The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE ACTS OF
Continuing with our study of the Acts of the Apostles, at our last meeting we finished with chapter eleven and so today we begin with chapter twelve. Paul and Barnabas are active in Antioch preaching the word of God. During this time a new persecution of the Christians is now taking place back in Jerusalem. The grandson of Herod the Great, Herod Agrippa 1, has been appointed as king over Judea and Samaria by the Emperor Claudius. He wants to appear pleasing to the Jews so that they love his reign over them so on his return from Rome he orders the arrest of some of the Jerusalem Christians. Among them was also James the son of Zebedee and brother of John the Evangelist whom he killed with the sword. Seeing that this pleased the Jews he proceeded further to have Peter also arrested. This was during the eight days of unleavened bread preceding the Jewish Passover feast so not wanting to disrupt the Pascal celebration he had Peter put into prison guarded by four soldiers at a time with the intention after the Passover to bring him to trial before the people. By delaying the trial until after the Jewish Passover the king would appear as showing great respect and feeling for Jewish customs and at the same time would improve his image before the great many people who would have come to Jerusalem for the great feast. With Peter in prison the church continually prayed for his welfare.
After the feast on the night before the day Herod had planned to bring him forth for trial, Peter was asleep in the prison between two soldiers with each of his hands bound with chains to each soldier and two more soldiers guarding outside. Suddenly there was a bright light and an angel of the Lord appeared in the prison. The angel touched Peter on his side and told him to get up quickly, and immediately the chains fell off his hands. The angel then told him to put his belt on, his sandals and his outer garment and to follow him. So Peter followed the angel but didn't believe that it was actually happening: he thought he was in a dream. They passed the first guard and the second without being seen and came to the iron gate which leads into the city. The gate opened of its own accord and they went out and continued walking together until they came to another street, then suddenly the angel disappeared. Peter then came to his senses and realized that he was not in a dream, but that the Lord had sent an angel to deliver him from the hand of Herod and the expectation of the Jewish people. Peter continued walking and came to the house of Mary the Mother of John who was known as Mark where many were gathered together praying. This Mark is the Evangelist Mark. Like many Jews he had two names, a Hebrew name and a Roman name. John is the Hebrew and Mark is the Roman.
Peter knocked on the door and a maid called Rhoda went to answer. When she recognized Peter's voice she was so overjoyed that instead of opening the door for him, she ran inside to tell the others that Peter was standing outside the gate. They all thought she was mad, or that she had seen his guardian angel but she insisted. Peter continues knocking and eventually they opened the gate and let him in. They were astonished, but Peter told them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. He told them to go and tell James and the brethren of what had happened and then he left and we are told that he went to another place. The James mentioned here is James the Lord's brother and the brethren simply means the other Christians. Where Peter went after this is not mentioned. There would certainly be a search for him by Herod's police so he had to get out of Jerusalem and Judea and out of Herod's jurisdiction. It's possible than Peter left for Antioch or Rome but we see his return at the first Apostolic Synod in chapter fifteen.
In the morning the soldiers were troubled and couldn't understand how Peter had slipped through their fingers. When Herod asked for Peter to be brought before him and wasn't to be found, he questioned the guards and commanded that the four that were on duty that night to be put to death. Herod then left Judea and took up his abode in Caesarea. According to the Jewish historian Josephus whose account of Herod's life is in very much agreement with the Acts of the Apostles, Herod had gone to Caesarea for the celebration feast for the Emperor Claudius' deliverance from the British. We are then told that he was extremely displeased with the Phoenician towns of Tyre and Sidon. Why we are not told, but as a punishment he declared economic sanctions against them forbidding the sell of agricultural goods to them on which they relied on for their survival. In desperation they tried to have an audience with him and befriended his Butler and asked him to intercede on their behalf. It seems that his butler convinced him to give them a hearing and probably just after the celebrations he ordered a public hearing to be held in Caesarea's amphitheatre.
Herod was dressed in his royal apparel and sitting upon the throne he speaks to the representatives. According to Josephus his royal garments were brilliant made up of silver and a wonderful weave. Herod, he says, had gone to the amphitheatre very early so that he could be there for the rising of the sun. With the rising of the sun, its rays struck his silver garments and he shone like the sun itself. When Herod had finished speaking the people shouted: "It is the voice of a god and not of a man." According to Josephus the people shouted: "If up till this day we honoured you as a man, from this day forth we will honour you as god." Herod did not deny this honour and give the glory to God and for this the angel of the Lord smote him and it says he was eaten of worms and died. Of Herod's death Josephus says that he immediately felt terrible pains in his insides and realized he was going to die and indeed died after five days.
