How you read the Bible

Acts 23:1-5

Okay, I’m torn. What did Paul mean in Acts 22:5?

He stood before the Sanhedrin, a council of religious leaders. In part, they were a tribunal court, judging who was correct in theology and practice. He stood and looked straight at them (Luke 23:1). That’s an important detail because it connects to his sense of faithfulness to the gospel. “I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day,” he told them. So, he was proud of his work and the manner he completed it.

Then someone punched him in the mouth.

The high priest, who led the council, gave the order to hit Paul. Paul then cursed the high priest. “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall” (Luke 23:3)! Paul thought the council was to execute justice. Instead, hypocrisy was its leader.

The issue is that Luke says Paul didn’t know it was the high priest he addressed. As a response, Paul said, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”

Generally, there are few common ways this gets interpreted.

It could be Paul didn’t know who the high priest was. It had been some time since he had been to Jerusalem. Maybe he didn’t know the new people or the high priest wasn’t wearing his holy garments. There’s also the idea Paul didn’t acknowledge him as the leader; think “not my high priest.” Paul may also have been going blind. So, he didn’t know the high priest because he couldn’t see him. Then there’s the argument that Paul knew exactly who he was. He knew how corrupt, selfish and unfaithful a leader he was dealing with.

In that case, Paul’s response is a challenge. As if to say, “I didn’t know it was the high priest because that’s not something a high priest would do.” I lean toward that interpretation. Most commentaries, though, suggest that isn’t the best way to make sense of Paul’s response. So, I’m in the minority.

I’m torn because I could see myself saying something like that with that kind of intention. After all, Jesus made a similar charge to a group of Pharisees (Matthew 23:27). Maybe those words were on Paul’s mind. Then again he quoted a commandment from Exodus suggesting he spoke ill when he shouldn’t have. Remember, he was proud of the good conscience of his ministry.

And so is biblical interpretation. Discovering the meaning of texts and finding ourselves within them.

On one hand, the Bible invites us to do that. That’s how we connect to God’s story. On the other hand, that’s an easy way to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say.

What do you think Paul meant? And how much of you and what you would do in a similar situation inform what you think? How you answer might help illuminate how you’re reading the Bible.

Stay blessed…john

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John Fletcher

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