Section 1: Motive, Temporal Advantage—Plan
How flourishing the state of the church had at this period become, will be seen more fully in another place. Long before this period,—numbers of converts, in Jerusalem alone, above three thousand. The aggregate, of the property belonging to the individuals, had been formed into one common fund: the management—too great a burden for the united labours of the eleven Apostles, with their new associate Mathias—had, under the name so inappositely represented at present by the English word deacon, been committed to seven trustees; one of whom, Stephen, had, at the instance of Paul, been made to pay, with his life, for the imprudence, with which he had, in the most public manner, indulged himself, in blaspheming the idol of the Jews—their temple.13
Of that flourishing condition, Paul, under his original name of Saul, had all along been a witness. While carrying on against it that persecution, in which, if not the original instigator, he had been a most active instrument, persecuting, if he himself, in what he is made to say, is to be believed,—
Samaria—the field of the exploits and renown of the great sorcerer Simon, distinguished in those times by the name of Magus—Samaria, the near neighbour and constant rival, not to say enemy, of Jerusalem;—is not more than about five and forty miles distant from it. To Paul's alert and busy mind,—the offer, made by the sorcerer, to purchase of the Apostles a share in the government of the church, could not have been a secret.
At the hands of those rulers of the Christian Church, this offer had not found acceptance. Shares in the direction of their affairs were not, like those in the government of the British Empire in these our days, objects of sale. The nine rulers would not come into any such bargain; their disciples were not as cattle in their eyes: by those disciples themselves no such bargain would have been endured; they were not as cattle in their own eyes.
But, though the bargain proposed by the sorcerer did not take place, this evidence, which the offer of it so clearly affords,—this evidence, of the value of a situation of that sort in a commercial point of view, could not naturally either have remained a secret to Paul, or failed to engage his attention, and present to his avidity and ambition a ground of speculation—an inviting field of enterprise.
From the time when he took that leading part, in the condemnation and execution, of the too flamingly zealous manager, of the temporal concerns of the associated disciples of that disastrous orator, by whom the preaching and spiritual functions might, with so much happier an issue, have been left in the hands of the Apostles—from that time, down to that in which we find him, with letters in his pocket, from the rulers of the Jews in their own country, to the rulers of the same nation under the government of the neighbouring state of Damascus, he continued,
Of these letters, the object was—the employing the influence of the authorities from which they came, viz. the High Priest and the Elders, to the purpose of engaging those to whom they were addressed, to enable him to bring in bonds, to Jerusalem from Damascus, all such converts to the religion of Jesus, as should have been found in the place last mentioned.
In his own person the author of the Acts informs us—that, by Saul, letters to this effect were desired.14 In a subsequent chapter, in the person of Paul, viz. in the speech, to the multitude by whom he had been dragged out of the Temple, in the design of putting him to death, he informs us they were actually obtained.15
It was in the course of this his journey, and with these letters in his pocket, that, in and by the vision seen by him while on the road—at that time and not earlier—his conversion was, according to his own account of the matter, effected.
That which is thought to have been already proved, let it, at least for argument's sake, be affirmed. Let us say accordingly—this vision-story was a mere fable. On this supposition, then, what will be to be said of those same letters?—of the views in which they were obtained?—of the use which was eventually made of them?—of the purpose to which they were applied? For all these questions one solution may serve. From what is known beyond dispute—on the one hand, of his former way of life and connections—on the other hand, of his subsequent proceeding—an answer, of the satisfactoriness of which the reader will have to judge, may, without much expense of thought, be collected.
If, in reality, no such vision was perceived by him, no circumstance remains manifest whereby the change which so manifestly and notoriously took place in his plan of life, came to be referred to that point in the field of time—in preference to any antecedent one.
Supposing, then, the time of the change to have been antecedent to the commencement of that journey of his to Damascus—antecedent to the time of the application, in compliance with which his letter from the ruling powers at Jerusalem the object of which was to place at his disposal the lot of the Christians at Damascus, was obtained;—this supposed, what, in the endeavour to obtain this letter, was his object? Manifestly to place in his power these same Christians: to place them in his power, and thereby to obtain from them whatsoever assistance was regarded by him as necessary for the ulterior prosecution of his schemes, as above indicated.
