Paul’s Disputes with the Jews

Paul’s instruction to Timothy (2 Tim 2:24) not to “strive” in conducting his teaching seems to run against his own example in Acts. Let’s consider two sets of passages, marked by two different Greek words.


The Verb διαλεγομαι
In Acts, Luke frequently uses the verb διαλεγομαι to describe how Paul presented truth. Our English verb “dialog” is derived from this verb, and this etymological correspondence sometimes suggests that we ought to understand it in the sense of “debate” or “dispute.” Indeed, older translations often render it in this way:

Act 17:17 Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him.

Act 19:8 And he went into the synagogue, and spake boldly for the space of three months, disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God.

But the word often appears in contexts where no debate is in view. It really refers to a carefully reasoned presentation. One example is Paul’s long sermon in Troas, which (to judge by Eutychus’ response, was anything but a stirring debate):

Act 20:7, 9 And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached διαλεγομαι unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. … 9 And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching διαλεγομαι, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.

Another is his presentation to Felix, the Roman procurator:

Act 24:25 And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.

There is no justification for translating διαλεγομαι as “dispute” or “debate” in any case where it describes Paul’s conduct. Paul presented the Scriptures in a rational, logical way, but references to his conduct as διαλεγομαι offer no support for the notion that he engaged anybody in a combative way.
The Verb συζητεω
This is not to say that Paul never debated contentiously with anybody. Luke does record one such argument, early in Paul’s Christian life, when he first returned to Jerusalem after his conversion on the road to Damascus. This account uses a different verb from the other descriptions of Paul’s interactions with the Jews.

Act 9:29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed συζητεω against the Grecians:

συζητεω definitely does describe a spirited debate. In the gospels (especially Mark), it often describes conversations in which our Lord is engaged:

Mark 8:11 And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him.

Mark 9:14 And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them.

Mark 9:16 And he asked the scribes, What question ye with them?

In each of these cases, the verb describes an adversarial engagement initiated by the Jews. The same observation applies to Mark 12:28, which describes the conversation initiated a few verses earlier:

Mar 12:13, 28 And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. … 28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all?

The Jews are using the same tactic, described with the same verb, against the believers in the early chapters of Acts.

Acts 6:9 Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.

The strategy of a combative discussion in which each party tries to trip up or discredit the other is common among unbelievers. The unbelieving Jews often used it against the Lord and his followers. Before his conversion, Paul would have been sympathetic with this approach. As a rabbinical student he would have been skilled in debate. As a new believer, he would naturally turn to this tool to spread the gospel. The first time he comes to Jerusalem as a Christian, he proceeds to fight fire with fire:

Acts 9:29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians:

What was the outcome of these engagements? Let’s continue to read.

Act 9:29-31 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him. 30 Which when the brethren knew, they brought him down to Caesarea, and sent him forth to Tarsus. 31 Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.

Paul’s combative spirit naturally stirs up the worse possible response among his opponents. They seek to kill him, and in the process no doubt intensify their persecution of the rest of the church. The believers urge Paul to return home to Tarsus. He leaves, and immediately the climate in Jerusalem changes. The churches have rest, are edified, walk in the fear of the Lord, and see many converts. Luke’s commentary in v. 31 suggests that Paul’s debates shed more heat than light, and the Spirit’s work prospered only when the church stopped trying to use unbelieving tactics against the unbelievers.

Compare the chronological setting of Paul’s use of debate in Acts 9:29, and his prohibition of such tactics in 2 Tim 2:24. As a young believer, he loved to debate. As a mature Christian, he forbids it. This contrast agrees with his characterization of the immature believer in 1 Cor 3. In the context, Paul is describing the stages of spiritual life, starting with the unbeliever (the natural man, 1 Cor 2:14). The mature believer is the spiritual man (2:15), who combines thorough knowledge of God’s ways (“he … judgeth all things”) with godly conduct (“he himself is judged of no man”). But we do not pass immediately from unbelief to spirituality. Paul describes the new believer as a “babe in Christ,” and outlines his characteristics:

1Co 3:1-3 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?

The “babe in Christ,” the “carnal” believer, is marked with “envying, and strife, and divisions.” Perhaps Paul here is recalling his own experience as a “babe in Christ,” when he sought to use worldly techniques of strife to spread the gospel. By the time he writes Corinthians, he recognizes that these techniques are a mark of immaturity, not of spirituality, and by the end of his life he urges Timothy to forsake them. That’s good advice for us, as well.

One Comment on Paul’s Disputes with the Jews

  1. Should Believers Debate? « Cyber-Chapel Blog
    January, 25th 2012 at 8:04 am

    […] some objections come to mind. These include Jude’s exhortation to “contend for the faith,” Paul’s “disputings” with the Jews throughout his ministry, and clear cases of confrontation (as when Paul rebukes Elymas the sorcer). […]

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