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Theological Publications





Paulus Absconditus

Paul versus John in Ephesian Tradition

Robert M. Price

Westar Institute Acts Seminar, October 2002

In his great work Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, Walter Bauer, the Eusebius of our time, has shown the great extent to which early Christian historiography was essentially propagandistic in intent, seeking to show the providential inevitability of the triumph of Constantinian and Catholic orthodoxy. This is no surprise, nor were the early Christians more guilty than anybody else, since as Bernard Lewis has amply shown, virtually all ancient "history" writing was of precisely the same character. The tendency of Luke's Acts of the Apostles in this direction is now a commonplace and has been at least since that other farmer of the ancient field, Ferdinand Christian Baur demonstrated how the extensive Peter//Paul parallels throughout Acts must be meant to reconcile symbolically the factions of Peter and Paul by juxtaposing, not competing, but complementary aretalogies of both divine men/apostles. The present paper focuses on just one chapter of Acts, sniffing for tendencies like those disclosed by Baur and Bauer. I will argue that Paul's farewell speech/last testament to the Ephesian elders in Acts chapter 20 provides a vital clue to understanding an otherwise puzzling narrative element of the Ephesian stories in chapter 19. Then I will invoke a complete set of parallels from slightly later Ephesian stories starring John son of Zebedee. I will go on to argue that this set of parallels, not occurring in the same text like the Peter//Paul set, denotes competition between two apostolic traditions, a competition attested also in Acts 19.

After Me, the Deluge

Walter Bauer reviews various lines of evidence indicating that the Christianity current in second-century Ephesus did not meet the standards of emerging Catholic Orthodoxy, and that some blamed Paul, who had worked in Ephesus, and wrote him off, seeking to replace him as Ephesus' patron saint with John son of Zebedee, in precisely the same way Mark would later be called on to provide a retroactive apostolic pedigree for Orthodoxy in once-heretical Egypt, and as Addai would be made to have brought Orthodoxy to Edessa to supplant genuine traditions of Marcion and Basilides there. And Bauer understood that Acts 20:30 represented a harmonizing, catholicizing tendency (as F.C. Baur would have called it), "reclaiming" (actually co-opting) Paul for Catholic Orthodoxy. "Paul had laid the foundation in Ephesus and built up a church through several years of labor. If Romans 16 represents a letter to the Ephesians, then, on the basis of verses 17-20, we must conclude that already during the lifetime of the apostle, certain people had appeared there whose teaching caused offense and threatened division in the community. To this would correspond the complaint in 1 Corinthians 16:9, concerning 'many adversaries' in Ephesus, if it refers to those who had been baptized. In any event, the book of Acts has Paul warning the Ephesian elders (presbyteroi) in his farewell to them at Miletus that from their own midst there will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the Christians for themselves (20:30). This prediction actually describes the situation in Ephesus at the time of the composition of Acts." Luke makes Paul look to the future and say, "Don't blame me!" But some did, as Bauer says: "we find as we turn to the Apocalypse that in this book the recollection of the Pauline establishment of the church of Ephesus appears to have been completely lost, or perhaps even deliberately suppressed.... And as far as Paul is concerned, in the Apocalypse, only the names of the twelve apostles are found on the foundations of the new Jerusalem (21:4); there is no room for Paul. And at the very least, it will be but a short time before the Apostle to the Gentiles will have been totally displaced in the consciousness of the church of Ephesus in favor of one of the twelve apostles, John." Sure enough, "in the second century the [Roman] 'church' sought... to appropriate Ephesus by means of John as one of the twelve apostles."

I want to urge that the Leucian Acts of John embody this apologetical supplantation of Paul with John in Ephesus (though the result is still somewhat far from what would eventually solidify as "Orthodoxy"), and that the Lukan Acts of the Apostles presupposes this supplantation and attempts to substitute for it a rehabilitated Paulinism, just as it does elsewhere relative to different issues, when Paul is made a Torah-observant Pharisee so as to sweeten the scent of his memory among Petrine/Jamesian Christians.

