Following Ekhard Scnabel (Paul the Missionary), there are three elements which are a part of this missionary work. First, the missionary communicates the good news of Jesus as the Messiah and Savior. Second, the missionary communicates a new way of life to those who respond to the good news. This necessarily means that social and cultural patterns must change in the light of the Gospel. Third, the missionary tries to integrate these new believers into a new community. The new believers are a new family (brothers and sisters) or a new community (a citizenship in heaven).

Paul, flashing his Missionary Card

Paul, flashing his Missionary Card

By in large, I agree with this general outline of method. It is not difficult to demonstrate that Paul’s message centered on Jesus as the Messiah and that his death provided some kid of solution to the problem of sin. What is more, Paul is clear in his letters that when one is “in Christ” everything has changed. The believer is a new creation and therefore has a new relationship with God. The believer has a new family, which means there are new family obligations which bear on social connections. The new believer’s relationship with God has social and ethical ramifications which go beyond the typical confines of “religion” in the ancient world.

These elements of mission also explain many of the problems Paul faces in fulfilling his calling. How does a person “live out” this new relationship with Christ? How do Gentiles relate to the God of the Hebrew Bible? If Gentiles are in Christ, how ought the relate to the pagan world? Two examples come to mind. On the one hand, should the Gentile believer in Christ accept the Jewish law as normative for their worship and practice?

On the other hand, can someone who is “in Christ” attend a birthday celebration at a pagan temple without actually worshiping any god? In the first case, the Gentile is radically changing his pattern of life which would create a social break with his culture. In the second case, he is making a minor adjustment in order to remain socially accepted. These are not straw-men, since there are clear cases of both things happening in the New Testament. I assume Paul would be someplace between these two extremes, based on a reading of Galatians and 1 Corinthians.

I point this out because it highlights the difficulty of applying Acts as a one-size-fits-all mission strategy. I think that Schnabel’s first point clearly describes the activity of the Jewish church in Jerusalem, but does the second? To what extent does Peter have to instruct Jewish believers in proper practice? The third point may have applied although quite different in practice from the later Pauline congregations.

What is remarkable to me is that this last problem is a non-factor for the first nine chapters of Acts. Peter and the twelve do not face the problem of what to do with Gentiles since they do not target them at all. Even after Peter is sent to Cornelius, there is no really problem since the God-fearing Gentiles are nearly Jews by way of practice!

Schnabel The first time I taught through the Book of Acts in a college class, I asked the students to write an essay describing Paul’s missionary strategy as illustrated by book of Acts. I thought this was simple enough and most students caught on that I was looking for “what sorts of things does Luke describe Paul as doing when he first visits a new town.”  Basically, Paul went to the marketplace and the synagogue. One student, however, argued that Paul did not have a missionary strategy, rather the just did what the Holy Spirit told him two. I was rather annoyed by this, and re-phrased my question, “OK, then what is the Holy Spirit’s missionary strategy?” My point was that the Holy Spirit’s strategy was Paul’s as well, and that we should be able to use this model in our ministry in the twenty-first century.

This anecdote gets at a serious problem for students of the book of Acts. Did Paul have some sort of a plan for world evangelism? If he did, how can we adopt that strategy for modern mission? Should the modern church try and replicate Paul’s method in evangelism and church planting? Or better, is it even possible to do mission in the same way that Paul did? Eckhard Schnabel deals with this problem at length in Paul the Missionary. I plan on blogging through large sections of this book over the next four months as I teach through the book of Acts this semester.

Schnabel defines mission in terms of intention and movement. Someone on a “mission” is sent out by an authority and the mission is defined by the sending party rather than the going party. Geographical movement depends solely on the nature of the mission. Schnabel points out that this is exactly the description of Jesus we find in the Gospel of John. Jesus was sent by the Father and does nothing but the will of the Father. In turn, Paul describes himself as sent by Jesus Christ and God the Father for the purpose of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 1:1).

So did Paul have a strategy or method in his ministry? Was there an actual plan in his mind, or did he simply following the prompting of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps the answer is “yes.” Schnabel cites J. Herbert Kane: Paul had a “flexible modus operandi developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and subject to his direction and control.” (Christian Mission in Biblical Perspective [Baker, 1976], 73). Paul claims to be led by the Spirit, but he also seems to have a logical plan in mind to get the Gospel into places where it will flourish and reach the most people.

Another recent attempt to discuss this problem is Paul’s Missionary Methods, edited by Robert Plummer and John Terry (IVP, 2012). This book revisits the classic book on Paul’s methods by Roland Allen and attempts to ask (and answer) the same question Allen began with about 100 years ago:  Are Paul’s missionary methods supposed to be ours?  About half of the essays in this collection look at Paul’s methods (content of the gospel, ecclesiology, etc) drawn from Paul’s letters as well as Acts.  The second half of the book attempts to show that many of Paul’s methods can in fact be applied to contemporary church work and as well as global missionary efforts.  As I read this book, it struck me that some of these chapters were actually descriptions of how modern churches do mission looking back to Paul for support  rather than beginning with Paul and developing a method.

Which is the right way to create a mission strategy?  It is extremely difficult to argue that Acts ought to be used as a model for mission since there are several (competing? developing?) strategies in the book.  On the other hand, I am not happy with doing what works best the groping around in the Bible to find a text that supports what I already want to do, or what works “best” from a totally modern perspective.

