28 Sep 2023

Acts 8:26: Did Philip ‘Head South” or “Set Out at Noon”?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Exegesis, Jewish Backgrounds
Noon was an “hour of prayer”

What Did Luke Say? Acts 8.26: Does Philip “head south” or does he “set out at noon?”

Many English translations read essentially, “the angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south ...” (NIV, etc).

What does μεσημβρίαν mean? The term occurs one other place in Acts, chapter 22.6.

About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me.”

In this Lukan text we have another supernatural encounter, Saul encounters the voice and blinding light at noon. Throughout the Septuagint the term μεσημβρίαν means “midday” or noon” with the exception of two places in Daniel.

If you read Acts 8.26 in the Jerusalem Bible or New Jerusalem Bible we read, “the angel of the Lord spoke to Philip saying, ‘Be ready to set out at NOON ...”

And if you read in the NRSV or the ESV there will be a footnote that suggests, “or at noon.”

And if we go to BDAG (Baur-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich) 3rd edition, p.634 we read that the suggested reading is “noon” as is typical of the word. For the sake of full disclosure BDAG gives a secondary meaning as “south” and Acts 8.26 is the only suggested possible example of that. But the primary suggestion is “noon.”

Quite a few scholars argue for “south” though. I have come to the conclusion that it should be “noon.” There are a few reasons for this. I think it fits nicely with Luke’s surprising interest in “all things Jewish” (and Luke does have a major interest in Jewish “stuff.”

1) that is the normal idea of the word and frankly there is nothing in Acts 8 to demand any other reading.

2) the hours of prayer seem to be significant to Luke. The hour/s of prayer are 9, Noon, and 3. The morning and evening hours coincide with sacrifice. The Gospel of Luke begins with Zechariah offering sacrifice at the morning offering, and an angel shows up (Lk 1.8-20).

Jesus is crucified and dies at the hour of prayer in Luke 23.44. Luke notes it was “dark” at “noon” (23.44, More supernatural stuff).

The Way keeps the hours of prayer (Acts 2.42). A man is healed/saved at the “hour of prayer” (3 pm) in Acts 3.1-9.

Cornelius is praying and visited by an angel at noon (hour of prayer) in Acts 10.3,30. More supernatural stuff. Peter, likewise, was praying at exactly the hour of prayer (noon) when he fell into a supernatural “trance” and had a vision from God.

In the book of Judith, the heroine who God uses to deliver the people of Israel is at prayer at hour of prayer/sacrifice (Judith 9.1f). In Jewish tradition “strange things” can happen at the hour of prayer, thus Daniel is praying at the hour of prayer/sacrifice and low and behold … Gabriel shows up just as he did to Zechariah at the beginning of Luke’s story (cf. Daniel 9.21).

All of these “coincidences” that Luke narrates (and in well known Jewish tradition) seems to me to suggest that Acts 8.26 is not simply giving ancient MapQuest directions. Rather Luke is yet again saying God acted decisively at the hour of prayer for the salvation of a person historically excluded. Angels, visions, and one might even encounter Jesus himself as Paul did at “noon” in 22.6. And though Luke does not give a time stamp, Paul was in the temple “in prayer” when he (like Peter) fell into a “trance and saw Jesus” (22.17).

At any rate, I think the footnote is right in the NRSV/ESV and the text is correct in the Jerusalem Bible and New Jerusalem Bible.

The angel of the Lord appeared and told Philip to be ready at the hour of prayer for an act of God.

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