Priscilla and the Role of Women
In Paul’s Hidden Journey of Growth and Integration:
The Vast Interior Exodus of Paul
In Acts of the Apostles
(An Appendix for the Red Line of Hope)
Simply standing there, Paul appears first to us as a mystery.
As we read Acts of the Apostles, we know that eventually Paul, the fiery, assured, evangelizing Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, converts to Christianity. But how will this happen? Will Paul remain the same person and merely switch sides, becoming a Christian? Or will he go through a radical and long transformation as he more deeply enters the Christian Way, as he more deeply participates in the Body of Christ?
Reading the New Testament, one could think that when Paul converts to Christianity, he simply switches the same drive and confidence and zeal from the narrow confines of Pharisaical Judaism over to the Christian Way. Indeed, Paul seems to have the same energy of conviction, the same fiery zealotry, for the God he serves, pre-conversion and post-conversion alike.
However, this is not the case. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke will describe, in a very subtle way, the long trajectory of development that Paul undergoes. And a married couple, Priscilla and Aquila, will play a huge and central part in Paul’s growth into becoming the St. Paul that helped found the Church and still intervenes for us today. Indeed, a key part of Paul’s growth and development is his discovery of the Feminine, and, like Solomon and Jesus before him, his ability to be taught and led by the Feminine.
This appendix will trace Paul’s growth, as it is presented to us by Luke in Acts of the Apostles. Although Paul starts being a vocal supporter of Christ and the Church immediately upon his conversion, his conversion also marks the beginning of a long, and far more subtle and important, series of transitions in Paul’s life and service to the Way, to the growing community of the Church, the Body of Christ. This appendix will trace especially these more subtle stages of Paul’s growth, stages that have to do with Paul’s ongoing strengthening (purification), ability to work Directly with the Holy Spirit, his growing capacity to appreciate and listen to the Feminine, all of which result in his continually better love and service to the community.
How Paul First Appears
His first Biblical appearance (in the canonical order of Bible) is Acts 7:58. He is simply standing there. He stands silent, without much description, during the stoning of St. Stephen, who had moments earlier seen Jesus and God in a vision, in heaven. Stephen has been quite loud in reporting his vision, at the end of his absolutely magnificent speech. However, Saul has stood there silently, taking it all in; if he does say or do anything, we are not told it.
This passive appearance of Saul/Paul, as cloaks are laid on the ground at his feet, piques our curiosity. Who is this? What is he like? Is he a monster? As readers of the text, it draws us further into the story, and into the mysterious initial appearance of a person who will later become the very vibrant Paul. But it will be a while before we reach that person, that stage of Paul’s development.
Luke, of course, is operating on several levels at once. The passive and undeveloped Paul also represents each one of us. How will we respond to the call of Christ in our life? How will we celebrate through our thoughts, words, and actions the sheer stunning fact that we are participating members in the Body of Christ?
The hidden growth of Paul has much to teach each individual person.
And a Glance Forward
When we last left Saul, he was standing before us, saying nothing, observing Stephen’s martyrdom. Two verses later, to begin Chapter 8, we learn that he “approved of their doing away of him (Stephen).” So we learn about Saul’s will, and his desire. He approved of the act of stoning Stephen to death. Still, we do not yet see Saul in motion.
Then we hear of a persecution that began against the Church that day.
Finally, at 8:3, we see Saul in action: “But Saul was ravaging the Church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
Besides telling us about Saul, this verse provides a sort of mirror-reverse image of Paul’s later ministry and development. Saul, a rabbi and a Pharisee, sees the old stone temple, with its sewers to transport away the blood of the animal sacrifices, as the center of the universe (a separate appendix deals with the transfer of the temple to the human community and the human person’s heart). Christianity will soon teach, in Paul’s inspired words, that “You are the temple of God,” and that “You are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.” The human person, and the human family, become the main location of the Church. The family house, the human “beit” (the old stone temple was called the “house,” beit) becomes the new center, replacing the old stone temple, the cultic “beit.” Saul, a Pharisee, saw the temple as the true “beit,” or house, the true center of the cultic rites.
For Christianity’s first few centuries, because of many persecutions, before Churches could be built above-ground in public, the human family home was also the place where the Eucharist, the Agape Feast, was celebrated. Later, we will see that Priscilla and Aquila have such a Church in their own home.
Saul, however, invades the first House-Churches, wanting to destroy these places, and destroy all Christianity, chasing proper cultic worship back to the stone temple with its blood sewers, confining it there.
Later, as a Christian himself, Paul will go from city to city, house to house, establishing such Churches, and teaching people the Love of Christ, the Love of God, the Way of the Holy Spirit.
As we shall see, Priscilla and Aquila are huge helps to Paul in his amazing trajectory of evolution. They teach him surprisingly much.
Additionally, we see the Greek text of Acts very specifically tell us that Saul was “dragging off both men and women,” and throwing them in prison. It is highly noteworthy that the text mentions “women.” Saul, a strict Pharisaical rabbi, would have thought very little of women. He formerly had utterly no notions about “equality” between men and women. “Woman” was responsible for the Fall, in his eyes, and was no more than a lesser image of the “man.” Rabbi Saul was no friend of women.
However, by the end of his evolution, Paul is happily appointing women as leaders of churches, and organizers of the Church community. He is taught by Priscilla and other women. He learns that the Holy Spirit loves the Feminine, and has myriad Feminine traits Herself. By the end of his women-led training, Paul’s smart but cramped intellect finally clicks and comes alive, blossoming into a beautiful Cathedral organ, capable of playing many notes, chords, postures, songs, and accompaniments.
This is how Acts of the Apostles, and Luke’s two books in the Bible, end: With Paul achieving integration. The last verses of Acts of the Apostles are sheer understated magnificence. Luke is also presenting Paul to us as a model for integrative growth in each of our individual lives. And, perhaps we will not be surprised to learn that Acts of the Apostles, which may have been written after the initial version of John’s Gospel, has references to the great scene of integration, the crucifixion of John 19, where the Feminine finally reenters the Masculine.
And the individual Paul will love both the women and the men equally.
Towards the Conversion
When we left Saul, he was charging into Christian homes, hauling the people off to jail, and basically destroying the Church in the first verses of Chapter 8. He then disappears from the textual narrative for a while. We next see him in Chapter 9, where we learn that his early animus and anger has not abated one bit: “Meanwhile, Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:1-2) The next verse begins the story of Paul’s famous journey to becoming a disciple of Jesus himself. Paul is knocked off his horse by Jesus, and sees the light of Christianity, and has an initial understanding of the Body of Christ. (The horse is not actually mentioned in the text of Acts, but there may be spiritual reasons that it has become part of the living history of the story.)
By verse 20 of the same Chapter Nine, Paul is beginning to evangelize for the Way in the city of Damascus: “And immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’.” (Acts 9:20) The Greek term here for “proclaim” is ekerusse, which is cognate with the word “Kerygma,” a term which Christians often cite as expressing the core realities of Christianity. This word reappears many more times in Acts.
Two verses later Paul is still increasing the pitch of his proclaiming for the Reign of God: “Saul became increasingly filled with power and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22) In the next verse, Paul begins to be persecuted by the Jews, and must flee from Damascus in order to continue his preaching.
Upon returning to Jerusalem, “He went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they [too] were attempting to kill him.” (Acts 9:28-29) Despite the fact that they were trying to kill Paul again, he continues speaking more boldly, and arguing for the faith.
