Acts 21:17-25 – Meeting with James (Part 2)

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.

Destruction_of_JerusalemTo 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.

Last Call for Carnival Links for March 2013

MarchCarnivalThe March 2013 Biblical Studies Carnival will be hosted right here at Reading Acts.  Consider this your official encouragement to send me links to blogs of interest publishing in March.  Email the links to me (plong42 at gmail.com) or leave a comment with a link.  What are the blogs you read this month which contributed to the discussion of biblical literature  theology, and culture?  What posts made you think more deeply?

I am also looking for more volunteers for the 2013 Carnival Season.  I have a few set up but most of the year is clear, email me and pick your month!  Carnivals are a great way to attract attention to your site if you are new blogger, but more importantly it gives you a chance to highlight the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.  If you would like to host a Carnival in 2013, send me an email  (plong42 at gmail dot com), or a comment on this post and I can contact you.

Acts 21:17-25 – Meeting with James (Part 1)

When Paul arrives in Jerusalem, he meets with “James and the Elders.”  As it turns out, there are many Jews in Jerusalem who are believers in the Gospel and are still  following the laws and traditions of the Jews (21:20).  This is not unexpected– Jesus did not come to destroy the Law and does not teach anything that might be taken as a rejection of the Law or Temple worship.  While Jesus may have rejected the traditions of the Pharisees, he lived as any Jew might have in the first century.

temple2James describes the Jerusalem church as very large, the NIV has “thousands,” translating the Greek “myriads.” While this might seem like a bit of hyperbole, there were several thousand people mentioned in Acts 2 and 3, so it is not unlikely that there have been additional converts in the many years that have passed.

But there is a problem.  There are some among their church that think that Paul is a false teacher  by teaching that Gentiles should turn away from the Law (vs. 21).  Is this true?  Certainly 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.

Witherington seems to allow for more possibility that Paul taught that traditions were not required.  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 (Acts, 648).

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.

James proposes that Paul prove his loyalty by submitting to the Nazarite vow along with a few men (vs. 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?

Acts 20:25-31 – Savage Wolves

Sheep Stealing

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).

SheepIt 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.”

Acts 20:1-5 – The “Collection for the Saints”

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.

Collection PlatePaul 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.

Reblog: “It’s Not Our Job to Make Anyone Believe”

This was written by one of my students. He has some good thoughts, interacting with Michael Bird and some things I said a few days ago here. Go read it, let him know what you think!

taczhompson

This week for my Acts class, we had to comment on a post about the city of Corinth being referred to as “Sin City”, and it brought to mind some rather significant things about the culture we live in. I feel like, too often, Christians look around at the culture they live in, and see no hope for the salvation of our nation. Or, we look at everyone around us, and make unrealistically quick judgements about how “sinful” that person’s life must be. The city of Corinth is often related to our culture, because it is assumed that is was an “un-ordinarily” (I’m not entirely sure if that’s actually a word) sinful city. The relations is that it is also assumed that our culture is the same level of sinful.

I have heard Corinth spoken with the illustration of “Sin City” so many times, I had never even questioned it…

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Acts 19:23-41 – The Riot in Ephesus

The riot in Ephesus (Ats 19:23-41) is an important story in the developing plot-line of Acts, although Paul is not really a part of the story.  We are told that the silversmiths fear the rise of Christianity in Ephesus, Paul’s companions are arrested, and the city manager calms the crowd.  The reader does not know what happens to Paul during and after the riot.

For this reason, some speculate that he was arrested and imprisoned in Ephesus, a time reflected in 1 Cor 15:32, “if I fought the wild beasts in Ephesus…”  The implication is that Paul was forced into some sort of gladiatorial punishment, although the text may refer to his opponents rather than literal animals.  If Paul was in prison in Ephesus, then he may very well have written Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while under arrest, rather than from Rome.  This is all argument from silence and not particularly persuasive, but it does solve some problems with those books.

Artemis

The main point, however, is that Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture attempts to “fight back.”  At the end of this attack on Paul’s mission in Ephesus, we are told that what Paul preaches is not against Rome nor is it illegal according to Roman Law.  This seems to be a major sub-text in the unit; Luke wants to inform us that the Romans found Christianity compatible with Roman Law.

A second problem addressed by this section of Acts is the “parting of the ways” – when did Christianity become distinct from Judaism?  As far as the Romans are concerned, in Acts 19 Christianity is still the same thing as Judaism.  In Acts 18 the Jews in Corinth argued that Paul was not one of them.  In the riot at Ephesus the crowds do not make a distinction between Alexander (a Jew) and the Christians.  At this point in the development of Christianity, any decision about the Christians may have had an indirect impact on the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most important theme of this incident is the fact that Christianity challenged the greatest pagan cult in the ancient world and was seen as a serious threat to that cult. I think that this is the challenge of the story – how has contemporary Christianity impacted culture?

The answer is (sadly) either “not at all” or as something which secular society mocks and then promptly ignores.