Brand X Baptism

It is generally acknowledged that in John 3:22-26 ff; 4:1-2, where Jesus is depicted baptizing recruits, or rather having his disciples baptize them, in friendly (?) competition with John the Baptist, what we have is a symbolic comparison of early Christian and outmoded Johannine baptism. The passage apparently means to symbolize the two initiations (metonymy for the two religious movements) and to appeal to Johannine readers to abandon the sinking ship and jump on the Christian bandwagon. "Don't you want to go with a winner?" Jesus did not actually baptize; nor did he oversee such activity in his own movement. The evangelist has retrojected Christian, i.e., Church, baptism into the time of Jesus so as to have the figureheads of both sects on stage side by side. I suggest that Luke has done the same thing in Acts 19:1-7, where Paul encounters some curiously reticent "disciples," disciples of someone, but they won't say whom, and Paul must play Twenty Questions to find out. The artificiality of the scene is clear: Luke can easily withhold from the reader (as if from Paul) the knowledge of their particular religious loyalty by calling them simply "disciples." But if we picture the scene happening in real life, it starts looking contrived: "You look like religious fellows! Er, just what religion do you follow?" Plus, how can they have been disciples of John and not known of the existence of the Holy Spirit? The very Spirit who was, according to Luke's own account, to refresh the baptized with his blessing (Luke 3:16)!

As we now read the passage, the contrast is between the superannuated Baptist movement, represented by the twelve men on the one hand, and Catholic Christianity on the other. But this represents a double obfuscation, since, as someone has pointed out, "John" in Ephesus must originally have referred to John bar-Zebedee, not John the Baptist. The number of the disciples whose baptism lags behind Paul's, must represent the twelve apostles, including John. We are seeing an anachronistic contest between Ephesian apostle-traditions: Paul versus John, fighting over the claim of priority. The story almost allows the Johannine claim of apostolic priority by having the twelve disciples already baptized when Paul gets there. But then it yanks away the prayer rug from under the Johannine knees by reducing these "Johannine" "disciples" to Spiritless pre-Christians! The point could not be made unless John son of Zebedee were made, with a wink, into John the Baptist.

So in Acts 20:29-30 we have Luke's acknowledgment that Ephesus had undergone a post-Pauline lapse into heresy, and that this should not be blamed on Paul whose warning, if heeded, could have averted the danger. And in Acts 19:1-7, the beginning of the story of Paul's ministry in Ephesus, Luke spoofs and rejects the attempt to replace Paul with John as apostolic founder of the Ephesian church. Let us now see whether the rest of Ephesians 19 follows the same trajectory. Do the rest of the Pauline Ephesian episodes share a retrospective viewpoint? Are they more concerned with the legacy of Paul, the good name of Paul and his place in history, not simply with Paul himself? This may seem an odd and artificial distinction to draw, but I believe scrutiny of the stories will justify it.

The Name of Paul

I will reserve Acts 19:8-10 till the consideration of the Demetrius episode (vv. 23-41), which it seems to anticipate and introduce, albeit at long distance.

Verse 11-12 are traditionally (and correctly) read as attesting Paul's divine power as a human dynamo (and of course, as Catholics and Oral Roberts can see, but mainstream Protestants cannot, as a warrant for relic-mongering): like fans ripping the clothes off Elvis, Ephesian admirers grabbed any work-apron from Paul that was not tightly knotted around him (or, as Hugh J. Schonfield translates, his loincloths! Apostolic wedgies?), as well as his used handkerchiefs. These they carried to the infirm and the demon-possessed, and their maladies fled them. Similar thaumaturgy is predicated of Peter's shadow in Acts 5:15 and of Jesus' prayer shawl in Mark 5:27-29, perhaps the literary prototype for the others. What has not been equally evident to many readers is the symbolic device such stories share with other healings at a distance recounted in Mark 7:24-30//Matthew 15:21-28 and Matthew 8:5//Luke 7:1-10. In these, the point is to retroactively authorize the Gentile Mission by having Jesus dispense salvation/healing to Gentiles of the next generation (a daughter and a pais) and at a distance in space which manifestly stands for a distance in time. In just the same way, the point in Ephesians 19:11-12 is to posit a continuing force of gospel healing and salvation in these last days, stemming from Paul's earlier activity in Ephesus. That is, of course, the precise logic of relics, whether Luke had them in mind or not (and he might have, no matter how distasteful to us). Shake the hand that shook the hand.