The Church is growing: “Meanwhile, the Church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear (awe-wonder) of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” (Acts 9:31)
The storyline of Acts then switches back to Peter for several chapters, in his final actions of the Bible; Paul then returns again in Chapter 13, and becomes the main character of Acts for the rest of the book. Of Paul and his companions, the text says, “So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit . . . when they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the Word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them.” (Acts 13:4a, 5)
And John joins Paul here. This likely is historical fact. At the same time, this could be a nod from Luke, to celebrate the literary friendship between the authors of John’s Gospel and Luke-Acts. These two authors, perhaps more than any others in the Bible, are keenly aware of how the Holy Spirit operates, and of how human beings can learn to be direct co-operators with the Holy Spirit. They have much to teach us that we have not yet discovered in these sacred texts.
The verb attributed to the apostolic group here, “proclaimed,” katengellon, is related to the Gospel word “evangelize.” Paul, on his first “official” mission for the Church, is certainly on fire with the enthusiasm of someone who loves their new faith and vocation. His old personality has made a strong switch over to the Christian Way. He has not yet learned subtle ways of communication, as his old strength and force-of-habit are evident as he shares the message and spreads the Word of life. A few verses later, he encounters a capable, intelligent proconsul named Sergius Paulus, who is currently being counseled by an erring magician, a false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. Saul, here becoming “Paul” for the first time, goes for the proverbial jugular in his tirade against Bar-Jesus: “But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him, and said ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen—the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun.’ Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” (Acts 13:9-12, emphasis added) [This entire episode is a fascinating study of how the Holy Spirit can direct us in specific actions we encounter. A separate essay discusses this, here.]
Obviously, Paul is still breathing fire on occasion—although he’s now doing it along a more Christian axis. The Holy Spirit is using his talents as they are, and will also be teaching and schooling Paul, as his own education is far, far from complete.
In the next 1½ chapters, Paul will:
-speak out boldly (13:46)
-shake the dust off his feet as he’s forced out of a town (13:51)
-go into a Jewish synagogue and speak (14:1)
-proclaim the Good News (14:7)
-with Barnabas, be mistaken for Zeus and Hermes (14:12)
-get (nearly) stoned to death, then get resuscitated (14:19-20)
-proclaim the Good News to another city (14:21)
In all of this, it seems as though we are seeing a Christian version of the same old energetic, zealous, and fiery Saul.
However, we also see that there is a slow awakening to more subtle modes of communication from the Holy Spirit. And with this awakening, there is a greater concern for individual members of the Way. Paul’s charity, his love for human beings, grows. It seems that Paul is slowly learning a deeper resonance with individual human beings, rather than being a blaring loudspeaker for rabbinical Pharisaism who merely changed his tune over to Christianity. Paul begins seeing people. For example, in Iconium and Antioch, “They strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith.” (14:22a) He is tending to the people, not merely shouting words of dogma and doctrine.
Paul’s learning is not without a combination of suffering and great humor. After he is stoned to death’s doorstep, he immediately teaches the people, “It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.” (14:22b) This is Luke, and perhaps Paul himself, employing humor. Like Paul, Peter’s ongoing healing and growth also sees much comedy, as the above link discusses.
Acts 15 features the Council of Jerusalem, the first Council of the Church. Traveling to the Council, encountering some individuals who started saying that Christians had to be circumcised according to the custom of Moses, “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them . . .” (15:2) More arguing, we see.
Then, after the Council, Paul and Barnabas argue with each other, and go their separate ways. “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.” (15:39a)
Paul is still strongly preaching and disagreeing with people, but, as he leaves the Council, he is also obediently delivering the decisions that the Council of Jerusalem reached. This too has a profound blessing on Paul’s personal life. Slowly, he is becoming more mellow, more able to listen, and more open to the mysterious manifold operation of the Holy Spirit. “As they went from town to town, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the Churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.” (16:4-5)
And Paul is learning obedience directly to the Holy Spirit as well as to the human leaders of the Church. In the very next verse, after showing that he can obediently be a part of the Church’s operations, he receives direct commands from the Holy Spirit: “They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” To receive a direct command from the Holy Spirit, even if it’s a command to do the opposite of what one would expect or desire, is a grace and a privilege.
Soon after this seeming rejection from God, to which they are nevertheless obedient, they have a dream-vision, and discern that the next leg of their missionary journey will be to Macedonia. In Paul’s dream, a man of Macedonia beckons them to help. So they go there. And there they have an experience that reveals something feminine in a masculine setting. They arrive in Macedonia, to the city of Philippi, which is “a Roman colony.” (16:12) The literary context is quite masculine: It is a colony conquered by the ‘masculine’ Roman legions. Additionally, there is the “man of Macedonia.” And the city is named after the great emperor Philip, but is now ruled by the Roman Empire as a colony. The setting is highly masculine.
Suddenly, as if by serendipity, they encounter a precious woman, and the color purple: “On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.” (16:13-15)
Notice that the narrator has surprised us by switching to the 1st-person-plural voice, “We . . .” In the verses right after he obeys Church and God, and is persuaded by a woman, he starts participating more deeply in the Body of Christ, the lived experience of the entire communal Church. We. He is no longer just an isolated zealot, no, he is learning that he is a member of the Body of Christ, and he is actually participating more consciously and more fully in that Reality. And he suddenly is surprised by never-before-seen capacities of the Feminine.
Paul may have been deeply affected by witnessing the transformation that occurred in Lydia, as she “opened her heart . . .”
Next, Paul encounters a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination. Paul acts selflessly, merely being the mouthpiece for the operation of the Holy Spirit, as he says to the spirit possessing her, “’I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her’.” (16:18) He does not pridefully command the evil spirit in his own name, rather, he now better knows his connection to the Body of Christ, and invokes the name, Jesus Christ.
However, this upsets her owners, who have Paul and Silas seized and dragged to the agora. There, they are stripped and beaten with rods. They spend the night in prison, until God or an angel breaks them out. Before the jailbreak, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” (16:25) Note the transformation. Paul is singing. The action he is engaging in is more like Peter and John and the others at the very beginning of Acts. Paul is becoming a more well-rounded person. Song, music, the body making beautiful song, also shows Paul’s slow transformation. Indeed, Lydia, the open-hearted lover of gorgeous color, has already affected him too. The narrow confines of his psyche are becoming expanded, under the caring guidance of the Holy Spirit. Next, the divinely-triggered earthquake knocks the prison doors wide open, unfastens the chains, and shakes the foundations of the prison. From a psychological perspective, Paul’s psyche is being lovingly massaged and opened by the Holy Spirit.
Paul then not only prevents the jailer from committing suicide, he baptizes his entire family.
The Transformations of Chapters 17 & 18
Paul’s ongoing journey of integration continues with subtle clues in Chapter 17.
Recall that Paul was just in prison, and had an experience of being subjugated by the law and authorities, just as he/Saul had done to the early Christians. No longer the Pharisee, he simply must have had greater empathy for the prisoner and the downtrodden. He understood them better, and therefore better appreciated the conditions that they were emerging from.
Additionally, Lydia’s home, for a short time, became home base for Paul. He spoke often with her. For the first time, the verb “dialogue” appears in Paul’s actions, signaling a greater opening to the Spirit and to people on his own part.
Coming forth from Lydia’s home for the last time, he travels through Amphipolis and Apollonia, arrived at Thessalonica, and entered the synagogue. What does he do in the synagogue? Still in his masculine habits and one-track mind, Paul does what it was his “custom” to do. “And as the custom with Paul, he entered to them (in the synagogue), and on three sabbaths reasoned-dialogued with them from the Scriptures, opening and setting forth that the Christ must have suffered and to have risen from the dead, and saying, ‘This is the Messiah, Jesus, whom I announce to you’.” (17:2-3)
This is tremendous progress for Paul. He echoes the verb that Lydia has performed before him—he “opened” the Scriptures. The masculine habits, his “custom,” are still there. He was still preaching at them about the Scriptures and about Jesus, and what he said was “right”; it was not “wrong.” However, his manner was still lacking. He himself was not as open, available, and divinely flexible to his listeners as he might be. Paul was not a fully formed student of the Word, although he is growing considerably.
