Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Neglected Passage #8: "The Spies Like Us" Episode: Acts 14:6-19

I'm fascinated by emerging research into ethnicity in the ancient world, an area about which many of us have been largely ignorant for some time. Ethnic concerns figured prominently among Greek and Roman writers. You might note an ethnic slur in Titus 1:12: "Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons" (NRSV). (Thanks to Wil Gafney for reminding me of this.) Grounded in Greek and Roman studies, ethnicity research is beginning to influence biblical studies as well.

• Hall, Jonathan M. Ethnic Identity in Greek Antiquity (Cambridge 1997).
• Hall, JonathanM. Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago 2002).
• Malkin, Irad (ed.). Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity (Harvard 2001).

Acts 2 depicts the ethnic diversity represented within Judaism. Not only do Jews gather in Jerusalem from all over the ancient world, they speak a variety of local languages. This leads me to wonder if an ethnic joke of some kind might reside beneath Acts 14:6-19, as some interpreters suppose. Luke occasionally employs stereotypes in the interest of entertainment, as we have seen in the case of Rhoda, or for the sake of moving the story and developing the characters (as with the Athenians in Acts 17). Might something similar be going on with the Lycaonians?

The story has it that Barnabas and Paul so impress the folks in Lystra that they are confused for Zeus and Hermes, respectively. "The gods have come down to us in human form!" Luke presses the point harder. Bringin oxen and garlands, the priest of Zeus prepares to offer sacrifice to the newly appeared deities. Zeus and Hermes -- I mean, Barnabas and Paul -- use the acclaim as an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Yet only with difficulty do they restrain the crowds from worshiping them. I call it the "Spies Like Us" episode because -- well, if you've seen the old 80s comedy, you know why.

Perhaps Luke is relying on a stereotype, now lost to us, of the Lycaonians as gullible and perhaps superstitious. I've asked some Lukan scholars their opinion on the question, and most of them have suspected such. The problem is, we have no external evidence for such a stereotype. It's simply a matter of intuition.

Right away, however, Jews from Antioch and Iconium (how'd they communicate?) come into Lystra and persuade the crowds to stone Paul, dragging him out of the city in the belief that they have killed him (14:19). (The NIV and NRSV break up the Greek sentence, which links winning over the crowds with stoning; thus my interpretation.) If the Lycaonians so readily perceived deity in Barnabas and Paul, why shouldn't they believe new teachers just as readily?


Richard Fellows said...


Dean Bechard had similar thoughts (see "Paul among the rustics: the Lystran Episode (Acts 14:8-20) and Lucan apologetic", Catholic Biblical Quarterly vol 63, 1, 2001, p85-101). He argues that ancient writers, such as Strabo, Livy, Cassius Dio, DO portray the Lycaonians as being rustic. I suspect that they probably WERE rustic (why must we suppose that this was a false ancient stereotype?).

In any case, this is a reason to suspect that Luke is not suggesting that Timothy was a native of Lystra. I have argue elsewhere, on other grounds, that Timothy was from Syrian Antioch.

Greg Carey said...

Thank you, Richard, for that note! No one's referred me to that article. I don't know how I overlooked it, and I think I did my searches with Lycaonia*, not Lystra*.

Thanks very much.

On the rustic bit, it does seem Lycaonia would have been out of the way. Of course, the point of using the stereotype is rhetorical, probably (in Luke's case) for entertainment.


Richard Fellows said...


are you discounting the possibility that Luke's report is purely factual? If so, why? If Luke that presented the Lycaonians as educated, critics would find him to be in error, so I guess he can't win.


Greg Carey said...

Hi, Richard. I know from reading Luke side by side with Mark and Matthew, that Luke will move the facts for literary, rhetorical, and thematic reasons. I'm convinced that Acts doesn't present Paul as he would present himself. It's not an assumption, but a conclusion based on lots of factors. As for the Lycaonians, who knows?

Richard Fellows said...


I will not comment on Luke's use of Mark because it's not my speciality. However, I would question the assumption that Luke's methods in writing Acts were the same as in writing his gospel. It can be shown that he was a companion of Paul and, in any case, the events of Acts were chronologically closer to the time of writing and were also more checkable by Luke and by his readers. Those who assume inaccuracies in Acts need to argue from the text of Acts itself. The itinerary of Paul in Acts and the names and movements of his companions fit so well with the data in the undisputed letters that it is hard to escape the conclusion that Acts is historical.

You suggest that Luke's Paul is substantially different from the real Paul. This is a common view and tends to be based largely on a misunderstanding of Galatians, in my opinion. In this letter Paul over-states his opposition to circumcision because he his trying to counter the view that he really supported circumcision. Other supposed differences between Luke's Paul and Paul's Paul do not require us to hypothesize deliberate distortion. There are other explanations.

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