The Character Of The Lame Mane In Acts 3-4 by Michael C. Parsons
By: Prasha Maharjan
Physiognomy is the study of the relationship between physical and moral characteristics. This method basically assumes that as the character of the soul altered, the form of the body changed too, and vice versa. The disabilities and deformities in the lower body were associated with being weak-hearted, effeminate, and cowardly. Physiognomy was prevalent in the ancient days as proven by an extant treatise and the influence it had on the genres of ancient literature. Writers portrayed their characters following this convention. This era, as the author terms it, was the period of “physiognomic consciousness,” that permeated the Greco-Roman world. An example he gives is of Homer’s characters that may have shaped the development of physiognomic canons.
The author Mikeal C. Parsons, explores the passages in the book of Acts to give us the cultural context as to why Luke was so keen in using specific zoological terms and bodily disorders in his stories. Given the above context and Luke’s account for the healing of the lame man, did Luke too conform to the physiognomic convention? Did the joyous expression of healing communicate to Luke’s audience that the lame man had simply become manlier? Yes, but not the way the people then assumed. Thus, Parsons’ purpose in writing the article is to show that vipers, foxes, wolves, eunuchs, lame, etc., are physiognomic words that Luke used to attract his audience with that mindset but eventually only to undermine their “physiognomic consciousness.” Luke, in fact, emphasized the point that physical appearance was not directly connected to moral character and this assumption needed to be rejected in his “story of membership in the eschatological community of the Way.” Though, “Luke has reluctantly used physiognomy as a community ‘entrance test’ he subtly but forcefully opposes the conventions of physiognomy being applied in this way” (Parsons, 5).
This subject was important for the author because he was seeking to explore features of the text that traditional exegesis tended to neglect, to understand the story in its original setting, and to ensure that Luke used the story of the lame man, the bent woman, and the Ethiopian eunuch in introducing physiognomic categories only to subvert them. Finally, Luke expresses that God welcomes everyone into His kingdom, and that the healing story was symbolic of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises.
The author has paid special attention to the way Luke has structured his narrative segments of Acts 3:1-4:31. Luke narrated the several stories of healing with or without mention of the lame man several times between those passages. Healing was an important ministry to both Jesus and Paul. Parsons’ focus of physiognomic analysis in this passage is Acts 3:7b, “immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.” Several scholars, namely W.K. Hobart, Galen, and Adolf Harnack, who did their thesis on Luke, were interested in Luke’s use of anatomical words like feet and ankles, which helped them to confirm that Luke was a physician. On the other hand, Henry Cadbury, in his Harvard dissertation argued that mere use of medical-terminology did not provide enough support to prove that Luke was indeed a physician. Cadbury noted the use of the words “feet and ankles” in the works Plato, Aristotle, Josephus, Philostratus, Aelius, and in the LXX were never in reference to medical terms.
However, the physiognomic handbooks have made people aware of their physiognomic considerations. In a nutshell, the handbooks, express that strong and solid ankles belonged to the manly, noble, and those of strong character. On the other hand, those who had narrow, small, and poorly jointed feet showed weakness in character, softness, and laxity. Therefore, whenever the Apostles Peter and Paul mentioned any sort of physical infirmity, they might also have had the metaphorical aspect of being weak in the moral state.
Parsons provides a number of settings from the past that throws light on how indeed the lame and physically disabled were denigrated in the ancient times. In the Greek symposium, their humor often involved deprecation of crippled people. Drunken guests were associated with sarcasm like, “a lame man to dance on a greased wineskin.” This was not only limited to the pagan world, but the author also cites examples from the Bible. First, the exhortation in Ezra 4, a Jewish document, that people should not ridicule a lame man. Second, in Ezekiel, a blind man and a lame man is each only “half a man.” In the book of Samuel, it was easy for the audience to infer that the physically disabled were not allowed into the temple of the Lord. Moreover, in the Greco-Roman world, they chose men without blemish, who were good-looking and strong to be priests. Perhaps, the deformed and the disabled may also have been excluded from participating in processions and festivals that were so common in the ancient world. In light of all these contexts, Luke’s audience in Acts 3-4 easily could view “the lame man as a thoroughly negative character, a morally weak and passive man who was unable to stand on his own feet.”
In the ancient pagan, Jewish, and Christian sources the word “robust” has always followed in describing a man’s state of moral uprightness, intelligence, perseverance and such. Once the lame man was healed, he started jumping and praising the Lord. His lower infirmities were made strong and “robust.” Though Luke does not specifically call it “robust” he shows that the lame man walked in boldness and vigor. Luke may have been trying to meet the physiognomic expectations that the lame man’s physical healing was also a transformation in his soul, but even more importantly that the crippled was “saved” in the moral/spiritual sense as well. The author argues that Luke was not simply conforming to the physiognomic convention; rather, he was pointing that the lame man had become a member of the eschatological community of God. The leaping and exhilarating joy was actually the healed person’s gratitude because of the benefaction of God. Furthermore, it was also symbolic of the restoration of Israel as it is mentioned in Isaiah 35:6, “the lame shall leap like a deer.”
