Minutes With Messiah banner

Near Damascus

by Tim O'Hearn

He was my friend. He was the type of person you would follow anywhere, and do anything for. If Saul said to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple, you hoped a legion of angels would catch you, because you were going to jump. Not that he would ever abuse his power in that way. But you understand what I mean.

Saul was not your usual Jewish zealot (not meaning to use that word in its political sense). Most of true defenders of the faith were born in or around Jerusalem, at least in Roman Judaea. Saul wasn’t native-born, though. He came from Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, Central Asia Minor. Saul’s home was no minor city, though. Not as large as some, it still had a famous history and reputation. Just a few years ago it was the place where Marcus Antonius met Cleopatra VII Philopater, the famous Egyptian beauty. It was from that city, or rather its nearest seaport, that they launched the fleet that took part in the battle of Actium. That is where Marcus Agrippa defeated Antonius for Caesar Augustus. Herod Agrippa was named to honor that admiral.

Tarsus is known for some other things as well. It is a city known for the beauty and durability of its tents; indeed, Saul learned that craft in his home town. But it is perhaps best known for its intellectual pursuits. Even todayWhy Damascus? The problem was that Damascus and Jerusalem are in two different provinces. the university at Tarsus is presided over by the Stoic philosophers. Perhaps even more than Athens, Tarsus is the current home of stoicism. Sometimes even Saul shows that he was influenced by where he was born.

He didn’t live there long, though. He was born Jewish. His parents both spoke Hebrew, and that is his heart language, although he is fluent in Greek and has a good knowledge of Latin. As a Tarsinian Jew, he was not truly a stoic. At a young age his parents sent him to Jerusalem to learn from the great Gamaliel II. It may be that he could learn no more of Judaism at home. Certainly when he got to Jerusalem he applied himself. Young though he was, he exceeded all of his classmates, and even some of the older boys. He was as proud of his learning as he was of being from the same clan as his namesake, King Saul. I think he was in line for one of the next vacancies on the Sanhedrin.

Because of his learning in Jerusalem, he became eager to help stamp out “the Way,” the followers of a Galilean rabbi some call The Teacher. He had started early. Some time about four years after the beginning of the Way, Saul became involved in the judgement of a teacher named Stephen, a Greek convert who then followed the new sect. It seems this Stephen taught that the Teacher had come back from the dead, an idea that Cohen Gadol (High Priest) Caiaphas could not tolerate. (After all, Caiaphas had been intimately involved in the trial and execution of the Teacher.) Stephen was sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin, in spite of Roman law to the contrary. Saul, while not part of the court that sentenced the man, was of the party of Pharisees that advocated the sentence. That shows how eager Saul was, because anybody who participated in the execution, even the ones like Saul who held the robes of the executioners, could have been tried, convicted, and crucified by the Romans. Even Saul’s Roman citizenship would probably not have saved him. That didn’t seem to faze him.

And now, here it is, two or three years later. I am following my friend on another quasi-legal adventure. For the past couple of years Saul has made a name for himself in Jerusalem as the Cohen Gadol’s chief enforcer. He has ferreted out many of the secret followers of the Way, and prosecuted them at trial. He has grown tired of Jerusalem, though. Or maybe he just fished that stream clear. There is a new High Priest, named Jonathan. Maybe it was the coincidence of names, Jonathan having been the son of King Saul. Maybe it was just that the new man was ambitious and Saul took advantage of it. Whatever the reason, Saul convinced the new Cohen Gadol to give him letters of authority (basically arrest warrants) to go to Damascus and bring back in chains followers of the Teacher.

Why Damascus? Well, why not. It is a bigger city, and of similar antiquity. It was a center of commerce and learning, and therefore probably had many of these supposed heretics. The problem was that Damascus and Jerusalem are in two different provinces. It wouldn’t have done any good to go to the Governor in Jerusalem. Even if he had wanted to interfere in Jewish affairs, he had no authority in Damascus. Some would argue that even Jonathan did not. Saul, however, argued that the High Priest of the Jewish people had authority over all Jewish people. Even Rome accepted the separation of religion and state. Emboldened by escaping Roman justice in the stoning of Stephen, Paul used his stoic training as a logician to extend the authority of the priesthood. As long as the people he arrested were all Jews, and every follower of the Way was one, then he was merely enforcing religious necessity, which was allowed by the Romans.

