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If Luke has carefully designed his two-volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such lengthy description of the journey to Rome. This must be more than an exciting story (did he think readers were getting bored?), nor was Luke trying to fill out a scroll (as if he was a student trying to make it to 10 pages for a paper). There are literary and theological reasons for Luke’s inclusion of Paul’s shipwreck.
First, Luke is traveling with Paul. On the one hand, this accounts for the details. But often ancient historians narrate a story up to the time in which they are living and then include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Josephus summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt and included himself in the story as a leader in Galilee. Thucydidies wrote a history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.
Second, there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus? Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?
Third, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.” Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way. As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”
Fourth, some scholars question the historicity of the shipwreck based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey. Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway. Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.
There is something to the parallels and it may be Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story. Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship. It is entirely plausible Festus would send him off in this way. Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!
While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is that nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.
In his defense before Festus, Paul offers a his view on the Servant in Isaiah: The Servant is Jesus, who suffered for our sins (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1). There seems to have been some discussion of who the servant was; recall that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading this text in Acts 8 and the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah appears at several points in the book of Acts. This is anticipated as early as Luke 2:32, Simeon’s blessing on Jesus cites Isaiah and proclaims that this salvation has come to Israel.
But the “Light to the Gentiles” in Acts 26 refers to Paul and his ministry. This is a rather bold statement since it might appear the Servant is the light to the Gentiles. Luke 2:32 has already applied Isaiah 42:6 to Jesus, but here Paul sees his ministry as a participation in Jesus’ messianic office as delivering the “light to the Gentiles.”
Paul describes salvation as “turning to God” and “opening eyes,” are both drawn from Isaiah 42:6, but may allude back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus (13:4-11). Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, both literal and spiritual blindness. The disciples, for example, were in need of healing in their understanding, so they might believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Paul is sent to preach repentance to both the Jews and the Gentiles (recalling Romans 1:16-17, to the Jew first).
Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.
Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational (σωφροσύνη) words.” This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, which he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel. What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate. This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).
So Paul sees himself as engaged in messianic ministry (although he is a servant of Messiah Jesus; Paul does not see himself as a messiah!) This claim is rational, based on evidence and is both truthful and rational. Festus recognizes Paul’s “great learning” but thinks Paul has gone out of his mind-the opposite of rational. The Greek μανία can refer to madness or even delirium. This was an accusation against a political or philosophical opponent, or as BDAG says, “eccentric or bizarre behavior in word or action.”
For a Roman official like Festus, Paul presents strange ideas in rational manner, and he is impressed but unconvinced. To what extent can Paul claim to be rational in his arguments that Jesus is the Messiah or that he has been called by God to this particular mission? Is there a way to use Paul’s defense before Agrippa and Festus as a model for ministry in a post-modern world?
In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.
The group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).
It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.
Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.”
Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.
As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!
It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James or his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.
Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?
In Acts 23:1 Paul claims to have “lived his life in good conscience up to this day.” In the context of a hearing before the Sanhedrin, it is possible to read this as a statement that he has been faithful to the Jewish Law. This is very similar to what Paul says in Acts 24:16 when he describes his entry into the Temple as “I always take pains to have a clear conscience toward both God and man.” He even points out that he was giving alms to the poor (the collection) and participating in a purification ritual when he was unjustly attacked.
In fact, Paul was in the temple “purifying himself” (ἁγνίζω, Acts 21:24, 24:18). The verb is not normally associated with the Nazarite vow (which took thirty days, not the seven mentioned in Acts 21). The verb is used in John 11:55 for Jews purifying themselves prior to the Passover (cf., JW 6, 425, Ant. 12, 145). Pilgrims arriving in Jerusalem from Gentile territory purified themselves in the Temple. In Num 19:12 the verb is used to purify oneself after touching a corpse. That Paul was willing to undergo this level of purity ritual at this point in his career indicates that he is still willing to “be a Jew among the Jews” (1 Cor 9:20).
Paul goes a bit further and claims to be a Pharisee. After his exchange with the High Priest in Acts 23:2-5, Paul shifts the focus to the controversy between Pharisees and Sadducees (23:6-10). This maneuver has caused some commentators to criticize Paul. It is not an honest argument by Paul, he instigates a near riot between the two factions of the Sanhedrin. The Pharisees were a minority in the Sanhedrin, but a popular and vocal minority. They believed in the resurrection of the dead as well as angels and spirits.