It might seem strange to even ask of the book of Acts ought to “apply” to the modern form of the Church. All Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. The real question is whether the Church in the book of Acts is a model for the modern church to follow. Is the book of Acts normative for Christian practice today? To draw an application from the narrative of Acts is no different than applying a story from the David. But few Christians would advocate David’s experience as the way we ought to do church today (presumably only harps for music in the church, and a strict no-giant rule). Acts is different because it does present the origins of many church practices still used today.

242Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice. For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3. Someone like Shane Claibourne would want to apply Jesus’ life of voluntary poverty followed by the earliest forms of Christianity. Often this is narrowed to just Acts 2:42 as a model for the ideal church (teaching, fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread).

On the other hand, most Christians dispense with Acts as a guide for how to “do church” today. This may take the form of a liberal Christianity which ignores Acts as authoritative for the church, but more often how we do church has little to do with Acts and we make no apology for this. The “Acts 2” community did not have elders and deacons, they did not have church buildings and they certainly did not baptize or take communion in ways even similar to modern practice. There are no youth groups, choirs, praise bands, hymnals or Sunday School.  They did not even take an offering before the sermon! In fact, if you think about the things modern churches spend most of their time doing, the earliest forms of the church did none of them.

It is almost impossible to know exactly how the earliest church services were designed, how they worshiped, when they took communion (or how they took communion), etc.  In most denominations, how we practice these things are based on developing traditions since the reformation or even later!  Few people make the effort to say “this is how they did it in Ephesus, and that is all we ought to do today.”

This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book. Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ). We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history! But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.

My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book.  There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission, and that shift will result in some difficult times for the early church.

Is there any way to decide what practices we read about in Acts ought to be “normative” and practiced in the church, other than “that is the way I was taught in my church”? Why do we cling to some practices (teaching and fellowship) but reject others (voluntary poverty)?

Theo LukeThere is a third element of the book of Acts which cannot be ignored. Luke is a theologian and his book is telling the reader about the work of God in the world. He has wide variety of theological interests, such as how God’s plan is unfolding in history, or the movement of the Holy Spirit as the gospel moves into new areas of the world. Darrell Bock’s recent The Theology Luke/Acts demonstrates that Luke had many theological interests which run throughout these two books and there are dozens of books on Luke as a Theologian.

Luke’s theological agenda is the main reason he writes Acts. While he does preserve history in an appealing and entertaining fashion, his main point to present a particular theological agenda. Does recognizing the fact a biblical writer has a theological perspective mean he is “non-historical”? Not necessarily, but there are some thinks Luke simply never addresses which are a matter of historical interest because they are not helpful for his theological agenda. For example, Galatians 2 seems to indicate a great deal more tension between Paul and Jerusalem than Acts 15. If all we had was Acts 15, then we might assume Paul and James worked through some minor differences and found an equitable solution. Galatians indicates Peter and Barnabas were both pressured by James to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles. Luke emphasizes the unity of the church at the time of the Jerusalem council; Paul emphasizes his independence from Jerusalem in his letter to the Galatians. Both are accurate, albeit both men write with different theological and apologetic reasons.

I want to suggest here at the beginning of a long series on the book of Acts that the final verses of the book may very well be the “theological statement” for Luke/Acts as a whole. In Acts 28:31-31 we are told Paul taught “freely and with boldness” because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. The disciples of Jesus all endure trials and persecution as the boldly proclaim the gospel, including two who are killed on account of their testimony (Stephen in Acts 7 and James in Acts 12). Paul spends quite a bit of time under arrest in the book, often in Roman custody but occasionally he is subject to mob-rule (he is beaten and left for dead in Lystra, the mob at Thessalonica, the riots in Ephesus).

Paul also faced opposition from Jewish Christians who want to impose the Law on Gentile converts. From the letters, Paul sees these threats from “insiders” as potentially more damaging to his churches than persecution from civil authorities. Galatians makes it clear that if the Gentiles accept this “other gospel” then Paul’s efforts have been in vain. Divisions and factions in Corinth threaten to destabilize what was potentially Paul’s most successful established church!

But at no point in the book of Acts is the gospel itself restrained.  Peter might be put in prison, but the Gospel is still free. Stephen and James may be killed, but the Gospel is still free. Paul may spend years under house arrest, yet the Gospel is still going out to the whole world.

By looking at the last line of the book of Acts we see how Luke wanted to end the story.  The idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books. Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” The gospel of Luke concludes with the same idea: Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture (Luke 24:44-49).

Acts begins with Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming Holy Spirit which the Father promised to send (Acts 1:4).  This promise appears in Luke 3:15-17, but is drawn from the Hebrew Bible as well (Joel 2:28, Jeremiah 31:31-33). Acts is the story of how the fulfillment of God’s promise works its way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, ultimately to Rome itself.

I think this “theology of mission” holds the book of Acts together and may explain why Luke omitted some details we would have liked to have known about. Since unity of the church is important for Luke’s view of Gospel spreading throughout the world, he is less likely to give all the details of factionalism in the early church. Are there other illustrations of this theological agenda to be found in the book of Acts?

In the previous post I briefly discussed the problem of Luke as real history. I used the analogy on a film based on historical events. Luke was forced to select form a wide range of events those which fit his over all agenda and adapt what he did choose to fit the format of a short book.