And the new verb dielegeto appears here, which can mean reasoning, arguing, or dialogue, with which it is cognate. This is an advance for Paul too. Perhaps Lydia inspired this in him as well. This verb has a spectrum of possible meanings. We shall see Paul growing in these two chapters, 17 & 18, in the continuum of meanings of this term. Priscilla and Aquila will convey him far along this conduit.
Dielegeto is also cognate with Logos, with Word-Speech-Act, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. We are all words spoken by God, developing words, yearning and reaching for the fullness of our meaning. Paul is developing too.
This is another connection between John’s Gospel and Luke’s Scriptures.
And just a few verses later Paul would converse with more Greek women, and his journey would continue to Athens, the ancient home of the initial discussions of the logos, the word, in the more pre-Christian sense. (17:12, 15)
Paul will, in fact, engage the verb dielegeto for the second time, in a synagogue in Athens, and also with goyim, Gentile Greeks in the agora, every day, probably at the same times each day. So Paul is expanding his scope, trying to engage both Jews and Greeks. This expansion is vital to the real growth of the Logos in Paul’s mind, soul, communications, and being. When we allow the Logos to dwell within us and work deeply with us, the Logos works in so very many ways within us, most of which we cannot see.
So Paul engages in dielegeto with both Jews and Greeks! Paul, already knowing multiple languages, is also learning how to “be” in many different cultures and interpersonal settings. The full interior keyboard of his skills is slowly being opened and tuned by the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps the verb dielegeto is meant to continue into next verse where Paul has some argument-discussion-dialogue with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers (17:18). However, these fellows have no idea what Paul is talking about, so the term dielegeto seems here to have achieved a very low end of the spectrum of its potential meanings, more like and argument, or a disagreement. Positively, Paul is engaging an ever-widening spectrum of human beings. He is learning that there are many different human journeys in this world, and that all people are fascinating and have things to say and contribute to the human conversation. Athens, for Paul, is an explosion of new logoi, new words and philosophical outlines of understanding reality. In a humorous turn in Athens, some of the philosophers say that Paul is a spermologos, a chatterer or babbler, someone who throws words like seeds everywhere. This may have negative and positive connotations at the same time, and perhaps it reminds us of the proto-parable, the Parable of the Sower, found in all three Synoptic Gospels, and referred to in other ways in John’s Gospel.
Yet through all this, Paul is learning love.
He’s seeking his neighbor. In trying to incorporate all people into the Body of Christ, he realizes that this is not easy work. Positively, he’s learning to see people. For who they are. In themselves. He is learning to see them with God’s sight. And when this happens, his love for them automatically grows. And this growth in LOVE is what allows Paul to more deeply enter, himself, into the Koinonia, into the Body of Christ.
Paul then gives his famous speech in the Areopagus of Athens. Verse 17:30 speaks of history and human evolution, but we cannot delve more deeply into the verse here. Paul is also evolving in his own life, certainly, as all of us do in our own individual journeys of faith. Additionally, he sees the shape of history, 1½ millennia before ‘history’ becomes a science. He understands something of the will of God for the macrocosm, for all being. Just as there is history, and a forward-driving purpose, a telos, for the entirety of Creation, so is there also a trajectory of development for every individual life, the microcosm, including the life of the individual named Paul of Tarsus.
Paul is ready. Paul is now ready for a great new school and teaching from God. Paul is now ready for Priscilla and Aquila.
Before we proceed to the major events of Chapter 18, one more item, first. At the end of the speech in the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris joins the Way.
Athens is the first home to both the Logos, Word, and also to Sophia, Wisdom.
Wisdom is venerated not only by the Greeks; Lady Wisdom is an important figure in the Old Testament. Her only New Testament appearance, at the literal level, is in Luke 7:35, where, shockingly, She is said to be a mother to both Jesus and John the Baptist. Jesus is the one who mentions this. However, Lady Wisdom has been said to be behind every word of the New Testament.
Now, with both Sophia of the Greeks and Lady Wisdom of the Old Testament in our minds, let’s go back to Paul’s first appearance, which is also St. Stephen’s final appearance, when Stephen is making his glorious exit via his great speech and subsequent martyrdom. Paul is inert. It’s like he’s only half there.
Paul is missing the Feminine. He doesn’t understand it, although he is now growing in this regard. In his speech at 13:16, reviewing the history of Israel, Paul never mentions the Feminine, or any female characters from the Old Testament.
Does Stephen mention the Feminine?
Not only was Stephen instrumental in resolving the disputes between the Jewish and Greek widows in Jerusalem, he mentions an important woman in his speech: Pharaoh’s daughter, who was also Moses’ foster-mother. Moses was surrounded by loving women, like a river of life, in his first months and years of life: His mother, the midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh’s order, his sister, and the Pharaoh’s daughter, who raised him. But Stephen goes beyond merely mentioning Pharaoh’s daughter. When he is discussing her, he also brings in Egyptian Lady Wisdom!
“And when he was abandoned, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and brought him up as her own son. So Moses was instructed in all the Wisdom of the Egyptians…” (Acts 7:21-22a)
In our Bible today, there is actually Egyptian Wisdom Literature in the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Proverbs.
St. Stephen, in his final appearance of the Bible, is already far more open than Paul is after Paul visits Athens, and where he gives yet another major speech without mentioning the Feminine. Paul will grow much in the next years, happily.
Stephen is described as “a man full of grace and the Holy Spirit.” (6:5) Perhaps he was already wise too, because when the Twelve mentioned that the Seven should be chosen for the table serving, they said that the men chosen should be “full of the Spirit and of Wisdom,” and Stephen was chosen for the Seven. (6:3)
“Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (6:8) He was challenged in argument by many, “But they could not withstand the Wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” (6:10)
So Stephen was arrested on trumped up charges, and put to death. Saul witnessed his death, and heard his speech…
Even after his conversion, Paul is not yet this advanced as Stephen yet. Stephen has referred to women in Salvation History, and to Lady Wisdom. Paul has not mentioned women yet, although he does sense that something is missing.
In Paul’s speech in Athens, Paul knows that he has not found the fullness of the full picture yet. He knows that it’s not merely in Plato, or Aristotle, or Homer, or the Stoics or Epicureans, or any of the other enormous Greek literary or philosophical figures. What is it that Paul senses is missing, as he talks of the Unknown God?
Stephen has mentioned, positively, the Feminine, Wisdom, and Foreign People who are important. And this is what Paul is missing, and what Paul is waking up to.
At the end of his speech, Stephen, who is obviously capable of great lateral, horizontal openness and bridge-building, as he speaks positively of women, Egyptians, and Egyptian Wisdom, (the Feminine Turn) suddenly has a shockingly vertical mystical experience, the Spirit Turn. He sees the “heavens opened,” a reference to the Mystical Psalms Ladder (see John 1:51) and sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Paul has utterly no notion of any of these Realities, either.
Even after his conversion, it will be quite some time before he arrives at a greater understanding of these things. The Holy Spirit, after his further human integration, will lead Paul there.
The Wisdom Literature of the Bible, especially the Book of Wisdom (Wisdom of Solomon), the Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), parts of Baruch, and Proverbs give us some tangible hints, as do many places in the New Testament, about this mysterious operation of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit now sends Paul to meet Priscilla and Aquila.
Paul lived with Priscilla and Aquila. This is very important. They were teaching him about the deepest interpersonal relationship and communication that Paul would have in his life.
