain it to him. Which also keeps happening to me with this blog, actually. The same Protestants who insist that everyone should read the bible for him or herself want to tell me how to read it. As Philip does here, explaining everything from Isaiah to Jesus on what must have felt like the longest road trip ever.

To break up the journey, the eunuch notices a pond and asks Philip if he can baptise him right then and there. Philip agrees. Oddly, once they've finished, the holy ghost snatches Philip away and the eunuch never sees him again, though he went on his way rejoicing (v. 39) which I like to think is at least partly because no one is interrupting his reading, but is unlikely, since he's the idiot who invited Philip into his chariot in the first place.

Philip, meanwhile, has appeared in a place called Azotus, and goes on preaching in all the cities.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Acts, Chapters 6 & 7: Stoning the annoying

Chapter 6

The "first" conflict in our perfectly harmonious little group arises, with the Greek Jews feeling that their widows are being slighted in favour of the Hebrew widows in the food-distribution system. The senior disciples are like, we're not waiters, so they instruct the junior disciples to find 7 trustworthy men, with trustworthy defined as full of the Holy Ghost (v. 3) to sort this little snafu out so they can pray some more. We even get the names of the appointed supervisors, this is such a big deal. Somehow, it also increases the number of followers.

One of the supervisors, Stephen, is singled out for his hard work. But not everyone appreciates him, and some members of the synagogue start a debate with him, but because he's so wise, they lose. Of course we aren't privy to what was actually said, we're just told this by someone writing for Steve's side. Anyway, the losers in the debate convince some other people to lie that Stephen blasphemed against Moses and god. He's taken to court, where he sits looking angelic.

Chapter 7

The priests ask Stephen if he's been blaspheming. He replies with a summary of the Old Testament which culminates in his telling the priests their ears and hearts aren't circumcised and again accusing them of murdering Jesus. In response, the priests gnash their teeth at Steve, which I assume was the first-century equivalent of biting one's thumb.

Stephen just looks up and sees god and Jesus looking down at him. This is the final straw for the priests, who cover their ears and run him out of town, where they stone him. For some reason, the bible also makes note of the fact that they take all their clothes off and give them to someone named Saul to hold.

As he's being stoned, Stephen prays to Jesus and begs him not to add this to his accusers' list of sins.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Acts, Chapter 5: How to get all your cult members' money in one easy step

This is a lovely little fable about what happens when you don't give every red penny to the new cult in your neighbourhood.

Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell some property. They keep some of the money, and give the rest to the apostles, but for some reason, they claim it's all the profits.  Peter knows instantly and gives them a lecture about how this is lying to the holy spirit and god and is the work of satan. This causes Ananias to drop dead right there. This understandably scares the crap out of everyone watching, which is a pretty good way to convince people to give all their worldly possessions to your cult. They bury Ananias without even telling his wife what happened. Nice.

Three hours later, Sapphira wanders by wondering where her husband is. Peter asks her how much she sold the land for, and she tells him the untruthful figure.  Peter tells her it's a lie and that the men who buried her husband are outside, waiting to take her away. She dies. And they bury her. And the people are ruled by fear.

The apostles' power continues to grow, and they take over an entire porch at the temple until non-believers are afraid to go there anymore. I'm picturing, like, a high-school gang that takes over the best tables in a high school cafeteria and intimidates non-members and steals their lunch money. Anyway, the believers start bringing their sick relatives over for healing, hoping that Peter's passing shadow will do the trick. All of them, every last one, is fixed this way.

The priests get tired of this, and arrest the apostles, but that night an angel comes along and frees them and tells them to resume teaching at the temple. So they do. Somehow, the priests arrive and don't notice the commotion in the courtyard, because they send word to the jail to bring the apostles over. The messengers come back and say all the prison guards are there and everything, but there's no one in the cells.

Finally, someone notices the hubbub in the courtyard realises it's the disciples. They bring them in quietly, fearing they'll be stoned by the people if they seize them. They remind the disciples that they have told them not to teach or blame them for Jesus' death, but here they are, not listening. Peter pipes up that they obey god, not men, and the Sanhedrin bloody well did kill Jesus by hanging him from a tree, and they intend to keep publicising this fact.

The priests, fearing the riots that always ensue from this kind of thing, decide the most expedient thing to do now is the kill the disciples. One of the Pharisees, Gamaliel, stands up to speak, reminding them of Theudas, a proto-Jesus who was killed and his people scattered, so his movement died. The same thing happened to someone called Judas of Galilee, who lead a tax revolt and was also slain and his followers banished. He advises them to lay off the disciples, because if their work is human and not divine, it will fail on its own, but if it's divine, they can't win and they'll be fighting god. Which is an excellent point. So they call the apostles back, flog them a bit, and let them go, with instructions to stop talking about Jesus. Of course this has no effect.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Acts, Chapters 3 & 4: Imagine no possessions

Chapter 3

Peter and John go to the temple at prayer time. They're waylaid by a crippled man who asks them for money. But they just look at the guy, then finally say, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk. (v. 6) It works and the guy immediately starts jumping around and shouting and praising god. The other worshippers are amazed and go over to Peter and John, who disdainfully remind them about how they killed Jesus, though he concedes it was done in ignorance. But! If they convert now, they'll still get into heaven. People who don't however, are going to hell when the world ends in a few weeks.

Chapter 4

The priests and Sadducees discover Peter and John and are disappointed that killing Jesus didn't have the intended effect of also destroying his movement. So they arrest them which has the effect of converting 5000 more people. 

The next day, Peter and John are hauled before a priestly council to answer for their little stunt. Peter says it was Jesus, and reminds them that they killed him. The lordly class is shocked by the boldness of these two men who have clearly had no education and whom they recognize as friends of Jesus. They also can find no reason to doubt the lame man's mobility, so they send them all away.

Once alone, the priests confer about what to do now. They decide to erase the whole thing and intimidate Peter and John to not talk about it. John and Peter are unimpressed, asking the priests if they should obey them or god. The priests threaten them some more, but are forced to let them go because they're afraid their people will riot again. For some reason, the bible is at pains to point out that the healed man was over 40. 

The disciples run back to their apartment to tell the others what happend. The group prays, which causes an earthquake. Also, they live in a communist hippy paradise where they own everything collectively. Occasionally a follower will sell up his land or stuff and give them the money to divy up.