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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Published on December 18, 2016 on Reading Acts.

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

Dunn Epworth

Seriously?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

There are a number of similarities between events on Acts 2 and 3. Apparently Peter and John regularly went up to the temple for prayer and worship. While they were there, they had opportunity to preach Jesus as the messiah. The gospel of the risen and ascended Jesus would have been of interest to some of the Jews who were also at the Temple worship. Prior to both Peter’s sermons in Acts 2-3 God did a miracle to demonstrate the messianic age has begun. The coming of the Holy Spirit and the healing of a lame man are both based on messianic prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible. Peter clearly declares Jesus was the messiah and he was crucified in ignorance. But this ignorance will no longer be overlooked and judgment is coming. After both sermons thousands of people believe Jesus is the messiah and he is returning soon to establish his kingdom.

After healing the lame man and preaching to another large crowd, the Temple authorities arrest Peter and John (Acts 4). As Ben Witherington comments, Acts 4 is the “beginnings of the power struggle for the hearts of the Jewish people” (Acts, 189). For the next several chapters there is increasing tension and persecution between the ministries of the twelve Apostles and the seven deacons, culminating in the execution of Stephen at the end of chapter 7. Preaching the Gospel, as it turns out, is a very dangerous thing to do!

Peter and John are brought before Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (Luke 22:54, cf., John 11:49). The group which is gathered includes the elders and teachers of the Law, including the high priest Annas, and men from his family, Caiaphas, John and Alexander.

annas-caiaphasThere is a historical problem here. Annas was high priest from A.D. 6-15, his son-in-law Caiaphas was high priest from A.D. 18-36.  There are several explanations for this.  One possibility is that Luke lists Annas as the high priest since he is the real power behind Caiaphas (this is at least the view of John 18:13, since Jesus is brought to Annas before he is brought to Caiaphas, the actual high priest).  Caiaphas’s name has been found on a rather ornate ossuary (which does not appear to be a forgery, although Craig Evans doubts the name is the biblical Caiaphas, see Craig A. Evans, “Jesus and the Ossuaries,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 13 [2003]: 39).

Since whole Sanhedrin could have been as many as seventy men, it is unlikely the whole council met to question Peter. This is probably the high priest and his closest advisers and the questioning is intended to find out who authorized the apostles to declare publicly Jesus was the messiah (4:7). For Caiaphas and the others who were involved in Jesus’ execution, the claim God raised Jesus from the dead is more than just awkward, it is an attack on them as legitimate authority. They found Jesus guilty and killed him; God found him innocent and raised him from the dead.  Since Caiaphas and his advisers are Sadducees, they reject the possibility Jesus was the Messiah and especially that God raised him from the dead.

As Craig Keener points out, preaching in the Temple was not illegal, nor was healing a lame man or drawing a large crowd (2:1135). But it was extremely dangerous to declare a man who was executed as a false messiah was in fact the God’s messiah. It is a direct attack on the Temple aristocracy who killed Jesus. If the disciples continue to preach this message to the crowds, they will face increasing persecution from the aristocratic priesthood in Jerusalem.

Why do the disciples remain in Jerusalem? Could they not simply return to Galilee and preach the same gospel in a safer place? Why does Peter insist on emphasizing the participation of his audience in the death of Jesus? He seems to be attacking the Temple aristocracy directly, why does Peter not find a less-offensive way of preaching the Gospel?

Peter calls Jesus “God’s Servant.” The title “servant” was not usually an honor prior to the Christian use the word. Since the idea of serving God is so much a part of Christianity, we miss the impact of the word as a title for Jesus. The activity of a servant of God in Isaiah 49-53 is critical for understanding who Jesus was in Peter’s sermon. The servant suffered unjustly at the hands of sinners. Because he suffers Israel will be saved and he will be a “light to the Gentiles.

Suffering ServantMany Jewish readers of Isaiah would understand the servant of God as Israel as a while, suffering in exile until the time of the messiah. Christians quickly developed the idea Jesus was the fulfillment of the suffering servant primarily because of Jesus’ own mission as a servant. Mark 10:45 Jesus claims to have come to serve. Certainly the suffering of the Cross resonates with the suffering of the servant in Isaiah 53. The idea of the messiah as servant appears in other texts as well from the first century, 2 Baruch 70:9, for example as well as the Targum Jonathan on Isaiah 41:1 and 52:13.