Priscilla and Aquila make three (3) appearances in Acts of the Apostles; the three appearances are all in Chapter 18. Immediately after each of these three appearances, the Apostle Paul will register great evolutionary leaps in his ongoing growth, in his own personal development, in his working relationship with the Holy Spirit. The author Luke has made these giant steps forward for Paul, despite their importance, quite hidden in his very subtle art.
The scene is already set by the Holy Spirit at the beginning of Chapter 18. Both parties have unusual events that make their meeting opportune. Priscilla and Aquila and all Jews have just been kicked out of Rome by the pagan Emperor Claudius. This will also happen in brutal ways to the Christian community, with persecutions later. And Paul, in a departure from the norm, has peacefully parted ways with his traveling companions Silas and Timothy (17:14). He is free and unburdened by fellow travelers, and is ready to learn from these experienced Christians.
#1) The first appearance of Priscilla and Aquila
The chapter begins:
“After this he (Paul) left Athens and went to Corinth. There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. He (Paul) went to see them, and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers.” (Acts 18:1-3)
Thus Priscilla and Aquila make their first of six appearances in the Bible. To a new reader of the Word making a quick perusal of the text, this sounds calm, even homely; a nice break from the constant comings-and-goings of Paul.
However, there is quite a lot going on here, once we start attending to the text more closely. Recall the vital scene in John 19, where the Beloved Disciple (all of us, potentially) takes the Feminine, the mother of Jesus, into his very self. Something similar is happening here. (The fact that the name ‘Aquila’ means ‘eagle’ is another Johannine connection, as the eagle is the symbol of John.) Priscilla and Aquila take Paul into their residence, into their hearts, into their work, into their relationship. Additionally, there are hints that Paul does not have much to teach them, and that rather, it is the other way around! They teach Paul! Paul’s name is not even mentioned in the first four verses of the chapter (according to the best Greek manuscripts). They are not daunted by his grand reputation. He immediately becomes their student, and he recognizes this fact as clearly as they do. He is being taught deep communication by them. They lived and worked together. They would have gotten to know each other very well. Paul, it seems, never married. He would have learned loads of knowledge of relationship by living and working with them, having not had the “school of charity” that is married life. The Holy Spirit is nothing if not relational. Priscilla and Aquila were a strong loving couple, and they knew hardship; they were kicked out of Rome by the Emperor Claudius, perhaps losing much in the process. Such hardships as they endured are often a sign that the Holy Spirit has been working with them.
Priscilla would have been schooling him. For the first time in his adult life, this former hardline Pharisee would have been being taught, and subtly ordered, by a woman.
The caring couple sent him like a schoolboy to teach at the synagogue each sabbath. Note that Paul’s name is not in the fourth verse of the chapter either, when he’s in the synagogue. Meaning: This is not the same old Paul preaching in his traditional ways. He is doing new things in his proclaiming, things that have been taught to him by Priscilla and Aquila. Additionally, his teacher-hosts, Priscilla and Aquila, would have been evaluating Paul on every talk he gave in the synagogue: “Every sabbath he would argue-dialogue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.” (18:4)
To try to convince someone is proof of the fact that the speaker is actually cognizant of the condition of the psyche and/or soul of the other person. Again, Paul is no longer merely throwing down dogma, and moving on to the next waiting group of ears. He is more deeply engaging the people. He is learning from Priscilla and Aquila.
To further emphasize his change: Missing is the phrase from Chapter 17, “as was his custom.” Paul, following the lead of his teachers, is charting new terrain, even though the outward appearances of events look quite familiar.
Soon thereafter, the new audience opposes Paul, rejecting his message. Paul’s response (sic) is fascinating: “When they opposed and reviled him, in protest he shook the dust from his clothes and said to them, ‘Your blood be on your own heads! I am innocent. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God; his house was next door to the synagogue. Crispus, the official of the synagogue, become a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized.” (18:6-8)
Notice Paul’s greater flexibility and improvement in ability to strategize. He says he’s going to the other side of the world from the Jewish establishment, to the goyim, the Gentiles, and he goes to the house next door to the synagogue, just a few feet away! Obviously he remains interested in the Jewish community there, because the leader of the synagogue leaves the synagogue and goes to the family house to join Paul and Christianity! Paul is becoming a better strategist as well, thanks to his coaching from Priscilla and Aquila. (Titius Justus’ house was where Paul gathered the community for Eucharist and preached and taught, not where Paul lived.)
At the same time, Paul is genuinely open to the new. Another sign of openness and life. He starts to become the Apostle to the Gentiles.
He continues to live with Priscilla and Aquila. In fact, when Paul leaves Corinth after 18 months there, Priscilla and Aquila leave with him. They make a voyage together. And so we have the three tentmakers making a voyage together. This is the Exodus that is being recalled; this is Paul’s Exodus towards greater integration, which we will discuss just below. (Recall that tents played a key role in the Exodus in the Book of Exodus.)
For a moment let us respect and try to imagine the enormous change that Paul is undergoing here. Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus appears to him in a vision as 18:9, and reassures him. Paul, you are on the right course. Jesus encourages him, telling him to continue speaking and doing his evangelization.
#2) They Exodus together: The Second Appearance of Priscilla and Aquila
Here is the next account of Priscilla and Aquila. Again, they are intimately involved with Paul’s life and journey:
“After staying there for a considerable time, Paul said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow. When they reached Ephesus, he left them there…” (18:18-19a)
1 and ½ verses summarize the Exodus. This is Paul’s Exodus journey of integration and further growth in the Spirit, taught by two masters, Priscilla and Aquila.
Again, the amazing Luke hides what is happening under typically Pauline actions. “When they reached Ephesus, he left them there…” More likely, Priscilla said to Paul, “Go now. Get to work.”
Notice also that Priscilla’s name precedes the name of her husband, Aquila, here. This is very important. In the ancient world, if a woman’s name was mentioned at all, it was always after her husband. Luke does an inversion of the usual order here to show her importance and her leadership.
There may be something else at work here. Paul made a vow. He cut his hair. Recall in our above study of the Book of Judges, there were some episodes where women got treated very badly. Jephthah the Judge makes a stupid vow, to sacrifice to God whoever he sees first when he returns from his victory. He sees his own daughter. He sacrifices her in obedience to the vow. (Judges 11:29-40)
Paul may have been doing deep inner healing in his final time with Priscilla and Aquila.
They travel together. Exodus. Paul’s voyage of growth. Tentmakers, making the new Ark, the Church, in human hearts and families and communities.
Perhaps we might call this voyage “Paul’s Exodus towards the Human Person.”
#3) The Microcosm-Icon of Apollos; Paul’s Magnificent Growth: The Third and Final Appearance of Priscilla and Aquila in Acts of the Apostles
It seems that while Paul is out of the picture for a moment, Priscilla and Aquila have one more thing to do. Here is their last appearance in Acts:
“Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man well-versed in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (18:24-26)
This is a picture of precisely what Priscilla and Aquila did for Paul!
Luke paints a picture of Apollos that could almost perfectly be Paul. Even their names sound alike, poetically, in the original Greek: Paulos and Apollos. And the description of Apollos’ evangelization sounds like the early Paul, as he thundered away in the synagogues. While the name ‘Apollos’ reminds us of the mighty ancient god Apollo, recall that Paul has already been called the god ‘Hermes’, and in Chapter 28 some residents of Malta will consider him to be a god.
Slightly strange things abound here, as in a parable. Things that are just a bit odd, or a bit too coincidental, seek to get our attention to engage in something.
I propose that Luke, in giving us this snapshot picture of Apollos and his time with Priscilla and Aquila, is in one stroke showing us what Priscilla and Aquila actually did for Paul. Apollos’ appearance here is a microcosm-picture of their total teaching of Paul. They brought him into deeper relationship with the Holy Spirit.