On this supposition, in the event of their giving him that assistance, which, in the shape of money and other necessary shapes, he required—on this supposition, he made known to them his determination, not only to spare their persons, but to join with them in their religion; and, by taking the lead in it among the heathen, to whom he was, in several respects, so much better qualified for communicating it than any of the Apostles or their adherents, to promote it to the utmost of his power. An offer of this nature—was it in the nature of things that it should be refused? Whatsoever was most dear to them—their own personal security, and the sacred interests of the new religion, the zeal of which was yet flaming in their bosoms, concurred in pressing it upon their acceptance.
With the assistance thus obtained, the plan was—to become a declared convert to the religion of Jesus, for the purpose of setting himself at the head of it; and, by means of the expertness he had acquired in the use of the Greek language, to preach, in the name of Jesus, that sort of religion, by the preaching of which, an empire over the minds of his converts, and, by that means, the power and opulence to which he aspired, might, with the fairest prospect of success, be aimed at.
But, towards the accomplishment of this design, what presented itself as a necessary step, was—the entering into a sort of treaty, and forming at least in appearance, a sort of junction, with the leaders of the new religion and their adherents—the Apostles and the rest of the disciples. As for them, in acceding to this proposal, on the supposition of anything like sincerity and consistency on his part, they would naturally see much to gain and nothing to lose: much indeed to gain; no less than peace and security, instead of that persecution, by which, with the exception of the Apostles themselves, to all of whom experience seems, without exception, to have imparted the gift of prudence, the whole fraternity had so lately been driven from their homes, and scattered abroad in various directions.
With the Christians at Damascus, that projected junction was actually effected by him: but, in this state of things, to return to Jerusalem was not, at that time, to be thought of. In the eyes of the ruling powers, he would have been a trust-breaker—a traitor to their cause: in the eyes of the Christians, he would have been a murderer, with the blood of the innocent still reeking on his hands: no one would he have found so much as to lend an ear to his story, much less to endure it. In Damascus, after making his agreement with his new brethren, there remained little for him to do. Much had he to inform himself of concerning Jesus. Damascus—where Jesus had already so many followers—Damascus was a place for him to learn in: not to teach in:—at any rate, at that time.
Arabia, a promising field of enterprise—Arabia, a virgin soil, opened to his view. There he would find none to abhor his person—none to contradict his assertions: there his eloquence—and, under the direction of his judgment, his invention—would find free scope: in that country the reproach of inconsistency could not attach upon him: in that foreign land he beheld his place of quarantine—his school of probation—the scene of his novitiate. By a few years employed in the exercise of his new calling—with that spirit and activity which would accompany him of course in every occupation to which he could betake himself—he would initiate himself in, and familiarize himself with, the connected exercises of preaching and spiritual rule. At the end of that period, whatsoever might be his success in that country, such a portion of time, passed in innocence, would at any rate allay enmity: such a portion of time, manifestly passed, in the endeavour at any rate to render service to the common cause, might even establish confidence.
At the end of that time, he might, nor altogether without hope of success, present himself to the rulers of the church, in the metropolis of their spiritual empire: "Behold," he might say, "in me no longer a persecutor, but a friend. The persecutor has long vanished: he has given place to the friend. Too true it is, that I was so once your persecutor. Years spent in unison with you—years spent in the service of the common cause—have proved me. You see before you, a tried man—an ally of tried fidelity: present me as such to your disciples: take me into your councils: all my talent, all my faculties, shall be yours. The land of Israel will continue, as it has been, the field of your holy labours; the land of the Gentiles shall be mine: we will carry on our operations in concert; innumerable are the ways in which each of us will derive from the other—information, assistance, and support."
To Arabia he accordingly repaired: so, in his Epistle to the Galatians, he himself informs us: in that little-known country, he continued three whole years—so also, in the same place,(Galatians 1:17-18.) he informs us. There it was, that he experienced that success, whatever it was, that went to constitute the ground, of the recommendation given of him by Barnabas to the Apostles. From thence he returned to Damascus: and, in that city, presenting himself in his regenerated character, and having realized by his subsequent conduct the expectations raised by his promises at the outset of his career; he planned, and as will be seen, executed his expedition to Jerusalem: the expedition, the object of which has just been brought to view. Paul says,
13 Speech of St. Stephen.
16 Yet, for even at the outset, after certain "days spent with the disciples," and employed of course in receiving from them the necessary instructions, he preached Jesus with such energy and success as not only to "confound," Acts 9:19-24, the unbelieving among the Jews, but to provoke them to "take counsel to kill him."