Thursday, March 08, 2007

Guest Post by Richard Fellows - Protective silences in Acts and Paul's letters

A bit about Richard first:
"I am an amateur New Testament researcher from England, living in Vancouver, Canada. My interests are in historical questions concerning Acts and Paul's letters, and in double naming throughout the NT. You can find much of my work on my web site (, and in two papers (R. Fellows, 'Was Titus Timothy?' JSNT 81 [2001]: 33-58; R. Fellows, 'Renaming in Paul's churches: the case of Crispus-Sosthenes revisited' Tyndale Bulletin 56.2 [2005]: 111-130)".
Now to his truly thought-provoking guest post. Those who are following the Jesus and the Eyewitness series will find this to be of real interest.

Protective silences in Acts and Paul's letters

Chris Tilling is producing a fascinating series on Bauckham's book, which continues to provide me with a lot of food for thought.

In chapter 8 Bauckham argues that the identities of certain characters in Mark are kept secret to protect them from persecution in the event of the text falling into the hands of opponents of the movement. I wonder if Bauckham would like to comment on the possibility that Acts and Paul's letters also take measures to avoid compromising the safety of those that they write about. I can think of the following instances where this might have been the case.

1. Acts 12:17 says that after Peter's escape from prison he "went to another place". This "place" is anonymous surely because Luke did not want to reveal where believers went when they were hiding from the authorities, as this would jeopardize the host community. Very probably it was to Antioch that Peter fled, for this would explain why his visit there (Gal 2:11-14) is not recorded in Acts.

2. The collection for Jerusalem was highly controversial (see Georgi p117-120). This may explain Rom 15:31 and also the plot against Paul (Acts 20:3). Commentators have long been surprised by the fact that Acts does not mention Paul's final collection for Jerusalem, except by having Paul describe it as a personal act of charity (Acts 24:17). The silence is surprising since Luke must have known about it. Furthermore, Acts glosses over Paul's collection journey from Ephesus through Macedonia to Achaia, covering it in less than three verses (Acts 20:1-3). However, all this makes sense if Luke was conscious of the need to avoid endangering the church. To mention the collection would have endangered those involved, including Luke himself. Similarly, Luke makes no mention of the collection from Galatia (which was made years earlier in response to the request of Gal 2:10, I believe). Luke mentions only the collection from Antioch which, being for famine relief, may have been less controversial, and was delivered by Paul and Barnabas, both of whom may have been dead by the time Acts was written.

3. 2 Corinthians 8 there are two believers who are strangely anonymous, and there is a third who is mentioned in 2 Cor 12:18 who is also anonymous (I believe that he was Erastus). All three seem to have been involved in the collection, which was controversial and could get those individuals into trouble if the letter fell into the wrong hands. It seems likely, then, that Paul gave them protective anonymity.

But what about Titus, who is mentioned by name? I have argued elsewhere that Titus was Timothy's original name. "Timothy" was the name by which he was normally known at this time, and it may be that only insiders knew that his original name had been "Titus". By calling him "Titus" in 2 Corinthians in every place where the context is his collection visits, Paul hides his identity from outsiders. Perhaps we should call this "protective heteronymity".

4. We are explicitly told of only six first century Christians who were given new names (Simon-Peter, James and John Boanerges, Joseph-Barnabas, James-the Just-Oblias, and Ignatius-Theophorus). It is remarkable that all these people were heavily persecuted and most or all were martyred. I tentatively hypothesise that new names were often given in part as a means of protecting people's identity from those who would persecute them. This might explain the high frequency of new name taking in the early church, particularly among those who risked persecution. By giving a person a second name (an alias), hostile outsiders could be more easily kept in the dark. Now, Luke mentions the case of Simon-Peter, and that if Joseph-Barnabas, but does not explicitly mention any other cases. I suggest that there were several other cases of new name giving, and that Luke does not mention them because he wanted to protect the individuals and did not want to draw too much attention to the phenomenon. I will mention two possible cases:

i) As I have argued elsewhere, Crispus (Acts 18:8) defected to Paul's camp and his influence caused many of the god-fearers to be "saved", and this caused opposition from the non-Christian Jews. He was re-named "Sosthenes" (appropriately meaning 'saving strength'), and was beaten by the non-Christian Jews (Acts 18:17). But why does Luke not explain explicitly that Crispus was renamed "Sosthenes"? I suggest that it was to avoid endangering him. Luke honours Sosthenes by naming him, and insiders would have understood that he was Crispus, but hostile outsiders would be kept in ignorance.

