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Orlando, Robert. Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. Eugene Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014. 174 pp. Pb; $23. Link to Wipf & Stock
A “Polite Bribe” refers to Paul’s collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Robert Orlando’s thesis is that Paul needed the approval of Jerusalem in order to continue to preach the Gospel. He therefore agreed to give a gift to the Jerusalem church in exchange for their approval to preach his Gospel to the Gentiles.
Orlando understands one of the main problems for Paul was his continual “battle with this sense of legitimacy as an apostle and as a missionary to the Gentiles” (xxiii). As evidence for this is the Galatians 2, Paul’s conflict with “men from James” and the subsequent rejection of table fellowship by Barnabas and Peter. Orlando paints a vivid picture of Paul’s Gospel as radical and “counterintuitive” to the majority of early (Jewish) Christians (29).
There does seem to be a deep division between James as a leader of the Jerusalem church, Peter as a missionary along the fringes of Judaism and Paul, who was appointed by Jesus to go directly to the Gentiles. In Acts, Luke does tend to smooth over these divisions in favor of presenting the early church as more united than perhaps it really was. The Antioch Incident (Galatians 2), the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and Paul’s arrest after he returned to Jerusalem with the Collection (Acts 21:17-22:29) are all evidence of a sharp struggle between Paul and other early Christians who considered the Law as required even for Gentiles. This is especially a problem when Jews and Gentiles shared meals and celebrated Communion together.
At the heart of Orlando’s thesis is his assumption Paul needed (or wanted) approval from the original apostles. There are two problems with this assumption. Is there any evidence the original Twelve or James had an interest in appointing additional apostles? When Judas died he was replaced, but this is prior to Pentecost (Acts 1). After James the son of Zebedee is killed in Acts 12, there appears to be no effort to replace him as one of the Twelve. When there is need for leadership among the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem, they are told to appoint their own leaders (who are not called apostles, Acts 6). It is not as though the Twelve constitute a governing body for the church who have the authority to authorize preachers of the Gospel.
Second, a fair reading of Galatians 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 10-11 should be enough evidence to indicate Paul was not overly concerned what the Jerusalem church thought of his mission to the Gentiles. He claims an independent apostleship based on his encounter with Jesus. I agree he would have preferred to have the “right hand of fellowship” from Jerusalem, but he does not seem to have ever claimed to be working under the authority of Jerusalem, the Twelve, or James.
Orlando’s most remarkable suggestion that James and the original apostles required a monetary gift in exchange for their approval of Paul as an apostle. He describes this as a kind of Temple Tax imposed on Gentiles to assist the poor, James had his followers in Jerusalem (59). It is true James asked Paul to remember the poor, the very thing Paul was “eager to do “(Gal 2:10). It is even probably the case James understood the “poor” to be his Jerusalem church which was still living in common in anticipation of the return of Christ. But to describe this as a price paid for authorization to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles runs far past what the evidence could prove. Paul does not hurry back to Jerusalem in Acts 20-21 in order to offer a bribe to James, but to arrive on the day of Pentecost with a gift from the Gentile churches. He wants to evoke memories of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2 when the Spirit of God was first poured out on the Jewish believers. For Paul, the Collection is a first-fruits offering from the Gentiles to those who were followers of Jesus from the beginning.
Orlando is indebted to the old History of Religions view that Paul adapted Greek and Roman myth better present the Gospel to Gentiles. For example, he says on several occasions Paul used the dying and rising god myths from Greek mystery religions (85), stating that Paul need “secret wisdom in order to avoid critique: in the public square. As a result this commitment to Paul’s adoption of Mithraism, he often misses the Jewish foundations of Paul’s theology. One result of the explosion of studies in the tradition of the New Perspective on Paul is an awareness of just how Jewish Paul remained after his so-called conversion. Orlando’s presentation on circumcision, for example, is described in terms of modern practices which were not necessarily present in the first century (metzizah b’peh, for example).
