Today we have a guest column. Some time ago, I referred to the Book of Acts, and began an intriguing correspondence with Mr. Jesse Elison. Focusing especially on one key phrase, Mr. Elison made a strong case for showing how Luke was drawing directly on secular Greek literature, and moreover that he might even have been using the work of Euripides as a model for the story he was trying to tell. After all, did not his play The Bacchae describe the introduction of a new religious system into Greece? Invoking that play in this context was surprising to me, and I invited Mr. Elison to expand his provocative comments into a blog post.
Goads and Gods
In graduate school, I wrote a paper that explored ideas of fate and free will through studying a key phrase in The Acts of The Apostles. When Jesus appears to Paul, he warns him that “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9.5 and also 26.14, KJV: skleron soi pros kentra laktizein). I recalled that paper reading Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith about the stretch of time from the 3rd to 1st century BCE of writers inventing, appropriating, and assimilating ideas.
Just how writers developed their ideas in Crucible caught my attention. I believed in graduate school and, after revisiting that phrase, believe today that the author of Acts was as intentional a writer as any during the Crucible period.
Ready examples of writers’ success in Crucible are the discussions of Enoch and Daniel, the latter on pages 118-21. You just have to read Crucible to learn about Enoch. Daniel is a favorite from my childhood with companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Among Daniel’s many layers it contends with the influence of Greek culture by showing the superiority of the Hebrew God.
The author of Acts had no less an ambition in superseding Hellenism for the groups who became known as Christians. If writing their early history and being an early endorser of their lasting moniker were not enough, the author also told of the group’s first great hero, the Apostle Paul.
Acts records Paul’s journey within a most distinguished context. In chapter 17 the hero visits Athens and its citizens take and question him on the Areopagus, the very mount of Ares with the memorable alter and inscription “To an Unknown God.” Many commentators propose the event is the climax of Paul’s journey but that divorces its meaning from drama. The chapter does forecast the import of the climax to come later. On Ares’s Hill, Paul attests to a God that can be known if the Athenians would only seek the Lord.
The background of Acts would have been accessible for the Greek reading audience, primed for the climax when that crucial phrase occurs.
But to return to the phrase about “to kick against the pricks.” I ran it by housemates who were also in my graduate program. One of them, an Anglican priest from Liverpool, burst with laughter when I quoted the King James. He didn’t believe me until I pulled out my trusted copy and pointed to chapter and verse. I took that exchange as a hint to favor the more common rendition “goads.” After clearing the idea by my housemates, I set out to make sense of the phrase in Acts. I didn’t read Greek but charged ahead with the help of Biblical indexes, commentaries, and multiple translations.
The phrase enjoyed quite a life span, near a millennium. As early as the 5th century BCE it appeared in the poetry of Pindar and Greek playwrights. By the 4th century CE, Emperor Julian referred to it as a stand-alone proverb, always meaning the uselessness of striving against fate or a divine decree.
I focused on its appearance in the Greek playwrights. Aeschylus employed it in the opening of his Orestes trilogy, Agamemnon, and in Prometheus Bound, confirming the standard meaning in the unfolding scenes of his plays.
It appeared four times in extant records of Euripides, in two fragments and two of his remaining plays, Iphigenia Among the Taurians and Bacchae. In Bacchae, it shows in the second of two exchanges between the young King Pentheus and a disguised Dionysus,
Pentheus: School thou not me; but having ‘scaped thy bonds,
Content thee: else again I punish thee.
Dionysus: Better slay victims unto him than rage,
Spurning the goads, a mortal ‘gainst a God (792-795).
Pentheus died at the hands of a frenzied group, which included his mother, divine revenge for the death of Dionysus’s own mother.
For the other occurrences of the phrase no other characters avoided their fates either. The phrase always declared a reality beyond their control.
To show the likelihood of the phrase’s appropriation by the author of The Acts, I shared potential Greek literary influences. One welcomed discovery, Literate Education in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds, by Teresa Morgan, found that education models of the Graeco-Roman World had relied heavily upon Homer and the Greek tragedies. Based on hundreds of extant examples, Euripides was second only to Homer.
I mentioned scholars’ work on contemporary literary and rhetorical techniques used by the author of Acts. One such technique was the role of speeches, which effectively established history on a par with Thucydides and Livy. Others were the narrative’s inclusion of turning points and dramatic episodes. The use of allusions and even point of view marked familiar characteristics. Acts was a genre close to Hellenistic biography, and among the first examples was written in the 3rd century BCE about Euripides.
