Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Blinding of Paul and the Power of God: Masculinity, Sight, and Self-Control in Acts 9

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

The Blinding of Paul and the Power of God: Masculinity, Sight, and Self-Control in Acts 9

Article excerpt

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Despite Paul's status as one of the central male characters in the Acts of the Apostles, his status as a "man" often goes unmarked. Scholarship rarely situates the Lukan Paul in relation to constructions of masculinity in the Greco-Roman world, even though such constructions are increasingly becoming a topic of inquiry in the field of NT studies.1 The few works that do look at the Lukan Paul through a gendercritical lens, however, tend to dovetail with a popular trend in Acts scholarship that underlines Paul's apologetic role in the narrative as a whole.2 According to this typical interpretative bent, Luke parades Paul as a "hero" of the faith in an effort to legitimate Paul in the eyes of his elite audience. Paul, so the argument often goes, navigates the landscape of Acts in the guise of an able philosopher and rhetorician, displaying the cardinal virtues of the Hellenistic world, especially the virtue of selfcontrol. Before his conversion, or call on the road to Damascus, Paul was out of control, but after his conversion, he in fact epitomizes self-control.3

Works on the Lukan Paul and gender, few though they may be, take up this emphasis on Paul as a powerful speaker and a man of self-mastery.4 Such works highlight that public speaking and control of one's body were important masculine traits in the ancient world, and they portray Paul as an especially potent "manly man" who perpetuates imperial virtues of masculinity and reinscribes male control among followers of "the Way."5 Paul, so some claim, functions as a powerful apologetic in Luke-Acts, for he persuades men of high standing like himself that following a crucified "Lord" ??? is actually manly.

To be sure, such arguments have validity on several fronts. In the ancient world, public speaking and self-control were important markers of masculinity, and Paul exhibits both of these qualities after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road.6 Paul speaks quite frequently in a variety of public forums ranging from the Areopagus in Athens (17:22) to the audience hall in Caesarea (25:23). He also addresses his speeches to other men (13:16; 14:15; 17:22; 22:1; 23:1, 6; 27:21, 25; 28:17) in the vein of his predecessors Peter and Stephen (2:14,22; 3:12; 7:2) and frequently follows rhetorical practices that were popular among elite males.7 Paul also conveys more self-control after his Damascus road encounter in the sense that he no longer performs excessive acts of violence against followers of Jesus (8:3; 9:1-2, 13-14; 22:4-5; 26:9-11) and often remains calm in crisis situations in contrast to those around him (e.g., 27:17-36). He even discusses "self-control" ??? with the Roman procurator Felix (24:25) and counters the charge that he is "out of his mind" (???, 26:24) with the response that he speaks words of "reason" (???, 26:25).8 Furthermore, as a prominent male leader, Paul reinforces the overall impression throughout Acts that men play a more vital role in the leadership of the early church than women.

Yet while Paul-or Saul, as he is consistently called until Acts 13:9-evinces some characteristically masculine traits, he is by no means the epitome of a "manly," self-controlled man according to ancient elite standards. Saul's failure to fit the profile of a "manly" man is particularly evident when he is blinded on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. In this defining event for his later characterization, Saul encounters "the Lord" in a contest of power and as a result loses control of his bodily faculties, including his ability to see. To an elite hearer, Saul's God-inflicted blindness would have arguably undermined his standing as a "manly" man, since blindness was typically viewed as debilitating and, for a man who had that disability foisted upon him, emasculating. In our first in-depth glimpse of Saul, then, we find that this central male character loses two important markers of "manliness" in the ancient world: (1) self-control and, more specifically, (2) sight. …

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