There are several bold assertions which would be hard to support from evidence. Orlando explains Paul’s desire to launch a final journey to Spain, the “end of the known world” as an attempt to “trigger the second coming of Christ” (84). For Orlando, this is in fact Paul’s motivation for dispensing with food laws and circumcision for Gentiles, God was about to “dissolve the distinctions between Jew and Greek in the Kingdom” (37). It would be very difficult to support this assertion from the letters of Paul or the book of Acts, and “dissolving the distinction between Jew and Gentile” is not part of any Second Temple period Jewish expectations for the coming Kingdom! Fourth Ezra, for example, sees no future for Gentiles in the Kingdom at all (nor for most Jews, for that matter).
According to Orlando, Paul was dispatched to Antioch to work as a protégé under Barnabas in Antioch (35), although in Acts Barnabas seeks out Paul because Gentiles are responding to the Gospel in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). For some reason Orlando omits the mission to Cypress in Acts 13. Luke uses the symbolic miracle, Paul’s blinding of Bar-Jesus, to indicate a shift from Barnabas to Paul. Luke then follows that miracle with a detailed synagogue sermon which presents Paul’s understanding of what God is doing in the present age. Rather than focus on this data, Orlando describes a breach between Paul and Barnabas: “he’d had enough” of Paul and returned to Antioch where he eroded Paul’s relationship with the church (44). It is not Barnabas who leaves Paul, but John Mark. Paul and Barnabas continue as partners through the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and only split when Barnabas insists on restoring John Mark to the ministry team.
Assuming an imprisonment in Ephesus, Orlando asserts Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from prison in a state of despair, “possibly a loss of faith” (93), which he suggests is akin to a “nervous breakdown” (the title of the chapter, although he never quite states his in the text). To describe Paul’s ministry in Ephesus as “two or three years immobilized, probably ‘lying there and rotting’” (93) completely misunderstands how Luke presents Paul in Acts 19. Although Paul may have been imprisoned for a time in Ephesus (and he probably wrote Philippians during that time in prison), he evidently spent at least two years teaching and preaching so that “all Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:9-10). Rather than “lying there are rotting” Paul established churches and trained people to plant additional churches (Epaphras and Colossae, for example).
Orlando is a film-maker and not a New Testament scholar. He tells the story of Paul in narrative fashion with little awareness of scholarship on Luke-Acts or Paul. Often his source for a particularly striking idea is not the text of the New Testament or a published commentary or monograph, but an interview from his film, A Polite Bribe. This would be unacceptable in a scholarly monograph, but since this book is a companion to the film, it is less problematic.
Sometimes his sense of story-telling goes beyond the evidence. He presents his idea of starting the story of the church with Paul rather than the Gospels as a new and groundbreaking idea. This is not exactly news to biblical scholars, especially those who focus on the writing of Paul. For example, Jens Schröter contributed an article to Paul and the Heritage of Israel (LNTS 452; T&T Clark, 2012) on “Paul the Founder of the Church: Reflections and Reception of Paul in the Acts of the Apostle sand the Pastoral Epistles.” Certainly Reformation theology stands on the foundation of Paul and his epistles.
One additional concern: the book seems to breathe the air of conspiracy. This is a byproduct of the presentation of the book as a film, since a documentary which claims to uncover some dark secret suppressed by the Church is likely to be more popular. For example, Paul’s Jewish opponents “hatch a conspiracy against him” in Corinth (73). This was more or less a standard Roman lawsuit and not a “conspiracy.” It was common problem in Roman culture and Paul treats it 1 Corinthians 6. Orlando detects a “shipboard conspiracy” against Paul on the trip to Jerusalem forcing them to return to shore (107). There is not much evidence for this in the text; Orlando does not cite the book of Acts, but rather an interview with Robert Jewett in his film.
Conclusion: A Polite Bribe is an interesting approach to the difficult problem of Paul’s relationship with James and Jerusalem. Orlando should be commended for taking Paul seriously and attempting to get behind the scenes of Acts and the Epistles, although there are many assertions in this book which will not stand up to close scrutiny. His narrative method makes for easy reading, although his non-scholarly approach seems to create some problems which erode the value of his main point.