The chapter closes telling us that the word of God grew and multiplied and Barnabas and Paul returned from Jerusalem where they had fulfilled their famine relief aid which we saw last week, and on their return to Antioch they took with them Mark the Evangelist. With the end of this chapter we come to the close of the first part of the Acts which is known as the Petrion section because it consecrates mainly on the person of Peter. He is mentioned in chapter fifteen but all the remaining chapters deal mainly with Paul's missionary works and so it is called the Pauline Section. What happened to Peter is not made clear from scripture. We have his two Epistles and from them we can gather that he was in Rome, but most of what we know of Peter comes from the early fathers. As we saw earlier when Peter was miraculously brought out of prison and found the house of Mark the Evangelist we are told that he went to another place without mentioning where.
The early writings all agree that Peter went to Rome, but they disagree on when and how long he resided there. According to St. Jerome, during the 2nd year of Emperor Claudius's reign in AD 42, Peter went to Rome where he held the Episcopal throne for twenty five years. Seeing that Peter's martyrdom is recorded to have been in AD 68 this would not have been possible. Jerome translated into Latin the historical work known as The Chronicle by the historian Eusebius and it seems that he added this detail into the Latin work because it is not mentioned in the Greek original. Eusebius does say that Peter went to Rome in the reign of Claudius but nothing more is added. We know that in about AD 50 Peter was back in Jerusalem for the Apostolic Synod and according to Peter's First Epistle he probably also preached the word of God throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia because it is to these churches that he addresses his Epistle, but at some time he must have returned to Rome because his First Epistle was written from Rome. Peter ends his Epistle saying: "The [church that is] at Babylon, elected together with [you], saluteth you; and [so doth] Marcus my son." The church at Babylon is allegorically referring to Rome.
There are many testimonies that Peter died a martyr's death at Rome. St. Clement Bishop of Rome and disciple of St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians dated about AD 90: "Let us take the noble examples of our own generation. Through jealousy and envy the greatest and most just pillars of the Church were persecuted, and came even unto death… Peter, through unjust envy, endured not one or two but many labours, and at last, having delivered his testimony, departed unto the place of glory due to him." He doesn't say what kind of martyr's death he had but in general the early church fathers are unanimous in claiming that Peter died in Rome, by crucifixion, during the persecution of Nero in AD 68. Tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down. The only historical source that we have that this actually happened is from the unreliable apocryphal book known as the Acts of Peter where it says that Peter asked his executioners to crucify him head downwards.
Roman Catholic tradition has that Peter’s body is contained in a crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. This is actually not all that far-fetched a claim. In fact, when the sarcophagus claimed to contain his body was studied in the 1960’s (Margherita Guarducci, 1963-1968) the evidence supported that it was of a man about 60 years old who died in the first century AD. Historically all sources both Greek and Latin agree that Peter was buried on Vatican Hill. In time other tombs were also created around his tomb so that it became a place for the dead known as Necropolis. During the persecutions that followed his relics were moved from place to place until after the persecutions where his relics were supposedly returned to the original burial place. In the fourth century about 260 years after Peter's martyrdom, Constantine the Great levelled out the site and built a Basilica church with the Holy Altar situated directly above where Peter's tomb was, but no one knew for sure if the sealed tomb actually contained Peter's remains. About 1200 years later Pope Julius II decided to build a bigger and better Basilica, but because of the size the tomb was now directly under the dome. What I find hard to understand is that for many centuries parts of Peter's relics were supposed to be in other churches of Rome besides St. Peter's. The Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pope's cathedral church boasted that the heads of both Peter and Paul were inside busts above the main altar. Parts of Peter's relics were in St. Pudenziana in Rome. In the Greek world the Monasteries of Iviron and Panteleimon of Mount Athos are said to have portions of Peter's relics as also the Cypriot Kykkos monastery.