So here we were. Walking the 1500 stadia from Jerusalem to Damascus. We’d been on the road for days, and when we arrest these people we will walk back. But like I said, when Saul says go, you go. And he never seems to get tired himself. Besides, we were almost there. The walls of the city were in sight.

It was approaching midday, so we were preparing to stop and fix a short lunch. The sun can get very hot here, so some of us were thinking of finding shelter and maybe a nap during the heat of the day. Ah, plans. Somehow God has a way of changing what man plans. So it was this day.

Suddenly a bright light shone on us. Really bright. It had to be to outshine the midday sun. It was almost a physical brightness; so much so that we all fell to the ground. Most of us stood up again, but Saul stayed on the ground. Along with the light, we heard a noise. More like a voice than a noise, but we couldn’t hear what was being said. Apparently Saul heard, because he was responding. This is what we heard.

“Who are you, rabbi?”

“What will you have me do?”

Whatever the voice said to him, Saul got up and asked to go into Damascus. The light had not blinded us, but whatever he saw in the light had taken his sight. We had to lead him by the hand into the city. Something told me our original mission was no longer valid.

We found lodging for him in Euthys Street. Damascus had been laid out in a grid pattern, unlike most cities that grew up willy-nilly. The longest and widest street was a colonnaded thoroughfare appropriately called Euthys, or Straight. As the major street in the city, it was not difficult to find lodging there. We stayed with a man named Judas, who was apparently well-known among the city’s Jewish population.

For three days Saul stayed in the house, blind. He refused food and drink. Instead he devoted himself to prayer. It wasn’t unusual for him to pray through mealtime, but three days was exceptional.

After three days we were visited by a man named Ananias. He was one of the people we came to put in chains, although he was well thought of by all of the Damascene Jews. How had he found us? He explained that God had given him a vision. He had been directed to the house of Judas in Euthys Street, and told to ask for a man named Saul. This Saul, my friend Saul, would be expecting him because he had also had a vision and seen him coming. Now this was news to me, because Saul had said nothing about it, but that was his way when praying. Ananias had an interesting message to relay. But first he laid his hands on Saul. Something like the scales on a butterfly wing fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.

Ananias said, “I came to restore your sight, and so that you might be filled with the Holy Spirit. The God of our fathers has chosen you to know His will, to see the Messiah, and to hear words from his mouth. This is so that you can be his witness to all men, Jews and non-Jews.” He then commanded him, “Get up and be immersed for the purpose of forgiveness of sins, taking the name of the Lord as your surname. What are you waiting for?”

Upon that command Paul proceeded to the mikva to be immersed. Afterward he returned to the house of Judas and ate. We were all glad to see him back in good health, for we had worried about our leader.

The worries were not over, though. We figured we would continue with the original plan. Saul would deliver his letters of authority to the head of the synagogue and we would round up men like Ananias and take them back to Jerusalem. Well, maybe not Ananias, since he had restored Saul’s sight, but others like him. So it was no The longest and widest street was a thoroughfare called Euthys, or Straight.surprise that we went to synagogue the next day. The shock came when Saul did not deliver the letters as expected. Instead, he spoke like one of those we had come to imprison.

That left our entourage in a quandary. If we followed through with our reason for being there, we would have to arrest our leader. But he had the letters of authority, if he had not already destroyed them. So we could not arrest him, because without those letters we had no authority in Damascus. And if we were confused, the Damascenes were more so. “Didn’t he come here to arrest the followers of the Teacher? Is this some sort of trick to ferret out secret followers of the Way?”

Saul helped us solve our indecision. He was, after all, trained by a master of the Law, as well as those versed in Stoic logic. Every time he spoke he persuaded people, using the Law and the Prophets, that the Teacher was the Messiah. We were used to listening to Saul. We were used to following him. It is no wonder, then, that I am now one of those I came to take back to Jerusalem in chains. Saul is, after all, the type of person you would follow anywhere. Even into the jaws of death. And if we go back to Jerusalem, that is exactly where we will be following him. Maybe his stoicism has rubbed off. If I die, I die happy; if I live, I live happy. Or maybe that can be rephrased. Because of the Teacher, if I die, I die sinless; if I live, I live sinless. And that makes me happy.

(Based on Acts 9 and Acts 22)