Whenever we read the Bible, it is important not to get distracted by the special effects. The important question to ask is NOT, "Is this story factual?" The important question to ask is, "What is the truth that this story is telling?"
This story of Paul and Silas may or may not be completely factual in all its details. But it is certainly truthful in its revelation that vulnerable people (the girl in this story) are exploited by others to make money. And that anyone who jeopardizes the ability of the powerful to make money will pay dearly (publicly accused, humiliated, beaten, imprisoned). This is an old story whose truth we all know all too well.
(In Biblical times, it was believed that everything, and I do mean everything, was caused by some living spirit, seen or unseen. "Normal" human behaviour was caused by the spirit of that person. But deviant behaviour was caused by a spirit that had possessed the person. The spirit could possibly be holy and good, or it could be demonic and evil. In Biblical understanding, this girl's spirit is not clear: it is accurately publicly saying who Paul and Silas are. But unclean spirits can do this - as for example the spirits that recognize who Jesus truly was. Paul probably initially tries to ignore the girl because he would be aware of the consequences that would follow if he were to challenge the spirit in the girl. That Paul finally acts because he became "very much annoyed" (verse 18, NRSV) may or may not be factual, but it certainly reveals a believable human characteristic of Paul's. It is precisely this telling of the faults and failings of the "heroes" of the Biblical story that makes the story believable.)
From this point on the story gradually introduces surprises: novel, unpredicted possibilities.
Surprise number 1. Having been publicly shamed, beaten and imprisoned, Paul and Silas do not fall in line and become obedient to the prevailing authorities. Instead, they exercise the inner spiritual freedom which they still have - they pray and sing! They are in prison but still free in faith. Is this part of the story factual? Who cares? Is this part of the story truthful? Does it truthfully open up to us new possibilities for how WE might respond to constraints we experience in life? (Or is this a delusion, a lie?)
Surprise number 2. Having been freed from their chains and had the prison doors opened by an earthquake, Paul, Silas and all the other prisoners stay in their cells! Having been set physically free, they continue to exercise the freedom in faith they already had by choosing to stay put instead of fleeing. If Paul and Silas had still been captive to the logic of who has true authority in their society (the magistrates) they would have fled. But the upside-down logic of this is that fleeing is still part of the same old story, whereas staying put is what confirms the new freedom in faith that Paul is giving witness to. Is this part of the story factual? Who cares? Does it truthfully open up to us new possibilities for how WE might break the cycles of rebellion-punishment-obedience and respond in a way that is truly faithful and free?
Surprise number 3. The response of the guard to become a believer and care for Paul and Silas' wounds is a courageous response. His initial reaction of drawing his sword to kill himself is because he knows what will happen to him when it is discovered all the prisoners have escaped - he will be brutally tortured and then killed. Better to kill himself as painlessly as possible. But by accepting the truth of the above two surprises, the guard steps outside the norms of his society and becomes vulnerable to the same persecution that Paul and Silas received. By being baptized he now knowingly, willingly, gladly puts himself and his household in exactly the same danger he thought he was in when he first saw that the prison doors had been thrown open. However, by being baptized he now also claims for himself and his household the freedom in faith from the rulers of this world that Paul and Silas gave evidence of. Is this part of the story factual? Who cares? Does it truthfully open up to us new possibilities for how WE might respond with courage to adopt new beliefs and new ways of being, even in the face of being punished, ostracized, or worse, by our friends and society?
Surprise number 4. (But only if you read right to then end of the story.) Paul and Silas didn't flee when an earthquake opened the prison doors, and now when the magistrates set them free, they still won't go! The logic of the old story of how the rulers of this world are the only rulers would have Paul and Silas taking the token offered to them and getting out as quietly and as quickly as possible. But Paul and Silas have been living all along in the freedom of their faith. They don't accept the "authority" of the rulers of this world because they believe the truth that there is another ruler - one whose "rule" is love. And so, in this freedom, Paul and Silas demand, and get, a public apology. By so doing, they set an example of courage, and they actually provide an element of increased social safety: the Magistrates will be less hasty to condemn followers of this new Way of Jesus. Is this part of the story factual? Who cares? Does it truthfully open up new possibilities for how WE might live to the fullest extent our obedience to the narrative of God's love?
* Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Bruce J. Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on ... The Synoptic Gospels; The Gospel of John; The Book of Acts; The Letters of Paul; The Book of Revelation; and others.
+ Link to Amazon.com Bibliography for Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Jewish Annotated New Testament, The Bible With and Without Jesus, Short Stories by Jesus, Entering the Passion of Jesus, and others.