NB: Thanks to Wipf & Stock for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
The Logos Bible Software “Free book of the Month” is Urlich Luz’s excellent Matthew 1-7 in the Hermenia series from Fortress Press and for a mere $1.99 you can get the second volume (Matthew 8-20). These volumes retail for $75 each! Luz taught at Göttingen University and the University of Bern in Switzerland until his retirement in 2003 and is one of the premier interpreters of Matthew.
Typical of the Hermenia commentary series, this is a highly detailed exegetical commentary which interacts fully with the text of Matthew as well as the best in critical scholarship. Luz provides detailed bibliographies for each pericope, analyzes the structure and redaction history (especially important for the Sermon on the Mount). The exegesis often takes into account the history of interpretation (see, for example, on the “Golden Rule” in Matthew 7:12). He concludes with a “meaning for today” section.
As is typical, Logos is running a giveaway- the entire Hermenia series (nearly $1400 retail!) This includes not only the Hermenia volumes, but the Continental commentaries that fill out the Hermenia series. This one is worth entering as many times as they allow!
I noticed only recent Logos gives away free books through Faithlife’s Verbum brand as well. This month they offer Wilfrid Harrington’s Revelation in the Sacra Pagina series for free, and John Donahue & Daniel Harrington’s Mark commentary in the same series for only 99 cents. The Sacra Pagina is written by the best in Catholic scholarship, but this should not limit their usefulness Luke Timothy Johnson on Acts in this series is excellent, I have used Richard’s commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians in the series and found it very useful.
Faithlife also has a Classics brand, Noet. They are giving away Caesar’s Gallic War. This is the two-volume Loeb Classical Library edition and includes both the Latin text and an English translation by H.J. Edwards. It is an older translation (and available around the Web in various forms). If you have the Perseus Project through Logos, you may already have this set. For 99 cents you can add Caesar’s Civil Wars to your library as well. You can enter a giveaway through Noet this month for the entire 20-volumes of Pliny’s Natural History in the Loeb Library.
All of these books are usable on any Logos platform (PC, Mac, mobile devices, etc.) You can build your Logos Library up with several excellent resources for very little money this month, so click the links and download the books!
The Logos Bible Software “Free book of the Month” is Gary V. Smith’s Mentor Commentary on Amos published by Mentor in 1998. The book was originally published by Zondervan in 1989, this is a “revised and expanded” edition. In the preface, Smith says the revisions are some developments in his own thinking about Amos especially as it relates to the “Sociology of Knowledge.”
You may recall Gary Smith’s recent Interpreting the Prophetic Books (Kregel, 2015) which I reviewed in May, or his commentary on Isaiah in the NAC series from Broadman & Holman. After this Mentor commentary was published, he contributed Hosea, Amos, Micah in The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2001). He has also contributed sections on Isaiah and Esther in Jason DeRouchie, What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About (Kregel, 2014).
In addition to the free book, Logos is offering Irvin A. Busenitz ‘s Mentor Commentary on Joel & Obadiah for only $1.99. Busenitz was at Talbot Theological Seminary before becoming a founding member of The Master’s Seminary. This commentary was published in 2003.
Both Smith and Busenitz represent conservative voices on the prophets, so there is little in these commentaries discussing sources for the prophecies or potential revisions (such as those suggested by Wolff in his Hermenia commentary on Amos, for example). Smith gives a brief overview of composition theories for Amos and conclude these theories risk “stripping the heart” from the message of the prophet. With respect to Joel, Busenitz dates the book early, about 860-850 B.C., although he does recognize there is no “easy solution” to the complex problem of dating this particular prophet. Likewise, he dates Obadiah to the reign of Jehoram and before Jeremiah rather than the later Exilic date. Both commentaries represent careful exegesis from a conservative perspective from scholars who are experts on the Hebrew language.
Be sure to get both books during the month of September and enter the contest to win all 16 volumes of the Mentor series ($370 value).
