Friday, May 2, 2014

Getting Straight on Straight St. (Acts 9:11)

On which street in Damascus was Saul of Tarsus staying after his conversion? The Street called Straight (Acts 9:11)

Paul, at the time known as Saul, has a life changing encounter with the risen Christ while en route to Damascus to persecute Christians (Acts 9:1-19). Saul is stopped in his tracks when a “light from heaven” blinds him (Acts 9:3-9). This story is told three times in the book of Acts (Acts 9:1-19, 22:4-16, 26:9-18). In the first telling, a Christian named Ananias is given very specific directions in a vision as to Saul’s whereabouts in Damascus so that he might intercede on behalf of the blinded fanatic (Acts 9:11).

And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, (Acts 9:11 NASB)
With each detail the instructions become more explicit until God finally drops the bombshell of the name of the man whom Ananias is seeking (Acts 9:11). Saul is presumably the last person Ananias wishes to see. After all, before being blinded, Saul was bound to eliminate Christians, in this case Ananias and his church family (Acts 9:1-2). In supplying these specific instructions God leaves little room for doubt: Ananias is asked to track down the man hunting him.

In this vision, Ananias is given precise instructions. C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) informs:

In The Beginnings of Christianity 4.102 it is pointed out that if a vision of this kind is to be given at all it must be given with all the necessary detailed directions; they are required on both natural and supernatural grounds. It is inferred that the names of the street and of Paul’s host are not to be taken as conveying an old tradition. It is however fair to remark that Acts 9:9 required a continuation; Paul could hardly be left lying by the roadside. The narrative makes a connected whole. Colin J. Hemer [1930-1987] (226) refers to addresses, or directions, in papyrus letters. (Barrett, Acts 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 153)
The physical locations in the book of Acts have often been neglected by scholars. Matthew L. Skinner (b. 1968) attends:
Although nearly all narrative critics note the potential for literary settings to shape readers’ understandings of a narrative, attention to particular settings in Luke’s two-volume work has been meager. The vast diversity of places in which events occur in Acts—both general (e.g., Jerusalem [Acts 1:12, 4:5, 8:25, 9:26, 28, 11:2, etc.], Iconium [Acts 13:51, 14:1, 21], Athens [Acts 17:15, 16], and Rome [Acts 28:14, 16]) and more specifically localized sites (e.g., a eunuch’s chariot [Acts 8:28], Judas’s house on Straight Street in Damascus [Acts 9:11], and the Jerusalem temple [Acts 2:46, 3:1, 3, 8, 10, 5:21, etc.]—brings this inattention into bold relief. On the one hand, the general lack of descriptive detail about places in biblical literature may explain why biblical scholars interested in narrative criticism emphasize plot and character at the expense of setting. On the other hand, some of this inattention derives from the fact that literary theory has not provided biblical scholars with the theoretical foundations and methodological models needed to analyze setting. Many eminent literary theorists give disproportionately little notice to setting in their work on narrative. None of this, however, must mean that the role of a setting in biblical narrative is minimal or rightly dismissed by narrative critics. (Skinner, Locating Paul: Places of Custody As Narrative Settings in Acts 21-28, 3-4)
In this scene, Saul is situated on the “street called straight” (ESV, HCSB, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV), the “street which is called Straight” (ASV, KJV), “Straight Street” (CEV, NIV, NLT) or “Straight Avenue” (MSG). The Voice modernizes the text, reading “Straight Boulevard” (Chris Seay (b. 1971), The Dust Off Their Feet: Lessons from the First Church, 41).

J.A. Alexander (1809-1860) defines:

Street, a Greek word corresponding to the Latin vicus, and denoting properly a lane of alley, as opposed to a wide street or broad way...This is the only street named in the New Testament. (Alexander, Acts of the Apostles (Geneva Series of Commentaries), 362)
A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) adds:
To the street [epi tēn rhumēn]...A run way (from [rheō, to run) between the houses. So were the narrow lanes or alleys called streets and finally in later Greek the word is applied to streets even when broad. (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Acts, 119)
Straight Street is an example of the famed Roman roads. Stephen Kyeyune (b. 1959) comments:
Most probably this was one of the highways that were constructed by the Romans in the empire. The Romans were the greatest road maker[s] in the world. In over five centuries they built 50,000 miles of high-quality roads and 320,000 miles of back roads. (Kyeyune, The Acts of the Apostles: The Acts of the Holy Spirit, 260)
“Straight” is not only descriptive but the name of the street (Acts 9:11). C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) discerns:
τὴν καλουμένην means that Εὐθειαν is a name, not a mere description. (Barrett, Acts 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 153)
Though the street name is uncreative it is descriptive and distinctive. A straight road was a rarity in the ancient world. A.T. Robertson (1863-1934) remarks:
Most of the city lanes were crooked like the streets of Boston (old cow-paths, people say), but this one still runs “in a direct line from the eastern to the western gate of the city” (Marvin Vincent [1834-1922]). Since the ancients usually rebuilt on the same sites, it is probable that the line of the street of that name today is the same, though the actual level has been much raised. Hence the identification of the house of Ananias and the house of Judas are very precarious [Acts 9:11]. (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament: Acts, 119)
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) concurs:
Most streets in pre-Hellenistic cities would be winding, narrow, and easy to become lost in; such cities grew haphazardly, in contrast to the ideal of Hellenistic urban planning, where streets crossed the straight main street at right angles. Though Damascus was one of the empire’s oldest cities, its construction on relatively even ground facilitated its transformation to the newer standards of Greek and Roman design. The spacing of streets reflects this pattern: east-west streets lie more than “300 feet (100 meters) apart,” with north-south streets “about 150 feet (45 meters) apart.” (Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2 (Acts 3:1-14:28))
Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) envisions:
This street is still a major road in the city (F.F. Bruce [1910-1990] 1990:237). It runs east and west in the eastern portion of the old city and is known tody as Derb el-Mustaqim, although its direction has changed slightly since that time. It was known to have had major halls with colonnades and two great city gates at each end, making it a ‘fashionable” street (Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975] 1987:323). It was fifty feet wide (Hilary Le Cornu [b. 1959] and Joseph Shulam [b. 1946] 2003:497). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 360)
Robert A. Schuller (b. 1954) depicts:
The ancient city of Damacus, in Syria, due north of Israel, had a central artery running through it called Straight Street. It was rare for an ancient city to have such a street. Most of the streets, especially in cities like Jerusalem that were razed and rebuilt scores of times throughout history, were narrow and crooked, not unlike the streets in some modern cities. But Damascus’ Straight Street ran from one side of the city to another, one hundred feet wide with the equivalent of a modern sidewalk along each side. ( Schuller, Walking in Your Own Shoes: Discover God’s Direction for Your Life, 71-72)
Damascus’ Straight Street is likely the result of advances in city planning. Paul Barnett (b. 1935) explains:
Damascus was located on the fringe between the fertile belt and the Arabian desert. An ancient settlement, Damascus passed through many hands before coming into the orbit of the Hellenistic kingdoms following Alexander [356-323 BCE]’s conquests. The city was refounded along Hellenistic lines, on a square grid according to the planning theories of Hippodamus of Miletus [498-408 BCE], which explains the reference to a “street called straight” (Acts 9:11). (Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, 20)
Straight Street is typically presumed to be one of Damascus’ major thoroughfares. Stanley D. Toussaint (b. 1928) introduces:
It was one of the two parallel streets that ran from the western wall to the eastern wall. (John F. Walvoord [1910-2002] and Roy B. Zuck [1932-2013], The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, 376)
William J. Larkin (1945-2014) relates:
Ananias should proceed to the main east-west thoroughfare of Damascus, Straight Street. With great porches and gates at each end and colonnades for commerce running along each side, this fashionable address would be as well known in its day as Regent Street in London or Fifth Avenue in New York is today. (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary), 142)
The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary locates:
This street, the only one identified by name in the New Testament (Acts 9:11), was located in Damascus, a city within the boundaries of Syria but belonging politically to the Decapolis. The city obtained its freedom from Rome shortly after Christ’s death and was under an Arabian ruler during the period covered by Acts 9:1-31...By current standards, Straight Street (also referred to as Via Recta) was probably a lane or alley. (J.D. Douglas [1922-2003], Merrill C. Tenney [1904-1985] and Moisés Silva [b. 1945], Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1397)
A Straight Street still exists in modern-day Damascus. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) reveals:
This street remains today in the eastern section of Damascus’s Old City and is called Derb el-Mustaqim. Jack Finegan [1908-2000] surveys the remains: “The main east-west street, the Roman decumanus maximus and the “street called Straight” of Acts 9:11, is plainly recognizable in the present Midhat pasha and Bab Sharqi streets, which run directly through the Inner city, parallel to the Barada River, for a distance of nearly 1 mile (1,600 meters). In Roman times this street was 50 feet (15 meters) wide and bordered with colonnades, consisting of two rows of Corinthian columns on either side.” (Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2 (Acts 3:1-14:28))
P.W.L. Walker (b. 1961) updates:
The main street within the Old City is still called “Straight” – just as it was when Paul lodged in the ‘house on Straight Street’ (Acts 9:11)...Damascus’ Straight Street (or the Via Recta was simply an example of the east-west street found in many ancient cities, built on what is known as the Hippodamian plan (named after the man who redesigned Athens’ harbour-town on Piracus in the 400s BC). Here in Damascus, this Straight Street had been recently refurbished as a splendid colonnaded thoroughfare, with a width of 27 yards (25 meters) – something hard to imagine as you pass through the confined and covered souks now constructed along this street at the western end. (Walker, In the Steps of Saint Paul: An Illustrated Guide to Paul’s Journeys, 26-27)
Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) details:
The eastern city gate (the Bab Sharqi, the Sun Gate or East Gate), which opens to the street, had three arches. Of the seven Roman gates, only this one, probably dating to the second century C.E. in its current form, remains. It has a large central entrance flanked by two smaller ones; the central entrance opened onto the street, 13.68 meters wide, and the other entrances led to sidewalks beside the street. Two arches to the west suggest a minor directional shift; if this was Straight Street, it was not really straight. One of the arches, about 2,000 feet (600 meters) west of the East Gate and roughly halfway along the street, probably commemorated Pompey’s conquest and hence was standing in Paul’s day. (Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2 (Acts 3:1-14:28))
More specifically, Paul is convalescing at the house of a Judas on Straight Street (Acts 9:11). Nothing is known of this Judas. C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) remarks:
Judas (the name is a common one) is quite unknown. He was presumably a Jew; Paul’s residence with him may have been on a purely commercial basis, but he may possibly have been a local Christian. (Barrett, Acts 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 153)
Some have suggested that Judas is the host of a house church. This is highly unlikely. Edward Adams (b. 1963) discusses:
Roger W. Gerhing [b. 1950] infers that Judas’s house is the meeting place of a ‘house church’ in Damascus. He writes, “Concrete memories of the conversion of Paul before Damascus, the disciple by the name of Ananias (Acts 9:10-19a), the explicit mention of the house of Judas on Straight Street (Acts 9:11), and the large number of disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:2, 12) are all reasons to believe that a fairly large congregation might have existed there that could have met in the house of Judas.”...But these data hardly provide support for such a conclusion. Luke gives no indication that Judas is a believer let alone a ‘house-church’ host. While Ananias is introduced as ‘a disciple’ [Acts 9:10], no such descriptor is applied to Judas. As C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] states, “Paul’s residence with him many have been on a purely commercial basis.” The manner in which Ananias is directed to Judas’s house suggests that the two are not known to each other. Were Judas the implied host of such a large congregation, one might expect Ananias to find reassurance in the fact that he is hosting Saul. But the information that Saul is to be found in Judas’s house does nothing to alleviate Ananias’s trepidation at the prospect of meeting the persecutor. Judas may have gone on to become a convert to ‘the Way’ and his house may have been a meeting place for believers in Damascus, but of such developments Luke tells us nothing. (Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places: Almost Exclusively Houses?, 61-62)
Clinton E. Arnold (b. 1958) supposes:
Judas is presumably not a Christian, but Paul’s Jewish host with whom he has made arrangements prior to leaving Jerusalem. (Arnold, Acts (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 77)
This would certainly challenge Ananias further: he would not only be visiting a persecutor, albeit an incapacitated one, but strolling right into enemy headquarters to do so.

