The lectionary reading from Acts, this coming Sunday, recounts what happened to Paul and Silas in prison (16:25-34). There are two interesting features of this section of the second volume of the “orderly account” that was written for Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Each feature functions as a literary device to move the story on.
Arrested and in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). This has the effect of moving the narrative on to the next scene. Luke reports this, not so much for its value as an historical happening, but as a literary device to move the plot forward.
The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration which is characteristic of his narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.
Although there is no explicit indication of divine guidance at this point, an earthquake was widely considered to be a portent of the divine will. The Psalmist expresses the common scriptural view that God was the initiator of earthquakes: “O God, you have rejected us … you have caused the land to quake, you have torn it open” (Ps 60:1-2; see also Judg 5:4-5; 2 Sam 22:8-16; Pss 18:7-9; 29:3-9; 68:7-8; 97:4-5; 104:32; 144:5-6; Isa 13:13; 29:4-6; 64:1-3; Jer 4:24; 10:10; Ezek 32:7; Joel 2:10-11; Nah 1:5-6; Zeph 1:14-15; Hag 2:6-7,20-23; Zech 14:5).
The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus articulates a view found often in hellenistic literature, when he lists among “the terrible portents sent from the gods” such phenomena as “flashes shooting out of the sky and outbursts of fire … the rumblings of the earth and its continual tremblings” (Rom. Ant. 10.2.3; for descriptions of such portents, see Cicero, De div. 1.33.72-49.109, De nat. deor. 2.5.13-14; Minucius Felix, Oct. 7.1-6; for the theme in hellenistic histories, see pages 78-84 of my book, The plan of God in Luke-Acts, published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press).
Indeed, the narrative of Acts has already reported how God can sovereignly release a person from prison (as with Peter in Jerusalem, 12:6-11). Although it is not described with explicit reference to God, the earthquake in Philippi is nevertheless a clear portent of divine providence.
The melodramatic response of the gaoler (16:27) enables Paul and Silas to speak the word of the Lord (16:32), explaining that what must be done to be saved is to “believe on the Lord Jesus” (16:31). The ensuing scene replicates familiar elements: the gaoler and his household were baptised (16:33; see 2:38), he set a table (16:34; see 2:42,46; also 10:23,48), and they rejoiced (16:34; see 5:41). His conversion now makes him “one who has come to belief in God” (16:34). These are stock standard Lukan elements in his conversion narratives.
However, the release of Paul and Silas (16:35-40) takes place, not by divine intervention, but through the invocation of Paul’s Roman citizenship (16:37-38). Roman writers documented the prohibition against flogging a Roman citizen (Livy, Hist. 10.9.4; Cicero, Pro Rabiro 4.12-13). Paul makes no reference to his Roman citizenship in his letters, although there is no need for him to have done so. The name Paul may well have been his Roman name.
Yet his claim clearly plays a strategic role in Luke’s narrative at two points (here, and in Jerusalem, 22:25-29), as it plants the seeds for Paul’s eventual journey to Rome. This scene (as also the scene in Jerusalem) is shaped by Luke’s rhetorical purposes, to put the spotlight on Paul as a positive role model (Lentz 1993:105-138). I am wary of pinning much historical weight onto the Lukan narrative. We just don’t know about Paul’s Roman citizenship, since he never referred to it, and the issue serves both apologetic and literary purposes for Luke.
After an official apology (16:39), Paul and Silas leave the prison, paying a parting visit to Lydia’s home where, in typical fashion, they exhorted the community members (16:40; see 13:15). Paul’s own description of his time in Philippi notes that he “had suffered and been shamefully mistreated” (1 Thess 2:2), but his letter to the Philippian believers rejoices in the fellowship that they shared with him (Phil 4:14-16). “You hold me in your heart … all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel”, Paul writes to them (Phil 1:5-7).
Whatever actually happened in Philippi, however we read the narrative that Luke provides, this one thing is clear: Paul valued and appreciated the fledgling faith community in that city!