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When we read the book of Acts, it seems obvious Luke intended to write some sort of history of the expansion of the early church from a small messianic sect of Judaism in Galilee and Judea to an empire-wide religion which included both Jews and Gentiles. In the opening lines of the Gospel of Luke we are informed that a main purpose for writing the book was to create an “orderly account” which was “thoroughly investigated” by seeking out “eyewitnesses” to the events recorded.

Luke the HistorianThis prologue is similar to any Greco-Roman historian. As one reads through Luke and Acts there are any number of key figures and events which “fit” into the general history of the world. Figures like Augustus, Herod, Pilate, Gallio are all well-known characters. Luke uses geographical references to show the expansion of the Gospel west from Jerusalem to Rome. All of these locations are verifiable and there is nothing in these descriptions which seems strange to a reader of ancient history. (Setting aside Luke’s penchant for exaggeration, “the whole town” did not literally come out to hear Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:44!) Often very simple elements of the book are historical, such as the detailed descriptions of sailing on the Mediterranean Sea in Acts 27.

Yet there are some doubts as to Luke’s accuracy. Part of this doubt is the result of applying modern historical method to an ancient writer like Luke. There is an obvious difference between reporting a speech on an ancient document like Acts and a modern work on a historical event. But sometimes the motivation is more theological, Luke is suspected of hiding some information or ignoring embarrassing details. Worse, Luke is suspected of creating an image of the church which never really existed.

Let me offer an example: In the movie Selma (2014), the producer Ava DuVernay re-wrote some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches for the film. Part of this had to do with copyright laws for the words and licensing agreements for films, but there is no way to make a compelling film with a lengthy speech, even if it is delivered by an excellent actor like David Oyelowo! DuVurnay wrote “alternative speeches that evoke the historic ones without violating the copyright.” The speeches were “generally accurate” yet served the overall artistic and political goals of the filmmaker.

In addition to the speeches, there are vast amounts of detail in the film which can be “fact checked” against the historical record. These may involve order of events, but some a historical window dressing placed in the movie to make the viewer feel they are watching events in 1965. I do not know if this is true for Selma, but this kind of movie often has a car or television in a background scene. Someone notices it is not from the right time period and usually points it out (gleefully) on the Internet. And yes, I often looked up products and song references while watching Mad Men hoping to catch a few anachronisms!

One other frustration with a film like Selma is the huge number of historical events not covered in the film. Some of the criticism of the film centers on how LBJ is portrayed, but since I am not an expert on the period I am not worried about this too much. But what about the Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger singing “We Shall Overcome” with King in 1963? As a Bob Dylan fan, this is a very important detail which deserved to be included in the film. The writer of the film would obviously disagree: Bob Dylan was not relevant to her interest and was simply ignored.

I suggest Luke did something very similar to this when he wrote the Book of Acts. He had a vast amount of raw data before him, most of which was oral traditions about the activities of the apostles. He did not have mechanically recordings of speeches nor did he worry about copyrights, but he certainly had to edit sermons to fit the page. When he did this, he was guided by his theological agenda and literary methods (as well as the Holy Spirit!)  Just as the filmmaker left out a great deal of the story, so too Luke leaves out details that simply do not serve his agenda. Obviously we cannot look at the original transcripts and fact-check Luke, since those no longer exist, but all ancient history has the same problem with reported speeches.

It is possible to read Luke as generally accurate about the expansion of early Christianity into the Roman world, the story he chooses to tell. Luke necessarily selected the stories which helped him tell his story and ignored those which did not. Does this make him a “dishonest historian”? Are there other factors (theological, cultural) which may have influenced Luke’s telling of the story of the early church?

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.

 

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?

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?

Jesus on the Mount of OlivesWhile in Jerusalem, it appears that Jesus and the disciples gathered in their usual location on the Mount of Olives (1:6-8).  Some disciples asked if Jesus was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” at this time.

