are literary motifs true?
In a podcast about Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Mark Goodacre (Professor of Religion, Duke University) asks the question: Was it really “on the Damascus Road?” He discusses how the author of Luke/Acts regularly uses the theme of travel on roads to bring up key events; the story of the good Samaritan who met his fellow man while on the road, the disciples being told of Jesus’ resurrection while they were on the road to Emmaus, and the Ethiopian eunuch meeting Phillip while travelling.
While hypothesizing about a literary motif, Goodacre notes that he is not saying that Luke was “making it all up out of whole cloth”, but rather that he seems to have crafted his stories around this motif of travelling. Perhaps Luke was a traveller himself and events often happened to him while on the road. Or maybe he saw the Christian walk as a journey and so describes events through that theme in his narratives, similar to the way he used the term “The Way” in describing Christianity.
Ultimately it shouldn’t matter where the event took place, and the story makes clear that an important event took place in Paul’s life wherever the locale. A progressive Christian who views the stories with the possibility of allegory can take home the message that Paul experienced a conversion just as can the literalist/inerrantist who believes the story is a verbatim, eyewitness account of the events. It doesn’t matter whether Paul being on a road at the time was a literary motif used by Luke, does it?
What can a literalist/inerrantist make of this literary motif? That since the disciples of Jesus were a travelling bunch it would be natural for key events to take place while on the road? That God supernaturally caused these key events to take place in a way that would ultimately form a literary motif? That there really is no literary motif, because Luke describes plenty of other events that do not take place on roads? That the Greek word for roads could really mean “place,” and therefore…
I don’t know if a classic conservative inerrantist could listen to this podcast and appreciate the inquiry Goodacre is making. Now no doubt Goodacre’s theory of literary motif is debatable even by a person who would allow for Luke to be creating a literary motif. It is just a theory which attempts to provide insight into the material. But isn’t a person better off if they can consider all the options available? Does the conservative approach really allow for intellectual freedom if one cannot consider certain options of a text? Is an appreciation for a certain richness in the texts lost? Is that what it means to be a slave to Christ, to shut off part of your mind and refrain from asking certain questions? That is how I felt when I started asking crazy questions about the bible.
At the end of the day, either a progressive or a conservative Christian should be able to take away the central tenet of the story, that Paul experienced a conversion. But wait, was it really a conversion? That is Goodacre’s second question. Listen to the podcast to find out! It is only about 12 minutes long. :^)