There is another clue that Luke gives us: Isn’t it a bit odd that they transferred their entire deeper knowledge of Christ and the Way to Apollos by merely “pulling him to the side” and having a quick chat? Again, perhaps this minor incongruity is meant to get us to think about what else is being said here by Luke. The parables in the Gospels often work in this way, by having a bit of an odd detail that, when pushed by the reader, unlocks the parable for us. Luke’s “Parable of Apollos” here is much more subtle than the great parables of the Gospels, however.
So too, the knowledge that the Holy Spirit may choose to impart to us is far more subtle than “regular” channels of teaching can communicate.
Continuing on this tack, a look at the Greek shows that Priscilla and Aquila did not merely pull Apollos to the side; actually, they “took” him. This is perhaps stronger language. And this word, proselabonto, is cognate with the verb when the Beloved Disciple “took,” elaben, the mother of Jesus into himself, just as Priscilla and Aquila took Paul into their lives to teach him more deeply the ways of the Spirit.
Apollos and Paul have similar Spirit-words to describe them. Apollos is “boiling in the Spirit,” zeon toi pneumati. Earlier in the same chapter, Paul is “pressed by the Spirit,” suneiketo toi pneumati.
Other questions abound. Why does Apollos appear only at this scene, to then disappear for the rest of the book? Why does Paul circle immediately back to Ephesus precisely when Apollos leaves, to occupy the place where the triad of Priscilla, Aquila, and Apollos had been a very short time before? (This is not to say that Apollos is a fictional character; he is a real person, he appears in Paul’s letters, and is a saint throughout the Christian Churches. However, Luke is also free to use him in a literary manner as a mirror of Paul, and to use this episode as an icon of the entire program of Priscilla’s teaching of Paul. In fact, special dyads, that is, friends and brothers who appear in pairs, are very present throughout the New Testament.) The brief snapshot appearance of Apollos further supports the claim that Luke is tapping him in this discussion to show a facet of Paul, a different perspective of Paul, without actually saying that this is Paul. Luke is saving this knowledge for those who unlock his text, and for those of future times.
All of these similarities between Paulos and Apollos invite, urge, us to take the single story of Apollos, to see it as a template, and to then apply this template to Paul. What Priscilla and Aquila did for Apollos is a mini-snapshot, an icon, of what they did for Paul over 1½ years. Paul himself will say in his letters, “We are all parts of each other.” So Paul and Apollos mirror each other and shift places with each other for a time. Voyages over geography mirror voyages in the soul.
In the ancient world, Christians lent themselves to literary usage for related causes. In the great Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius, Athanasius puts particular theological arguments into the mouth of Antony at the end of the book, arguments which probably Antony did not take up. However, Antony’s self, his being, his life, had become an open book of the Gospel. In fact, this vita, this Life of Antony, spread like wildfire through the Mediterranean region, taught about the connectedness of the Body of Christ, reached millions through the centuries, and helped bring Augustine and countless others into the Church.
Concluding the discussion of Apollos, here is a list of some common realities shared by Paulos and Apollos:
-names, which echo each other’s
-places; both were at Ephesus right after each other, then Corinth
-both spend vital time with Priscilla and Aquila
-Luke gives similar descriptions of them, including:
-love of Scriptures that both men have
-their powerful rhetorical style in teaching
-similar experiences of the Holy Spirit
-both have conversations regarding John’s Baptism and the Spirit’s Baptism
Paul the Human Being
That this is precisely what Priscilla and Aquila have done for Paul is apparent in his next appearance right after the final mention of Priscilla and Aquila. We see Paul engage in his most human, most compassionate, most understanding dialogue of the entire New Testament. Paul actually, in the text itself, asks questions of people! He gauges where they are at! He might even be, finally, interested in the opinions and thoughts and feelings of other people! This is a tectonic plate shift of evolutionary advance in the development of Paul’s psyche and soul, and his ability to work with the Spirit. And yet, at the first few glances, it looks like merely another episode in the long story of early Church work:
“While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’ Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied—altogether there were about twelve of them.” (19:1-7)
Clearly, Paul has grown a great deal already, thanks to Priscilla and Aquila. And at this point, Paul certainly would be a great champion of Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia; earlier in his career, Paul would have been made nervous by it, because it is not a literalist, fundamentalist document; a fundamentalist document would not have to be concerned about interpreting the Scriptures, but merely applying the laws that other people had instituted, or reading the Scriptures at merely the surface level. But now, years later, when Paul understands so much more about the need to meet people where they are at, Paul would love Amoris Laetitia, the work of a great pastor of souls. In fact, St. Luke is called the Beloved Physician, which also reflects a warm and clear light on Luke’s great pastoral emphasis as well. (Col 4:14) To see this, one need look no further than his very detailed yet subtle charting of the amazing development of Paul’s soul. Like a doctor working on a patient’s charts.
Paul has done almost a carbon copy of what Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos. He is, at the very least, imitating Priscilla and Aquila. Or, more deeply, he is engaging in a different activity altogether, an activity taught to him by them:
Living with the Holy Spirit
What is Paul doing? What are Priscilla and Aquila doing in their teaching Apollos/Paul about the deeper baptism, the deeper engagement with the Holy Spirit?
What if this is not about a mere different baptism? What if this is about not merely the “baptism” of the Spirit, but about learning how to work directly with the Holy Spirit?
They are teaching about how to work directly with the Holy Spirit. And when we work more directly with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit wants us also to expand and to develop our humanity, to become more human, to discover and to activate and to utilize the full spectrum, the entire keyboard, of the talents and abilities that are latent in our souls.
Iranaeus said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Today this phrase is used as an antiphon in the prayers at monasteries.
Priscilla and Aquila taught Paul life. They taught him how to live as a fully alive human being.
As a more developed, expanded, well-rounded person, Paul also has become a much better co-worker with the Holy Spirit.
This is one reason why Acts of the Apostles is so important for us today. Pope St. John XXIII said something shocking: He called today, the time a Vatican II, a “Second Pentecost.” This means 1) a new immediacy of relationship with the Holy Spirit, and 2) a new birth of the Church. This is a shocking thing for a Pope to say. What did he mean? Perhaps he meant that we can have a deeper relationship directly with the Holy Spirit. This is happening today. Perhaps the Church Herself is going through this Pauline transformation… Some people today have already become deeper cooperators, co-operators, with the Holy Spirit. Usually there is some training, a ‘spiritual boot camp’, that us new recruits have to go through before we arrive at this place of more-enabled discipleship, just like what Paul underwent in his 18 months with Priscilla and Aquila.
And Paul will need these skills. For the wildest part of Paul’s journey has not yet begun.
His trip to Jerusalem, where he is arrested, is a powerful conclusion to his “free” public ministry. We see Paul having to think on his feet, and having to dialogue with many people in many walks of life. He also shows a great understanding of the mechanisms of civil, military, and religious power structures, utilizing all of his abilities to continue his journey towards Rome, ultimately.
Then there is the shipwreck. Luke’s telling of this story near the end of the book, in the last two chapters of the 52 chapters of Luke-Acts, is telling. The shipwreck happens over many days, and yet Paul keeps everyone focused on what they must do, and all souls survive the shipwreck, safely arriving at Malta. Paul is preaching at great depth at the same time that he’s arguing and giving instructions about the best way to keep the ship in the best condition, and avoiding further destruction. During this extended episode, some scenes border on the comic, the ludicrous. He stops the soldiers from murdering prisoners. Imagine the onboard chaos of a ship stuck on the rocks. Only his deep relationship with the Holy Spirit, and the development that has happened in his own self, allows him to pull off this heroic feat.