This question is reminiscent of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:5-37 (cf., Mt 24-25).  In Luke 21 Jesus has offered a stinging critique of the Temple and its leadership and walked out of the Temple through the east gate to the Mount of Olives. While walking through the beautiful buildings and gate, Jesus predicts they will be destroyed.  At least some of the disciples ask at that time about the timing of this event – is Jesus about to restore the kingdom, perhaps judge the current corrupt priesthood and replace it with a pure priesthood. This is the same sort of question someone at Qumran might have asked, since they too thought the priesthood in Jerusalem was corrupt and would be replaced by a more pure priesthood (their sect!)

After the resurrection, it was only natural to think that Jesus would now enter the Temple in the power and glory of the resurrection and begin to reform the religion of Israel and begin the process of evangelizing the nations.

Again, this was a clear expectation of the Messiah’s activity.  Beginning with the people of God themselves, Messiah would either convert the enemies of Israel or destroy them (depending on their response or the attitude of the writer describing Messiah’s activities!) Very often these enemies were within the nation itself.  Individual groups identified the primary enemy of a pure Jewish faith as corrupt priests, people who did not fully keep the law, etc.

The verb that is translated “restore” in this context (ἀποκαθίστημι) is a key eschatological term.  It appears in Mal 4:6 (LXX 3:23) and LXX Daniel 4:26, and it anticipates Acts 3:21 where the related noun appears in an eschatological context. The hope of Israel was that the kingdom would be restored to them as the prophets had predicted (Isa 2:2-4; 49:6, Jer 16:15; 23:8; 31:27-34; Amos 9:11-15). In fact, Luke began his first book with the hope of the coming Messiah in the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:69-74) as well as the words of Simeon in the Temple (Luke 2:24-32).

Jesus reminds them it is not for them to known when the kingdom will be restored, but they 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.

What is unexpected is that the kingdom would be given to a group of Galileans rather than a faction within Judaism (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) was not expected at all.  From the perspective of Second Temple Judaism as we understand it, these people would be the most unlikely group to be the witnesses of the Messiah to Israel and then the rest of the world!

But this “unlikely group” is another example (in Luke/Acts or the whole Bible) of God choosing to accomplish his goals through the most unlikely and weak things of this world. The restoration of the Kingdom begins with the preaching of two Galilean fishermen in the Temple courts, announcing the death and resurrection of the Messiah. Are there other elements of “restoration” in Acts 2-3 we ought to include here as well?

Common wisdom often equates the earliest example of something with the most pure form. Things were best in the “good old days” and we need to get back to those good old days in the present church. But the earliest is not always the best. It is also true ideas develop over time.  Sometimes the earliest form is simpler or more pure, but not necessarily better than the more mature forms.  While I might be nostalgic for my first computer, I am not really willing to go back to using a Commodore 64.

The argument Acts ought to be normative for church involves the practice of the early Christians, not doctrine. Obviously doctrine develops later with the Pauline letters and later Christians who seriously thought through who Jesus was and what he did on the cross.

Never Live in Good Old DaysThe book of Acts describes a development from an entirely Jewish messianic movement to an almost entirely Gentile missionary movement. There are distinct difference in practice between the Jews in Acts 2-3 and the Gentile churches Paul establishes in Corinth or Ephesus. Nowhere does Paul suggest Gentile believers live a life of voluntary poverty. In fact, he tells the church at Thessalonica to work hard to avoid being dependent on anyone (1 Thess 4:11; 2 Thess 3:6-12). The later New Testament documents have no system for appointing new apostles. There are few people who consistently apply the “earlier is better” thinking. No one should use Ananias and Sapphira as an example of what happens to poor givers to the church!

In addition, the book of Acts seems to indicate that the earliest form of Christian was far less unified than we sometimes imagine. By Acts 6, there is some division between Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea. There seem to be some Christians who were Pharisees and taught that Gentiles ought to keep the law, so that by Acts 15 a “church council” must be called to deal with this issue.