It is obvious that Luke writes his story as just that, a story. There are elements of the book included in order to enhance the story from the perspective of literature. He intends to tell an interesting story, with foreshadowing and surprising twists. These rhetorical elements are not simply flourishes added as an after-thought; they are essential to the way Luke “does history.”

LukePerhaps the best example of this is the dramatic introduction of the main character of two-thirds of the book. At the end of Chapter 7, Saul is introduced as “approving” the stoning of Stephen. Luke then drops him from the narrative for a chapter to create tension.  The reader knows show this shadowy figure is, but Luke wants to build anticipation for Saul’s introduction. In chapter 9 Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is told he will be the “light to the Gentiles,” yet the plot line is dropped. Luke tells a series of stories about Peter before picking up the thread of Paul’s ministry in chapter 13. This is the work of a story-teller, teasing his readers with hints and foreshadowing of what we know must be coming.

This way of writing history employs a number of rhetorical principles common in history writing in antiquity. Philip Satterthwaite lists elements such as selection and arrangement of material as methods common in Greco-Roman histories. Luke selected some material and ignores the rest. For Luke, who Paul is and how he came to be a part of the Jesus Movement is important, what Thomas did after the resurrection is of no interest at all. By arranging the stories as he has, Luke highlights the importance of Paul for his overall agenda.

In fact, Craig Keener points out that rhetorical techniques were pervasive in ancient historiography (1:131). Although historians sought to restrain themselves, no one opposed good rhetorical technique in history writing. While Polybius was accused of over-using rhetoric to stress the importance of his topic, ancient writers all used literary conventions in order to write a history that was pleasing to the reader.

This makes sense, since no one really wants to read the raw facts of history. A history writer always struggles to find a way to fairly present dry facts in a compelling way. This is why children learn more about history from educational cartoons than their history textbooks. Telling a story of a child who witnesses the events of the American Revolution is more compelling than memorizing a list of facts drawn from American history.

There is some range of opinion for how well Luke was trained in rhetoric. While scholars like Satterthwaite think Luke was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions (337), but Richard Pervo thinks Luke’s use of these styles would be considered rather unrefined to most educated Greek readers (Keener, 139). Keener explains Luke’s use of rhetoric by observing that his target audience is not necessarily the elite historian. In fact, there was no “professional historian” in the first century who would have naturally read a book like Acts. No one will place Luke’s book in the same category as the classic Greek historians, but he does work very hard to create a compelling story in order to present the expansion of Christianity.

One implication of Luke’s use of contemporary Greco-Roman conventions for writing “history as story” is that his original readers would have understood his presentation as a legitimate history, even though it might not qualify as history in the modern sense of the word. I suspect one’s faith commitment to Scripture will have a bearing on this issue, but to what extent does this view of “Luke as Historian” differ from contemporary understanding of history writing? Does it limit (or exclude, some would say) the book of Acts as a source for understanding the church in the first century?

Bibliography: Satterthwaite, Philip. “Acts Against the Background of Classical Rhetoric.” Pages 337-80 in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, Volume 1. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.

 

When we read the book of Acts, it seems obvious Luke intended to write some sort of history of the expansion of the early church from a small messianic sect of Judaism in Galilee and Judea to an empire-wide religion which included both Jews and Gentiles. In the opening lines of the Gospel of Luke we are informed that a main purpose for writing the book was to create an “orderly account” which was “thoroughly investigated” by seeking out “eyewitnesses” to the events recorded.

Luke the HistorianThis prologue is similar to any Greco-Roman historian. As one reads through Luke and Acts there are any number of key figures and events which “fit” into the general history of the world. Figures like Augustus, Herod, Pilate, Gallio are all well-known characters. Luke uses geographical references to show the expansion of the Gospel west from Jerusalem to Rome. All of these locations are verifiable and there is nothing in these descriptions which seems strange to a reader of ancient history. (Setting aside Luke’s penchant for exaggeration, “the whole town” did not literally come out to hear Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:44!) Often very simple elements of the book are historical, such as the detailed descriptions of sailing on the Mediterranean Sea in Acts 27.

Yet there are some doubts as to Luke’s accuracy. Part of this doubt is the result of applying modern historical method to an ancient writer like Luke. There is an obvious difference between reporting a speech on an ancient document like Acts and a modern work on a historical event. But sometimes the motivation is more theological, Luke is suspected of hiding some information or ignoring embarrassing details. Worse, Luke is suspected of creating an image of the church which never really existed.

Let me offer an example: In the movie Selma (2014), the producer Ava DuVernay re-wrote some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches for the film. Part of this had to do with copyright laws for the words and licensing agreements for films, but there is no way to make a compelling film with a lengthy speech, even if it is delivered by an excellent actor like David Oyelowo! DuVurnay wrote “alternative speeches that evoke the historic ones without violating the copyright.” The speeches were “generally accurate” yet served the overall artistic and political goals of the filmmaker.

In addition to the speeches, there are vast amounts of detail in the film which can be “fact checked” against the historical record. These may involve order of events, but some a historical window dressing placed in the movie to make the viewer feel they are watching events in 1965. I do not know if this is true for Selma, but this kind of movie often has a car or television in a background scene. Someone notices it is not from the right time period and usually points it out (gleefully) on the Internet. And yes, I often looked up products and song references while watching Mad Men hoping to catch a few anachronisms!

