Acting without thinking

We all do it. In fact, sometimes we have to do it for our own good: we act without thinking.

If someone hurls a rock at your head, you don’t calculate its trajectory and work out the probability that you’ll get hit. You just duck, automatically. In fact, you’ll react similarly to something approaching quickly in your peripheral vision, even if you don’t know what it is.

Maybe, most of the time, it’s nothing. Maybe only one time in a hundred do we actually need to duck. But it’s the one time we do need to duck that makes us glad we did, and keeps us doing it.

As I suggested in an earlier post, this is the kind of behavior we share with zebras and other creatures that act on instinct. What makes us unique as humans is that while instinctual, defensive responses often serve us well, we’re capable of recognizing when they don’t. We can think before acting.

That’s not what the Ephesian Jews in Jerusalem did, when they jumped to conclusions about Paul. They already hated him, and without evidence, assumed he did something he didn’t do. They acted without thinking, publicly accusing him of defiling the temple, and starting a riot.

But they weren’t the only ones who acted on impulse. 

. . .

The Roman Empire could be ruthless and brutal in its conquest of other lands and people. But they also had some respect for ancient ways, and allowed conquered peoples a certain amount of freedom in preserving their traditions. The Jews, for example, were allowed to hold their festivals and pilgrimage feasts, with millions flocking to Jerusalem from every corner of the empire. But disorder would not be tolerated, and the empire had the muscle to make sure good order was thoroughly enforced. 

The Jerusalem temple was destroyed not long after the events Luke narrates in Acts. Archaeologists and other scholars differ on how to envision the layout of Herod’s Temple, where the action of Acts 21 takes place. But all agree that the temple was adjoined by a fortress, where the Romans garrisoned troops to help keep the peace, especially during festivals. The Antonia Fortress, named in honor of Mark Antony, could house as many as 1,000 soldiers, and chances are the complement was at full strength during Pentecost.

When the Ephesian Jews started a riot in the temple against Paul, news of the commotion quickly reached the fortress:

While they were trying to kill him, a report reached the commander of a company of soldiers that all Jerusalem was in a state of confusion. Without a moment’s hesitation, he took some soldiers and officers and ran down to the mob. When the mob saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. When the commander arrived, he arrested Paul and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Only then did he begin to ask who Paul was and what he had done. (Acts 21:31-33, CEB)

Antonia had watchtowers overlooking the temple precincts, so the melee was noticed quickly, and the commander, Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:26), immediately ran down to intervene. Had he not, Paul might soon have been beaten to death. Seeing Lysias and his men, the mob temporarily backed off, allowing him to handcuff Paul between two soldiers. “Only then,” says the Common English Bible (with a technically unnecessary but sensible addition to the Greek), did he try to understand the situation.

Lysias, it seems, acted on instinct. That’s not to say he cared one whit for Paul’s safety. He had a job to do — maintain order — and would suffer the consequences if he did not. He knew immediately that the situation could escalate into full-scale chaos, and moved quickly to keep things from getting out of control.

On the other hand, he also seems to have sized Paul up quickly, without thinking or good evidence: If a mob is beating him, he must be a troublemaker of some kind. Better get him in irons. That will help quiet the crowd. Only after he had Paul in custody did he start asking questions.

. . .

Given the circumstances, I don’t fault Lysias for putting Paul in chains. He was just doing his job. And the mob was in no mood for a calm and rational conversation about evidence, policy, and procedure. Getting Paul in cuffs was the right move.

Having said that, it’s clear from the story that follows that the commander had his own erroneous ideas about Paul; like the Ephesians who started the riot, Lysias jumped to conclusions. And as we’ll see this in an upcoming post, his failure to ask the right questions at the right time would very nearly get him in trouble.

But we would never do anything like that, would we?