The Jews gathered for worship, prayer and the study of scripture in the Temple courts would not have missed the allusion to Isaiah 53: the Servant of the Lord who suffers on behalf of Israel.  Peter’s words align closely with LXX Isaiah 52:13, the servant/child (παις) will be glorified (future passive of δοξάζομαι). Peter shifts the verb tense to aorist to refer to the now past crucifixion but otherwise the allusion seems clear. David Moessner pointed out several other words present in Acts 3 that indicate he has Isaiah’s servant songs in mind (cited by Keener, 2:1085).

In Acts 3:14 Peter calls Jesus the “holy and righteous one,” additional language drawn from Isaiah (41:14, 43:3, 47:4, 48:17, 49:7, 54:5). In fact, Isaiah calls God the “Holy One” frequently. Keener points out pagan kings would call themselves “righteous” (1:1091), but a Jewish audience would have heard an echo of scripture, Noah or Enoch were “righteous ones,” but most importantly the servant of God is “my righteous one” (Isa 53:11).

Finally, God glorified Jesus his servant by raising him from the dead.  A Jewish person in the crowd might have objected that Jesus could not be the messiah since he was dead – a valid point.  But the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and demonstrate that he is the messiah, since his glorification is to the ultimate place, the right hand of the father.

What is the significance of Peter’s allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah? To what extent is he calling attention to the whole context of Isaiah 40-55? This was a popular text among Jews in the Second Temple since it looks forward to the end of the Exile, is Peter claiming the exile came to an end with the death of Jesus?

Even though they acted in ignorance, the people must still repent (3:19-21). Bock says this text is “so important to the overall presentation of eschatology in Acts that each phrase needs careful attention” (Bock, 1:174). Why are these people to repent? Typically we think of repentance of personal sins, but in this context it appears that Peter has the sin of rejecting Jesus in mind. This is the sin which appears in the immediate context. Certainly personal sin needs to be confessed and repentance ought to occur, but that idea does not come from Acts 3 (and perhaps not even in Acts 2!) If these two chapters are parallel, then the “repent and be baptized” of 2:38 may very well refer to the sin of rejecting the Messiah as well.

Water and FireThe first result of this repentance is that their sins may be wiped out. The word here is “to blot out,” as in the wiping of tears in Rev 7:17, 21:4, or the blotting out of names from the book of life in Ps 68:29. The word was used for cleaning ink from a papyri sheet so that it could be used again, which in turn became a metaphor for obliterating something and leaving no trace. There are a number of Second Temple period texts which indicate that when the nation repents, God will forgive them and establish this kingdom. (T.Dan 6:4, T.Sim 6:2-7, T.Mos 10:1-10, 4 Ezra 4:39). In addition, there were at least some elements of Judaism in the first century which thought that the nation ought to repent and be baptized in order to see God’s messiah come and re-establish a kingdom for Israel. The Qumran community sounds many of these same themes.

The second result is that the “Times of Refreshing” will come. The phrase is unusual, only appearing here in the New Testament, and while the words appear elsewhere in the LXX, there is not exact equivalent phrase. The phrase has the idea of “messianic refreshment, the definitive age of salvation” (E. Schweizer, TDNT 9:644). There are, however, a number of similar phrases in the literature of the Second Temple period which indicate that the language would have been well understood by the biblically minded Jews in Solomon’s Portico that day. See 4 Ezra 7:75, 91. 95; 11:46, 13:26-29, 2 Baruch 73-74; 1 Enoch 45:5, 51:4, 96:3.

Referring to the coming kingdom as “times and seasons” is also common, especially using the Greek καιρός. This word for time has the idea of“just the right time,” or an “appointed time.” Jesus used it in Acts 1 when he told the twelve it was not for them to know the “times and the seasons.”

A third result is that God will send the Christ. Peter claims that if the nation repents, then the messiah will return and establish the kingdom promised in the prophets. First, Peter claims that God appointed (προχειρίζω) Jesus as the Messiah. The verb is used three times in Acts, once to describe Jesus as the appointed Messiah and twice to describe Paul’s appointment as the light to the Gentiles. (In the Exod 4:13, the word refers to Moses’ appointment, Josh 3:12 to the appointment of 12 spies. In both cases God is the subject.)

