Essay / Misc.

Earthquake of Mythic Proportions, Acts 16

“We had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “but God gave us boldness to declare the gospel to you.” And they had suffered there: as Acts 16 narrates, Paul and Silas were chained and put into prison in Philippi. What kept them from giving in to discouragement? Paul doesn’t report to the Thessalonians the remarkable events in Philippi: How the power of God took them out of their chains and shook open every door in the prison. Even the prison-keeper became a Christian because of what he saw, and the message Paul and Silas brought.

But did any of it really happen?

It’s a question likely to offend anybody who’s accustomed to take the Bible as a truth-telling document. But it’s a live issue for Bible scholars working in the historical-critical mode. In fact, it’s one of the main things to inquire about, and the answer, if you follow an influential stream of scholarship, is no: the earthquake didn’t happen, it was fabricated by Luke to drive home a spiritual point.

This kind of scholarship is irritating to the faithful, and I freely confess that my own aggravation level mounts as I interact with critical commentaries that take this approach. Sometimes I will simply put down a commentary that crosses that line and loses my trust. There’s such a wealth of careful scholarship available that is written from a conservative evangelical perspective, after all, that I don’t usually need to resort to scholarship that keeps lapsing into outright denial of things the Bible affirms. If we’re not in a golden age of evangelical Bible commentaries, we’re pretty close to it: for many books of scripture, the most rigorous, critical, open-minded and comprehensive commentaries available are by evangelical authors.

Depending on the passage, though, I sometimes find that a less conservative scholar has done such a thorough job that I would really be missing out on the best work in the field if I didn’t read them. So I grit my teeth and see what there is to learn. Take for example the rich and well-researched Acts commentary by Ernst Haenchen (1894-1975), The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971). It’s a book that contains many insights I haven’t found anywhere else. But here is how he handles the miraculous elements in the Philippi story.

Haenchen sums up the state of research on this passage: “The critical research of the nineteenth century was no longer disposed to take this story simply and credulously as it stands. It asked what actually happened and tested all the facts for their probability and inner congruity. Verses 25-34 particularly gave offence to scholars…” (So much the worse for scholars, I say! Oops, let me keep trying to learn from this Haenchen fellow.)

First, Haenchen marhsals parallels from ancient literature. For instance, in the ninth chapter of The Testament of Joseph (an apocryphal narrative that uses the Joseph of Genesis as a character), there is a parallel to the midnight prayer and song of Paul and Silas: Joseph prays at night and is heard. Easy enough, interesting parallel.

But in the Acts story, there is an earthquake and a simultaneous release of the prisoners from their chains and stocks. Haenchen points out, “[i]t is not unusual that doors should spring open, but that the prisoners’ fetters should fall away is possible only in a miracle.” This is clarifying: the miracle of Acts 16 is not simply an earthquake that shakes open the prison doors, but a simultaneous releasing of chains which is hard to picture as resulting simply from the shaking of the earth. Haenchen notes a parallel in the play The Bacchae by Euripides: When the worshipers of Dionysus are imprisoned, the God intervenes and “[t]he bonds loosened themselves from their feet and the bolted doors opened themselves without mortal hands.”

These parallels are interesting, but Haenchen concludes from them that the miraculous release from chains is something that ancient people expected from magicians, and that here it is “a feature of folk belief” which has “contributed to the development of our story.” Ah. “Contributed” could mean a number of things, some of them interesting and illuminating. It could mean that Luke recognized that the events he was recording were amazing events which sounded like something from a fairly tale, or that would remind his hearers of reports of magic they had heard. But for Haenchen it seems to mean that Luke invented the story. He made it up and added it to his Philippi narrative, to convey a sense of awe to his readers.

And to further impress this awe on his audience, Luke tells the story in a way that resonates with other ancient tales from the Graeco-Roman era. When gods show up or send a message of encouragement, the ground shakes. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for instance, the god Asculepius manifests himself in answer to prayer, and “at his coming statue, altars, doors, the marble floor, the golden gables swayed, and towering in the temple’s midst he stood…” (XV.669-72) In Virgil’s Aeneid, Anchises prays for an omen, and “scarcely had I thus spoken, when suddenly it seemed all things trembled, the doors and laurels of the god; the whole hill shook round about and the tripod moaned as the shrine was thrown open.” (III.88-91) So when Luke wanted to let his readers know that God was sending encouragement to his servants Paul and Silas, Luke incorporated into his story the conventional symbolism for communicating that message: instant earthquake.

Haenchen continues to find elements which he thinks Luke added to the story in order to bring his readers into an appropriate state of mind to be built up in their faith. When the jailer rushes into the prison and despairs of his life (“the prisoners must have already escaped!”) without taking a second to check the cells, Haenchen notes that this behavior “belongs to the logic of edifying narration and is not to be explained on psychological grounds.” The fact that Paul can tell what’s happening outside even though he and Silas were confined to the “inner prison” is something that “does not permit any realistic reconstruction.”

