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.
But 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?
While 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.
The 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
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.
Horsley, Richard, and Tom Thatcher. John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 201 pp. Pb; $20.00. Link
Richard Horsley is well-known to New Testament scholars for his studies of Jesus that set Jesus in the social and historical world of the first century. Tom Thatcher has already contributed several excellent monographs on the Gospel of John (Greater than Caesar: Christology and Empire in the Fourth Gospel, Fortress, 2009). Both scholars are often associated with using the insights of economic and social sciences for understanding the world of Jesus as well as so-called “anti-imperial” research.
This new book intends to treat John’s gospel as a “coherent narrative” that comes from a formative community” (p.4). As such, the authors are not interested in the so-called high-Christology that occupies most studies of John’s Gospel in the last two centuries. While there may theology gleaned from John, Horsley and Thatcher are interested in reading Jesus against the background of the first century both religiously and politically. The authors indicate in their introduction that this book is only a “provisional sketch” of what might be a much larger project. Indeed, and under 200 pages of text with limited interaction with other scholarship, this book is clearly introductory.
While John’s gospel is not a source of theological reflection on the life of Jesus, it is also not a source for “tidbits” of historical information gleaned from a comparison with the Synoptic Gospels. While there is an interest in the historical Jesus, Horsley and Thatcher do not engage in the tedious application of criteria of authenticity. Rather, they have a general acceptance of John’s gospel as having the ring of truth. The Gospel as a “verisimilitude,” even if that cannot be verified via historical methods. In fact, the details of Jesus’ life in the Gospel are simply treated as real events set in a particular time and place. Since the goal of the book is a study of John’s presentation of Jesus as a social and political figure, what the “real historical Jesus” may have said or did is less important. The book includes a brief epilogue dealing with historical issues, but the bottom line is the general story of John is historical, although examination of every detail must wait for a more technical book (p. 178).
The book is also not interested in any sort of theory of composition of John. These theories can be complex and often distract attention from the text of John in favor of a critic’s theory. Whether there was a complex history of composition or not is not an issue for Horsley and Thatcher since they intend to read the whole gospel as a narrative.
Three reasons make a short book like this possible. First, the rise of narrative criticism over the last thirty years has shifted scholarly attention away from source and form criticism. More recent studies of John are willing to hear the whole story of the Gospel rather than fret over potential sources and redactions. Second, there are a host of recent studies on how an oral culture remembers and preforms traditions. Combined with a narrative approach to John’s Gospel, Horsley and Thatcher will argue that John presents the memory of Jesus’ mission as a “historical story.”
Third, there has been an increase in the study of the world of Roman Palestine in the first century. This study is historical, but the insights of other social sciences have been used to place the story of Jesus in an economic and political context. Richard Horsley has been at the forefront of this movement in the study of the Gospels, especially his Jesus and Spiral of Violence (Fortress, 1993); Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (T&T Clark, 1999); and Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster, 2001). John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel owes much to those earlier works.
The first two chapters of the book develop the first step of a suggested method for studying John (or any New Testament text, presumably). The historical and cultural context must be properly understood if the reader is going to understand John’s story of Jesus. In order to do this, chapter 1 surveys the history of Roman Palestine. Much of this material is condensed from Horsley’s earlier work, but there is enough detail to show that the area in which Jesus did ministry was divided culturally, politically, and economically. This divide is evident in several popular revolts and social disruptions threatening the elite in Jerusalem as well as Rome. Chapter 2 develops these themes further by sketching the hope for restoration found in some streams of Second Temple Judaism, from the Hasmoneans to the Sicarii.
The second stage of the study is to examine the literary aspects of a gospel. In order to do this, chapter 3 focuses on oral communication and how oral cultures communicated “historical stories. Chapter 4 begins with Mark’s gospel and Q as a sayings source in order to demonstrate how to “hear the whole story” (the title of Horsley’s 2001 monograph). Horsley and Thatcher argue that modern readers of John ought to “take the gospel stories as a whole” and “to focus on their overall portrayal of Jesus’ mission” (p. 63). This means careful study of Jesus’ interactions with his followers as well as the leaders of the people in Roman Palestine.
The third stage of the study is to bring the insights of the first to stages to bear on the actual story John tells. Chapter 5 is a brief overview of the content of the Gospel with an emphasis on setting, characters and plot. Chapter 6 then argues that the Gospel “fits the historical situation in which it was set” as far as can be determined. The story is grounded in an accurate picture of the economic and political world of first century Roman Palestine.
The chapter’s title is instructive: “Verisimilitude vs. Verification.” While it is ultimately impossible to verify every detail of the Gospel, the story reflects real historical realities in a way that does not raise suspicions. I do not think that this conclusion will please everyone, since more conservative readers will want to hear that John’s Gospel is absolutely historical, and less conservative readers will want to hear that the Gospel is full of anachronisms. Like the theology of the book, Horsley and Thatcher choose not to get bogged down in that kind of a study and simply state that the book is a fair representation of the mission of Jesus as it was recalled by the author of the John.
In the last stage of the study, Horsley and Thatcher describe what they see as John’s presentation of Jesus’ mission in Roman Palestine. Chapter 8 draws several inferences from Jesus; demonstration in the Temple to argue that Jesus is presenting his ministry (or, himself) as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem. They argue this from two angles. First, they examine the Temple action itself in the Johannine context (early in Jesus’ ministry as opposed to late). This means that the John intended Jesus’ mission to be understood through the lens of the Temple action. Second, there are a number of texts in John that present Jesus as having the same function as the Temple. It is well-known in Johannine studies that John 5-10 associate Jesus with the major feasts in Jerusalem, but in each case Jesus is a kind of alternative to those feasts. Third, the triumphal entry is described by Horsely and Thatcher as a “messianic demonstration.” Jesus proclaimed himself to be the messiah in this action and attempted to take a leadership role in a renewal of Israel. This is ultimately the reason for the execution of Jesus: Rome did not tolerate popular resistance movements.
Conclusion. This book is frustrating in its brevity. Horsely and Thatcher only sketch their method with a few examples, leaving the reader wondering about the details. But this is not a problem because the goal of the authors was simply to give an outline of a method that can serve as a template for further study. I was bewildered at times by the sections of the book devoted to Mark and Q, since the book is expressly about the Gospel of John. These sections are foundational, of course, and are drawn from Horsely’s prior work in Mark. It is rare that one reads a book on the Gospel of John as history, especially one that makes serious comparisons between Mark and John. As such, this short book might serve well as an auxiliary textbook for a college or seminary Gospels or Historical Jesus course where John’s Gospel usually receives less time than it deserves.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.