One other frustration with a film like Selma is the huge number of historical events not covered in the film. Some of the criticism of the film centers on how LBJ is portrayed, but since I am not an expert on the period I am not worried about this too much. But what about the Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome” with King in 1963? As a Bob Dylan fan, this is a very important detail which deserved to be included in the film. The writer of the film would obviously disagree: Bob Dylan was not relevant to her interest and was simply ignored.

I suggest Luke did something very similar to this when he wrote the Book of Acts. He had a vast amount of raw data before him, most of which was oral traditions about the activities of the apostles. He did not have mechanically recordings of speeches nor did he worry about copyrights, but he certainly had to edit sermons to fit the page. When he did this, he was guided by his theological agenda and literary methods (as well as the Holy Spirit!)  Just as the filmmaker left out a great deal of the story, so too Luke leaves out details that simply do not serve his agenda. Obviously we cannot look at the original transcripts and fact-check Luke, since those no longer exist, but all ancient history has the same problem with reported speeches.

It is possible to read Luke as generally accurate about the expansion of early Christianity into the Roman world, the story he chooses to tell. Luke necessarily selected the stories which helped him tell his story and ignored those which did not. Does this make him a “dishonest historian”? Are there other factors (theological, cultural) which may have influenced Luke’s telling of the story of the early church?

Holladay, Carl R. Acts: A Commentary. NTL; Minneapolis: Westminster John Knox, 2016. lxiv + 608 pages; Hb. $75.00.  Link to Westminster John Knox Press

There have been several significant contributions to the New Testament Library series from Westminster John Knox in recent years (Marianne Meye Thompson on John and Eugene Boring’s 1-2 Thessalonians, for example). Carl Holladay continues this tradition with this readable and useful commentary on the book of Acts. Although several new commentaries on Acts have appeared in recently, including Keener’s massive four-volume work, Holladay’s commentary provides a balance of exegesis and background to the Acts without overwhelming the reader with details which may not illuminate the text.

holladay-actsA seventy-page introduction covers more than the usual authorship and date issues. Holladay considers Luke and Acts as a literary unit from a single author “possibly, but not certainly, Luke the physician” (5). He does not proved evidence for the literary unity until the end of the introduction, offering a few themes which run through both Luke and Acts. He does not engage any recent challenges to the literary unity of the books (Patricia Walter, for example) or the canonical problem that Luke and Acts do not seem to have ever circulated together. He simply points to the (obvious) evidence which supports the consensus view Luke and Acts were intended to be read as a unity.

The author is a “devoted Paulinist who was not only an admirer of Paul but also a strong advocate for his pioneering role in the church’s formative period” (6). Although any date between A.D. 60 and 180 is possible, he assumes sometime after the fall of Jerusalem, possibly sometime in the 80s. If Acts reflects knowledge of Josephus, the date would have to be closer to A.D. 100. With respect to genre, Acts is a history, but “we must be cautious against simply historicizing the Acts account” (13).

Holladay devotes sixteen pages to the textual history of Acts, identifying the major textual witnesses to Acts and classifying them into four categories. His fourth category is essentially the expansive Codex D (Bezae). This version of Acts dates to about A.D. 400 and is about 10% longer than the Alexandrian text. Sometimes the text is expanded to edify readers, other times there is a theological motivation (anti-Judaism, for example). But most often Codex D simply fleshes out details absent in the other textual traditions. This has led to the suggestion of two textual traditions for Acts. For some both were written by Luke (the shorter being the final, edited form, perhaps made after Luke’s death), or only the shorter comes from Luke with the longer expanded by incorporating notes on Acts into the manuscript. Holladay concludes that neither the short or long texts are directly traceable to Luke, but the short text is earlier (30).

With respect to literary structure, Holladay admits a three-stage geographical outline for the book makes sense, but it oversimplifies matters. Acts 1:8 indicates the disciples will be witnesses in “Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth,” foreshadowing chapters 1-7 (in Jerusalem), 8-12 (in Samaria and Judea) and finally 13-28 (the Pauline mission to the rest of the world). What this common structure overlooks is Paul’s back-and-forth movements from the east to the west, eventually returning to Jerusalem before being sent to Caesarea for two years and then on to Rome. Holladay suggests the story line of Acts is God’s activity beginning in Jerusalem as the center of Christianity to Rome as the “symbolic center of the gentile church” (32). But the focus is also on only some of the apostles, “effectively eliminating Johannine Christianity.”

Holladay argues Luke’s literary style is a clue to his theological purposes. Beginning with Luke’s redaction of Mark, Holladay points out that Luke consistently rewrites Mark’s colloquiums in order to appeal to more educated readers. Like other contemporary writers, Luke likes to use rare words, subtle Geek grammar and syntax, and litotes (emphasizing something by intentionally understating it, such as calling Tarsus “not an insignificant city). Luke frequent imitates the Septuagint as he narrates stories. The use of the phrase “it came to pass,” for example, reflects the Septuagint’s translation of the common Hebrew verb used to introduce a new story.

Since as much as 30% of Acts are speeches, Holladay offers a short introduction to Luke’s literary and theological strategies implied by his use of speeches. Ancient historians regularly included speeches woven into their narratives which often convey the writer’s own agenda. The example of Eleazer’s speech at Masada in Josephus’s Jewish War is a prime example. Josephus could not have any eyewitness of what was actually said, so the speech reflects the gist of what must have been said to achieve the known result. Although Luke did not have to create speeches out of nothing (as Josephus did in this example), the speeches in the book are theological summaries of how the apostles preached to the Jews, or how Paul approached gentiles living in Athens. Often Christological titles are embedded in speeches which imitate the language of the Old Testament (43). For Holladay, “each speech is composed ‘in character’ to fit the respective portraits of Peter and Paul (46).

The final section of the introduction is a twenty page survey of Luke’s theological themes in Acts divided into five categories. First, Holladay describes Luke’s interest in the fulfillment of God’s purpose and intent. This is a continuation of the promise-fulfillment scheme prominent in Luke. The community which formed around Jesus the messiah is a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (50). But Luke does not see the church as a “new Israel” or is the category “Israel” used to understand the church (51). Second, Acts presents the church as faithful Christian witnesses in both the context of early Christian preaching and in scriptural promise-fulfillment. Third, Luke presents the early church as politically harmless yet socially redemptive (56). Roman authorities see the church as an extension of Judaism (a sect of the Nazarenes) who are often peaceful victims of violence. Christianity is portrayed as a socially constructive community which has characteristics appearing to culturally sophisticated Hellenists (57). Fourth, the church as an extension of Jesus’s ministry as it suffers persecution as a result of preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ. Finally, Luke describes the church as divinely favored. The “God who acts” works through Holy Spirit to foster a generous community of the Holy Spirit (67).

The body of the commentary present each pericope as translated by Holladay with lexical and textual notes following. All Greek appears in transliteration and syntactical issues are minimal. Holladay’s exposition sets the text in historical context. For example, when introducing Paul’s time in Ephesus, Holladay offers two pages of background material necessary for understanding the story Luke tells. Recent commentaries on Acts have tended to expand this background material beyond what is necessary, much of which can be found in a quality Bible Dictionary in the first place.

Footnotes in the body of the commentary cite parallel biblical material, lexical notes, parallel ancient works (for example, Josephus), geographical notes, and occasional reference to secondary literature. Since the New Testament Library focuses on the interpretation of the text rather than surveying various opinions in other commentaries, reference to secondary literature rare in the commentary. This lack of constant reference to other commentaries makes for a reading commentary and ought not to imply the author has no knowledge of “the literature” on the book of Acts. Holladay has certainly done the work required to read the text of Acts with clarity.

Because there are three versions of Paul’s conversion in Acts, Holladay offers a nineteen page excursus on Saul’s conversion/call (203-222). He recognizes the event has elements of both a conversion and a prophetic call and uses the double expression throughout the excursus. Although there are variations between the accounts, Holladay points out four key common elements (Paul as a persecutor, the Damascus Road experience, the risen Lord’s commission to Saul and Paul’s subsequent preaching activity). He compares this composite narrative to the version of Paul’s conversion found in Galatians 1:13-24. There are several differences, especially in terms of Paul’s response to his vision. In Galatians he immediately preaches in the Synagogues and for three years in Arabia before finally coming to Jerusalem to briefly become acquainted with the Apostles. Holladay considers this “quite remarkable” (216) and he tends to follow Stendahl’s suggestion that in Galatians Paul presents his experience as a prophetic call while Luke emphasizes the Damascus Road experience. More important that sorting out the historical data is Luke’s theological understanding of Paul’s conversion/call. Luke understands the story of Saul’s persecution as authentic and his preaching as originating from the moment of his calling. For Holladay, although Paul is not formally called an apostle, he is accepted by the apostles and his mission to the Gentiles comes out of Jerusalem as opposed to Antioch.

Conclusion. Carl Holladay has made a significant contribution to the study of the book of Acts, although falling short of the recent encyclopedic commentaries on the book. The result is a commentary useful for both professionals and laymen as the preach and teach the book of Acts

 

NB: Thanks to Westminster John Knox Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Dunn, James D. G. The Acts of the Apostles. Foreword by Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 421 pp. Pb; $32.   Link to Eerdmans  

This is not a new commentary from Dunn, but a reprint of the 1996 Epworth commentary. Unfortunately the book has been out of print for many years and is often outrageously overpriced from some book sellers (this is not the case for any other out of print Epworth commentary as far as I can tell). I happened to buy my copy at a local store for a reasonable price, but for most the commentary has been inaccessible. Some material from that commentary ended up in Dunn’s Beginning at Jerusalem (Eerdmans, 2009).

When I published my Top Five Commentaries on the Book of Acts in 2012 I included Beginning at Jerusalem simply because it was more comprehensive and easer to purchase than the Epworth volume. With the reprinting of this Dunn-Acts-of-the-Apostlescommentary students of the book of Acts have access to a deceptively simple commentary on Acts. This is a commentary which provides what is necessary to understand the book of Acts without becoming overwhelmed a thousand details.

As McKnight says in his introduction, there are several massive commentaries available, including the exhaustive four-volume set by Craig Keener (Baker, 2012-2015). It is something of a shock to realize Dunn’s commentary is less than 10% of Keener’s page count, and Keener’s volumes are larger in page size. One might ask in the post-Keener world of Acts commentary, is anything left to say? Simply put, Dunn wrote before Keener was first published, so one might ask, was there anything left to say after Dunn? Although his commentary does not have the encyclopedic breadth of the Keener commentary, it is the sort of commentary a pastor or Bible teacher can use to prepare sermons and Bible studies. Dunn’s commentary is more like what commentaries looked like before publishers became willing to print 4000 pages on a book like Acts.

