The Uniform Series (“International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching”) text for Sunday, December 10 is Acts 13:1-12. In brief, the Holy Spirit sends Barnabas and Saul on a mission trip to Cyprus and points beyond; the first event reported in detail is a conflict with the Jewish false prophet/magician Bar Jesus/Elymas, in which Paul wins, Elymas is struck blind, and as a consequence, the proconsul Sergius Paulus believes Paul’s teaching about Jesus. Here are my notes on the text:
These twelve verses seem genuinely central and pivotal in the context of the book of Acts. Here’s why: Up until now in Acts, we’ve been reading about several early Christian heroes: Peter, Stephen, Philip, and for that matter, Barnabas, as well as Saul. From now on, the narrative is going to focus more and more on Paul, first in partnership with Barnabas, then with Silas, finally solo. Up until now, we’ve been reading mostly about ministry to other Jews. (“Other,” since all the ministers are Jewish themselves.) Starting with chapter 10, the Gentiles have entered the story. Now, the Gentiles will be a more and more important focus of action; the first individual the narrative records Barnabas and Saul/Paul talking to is the Gentile proconsul in Paphos, Sergius Paulus; Paul will talk to lots more Gentiles after this. Up until now, Saul has been Saul. From now on – and, basically, for the rest of western history – he’ll be Paul.
There are a couple of possibly important parallels between this story and the story in Acts 3 (that was last week’s text), which might actually be ironic reversals. In Acts 3, Peter “looked intently” (v 4) at the beggar at the Beautiful Gate before he held out a hand to him and raised him up. Here, Saul aka Paul (v 9) “looked intently” at Bar Jesus/Elymas before he speaks, telling him that he is doing the work of the devil and is going to be blinded for a time. Paul, instead of holding out a healing hand, tells him the “hand of the Lord” is against him and leaves the benighted false prophet/magician “groping for someone to lead him by the hand” (v 11). In Acts 3, Peter heals the beggar “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (v 6). Here, there may be a play on the “name of Jesus,” which has been falsely and ironically assumed by the false prophet Bar Jesus, which literally means “son of Jesus,” and whom Paul calls a “son of the devil” (v 10).1
In other words, part of the meaning of this passage comes from its pointed contrast to the healing in Acts 3. There, the two apostles Peter and John demonstrate divine power by healing a beggar, who doesn’t have access to the Temple, and that healing leads a lot of people to be amazed, and to listen to Peter’s sermon, which follows. Here, the two missionaries Barnabas and Paul, but mainly Paul, demonstrate divine power by anti-healing someone who has access to the center of power, the Roman proconsul, and that anti-healing leads the proconsul – one individual – to be amazed, and to take Paul’s teaching, which came before, seriously. So, maybe, part of the meaning here is that God’s power works in all kinds of ways: not just through healing, not just on crowds, not just on Jewish audiences, and so on.
But another part of the meaning of this passage may come from its pointed contrast to the earlier story of Saul, who back in chapter 9 was struck blind by the “hand of the Lord” and who has arrived at his current place in the story by a rather circuitous route, having been helped by the good Ananias in Damascus (9:10-19), been vouched for by Barnabas in Jerusalem (9:26-27), gone back to Tarsus after having made enemies in Jerusalem, been brought to Antioch from Tarsus by Barnabas when there is multi-ethnic ministry to do in that place (11:25-26), and later having been sent with money for the famished Judeans by the church at Antioch, together with Barnabas (11:30). So if Paul is something of an anti-Peter in this passage, Bar Jesus is something of an anti-Paul. Or maybe something of a re-Paul, because Christian readers are presumably rooting for Bar Jesus’s episode of blindness to have a good outcome eventually, the way Paul’s did.
And another part of the meaning of this passage may come from its relationship to Peter’s encounter with Simon Magus back in chapter 8 (8:9-23). Bar Jesus is not the first magician we’ve run across in this story; the first one got things badly wrong by thinking he could buy the Holy Spirit; this one gets things badly wrong, it seems, by claiming a relationship to Jesus or claiming the name of Jesus, but opposing the [true] prophetic teaching of Paul and Barnabas in a way that tries to turn a Gentile away from the faith. So, maybe we should get the idea that we should be wary of magi. (Maybe Matthew would have spun this a little differently.) At least, we shouldn’t trust their teaching.
The text emphasizes the difference between true and false prophets and between sound and unsound teachers. It begins by naming true prophets and teachers in the church in Antioch in vv 1-2. It ends with Paul’s (a true prophet’s/teacher’s) successful take-down of the false prophet Bar Jesus/Elymas. The mark of true prophecy/teaching is its authorization by the Holy Spirit (v 2-4) and its content, “the word of God” (v 5) and witness to Jesus as the Christ.
The verb in v 5 that is translated “proclaimed” in the NRSV is the one that sounds like “messengers” – for instance, angels – instead of the one that shares a root with kerygma/”proclamation.”
It is arguably less significant that Bar Jesus is a “Jewish” false prophet than some commentators have made out. Other Jewish prophets are important voices in Luke’s version of the Christian tradition, in particular Isaiah and John the Baptist, both of whom are alluded to in Paul’s accusation that Bar Jesus is “making crooked the straight paths of the Lord” (v 10 – see Isaiah 40:3-4, Luke 3:4-5). The important contrast is thus less between Jewish and Christian prophecy than between false and true prophecy.
A final ironic parallel in the text is that, when Bar Jesus loses his sense of sight, the proconsul “sees” what happens, and believes. He believes because he is “astonished.” The word translated “astonished” carries a connotation of being struck senseless, something like the English “stunned” – so that in Sergius Paulus’ case, losing senses figuratively turns out to be a good thing from the standpoint of faith in Jesus.
1 Scholar Rick Strelan has suggested this text features word play involving the relationship between “Jesus,” “the Name” (Hebrew shem, as a euphemism for God), “Shem” (the ancestor of the Elamites, or Persians), “Elymas” (as in, perhaps, a “son of Elam” aka Shem, or Persia), and the origins of the magi (you guessed it, Persians), all of which might make sense of the historically puzzling statement about “the translation of his name” in v 8, which plenty of other scholars have just thrown up their hands over. See Strelan, Rick (2004) “Who was Bar Jesus (Acts 13,6-12)?” Biblica, 85 1: 65-81. The article is online here. [Updated 12/8/17 to fix the link, I hope.]