In Acts 19:13-17, Luke decides he doesn't quite agree with the Lone Wolf Exorcist pericope from Mark (9:38//Luke 9:49-50) after all! Here is a pair (verse 16, "both of them") of Jewish charlatans, latter-day reincarnations of Jannes and Jambres (2 Timothy 3:8), whom Luke no doubt has in mind. (As Schonfield surmises, confusion has arisen over the similarity of the name Skeva with the Hebrew sheva, seven.) The character of the Ephesian Wildman is a clone from Mark's Gadarene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20//Luke 8:26-37), himself a New Testament reincarnation of Polyphemus. This tale almost conforms to a special type of miracle tale intended to show how no one but the hero himself can successfully accomplish the feat in question. Gehazi cannot raise the son of the Shunnamite, even using Elisha's wand: only Elisha himself can (2 Kings 4:31). No more can Judas, Andrew, Thomas, Bartholomew, Simon Zelotes, Matthew, Lebbaeus, James of Alphaeus, or Philip exorcise the deaf-mute epileptic (Mark 9:17-18). Asclepius' attendant priests cannot reattach a patient's head after removing her tapeworm, but the son of Apollo himself can. Here, too, the Jewish exorcists might be expected to be able to cast out the Wildman's devils using the mighty names of Jesus and Paul, but they cannot. They are sent naked and bleeding from their failed mission (a description borrowed from the similarly nude and gashed Gadarene Demoniac). And then we would expect to see Paul come on stage to succeed where the pair of fakirs failed--but he doesn't! When the conventions of the form are thus conspicuously violated, some point is being made (as when Mark cuts off the customary acclamation of the crowd after Jesus heals the daughter of Jairus, Mark 5:43, to reinforce the Messianic Secret). And the point in this case is that Paul is not present; we are dealing with the legacy of Paul, and the proper and improper use of it by those who in subsequent generations would invoke his name (cf. Matthew 7:22-23).

Chock Full o' Gods

Acts has allowed Paul two years and three months to preach the gospel in Ephesus (19:8, 10), sufficient time, he reckons, for Christianity to have permeated Asia Minor. Here is the source of anxiety for Demetrius, president of the idol-mongers local. He sees his profits and those of his colleagues rapidly vanishing because of the wildfire success of Paul's gospel. Before long no one will want chintzy replicas of Artemis' temple anymore. This seems about as likely historically as Peter managing to convert and baptize three thousand people on a single day (Acts 2:41). It is equally difficult to take seriously the similar picture painted for us in the spurious (Christian apologetic) epistle of Pliny the Younger (Book 10, no. 96), where we learn that the meat markets are closing up because so many pagans are converting to Christianity that no one is buying beef for sacrifices anymore! That the author of Acts is himself well aware of the anachronism we see in Demetrius' proud boast that "all Asia [Minor] and the whole inhabited earth worship" Artemis (v. 27)-- so what's the problem? No, Luke is taking the long view and importing it into what purports to be a story set in Paul's own day. And if this were not already clear enough, there is the little fact that, again, Paul does not appear on stage. A riot is brewing, and his colleagues are manhandled by the mob, but Paul is prevailed upon not to show his face. Here is a good example of Noth's redundancy principle: the fact that Gaius and Aristarchus are suffering for the gospel, with Paul merely waiting in the wings and never emerging from them, tells us that originally the two colleagues, really successors, of Paul in Ephesus were the stars of the show. Paul has threatened to replace them redactionally, but just barely. (Noth shows how the sideline presence of Moses and Aaron while the Israelite elders are petitioning Pharaoh in Exodus 5:20 shows that Moses and Aaron are late additions to the stories and have usually supplanted the original protagonists at center stage.)

&#In sum, Paul is hardly even present in Acts 19! Rather, his legacy is shown as powerful in spreading the gospel. For his legacy, read his name, his colleagues, his relics, and according to Acts 20:20, his teachings. So Acts wishes to reverse the supplantation of Paul with John as patron saint and founder of the Ephesian church. He does this in order to reconcile the Marcionite, Gnostic, Encratite, or other sectarians with the "nascent Catholic" church which he represents, and which is otherwise attempting to replace "Paul" with "John," thus writing off the "heretics" who appeal to Paul. Luke does not want to lose these people. As he tries to reconcile the Peter and Paul factions elsewhere in Acts, so in Acts 19 he tries to conciliate the Paul and early Catholic factions, John having already been made to stand for early Catholicism, with Paul as "the apostle of Marcion and the apostle of the heretics" (Tertullian).

In a Glass Darkly

In the Acts of John 26-29, there is a scene in which John's follower Lycomedes commissions a painter to render a portrait of John, observing him as best he can during the apostle's round of activities. John sees the finished portrait and fails to recognize his own likeness, until Lycomedes fetches him a mirror. He had never looked in one before! Let this serve as an allegory of reading for the Acts of John itself, which presents a Johannine aretalogy that recalls that of Paul generally, and in Acts 19 so specifically, that we might call John and Paul mirror images of one another. Like John, we may never have noticed the likeness before. And it is up to us to judge which is the original face, which is the reflection.

