Saul Escapes Damascus and Travels to Jerusalem

Acts of the Apostles Manuscript

This is the 28th entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This entry deals with Saul’s initial activities as a disciple of Jesus in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Tarsus.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.


3. Contents:

E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): Saul’s initial activities as a disciple of Jesus (9:23-31):

23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus. 31 Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. (NRSV)

Prior to reading this entry it would be wise to check out Galatians 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 11, passages which are correlated to the historical narrative described in this section of Acts, in order to gain proper context on the events described here. At least, you should have a Bible (or at the ready to examine these passages as you read through this entry. I should also mention that although the name given in Acts is still Saul, I will also refer to him as Paul here because of the use of Paul’s letters.

Because we have Pauline accounts, Gal 1:11-24 and 2 Cor 11:32-33, which are clearly related to the historical events outlined in this passage, it is important to compare them generally before a specific study of Acts 9:23-31. Luke Timothy Johnson says the Pauline passages give substantial support to Luke’s basic historicity (Johnson, Acts, 173), but there are a number of differences.

The following lists below, based on lists found in Luke Timothy Johnson’s work, offer the historical similarities and differences between this section of Acts and Paul’s letters (Johnson, Acts, 173-74). These lists are helpful for seeing what Johnson means when he speaks of “basic historicity.”

These are the agreements in historical reconstruction between Luke and Paul, followed by the relevant passages:

i.                     Paul’s  experience of the risen Lord took place in or near Damascus (Acts 9:1-9; Gal 1:17);

ii.                   Paul had a ministry after his call, either in Damascus (Acts 9:20-25)  or in Arabia and then Damascus (Gal 1:17);

iii.                  Pauls’ life was threatened in Damascus  and he escaped in a basket lowered down through the city wall (Acts 9:25; 2 Cor 11:32-33);

iv.                 Paul visited the Jerusalem Church early in his ministry (Acts 9:26; Gal 1:21);

v.                   Paul met with some apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27; Gal 1:19);

vi.                 Barnabas was Paul’s companion for a meeting in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27; Gal 2:1);

vii.                After his first trip to Jerusalem Paul went home to Cilicia (Tarsus is located in Cilicia) as a missionary (Acts 9:30; Gal 1:21).


The following are the disagreements in historical reconstruction between Luke and Paul:

i.                     Paul gives a period of three years between his ministry in Arabia and Damascus and his first trip to Jerusalem, but Acts assumes a shorter period (Gal 1:17-18;  Acts 9:23);

ii.                   Paul says he was opposed by an ethnarchof King Aretas, but Luke says it was a Jewish plot (2 Cor 11:32; Acts 9:23-24);

iii.                  Paul says he only saw Cephas and James on his first visit, whereas Luke says he saw “the apostles” (Gal 1:19-20; Acts 9:27);

iv.                 Paul does not give time or space for a ministry in Jerusalem on his first visit as a disciple of Jesus, only that he stayed with Cephas for “fifteen days,” but Luke stresses Paul’s evangelization and gives it as the reason he was forced to leave Jerusalem  (Gal 1:18 ; Acts 9:28-29);

v.                   Paul has Barnabas as his travel companion not on the first visit, which Luke mentions as a key factor in Paul’s stay, but much later (“then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me”) (Acts 9:27; Gal 2:1).  


Johnson does not want to focus too much on the differences, allowing each author “his sincerity,” but history is not just a matter of sincerity but careful evaluation and reconstruction. On the other hand, if he means by “sincerity” that each author attempted to tell the historical truth, as he knew and understood the facts and data, naturally this is granted. But theology impinges on how historical reconstruction takes place and Luke, who was not present for the events he describes, is especially interested in “showing how the Gospel moved out into the Gentile world in continuity with the restored people of God in Jerusalem” (Johnson, Acts, 174). 

Luke’s goal of tracking the movement of the Gospel into the Gentile world makes better sense of many of the differences with Paul’s narratives, as Luke strives to present greater continuity and less friction and personal separation among the earliest Christians. My basic tendency (or bias) where Luke and Paul disagree on incidents in Paul’s life is to trust Paul on the details in his own life, but this cannot be a hard and fast historical rule either. People have a way of forgetting events, exaggerating them, or confusing people and things, even in their own experience. Historical veracity must be tested in each case.

The account begins with “the Jews” plotting to kill Saul, “but their plot became known to Saul” (Acts 9:23-24). In some ways, these first verses reveal the most profound difference with Paul’s letters. In 2 Corinthians 11: 32 Paul attributes his trouble in Damascus to an ethnarchof the Nabatean King Aretas not the Jews (Gary Gilbert, JANT, 217; Johnson, Acts, 171-2). On this question, Paul is more trustworthy, which is not to say that some Jews were not opposed to Paul and the early Christians, but that Paul probably would not have been reticent to note who his persecutors were. After all, in 2 Corinthians 11:24 Paul states that he received from the Jews on five occasions the forty lashes minus one; Paul would not shy away from naming the source of the plot if it were Jewish. Paul was also a persecutor of the Church so he would have no qualms mentioning other Jewish persecutors of the Church. Here I trust that Paul knew the source of the plot better than Luke.