Is this true? Can Paul be considered a “practicing Pharisee” at this point in his ministry? For some interpreters, this is not at all the historical Paul who wrote Galatians. At the very least, he has broken purity traditions by eating with Gentiles. Yet with regard to the issue of the resurrection, he was a Pharisee. Paul is simply stating that he agrees on this major point, and for the Pharisees, at this moment, it is enough for them to defend Paul.
By making this statement, Paul gains the favor of the Pharisees while enraging the Sadducees. The argument that ensues was so fierce that the Roman official thought that Paul would be “torn to pieces,” so he takes him back to the barracks, leaving the Jews to their “theological dispute.”
While it was a crafty way of deflecting attention away from himself, it is possible that Paul was serious – with respect to the Law Paul has a clear conscience. James Dunn offers the suggestion that Paul’s statement was less for the Sanhedrin (which had probably already judged him as guilty), but for the Roman tribune and soldiers. The word conscience (συνείδησις) is a concept that does not really appear in Hebrew (Dunn, Beginning at Jerusalem, 974, n. 73, the word is only found in the LXX in Eccl. 10:29 and Wisdom 17:10). If he spoke Greek and used this particular expression, it is possible that he was claiming to the Romans that he was not guilty of any crime.
What do we do with this incident? Is Paul playing both sides in order to gain converts? Did he really “keep the Law” while telling Gentiles to “not keep the Law”? I can think of a number of issues I might hold loosely so that I can reach both sides. Perhaps there is an application to Christian involvement in politics or other social issues.
Based on Paul’s behavior in Acts, it may well be he would have told the Jews to continue keeping the Law. He required Timothy be circumcised (16:3) and he had made a vow while in Corinth (18:18). When he is before the Sanhedrin, Paul claims he has continued to keep the law (23:1). This is curious considering the reputation Paul has for preaching a “Law-Free” gospel among the Gentiles. To what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.
Paul claims to have a “good conscience” in 23:1. The verb Luke uses refers to living as a good citizen (πολιτεύομαι) and is the same work Paul uses in Phil 1:27 for having a “manner of life” worthy of the Gospel. In the Maccabean literature the verb refers to living one’s life in accordance with Jewish traditions (2 Macc 6:1, 11:25; 3 Macc 3:4, 4 Macc 2:8).
4 Macc 2:23“To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.”
Paul therefore claims loyalty to the Law while at the same time evangelizing the Gentiles and teaching them they are not under the Law. It is clear from Paul’s letters he does not advocate freedom from Law as a license to sin, but when people heard Paul teaches a law-free Gospel, they appear to have thought the very worst.
In order to prove to Paul’s detractors that he is stull loyal to the Law, James proposes Paul prove sponsor a Nazarite vow for a few you men (21:22-25). Dunn rightly observes that James does not deny the rumor: “the advice of James and the elders is carefully calibrated. They do not disown the rumors. Instead they suggest that Paul disprove the rumors by his own action, by showing that he himself still lived in observance of the Law” (Dunn, Acts, 287). The fact that James drops out of the story after Paul’s arrest is a mystery – why does James not come to the aid of Paul? No Christians are willing to defend Paul when he goes before the Sanhedrin. Why is this? It seems as though Paul has less support in Jerusalem in A.D. 58 than we might have expected.
Does Paul make a mistake in sponsoring the vow in the Temple? Some people think it would have been unlike Paul to “keep Law” at this point in his career. What is his ultimate motivation for doing this? Does he really need to “prove himself” to be faithful at this late date?
Clint Arnold has a nice sidebar in his commentary on Acts entitled “Jerusalem: Nine Years Before the War.” I have long thought that the political situation in Jerusalem is the key to understanding James and his chilly reception of Paul. James was faced pressure from Jews who were Christians to be spiritual prepared for the coming Messiah and Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah but were every bit as much zealous for the Law. Likely there were many who were unhappy with James’ decision to side with Paul and not require Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement of salvation. If the political climate of Jerusalem made James’ position dangerous, it made Paul’s position on Gentiles lethal.