We can talk about Paul, Peter, and James as leaders of the church, but quite different agendas.  Acts 18 there are some people who only knew that John the Baptist had come, not Jesus as the messiah, not had they received the Holy Spirit! Rome appears to have had some form of Christianity before Paul or Peter arrived there, so that Paul is greeted by the brothers when he arrives in Acts 28.

The book of Acts becomes the beginning point of a trajectory from the first moments of the church to present practice. What are practices which “develop” from Acts, through the epistles and through Church history? Is there any danger to clinging too tenaciously to “church tradition”?

I am teaching the book of Acts this semester, so starting this week will be actually reading Acts on Reading Acts. To celebrate I finally registered the domain for Reading Acts (so no more .wordpress in the URL, no ads and faster load times). They tell me I can use video now, although I doubt anyone really wants to see me blogging.

The Blogosphere reacting to Acts as History posts

The Blogosphere reacting to Acts as History posts

In the first week or two of the series, I will be working through some problems for reading Acts as a historical and theological document, then I will work my way through the book chapter-by-chapter. I will often use Craig Keener’s massive commentary on Acts as a discussion partner, but there are several new books in the last few years on Acts what will pop up over the next several months.

There will be several reoccurring topics in this series. First, I will often interact with Acts as a generally accurate description of the westward expansion of Christianity. This view is not without problems and my intention is to wrestle with the questions and see where that goes. Part of this struggle is the always problematic relationship of Paul and Acts. (I am reading Doug Campbell’s Framing Paul and his work may crop up from time to time.)

A second reoccurring theme will use of Acts by the contemporary church. One of the real problems for teaching or preaching Acts is the application of the book to how we “do church” today. Some recent writers want to embrace an “Acts 2” lifestyle and try to be the church like it was in the earliest days. This is not without theological or practical problems. Using Paul as a model for doing ministry is another popular application, but is the presentation of Paul’s ministry intended as a “how to guide” for planting and organizing churches?

A third thing I intend to do in this series is “ask good questions” even if I do not answer them. Since Luke cannot tell us everything about everyone, there are some real gaps in the book of Acts. What happens in those gaps may be as important as the story Luke tells. For example, where does Peter go when he leaves Mary’s house in Acts 12? We are not told, but the way Luke presents the material seems like a transition from Peter to James as the significant leader of the Jerusalem community.  This “gap” in the story seems extremely to me in the overall history of early Christianity.

This leads me to a fourth reoccurring theme. I do think Acts provides a framework for understanding early Christianity, not just in what he says but also in the direction in which he points. There are several places in the narrative foreshadowing where the story goes “beyond Acts.” For example, Paul’s speech in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders strikes me as looking forward to the problems the church faced in the latter third of the first century. It is no coincidence that the book of Luke would have been circulating at the time.

So that is the plan for the next few months, I hope you enjoy the series and I encourage you all to participate as fully as you would like.

Marcion also was able to develop a following in Rome between 140-150 because of theological toleration.  Marcion (From Sinope in northern Turkey, 110-160) was active in Rome from 140-150.  Hippolytus claims he was a son of the bishop of Sinope, and was at one time ordained as a bishop himself.   By trade, Marcion was a ship-owner, specifically a naukleros.  Under Trajan (d. 117)  there was almost non-stop war, and shipowners were pressed into service of the government.  This was such a problem that by the time of Hadrian (d. 138) most of these demands were reversed and benefits given to shipowners (specifically, freedom from municipal liturgies). Lampe suggests that “under Hadrian, the situation of a shipowner was at its best” (242).

MarcioniteMarcion was therefore a wealthy man, and when he came to Rome he gave the church 200,000 sesterces.  This was the value of a small manor in Rome at the time (Marital 3.52), or a middle sized farm.  The amount needed to buy into the equestrian rank at the time was 400,000.  This was therefore a sizable contribution!