There is something else about Paul’s echoing of the discussion of baptism and the Holy Spirit, right after Priscilla and Aquila discuss this with ‘Apollos’. Again, Luke the physician and teacher of US is making something here seem a bit special, a bit out of focus: This again is a powerful literary link between Apollos and Paul, but it is acausal, it is synchronistic. The connection of these events is not causal, no—it is synchronistic. And the Holy Spirit likes working with synchronicity, with cycles and repetitions and coincidences in our life. When unusual repetitions occur in our life, let us perk up our ears and listen deeply: the Holy Spirit may be knocking, inviting us to a deeper stage of relationship.
Events and Statements that Show Paul’s Greater Integration
and Development in the Last 10 Chapters of Acts of the Apostles
(As the book has not been published yet, parts of this section may appear particularly dense and abstract. The reader is invited to jump ahead to the conclusion.)
Paul has already achieved some of the most significant thresholds of learning that he is to achieve in life, thanks to Priscilla and Aquila and many others. In this section we shall quickly move through the last chapters of Acts, leading to his arrival in Rome. We shall highlight a few important events that reflect Paul’s greater insight and growth, and the deeper operation of the Spirit rendered more visible.
The Holy Spirit is now far more prominent in Paul’s thoughts:
-At 19:21, Paul “resolved in the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem. This voyage to Jerusalem will build up tension and excitement as he moves closer to his goal. It will be his final journey as a free man. (Similarly, a decisive turning point in Luke’s Gospel is after the Transfiguration, when Jesus too resolves to go to Jerusalem. Much of Luke’s Gospel occurs during this journey of Jesus.)
-Paul says that he is eager to be in Jerusalem, “if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” The Feast of Pentecost is the Birthday of the Church, the day when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples of Jesus with a powerful new closeness.
-Paul explains that he is making this voyage as a “captive of the Spirit.” (20:22)
-In the same discussion, he adds that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the Good News of God’s grace.” (20:23-24)
We see that he speaks of the Holy Spirit much more than previously, and that he is living in a real and truly direct relationship with the Holy Spirit. Such a relationship is possible for us to achieve today too.
There is a density of meaning in the next parts of the voyage:
-Women and families appear again when Paul and his company arrive and prepare to depart from Tyre:
“When our days there were ended, we left and proceeded on our journey; and all of them, with wives and children, escorted us outside the city. There we knelt down on the beach and prayed and said farewell to one another. Then we went onboard the ship, and they returned home.” (21:5-6)
-Soon thereafter they arrive at Caesarea, “and we went into the house of Philip the Evangelist, one of the Seven, and stayed with him.” (21:8) In the list of the Seven he appears right after Stephen! (6:5) He, like Stephen, helped at the “tables” and worked with the Greek and Jewish women of the community in Jerusalem. As Stephen spoke of the Feminine and of Wisdom in subtle powerful ways, Philip’s own family will seem to physically incarnate the women of the Red Line of Hope: “He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.” (21:9) It is as if the women of the Red Line of Hope have come to congratulate Paul on his growth and his recent embracing of the Feminine and the Holy Spirit.
-Then we get a scene that reminds us of Jesus’ prediction of forced suffering that Peter will undergo, from John 21. Immediately after the four daughters of Philip appear, “While we were staying there for several days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, “This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles’.” When we heard this, we and the people there urged him not to go up to Jerusalem.” (21:10-12) In John’s Gospel, Jesus says something similar to Peter at the end of John 21. Peter and Paul both truly become physically joined to the will of God, with force, despite the fact that Peter and Paul are radically free souls at those later points of their life.
What happens next is absolutely fascinating. Recall that above we considered the circumcision of David’s heart, an important part of his personal evolution. Something similar happens to Paul. As everyone is here imploring Paul not to go to Jerusalem, he says in a rare moment of revealed personal emotion, “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart?” (21:13) David wept like never before at the death of Absalom. The circumcision of David’s heart here concluded.
Happily, David’s purification resulted in his being better able to know the will of God. This happens much more powerfully for Paul. Paul’s conscience, after having been a murderer, is becoming cleaner and stronger, allowing him to be more receptive to the very subtle communiqués that tell him directly the will of God. Paul says in the next verse, “The Lord’s will be done.” (21:14) Paul, now more advanced in the Spirit, will also mention the Lord’s will and human conscience at more points as the story proceeds (22:14; 23:1; 24:16) (The two letters of Peter deal in magnificent hidden ways with the connection between the will of God and the enlightened human conscience.)
They arrive in Jerusalem: “When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present.” (21:18) The elders tell him to do something that may be connected to both the current religio-political situation, and connected also to Paul’s earlier sins of killing an undisclosed number of Christians in Jerusalem, before his conversion. The elders say, “So do what we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow. Join these men, go through the rite of purification with them and pay for the shaving of their heads.” (21:23-24a)
Above, we considered a density of meaning at Tyre, then a greater density of meaning at Caesarea with Philip, his four daughters, and others. Now, at the temple in Jerusalem, we shall encounter a simply tremendous density of meaning.
“Then Paul took the men, and the next day, having purified himself, he entered the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.” (21:26) There is a deep process of healing, restoration, and atonement occurring here, on multiple levels. The Holy Spirit likes multitasking, or, to say it better, a plethora of converging meanings in a sign or in an event. The learning Christian soul relishes the opportunity to work out these hidden meanings.
Suddenly, some Jews from Asia recognize Paul, and tell the Jews of Jerusalem about him! And they say that “he has brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (21:28b) The Jews then come together in a scene that reminds us of Sodom, Gomorrah, and Gibeah: “Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut.” (21:30) Recall that at Sodom, Gomorrah, and Gibeah, as we discussed above, the doors were all slammed shut and locked. Also like Sodom and Gibeah, the crowd of men wanted to drag a visiting man out of the house. The towns-people united in violence. The quest for meaning had ceased, and they were riveted to a violent intent.
The people were trying to kill Paul, but were interrupted by the arriving Roman soldiers, who intervened and saved Paul. The tribune ordered him to be bound with two chains, reminding us of the shani, the double-cord, that is the Red Line of Hope. This comes not many days after Paul met the four prophet-daughters of Philip, who also are the Red Line of Hope, come to life.
Recall that we have just discussed how Paul’s life represents not only the moving-evolving from Saul to David, but also from David to his son Solomon (with references to another son of his, Absalom). We shall see that latest progression here at the temple:
Paul on the Ladder, the Steps of the Temple
Luke 2 presents a gentle converging of things ancient and new, as the Holy Family goes into the temple on the 8th day of young Jesus’ life. The temple, in an early instance of literary personification, comes to life and welcomes Jesus in the persons of Simeon and the Prophetess Anna, who is “very old,” and who then is described as being precisely 84 years old, and who had been married for precisely 7 years at an earlier time in her life. Simeon then sings the temple’s swan song, the Nunc Dimittis (or Canticle of Simeon), for the long work of the old stone temples is now finished, and the temple will disappear some decades later. The scene is one of the most beautiful in the Bible, and packed with many levels of meaning; for example, the numbers that generate the flight of the angels on the Mystical Psalms Ladder are here given us by Luke.
On the other hand, when Paul appears at the temple at this fairly late chapter of Acts, there is a riot, attempted murder, the throwing of dust in the air, a foreign intervention, and all manner of chaos. All this was caused by Paul walking into the temple.
Recall in the book above that David was a moment of human evolution far beyond crazy old King Saul. David registered many positive developments, including an appreciation for the Feminine, a desire for God, and a slow awakening to compassion and mercy. And David allowed also for this progress to continue developing after him. This is seen in the elevations of his two sons.
Paul’s own life retraces this evolutionary movement in the three generations of people centered on David’s life (Psalm 72 also has three generations of people around David). Paul was born as Saul. Then he became Christian, and his growth really accelerated, similar to David at various points of his life. And, Paul will also have moments that echo David’s sons, continuing the evolution beyond mere David.