As a bonus, Zondervan is also giving away a book in the Logos library: Walter Kaiser’s The Promise-Plan of God (Zondervan, 2008). This is a “biblical theology of the Old and New Testaments.” Like Goheen and Bartholomew’s The Drama of Scripture (Baker), this is a college level textbook which offers an overview of the story of the whole Bible. Anything Kaiser writes is worth your attention.
To celebrate the happiest time of the year (the beginning of school), I am going to give away a few books on Reading Acts. I gave Jake Bodet (@JakeBodet) a copy of The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids. Mich.: Baker Academic, 2013) edited by Joel B. Green and Lee Martin McDonald.
For this week’s giveaway, I have a copy of Reading Luke:Interpretation, Reflection, Formation edited by Craig Bartholomew, Joel B. Green, and Anthony C. Thiselton (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005). This is the sixth volume coming from the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar and contains essays Luke and Acts from a wide range of scholars. Graham Stanton said the essays “offer fresh perspectives, especially on issues of method and interpretation. The essays are accessible to a wide readership, yet they are full of insights which will stimulate further reflection and research.”
This book is a brand new hardback and is my own copy. The only caveat is that the book has a different slip jacket than the picture above. I think it is the Paternoster (British) printing rather than the North American Zondervan printing. I cannot see any other differences. I bought the book not realizing I already had the Zondervan edition, so my bad memory is your gain.
Same rules as last week: Enter by leaving a comment telling me which essay you will read first. On Tuesday September 8 I will randomly select one comment and ship the book out to the lucky winner. If you leave more than one comment, I will only count one comment per person for the contest.
Table of Contents:
The Hermeneutical Dynamics of ‘Reading Luke’ as Interpretation, Reflection, and Formation.
Anthony C. Thiselton
NARRATIVE, HISTORY, AND THEOLOGY
Learning Theological Interpretation from Luke.
Joel B. Green
The Purpose of Luke-Acts: Israel’s Story in the Context of the Roman Empire.
Preparing the Way of the Lord: Introducing and Interpreting Luke’s Narrative: A Response to David Wenham.
F. Scott Spencer
Reading Luke’s Gospel as Ancient Hellenistic Narrative: Luke’s Narrative Plan of Israel’s Suffering Messiah as God’s Saving Plan for the World.
David P. Moessner
LANGUAGE, PARABLES, AND LEVELS AND WAYS OF READING LUKE
Political and Eschatological Language in Luke.
I. Howard Marshall
The Role of Money and Possessions in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32): A Test Case.
Reading Luke, Hearing Jesus, Understanding God: Reflection on Hermeneutical Issues in Response to John Nolland.
Stephen I. Wright
A Critical Examination of David Bosch’s Missional Reading of Luke.
Michael W. Goheen.
DISTINCTIVE THEOLOGICAL THEMES IN LUKE-ACTS
Luke and the Spirit: Renewing Theological Interpretation of Biblical Pneumatology.
Kingdom and Church in Luke-Acts From Davidic Christology to Kingdom Ecclesiology.
Scott W. Hahn
A Canonical Approach to Interpreting Luke. The Journey Motif as a Hermeneutical Key.
Charles H. H. Scobie
Prayer in/and the Drama of Redemption in Luke: Prayer and Exegetical Performance.
Craig G. Bartholomew and Robby Holt
ISSUES IN RECEPTION HISTORY AND RECEPTION THEORY
The Reception and Use of the Gospel of Luke to the Second Century.
Looking for Luke in the Second Century: A Dialogue with Francois Bovon
Illuminating Luke: The Third Gospel as Italian Renaissance and Baroque Painting.
Heidi J. Hornik and Mikeal C. Parsons
The Logos Bible Software “Free book of the Month” is Mikeal C. Parsons Acts commentary in the Paideia series from Baker. Mikeal Parsons is a top Acts scholar and the Paideia series pays close attention to the cultural and educational context from which it emerges. Parsons see Acts as a charter document explaining and legitimating Christian identity for a general audience of early Christians living in the ancient Mediterranean world
In addition to the free book, Logos is offering Charles Talbert’s Ephesians and Colossians volume in the Paideia series for only $1.99. I have always enjoyed reading Talbert’s work (especially his Reading Acts, which I still maintain I did not know about when I named this blog…) As always, Logos is running a giveaway for the month, this time for the whole twelve volumes of the Paideia series. Head over to Logos and enter the contest as many times as you possibly can, these commentaries are all worth owning.