In many physiognomic texts, strong-legged people have been related with their nobility, condition of the mind, and manliness. Here, then, is where Luke departs from the physiognomic connotations and binds the crippled man’s joy not as being a man of courage, or vigorous character but rather he emphasizes on the disabled man’s appropriate response to God’s goodness.
Finally, the author’s main point is that Luke has “invoked the categories of physiognomy and cultural biases against the disabled only to overturn them” (Parsons,10). Luke wants to communicate to his audience that God shows no partiality and that the eschatological community is comprised of people such as these.
Any sincere student of the New Testament should carefully understand the message of a passage. So often, people fall in the trap of spiritualizing every verse, and personalizing them as well. These ways of interpreting the verses are some of the fallacies of interpreting scripture. One of the most important methods of interpreting scriptures is reading them in their contexts. The knowledge of the historical and cultural contexts for any account in the Bible throws light as to why, and to whom were the accounts directed towards. The author’s exegesis of the passages in Acts has helped us to perceive them in a different perspective now. If we were to simply read these verses by themselves, we, perhaps, would have missed the whole picture.
New Testament students should be highly encouraged to study the scriptures the way the author has exemplified. Parsons has shown an example to Bible students that there is always a specific purpose for accounts biblical authors chose to write. The author has put much effort into researching several scholars’ works in this area. Parsons has found that there were particular aspects in the exegesis of Luke’s story that the scholars might have neglected. In this article, he brings to our attention that the scholars might have simply interpreted Luke’s accounts to have affirmed the ‘physiognomic consciousness,’ which was the cultural context. Thus, he asks the readers and New Testament students to be extra vigilant with interpreting the texts. Though the cultural context would have readers interpret in the context of physiognomy, there are passages that need to depart from the cultural context. Especially, with Luke’s account of the healed man leaping in joy, the right interpretation was not in line with physiognomy but that he leapt in praise and gratitude to God.
The approach that the author has taken is very important. Hermeneutics instructs students to interpret the scripture in the cultural and historical context. However, Parsons’ analysis of the story in Acts has gone an extra mile. Indeed, even the cultural context might not give us the appropriate interpretation of the author’s message. All in all, what it boils down to is that the healing story in the book of Acts is symbolic of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises, and it is also the invitation to God’s kingdom for all.
Contextualization is a very important element in missions. This article deals a lot in the way Luke has used the method of contextualization, the method in which a message is presented such that it is understandable to a particular culture but still maintains the message. Physiognomic consciousness was pervasive during the time Luke was writing the book of Acts. This was an entrée for Luke to get his audience’s attention. His stories of the lame man, eunuch, bent woman, and Zaccheus might have initially communicated to his readers that their joys were mere manifestations of the way physiognomy would have interpreted. Eventually, Luke only subverts this mindset to introduce the real message that God’s kingdom is not merely about physical changes. Of course, God is capable of healing people. But God does not show partiality and invites all kinds of people to His kingdom.
People interested in missions in different cultures could benefit a lot from this article. Just as Luke first understood the general mindset of his audience, it is important for a missionary to understand the host culture, and contextualize the gospel, yet not lose the essence of it. Luke wrote in words and stories that were familiar to his audience but eventually attacked their ideas to present the real message.
Similarly, in our ministry today, we should be active in understanding the way non-believers think. More often than not, their thought patterns are influenced by the environment they are in, the people they hang out with, and the media they are exposed to. One example comes to mind. A professor suggested to his class that one of the best ways to reach out to pagans was through movies. Movies like The Matrix, and The Lord of the Rings, to name some, were very popular among non-believers. Both of the movies had aspects parallel to biblical concepts. We can follow Luke’s path of sparking the conversation as though the Christians were talking about the movie in general and gradually getting to the gospel. We can at least plant seeds in that way. A believer’s responsibility is to sow seeds and it is up to God to germinate them.
The media and pop culture plague the present generation. Taking an exotic vacation, or watching hilarious movies are things people do to escape from reality and the monotony of daily chores. All these are but temporal. There are people who realize that vacations and movies can only give them so much happiness. It is through being around people that we can feel their pulse. Christians, as salt and light (Matthew 5:13) of the world should be available to share the genuine joy of life, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Yet, again, we have to be careful that the life of a Christian is not about using the Scriptures ‘technologically.’ Eugene Peterson’s observation of Christians in general is that people pick and choose scriptures to make themselves feel good. What we can infer from Parsons’ analysis is also this fact that the accurate interpretation has to be given to people. Sure, the context is always that people are seeking happiness, but is Christianity only about the blessings that God gives? As true believers, we do have eternal joy, but the right perspective would be to see a Christian life as being a wholesome life with sufferings and sorrows founded on eternity. It is hard but beautiful.
Parsons, Michael C. “The Character of the Lame Man in Acts 3-4.” Journal of Biblical Literature (2005): 124/2 295-312.
Peterson, Eugene. Transparent Lives. The Christian Century Magazine. (23 Nov. 2003) 1 January 2007 <http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=1195>