News of Paul’s activities would have been well known in Jerusalem. Paul has been creating islands of Gentile Christianity in the Roman world for years now, and it is undoubtedly true that the Gentiles outnumber the Jews in many of his congregations. Paul has confronted Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal 2) and made it clear that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law. Perhaps the theology of Romans 9-11 was known in Jerusalem – the Jews have “stumbled” and the Gentiles have been grafted in.
To what extent is James part of the problems which face Paul in Jerusalem? On the one hand, Luke does not explicitly state that James believed these rumors, although he also does not show James as rejecting them either. When Paul arrived, Jerusalem itself was a hotbed of nationalistic fever is a fact, and the Jewish church was very much a part the messianic nationalism which caused the revolt of A.D. 66. Arriving in Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles who were not at all converts to Judaism was dangerous at the very least (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 961-2).
Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. (Polhill, Acts, 447).
For fifteen years prior to the war, Judea was ruled by mediocre Roman governors who managed Jewish affairs poorly, exacerbating the problems which eventually led to the revolt. Judea was not a particularly important to Rome, and as a result they sent some particularly poor officials to govern the region. Felix, for example, is described by Tacitucs as “wielding royal power with the instincts of a slave” (Hist 5.9). Felix was recalled by Nero in A.D. 60, and while Festus was an improvement, he died in office . Schürer described the Roman government as having “deliberately set out to drive the people to revolt” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1.455). Josephus covers the chaos of this period in Antiq. 20.16–172 and JW 2.254-265.
It is of course impossible to know the mind of James, but it appears he is trying very hard to keep the more conservative elements of his church in fellowship with the less conservative elements – but from Paul’s perspective, the Jerusalem church was entirely conservative. By coming to Jerusalem Paul was stepping into a situation which can only end badly for him.
When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with “James and the Elders.” As it turns out, there are many Jews in Jerusalem who believe Jesus is the Messiah yet are still following the Law (21:20). This is not unexpected since Jesus said he did not come to destroy the Law nor did Jesus ever teach his disciples to reject the Law or Temple worship. Jesus did reject the traditions of the Pharisees, but he lived as any Jew might have in the first century. It is better to see Jesus calling his disciples to a deeper engagement with the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, Jesus wants his followers to obey not only the letter, but also the spirit of the Law.
James, the Lord’s Brother, has emerged as a leader in the Jerusalem church. When Paul arrives he gives a report (ἐξηγέομαι) of how God is working among the Gentiles. While the elders of the community rejoice and praise God for this, James moves quickly from what God is going among the Gentiles to a potential problem with Paul’s missionary activity. James describes the Jerusalem church as very large, the NIV has “thousands,” translating the Greek “myriads” (μυριάς). While this might seem like hyperbole, several thousand people accepted the apostolic teaching in Acts 2 and 3. It is likely additional converts in the many years that have passed and there are still a large number of Jesus-followers in and around Jerusalem at this time.
There are some among this Jewish Christian community who think that Paul has made a grace error by teaching Jews who have accepted Jesus as Messiah to turn away from the Law (v. 21). Certainly Paul taught Gentiles they were not under the law. The letter to the Galatians is a strong condemnation of Gentiles trying to keep the Law.
With respect to Jews who are in Christ, there is no specific text which clearly indicates Paul told Jews to continue keeping the law and traditions of Israel. It may or may not be the case that Paul considered ceremonial law and traditions matters of indifference.
Ben Witherington thinks it is at least possible Paul considered traditional Jewish practices as no longer required in the present age. Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts. But this may be the heart of the problem: the church Paul has created is something new and different. People are converting to a belief in Jesus as savior apart from Law rather than converting to Judaism or converting to a particular messianic conviction within Judaism (Acts, 648).
If members of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem had read Galatians, they may have wondered if Paul had rejected the Law himself. If rumors of his “all things to all men” ministry model reached Jerusalem, then it is likely there were Jewish Christians who thought Paul has gone too far in his desire to reach the Gentiles.
Luke certainly describes James and the Elders as polite and welcoming, but there are lingering questions about Paul’s ministry method. Luke does not create an artificial unity here, he reports a real tension in the early church over a critically important issue, the status of Gentiles in the church as well as the role of the Law.