What is more, the ones who repent will participate fully in that kingdom. A major aspect of the Messiah’s return (in virtually every view of the messiah) was a separation of “real” Israel from “false” Israel. Jesus also described the beginning of his kingdom as a separation (wheat from weeds, clean fish from unclean, even sheep from goats). Those who repent are a New Israel under the leadership of twelve representatives of the Messiah.

When Messiah comes, he will restore all things (verse 21), a term (ἀποκατάστασις) which is also unique in the New Testament, yet is a theologically packed term. The sense of here is that creation will be restored to its original state. This too is a major expectation of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Second Temple period, the kingdom would be a restoration of the world to Eden-like conditions.

 

 

Peter healing a lame man is significant for several reasons. First, Jesus healed many crippled persons during his ministry, Mark 2:1-12 for example. Second, he was a well-known beggar who was crippled from birth. People knew he was unable to walk, and that had never walked in his life. He was not paralyzed or injured. Third, and most importantly for the point of Peter’s sermon, that the lame would “leap for joy” was a key expectation of the Messianic age (Isa 35:6). This text is similar to Isa 61:1-2, a text Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth and applied to himself (Luke 4). There is continuity between Jesus and his messianic announcement and the apostolic ministry of Peter.

Isaiah 35:4-7 … say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

Isaiah looks forward to a coming age when physical infirmities will be reversed and even the desert will be a fertile. In Acts 2 the Holy Spirit is “poured out” on the people, here in Acts 3 the Holy Spirit is healing physical infirmity.

Nicolas Poussin (1655)Finally, this is the first time one of the disciples does the same sort of miracle which Jesus did, albeit in the name of Jesus. This sets up a pattern in the book of Acts, as the gospel enters new areas it is accompanied by the power of the Holy Spirit as witnessed by miracles.

Nicolas Poussin (1655)Peter calls for the man’s attention and tells him that he has no money for him, and heals him in the name of Jesus. Why does Peter call for the man’s attention? Perhaps there are a lot of people passing through the gate and the beggar is trying to beg from as many as he can.

The man is instantly healed, his ankles and bones are strengthen and his able to stand. Probably the man had stretched out his hands to take some coins from Peter, but Peter grabs his hands and helps him to stand instead. The fact that he is healed fully and completely is indicated that he walks and jumps, praising God (verse 8). The “leaping” for the formerly lame man evokes the Isaiah 35 passage indicating that this is a sign the messianic age is dawning.

This miracle, therefore, draws attention to the fact the messianic age has to some extent begun with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The coming of the Spirit on God’s people is like water poured out on a dry and thirsty land. Peter and John are representatives of the Messiah and use this healing to call a large Jewish crowd to repentance.

If this is true, then likely there are other indications the kingdom is coming/present in the ministry of Peter and John in Acts 2-5. What else do you see here that might support this idea?

When Peter addresses the crowd in Acts 2, he argues Jesus’s death fulfilled God’s plan, and Jesus was vindicated by God in his resurrection and ascension. The death of Jesus was according to God’s purpose and foreknowledge, but humans are responsible for his death. There is a fine balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility here: God determined the death, and people freely chose to kill Jesus. Both of these words (ὁρίζω and πρόγνωσις) are theologically packed words. God was not surprised by the death of Jesus, but knew fully what was going to happen because he had planned it ahead of time.

Peter at PentecostBut Jesus is not dead because God has raised him from the dead in fulfillment of prophecy. Peter goes about proving the resurrection quite a bit differently than we do today. He does not mention the empty tomb or challenge the Pharisees to produce a body to prove that Jesus was really dead. Rather than pursue modern logical arguments, he turns to the Psalms and shows that David does not exhaust the meaning of the text. Since the messiah is to be a new David, the psalms Peter cites are turning into prophecies of Jesus’ resurrection.

Peter quotes Psalm 16:8-11, where David states his faith that God will not abandon him in the grace not allow him to see decay. Peter states the obvious: David died and was not resurrected and his tomb was not far from the location of this sermon. Perhaps people in the audience had already visited the tomb of David during their visit to the City. In the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam 7) David was told he would not fail to have a man on the throne. This text was also generally thought to refer to a future messiah. For Peter, Psalm 16 is a prophecy of the resurrection of Jesus.

To further his case, Peter also cites Psalm 110, another well-known messianic prophecy. There David is told that he would be exalted to the very throne of God and that God would make all his enemies his footstool. This prophecy cannot have been exhaustively fulfilled in the life David. Although David was given great victories, and he was the greatest king in Israel’s history, he was not raised to the level of the throne of God!

