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Saul’s “Damascus Road” Encounter in Acts

When we last looked at the narrative of Acts, Saul of Tarsus commenced a persecution campaign against the followers of “The Way” in the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom. This had the unintentional effect of dispersing Christ followers throughout the region, leading to the expansion of the movement such as when the evangelist Philip introduced the good news about Jesus in Samaria. However, Acts goes on to narrative a famous scene: Saul was armed with letters from the Jerusalem high priest authorizing him to target Christ followers in the synagogues of Damascus, but while travelling on the road to Damascus he was blinded by an extraordinary appearance of the risen Lord. It is an interesting exercise for students to compare the three accounts in Acts 9:1-19, 22:3-21, and 26:4-18 and write down what lead up to these events and what did the participants see and hear in each account. This gives valuable insights into Luke’s rhetorical interests in shaping his historiographical account.

Lay Christian readers often understand this as the moment when Saul of Tarsus converts and becomes the Apostle Paul. However, he is still called by the name of “Saul” in Acts 9:22, 24; 11:25, 30; 12:25; 13:1-2, 7, 9 and, although Paul was labelled as a “Christian” (26:28), he could still self-identify as a Pharisee (23:6). Acts often reveals the Semitic names of characters that we also know from Paul’s letters, including Barnabas (Joseph in 4:36), Mark (John in 12:12), and Silvanus (Silas in 15:22). Second, the book of Acts tends to restrict the title “apostle” or “sent one” for the Twelve who lead the Jerusalem Church with the exception of Acts 14:4, 14. Finally, the book of Acts emphasizes how Paul and the Jerusalem apostles are faithful to their Jewish heritage, even rejecting the description of the movement as the troublesome “school” (haeresis) of the Nazaraeans (24:5), and likely understands the scene as Saul’s prophetic call to preach repentance to the nations in light of God’s climatic action in the person of Jesus the Messiah. I have further information about Paul’s biography in this post.

 

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