Exile in Reverse
August 29, 2022

Acts 8:1-4 records the beginning of Saul’s persecution of the Jerusalem church following the death of Stephen. It has a neat, nearly-chiastic structure:

            A. Saul in agreement with Stephen’s “taking off” (8:1a)

                        B. A great persecution, scattering disciples (8:1b)

                                    C. Except the apostles (8:1c)

                        B’. Devout men gather Stephen, with breast-beating (8:2)

            A’. Saul ravages, invades, drags, imprisons (8:3)

                        B’’. The scattered go about preaching (8:4)

First, a comment on the B/B’ connection. Because of Saul’s attacks, the disciples scatter (diaspeiro, verb root of diaspora). They scatter like the men of Babel, like exiles from ancient Judah, like chaff before the wind.

On the other hand, devout men “gather” Stephen (B’). Most translations render the verb (sugkomizo) as “bury,” but it’s not the normal word for burial. It means “collect, bring together.” B/B’ are related by a scatter/gather dynamic.

Next, note how “Saul” encompasses the Jerusalem church. His name appears in verses 1 and 3, textually surrounding Jesus’ disciples as he physically surrounds and assaults them. Saul targets “houses” because the disciples have been breaking bread “from house to house” (Acts 2:46; 5:42). He’s trying to disrupt what to his mind is an abominable liturgy.

“Ravage” has a ritual connotation, suggesting an act of ritual defilement. Saul views the church as a false temple, and he “ravages” to make the church unfit for liturgical action, as Josiah defiled the altars of Bethel with the bones of the priests (2 Kings 23:20; cf. Ezekiel 16:25). We might say Saul “filths” the church in Jerusalem.

He indiscriminately drags away men and women, tossing them into prison, apparently unaware that Jesus’ disciples have a settled habit of breaking out of prison (Acts 5:19-25; cf. 12:4-19).

But, note, the chiasm doesn’t contain the disciples. Saul surrounds the story (A/A’) but in B’’, they slip past him. The structural diaspora matches the narrative diaspora. Instead of slinking away quietly, they go everywhere preaching (euaggelizo). Saul’s net is porous. The big fish stay in Jerusalem, but plenty slip through.

A few thoughts on the layered typology here:

*Take #1: This replays the original diaspora from Jerusalem. Back then, Jews fled Jerusalem to escape the attack of Babylon. Those who ended up in exile are the “good figs” of Jeremiah’s vision. So too, the Jewish believers flee from Saul to a place prepared for them among the Gentiles. The “bad figs” are the Jews of Jerusalem, who will soon be overwhelmed by Romans. Soon, Christian Daniels and Mordecais will arise throughout the Roman world. What looks like the scattering of chaff is a scattering of seed.

*Take #2: It reverses the original diaspora. First-century Jerusalem has become Babylon. Saul is an agent of Babylon. The diaspora from Jerusalem is a return from exile, as Jesus’ disciples move out to claim their global inheritance.

*Take #3: If we keep our focus on Saul, the flight of the disciples replays the flight of David.

Finally, Take #2 is worth reflecting on for a moment. In Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth, he proclaimed a Jubilee, “the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:19-21). During Jubilee years, displaced Israelites returned to their ancestral property.

Jesus’ announcement authorizes the mission of the church. The diaspora from Jerusalem is part of a Jubilee, as the rightful heirs (disciples of Jesus) disperse to claim the inheritance of their father Abraham, that is, “the world” (Romans 4:13).

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