The mob mentality

Emotions: they can be messy. But we need them. They’re a necessary part of who we are as human beings.

Often, they operate in the background, nudging us toward things we need, or warning us away from things that may harm us. We learn these inclinations through experience. We implicitly keep track of which things seem good versus bad, pleasant versus unpleasant, and helpful versus hurtful. With our emotions thus trained and working in the background, we can size up new situations quickly and take the proper actions without having to overthink things.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Age-old stereotypes make reason and emotion out to be enemies. But the more complicated truth is that we need our emotions to behave in “rational” ways. Try to imagine, for example, someone who was incapable of fear; that person would soon be dead from taking unnecessary risks. Someone incapable of disgust? Death from food poisoning. You get the idea.

Having said that, here’s the other side: our emotions can also lead us to behave ir-rationally. And emotion can be contagious: it only takes one panicky person to set off panic in a crowd.

That makes sense if you’re a herd of zebra out on the savanna (thank you, Robert Sapolsky, for the idea). If one zebra catches the scent of a lion, he shouldn’t have to call a committee meeting for everyone to decide what to do. He doesn’t make a motion, he just moves. He runs, and everyone else runs.

Who know: maybe they have a discussion on the way. “Hey, Larry, why are we running?” “I don’t know, Mary; I just can’t help it.”

As human beings, we should be able to help it. We’re not zebras. Everything doesn’t have to be so…well, black and white. But sometimes, we can’t, or just don’t. We get caught up in and carried away by the emotions of others; we catch the contagion and pass it on.

In short, we become a mob.

. . .

Paul knew trouble awaited him in Jerusalem, though he didn’t know exactly what form it would take. James and the elders of the church, however, had more insight on that score: they expected opposition from Jews who had come to believe in Jesus but were still jealously protective of Jewish ways (Acts 21:20).

It was Shavuot — Pentecost — one of three major festivals where Jews made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The city was packed with Jews from all around the empire, including from Ephesus, where Paul had ministered for three years.

Earlier, Luke described how the Jews in Ephesus had refused and slandered the gospel (Acts 19:9), despite a promising beginning (18:19-21). Apparently, their animosity had grown since. One can only imagine their disappointment when the riot in Ephesus failed to snag Paul himself. Did they now see an opportunity to finish the job?

Here’s the beginning of Luke’s account:  

When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen him in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd. They seized him, shouting, “Fellow Israelites, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place; more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” For they had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian with him in the city, and they supposed that Paul had brought him into the temple. (Acts 21:27-29, NRSV)

As we’ve seen, rumors had been circulating that Paul was teaching Jews to ignore Moses, stop circumcising their children, and cast aside the old ways (Acts 21:21). In the growing pro-Jewish, anti-Gentile climate of the city, James and the elders feared a backlash against Paul and his ministry. So they came up with a bright idea: Do the pious things we tell you to do, and everybody will forget about the rumors.

Paul did what they said. He was nearing the end of his week-long purification ritual, and probably in the inner court of the temple. Some of the Jews from the Roman province of Asia (for which read, the city of Ephesus) saw him there. They had earlier seen him in the city — not the temple, mind you! — with a Gentile Christian from Ephesus, named Trophimus.

In a dazzling display of emotion-driven logic, they concluded that Paul must have brought Trophimus into the inner courts of the temple, where only Jews were allowed. To the Jews, this was a capital offense. Indeed, ancient historians report that the inner courts were separated from the outer (where Gentiles were allowed) by a low wall. Archaeologists have recovered signs that would have been posted there, which say, in effect, “Gentiles keep out — on pain of death!”

Things were already tense. Jerusalem was a powder keg of resentment against the Romans. The city was crammed with people, which would have made things touchier. Inflammatory rumors were already circulating about Paul — and given what these Ephesian Jews cried out, we can take a good guess who was encouraging the rumors.

All it took was a concrete accusation like this one — This fellow has defiled the temple with Gentiles! — to ignite the powder. Never mind that the accusation was false. Never mind that no evidence was presented or considered. The situation was ready to blow, and it blew.

And as we’ll see, things only got more interesting from there.