Let us review Paul's exploits in Acts 19, comparing them with their Johannine counterparts. First, of course, both spend considerable time ministering in the city, gathering converts and followers. And, as Demetrius foresees the eclipse of his religion by Christianity, so does John, as a fait accompli: "You have abrogated every form of worship through conversion to you. In your name every idol, every demon, and every unclean spirit is banished" (41).

Both have a showdown with Ephesian Artemis worship, only unlike Paul, John is on the scene, like Elijah confronting the prophets of Baal. John causes the altar of the goddess to break in pieces, seven of the divine images to fall, and half the temple structure to collapse (42)! Again, he accepts the challenge of the chief priest Artemidorus to drink poison under the protection of Christ and survives it (Virtutes Iohannes VIII, likely originally a part of the Acts of John).

If Paul heals many Ephesians at a distance, John personally raises a good number from death itself, besides lesser healings. He does have disciples handle a couple of the resurrections second-hand. Lycomedes, an Ephesian commander who recalls both the Q centurion and Cornelius, sends for John, who raises his wife Cleopatra from the dead, but not before Lycomedes himself has prematurely succumbed to grief. Then John has Cleopatra resurrect her husband (19-24)! A relative of a priest of Artemis who died in the temple collapse brings the corpse to John, but John has the man, a new believer, perform the resurrection himself (47). Here is our historical distancing device: in their miracles, the successors of John continue his own ministry

The Ephesians seek bits of Paul's clothing, hoping the charisma will rub off; likewise John's: "After this we came to Ephesus. And when the brethren who lived there had learned that John had returned after this long time, they met in the house of Andronicus, where he was also staying, grasped his feet, put his hands to their faces, and kissed them because they had touched his clothes" (62)

We have seen that Paul's name and authority are known to a demoniac who would have yielded had Paul confronted him. In Smyrna (56-57), John does actually cast out demons from a pair of brothers, sons of Antipatros (these brothers are victims, not rival exorcists as in Acts 19), but in Ephesus, we hear only that demons sensed John's approach and "confessed to Verus the deacon as to the coming of John... 'Many will come to us in the last times to turn us out of our vessels,'" i.e., possessed human bodies (Epistle of Titus, quoting a lost portion of the Acts of John. Like Paul, John's apostolic reputation among demons precedes him.

The Acts of John has tales much taller than the canonical Acts, which I take to imply that they are "improved" copies of the Pauline tales preserved in Luke's Acts. Both sets of stories employ similar historical distancing devices, though Acts 19 uses this technique more consistently than the Acts of John, where John is actually on stage, which is itself a way to strengthen the Johannine versions. I am not suggesting Leucius (the ostensible author of the Acts of John) knew Luke's Acts. He may have but known the traditional miracle stories that Luke used. Again, he very likely used inflated Johannine stories he himself did not create but which had already been based on the Pauline episodes.

When Luke compiled materials for Acts, he seems to have gathered parallel "miracle catenae" (Paul Achtemeier) ascribed to Peter and Paul. That similar deeds should have been interchangeably attributed to more than one rival hero is natural, and we see it also in stories shared between Jesus, Pythagoras, Apollonius, etc. Luke paralleled the two sets of deeds in Acts so as to force recognition by the followers of each apostle that the other must be just as good. My guess is that Luke also found ready to hand parallel sets of miracle traditions featuring Paul and John at Ephesus (the latter, copying and inflating the former and surviving in the Acts of John). But this time his strategy was different. He knew that to posit a Johannine pioneer apostolate in Ephesus would exclude the comparable but competing (and older) tradition of the Pauline mission there. Paul and Peter did not overlap in this way, so their miracle-catenae could be placed side by side. But Luke had to choose between Pauline and Johannine Ephesian traditions, and he chose Paul, the only way not to alienate the Pauline faction in Ephesus. Since the Johannine version was a fictive imposition, like making Mark the founder of the Alexandrian church, there were no specifically "Johannine" Christians in Ephesus. It wasn't an indigenous tradition. There were only Paulinist heretics and early Catholics. And there was an alternate way of including the Catholics in the Lukan fold: remaking Paul into a Catholic Christian like them instead of the prototype of Ephesian heresy as history had made him.


Copyrightę2005 by Robert M Price
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