To what extent do these two issues continue to be a problem in Acts and Paul’s letters? Is this tension still a problem in the modern church, even after the Reformation?
Paul’s plan is to by-pass Ephesus and meet the Elders at Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus. What was the purpose of this plan? Paul’s desire is to get to Jerusalem as rapidly as possible, so he may have simply wanted to avoid Ephesus. Had he stopped there, he would have had so many obligations that he would have never been able to meet his schedule. He would lose more time in Ephesus than if he meets the elders in Miletus. Another possibility is that Paul’s ship was scheduled to stop in Miletus, not Ephesus. One did not book travel on a passenger ship in the ancient world, all travel was on cargo ships and one was often at the mercy of the cargo-schedule
When the elders arrive, Paul warns them of trials they will have to face in the near future (Acts 20:25-31). Paul employs a common metaphor to warn the elders from Ephesus that they are about to face trials. Since elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit to the task of shepherding the flock, the natural metaphor for an attack against the flock is a “savage wolf.” The elders are to keep watch over the church in order to guard it against enemies. But this also involves watching themselves – they are to be worthy shepherds! These “wolves” seek to tear the congregation apart, and at this point may refer to elements in Ephesus, whether Greek or Jewish, that see Christianity as a threat.
Paul also warns of threats which will arise from within the congregation itself. Perhaps the most disturbing prediction is that these wolves may very well arise from within their congregation – some men will arise, distort the truth, and draw disciples away after them.
This is exactly the situation we find in 1 Timothy, a letter written by Paul several years later to Timothy while he worked in Ephesus. The false teachers are “insiders,” people from within the church that are distorting the truth. Based on 1 Timothy and Acts 20:30, it appears that the false teachers were elders from within the Ephesian church. The are teachers (1 Tim 1:3, 7, 6:3) and the task of teaching in the church is given to the elders (1 Tim 3:2, 5:17).
It is important that we not read this with a 21st century view of church in mind. The elders are likely presiding over small house churches. A city the size of Ephesus would likely have had many house churches by the time 1 Timothy is written. There may have been a few elders who hosted a church in their home that have departed from the body of teaching Paul taught for the three years he was in Ephesus. It is these elders that Paul wants to discipline.
At this point in Acts, the “savage wolves” are in the future – or are they? Paul’s plan is to by-pass Ephesus and meet the Elders at Miletus, thirty miles from Ephesus. While it is possible Paul simply wanted to avoid obligations to meet with many people in Ephesus in order to get to Jerusalem as soon as possible, it seems to me that the problems which 1 Timothy addresses are already surfacing. This meeting at Miletus, then, is a gathering of loyal elders who still can be trusted by Paul.
Is it possible that Paul’s speech reflects the situation of the post-apostolic church? What happens when Paul dies? Who “takes over”? It seems to me that Paul is telling these shepherds that they are now in charge of the flock, and they have to be on guard against internal and external threats to the health of the church.
This “guarding” function is an important application for modern churches since most threats against the church are not coming from the outside (the government is not our greatest enemy, believe it or not!), but from other Christians, “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Paul leaves Ephesus with the intention of returning to Jerusalem for the purpose of delivering the collection to the Jerusalem church at Pentecost. The collection was a gift from the Gentile churches to the Jerusalem believers. Romans 15:26 states that “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem,” a text written from Corinth in the three-month period after Paul’s Ephesian ministry.
Paul has does this sort collection for Jerusalem before. Before the first missionary journey in Acts 13, Paul delivered funds to Jerusalem collected by the Antioch church. This visit is the subject of Gal 2:1-10. In Gal 2:10 Paul said that the James had only encouraged him to “remember the poor.” The “poor” in mind here are the members of the Jerusalem church, the very people the famine visit was intended to help.
The Jerusalem appears to be still living in a sort of shared community, supported by gifts. Given a famine (and possibly a Jubilee year), the poor believers in Jerusalem were even more dependent on Antioch than ever. Ben Witherington wonders if the handshake was an agreement to continue the financial arrangements between the Antioch church and the Jerusalem church (Acts, 429). This is possible since the same sort of language appears in Acts 15 as well, although the collection is not mentioned.