In the book above we discussed how Absalom and Solomon, two sons of David, in their contrasted moments of being ‘raised’, are a matching pair of icons, a diptych of the good and the difficult parts of our human evolution. Both of these moments, the suffering of Absalom hanging in the tree, and the Wisdom and integration happening with Solomon in his snapshot appearance as a good, just king, raised to the throne, are apparent in Christ’s crucifixion. Of course, the suffering is only momentary, and the good developments develop into eternity.
Paul, too, has a moment of incorporating both these “Absalom and Solomon elevations” into his own life. It happens on the steps of the temple.
The entire scene is ‘Absalomic’ in a sense, because Paul is arrested, vulnerable, and charged with crimes against Israel and God, similar to Absalom hanging by his hair in the tree, when he has rebelled against the rule of his father David, and is about to be killed by the menacing Joab. From this event at the temple, Paul will eventually be executed too.
Yet the author Luke, the Beloved Physician, also sews gentle reminders back to the best moments of Solomon, when he too was raised, raised rightfully to the throne of his father David. Recall that this is the moment when Solomon/humanity achieved an early integration with Lady Wisdom/ the Feminine/ Bathsheba, as a throne was placed by his own precisely for her. Then, his first decision as king is to quell a rebellion. He thus secures the kingdom and consolidates his rule.
His second decision as king is to decide the difficult case of the two women fighting over the one live baby. Not an easy situation to wade into and resolve. Solomon says after hearing both women speak, “One says, . . . , while the other says . . . “ (1 Kings 3:23). There is a back-and-forth, unresolvable seemingly, and the discourse is stuck.
The same thing happens with Paul before the people. After the tribune arrives, and Paul is bound with two chains, “Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.” (21:34) After the multiple references to the Red Line of Hope, we have a clear reference to the Mystical Psalms Ladder, just as we did back in Luke 2: “When Paul came to the steps the violence of the mob was so great that he had to be carried by the soldiers.” (21:35) Here, Luke the Magnificent paints a comical picture of the Ladder, as the Roman soldiers become the ‘angels’ carrying poor Paul up and down the steps!
The high comedy continues: “Just as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, ‘May I say something to you?’ The tribune replied, ‘Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?’” (21:37-38)
The tribune has clarified for us that Paul is not Moses.
Yet this also implies that Paul is a sort of new Moses. And Christianity is a religion of love.
This is also a gentle mockery of the founding myths of the Israelites, who, even according to Joshua and Judges, murdered their way into the Holy Land after arriving from their desert sojourn.
The proper interpretation of the Torah, more and more as history develops, is about Love and universality, and less about fixed religious borders, the temple, and cultic rites.
To form an inclusio around the “Moses question,” we have again the word ‘steps’. Paul has received permission from the tribune to address the people, and “Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying…” This echoes the moment when God gave to Moses the 10 Commandments. “God spoke the following words, saying…” But also, St. Luke the Intelligent seems to make a mistake here. The people spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew. It was the language of the people of Palestine at this time. Everyone spoke Aramaic.
Why does Luke do this? Perhaps because he is getting our attention to look at something related but different. Luke has just written the words “Greek” and “Hebrew.” It turns out that the Mystical Psalm Structures are best seen in the Hebrew numbering system of the Hebrew Scriptures, not in the Greek Septuagint, that is, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, which has a slightly different numbering system for the Psalms. Luke is giving us yet another clue about the Mystical Psalm Structures. In the middle of the riot at the temple, Luke is giving us further direction about the Mystical Realities.
(Another parody of the Psalm Structures’ Ladder happened at 19:35, where a legend claims that a statue of the goddess Artemis fell from heaven to earth, for the good people of Ephesus to venerate.)
During his speech to the people, Paul says “After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance and saw Jesus…” (22:17-18a) This is a clear reference to Jacob’s vision of the Ladder in Genesis 28. Jacob saw the Ladder in a vision in his dream. The next morning, Jacob “was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.” (Gen 28:17) The Mystical Ladder is a new house of God, a new temple, and the gate of heaven. Jesus says the same thing in John 1:51, when the Son of Man/ Future Humanity becomes the Mystical Ladder, the new temple of God. And Paul says, “You are the temple of God.”
Jacob names the place where he slept, the place where he had a vision of the future humanity, Beth-el, the house of God.
As the Torah does, so too does Luke stress the goodness of blessing over cursing, of charity over violence. Paul’s speech is ended when he mentions the vision in the temple, and Jesus’ words to him, telling Paul to go to the nations, the ethne (similar to the Hebrew insult term goyim, nations).
But the people cannot take any more. They start shouting, “Away with such a fellow from the earth!” (22:22a) Luke gently takes their angry words, and converts them into a charitable wish: may Paul ascend the Ladder from earth to heaven!
There is another radical displacement here. The second time that “steps” are mentioned, the steps from which Paul is now speaking are the steps of the barracks, not of the temple. The temple is no longer central to the faith. The earth, the cosmos, all space and time, are now holy. The Shekinah has left the ‘house’, the beit. The Holy Spirit is now in human people, and every place is holy.
Some more wry humor is coming from Luke: Another appendix deals with “The Abimelech Errors,” a Biblical string of apparent mistakes that confuse names in the Hebrew Scriptures, often related to the high priest of Israel. Mark 2:26 is a New Testament continuation of this string of mistakes, as Jesus apparently mistakes Abiathar for Ahimelech. Well, the string of errors continues here with Paul, who is addressing the council a short time after the riot at the temple. The high priest orders that Paul be slapped, and Paul is slapped. Paul retorts, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” (23:3) The people nearby explain to Paul that this is in fact the high priest, whom Paul had insulted. Paul says, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people’.” (23:5) And so “The Abimelech Errors” continue, making here what is perhaps the Biblical conclusion to this fascinating string.
However, the high irony continues, and focuses next on a kind of dis-uniformity in the Jewish religion. Paul notices that there are Pharisees and Sadducees in the council (sanhedrin), and mentions that he himself is a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. The text says “One part is Sadducees, and the other Pharisees,” echoing the language of the two women fighting over the one baby before Solomon. (23:6)
He adds, “I am on trial concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead.” (23:6) This causes discord and consternation among the two sections of the sanhedrin, as they disagreed with each other. Luke adds, almost as a parenthetical remark, “The Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.” (23:8)
Often during times of closeness to the Holy Spirit, when we are learning and being trained to be better co-operators with the Spirit, there are periods when we have less contact with our birth family. This helps break old habits, among other things. And to this point of Acts, there is no detail of Paul’s interaction with his own family members given to us.
Happily sometimes, after some Spiritual training has been done, we might have a sudden reconnection with our family. This happens for Paul.
There is a plot to kill Paul, including vows and fasting on the part of the would-be Jewish assassins. Suddenly, like an interesting deus ex machina, “the son of Paul’s sister heard about the ambush; so he went and gained entrance to the barracks and told Paul.” (23:16) Paul then perfectly works the Roman system of authority, communicates this information, and the detail assigned to guard Paul is given heavy reinforcements, and Paul’s journey happens without event. Paul’s family appears in the nick of time and saves him.
Then, Paul must defend the faith before various leaders and kings. The irony continues. When Paul speaks to the political-executive leader of the area, the Roman governor Felix, the poor fellow becomes frightened when Paul begins talking about justice, self-control, and the coming judgment. (24:25) Luke even uses the dialogue word, dialegomenou, here, to explain Paul’s attempt to communicate with Felix. However, the effort did not achieve much ‘high dialectic’ here, because Felix is holding out in the hopes of a nice bribe.
