Acts 23:12-15 – The Plot Against Paul

In Acts 23:12-15, a group of more than forty Jews make a vow to kill Paul. The verb here (ἀναθεματίζω) has the sense of putting oneself under a curse if a action is not performed. This is a rather strong response, but it is not unexpected after the events in the Temple. Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple, and in his defense he claims to have had a vision in the Temple itself sending him to the Gentiles.

Paul on TrialThe group has gathered as part of a “plot” (συστροφή), a word which is associated with a gathering for seditious purposes (Witherington, Acts, 694). The word appears in Amos 7:10 (Amos is accused of plotting against the Israelite priesthood) and in LXX Psalm 63:3 for those making “secret plots” against the psalmist. Luke used the word to describe the illegal, unruly mob in Ephesus (Acts 19:40).

It is possible this rather zealous group are similar to the Sicarri, a group of assassins who were active during the governorship of Felix. Chronologically this story takes place only about eight years prior to the beginning of the revolt against Rome, so many of the tensions which explode into that conflict are already present. Paul’s near-lynching for allegedly bringing a Gentile into the Temple indicates that the city of Jerusalem is ready to take violent action against Jews who are in violation of the Law.

Paul claimed in front of the crowds in the Temple that he was called by God to a ministry among the Gentiles. He believed that he was functioning as the messianic “light to the Gentiles.” This carries the implication that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that his death and resurrection was a part of God’s plan to establish the kingdom anticipated in the Hebrew Bible. This was understood as treasonous by those who were “zealous for the Law.”

Paul is warned of this plot by his nephew. It is possible to render this verse “he heard the plotting having been present…” implying that the nephew of Paul was at the meeting when these men took the oath. This may hint at the fact that Paul had family members who were involved in the more radical, revolutionary politics of the period.

As a result of this warning he is placed in protective custody by the Romans (23:16-22). Rapske comments that Roman citizens in protective custody were kept well with good meals and comfortable quarters (Paul in Roman Custody, 28-35). This is another example of Luke making a contrast between the irrational mobs in Jerusalem and the Roman authorities. Rome treated Paul legally and with respect, while this mob takes an irrational oath to assassinate him!

It is significant that once again there is no reference to anyone else rising to defend Paul, either James or his group (which included Pharisees and priests, people who would surely have heard of this kind of a plot) or Peter and the other Apostles. It is possible that the Twelve no longer were in Jerusalem, but James might have been able to stop Paul’s arrest by stating that he was not in the Temple with any Gentiles.

Is this an indication of a breach between Paul and Jerusalem?

Acts 21 – “Nine Years Before the War”

Clint Arnold has a nice sidebar in his commentary on Acts entitled “Jerusalem: Nine Years Before the War.”  I have long thought that the political situation in Jerusalem is the key to understanding James and his chilly reception of Paul.  James was faced pressure from Jews who were Christians to be spiritual prepared for the coming Messiah and Jews who rejected Jesus as messiah but were every bit as much zealous for the Law.  Likely there were many who were unhappy with James’ decision to side with Paul and not require Gentile conversion to Judaism as a requirement of salvation.  If the political climate of Jerusalem made James’ position dangerous, it made Paul’s position on Gentiles lethal.

Fall of JersualemNews of Paul’s activities would have been well known in Jerusalem.  Paul has been creating islands of Gentile Christianity in the Roman world for years now, and it is undoubtedly true that the Gentiles outnumber the Jews in many of his congregations.  Paul has confronted Peter over table fellowship with Gentiles (Gal 2) and made it clear that Gentiles are saved apart from the Law.  Perhaps the theology of Romans 9-11 was known in Jerusalem – the Jews have “stumbled” and the Gentiles have been grafted in.

To what extent is James part of the problems which face Paul in Jerusalem?   On the one hand, Luke does not explicitly state that James believed these rumors, although he also does not show James as rejecting them either.  When Paul arrived, Jerusalem itself was a hotbed of nationalistic fever is a fact, and the Jewish church was very much a part the messianic nationalism which caused the revolt of A.D. 66.  Arriving in Jerusalem with an entourage of Gentiles who were not at all converts to Judaism was dangerous at the very least (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, 961-2).

Paul’s arrival in Jerusalem probably was in spring of A.D. 56 or 57 during the procuratorship of Felix. Josephus described this period of the mid-50s as a time of intense Jewish nationalism and political unrest. One insurrection after another rose to challenge the Roman overlords, and Felix brutally suppressed them all. This only increased the Jewish hatred for Rome and inflamed anti-Gentile sentiments. It was a time when pro-Jewish sentiment was at its height, and friendliness with outsiders was viewed askance. Considering public relations, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles would not have been well received. (Polhill, Acts, 447).

For fifteen years prior to the war, Judea was ruled by mediocre Roman governors who managed Jewish affairs poorly, exacerbating the problems which eventually led to the revolt.  Judea was not a particularly important to Rome, and as a result they sent some particularly poor officials to govern the region.  Felix, for example, is described by Tacitucs as “wielding royal power with the instincts of a slave” (Hist 5.9).  Felix was recalled by Nero in A.D. 60, and while Festus was an improvement, he died in office .  Schürer described the Roman government as having “deliberately set out to drive the people to revolt” (Schürer, History of the Jewish People, 1.455).  Josephus covers the chaos of this period in Antiq. 20.16–172 and  JW 2.254-265.

