Acts 21 – Arrested in Jerusalem

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In his recent book on the early church, James Dunn observes that Luke devotes about one-quarter of his book to the arrest and trials of Paul (Beginning from Jerusalem, 958). This tells us a great deal about Luke’s agenda in the book of Acts – his interest is in Paul as the apostle responsible for the westward expansion of the church. He spends more time describing Paul’s “passion” than he does any other character in the book, including Jesus! We have a chapter on Stephen the first martyr, a brief notice of John the Baptist’s death, and only a line on James the apostle. The fate of the other members of the apostolic community are simply not mentioned by Luke.

In his trials in Acts 21-28, Paul fulfills his commission to be the light to the Gentiles, bringing the message of Christ the Gentiles, kings and sons of Israel (9:15-16, repeated in 22:15-21, 26:18-19). He will stand before the people of Jerusalem, Roman governors (Felix and Festus), and the King of the Jews, Agrippa II.

But what is it that happens in Jerusalem? The Jews report that there are extremists among their church that think that Paul has “apostisized”, that he is teaching that Gentiles should turn away from the Law (vs. 21). Is this true?

It is true that Paul taught that Gentiles were not under the law, in fact, in Galatians he is quite strong in his condemnation of these same zealots who were teaching the Gentiles to keep the law. With respect to Jews, it is true that we do not have a text which clearly indicates that he 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.

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, for example, and he had made a vow while in Corinth. Later he will claim that he has continued to keep the law, although one wonders to what extent he kept the boundary markers of the Law these conservatives Jews would have expected from him.

Ben Witherington seems to allow for more possibility that Paul taught that traditions were not required (Acts, 648). Certainly Galatians could be read as a repudiation of the Law, although it seems that Paul only has in mind Gentile converts. In the end, that may still be the heart of the problem – what 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.