Bacchae stood out. Scholars identified direct allusions of murderous threats and liberation accounts in Acts, but even more for the pervasive cultural presence of Dionysus. Bacchae was about the new religion of Dionysus, written by Euripides at the end of the 5th century BCE. The Dionysus Cult was centuries old at that point, and by the time the author of The Acts got to work at the end of the first century CE, the cult was still going strong. And then there were the theatre and major festivals honoring Dionysus. Their role, and the cult’s, went well beyond the scope of my project. I attempted a quick sketching of Dionysus that required a far greater study.
I put forward the most tenuous, but irresistible, connection in Acts after Paul’s day on the Areopagus. At the end of that chapter the author identifies Paul’s first Athenian converts. One of them, Dionysius, was just one letter (in the Greek too) different from the popular native God, and I conjectured too clever by a mile. Recall Paul’s message that day about knowing God through the Lord.
None of the allusions or literary features was more compelling than the text itself. The climax of Paul’s life may have been on the road to Damascus, but the climax of Acts was Paul’s final speech before Herod’s grandson king Agrippa in chapter 26. Paul’s appearance before king Agrippa was the last in a succession of officials hearing claims against Paul. Amidst constant threats and arrests Paul makes his case, telling of the key moment in his life on the road to Damascus, and the author of Acts records the voice of the Lord to say:
(14) And when we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me? It is hard for thee to kick against the goads.
(15) And I said, Who art thou, Lord? And he said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest…
The Lord relayed in Hebrew what every Greek reader likely recognized from their literature and that was the utility of resisting divinity.
I argued that the deliberate use of the phrase advanced the superiority of the Christian God because Paul submitted while others had not. The author’s use of the phrase showed consistency with its genealogy, and the positive outcome showed a brilliant innovation. That Paul offered it with his life weighing in the balance underscored the power of his message. His life didn’t end at the vision nor at the hands of the officials. Acts records Paul eventually reaching Rome where the complaints didn’t even follow him, and he enjoyed an uneventful, not anticlimactic, repose fit for a hero (after the interlude of a long voyage, surviving a ship wreck and snake bite, and performing mass healings on an island).
What did the phrase’s use in Acts mean for the fate of fate? Paul was a trained and learned Pharisee with what we’d consider quite a rap sheet of persecuting Christians. Like his predecessors encountering the phrase he was due for some ignoble end. But Paul experienced what could amount to a conversion and indisputably a reorientation. The author may have introduced dueling fates or even the greatest, most real fate of all and may have done more.
On revisiting my project, I believe I was partially correct. The author of Acts did intend to supersede Hellenism by focusing on the role of fate. But the explanation of how does not come from the phrase’s history and against Dionysus culture, which establish the context. It’s in Paul’s speech, in his reply to the declaration that it was futile to resist the divine.
19: Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.
Paul’s obedience would be nothing less than illusory if his outcome was inevitable. It was surprising that Paul would choose at all, and that Paul chooses is significant in itself, but it’s what Paul chooses that focuses the reader on the role of fate. He chose to obey the Lord. According to the author of Acts, Christ changed Paul from murdering Christians to carrying their message (and escaped death at the hand of the officials in Judaea and from the elements after leaving for Rome). The contrast that Christ changes, or even defeats, fate may have been the real innovation by the author of Acts in the use of the phrase.
The phrase at the climax is certainly the author’s contribution and not Paul’s. Paul not only didn’t share the phrase in the vision of the Lord recorded in his letters, he also didn’t say he obeyed it. Saying so would be akin to clay obeying the potter.
I initially read the phrase in Acts at the end of the author’s success in all its rich background, but Paul’s response is the most reliable source of the author’s intention. And the author’s intention pales in light of Paul’s redirection that changed the phrase for Christians who would encounter it after him. Christ offered to change their fates too and to conquer the grimmest of all ends – death.
Remarkably the Dionysus cult offered another counter to fate through its mysteries. In time the official status of Christianity ended the prevalence of those practices and the tradition of Greek theatre itself. That was certainly a cost to those seeking to confront fate but not the only one. With the gain of official status came assumed success indistinguishable from certain outcomes. The history recorded by the author of Acts climaxed with change in the life of its hero, upending the expectations of the Greek audience and marking a certain contribution to the religious world of the West.
Mr. Elison lives in Atlanta where he practices Transportation law. He’s a big fan of Atlanta United FC and among his many beliefs he passionately holds that ATL is destined to win the Cup.