Chapter thirteen begins with Paul's first Journey. The story begins at Antioch and Luke tells us that in the Church there were certain prophets and teachers. The prophets mentioned here are not the prophets mention in chapter eleven who were visitors. These prophets and teachers belong to the church of Antioch. Prophets were preachers who also had the gift of prophesying and teachers were also preachers but without the gift of prophesying. We are given the names of some of these: Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. Of these five mentioned three are white and two black. Barnabas is mentioned first and Saul last and we have already seen who they are and their involvement with the Church of Antioch. Next is Simeon who is also called Niger. Niger simply means black and was not meant to be offensive, but today it is probably the most offensive word in English. Some identify this Simeon with Simon of Cyrene who carried the Cross of Jesus and others identify him as the Ethiopian Eunuch, the treasurer of Queen Candice mentioned in chapter eight of the Acts. The truth is we are not told so we don't know. The third is Lucius of Cyrene another African and the fourth Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch. Manaen's mother was Herod's wet nurse and the two boys grew up together as friends. It is believed that this is the nobleman who son was sick at Capernaum and besought Jesus to heal him. (John 4: 46) The English has nobleman but the Greek has Basilikos meaning royal or from the royal court.
As they were praying and fasting the Holy Ghost spoke through one of them present saying: "Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them for." So after fasting again and praying for them the Presbyters, Prophets and teachers laid their hands on them and sent them away for the mission the Holy Ghost would reveal to them. The laying on of the hands was not a form of ordination but rather the church's blessing and acknowledgement that their mission was called by God. The Spirit sent them to Seleucia, a Syrian city by the Mediterranean Sea and from there they sailed to Cyprus, with them also is the Evangelist Mark who was Barnabas' nephew. They reach Salamis, Barnabas' hometown, and begin preaching the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. From Salamis they travelled through the Island and came to Paphos which was in those days the Capital city. In Paphos they came upon a Jew named Bar-jesus, famous for his sorcery and who portrayed himself as a prophet who had become close to the Roman proconsul. The Roman proconsul was named Sergius Paulus; he was a wise man and hearing of the Apostles called for them and asked to hear the word of God. Hearing what the apostles had to say the sorcerer, also known as Elymas, tried to persuade the proconsul away from the Christian faith. Then Saul who from now on is called Paul, filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, and said, you are full of evil and mischief, a child of the devil and an enemy of all righteousness; when will you stop perverting the rights way of the Lord. Because you try to pervert the light of truth, the hand of God is upon you and for a certain time you will be punished with blindness. As soon as Paul had finished a mist fell on Elymas and then darkness and he went about seeking for someone to lead him by the hand. When the Proconsul saw what was done he was astonished and believed in the doctrine of the Lord.
Saul's change of name to Paul could have been in honour of the Roman Proconsul whose name was Sergius Paulus which in Greek is Paulos and translated into English as Paul or because Saul was a Roman citizen and now active in Roman territory he took on the Roman name. Unlike Judea which was under Roman military rule, Cyprus was a free Roman territory. Towards the end of the 2nd century BC, Cyprus was considered a friend and ally of Rome, but after a few years Rome claimed that it held a written testimony by the Ptolemy King who ruled Cyprus given Rome ownership of the Island and so by 58BC Cyprus became a Roman country and in 22BC became an official senatorial province.
From Paphos Paul, Barnabas and Mark sail and come to Perga in Pamphylia which is now Southern Turkey, but when they reach there Mark has second thoughts and returns to Jerusalem. Why Mark departed from the group we are not told, but it was reason for Paul to later distrust the readiness of his character and for Paul and Barnabas to come at disagreement over him and part ways. When they reached Perga the way ahead was over the rough Taurus Mountain range with violent rivers and many thieves. On seeing the rough conditions of their journey Mark probably lost courage and couldn't go on or more probable is that Mark did not fully understand Paul's plan to preach the Gospel to the gentiles. He like many others thought that this was the privilege of the Jews only. Paul and Barnabas travel inwards and come to Antioch in Pisidia and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. After the reading of the law and the prophets which we can deduce from Paul's sermon that will follow was from the first chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Isaiah, the rulers of the synagogue sent messengers to them asking them if they have anything to say on the readings. Thus Paul stands up and begins preaching to them how God chose their fathers and exalted the people when they dwelt as strangers in the land of Egypt and then brought them out and suffered their manners for forty years in the wilderness. He then destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan and divided their land to the Israelites. He then gave them judges to rule over them for about four hundred years until Samuel the Prophet. Afterwards they desired a king and he gave them Saul the son of Cis, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, by the space of forty years. Then when he removed him he raised up unto them David to be their king saying I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will. Of this man's seed hath God according to his promise raised unto Israel a Saviour, Jesus: When John had first preached before his coming the baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John fulfilled his course, he said, Whom think ye that I am? I am not he. But, behold, there cometh one after me, whose shoes of his feet I am not worthy to loose.
