Saving Uncle Paul

When we read a story or watch a movie, we generally want at least one character with whom we can identify, someone relatable, someone we can care about. There are, of course, any number of characters whose only function is to move the action along; we don’t need to know anything about them.

But the main protagonists of the tales that matter most to us need a backstory. Who are they? Where do they come from? What drives them? The more we know about them, the more we care what happens to them, and the more invested we are in seeing how the story turns out.

For the bulk of the latter half of the book of Acts, Paul is the main protagonist. As I’ve said repeatedly throughout these meditations on Acts, however, there is a sense in which God is truly the “hero” of the story Luke tells. We are left with scant details about Paul’s early life — which makes it that much more tantalizing when Luke dangles a tidbit about Paul’s family background, then leaves us hanging. 

. . .

Paul, as we’ve seen, is in danger of becoming the victim of a murder conspiracy in Jerusalem. Forty men have agreed with each other to swear off food and drink until the deed is done. They plan to trick the Roman tribune into bringing Paul before the Sanhedrin once more, and lying in wait to ambush them along the way.

Who will save Paul? Who will thwart this dastardly plan?

As God would have it, a mere boy.

And not just any boy: Paul’s nephew.

With frustratingly spare narration, Luke tells us, “Now the son of Paul’s sister heard about the ambush; so he went and gained entrance to the barracks and told Paul” (Acts 23:16, NRSV). When Paul hears of the plot, he instructs a centurion to take the boy to the tribune; the boy tells the tribune what we already know, adding that the plan is already in motion. Then the tribune tells the boy not to let anyone know that he’s reported the conspiracy and dismisses him. 

That’s it. Paul’s nephew — his nephew! — disappears from the narrative, and we’re told absolutely nothing about Paul’s sister. Oh, that we could grab Luke by the tunic and shake him: “C’mon Luke, tell us more! Who was this kid? How did he come to be in Jerusalem? How did he hear about the conspiracy? How did he know what to do?” Luke, apparently cares nothing for such things.

But to the extent that we do, here’s a possible reconstruction of the backstory.

Paul came to Jerusalem as a boy himself, to study under the tutelage of Gamaliel. It’s quite possible that his parents weren’t just sending him off to boarding school, but made the trip as well. And if so, Paul may have had siblings who still lived in the city, including a sister who had her own family. Moreover, if Paul was at the center of a major disturbance, his sister may have heard about it; the culture had a highly active grapevine (social media in those days was called “gossip”).

How did the boy find out about the conspiracy? N. T. Wright imagines the grapevine working something like this: forty guys have sworn off food until they’ve killed Paul. They don’t come home for dinner, or if they’re home, they don’t eat. One of the kids asks Mom why. She shushes the kid, scolds him for being impertinent, and tries to distract him by telling him to eat all his vegetables. But the kid persists, and sooner or later, Mom lets out the secret and tells him not to tell anybody.

You know what happens from there.

Eventually, the news reaches the nephew. We don’t know how old he is; Luke’s word suggests that he could be anything from a young kid to a young man in his twenties or even older. He doesn’t have to battle his way into the barracks; Paul is a Roman citizen being kept in protective custody, and has the right to receive visitors. And after he makes his report to the tribune, the nephew simply goes on his way, vanishing from the story.

Now it’s up to the tribune, Claudius Lysias, to take action. And he does, in grand Roman fashion. But as we’ll see, in the process, he feels the need to exaggerate his own heroic role just a bit.