That he was a naukleros helps to explain why he was in Rome with time available to write and debate theology. The naukleros was the owner of the ships, but he did not necessarily need to travel with them, he is not a “sailor” or a “captain,” he is the wealthy company owner.  This also gives him opportunity to travel and spread his theology after he leaves Rome in 150.  This money was returned to him when he was excommunicated, possibly financing the spread of his theology to other areas.

While often styled as a gnostic in secondary literature, Marcion was a biblicist who “barricaded himself with a canon of scripture” (Lampe).  His theology was motivated by defining what scripture was authoritative (Paul, and his version of Luke); he also represents a complete break with Judaism in that he rejected the Hebrew Bible entirely.   He allegorized what scripture he did retain.

There is no spirit of Hellenism in his work at all! He appears to have had no training as a philosopher or as a rhetorician.  Gager has argued that Marcion’s rejection of allegory is an indication of philosophical training, but this misses the point since many philosophers in the second century were allegorizing Plato and Homer.  Marcion’s theology was motivated by the Problem of Evil, but his answer is nothing at all like one might find in the contemporary philosophical schools on the issue.  His arguments indicate that he had no formal philosophical training.

The real problem was how to deal with Marcion.  Obviously what he taught was not “orthodox,” his Bible was not what the rest of the churches used, and his view of God and Jesus was completely out of step with the church and scripture.  But there was no real “central authority” which could act to silence Marcion.  The heresy of Marcion was a factor leading to the development of a monarchic bishop in Rome.

In the years after Paul, factionalism increased.  Since the churches in Rome were isolated, there was little control on doctrine.  Individual teachers were free to interpret whatever scripture they had in whatever way they saw fit.  The factionalism we discussed in a previous post could result in creative theology, for good or bad.

Divided Church 2A positive example is Justin, who held meetings in a room above a bathhouse. Justin is well known from Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, and the Acts of Justin’s Martyrdom. He was a philosopher, although his education was not excellent – he began with a Stoic teacher, followed a peripatetic teacher until he demanded pay, then he failed an exam to be a student of a Pythagorian.  He has a general, eclectic education, cites various poets and philosophers, but has some geographical and historical problems.  Literary style is good, but not great.  He seems to have had philosophical lectures rather than rhetorical lessons. He arrived in Rome in 135 and converted to Christianity.  His Dialogue claims to take place during the Bar Kohkba rebellion in 135.  He had rooms above a bathhouse where he instructed students, and maintained the pallium, “mantle of a philosopher” until his martyrdom.

Justin tried to present Christianity as a philosophy, “Christians worship God with their intellects” (Di. 1.6.2, 12.8, etc.) That Christianity was a philosophy was accepted by no less that Galen, although Celsus refused to use the word for Christianity (it was sofiva to Celsus, and Christians were sophists, usually a pejorative use of the word.)   For the most part Justin was treated as a philosopher by Romans, but few (if any) philosophers investigated the claims of Christianity.

Justin’s influence was to encourage a philosophical strain in the theology of the second century, Tatian and Euelpistus both were (neo) platonic in perspective.  While present day theologians debate whether this is a good thing, in the second century it had the positive effect of making Christianity more acceptable to the educated and higher social classes.

A negative example are the Valentinians. Valentinus (c100-c160) was in Rome for 15 years, (as early as 136, as late as 166) and was considered for the position of bishop about 143 (according to Tertullian, Ad. Val iv).  He was born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria; he died on Cyprus after having left Rome.  He was a highly educated man with a brilliant mind; we wrote in a beautiful poetic language.  Lampe (295) finds his style parallel to Plato.  His philosophy is generally platonic.  He seems to know Timaeus well, and interprets this work in the style of the neo-paltonists.