So having told them that Jesus was of the line of David, the expected Messiah and Saviour, he then tells them of the ungratefulness of the rulers in Jerusalem. Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent. For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him. And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre. But God raised him from the dead: And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people.
Having preached that Jesus was raised from the dead, Paul reveals to them through the Psalms that David speaks of him saying: Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption: But he, whom God raised again, saw no corruption. Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. When Paul had finished speaking some of the Jews left the Synagogue, but certain gentiles pleaded with him that he would speak to them also the next Sabbath. When the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God.
When the next Sabbath day came, the whole city came together to hear the word of God. Seeing the crowds the Jews were filled with envy and began to speak against the things Paul had spoken of contradicting him and blaspheming. The Apostles turned to them saying it was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you, but seeing that you reject it and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life we now turn to the gentiles. Because the Lord has commanded us saying: I have set you to be a light of the gentiles that you should be for salvation unto the ends of the earth. This was a quote from the Prophet Isaiah. When the gentiles heard that they were also included in God's salvation, they rejoiced and glorified God. The word of God was preached throughout all the region, but the Jews stirred up the devout women whose husbands had high positions in the community to force their husbands to expel Paul and Barnabas from their region. The apostles therefore left and came to Iconium.
Chapter fourteen begins with the apostles in Iconium and as was usual they first went to the Synagogue of the Jews and spoke there. Many of the Jews and the Greek believed their word, but the unbelieving stirred up the gentiles turning their minds against the apostles. Paul and Barnabas remained in Iconium for a long time speaking boldly, strengthening the faith of those that believed with many signs and wonders. But the people of the city were divided and part held with the Jews and part with the apostles. Soon the unbelieving gentiles teamed up with the unbelieving Jews and made plans to abuse and stone them. When word came to the apostles of what was planned for them they fled the city and came to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia.
Here I want to break from the Acts of the Apostles and turn to tradition and other ancient manuscripts which tell us of a young woman called Thecla who was born in the city of Iconium and is associated with Paul and Barnabas when they were there. Thecla was the daughter of rich and illustrious parents, and she was distinguished by extraordinary beauty. At eighteen years of age they betrothed her to an eminent youth. But after she heard the preaching of the holy Apostle Paul about the Saviour, Thecla with all her heart came to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and she steadfastly resolved not to enter into marriage, but rather to devote all her life to preaching the Gospel. Thecla’s mother was opposed to her daughter’s plans and insisted that she marry her betrothed. Thecla’s fiancé also complained to the prefect of the city about the Apostle Paul, accusing him of turning his bride against him. The prefect locked up St Paul in prison.
During the night Thecla secretly ran away from her house, and she bribed the prison guards, giving them all her gold ornaments, and so made her way into the prison to the prisoner. For three days she sat at the feet of the Apostle Paul, listening to his fatherly precepts. Thecla’s disappearance was discovered, and servants were sent out everywhere looking for her. Finally, they found her in the prison and brought her home by force.
At his trial St Paul was sentenced to banishment from the city. Again they urged Thecla to consent to the marriage, but she would not change her mind. Neither the tears of her mother, nor her wrath, nor the threats of the prefect could separate Thekla from her love for the Heavenly Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ. Her mother in a insane rage demanded from the judges a death sentence against her unyielding daughter, and Thecla was sentenced to be burned. Without flinching, the holy martyr went into the fire. At this moment the Saviour appeared to her, blessing her present deed, and inexpressible joy filled her holy soul.
The flames of the fire shot up high, but the martyr was surrounded by a light and the flames did not touch her. Thunder boomed, and a strong downpour of rain and hail extinguished the fire. The torturers scattered in fear. Thekla, kept safe by the Lord, left the city and with the help of a certain Christian youth, searched for the Apostle Paul. The apostle and his companion Barnabas were hidden in a cave not far from the city, praying fervently, that the Lord would strengthen Thecla in her sufferings.
After this, Thecla went with them preaching the Gospel in Antioch. In this city she was pursued by a certain dignitary named Alexander, who was captivated by her beauty and rushed forward and tried to seduce her, but Thecla fought him off, thus disgracing him in front of his crowd of friends. Alexander went to the governor of Antioch and complained that this wandering girl had disgraced him, a nobleman, in public. He demanded that she be punished with death. The governor complied and ruled that Thecla would face the wild beasts in the arena. Twice they set loose hungry wild animals upon her, but they would not touch the holy virgin. Instead, they lay down meekly and licked her feet. The Providence of God preserved the holy martyr unharmed through all her torments.