The Collection was unique in the ancient world. The Greco-Roman world has a system of public benefaction, but nothing like a modern “fund-raiser” where people are solicited for money which is then distributed to the poor. Likewise, in Judaism the poor received Alms from individuals, but money was not collected in mass for re-distribution to the poor. Which the exception of Queen Abiabene, who brought relief to Jerusalem (Antiq. 20:51-51), there are no other examples of this sort of collection of funds.
Since Paul is collecting this money in the Greek world, it would have been unprecedented and would have looked very suspicious. Likely as not, the inclusion of representatives of the churches was meant to give confidence to the churches that Paul was not going to steal the funds and disappear. Notice that in Acts 20:4 there is a list of names traveling with Paul, all likely representatives of Paul’s churches in Macedonia (Thessalonica, Berea) Asia Minor (Derbe) Paul was careful to separate his own ministry from the Collection for the Saints. While he did not require churches to give to support him, he is adamant that churches “give what they can” to the Collection.
What is unusual is that Luke does not mention the collection at all, although that seems to be the point of the large part traveling back to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. Why Luke would omit this collection is a mystery – some have speculated that the collection was not well-received by the Jerusalem church, perhaps even rejected. The scene is rather tense in Jerusalem when Paul arrives with a large contingent of Gentiles to deliver the gift.
What was the “point” Paul was trying to make with this collection? If the collection was rejected, why would James (or the Jerusalem Christians) reject the generosity of the Gentile churches?
Bibliography: Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 932-947; S. McKnight, “The Collection for the Saints” in DPL, 143-147. The collection is mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-4, 2 Cor 8-9 and Rom 15:25-32.
[This is the second guest post from one of my Advanced Studies in Acts students, John Caprari. John is a senior undergraduate Biblical Studies major with an emphasis on Pastoral Ministry. He and his wife will be going to Africa soon after graduation to explore a church planting ministry. He has therefore focused his attention on Paul’s missionary method.]
It amazing to reflect on the many Christian works Paul began. He had a strong desire to win as many people as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). In Paul’s epistle to the Romans he declares his inner yearning for the gospel’s proclamation: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation” (Romans 15:20).
Paul set this framework in which he would preach the gospel, and he did just that. Although there were not many places where Christ had already been proclaimed, he certainly fulfilled this internal passion. He had a “commitment to pioneer evangelism, to pursue his mission only in virgin territory” (Dunn 544) Can you imagine entering a city that not only has a population of 0% Christians, but also live in a culture that worships pagan gods? Where and how do you even begin telling people about Jesus? Paul’s answer? The synagogue.
Luke communicates in Acts over and over that upon arrival in a city, the first thing Paul did was go to the Jewish synagogue (Acts 13:5; 14:1; 17:10). Wait a second… Wasn’t Paul supposed to be the light to the Gentiles? Why is he going to the Jewish gathering place?
There are some who understand Paul to believe that the gospel was meant to be proclaimed among Jews before Gentiles (Rom 1:16). They believe that Paul’s custom was to go to the Jewish synagogue because he had a theological understanding that the gospel must be heard by the Jews, and then upon rejection, the Gentiles (Acts 14:36). The following is an excerpt from a scholar who understands Paul’s custom of going to the Jewish synagogue as a theological issue rather than strategic:
Although Luke’s plain intent is to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was carried from Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world, he records of Paul’s ministry in the Roman capital only his customary initial ministry to the Jews (Acts 28:17 ff.). In Acts too, therefore, the theme is clear, the gospel is “to the Jew first.” (Stek 17)
Paul went to the synagogues first because he thought it would be the best way to carry out his mission: to be a light to the Gentiles. These gathering places were mostly filled with Jews. However, it was common for there to be a couple of God-fearing Gentiles who would congregate with the Jews. Dunn writes, “for it was in the synagogues that he would find those Gentiles who were already most open and amenable to his message” (Dunn 560).
Why do you think upon arrival Paul would immediately go to the synagogue? Was it a theological understanding or a strategical method? If theological, how come? If strategical, what made the synagogue, a Jewish gathering place, the right place to be a light to the Gentiles?
Bibliography: Dunn, James D. G. Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009); Stek, John H. “To the Jew First.” Calvin Theological Journal 7.1 (1972): 15-52