Monday, 6 May 2013

St Paul - Lying On The Road To Damascus

The Conversion of Saul, Michelangelo Buonarotti Simoni,
Capella Paolina, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican City.
One of the problems Bible apologists face is the frequency with which the Bible was obviously written by people who made crass errors because they were ignorant of so much history and yet needed to set their tales in olden times to give them credibility.

Leaving aside such obviously glaring examples as the Noah's Ark story which was set in an event which simply never took place at all - a global flood a few thousand years ago - and the Tower of Babel story which was set on a flat Earth before there were enough people alive to build such a building if the Flood tale was true, there are plenty of more subtle examples.

I have written about one, identified by Thomas Paine in The Age Of Reason, where Genesis talks of people being "chased unto Dan" - somewhere which wasn't so called until many hundreds of years after the event it purports to describe - See How Dan Destroys The Bible. Then there is the story of the Israelite slaves working on the city of Raamses - which wasn't built until some 127 years after the reputed date of the Exodus. We also have the Israelite escaping from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea into Sinai, the author apparently being completely unaware that Sinai was then also part of Egypt, and would have been patrolled by Egyptian soldiers.

Then there is the muddle over when Jesus was born relative to the dates Herod the Great lived and Cyrenius was Governor of Syria.

But here's a little, almost unnoticed blunder concerning the one person who can be said to have founded Christianity, at least in the West, almost single-handedly; St Paul aka Saul of Tarsus. It concerns his 'conversion on the road to Damascus' and calls into question the veracity of the entire story and especially that of his 'miraculous' conversion.

Here's how the relevant bits are described in the Bible. Acts, was probably written by the author of John [correction: should have read 'Luke'. Thanks to 'Alluctus' for pointing out the error], one of the 'Four Apostles' who wrote the 'Gospels'.
And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.

And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women. As also the high priest doth bear me witness, and all the estate of the elders: from whom also I received letters unto the brethren, and went to Damascus, to bring them which were there bound unto Jerusalem, for to be punished.

Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even unto strange cities. Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,
Now, that all seems very straightforward. Paul was travelling to Damascus on the authority of the chief priests of Judaism in Jerusalem with a warrant to arrest Christians and deliver them bound to the Temple authorities back in Jerusalem. All this takes place very soon after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus in around 33-36 CE.

A glance at the map will show you that Jerusalem was down south near the Dead Sea in the Roman province of Judea, just to the right of the word Judea on this map. Damascus, on the other hand was way up north, outside Judea and up into Phoenicia in the top right-hand corner of this map.

The slight problem for the story of Paul's conversion, and something of which the author was unaware, or perhaps hoped his readers would be unaware of, is that the Temple Authorities' writ only applied in Judea. The 'Chief Priests' of Judaism had no authority to have people arrested in another Roman Province and the Romans were totally unconcerned about which Judaic sect Jews belonged to. Being Christian was not an offence in 1st century Rome and if it had been, it would have been the Roman authorities who dealt with offenders, not Jewish ones. Paul's so-called warrant would have had no authority in Damascus.

Whatever Paul nee Saul was doing in Damascus, and whatever he was travelling there for when he was 'miraculously converted' and handily changed his name from the Aramaic 'Saul' to the Greek version of the same name, it had nothing whatsoever to do with arresting or persecuting Christians on behalf of the Jerusalem Temple Authorities or Chief Priests of Judaism. The whole story smacks of being written far away, by someone who was only vaguely aware of the geography and politics of the times about which he was writing.

That's not to say Paul didn't experience the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy like he so vividly describes, but simply that the author of Acts should have thought up a better excuse for him going to Damascus, albeit one that might not have been so impressive as a spectacular conversion of a former zealous persecutor of Christians.

A shame the author didn't pay attention to detail and come up with a more plausible story to justify St Paul's spiritual authority over and political control of the early Christian sects in the Eastern Roman Empire. It is careless little blunders like this obvious little porky pie that destroy the Bible as a reliable source book for history and as a reliable guide to morals.

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  1. Never thought about the geography concerning Saul's conversion. Thanks, that was helpful.

  2. It is for these reasons that some atheists will say to Christians " read the bible, that should be enough to make you an atheist."

  3. Rosa,

    Great aricle (as all yours are). I can only add, as a side note, that most scholars accept that the person who wrote the Acts weas the same person who wrote Luke's Gospel. There are contrary suggestions but the overwhelming consensus supports this hypothesis.

    And we know that Luke based the majority of his Gospel on Mark (mostly copying verbatim). We also know that the author Mark was totally ignorant of the local law, geography and tradition and was most likely based in Rome.

    Since Luke copied from Mark, he can't have been any closer to the events than Mark himself. If he were, he would have written from his own (better, in that case) sources.

    Add 2+2 together we end up with the author of the Acts being so far removed from the events that it's no wonder his story is all bundled up. This also explains the numerous contradictions between Paul's Epistles and the Acts.

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. Thanks for the correction. I'll make amends. :-)

  4. Talking of lying on the road to Damascus - I like that headline - here is another contradictory fact in the Bible text:

    Acts 9:3-9 goes like this: 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 "Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked. "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. 6 "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; THEY HEARD THE SOUND BUT DID NOT SEE ANYONE. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

    Then we can read in Acts 22:6-11: 6 "About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, 'Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?' 8 " 'Who are you, Lord?' I asked. " 'I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,' he replied. 9 MY COMPANIONS SAW THE LIGHT, BUT THEY DID NOT UNDERSTAND THE VOICE OF HIM WHO WAS SPEAKING TO ME. 10 " 'What shall I do, Lord?' I asked. " 'Get up,' the Lord said, 'and go into Damascus. There you will be told all that you have been assigned to do.'

    So the question is: Did Paul's companions see the light or did they not? How is it possible not to remember the details correctly in such an extraordinary event?

    Maybe they had their eyes shut? But how could they then lead Paul by the hand into Damascus?

    1. Yep. But the apologists get round that one by saying 'heard' can mean understood so it is possible to hear something but not hear it, at the same time. In fact, you quote a modern translation which kindly corrects God's inerrantly perfect ambiguity for him. :-)


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