What I tell you three times is true?

What will happen in this year’s presidential election? I haven’t a clue. But here’s one humble prediction. Sooner or later, some pundit will trot out a version of the old saw: “what I tell you three times is true.”

The line is borrowed from a curious old poem by Lewis Carroll entitled, The Hunting of the Snark. Carroll, of course, is better known for Jabberwocky and Through the Looking Glass (Alice in Wonderland). Considering such a whimsical portfolio, one should hardly expect to make straightforward sense of Snark.

But the general meaning of the borrowed line is simple: I can make any claim I wish, and if I say it enough times with the proper passion, that’s all you need to believe it (or at least take it seriously). That bit of rhetorical reality comes in pretty handy in an election year. If someone questions your policy on X, Y, or Z, just say it again, with more conviction.

. . .

When it comes to writing, however, you have to be careful of repeating yourself. Over the years, I’ve done a fair amount of both writing and copy-editing, and have found sentences and even entire paragraphs repeated nearly verbatim at different points in a manuscript. It comes across as sloppiness. If you want to move a thought from chapter 2 to chapter 5, fine. Just don’t forget to delete the one in chapter 2.

As we’ve seen, the latter half of the book of Acts centers on the work of God and the Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul. His conversion from a zealous enemy of the Way to its most zealous advocate begins in Acts 9 on the Damascus road. The story is told again, from Paul’s point of view, in chapters 22 and 26, as he defends his actions first to the Jerusalem mob and then to King Agrippa (Herod Agrippa II). 

With some slight variation of detail, the three versions are largely the same. And to be honest, as a reader, when I encounter the two later versions in the text, part of me thinks, “What, this again?”

Luke is too careful a writer for this to be editorial sloppiness; he didn’t just doze off at the keyboard. Nor is he trying to get his reader to swallow something merely by force of repetition. Each time Paul tells his story, he does so to a Jewish audience. And the importance of the repetition, I think, is that Paul wants his hearers to be able to say, “That’s my story, too.”

. . .

When Paul addressed the Jewish mob in the Jerusalem temple, he spoke to them in their shared tongue, Aramaic. His “defense” was not against the charges hurled against him, as it might have been in an adversarial court of law. Instead, for the sake of the gospel, for the possible salvation of his beloved people, he tried to make a connection with them. 

In the first part of his defense, he left them imagining his journey to Damascus, carrying papers authorizing him to hunt down Christians and drag them back to Jerusalem. That’s where he picks up the tale: 

While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus. (Acts 22:6-11, NRSV)

Paul adds a few details that we don’t get in Luke’s earlier third-person version. He recalls that it was the middle of the day, which if nothing else suggests that it wasn’t a dream. He reports that Jesus identified himself specifically as Jesus of Nazareth, highlighting his humble Jewish origins. And he also says explicitly what Luke only implied: that his blindness was due to the brightness of the light. 

As he continues, Paul builds on the rhetorical work he’s already done to connect with his audience. He mentions Ananias, but emphasizes what an upstanding Jew he was (Acts 22:12). And while in Acts 9:17, Ananias tells Paul that he was sent by “the Lord Jesus,” in Acts 22:14 he is said to have been sent by “the God of our ancestors.” All of this is the basis for God’s election of Paul to be his witness “to all of the world of what you have seen and heard.”

This is the kind of story that his audience should respect. They’re still listening. Maybe some are even nodding their heads, waiting for more.

Then, as we’ll see, Paul mentions the Gentiles. And that’s that: he loses his audience, and won’t get them back. Even if he says it twice more, with feeling.