Haenchen offers a plot summary calculated to edify: “From a happy beginning it leads into a situation of hopeless distress and danger. But God proves stronger than the afflictions and uses them to serve his own purposeses—how could one then despair? Luke has recounted this narrative that his readers might gather strength from it.” Yes, that’s true, and I’m grateful for Haenchen’s close reading of Luke’s narrative art. But he consistently bases these insights on denial of the historical events, and allegations that Luke is importing fiction into the telling:

Chains fallling off “does not strengthen the credibility of the narrative.” “But the inconceivability continues..” A jailer who is prepared to slit his own throat at the first sight of a door knocked ajar? “a very unlikely sort of person,” concludes our critic (who begins to strike me as a very unlikely sort of person). Paul in his cell knows the jailer’s actions — how? The jailer knows who cries out from the jail — how? No mention of the earthquake anywhere else, or even any indication that we are to regard the earthquake as a newsworthy geophysical event outside of the jail itself — why? Paul doesn’t mention any of the miraculous elements in I Thessalonians — why not? Imprisoned saints bursting out in song — a literary convention, practically a cliche!

The strain is too much for Haenchen and the broad school of biblical interpretation he speaks for: “As if the difficulty which the interpreter has in translating the events related into reality, this constant necessity for groping in the air in the attempt to recover the natural sequence of what is presumed to have happened, did not itself rather disclose the unhistorical character of the narrative!” (Here he is citing Franz Overbeck)

“In short, the whole episode is such a nest of improbabilities that it must be struck out as unhistorical.”

What, the whole thing? Did Paul ever even go to Philippi? Is there no historical core to this at all? Of course there is, answers Haenchen. Once we recognize and strip away the conventional devices in which Luke dressed up his story, we can see with greater clarity the distinctive central element: the center around which all the incredible things cluster is the conversion of the jailer. That conversion, in addition to being the central idea of the passage, is also the historical core: Haenchen thinks that Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, and that their jailer accepted Christ. Beyond that, “Luke has reported this story with the full array of Hellenistic narrative art, so that the glory of Paul beams brightly.”

And that, says Haenchen, is just how stories got told in the old days, whether we like it or not:

“The author’s freedom, which we encounter here, is strange to the modern reader. But it did not occur to any of the great Roman historians simply to say ‘how it actually happened.’ They all wanted to inform, influence and motivate. Luke would not have broken the tradition of great Roman historical writing (how far he knew it and used it as a model is another question) when he narrated the history of the mission in Philippi in his own fashion. The difference between facta and ficta has not been the same in all ages.”

What shall we say to these things? I am grateful to Haenchen for the careful work he’s done in identifying all the parallels in ancient literature and culture. When I take up Acts 16 and re-read it now, my mind is filled with theophany earthquakes from Virgil and Ovid, and with chains and stocks falling open as in Euripides. My attention is focused on the moment when the jailer cries out for salvation, and I see how Luke has recounted the other elements of the story in a way that highlights that encounter. When the imprisoned messengers sing, I hear them singing in prison as the righteous always have. When the ground shakes, I tremble at the approach of a god. But none of it distracts me from the shockingly brief conversation between the captor and the apostle who captures him.

All of this works more powerfully on me now, and the sharpness and simplicity of Paul’s answer to the jailer now shines like a jewel in the miraculous setting: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved.”

But unlike Haenchen, I think the miraculous elements, resonant as they are with conventional symbolism, really occurred and are being faithfully reported by Luke. And I even wonder if the long trip through historical-critical skepticism was necessary, since the whole path was lined with irritants such as the denial of the historical credibility of Acts. Couldn’t I have had those results without casting aspersions on the historical truthfulness of the account? I think I probably could have, and I’ll have to look harder for a commentary on Acts that is as masterfully detailed as Haenchen’s, but has more respect for the historical claims.

More importantly, when I preach on this passage, my Haenchen encounter leaves me with two options. On one hand, I could spend some time defending the historical reliability of this account, and put forth a case for why it’s reasonable to believe the earthquake jailbreak in Philippi really happened. After all, one thing I learned from Haenchen is the cautionary example of doing unbelieving scholarship (I don’t say Haenchen is an unbeliever, but I did catch him handling holy text like a holy terror). But I think I picked up something more important from him, and that is the extra sheen of mythic power that he brought out of the text by culling through relevant ancient literature. So when I preach on the Philippi story, I will lean into the mythic power rather than away from it. Without denying the historicity of the miracles of Acts 16, I think the preacher should capitalize on the way it sounds something like a story of a mighty god from Ovid or Virgil.

G. Campbell Morgan said that “the Bible is a romance. It is a blending of the heroic, the marvellous, the mysterious, the full significance of which only the imagination can grasp.” Perhaps in spite of himself, Haenchen’s historical-critical approach mobilizes the reader’s imagination to grasp what happened in Philippi. Luke was not writing a fiction, or surrounding a miracle-free historical core with fictionalized miracles. But he did write, and we should read, something marvellous and mysterious, “the full significance of which only the imagination can grasp.” The Philippian earthquake was of mythic proportions, and faithful readers don’t need to fear leaning into that meaning.

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