ii) We have the (admittedly less certain) case of Jason-Aristarchus. Jason was a supporter of Paul in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5-9), and was arrested for inviting Paul to use his house. He was a Jew and was with Paul in Achaia just before Paul's final journey to Jerusalem (Rom 16:21). Aristarchus was also from Thessalonica and was probably also a Jew (Col. 4:10-11). He was Paul's traveling companion (Acts 19:29) and joined him in Achaia for the journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:4). From 1 Thessalonians we deduce that there were few Jews in the church of Thessalonica. Both Jason and Aristarchus appear to have been Thessalonian Christian Jews who were in Achaia at the same time and these coincidences should make us suspect that they were one and the same person. Now, the name "Aristarchus" means "best leader" and is therefore just the sort of name that one would expect Paul to give to Jason, who seems to have been the benefactor around whom the church in Thessalonica formed. This case of renaming would then closely parallel that of Crispus-Sosthenes (and Titius Justus-Stephanas). Philip Harland has demonstrated the importance of benefactors/patrons to ancient associations, including Christian congregations and argues that they became the church leaders (compare Titius Justus-Stephanas). The problem with the Jason-Aristarchus hypothesis has always been to explain why Luke would call him "Jason" in chapter 17, but "Aristarchus" thereafter. Why does Acts not identify Aristarchus as Jason? Again, it may have been to protect him and conceal the use of alias taking in the early church so as not to alert opponents to the practice.

5. Luke keeps himself anonymous, perhaps for his own protection.

6. Luke addresses his books to "Theophilus" (lover of God). "Theophilus" could have been an impromptu (or prior) renaming which serves to protect the identity of this high ranking official who sponsored the publication of Luke 's two books, and honour him.

The cases of new name giving are important, not least because they confirm the accuracy of Acts. Also, if we can show that Acts contains the phenomena of protective anonymity and protective heteronymity, it makes it more likely that the same phenomena appear in the gospels, and this supports some of Bauckham's claims.

(The picture, taken from Richard's webpage, shows the tribunal where Sosthenes was beaten)

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At 3/09/2007 12:09 AM, Anonymous Igor said...

That explains a great deal and is something I had never really considered. There is only one place in the NT where I had thought such a thing might have occurred and that was in relation to whether Paul had a wife or not, and if he did have then could it have been hidden in order to protect her?

At 3/09/2007 1:51 AM, Anonymous J. B. Hood said...


Seems this argument could have some heuristic force to it. I look forward to hear what others think of this. Now if you could just get this turned into a documentary. I recommend "The Disciple Code."

I was thinking "Theophilus" before I finished reading point four, then point six came into view.

At 3/09/2007 7:36 AM, Anonymous Richard Fellows said...

Another possible case of protective silence in Acts is that of Alexander (Acts 19:33-34), who is brought into the account of the Demetrius riot without introduction or explanation. The story would make more sense if we suppose that Alexander was a Christian and was already known to the readers, as some commentators have pointed out. If so, the passage is an account of an attack of sorts on Alexander, and we have seen that the prominent believers that were subject to attacks may have been in need of protective silence. His need for protection may explain why Luke does not identify him properly. The name "Alexander" was a popular name for Jews so it could have been his birth name, but it might alternatively have been a new name given to honour him and/or to provide him with an alias. The name probably means "protector of men", and therefore sounds suspiciously like a Christian new-name. Compare "Sosthenes" (saving strength), Cephas (rock), James-Oblias (bulwark of the people), and others. Perhaps he was the Gaius mentioned in 19:29. This would make sense because otherwise Gaius and Aristarchus are introduced in 19:29 with no purpose and drop out of the story. Luke's way of handling Gaius-Alexander would then closely parallel his way of handling Crispus-Sosthenes (for whom we have a lot more evidence).

Interesting thought, Tim. There was some discussion about whether Paul was married in the Corpus Paul list a few years ago.

Thanks, J.B.. Incidentally, I wonder whether protection was part of the motivation for naming Levi "Matthew". And maybe Mark does not explicitly equate Matthew with Levi because he did not want to draw attention to the fact that believers often took aliases (for to do so would have alerted opponents to the practice). Perhaps insiders already knew that Levi was Matthew. Who knows?

At 3/09/2007 11:20 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Richard, first a thanks for such a great guest post.

Also, you probably know a case has been made for the genre of apocalyptic (like Rev), which uses subvrsive imagery etc. without being explicit for the sake of safety. A sort of protective strategy embedded in a genre, in other words.

At 3/10/2007 8:07 AM, Anonymous Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Chris. I had forgotten about Revelation. If protective measures were taken by the writer of Revelation, it is all the more plausible that the writers of the gospels and Acts took protective measures, since they were written at very roughly the same times.


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