Felix, whose name means “happy,” is replaced by Porcius Festus, whose name means “Pig Fest” or “Pork Festival.” Porcius becomes good friends with the Israelite king.
Paul gives his famous defense, or ‘apology’, before Porcius and king Agrippa and their wives. Paul has just been welcomed into the presence of Agrippa for the first time here, and addresses him primarily. But eventually Porcius cuts Paul off during his speech, and informs Paul that he is insane. Porcius and Agrippa beat a hasty departure.
The Sea Voyage and the Shipwreck
The long journey over the sea to Rome is a masterpiece of Lucan literature, but we cannot delve deeply into it here. Here, Paul must show extreme calm and more adroit management skills while he holds together sailors, soldiers, prisoners, concerns for cargo, concerns for whether or not the prisoners should here be simply executed, all as the ship slowly disintegrates over days, as it suffers under a violent storm, then is grounded upon a shoal, eventually shattered into pieces.
Paul’s cool leadership saves the day, and not a single life is lost.
A quick note about contemporary Church theology: Pope Francis has likened the Church to a field hospital. A field hospital is not, for example, as neat and orderly as Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. At a field hospital, there can be injuries and difficulties that the medical staff does not have the proper equipment to treat in established procedures, and so some spontaneous decisions have to be made to make the outcome the best possible for the patient, to help them on their way to full health. It would be nice if hospitals all had perfect suites of medical professionals and the exact equipment needed for each medical emergency. But that is fantasy, not reality. So in a field hospital, we try to help everyone in the best possible way, making many judgment calls along the way.
This is exactly what Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia calls for, this kind of loving, caring response to people in confusing and unfair social situations, where the resources of the world are so grossly and unfairly and disproportionately not yet shared among all people.
Paul would agree with Pope Francis. At the end of the shipwreck scene, those who could swim swam, and for the others, planks and other materials of the ship were used as floatation devices. “And so it was that all were brought safely to land.” (27:44b)
A few years ago, in an essay on religious formation before a conference for religious formation teams, a wise teacher who knew the Bible very well wrote, “In today’s flood, we need to teach people how to swim to each other.” Indeed.
They land on the island, and build a campfire to warm up. Carrying wood for the fire, a snake leaps out of the branches and bites Paul, fastening onto his hand. This reminds us of the serpent on the pole in the desert of the Exodus, and how anyone who looked upon the serpent was healed of their snakebites. (Numbers 21:8) Today, the symbol of the medical profession is the based on the Rod of Asclepius, a serpent on a pole. This too is another image of Absalom, and of Jesus on the cross. (And of Jesus the healer.)
Having landed at Malta, Paul cured many people on the island.
In the final chapter of Acts, there is another reference to the twins, Perez and Zerah, of the Red Line of Hope. And there is another nod to Apollos, and the teachers of Apollos and Paulos, the dear Priscilla and Aquila: “Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, and Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead.” (28:11) The word ‘figurehead’ could also be translated as ‘ensign’; the Greek word is parasemoi, which is cognate with ‘semiotics’, the science/art of signs.
They eventually reach Rome. Paul has become a great leader in many ways. At the same time, he is not merely independent, he needs the Church, he lives and moves and has his being in the Body of Christ: “The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul thanked God and took courage.” (28:15)
In a dramatic non-statement of what was becoming well known in the ancient Church community (the Mystical Psalm Structures), Paul taught about Jesus both from the “law of Moses and the Prophets.” (28:23) Luke skips over the “Writings” of the Hebrew Scriptures, the ketuvim, which include the Wisdom Literature and the Psalms, which by now Paul loved very much.
The last two verses of Acts are stunningly understated. A first glance at the text seems to reveal that Paul lived in relative ease for two years in Rome, and taught people about the Faith. But the reality is much more—Paul has, in the last two verses of Luke’s Biblical writing, achieved total freedom and total co-operation with the Holy Spirit. As much as is possible in this life, Paul’s will has become one with the Will of God. This is the grand achievement of Paul’s life. To make it more wonderful, Paul, now totally integrated and totally free in the Spirit, will teach souls in Rome for two full years. (Presumably, he then goes to his martyrdom.) Paul is burning his most pure fire and living the most productive life in these last two years, his time in Rome. Here are the last two verses:
“He lived there for two whole (holen) years at his own (idioi) expense/rented dwelling and welcomed all those coming in to him, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all freedom and without hindrance.” (28:30-31)
There are many remarkable things here. Paul is still in physically restricted by a chain (28:20), but has achieved what the book above has discussed as integration. He has perhaps finally worked out the karmic/purgative atonement for all his sins of murdering Christians and any other sins he may have committed. More than that, however, he is interiorly free. The Holy Spirit, as part of Paul’s ongoing journey of integration, healing, atonement, growth, and spiritual fruition, has given Paul a lot of challenges. However, for the two last years of his life there is physical stillness. His exterior battles are over, as are his physical journeys. Now, having worked hard for the faith and having cooperated in the Spirit’s program for his own spiritual growth—that is, having helped the Spirit’s plan for his own life to proceed—Paul is now to reap a profound harvest at the end of his life. For two years, at the height of his powers and the most developed Christian self that he has developed in his life, Paul will be a pure teacher and guide for the faith. The Christians of Rome, and Italy, and beyond, will pour to Paul for teaching and help in those years. Having already founded Churches in Asia and Europe, and assisted the Church in Palestine, he will now give immense teaching and guidance to the young Church in Rome. In fact, Luke deliberately describes these two years as “two whole (holen) years,” indicating that they were an abundantly full time. And as holen is cognate with our words whole and holistic, this is also an indication of the integration and wholeness that Paul has achieved. And for two years he will be a font of this teaching, as a being entirely in tune with the Holy Spirit. We can only imagine the conversations that transpired in his cell.
Finally, there is the matter of Paul’s self, or of his dwelling, his idioi. This is the same word, with a different ending, as the idia of John 19:27, when the Beloved Disciple took the mother of Jesus into his own self, into his very being. We discussed how this is one of the culminations of the entire Bible, and represents the integration of the human person and the entire human society, along the horizontal Feminine-Masculine axis. We become humanly mature. And seconds after this, Jesus will breath forth the Holy Spirit from the cross, allowing our mature Humanity to now grow exponentially with the Spirit along the vertical axis, connecting and joining heaven and earth (Spirit and Humanity).
Paul has been helped by women and men, especially by women like Priscilla. He lived with a deeply and powerfully married Christian couple, Priscilla and Aquila (with Aquila representing the eagle of John’s Gospel). Now, like the Beloved Disciple of John 19, he has achieved integration, thanks to them. And for two whole years, two opulently full years, he will take into his soul all who come to him, welcoming them. This is also an important picture of the Body of Christ, which Paul speaks of often. Paul, through his growth, learned about how we are all parts of each other in the One Lord. Now, he is teaching other early Christians about this Reality also. And with Priscilla and Aquila having helped Paul achieve a deeper understanding of, and participating with, the Holy Spirit, we might rightly imagine that Paul was teaching many levels of instruction, teaching perfectly all people, at whatever level they were able to receive.
1) Professor Merrilyn Mansfield has a superb essay that charts New Testament discussion of “John’s Baptism” and the “Baptism of the Spirit.” While this appendix has a different focus, her research is important. Her paper, Priscilla and Aquila Teach an Apostle, is here:
2) Special thanks to Dr. Peter Ajer, with whom I discussed this material.
3) To avoid putting too much information in this appendix, I have not mentioned that following Paul’s time with Priscilla and Aquila in Chapter 18 of Acts, there is another sudden abundance of hidden references to the Mystical Psalms Ladder. Perhaps they taught him about these marvels too. The forthcoming book on the Psalm Structures will take this up in greater detail. Those wishing to see an initial account of these Mystical Realities can read this draft here: