Book Review: F. Scott Spencer, Luke (Two Horizons Commentary)

Spencer, F. Scott. Luke. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2019. 831 pp. Pb; $50.   Link to Eerdmans

Spencer serves as professor of New Testament and biblical interpretation at Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. His monograph Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2012; read the 2012 interview “Confessions of a Male Feminist Biblical Scholar” at Eerdworld on this book.) He has also contributed a commentary on Acts in the Readings series (Bloomsbury1999), a volume on Luke and Acts in Abingdon’s Interpreting Biblical Texts Series (2011), Journeying through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading (Baker Academic, 2014) and the Song of Songs volume in the Song of Songs in the Wisdom Commentary Series (Michael Glazier, 2017).

The book begins with twenty pages introduction defining Spencer’s methodology for the commentary and a brief introduction to his view of theological interpretation. Spencer is not interested in writing a compendium of previous work on Luke. He avoids the tedious repetition other commentaries. He strives toward a “rigorously sequential development, mindful of interpretive journey” (5). The commentary has very little interest in redaction criticism. Spencer is not concerned with how Luke handled his sources, rather he wants to let “Luke be Luke on his own terms” (6).

Nevertheless, the commentary must deal with some introductory matters. Spencer chooses to avoid usual lengthy introduction typically found in commentaries. He is concerned about being caught in a circular argument. If he describes Luke’s Gospel in detail at the beginning of the book, then the commentary which follows is going to support those conclusions. He uses the example of authorship: If we assume “Doctor Luke” wrote the Gospel then we will be inclined to see medical language in the Gospel or read the healing stories differently as a result of that assumption. The fact is the book is anonymous and it is far better to allow that anonymous author speak for themselves. He does think the same author wrote the book of Acts, but he is not convinced the author intended a two-volume work from the beginning. This means reading backward from Acts to Luke is not particularly helpful. There is no evidence to two books were ever read together (there was no “boxed set” of Luke-Acts in the ancient world). This means the Luke commentary should not anticipate the sequel.

Spencer suggests the author of the third Gospel wrote in elegant style which suggests the author was “an educated, cosmopolitan Greek writer” (21). Although scholars frequently consider him to be a Gentile, but he could very well have been a Hellenistic Jew like Saul of Tarsus. Nothing can be known about the addressee Theophilus and the provenance of Ephesus is “as good a guess as any” (22). Since the author is at least one generation removed from the eyewitnesses, he suggests a date of 80-90. Following Parsons, Spencer describes Luke as a “historical storyteller” (639).

The body of the commentary does not include a new translation of the text. All Greek and Hebrew words appear with transliteration. Although there is some interaction with grammatical and lexical issues, this commentary is primarily on the English text. Spencer approaches the texts by means of larger pericopae. His interaction with other scholarship is minimal and mostly in the footnotes. Occasionally includes brief theological and pastoral comments on the meaning of the text. But overall, Spencer is a guide helping the reader to understand the text of the Gospel of Luke. This is an extremely readable commentary.

Like other volumes in the series, the book is divided into two parts, interpretation and theological reflection. Unlike the Matthew volume in the Two Horizons series, the commentary forms the bulk of the volume (608 pages). The biblical theology section is only ninety-three pages compared to about half the pages in the Matthew commentary in this series). He lays out a “minifesto” in the introduction outlining six key planks in his view of theological interpretation of Scripture. First, theological interpretation of Scripture should be theologically centered. By this Spencer highlights Luke has a narrative about God and his dealings with his people. The gospel is a theological biographical history written by an insider, someone who believes! Second, theological interpretation of Scripture should be philosophically expanded. The Gospel of Luke has an epistological and sophological thrust. Jesus embodies progressive knowledge of God’s will and God’s wisdom. Third, theological interpretation of Scripture should be canonically connected. Since all writings are intertextual, Luke did not write in ignorance of other texts. He wrote alongside other canonical gospels and the writings of the apostle Paul. These can be used to shed light on Luke without suggesting literary dependence.Fourth, theological interpretation of Scripture should be salvifically aimed. Second Timothy 3: 16-17 and John 5:39 declare that the purpose of studying Scripture is salvation. And this is a key theme for the Gospel of Luke. There is a “soteriological principle” in the gospel as tracing God’s saving actions in Christ. Fifth theological interpretation of Scripture should be a clear ecclesially located. Primary locus of Scripture interpretation is in the church. Readers read Scripture in some ecclesiological context. Spencer himself is a moderate Baptist with considerable interaction with others faith in both church and Academy. This context informs his theological interpretation. Sixth, theological interpretation of Scripture should be emotionally invested. This seems like an unusual point to include sense writing is logical but emotional. Biblical characters did not come with full psychological profiles. However, Luke’s Jesus is emotionally invested with God in God’s saving mission to his people.

His biblical theology chapter is divided into six sections. First Spencer discusses theological knowing in Luke’s Gospel. Here he focuses on the resurrection stories which demonstrate legs open and earthly theology embedded in the risen Jesus. There is no secret knowledge here reserved for insiders.

Second, Trinitarian theology is the bread and butter of commentaries using a Theological Interpretation of Scripture methodology.  Spencer points out several “Trinitarian moments” in the prayers of Jesus. In addition, there are several examples of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit in the context of sending. This includes the sending of the sun, but also the sending of the disciples.

Third, the section on “spiritual theology” focuses on Christian spirituality. Spencer is clear that spirituality should not be some sort of a free-for-all or anything goes. It ought to be guided by the Holy Spirit and scripture. He sees a hint of desert spirituality in Luke, Jesus is often described as being alone in the wilderness for prayer. An additional feature of Luke’s spiritual theology is his Focus on the human condition as lost. It is Jesus’s spiritual quest to find those who are lost. The section also includes a “rehabilitation of Martha” (667-74). This is a theological reflection on spirituality of both Mary and Martha within the Baptist tradition.

Fourth, in the section entitled creational theology Spencer points out several creation allusions in the gospel, which in turn allude to the redeeming events of the Exodus. In Luke, redemption is enacted through the sacraments, faith and works. Redemption flows out of creation has the natural work of a holy, mighty and gracious Creator-Redeemer-Lord. Sacraments such as Sabbath and Jubilee reinforce the creation-Exodus link. As Spencer admits, “none of this sounds very Baptist” (681). This leads to a lengthy discussion of how Baptist theology and ecumenicalism intersect.

Fifth, by “social theology” Spencer means social ethics (693).  The largest portion of this section of the book is a survey of Old Testament social ethics. Jesus stands within the tradition of the prophets as he reaches out to the poor, tax collectors, prostitutes, and even women. But Spencer is also quick to point out that to tag Jesus as a Marxist, a socialist, a revolutionary, or a feminist is anachronistic. That he is clear that any theology that does not include social ethics is not a full Christian theology.

Finally, passional theology emphasizes the emotional stir of the gospel. He begins with the emotional pathos of the profits, any outlines this over several pages. In the Old Testament “God gets thoroughly emotionally caught up in the lives of people” but he is never carried away into a rash or harmful or in reasonable emotion. Similarly, Jesus is not impossible in the gospel in fact he is described as compassionate towards his people. Spencer examines the Garden prayer in which Jesus his emotions come to the foreground.

Conclusion. Each volume of the Two Horizons series has a slightly different approach to doing Theological Interpretation of Scripture and how the author approaches theological issues which arise in the exposition of the book. Spencer’s commentary is a useful contribution to the study of Luke which does not get bogged down in technical details of redaction criticism, not is he overly focused on historical details. The commentary is a clear explanation of the details of the text, but he is always interested in drawing out the theological application of Luke’s presentation of Jesus.

 

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

Reviews of other commentaries in this series:

Book Review: Grant Osborne, Luke: Verse by Verse

Osborne, Grant R.  Luke: Verse by Verse. Osborne New Testament Commentaries; Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2019. 647 pp.; Pb.  $19.99  Link to Lexham Press

This commentary by the late Grant Osborne on Luke completes the first additions to the series from Lexham Press. The series has been published simultaneously in both print and electronic Logos Library editions.  For reviews of previous volumes, see John, Acts, Romans, Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, Prison Epistles, James, and Revelation.

Osborne Verse-by-Verse Commentary LikeIn the twenty-one page introduction to the commentary Osborne expresses traditional and conservative views with respect to authorship and date of the book. The author is Paul’s companion Luke the physician and he wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. After briefly surveying the options Osborne proposes the gospel was written from Rome A.D. 60-62. He also mentions briefly he will argue for a mid 50s A.D. date for the Gospel of Mark in a forthcoming commentary in this series. The dating is important because Osborne accepts the consensus “four-source hypothesis” for Luke’s sources. Even though he does not think there is evidence the sayings source Q was a written document, he thins the common material between Matthew and Luke represents an oral tradition. Respect to the purpose of the Gospel of Luke, Osborne argues the gospel was written to encourage believers to know they are part of a divine movement that is bringing God’s reign into this world. In addition, Luke wanted to convince unbelievers that Christ is truly the Lord and Savior of this world.

Osborne then offers a few brief comments on the major theological themes of the book. With perspective salvation, Jesus is saving purpose is evident from the very beginning of the gospel in the birth narratives. This theme of salvation is summed up in Luke 24:47, “repentance for forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all the nations.” In the Gospel of Luke Jesus is the son of the most high God and he will inherit David’s throne. For this reason, Luke emphasizes the Lordship of Jesus. As most commentaries on Luke point out, and emphasis on the Holy Spirit connects the Gospel to the Book of Acts. In addition to these theological themes,

Osborne includes a brief section on Luke’s view of the marginalized. In Luke 4:18-19 Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah 61 to show the Spirit anointed Jesus to “proclaim good news to the poor” and liberate the oppressed. For Osborne statement sets up a “pattern of social concern for the entire gospel” (19). Osborne returns to this theme when commenting on Luke’s beatitudes (6:20-23). He explains the eschatological reversal in these sayings concerning the rich and the poor. However, he is also quick to say that Luke does not condemn all of the rich. There are in fact wealthy followers of Jesus like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea. Osborne suggests that they understand their wealth is a gift from God and they use that wealth to serve God (171).

Osborne includes Luke’s well-known emphasis on women as part of his emphasis on the marginalized. This is illustrated in the story of the woman washing Jesus’s feet and wiping them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). Husband points out that she is the example of God’s grace and acceptance, not the male religious leader the Pharisee (210). He comments that “the women had a deep involvement in the ministry and mission team. As patrons they would have had some kind of leadership role, for patrons were at the core of the Roman socioeconomic system” (214). Later in the commentary he suggests that the women who were the first witnesses of the resurrection were among the women who followed him in Galilee (541).

With respect to the Olivet discourse, Osborne sees Luke’s version slightly differently than Matthew 24 and Mark 13. In those chapters, Osborne believes that the destruction of Jerusalem is in anticipation of the return of Christ and the great tribulation. “Luke however centers entirely on the former” (485). For Osborne, the apocalyptic discourse in 21:5-38 refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Whatever, this is not to say that Osborne does not believe in the return of Jesus. He takes 21:25-28 as referring to the second coming of Jesus.

As with the other commentaries in this series, the commentary is based on the English text, with occasional comments on the underlying Greek. Osborne does not include any footnotes to other commentaries or contemporary literature, and he only rarely enters into exegetical debates with other literature. That is not the purpose of this commentary series. Osborne’s intention in the Verse-by-Verse Commentary series is to serve pastors and teachers who are preparing sermons and Bible Studies on Gospel of Luke. Even though this commentary is over 600 pages, most scholars will find it too brief. Most Bible readers will find this commentary to be an excellent guide as they read Luke’s Gospel.

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

Unity of Luke-Acts in Current Scholarship

That we should even be talking about Luke-Acts or “Luke and Acts” is an open question in contemporary scholarship. It has become common in Luke-Acts studies to discuss several potential ways in which Luke and Acts can be read together. Following the outline of Pervo and Parsons (Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts), there are five factors to consider when discussing the unity of Luke and Acts.

First, authorial unity is almost universally accepted. Recently, however, Patricia Walters challenged this consensus in her 2009 monograph The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts. She argued the summary statements in Luke and Acts indicate two different authors. Walters’s study has been frequently reviewed so it is not necessary to fully examine her argument here. I agree with the common criticism her sample texts are too small to be significant. Although Walters’s study has convinced few, it is at least possible Luke and Acts come from two different authors.

Second, literary unity refers to reading Luke and Acts together as a unit. Since Cadbury’s The Making of Luke-Acts in 1939, it has become customary to refer to Luke and Acts with a hyphen, or perhaps a slash, as if to say there is a single book with two parts. An analogy might be Josephus’s multi-volume Antiquities of the Jews or The Jewish War.  In both cases there are themes and interests running through all of the books in the series and it is quite clear Josephus intended his Antiquities as a unit. In fact, there are no real segues in Antiquities at the beginning of a new book. In the case of Luke-Acts, there is an intentional allusion to the first book at the beginning of Acts and many have observed some literary connections between the end of Luke and the beginnings of Acts. Luke Timothy Johnson focuses on the literary aspects of Luke-Acts in his commentary, the most significant to him are similar miracles by Jesus, Peter and Paul. In fact, these are the only parallels most commentators notice between Luke and Acts. Johnson does state that “Acts should be read in the light of the Gospel: just as Luke’s first volume can best be understood in the light of these literary patterns established in the first section of Acts” (13).

Third, it is possible to accept a single author but reject literary unity based on the genre of each book. Mikeal Parson and Richard Pervo issued just this challenge to the consensus view in their 1993 monograph Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts (Fortress 1992). Parsons and Pervo do not deny the same author wrote both books, but they question whether the genre of Luke is the same as Acts. If it differs, were the books intended to be read as a unit? For Pervo, “The unities of Luke and Acts are questions to be pursued rather than presuppositions to be exploited” (Pervo, Acts, 20)

Fourth, unity may refer to the purpose of the two books. Did a single author intended a single, overarching purpose for a unified two volume work? For Johnson, “As a whole, Luke-Acts should be read as an Apology in the form of a historical narrative” (Acts, 7). Yet the purpose of Luke may be narrowed to Jesus and his death on the Cross, while Acts concerns the spread of the message of the Cross throughout the Roman world. These may be related purposes, but they are not necessarily the same.

Fifth, even if some or all of these other unities prove true, it is possible to challenge the unity of Luke-Acts by using a relatively new approach, Reception History. Kavin Rowe, for example, argues no one in the early church ever read a book called “Luke-Acts” as a single unit. Canonically, the two were always separated and it was not until modern scholarship that anyone thought to read them as a unit. Building on the work of Andrew Gregory, Rowe examines Gregory’s two exceptions which appear to read Luke and Acts together, and concludes these are not true exceptions at all. Both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon focus on the authority of the Gospel of Luke rather than Acts. In fact, for Rowe, there is no evidence Luke and Acts were ever circulated as a unit. Acts sometimes introduced the Pauline or Catholic epistles, but no manuscript collected Luke and Acts as a two-part book.

Nevertheless I suggest there are a number of intra-textual links between Luke and Acts that support a literary unity between the two books. The introduction to both books certain link them together as a two-part work. A real problem for reading the two books together (whether hyphenated or slashed) is that there is no evidence the two books were ever considered together in the early church. In every New Testament canonical collection, Luke is placed with the gospels, Acts is set off on its own (sometimes as an introduction to the Pauline collection, but not always). Even if Luke intended them to be read together, until the modern era, no one read a book called “Luke-Acts.”

 

On Acts and Reception history, see C. Kavin Rowe, “History, Hermeneutics and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” JSNT 28 (2005): 131-157; Luke Timothy Johnson, “Literary Criticism of Luke-Acts: Is Reception-History Pertinent?” JSNT 28 (2005): 159-162; Markus Bockmuehl, “Why Not Let Acts Be Acts?: In Conversation With C. Kavin Rowe.” JSNT 28 (2005): 163-166; Andrew Gregory, “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts.” JSNT 29 (2007): 459-472. [1] Andrew F. Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century (WUNT 2/169; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). Gregory responds to Rowe’s use of this work in “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” JSNT 29 (2007): 459-72.

Acts 28:30 – The Main Theme of Acts

The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But 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.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

Acts 28 – Nothing Will Hinder the Gospel

The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.

To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue to give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).

apostle_paulBut the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.

“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).

If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, and continue to harass him when he returns to Jerusalem in the late 50s.

While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.

We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.

The book ends by telling us nothing is restraining the gospel. Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment and there is nothing Rome can do to stop the gospel from going “to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 28:11-16 – Paul in Rome

Front of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls - Roma - Italy

Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome

Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem.  As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus.  Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.

It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost.  We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.

Ben Witherington suggests Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785).  This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus.  It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.

The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community.  To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem?  What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome?  (Or anywhere, for that matter.  In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!)   There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received?  Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him?  If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year.  Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.

This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul.  Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.”  He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.

Acts 28:1-6 – Paul on Malta

Just as Paul had prophesied, all the passengers make it to the shore. There they are met by the people of the island of Malta. The island was known as Μελίτη in Greek and Melite Africana in Latin. About 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Tunis, the island is only about 100 square miles. Since Carthage controlled the island from the sixth century B.C., Keener suggests they spoke Punic. He cites bi-lingual inscriptions from the period as evidence Punic was the majority language on the island (Keener, 4:3668). Some have argued the island was actually Kephallenia, but most commentators disagree with this identification. (Kephallenia does have poisonous snakes, see below on this issue.)

Luke describes as “barbarians.” The word βάρβαροι simply meant they did not speak Greek. Most English translations avoid the stigma of the word by translating the word “native people,” I prefer “the locals.” Do not think of these people as a tribe of savages from some old movie! These are likely local fisherman who saw the ship grounded and were waiting to give whatever aid necessary to the survivors.

The locals are “unusually kind” (φιλανθρωπία) toward the castaways and help to build fires to warm up. The word is rare in biblical literature, usually referring to the kindness or clemency of a foreign ruler towards their people (3 Macc. 3:15; TDNT 9:109). For example, Josephus used the word when describing “the generous and clement conduct of the Romans” (JW 2.399). The word is used by someone making a public speech honoring his benefactor, praising them for their generous patronage. Acts 27:3 used the adverbial form of the word for the kindness of Paul’s Roman escort Julius when he permitted Paul to visit friends in Sidon. They may be barbarians, but they demonstrate “they have the best of Hellenic manners” (BDAG).

While gathering wood for the fire Paul is bitten by a viper. The locals think this is a deadly snake and assume Paul is a murderer since he survived the storm only to be bitten by a snake (v. 4). Most commentators will point out there are no poisonous snakes on Malta (supported by the modern Times of Malta). BDAG suggests this was “vipera ammodytes, commonly known as sandviper.” But this sort of thing is typical of a good Greek story, the guilty cannot outrun their fate. The gods will avenge the murderer. Most modern translations capitalize Justice (ἡ δίκη), acknowledging the people are referring to divine Justice.

But Paul is not guilty, he simply shakes off the snake and goes about his business. When he does not die immediately, the locals watch him to see if he “swells up and dies.” Since he does not, they conclude that he is a god (v. 6). This is not the first time Paul has been mistake for a god (at Lystra, Acts 14:8-10). In both cases the local people do not understand a miracle and make assumptions about the source of Paul’s power based on their own worldview.

This is as far as Luke takes the story, but it is not surprising that Christian readers have wondered about this snakebite. Some have argued this is a fulfillment of Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents with their hands” and healing the sick by the laying on of hands. Aside from the textual problems associated with long ending of Mark, Paul does not strictly speaking pick up the snake, but in the next story he does lay hands on a sick man and he recovers. Luke 10:19 does say Jesus gave his disciples “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” Various writers in church history have considered this verse and the snake in Acts 28 as an allusion to the power of Satan (see Keener 4:3674 for references). I would suggest the story in Acts has influenced the author of the longer ending of Mark, Paul overcomes poisonous snakes and heals the sick, demonstrating his apostolic authority.

What is the point of this story of unusual hospitality? Joshua Jipp suggests this is an example of a common motif, “unwitting hospitality” toward a god. He argues Luke is drawing a contrast between these barbarians (who treat Paul with unusual hospitality) and the Jews in Rome in 28:17-25 who reject Paul and his Gospel.

For Luke, there is nothing which can stop Paul from getting to Rome. Paul has survived an assassination attempt, a terrible storm and shipwreck, and hidden (and possibly satanic) dangers on an unknown island. Whatever the danger to Paul’s life, God will protect him and bring him to the court of the Empire.

 

Bibliography: Joshua Jipp, “Hospitable Barbarians: Luke’s Ethnic Reasoning in Acts 28:1-10,” JTS 68 (2017): 23–45).