Every section begins on the same page as the earlier volume, so students will be able to check this new edition even if the older edition is cited. I noticed some very small differences in the typesetting where a single word or two at the end of a page runs over to the next, but this will not affect citation. After spot checking ten chapters late in the book, I noticed the copyright page indicates the book is retypeset and new maps added, but pagination is the same. In fact, this is neither a “second edition” nor a revised edition, it is a reprint of the original with very little change. The introduction is about a page longer (using Roman numerals), updating the bibliography to include many of the major commentaries which have appear since 1996.

In his brief introduction to commentary, Dunn recognizes Luke is a history, but not a history in the modern sense of the word. Luke went beyond simply reporting and passing along tradition; he felt free to elaborate, expand and interpret those traditions. This is not to say Luke has created unadulterated fiction. With respect to the speeches, Dunn concludes Luke followed the ancient conventions used by Thucydides and other historians. Like the Gospel of Luke, the theology of the book reflects early Christian preaching, but theology filtered through Luke’s unique concerns.

The body of the commentary progresses through the book in small units, sometimes a few verses other sections include whole paragraphs. His commentary is on the English text and he does not interact with the Greek at all. There are no footnotes or in-text citations in the commentary. This may be a cause for concern given recent plagiarism controversies, but this was the style of the original commentary. This makes for an extremely readable commentary. Since Dunn is not concerned with the minutiae of the text, one could read this commentary like a monograph. Although occasionally brief, Dunn using gives enough detail to help the reader make sense of what Luke is saying.

Conclusion. I agree with McKnight’s very brief forward to this volume recommending this short yet powerful commentary. Eerdmans is to be applauded for bringing this commentary back into print.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Padilla, Osvaldo. The Acts of the Apostles: Interpretation, History and Theology. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2016. 264 pgs., Pb.; $26.00 Link to IVP

In his introduction, Osvaldo Padilla says his intention is to do for the present generation of Acts students what I. Howard Marshall’s Luke: Historian and Theologian is for the previous generation. The third edition of Marshall’s classic study was published in 1998, but the original was written in 1970. Much has changed in Luke-Acts studies in the more than forty-five years since Marshall’s book was first published. One major issue cited by Padilla is the postmodern conception of history has changed the way scholars approach a book like Acts. It is necessary to engage “broader philosophical and theological questions” before approaching some of the basic matters of introduction (14).

Padilla-Acts-of-the-apostlesFor most readers of this book, the main question is about the history found in the book of Acts is “Is It True?” For Padilla, Luke is a serious historian who wrote “a dependable portrait of the early church,” but he is “dependable as a historian of his age” (19). If we demand Luke conform to the modern practice of history writing of the nineteenth century, we will be confused and disappointed by the book at the historical level.

In the first chapter Padilla deals with the issue of authorship. Contra Andrew Gregory, Padilla argues the tradition Luke was a companion of Paul goes back to the early part of the second century. There are many in contemporary scholarship who are not concerned with matters of authorship, whether because of a rejection of authority intention or because narrative criticism willfully ignores the historical setting a text (33). Padilla thinks it is important to identify Luke as the author claims to be writing an accurate investigation (Luke 1:3). Since the author is using a historiographic genre, ignoring historical questions must be addressed.

Second, Padilla treats the often contentious issue of the genre of Acts. Beginning with a “brief history of Genre Theory, he surveys several proposals on the genre of Acts such as epic (Bonz), novel (Pervo), history (Haenchen). With respect to the popular identification of “novel” as the genre of Acts, Padilla points out ancient novels are parasitic. Although they may take place in a real place and time, they rarely correspond to reality.

He concludes Acts is an example of “ancient historical monograph in the Jewish tradition” along the lines of 2 Maccabees (63). The prologue in Luke 1:1-4 contains many historiographic markers common in other ancient histories, yet Acts is unashamedly theocentric and stands on the foundation of the Hebrew Bible. Like 2 Maccabees, Acts presents God as braking into history to “superintend the movement of the mission” (67). Padilla lists a series of editorial comments which indicate the action is the work of God. One example will suffice here: in Acts 5:19 Peter and John are rescued from prison by an angel if the Lord.

But how does this identification help us read and understand Acts better? A historian claims the events described in the monograph actually happened. But with respect to the book of Acts, this must be carefully nuanced to avoid reading modern historiography into an ancient historical monograph. Padilla agues the genre “ancient historical monograph in the Jewish tradition” allows a reader to view the events narrated as actually having occurred even if it does not guarantee accuracy (72). A document claiming to be a history is not necessarily accurate (historians may lie or misrepresent facts, or be ignorant of all the facts). The history may be accurate, but it is not accurate because it used the genre of history. Second, the reader of a historical monograph expects the author to have been an eyewitness or to have interviewed eyewitnesses (73).

In the third chapter Padilla discusses Luke as a theological historian. Since it is clear Luke has written a theologically motivated history, Padilla must argue this does not preclude the possibility he was also a responsible historian.

In order to show Luke was a reliable historian Padilla compares Luke’s preface to Josephus. He compares Luke’s use “terms that would have raised historiographic expectations for his readers” (77) to Josephus, specifically πρᾶγμα (deed, event), πληροφορέω (fulfilled), and αὐτόπτης (eyewitness). Although a Greek reader would find the use of πληροφορέω strange (since history is not fulfilled), Luke is writing a more theologically driven history. But Padilla illustrates this word only in Luke, so it is less important for Acts. The use of αὐτόπτης (eyewitness) intentionally bolsters Luke’s claim of credibility for history (87).

