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What does “kick against the pricks” mean?

What image comes to mind when you hear the biblical phrase “kick against the pricks”? There is no doubt in my mind that the images that pop into 21st century American minds aren’t the same as that of readers of the Greek text of Acts 1800 years ago. It is a very important phrase that gives us a glimpse into the minds of the scribes that copied the Greek text and the Gentiles that read it.

The New Testament has been preserved in more manuscripts than any other ancient work, having over 5,800 complete or fragmented Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian. None of those manuscripts are the original manuscript of Acts. It has not been found. The earliest complete manuscripts of New Testament books were copied over 300 years after the original manuscript was written. In order to keep things in perspective, consider the fact that in July America will celebrate its 242nd birthday.

The phrase appears in a very important account in Christian history – the conversion of Saul (aka Paul) on the road to Damascus. This was a very important event to the author of Acts because he repeats it three times in the book. However, this conversion account doesn’t seem to be important to Paul – or whoever wrote of copied his epistles -- because it isn’t found in any of them. Below are the three appearances in Acts. As you read the verses, consider the differences between them -- and the importance of the words I underlined.

Acts 9:4-6
Acts 22:7-10
Acts 26:14-16
4 Then he fell to the ground,

and heard a voice saying to him,

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.”

6 So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 And I fell to the ground

and heard a voice saying to me,

‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’

8 So I answered, “Who are You, Lord?”

And he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting.”

9 And those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of him who spoke to me.

10 So I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’

And the Lord said to me, “Arise and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all things which are appointed for you to do.” 

14 And when we all had fallen to the ground,

I heard a voice speaking to me
and saying in the Hebrew language,

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?

It is hard for you to kick against the pricks.”

15 So I said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.

Phrases like “kick against the pricks” create difficult challenges for translators. It seems clear that they did not know what it means, or if they did, they chose not to share it with those who would read their translations. Below are a few of the ways translators chose to translate it.

● King James Versionkick against the pricks

American Standard Version -- kick against the goad

Bible in Basic English -- go against the impulse

Weymouth Version -- kick against the ox-goad

The key to discovering its meaning is found the Acts 26 version.

I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you.

The Greek phrase that is translated “kick against the pricks” is used to make something very clear about that relationship that would have grabbed the minds of a Gentile audience. I seriously doubt that Jesus would have used the phrase, but somewhere down the line of scribes that copied it, one of them inserted it later. But, if Jesus did use that phrase, he was quoting from the Greek play, The Bacchantes. It was written by Euripides in 410 BCE.

The main character in the play is Dionysus. His father was a god (Zeus) and his mother was a mortal woman (Semele). Dionysus was born on December 25th. He died and was restored to life, but in a very different manner of death from Jesus – Dionysus was torn to pieces and eaten by the titans, but "eventually restored to a new life" from the heart that was left over. And, he was also known as “the god who suffers.”

The part in the play that contains the phrase we are studying today is found in the scene where Pentheus, the king of Thebes, banned the worship of Dionysus. Sound a lot like what Paul did when he first encountered the disciples of Jesus. 

DIONYSUS: Still stubborn, O Pentheus, after hearing my words! In spite of all the evil treatment I am enduring from you, still I warn you of the sin of bearing arms against a god, and ask you to cease; for Bromius (an epithet of Dionysus) will not endure you driving his worshippers from the mountains where they revel.

PENTHEUS: A truce to your preaching to me! You have escaped your bonds, preserve your liberty; or else I will renew your punishment.

DIONYSUS: I would rather do him sacrifice than in a fury kick against the pricks; you a mortal, he a god.

Gentiles hearing this phrase would have understood Jesus’s message to Saul this way -- a mortal man should never challenge a god. The phrase would not have been understood that way in Jewish minds. So, did Jesus translate a Greek phrase from a Greek play about a Greek/Roman god into Hebrew to make a point to a Hebrew speaking Jewish man that believed in and worshipped only one God? Or did a scribe that was copying the text of Acts in Greek insert it to make a point he knew his audience would understand? I will leave the conclusion up to you. But, I bet you now have a different image in your mind than you did at the beginning!

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Jim Myers


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