John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 25

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: October 25

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Incidents of Saul’s Conversion

Act_9:1-8; Act_22:5-16; Act_26:12-18

We now wish to call attention to some circumstances in the narrative of Saul’s conversion, which last evening we did not pause to consider.

That the Jews were as numerous at Damascus, as the commission of Saul and its results imply, is not left to mere conjecture, or to deduction from the narrative itself. The fact is attested by Josephus, who declares that, during the Jewish war, when the inhabitants of many heathen cities committed barbarous executions upon the Jews residing among them, the Damascenes slew in one hour no less than ten thousand Jews. And he intimates, that they kept the design secret from their wives, lest they should interpose to prevent it, as the women were generally favorable to the Jewish religion. If that were the case, there was no doubt a corresponding proportion also favorable to the doctrine of Christ, and in this circumstance we may possibly detect a studied emphasis in the intimation, that not only men but “women” were included in the operation of Saul’s commission. But if they were comprehended in the order that the prisoners should be brought “bound,” or in chains, to Jerusalem, this would strongly show the rabid animosity of the Sanhedrin against the religion of Jesus, for this barbarity to females had long been banished among all nations. The old Assyrians were anything but a humane people, but among even their sculptures in which female captives are represented, we do not find any who are in bonds. On another occasion, some time subsequent to the former, 18,000 Jews, with their wives and children, were slain at the same place, apparently on no other ground than their sympathy with their brethren in Judea, who were in arms against the Romans. The interval between these massacres was so short, that we must suppose that the numbers represent contemporary and not successive populations. If, therefore, we take these 18,000 to have been adult males, as appears from women and children being in the latter account distinguished, and add the usual proportion of females and children, we can see that the Jewish population of Damascus was great indeed, especially as there seems no reason to suppose that all the Jews in the city were slain on these two occasions.

It seems strange at the first view, that the high-priest and the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem should be able to exercise authority in a foreign city like Damascus. The fact that they did so, according to the tenor of Saul’s commission, is asserted over and over again, and is corroborated by Ananias, who, when spoken to respecting Saul, had heard that “Here (at Damascus) he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call upon thy name.” The fact is that the authority of the high-priest and the Sanhedrin was acknowledged by the Jews wherever they lived; and it was usual for those dispersed in foreign countries to receive orders and instructions by letter from the great council at Jerusalem, which orders they very exactly followed just as now the authority of the Pope is, as a rule, universally submitted to by Roman Catholics, even though living in Protestant countries. There can, therefore, be no difficulty in conceiving that the rulers of the synagogues at Damascus would readily comply with the import of any letters sent to them from the great council, and would willingly assist its commissioner in apprehending and conveying to Jerusalem the persons designated in his letters. The only difficulty is, whether the magistrates at Damascus would suffer the Jews to imprison their subjects, and take them to Jerusalem to be punished. It is to be remembered, that with whatever differences of local administration, Damascus and Jerusalem were virtually under the same general government—that of Rome. Now the Romans had granted to the Jews the privilege of living everywhere according to their own laws. This, doubtless, included a permission to scourge and to use other minor punishments in the synagogues; and also to apprehend and send to Jerusalem greater delinquents, who were deemed to deserve more severe correction. We know that included permission to send annually, from every part of the empire, large sums to Jerusalem, which, in the view of the Romans, was a matter of much greater consequence than their sending now and then a delinquent to be punished. The amount of these collections was so great, that the governors of the provinces were sometimes uneasy respecting it, and ventured to seize the money, and lay an injunction upon the Jews within their jurisdiction to send no more. Cicero, in his oration pro Flacco, testifies that Flaccus did this in Asia. Titus, in his speech to the Jews after the taking of Jerusalem, mentions these indulgences they had received from the Romans, and dwells with much emphasis upon the last of them—“But, above all, we suffered you to raise a tribute and collect offerings for the Deity, and neither admonished nor forbade those who offered them, although you, our enemies, thus became richer than ourselves, and armed yourselves against us with our own money.” He therefore regards this as a more important mark of Roman indulgence than allowing them the use of their own laws, even in foreign lands, to which he had previously referred.

It would seem that the Jews had a court of their own wherever any considerable number of them resided, to decide all religious controversies, and matters involving the observances and obligations of their law. There are documents in Josephus which show the existence of such courts; and there are others—decrees of Julius Caesar—which constitute the Jewish rulers patrons of their people in foreign parts, and which, in all probability, included the privilege of appeal to them from the decisions of the local courts. It is true that these grants were made to Hyrcanus, at that time prince and high-priest of the Jews; but there is a later decree of Augustus, confirming to the Jews all the rights and privileges they enjoyed in the time of Hyrcanus.

It may thus be gathered that the magistrates of Damascus were not likely to offer any opposition to proceedings in their city, which had the authority and sanction of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin.

A question arises as to the blindness with which Saul was afflicted. Was it natural or supernatural? He says himself, in Act_22:11, that it was caused by the light he witnessed. “I could not see for the glory of that light;” it was therefore so far natural; but the light which produced it being supernatural, the blindness was therefore, so far, supernatural also. The only difficulty to this view of the matter arises from the fact, that although those who were with him are expressly stated to have seen the light, they were not blinded by it. To this it may be answered, that they could not have been on exactly the same spot of ground as Saul, and although they saw the light, it did not smite them so fully in the face as in his—did not take their eyes in such full glare as his.

It is certainly possible for an intense sudden light so to affect the optic nerve as to cause blindness. Indeed, every one has in some measure realized this experience, in being conscious of a momentary blindness after having gazed at the sun, of into a furnace, or upon metal at a white heat. A total loss of sight has also often been caused by a sudden flash of lightning, by gazing at the sun during an eclipse, or by looking at it as it sets in the west. In all these cases the organ remains to all appearance perfect, although the sight has totally departed. In Persia, where blinding as a punishment used to be frightfully common, it was formerly inflicted by a piece of metal at a white heat being held before the eyes. But it being eventually found that under this process a faint glimmering of light was still perceptible, the mode was exchanged for the total extirpation of the organ.

The blindness of Saul, although certainly a special providence towards him, may thus have been naturally produced in the sense explained. But the cure was certainly miraculous. The blindness thus produced is a species of gutta serena, and is accounted less curable than almost any other form of that calamity. It was Milton’s blindness, though differently produced; and in speaking of it he says—

“Thee I revisit safe,

And feel thy sov’reign vital lamp: but thou

Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain

To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;

So thick a drop serene hath quenched their orbs,

Or dim suffusion veil’d.”

Paradise Lost, iii. 21-26.