We know of Paul’s miraculous conversion on the way to Damascus. But does the reason claimed for why he was headed there make sense?
Is Acts a good historical reference in this regard?
The first thing to note is that Paul himself never refers to receiving any letter or authority from the high priest, in his description of his own testimony. (Gal. 1:17; 2 Cor. 11:32) While this does not exclude the possibility of it occurring, I prefer it come from the horse’s mouth, as it were. In fact, if one studies what Paul said in his letters compared to what the Gospel writers wrote, or what Acts records, it is amazing the different contrast. According to Acts, after Damascus Paul went to Jerusalem within a short period of time. (Acts 9:27) According to Paul, Barnabas did not introduce him until 17 years later!
We don’t have Paul telling us anything about this mission from the High Pries (although with his bragging of how much he was attuned to Judaism, one would think an intimate connection with the High priest would warrant at least a mention.)
Paul claims to be like a Pharisee. (Phil. 3:5) [And another side note. Odd that Paul does not specifically claim to be a Pharisee, but rather, “in regard to the law; a Pharisee.” Yet the author, in Acts. 23:6, states Paul claims to be an actual Pharisee. Further, the author records in Acts 23:6 Paul claims to be “a son of a Pharisee” yet in Phil. 3:5 Paul simply claims to be a son of a Hebrew.]
Pharisees believed that oral tradition could be considered in addition to the Torah. The Sadducees did not. Even the Bible records conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. (Mt. 22:34; Acts 23:7). The High priest at the time of Paul was a Sadducee. (Acts 5:17)
What was Paul, a Pharisee, doing in cohorts with the high priest, a Sadducee? Christians, in reading of the early Church persecutions recorded in Acts, presume that the two groups would be united in a “common enemy” being Christianity. Yet that is NOT what we see. Acts itself records the Pharisees tending to side with the Christians! (Acts. 5:34; 23:9) The Christians, by being a liberal sect of Christianity, and maintaining a resurrection, would find sympathy among the Pharisees.
Would a Pharisee align themselves with a Sadducee? Not likely. Possible? Yes. Probable? Not hardly.
Now look at the political climate. Damascus was not part of the Roman Empire. Perhaps I did not state that strong enough. King Aretas was the ruler of the Nabataean. We know the story of John the Baptist exposing Herod Antipas for marrying his own niece. What is not discussed, is that in order to do so, Antipas divorced his wife, who was Nabataean. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. This infuriated King Aretas.
This King hated the ruler of Judea, and felt he was totally independent of the Roman Empire. He would have despised any High priest attempting to exert control over any of the king’s citizens. A systematic persecution of the Christians in King Aretas’ control would not exist. The thought would be “Bad for the Jews? Good for the King.”
This is as ludicrous as President Bush giving an order to the head of the FBI to arrest citizens in North Korea. The North Korean government would laugh as such an attempt. The FBI has no authority to act in a foreign country.
The idea of the High Priest interfering in Damascus is all but insane. However, the Roman Empire felt that Damascus was technically always under Roman Rule. The Author of Acts, writing in the late First Century, may have presumed it always was, and that the High Priest would have some authority. The author would be wrong.
Why in the freaking blue blazes would the high priest commit to paper anything with Paul? It has been pointed out that it was written to the synagogues, not to the local government. So what? Who are the local citizenry going to complain about being arrested? We are talking about a political/police type action. If the letters said, “Kick ‘em out of the church” I would heartily agree that King Aretas would not care. These were letters to physically remove people, and even have them killed! This is not some local religious issue over whether communion should be served from the left or the right.
How, exactly, was Paul supposed to do this? Did he bring cages? Shackles? How many could he capture? If it were too many, there would be uproar. Maybe I better say it again—The High Priest had as much authority here as a Wichita Dog Catcher has in Berlin, Germany. I.e.—none.
What could possibly be in that letter? I am open to suggestions, here.
An introduction to Paul? Not hardly. Every record says that the persecuted and the persecutors knew Paul. (Acts 9:21; 9:13; Gal. 1:23; Acts 9:26) Why would Paul need introducing? He wouldn’t.
A mandate to persecute Christians? According to the author of Acts, the Jews were ready and willing to kill Paul upon his conversion. Would they need a mandate or order to do so?
Paul: I want you guys to persecute Christians.
Jewish Leaders: Naw. We are too busy. Big bar-b-q planed for this week.
Paul: A-ha! I have a letter from the Chief Priest that says you have to!
Jewish Leaders: Well. O.K. But we aren’t happy about it.
This sorta quashes the theory that Christians were persecuted. Why would the Jewish Leaders need a letter to do what Acts implies they were willing to do several days later?
Such a letter from the High Priest would be political suicide. It would directly tie him into attempting to exert control in a county that was hostile to Roman influence. King Aretas would be furious. The Emperor would be angry. The implications of even putting this in writing is frightening.
Why would a letter be necessary? If the Jews in Damascus were willing to persecute Christians, and Paul was the “High Persecutor” would a bit of writing be necessary?
It is all but inconceivable that a High Priest would put in writing something unnecessary, and would result in his death if discovered. There is no need; only problems.
Who, exactly, was it that wanted Paul killed after his conversion? The answers seem to be all over the board.
An obvious reading of Acts 9:23 is that the “Jews” conspired to kill him. But Paul says in 2 Cor. 11:32 that it was the governor of Damascus that wanted to arrest him. Nothing about any Jews. (And one should note that in 11:24-26 Paul distinguishes the actions of Jews against him and Gentiles. So if it WAS the Jews in Damascus, wouldn’t Paul state so?)
A further oddity is that the author of Acts records Ananias (the healer of Paul’s blindness) as being a Disciple. (Acts 9:10) Yet the author records Paul saying that Ananias was a devout observer of the Law and respected by all the Jews. (Acts 22:12) Which was he? Could one be a Christian AND respected by the Jews? Then would the Jews have persecuted Christians? Or Paul?
In order to maintain historicity in Acts one would have to maintain that a Pharisee aligned with a Sadducee (unlikely) to write a letter (dangerous, fatal and unnecessary) to perform an act that was either not occurring at all, or occurring regularly anyway.
In conclusion—Acts is not history. It does not conform to what Paul wrote. It does not conform to what we see in history. If a person is going to accept any explanation, no matter how contrived and contorted, to make it fit, I can do nothing about it. And what I see is a bias toward a proposition, and an insistence on maintaining it regardless of the probabilities.
That’s O.K, but I do not see a neutral jury buying it.