Category Archives: Luke and Acts

Short, bald … and full of grace

Statue of Saint Paul, on Saint Peter Square Ro...

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St. Paul – can’t you just imagine him? Intense, purposeful. A deep thinker. Single-minded. Matter-of-fact rather than jocular.At times touching and tearful, at times testy and defensive.

The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him as short, bald, bow-legged, with a large nose. Sounds rather prosaic to us, but some scholars argue the description was a compliment, indicating someone of character, someone of commanding presence.

I found two different translations of Thecla 1:7, which describes Paul, and it does seem to be an admiring portrait.

  • At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a low stature, bald (or shaved) on the head, crooked thighs, handsome legs, hollow-eyed; had a crooked nose; full of grace; for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.
  • At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a small stature with meeting eyebrows, bald [or shaved] head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large crooked nose; he was full of grace, for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.

Here’s a link to an interesting research paper that addresses the subject. Start at page 161. https://beardocs.baylor.edu/bitstream/2104/5058/3/Chad_Hartsock_phd.pdf

The author suggests Thecla’s description is almost heroic. Bowed legs can be a sign of strength, particularly in the general or warrior.”To have curved legs shows that one is firmly planted on a strong foundation, demonstrating the desirable quality of one who is fearless and willing to stand his ground. Paul is certainly that.” (Page 169)

I wonder how he’d be described today. Type A personality? An Alpha male?

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‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Pieter Lastman 004
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Speaking of humor … I do find amusing the image of Philip trotting along beside the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading aloud from Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)

But there’s an important point here: Luke insists Scriptures need explanation. Private interpretation often is not sufficient. There are other examples from Luke’s gospel, at Emmaus and at Jerusalem after the resurrection. Jesus unpacked the meaning of the Scriptures first for Cleopas and his companion and later for the apostles.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)

So Luke provides a gospel basis for the Catholic tradition that guidance is needed in the study of Scriptures. Vatican II did not change that basic premise, but did encourage the average Catholic in the pew to engage with the Word of God. Here’s the official explanation of Church authority:

“… the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit …” (Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965. You can find the entire document here: http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.htm0)

What we’re doing through Catholic Biblical School–engaging in the Scriptures under the guidance of the Church–follows the lead of Dei Verbum, but also of St. Jerome, who said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!”

Despite what many of us believed growing up, the Church encourages us and all Christian faithful to engage with the Bible, through guided study, liturgy, devotional reading, and other aids.

And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.” (Dei Verbum)

The lighter side of Acts

Yes, God does have a sense of humor, and so does at least one of the evangelists, according to the Collegeville Commentary of the New Testament. It cites several images or events in Acts as evidence of Luke’s humor. Among them:

  • Paul and Silas in prison at Philippi, stripped and beaten as criminals, listening to prayer and singing at midnight (16:25).
  • The evil spirit mocking Jewish exorcists in Ephesus—“Jesus I recognize, Paul I know, but who are you?”—and overpowering them so they fled naked and wounded (19:13-16). The scene reads like slapstick comedy, says William S. Kurz S.J.
  • Also in Ephesus: Senseless rioting by silversmiths (frustrated idolmakers) and a comic two-hour chant “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (19:32-33).
  • The natives of Lystra in Lycaonia (Turkey) and Malta treating Paul and Barnabas as gods. In Lystra they call Barnabus Zeus and Paul Hermes, “because he was the chief speaker.” (14:12) In Malta they waited for Paul to swell up and die from a snake bite, then decided he was a god (28:6).
  • My favorite occurs in Troas. Paul talks all night long, because he has to leave the next day, and young Eutychus, sitting on a window sill, falls asleep. He topples from the third story and dies. Paul rushes down, restores him to life, eats, then keeps talking until morning (20:7-12)!

Alternate views, where Paul preached

Here are views of a restored stoa in Athens. This gives us a good idea of exterior and outer hall of a colonnade at the time of St. Paul.

Where Paul preached in Athens

Here’s a photo of modern-day pilgrims “preaching” at Areopagus rock west of the Acropolis in Athens. (Look closely to see the figures on the top of the hill; I took the photo from a distance, at the Agora, September 2009.) … St. Paul gave his great speech to the Gentiles at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31). Our study notes say “Areopagus” may then have referred to the Council of Athens, which at one time met on the rock, but then assembled in the Royal Colonnade. Still, this is a favorite spot for pilgrims following the footsteps of St. Paul.

The “we passages” in Acts

St Luke writes his Gospel

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Intriguing how the first-person plural passages in Acts led to speculation about the author of Luke and Acts. Was he or was he not Luke the physician, a companion of St. Paul? Were the passages from the author’s actual experiences, or did they draw on a travel diary by an unknown companion? Is use of the first-person simply a literary device?

Scholars disagree, notes Joseph Kelly (An Introduction to the New Testament, Page 183). Raymond Brown deems it possible the author of Luke-Acts did travel with Paul. Bart Ehrman favors the travel diary theory.

The passages are Acts 16:10-17, 20:5-16, 21:1-19 and 27:1-28:16.

“Personally,” Kelly says, “I find the travel diary theory unconvincing and the companion theory plausible but unprovable.” Ancient Christian writers who would have understood literary devices of the era believed the passages were written by the author.

Another interesting point: There’s only one mention in the Bible, in Colossians, that Luke was a physician. Scholars have not identified any passages in Luke-Acts that reveal any specialized medical knowledge.

“Jesus, remember me …”

The Good Thief on his Cross at Calvary

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I am immensely touched by Jesus’ words on Calvary Hill – his pardon of his executioners and mercy for the Good Thief. The passages are only in Luke, powerful statements of the gospel’s themes of forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Luke 23:34

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:41-43

How can we doubt that God will forgive our sins when His Son forgave those who crucified Him?

One of my most moving experiences ever at Good Friday services was two years ago at St. Jude Parish in Bossier City. The entire congregation stood. We raised our arms over our heads and passed from one to another, down one pew and to the next, a full-size wooden cross. We chanted over and over, Jesus, remember me, when you come into your ki-ingdom. Jesus, remember me, when you come into your ki-ingdom …

Touching that cross, I felt the full weight of man’s sins, of my sins. I understood that Christ died that day for all of us living today, some 2,000 years later. We were there, with the Good Thief, among the bystanders, shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers and temple officials. We needed God’s mercy then and we need it now. And we owe the same measure of compassion to those who wrong us.