Peter therefore tells the crowd that Jesus non only rose from the dead but was taken up to heaven like Elijah or Moses (or Enoch, for that matter). In those three cases, the person was a highly respected prophet who did not experience death. Like the great men of old, God confirmed Jesus’ message by doing miracles through him, but he allowed him to die in order to initiate the new covenant.

Since Jesus fulfills the psalm which David could not, he is confirmed as the Lord and Christ (verse 36). This is the most shocking point in the whole sermon – everything which the Hebrew Bible looked forward to had happened with Jesus, he was in fact the Lord and Messiah. But Israel crucified him! Here the finger points at the crowd, since they were a part of the people who shouted for Pilate to crucify Jesus. Perhaps they followed Jesus the cross mocking him and watched him suffer before going off to celebrate the Passover with their families!

This is the real point of the sermon – God sent his messiah, but Israel rejected him. Thinking back to the life of Jesus, what are some additional things Peter might have included in this sermon? In what ways did Israel reject Jesus as Messiah?

Feast of WeeksThe imagery of Pentecost may be important. Pentecost is a pilgrim-holiday also known as the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. The holiday celebrated the firstfruits of the harvest. The Festival of Weeks was the smallest of the three pilgrim festivals, falling 50 days after Passover (seven weeks), the late spring / early summer. This festival included an offering of two loaves made with the wheat given in the firstfruit offering.

The point of the festival was “to declare God’s ownership of the land and his grace in bringing forth food. According to a tradition found in the book of Jubilees, Pentecost was the day on which Moses was given the Law (cf. Tob 2:1, 2 Mac 12:32). This tradition is based on the belief that the Israelites arrived at Sinai 50 days after the first Passover (Exod 19:1). Some scholars (Knox, Snaith) have made a connection between this tradition and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since Moses gave out the Law to Israel on this day, Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the church. Fitzmyer thinks Luke was aware of the tradition since there are some indirect allusions to the giving of the Law in Acts 2, not the least of which is the image of fire descending (Exod 19:18).

It is at least possible to see the idea of “firstfruits” applied to the Holy Spirit. The new age has begun and the Holy Spirit has come for the first time. But we also need to consider two other potential “Pentecosts” in the book of Acts. In Acts 10 the Holy Spirit falls on Cornelius, a God-Fearing Gentile, and he speaks in tongues just like Pentecost. Peter makes this point clear in Acts 10:47, the Gentiles in Cornelius’ home received the Holy Spirit “just as we have.”

But there is a third reference to Pentecost in Acts 20:16. Paul wants to return to Jerusalem before Pentecost if possible. This was a dangerous journey, especially since Paul wanted to deliver the collection from the Gentile churches at Pentecost if at all possible. Offering gifts to the poor in Jerusalem the Gentile churches indicates they too have received the Holy Spirit. Paul’s return to Jerusalem at Pentecost is calculated to highlight his “harvest” among the Gentiles. Three references to Pentecost are not unexpected since Luke repeats important events three times several times in Acts (Cornelius’ conversion, Paul’s conversion, the rejection of Israel, etc.)

Whatever the intended imagery, the day represents the largest crowd in the Temple area after Passover. Peter and the other apostles are able to preach to large crowds of biblically-minded Jews gathered to worship God in the Temple (Acts 2-3). Is there anything in Peter’s sermon that makes some use of this Pentecost imagery?  In other words, why is Pentecost the time God chose for the outpouring of the Spirit?

Bibliography: W. L. Knox, Acts, (NCB, Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), 80-84; N. Snaith, “Pentecost, the Day of Power,” ExpTim 43 (1931-32): 379-80.

In his Acts commentary Clint Arnold says archaeologists have recovered several Herodian homes near the Tomb of David, one of which is the traditional site of the upper room (ZIBBC, 11). I visited this room on my first trip to Israel in 2005 and recall being unimpressed. Although I was skeptical at the time, there is at least a possibility that the location known as the Cenacle today is built on top of the site of the original upper room. The Latin word cena means dinner, so the place is the “dining room.”

The Cenacle Today

The Cenacle Today

The evidence for this is an exercise in archaeology but also in traditional locations of holy sites in Israel.  Jerome Murphy-O’Connor has argued the location of the Cenacle in Jerusalem ought to be seriously considered as evidence for the location of a Jewish-Christian congregation in the second century.