Finally, they tied her to two large bulls in the hopes that they would pull her asunder. But when the bulls charged off in opposite directions, the ropes which held Thecla to them were miraculously loosened and she was spared. The people began shouting, “Great is the God of the Christians!” The prefect himself became terrified, realizing that the holy martyr was being kept safe by the Almighty God, whom she served. He then gave orders to set Thecla free.
With the blessing of the Apostle Paul, Thecla then settled in a desolate region of Isaurian Seleucia and dwelt there for many years, constantly preaching the Word of God and healing the sick through her prayer. Thecla converted many pagans to Christ, and the Church appropriately names her as “Equal- to-the-Apostles.”
When Thecla was already a ninety-year-old woman, pagan sorcerers became infuriated with her for treating the sick for free. They were unable to comprehend that the saint was healing the sick by the power of the grace of Christ, and they presumed that the virgin-goddess Artemis was her special helper. Envious of St Thecla, they sent their followers to defile her. When they came near her, St Thecla cried out for help to Christ the Saviour, and a rock split open and hid the holy virgin, the bride of Christ. Thus did Thecla offer up her holy soul to the Lord. Shortly after her death a community of virgins went to live in her mountain cell, building a small chapel to enshrine her body.
Because of her many sufferings for the Faith the Church counts her as a “Protomartyr”. And because she converted so many people to Christianity she is also know as an “Equal-to-the-Apostles”. From very early on many churches were dedicated to her, one of which was built at Constantinople by the Emperor and Saint Constantine. Her feast day is celebrated on 24th September.
The earliest account of Thecla's life is from the apocryphal book known as the Acts of Paul and Thecla which was written in the second century. It goes into much more detail than the account I have given. According to Tertullian, an early Christian author and founder of Western theology, the author was a cleric who lived in the Roman province of Asia in the western part of Asia Minor, and who composed the book about 170 AD with the intention of doing honour to the Apostle Paul. Although well-intentioned, the author was brought up for trial by his peers and, being convicted of falsifying the facts, was dismissed from his office. Basically the book was condemned because it mentions that Thecla baptized herself and for Tertullian and other ecclesiastical leaders baptism by a woman was scandalous.
But the book, even though condemned, achieved considerable popularity among the laity and was looked upon as genuine. The Church rightly condemned the book because it contains many contradictory teachings to the Bible. It teaches that married couples should be sexually abstinent. In it Paul says: "Blessed are they who have wives, as though they had them not; for they shall be made angels of God" (Acts of Paul and Thecla, 1:16). But what we find in the Bible is quite different. "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (I Corinthians 7:3-5). God never urged married couples to forego sex in their relationship. Just the opposite it says: "Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled." (Hebrews 13:4).
In the book the first miracle supposedly took place before Thecla even became a Christian, because we find her baptizing herself just before being sent out among hungry animals. Here again we find an element not found in the New Testament. There is never a mention of anyone baptizing themselves. But what is also amazing is that she supposedly spent a good bit of time with Paul prior to this and yet was never baptized.
Although the book is called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul plays a very minor role in the book. It is really a book about Thecla and as Tertullian notes it is obviously a book designed to promote women preaching. In the story it says: "Then Thecla arose, and said to Paul, I am going to Iconium. Paul replied to her: Go, and teach the word of the Lord" (10:4). In contrast Paul stated in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (14:34-35).
There are many more occasions that the contents of the book comes into contradiction with the Bible, but this does not mean that Thecla was not a real person and that she didn't suffer for Christ. Many of the well known Church fathers like Cyprian, Eusebius, Epiphanius, Augustine, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, and Severus Sulpitius, who all lived within the fourth century, mention Thecla, or refer to her history. Basil the bishop of Seleucia wrote her acts, sufferings, and victories, in verse; and Euagrius Scholasticus, an ecclesiastical historian, in about 590, relates that "after the Emperor Zeno had abdicated his empire, and Basilik had taken possession of it, he had a vision of the holy martyr Thecla, who promised him the restoration of his empire; for which, when it was brought about, he erected and dedicated a most noble and sumptuous temple to this famous martyr Thecla, at Seleucia, of Isauria, and bestowed upon it very noble endowments.