According to Padilla the modernism of the late nineteenth century gave rise to the “professionalization of history” (113-16). History was seen as a science dealing with raw facts and rejecting the use of narrative features to write a proper history. When applied to a theological history like Acts, Luke could hardly be accepted as a “credible historian.” More often Luke is described as engaging in a pious fraud to support church unity at a much later date than the events of the book. Postmodernism, Padilla says, allows for an understanding of Acts that is both historical, artistic and theological at the same time (116-20). Postmodernism is aware the past can never be accessed directly and that “brute facts” are meaningless without interpretation. “Creating a plot” is the way history can be best understood.

As a storyteller, Padilla argues Luke compresses his information for theological effect. His example compares Luke’s compression of four resurrection stories to a single day. But he also compresses the story by being extremely selective. Although he mentions James, Stephen, Philip and Barnabas, Luke only follows the story of Peter and Paul. Much is left unexplained, such as how the Gospel came to Rome. Padilla argues Luke has theological motivations for his selectivity. Like any other ancient historian, Luke compresses his history by epitomizing or abridging sources. For example, Acts 4:32-37 summarizes the activity of the Jerusalem community. Padilla thinks epitomizing lengthy and complicated events helps explain some of the differences between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 (although there are other ways to account for the differences).

In order to assess Luke’s historical method, Padilla devotes two chapters to the speeches in Acts. After surveying several examples from Thucydides, Polybius, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Lucian of Samosota. Padilla shows there is a range with respect to how much creativity a historian may have in reporting speeches. For Thucydides, speeches were reported as closely to the original as possible and for Polybius it was “unthinkable to invent a speech” (135). But by the first century, Dionysius and Lucian were more creative in reporting speeches. Padilla argues Luke was conservative in his reports of speeches. In order to support this assertion, he points out Luke’s speeches are quite brief and often paired with another speech in Acts. Josephus, by way of contrast, takes a few words of Abraham in Genesis 22:8 and creates a lengthy speech. One option is Luke lacked sources, but Padilla thinks it is more likely Luke was reticent to create lengthy speeches, preferring to briefly report the theological gist of the speeches.

Second, Padilla surveys the speeches by examining the theology of the six speeches in Acts.

  • The Speech of Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41)
  • The Speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53)
  • The Speech at the Home of Cornelius (Acts 10:34-48)
  • The Speech at Athens (Acts 17:16-31)
  • The Speech Before Agrippa (Acts 26:1-32)

Padilla finds a remarkable consistency of theological themes across these six speeches, although is emphasis is on God, Christology, Pneumatology and Soteriology. This is not a theology of Acts,” but rather a theology of these particular speeches in Acts. It is at this point in the book I expected Padilla to come to a strong conclusion based on his thesis that Luke is a conservative reporter of speeches. If there is such theological consistency in the speeches, does they represent Luke’s theology more than the original speaker? Or is there a level of unity on these particular topics? I suspect one could show some distinct contrast between Peter’s two speeches in Jerusalem, Stephen’s synagogue speech, and Paul’s synagogue speech in Acts 13 if the theological issue were something like “who are the people of God in the present age”? While he has demonstrated unity, Padilla may have need to show some diversity in order to confirm Luke’s conservative reporting of speeches.

In a final chapter Padilla enters into a “conversation with postliberalism” in order to offer a justification of Truth-Claims in Acts. First, by “postliberalism” Padilla means narrative theology represented by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei (202). In general, postliberalism sees theology as a “descriptive enterprise” rather than apologetics, an enterprise that moves away from the truth claims of foundationalism and prefers narrative theology Using the resurrection as an example, Padilla points out we do not have access to the resurrection through a reconstruction of the “historical Jesus” or our apologetic argument for the resurrection. Rather, “we only have access through God” (243).

Conclusion. Padilla’s book is a useful conservative contribution to the ongoing discussion of the genre and historical reliability of Acts. He ranges from the almost mundane matter of authorship and genre to important philosophical questions of how we can know historical truth. By limiting his investigation to the speeches in Acts, Padilla has left many historical questions unanswered, but that is the nature of a short monograph such as this.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Marshall, Mary. The Portrayals of the Pharisees in the Gospels and Acts. FRLANT 254; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015. Hb;  €89.99.  Link to V&R 

In this important monograph, Mary Marshall answers the “comparative neglect of the Gospels and Acts” in recent research on Pharisees. Most scholars studying the “historical Pharisee” observe that the tendency of the Gospels to vilify the Pharisees limits their value as sources. Too frequently it is assumed the Gospels and Acts have a uniform, negative view of Pharisees. On the contrary, Marshall contends the Gospels and Acts are complex and each writer has an individual view of the Pharisees. Her goal is not a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” but rather to fairly and accurately describe how each of the four Gospel author’s presented the Pharisee in the service of their own theological agendas. She points out the Pharisees appear in all four Gospels and Acts without any explanation as to who they are or why they are significant (23). Josephus, on the other hand, does have an excursus explaining what a Pharisee was to his Roman audience.