Two inscriptions found in Via Latina indicate that there was at least one Valentinain congregation in this affluent suburb.  This indicates (for Lampe) that there was a house church in Via Lampe which was Valentinian in orientation; no other traces of Valentinian house churches appear elsewhere in the city.  The marble inscription uses imagery which must be Christian (praising the father and son) and likely Valentinian (entry into the bridal chamber, a sacred meal, baptism, etc.)   A gravestone inscription was also found in Via Latina which also uses Valentinain imagery (again, the bridal chamber, washings, the “angel the great counsel”)

Valentinian theology was quite esoteric and obviously gnostic.  Highly dualistic, they saw the world as evil, the believer was by nature alienated from the world.   This sort of early gnosticism is an attempt to support Christianity with a philosophical foundation, but in doing so, Valentinus moved away from scripture.  Marcion, on the other hand, represents a sort of “back to the Bible” movement — in an extremely negative sense!  More on Marcion next time.

Factionalism was a problem for the Roman congregations before Paul.  Romans 14:1-15:7 indicates that there are some in Rome who considered food laws important enough to be a matter of contention, while others are not taking the food laws as applicable in Christ.

Romans 14:5-7 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

This may indicate divisions between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians we have seen already by Acts 15 and Galatians.  Given the small size of congregations and immense population in Rome, it is likely that the churches functioned as islands of believers (to use Lampe’s word), perhaps initially ethnic enclaves.

Assuming that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison in Rome, it is possible to learn several things about the state of Christianity in Rome in the early 60’s.

Philippians 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Philippians 4:22 All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.

We know that Paul was influential in the household of Caesar.  He states that the whole palace guard has heard the gospel, presumably from solders converted while they were guarding him.  These guards would have been gentiles converted from paganism, as opposed to Jews converted within the synagogue. This indicates that Paul is continuing his two-part mission, to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.

Divided ChurchThat Paul had success among the Gentiles encouraged the local Roman church to also engage in a similar ministry. As we observed earlier, there was good reason for the Jews to avoid contact with the gentiles based on their expulsion under Claudius in A.D. 49.  Romans seems into indicate that the church in Rome was made up of a series of small house churches (Dunn calls them apartment churches, which is more accurate since the poor did not live in houses!)

There is some evidence in Philippians of factionalism.  Phil. 1:15 says that some people preach the gospel out of “envy and rivalry” and “false motives.” These opponents of Paul try to stir up trouble for Paul while he is in prison, possibly indicating that there are at least some who “preach the gospel,” meaning that Jesus is the Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection, etc., but they are doing so in a way that is “against Paul.”  This may be personal, but it may also be theological. (Or some combination of the two, of course!)

This may indicate that they disagree with the more radical elements of Paul’s theology, that Gentiles come to Christ apart from the Law, without converting to Judaism.  It may be that these rivals opposed Paul and perhaps even disagreed with the Jerusalem council (or, were ignorant of it; or, did not feel that they ought to be bound by it). That there are Jews who would still oppose Paul in Gentile inclusion may indicate an earlier date for Philippians, or that the issue of Gentile inclusion remained a major sticking point for the early church.

It may be something of a surprise to find that there were some congregations in Rome that were openly hostile to Paul, that seems to be the evidence of the book of Philippians.

There is a bit more evidence of factionalism in 1 Clement.  This letter was written A. D. 95-97 by Clement, a bishop in Rome.  The church of Rome was undergoing persecution when the letter was written (1:1, 7:1) but still felt it important to contact the Corinthian church.  According to tradition, Clement was the third bishop of Rome, although it is not at all clear that there was a single unbroken line of bishops who exerted any kind of authority over all of Roman Christianity before the year A. D. 200.

Clement wrote this letter on behalf of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth for the purpose of advising them on certain church matters.  The letter was considered to have had some level of authority, although we do not know how it was received by the Corinthians.  For our purposes here, 1 Clement 5 is the key text, although Clement returns to Paul in chapter 47.

1 Clement 5:5-7 Because of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the way to the prize for patient endurance. (6) After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, (7) having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West.  Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance. (Translation by Holmes, p. 33.)

While Clement’s evidence is a bit later than Paul’s time, there is at least some evidence of the fact that Paul face opposition in those two years he was in Rome under house arrest.

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Christian Theology

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