The Cenacle is a building outside the south wall of the Old City of Jerusalem which contains the so-called Tomb of David and the Upper Room. As he comments in his article, “Nothing visible. . . has the slightest claim to authority.” The building was converted to a Mosque in 1524, which was closed in 1948 after Israelis took the Zion Gate. Since then there have been only a few archaeological studies of the site, but they have confirmed that there was a building there in the second or third century.

Two witnesses from the fourth century claim that there was a “little church” on Mount Sion as early as 130. Epiphanius was a Christian born in Eleutheropolis (Bet Guvrin) in 315 and directed a monastery there for thirty years. He claimed there were seven small synagogues left around Jerusalem, include a small one on Mount Sion which was “like a hut.” He then quoted Isa 1:8, which predicted that Jerusalem would be “ploughed and sown.” The Bordeaux Pilgrim also describes seven small synagogues, including one on Mount Sion. It is likely the Bordeaux Pilgrim drew on the same source as Epiphanius.

Murphy-O’Connor thinks this “little synagogue” was a Jewish Christian church. Both Epiphanes and the Bordeaux Pilgrim were Christians from large metropolitan areas and knew what church looked like as opposed to the general design of a synagogue. For them, the Mount Sion building was built like a synagogue, so it must be Jewish. On the other hand, if this were a church built by Jewish Christians, it may have looked more like a synagogue.

If the Jewish Christians returned to Jerusalem, it is possible they returned to the general location “where it all started” for them and built a little church. This indicates a continuation of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem well into the second century. What is more, it argues for the authenticity of the traditional site of the upper room, even if the present building is relatively modern.

Bibliography: Clint Arnold, Acts (ZIBBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002); Jerome Murphey-O’Connor, “The Cenacle and Community: The Background of Acts 2:44-45,” pages 296-310 in Coogan, Exum, and Stager, eds., Scripture and Other Artifacts (FS for Philip J. King; Louisville, Kent: Westminster John Knox, 1994).

 

When asked if he was about to restore the Kingdom to Israel, Jesus reminds his disciples that “it is not for them to know” when the kingdom will be restored. Rather than knowing the “times and dates” God has planned, the disciples are to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. To some extent, the kingdom is about to begin in the Temple in a manner which is not unlike what many expected. The Holy Spirit will fall upon people and they will speak the Word of God in power in the Temple itself.

Acts 1_8These men are to be witnesses, a very important word in Luke-Acts and this command is in many ways programmatic for the chapters which follow. In the chapters which follow, the 12 disciples are called witnesses 8 times, and the Holy Spirit bears witness on their behalf (Acts 5:32). Both Paul (22:15, and 26:16) and Stephen (22:20) are called witnesses in Acts.

The disciples are to give testimony of who Jesus was (the messiah) and what Jesus did (died for the forgiveness of sins) and what he intends to do (return to establish his kingdom). They are all eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and they will be witnesses to the coming of the Holy Spirit (in Acts 2). They are Jesus’ own personal representatives sent to report to others what Jesus said and did.

As in the modern use of the word, a ‘witness” often functioned in a legal context, giving testimony in a court case. As the disciples give their testimony in various speeches, sermons or other teaching opportunities, they are offering evidence concerning who Jesus is. This evidence can be corroborated other eye-witnesses. In Luke 1:2, the author claims to have done this already, confirming the events of his Gospel by eyewitnesses. That Luke himself is a part of the story after Acts 16 indicates that he is an eyewitness himself and can confirm the truth of his document.

This is an important historical point, since what accounts for evidence for a first century historian differs from that of a modern writer. As Keener points out, to call upon witnesses is common in other Greco-Roman histories. An eyewitness was the most important evidence a writer could give. Polybius, for example claimed that “sight is, according to Heracleitus, by far the truer; for eyes are surer witnesses than ears” (Hist. 12.27). As I suggested in a previous post, Luke can be both historical and theological, since the two are virtually the same in the literary world of the first century.

This commission to be the witnesses of the Messiah in Jerusalem is based on the activity of the Holy Spirit. They are verbally commissioned, but it will be the reception of the Holy Spirit which empowers them to preach and confirms the words of their preaching (through signs and miracles).

How does this theme of “witness” work out in the Book of Acts? How are the disciples witnesses for the Messiah? To what extent is “eye-witness” important in modern evangelism? (Or, is it?)

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Christian Theology

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