The word for plot (epiboulê)might also be translated as “scheme.” I am not certain which word is better in this instance. Plot seems to indicate a more formal plan, while scheme suggests an idea, perhaps not thought through entirely. On the other hand, since Luke says “they were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him” (Acts 9:24), that might suggest a formal plan. Johnson notes that the verb paratêreô, “keeping watch,” used in this verse is also found in Luke’s Gospel (6:7, 14:1, 20:20) for hostile attention directed at Jesus (Johnson, Acts, 171), which also suggests, at least for Luke, a well-considered plot. We are not actually given a concrete reason for this plot, but it must be due to Saul’s evangelizing (Acts 9:22).

Saul escapes this threat when “his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket” (Acts 9:25). 2 Corinthians 11:33, “but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his {King Aretas’} hands, is “almost identical” (Johnson, Acts, 172) to Luke’s description. Clearly, this refers to the same event that Paul describes. Johnson says that the use of “his disciples” to describe those who aided Saul in escaping is odd, since it is Jesus who generally is described as having disciples and the word has a formal sense, as we will see in the following verse, for Christian believers (Johnson, Acts, 172). Since Paul does not use a description similar to this in his own accounting of the daring rescue, it must just be an anomaly in Acts.

After Saul escaped Damascus and “had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). This fear of Saul is quite rational if only a short time has passed since Paul became a believer in Jesus, as we see in Acts, but Paul himself reports in Galatians 1:17-18 that he went to Arabia first and not to Jerusalem for three years after his conversion (Gary Gilbert, JANT, 218). After three years it seems that Paul would have been well known to the Jerusalem Church. Here Luke’s account might be closer to the historical reality. Could Paul have forgotten an earlier visit or conflated two visits? Think back to two visits to a major or favorite city of yours each at least fifteen years ago and separated by three years. It might be possible to forget what took place on which visit precisely, even if the events were momentous.

In Acts, Barnabas acts as Saul’s protector. “Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). Barnabas acts as a mediator between Paul and the apostles, living up to his name says Johnson as “son of consolation” (Acts 4:36; Johnson, Acts, 172), but it also points to a major difference with Paul’s account in Galatians.

“The incident provides a classic case of disagreement with Paul’s account in Gal. 1:17-19. Paul takes an oath in support of his version that after his call he did not go up to Jerusalem until three years had passed, and then spoke only to Cephas, seeing ‘none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.’” (Johnson, Acts, 172)

Not only does Barnabas seem to introduce Saul to all the apostles, but also Barnabas himself does not appear in Galatians with Paul until fourteen years after these supposed events (Galatians 2:1), yet in Acts it is Barnabas who is the major player on Saul’s behalf. The Greek verb epilabomenosmeans that Barnabas “took hold of” or “took possession of” or “took him by the hand.” We might think in English of Barnabas “taking charge of” Saul or even “vouching for him.” This is not minor activity on Barnabas’s part. Barnabas and Paul will become friends and co-workers and fellow missionaries according to Acts 12:25, 13:2-50, 14:12-20, 15:2-39, and Barnabas does appear in Paul’s letters, but Acts allows for the beginning of this relationship at an earlier period in Paul’s Christian life and this seems historically more plausible. 

Saul’s arrival in Jerusalem has him “speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him” (Acts 9:28-29). There are a number of problems between Paul’s and account and that of Acts. Paul says in Galatians 1:22 that he was unknown by face to the churches in Judea, but this description of his preaching makes that very unlikely. Saul is said to have gone “in and out among them in Jerusalem” which suggests numerous interactions. On this account, he must have been known to the believers in Jerusalem.

Another major question is the identification of the “Hellenists” in Acts 9:29. Both Gilbert and Johnson identify them with the Hellenists found in Acts 6:1-6 (Gary Gilbert, JANT, 218; Johnson, Acts, 172), but they are clearly not the same group. In Acts 6:1-6 we have Greek speaking Jews who are disciples of Jesus, while in Acts 9:29 we have Greek speaking Jews who are opposed to Christianity and are trying to kill Saul. The identical name of “Hellenists” is confusing, but they cannot be the same group.

We know, too, that Saul must have been known to the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea because Luke says that when they the other disciples of Jesus learned of another threat to his life “they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus” (Acts 9:30). The followers of Jesus have rallied around him. Another plot on Saul’s life and another escape! Saul was “brought down” (katêgagon), that is, taken to the sea coast and sent by boat to Tarsus. In Galatians 1:21 Paul says he travelled to the region of Syria and Cilicia, but we do not have to imagine that this was on land. According to Galatians, Paul next went to Jerusalem only after fourteen years (Galatians 2:1).

This short, but action packed scenario, ends with a typical Lukan summary: “meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers” (Acts 9:31). This summary statement, which Luke gives on regular occasions (Acts 2:41, 47; 5:12-16; 19:20), is intended to have the reader (or listener) take pause and see the work that God is doing in the Church, regardless of setbacks, threats, and dangers. Luke here uses the verb oikodomoumenê, which can literally refer to the building of a house, or to figurative building, such as growth of a person or a group, or spiritual and moral building and growth. The verb is used eleven times in Luke and throughout Paul’s letters (Page, Acts, 141). The most important point however? It is not just the Church in Judea that is being built, but the Church in Galilee and Samaria too (not to mention Damascus).

Is Johnson correct when he speaks of the “basic historicity” found in the Acts account of Paul’s earliest ministry? I think he is; even with the differences and tensions, Saul’s basic missionary activity from the beginning is clear. He is on his way to being a force in the Church, not just someone people have heard of and feared, but someone who becomes the major missionary force for the new community.

Next entry, Peter goes to Lydda and Joppa and meets Tabitha.

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