Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Evening Note for Wednesday, January 25

Thought for the Evening

Today is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. We actually have two stories of the event in the Acts of the Apostles, one as given by the narrator in Chapter 9, and the other as given by Paul himself in Chapter 22. This doubling is surely intentional, and structures the work. Before the Ascension, Jesus tells the disciples, "you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and through Judaea, in Samaria, yes, and to the ends of the earth" (1:8). After Pentecost, Peter and the other apostles begin to preach to the people of Jerusalem and Judea (2:14). The community flourishes, but begin to come into conflict with the Judean religious authorities. This culminates first in the conflict between the apostles and the Sanhedrin (5:17ff.), a near catastrophe that is defused by Rabban Gamaliel (5:34ff), "who was held in esteem by all the people", and then in the conflict between Stephen and the same (6:7ff) and thus Stephen's martyrdom (7:54ff). The reason for the double conflict, I think, is that the former brings the Judean phase of the Christian expansion to its high point. But the martyrdom of Stephen marks a new beginning. At the tail end of the tale of Stephen we get a single line: "Saul was one of those who gave their voices for his murder" (7:59). One line. We move on to discuss Philip, an associate of Stephen, and the Samarian phase of the expansion of the Church, which is very briefly covered, and which ends with Philip and the Ethiopian (8:25ff). Then suddenly (9:1) we are back to Saul, who, we learn, has through this entire period been trying to destroy the Church. Saul converts on the road to Damascus, and then we have the Vision of Peter (10:1ff). These three events -- Philip and the Ethiopian, the Conversion of Paul, and the Vision of Peter -- give us an account of the form that the expansion to the ends of the earth will take. (Namely, it will continue to spread among Jewish communities dispersed through the nations, as was the case with Ethiopia, and Paul, after Peter's vision begins the conversion of the Gentiles, will continue giving force and form to both.)

Persecutions intensify, but Paul and his companions preach ever more widely throughout the Empire over the course of several missionary journeys. After various adventures, Paul finally returns to Jerusalem, knowing (21:13) that it will mean his imprisonment and death. He is imprisoned, and then we get the second iteration of the story of his conversion, as Paul speaks to the people after his arrest. From this point on, as the Romans discover that Paul is a Roman citizen, we move to Rome -- the gateway, one might say, to the ends of the earth -- and the works ends with Paul in Rome for two years preaching the Gospel. The two conversion narratives, then, mark two significant stages in the expansion to the nations -- in a continuing stage of which, of course, we still find ourselves.

Notably, too, the conversion of Paul is as it were a template for how much of the actual spread of the Church will go: the peoples who give their voices for the murder of the saints will find themselves asked the question, "Why are you persecuting Me?" And then they too will carry the faith to the world.

Gamaliel plays an interesting role in all of this. Rabban Gamaliel I was, from what we can tell, perhaps the greatest rabbi of his day; in saying he was well respected the book of Acts is engaging in a bit of quiet understatement. He was the grandson of the great Hillel and solidified the importance of the school of Hillel for the rabbinical tradition. Much of his greatness seems to have been with his administrative abilities; from our sketchy evidence, he seems to have done much to unite various Jewish factions in a rather tumultuous time, as well as navigate the complexities of local politics. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia has a very interesting remark that I think probably sums this up:

The tradition that illustrates the importance of Johanan b. Zakkai with the words, "When lie died the glory of wisdom [scholarship] ceased," characterizes also the importance of Gamaliel I. by saying: "When he died the honor [outward respect] of the Torah ceased, and purity and piety became extinct" (Soṭah xv: 18).

Johanan ben Zakkai is the link of the Jewish tradition that will contribute to the Talmud; Gamaliel is never mentioned in this chain, although some scattered comments from him survive. But Gamaliel is great in that during his life "the honor of the Torah" was great; he was the high point of the Jewish community before the destruction of the Temple, and one who helped shore up the foundations for that community to survive the dispersion.

The Christian tradition gives much more credit to Gamaliel's teaching, because of Paul. When we first hear of him, still called Saul, we know nothing of his connection to Gamaliel -- we know very little of him, in fact. It is only in the second telling by Paul himself that we get the famous claim that he sat at the feet of Gamaliel. We don't know precisely what this meant, beyond the fact that Paul uses it to insist that he was thoroughly imbued with the teachings of the Torah; the most natural way to read it is to take it as saying that he was a direct student of Gamaliel, but it's possible that he meant it in a looser sense that he was a junior member of the broader circle of which Gamaliel was the undoubted leader. But it, as well as Gamaliel's earlier intervention to save the apostles, have led the Church through the ages to think fondly of the great rabbi. He is in fact commemorated as a saint on Catholic and Orthodox calendars. There is a legend that in the fifth century, he appeared in a vision to a priest named Lucian, saying, "I am Gamaliel, who instructed Paul in the law"; he told the priest to go to a certain place in Jerusalem, and there were discovered the relics of St. Stephen, St. Nicodemus, St. Gamaliel, and St. Abibas (who in some traditions was the son of Gamaliel, and in particular the son of Gamaliel who became Christian). This gives us day of his feast, depending on which tradition, his feast day is usually August 2 or August 3 -- making him, I believe, the latest rabbi mentioned by name in the Talmud to be regarded by Christians as a saint.

There are the inevitable legends that spring up about this, that he was a secret Christian already, or that he later converted. But to some extent it is probably just the early Christian tendency to respect those who could recognize something of the truth, and thus is part of the same movement of thought that leads Pontius Pilate to be commemorated as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, or Claudia Procula his wife to be commemorated as one by the Eastern Orthodox. But regardless of the sociology of it, he is there. So it seems fitting on the Feast of St. Paul's Conversion to say, "Saint Gamaliel, pray for us."


[Bible quotations are from the Knox translation, put out by Baronius Press.]


Links of Note

* Caterina Dutilh-Novaes on the history of logic.

* Peter Suderman explains the Underworld movie franchise.

* Onora O'Neill, Public Value and Public Goods in Broadcasting

* Tom Simon, The Memory Problem

* Bill Vallicella raises some questions about the analogies among intentionality, potentiality, and dispositionality.

Currently Reading

* Ayako Sono, Watcher from the Shore
* G. R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
* Mary Beard, SPQR
* Kurtis Hagen, The Philosophy of Xunzi: A Reconstruction
* Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth

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