Marshall, PhariseesIn order to achieve this goal, she begins with Mark as the earliest Gospel and argues Mark’s view of the Pharisees in “univocally negative” (66). The Pharisees oppose Jesus and his ministry at key points in the Gospel by challenging Jesus’ authority, either by questioning his behavior (Mark 2:15-3:6), by demanding a sign (Mark 8:11-15), or by engaging Jesus in a discussion on some particular practice (Mark 10:2-9, divorce; 12:13-17, payment of taxes to Caesar). Marshall thinks the challenge to Jesus’ behavior is not included to legitimate later church practice in Mark’s community (as is commonly assumed), but rather to convey his Christology and the Pharisee’s rejection of that Christology (41). Even the controversies over hand washing and korban in Mark 7 emphasize the “Christological implications of the Pharisees’ challenges” (51).

Assuming Matthew has used Mark in the creation of his own Gospel, Marshall examines Matthew’s redaction of Mark with respect to the Pharisees. Although Matthew includes all of Mark’s material on the Pharisees, it is possible to hear Matthew’s unique nuances by observing the changes he makes in his sources. For example, Matthew changes Mark’s “scribes” in Mark 12:24 in order to include the Pharisees in the request for a sign. She concludes Matthew, like Mark, is consistently negative toward the Pharisees and in no way reduces the negative implications of his sources. In most cases Matthew increases the visibility of the Pharisees in order to highlight their rejection of Jesus and the demands of the kingdom (123). For example, in Matthew 22:15-16 the Pharisees seem to have more authority than the Herodians (79). In 22:34-40, Matthew has omitted the scribe’s praise of Jesus and “portrays only unmitigated hostility” toward the Pharisees who only want to test him (89). After surveying several examples, Marshall argues a “motif of replacement emerges” in which the Pharisees are unworthy of a privileged position and are “easily replaced” (112). This is clear in the parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14). Although she comments briefly on the parable, Marshal refrains from comparing the parable to the Lukan parallel in order to argue for (or against) a Matthean redaction. She also does not suggest who these “replacements” are in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, although in her conclusion to the chapter she suggests Matthew is “defending the legitimacy of ‘Judaism’ ad the inheritance of the law and the prophets by his own community” (125). For Matthew, there is still hope for the Jewish people, but that hope is through Jesus, not the Pharisees. This implies a post 70 CE situation for Matthew’s Gospel.

Although there are differences between Luke and Acts, Marshall examines several themes which run through both works with respect to the Pharisees. First, the Pharisees have forfeited their place in the Kingdom of God by rejecting Jesus as early as his baptism (131). She examines several meals in Luke and argues Luke highlights an eschatological perspective in these meal scenes. For example, the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) is given in response to a guest who assumes he will participate in the coming messianic banquet. Marshall correctly connects the Pharisee of Luke 14:15 with the prodigal’s brother, both of whom represent entitlement and an expectation of eating in the great banquet (135). A second theme appears more clearly in Acts: the reputation of the Pharisees serves Luke’s apologetic function (141). Gamaliel, for example, is a prominent Pharisee who appreciates the apostolic message (although he compares it to other failed messianic movements). In fact, Luke’s apologetic concern is to show that the Christian missionaries did not deviate from Judaism, but are in fact in continuity with it (154). A related third motif in Luke is that the Pharisees were most sympathetic toward early Christianity. Acts 15:5, for example, indicates some early Christians were from the Pharisees and were still concerned with the details of the Mosaic Law (160). Luke has redacted his sources to show the Pharisees some respect, although Marshall rejects the suggestion there is an affinity between Jesus and the Pharisees (179).

Finally, John’s unique presentation of the Pharisees presents several problems because scholars usually dismiss John as a historical source in general. With respect to the Pharisees, it is often assumed John lumps the Pharisees together with chief priests, scribes as “the Jews.” The Jews then represent the unreceptive world (229). Marshall challenges this assumption as an oversimplification. It is the Jews who are the objects of fear and attempt to kill Jesus. Pharisees are part of the crowd and are associated with the arrest of Jesus, but they are not the “real opponents” in John’s Gospel as is often assumed (231). In fact, they are not consistently hostile toward Jesus and some (like Nicodemus) are potential sympathizers. This observation causes her to reevaluate the popular view of J. Louis Martyn that John’s community was formally expelled from the synagogue about the time the birkath-ha-minim were introduced in the synagogues. She concludes the portrayal of opposition to Jesus in the fourth Gospel “may not accurately reflect any real life opposition to his community” (241).

Despite eschewing a “quest for the historical Pharisee,” Marshall concludes her chapters with a comment on the relationship of each Gospel to historical Pharisaism. She points out that Mark did not write a book about the Pharisees, but about Jesus (68), so some of the questions which interest scholars with respect to the Pharisees will not find a solution in Mark. Matthew’s portrayal of the Pharisee cannot be understood apart from his view of Judaism. Although Marshall sees Matthew as representing legitimate Judaism, the Pharisees are out the outside of Matthew’s definition of what Judaism should be in a post-70 CE world (125). For Luke, it is not certain his audience had any contact with Pharisees (183), so the Pharisees in Luke and Acts function to convey Luke’s literary themes. For John’s Gospel she evaluates and rejects popular views of a recent ejection of John’s community from the synagogue because John’s portrayal of the Pharisees is not homogeneous (241).

Conclusion. Marshall’s monograph is an excellent contribution to the study of the Pharisees. The unique contributions of each Gospel are clearly presented. This approach is refreshing since the Gospels are not uniform in their presentation of the Pharisees. Popular studies tend to make the Pharisees the arch-enemy of Jesus, but Marshall demonstrates that in Luke (and perhaps John) this is not the case. This book should be part of any discussion of the Pharisees in the New Testament.

NB: Thanks to Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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