Logos is also running a “back to school sale” (which is not unusual since it is back to school time and Logos runs sales about every three hours). Each week they will be offering a new book, and this week it is Claus Westermann’s Continental Commentary Series: Genesis 1-11 (Fortress, 1994). This free book is not exactly free, you have to share the sale on twitter or Facebook to download the book. Spamming your friends is a small price to pay for this classic commentary on Genesis.
Check the “back to school” sale next week for another offer.
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?
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).
But 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.”
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.
If Luke has carefully designed his two-volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such lengthy description of the journey to Rome. This must be more than an exciting story (did he think readers were getting bored?), nor was Luke trying to fill out a scroll (as if he was a student trying to make it to 10 pages for a paper). There are literary and theological reasons for Luke’s inclusion of Paul’s shipwreck.
First, Luke is traveling with Paul. On the one hand, this accounts for the details. But often ancient historians narrate a story up to the time in which they are living and then include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Josephus summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt and included himself in the story as a leader in Galilee. Thucydidies wrote a history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.
Second, there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus? Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?
Third, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.” Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way. As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire.”
Fourth, some scholars question the historicity of the shipwreck based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey. Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway. Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, it is thought that Luke is patterning this story after the archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.
There is something to the parallels and it may be Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story. Paul went to Rome, the best way to do that is by ship. It is entirely plausible Festus would send him off in this way. Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)!
While I think Paul did travel to Rome by ship and experienced a shipwreck, Luke’s theological motivation is that nothing will hinder the Gospel getting to Rome.
In his defense before Festus, Paul offers a his view on the Servant in Isaiah: The Servant is Jesus, who suffered for our sins (Luke 4:18, Is 61:1). There seems to have been some discussion of who the servant was; recall that the Ethiopian Eunuch was reading this text in Acts 8 and the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah appears at several points in the book of Acts. This is anticipated as early as Luke 2:32, Simeon’s blessing on Jesus cites Isaiah and proclaims that this salvation has come to Israel.
But the “Light to the Gentiles” in Acts 26 refers to Paul and his ministry. This is a rather bold statement since it might appear the Servant is the light to the Gentiles. Luke 2:32 has already applied Isaiah 42:6 to Jesus, but here Paul sees his ministry as a participation in Jesus’ messianic office as delivering the “light to the Gentiles.”
Paul describes salvation as “turning to God” and “opening eyes,” are both drawn from Isaiah 42:6, but may allude back to the paradigmatic miracle on Cypress, the blinding of Bar-Jesus (13:4-11). Like Isaiah, both Jesus and Paul ministered to blind people, both literal and spiritual blindness. The disciples, for example, were in need of healing in their understanding, so they might believe that Jesus is in fact the Messiah. Paul is sent to preach repentance to both the Jews and the Gentiles (recalling Romans 1:16-17, to the Jew first).
Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.
Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational (σωφροσύνη) words.” This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, which he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel. What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate. This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).
So Paul sees himself as engaged in messianic ministry (although he is a servant of Messiah Jesus; Paul does not see himself as a messiah!) This claim is rational, based on evidence and is both truthful and rational. Festus recognizes Paul’s “great learning” but thinks Paul has gone out of his mind-the opposite of rational. The Greek μανία can refer to madness or even delirium. This was an accusation against a political or philosophical opponent, or as BDAG says, “eccentric or bizarre behavior in word or action.”
For a Roman official like Festus, Paul presents strange ideas in rational manner, and he is impressed but unconvinced. To what extent can Paul claim to be rational in his arguments that Jesus is the Messiah or that he has been called by God to this particular mission? Is there a way to use Paul’s defense before Agrippa and Festus as a model for ministry in a post-modern world?