Tradition has identified the site of Judas’ house. Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) relays:

The house where, traditionally, Paul stayed is close to the street’s western end. There were no signposts designating streets, but they had names and locals knew them; once one found the correct street, one asked for a particular house by the name of its owner. It is also possible that Luke or his source abbreviates the directions (since they were no longer relevant many years later). (Against the traditional identification of Straight Street, in late Greek ῥύμη was often a narrow street or ally; for a major street, we might expect πλατεια. But the distinction was not pervasive enough to count securely against the tradition. Would an alley monopolize such a prestigious title?) Traditions such as the site of the house may or may not have been preserved by the early Christian community there, but a street’s name might well persist. (Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2 (Acts 3:1-14:28))
It is clear that God’s instructions serve their purpose in connecting Ananias and Saul (Acts 9:17). Ananias follows directions and Saul’s vision is restored before Ananias baptizes him into the community he recently persecuted (Acts 9:17-19). Ananias’ walk to Straight Street marks one of the first major steps in church history. Saul will become Paul and the world will never again be the same.

How does Saul find himself at Judas’ residence? What is your favorite street name? What is the most aptly named street with which you are familiar? What are the best directions you have received? The worst? Who would be the person you would least want God to send you to? Is God leading you in that direction?

It is fitting that Ananias discovers Saul on Straight Street (Acts 9:11). Craig S. Keener (b. 1960) responds:

Why does Luke specify the particular street in this case? Elsewhere, revelations might include sufficient directions for travelers to find their way (cf. Acts 10:6)—“Judas” was, after all, a common name and hence could hardly specify the house’s location in Damascus by itself. But the street’s name in this case may also have supplied Luke a fortuitous opportunity for a literary connection: those who twisted God’s “straight” road (Acts 13:10) must be blinded (Acts 13:11), but the kingdom mission of true prophets entailed straightening that road again (Luke 3:4-5). Saul has turned to the Lord’s right path, to “the Way” (Acts 9:2). (Keener, Acts, An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2 (Acts 3:1-14:28))
Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) concurs:
The locale of the meeting is a bit ironic, as usually in Acts the term used for “straight” (εὐθειαν, eutheian) means to be ethically straight (Acts 8:21, 13:10). (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 360)
Robert H. Gundry (b. 1932) supports:
The heart of Simon the magician wasn’t “straight” before God (Acts 8:21). So there may be some symbolism in Saul’s residing in a house on a lane called “Straight.” Certainly his “praying” shows his heart to be straight before God [Acts 9:11]. (Gundry, Commentary on Acts)
Rick Strelan (b. 1946) expounds:
Ananias is told that Paul is to be found in the house of Judas and that house was located in the street called Straight (Acts 9:11). Scholars take this to be a simple reference to the address of Judas’s house (for example, F.F. Bruce [1910-1990] 1988:186; Gerhard Schneider [1926-2004] 2002:28). And it might well be; but it seems too coincidental given that being ‘straight’ and ‘upright’ was almost an obsession in the Qumran community (1QS 8.13-15; 1QS 3.4-12), and given that it was important also for the Christians in preparing the way of the Lord (Luke 3:4; Acts 8:21, 13:10). In addition, did Luke also interpret Amos 5:1-27 as referring to the Christian group in Damascus? Was the group there because of the persecution by those in Jerusalem (Acts 9:1) in a way similar to the Covenant group that went to Damascus to escape the Wicked Priest of Jerusalem? (Strelan, Strange Acts: Studies in the Cultural World of the Acts of the Apostles, 167)
There may also be Old Testament allusions in play. Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) connects:
Hearing echoes of Isaiah help clarify Luke’s point. In Isaiah, darkness/light and crooked/straight are used as images to describe the transformation of those opposing God: “I will lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground” (Isaiah 42:16; cf. Isaiah 26:7, 35:5). Throughout Isaiah, then, a cluster of images is employed to contrast those who are resisting God’s redemption with those who are following God’s plan: unrighteous/righteous; darkness/light; blind/seeing; crooked/straight; deaf/hearing (M. Dennis Hamm [b. 1936] 1990, 70). Saul’s blindness, and later the opening of his eyes, is an appropriate symbol for this “enemy of God” who has attempted to reverse the plan of God (Acts 5:38-39; cf. Hamm 1990, 70; Richard I. Pervo [b. 1942], 34). (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 128)
F. Scott Spencer (b. 1956) concludes:
It is fitting that such a transformation takes place in a local residence on the road called ‘Straight’ (Eutheian) [Acts 9:11]. In the early chapters of Acts, the church has repeatedly gathered in private dwellings for prayer, fellowship and decision-making in the fullness of the Spirit (Acts 1:12-26, 2:1-4, 42-47, 4:23-31). Now, ironically, the same Saul who had infiltrated ‘house after house’ to arrest Christian disciples (Acts 8:3) finds himself ushered into Judas’ house as a fellow-disciple, a follower of the ‘Way’. We might even say that his rough and crooked path of persecution has been ‘made straight (eutheian)’ (cf. Luke 3:5-6). In contrast to Simon Magus who remained the enemy of the church because of a twisted heart ‘not right/straight’ (eutheia) before God (Acts 8:21), Saul is completely straightened out in his thinking about Jesus and his followers on an aptly named street in Damascus. (Spencer, Acts (Readings: A New Biblical Commentary), 98)
At the time of his encounter with Jesus, there were few men more reviled by the burgeoning Christian community than Saul. Yet it will be this man who leads the movement to new heights.

It is apropos that Saul gets straight on Straight Street. His past is a reminder that no one is beyond the redemption of God; there is a Straight Street available to all who desire one.

Where is your personal Straight Street; where have you experienced redemption? Is there anyone beyond the realm of straightening out? Is your personal trajectory straightening; are you heading in the right direction? Who can you be assisting on Straight Street?

“When peoples care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul.” - Langston Hughes (1902-1967), Simply Heaven: A Comedy with Music, p. 26