It is of course impossible to know the mind of James, but it appears he is trying very hard to keep the more conservative elements of his church in fellowship with the less conservative elements – but from Paul’s perspective, the Jerusalem church was entirely conservative.  By coming to Jerusalem Paul was stepping into a situation which can only end badly for him.

Acts 2 – Pentecost in the Book of Acts

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.

Acts 1:8 – “You Will Be My Witnesses”

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?)

The Book of Acts and Modern Church Life

It might seem strange to even ask of the book of Acts ought to “apply” to the modern form of the Church. All Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. The real question is whether the Church in the book of Acts is a model for the modern church to follow. Is the book of Acts normative for Christian practice today? To draw an application from the narrative of Acts is no different than applying a story from the David. But few Christians would advocate David’s experience as the way we ought to do church today (presumably only harps for music in the church, and a strict no-giant rule). Acts is different because it does present the origins of many church practices still used today.

242Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice. For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3. Someone like Shane Claibourne would want to apply Jesus’ life of voluntary poverty followed by the earliest forms of Christianity. Often this is narrowed to just Acts 2:42 as a model for the ideal church (teaching, fellowship, prayer, breaking of bread).

On the other hand, most Christians dispense with Acts as a guide for how to “do church” today. This may take the form of a liberal Christianity which ignores Acts as authoritative for the church, but more often how we do church has little to do with Acts and we make no apology for this. The “Acts 2” community did not have elders and deacons, they did not have church buildings and they certainly did not baptize or take communion in ways even similar to modern practice. There are no youth groups, choirs, praise bands, hymnals or Sunday School.  They did not even take an offering before the sermon! In fact, if you think about the things modern churches spend most of their time doing, the earliest forms of the church did none of them.

It is almost impossible to know exactly how the earliest church services were designed, how they worshiped, when they took communion (or how they took communion), etc.  In most denominations, how we practice these things are based on developing traditions since the reformation or even later!  Few people make the effort to say “this is how they did it in Ephesus, and that is all we ought to do today.”

This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book. Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ). We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history! But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.

My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book.  There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission, and that shift will result in some difficult times for the early church.

Is there any way to decide what practices we read about in Acts ought to be “normative” and practiced in the church, other than “that is the way I was taught in my church”? Why do we cling to some practices (teaching and fellowship) but reject others (voluntary poverty)?

The Book of Acts as Theology

Theo LukeThere is a third element of the book of Acts which cannot be ignored. Luke is a theologian and his book is telling the reader about the work of God in the world. He has wide variety of theological interests, such as how God’s plan is unfolding in history, or the movement of the Holy Spirit as the gospel moves into new areas of the world. Darrell Bock’s recent The Theology Luke/Acts demonstrates that Luke had many theological interests which run throughout these two books and there are dozens of books on Luke as a Theologian.

Luke’s theological agenda is the main reason he writes Acts. While he does preserve history in an appealing and entertaining fashion, his main point to present a particular theological agenda. Does recognizing the fact a biblical writer has a theological perspective mean he is “non-historical”? Not necessarily, but there are some thinks Luke simply never addresses which are a matter of historical interest because they are not helpful for his theological agenda. For example, Galatians 2 seems to indicate a great deal more tension between Paul and Jerusalem than Acts 15. If all we had was Acts 15, then we might assume Paul and James worked through some minor differences and found an equitable solution. Galatians indicates Peter and Barnabas were both pressured by James to withdraw from table fellowship with Gentiles. Luke emphasizes the unity of the church at the time of the Jerusalem council; Paul emphasizes his independence from Jerusalem in his letter to the Galatians. Both are accurate, albeit both men write with different theological and apologetic reasons.

I want to suggest here at the beginning of a long series on the book of Acts that the final verses of the book may very well be the “theological statement” for Luke/Acts as a whole. In Acts 28:31-31 we are told Paul taught “freely and with boldness” because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. The disciples of Jesus all endure trials and persecution as the boldly proclaim the gospel, including two who are killed on account of their testimony (Stephen in Acts 7 and James in Acts 12). Paul spends quite a bit of time under arrest in the book, often in Roman custody but occasionally he is subject to mob-rule (he is beaten and left for dead in Lystra, the mob at Thessalonica, the riots in Ephesus).

Paul also faced opposition from Jewish Christians who want to impose the Law on Gentile converts. From the letters, Paul sees these threats from “insiders” as potentially more damaging to his churches than persecution from civil authorities. Galatians makes it clear that if the Gentiles accept this “other gospel” then Paul’s efforts have been in vain. Divisions and factions in Corinth threaten to destabilize what was potentially Paul’s most successful established church!

But at no point in the book of Acts is the gospel itself restrained.  Peter might be put in prison, but the Gospel is still free. Stephen and James may be killed, but the Gospel is still free. Paul may spend years under house arrest, yet the Gospel is still going out to the whole world.

By looking at the last line of the book of Acts we see how Luke wanted to end the story.  The idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books. Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” The gospel of Luke concludes with the same idea: Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture (Luke 24:44-49).

Acts begins with Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and await the coming Holy Spirit which the Father promised to send (Acts 1:4).  This promise appears in Luke 3:15-17, but is drawn from the Hebrew Bible as well (Joel 2:28, Jeremiah 31:31-33). Acts is the story of how the fulfillment of God’s promise works its way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, ultimately to Rome itself.

I think this “theology of mission” holds the book of Acts together and may explain why Luke omitted some details we would have liked to have known about. Since unity of the church is important for Luke’s view of Gospel spreading throughout the world, he is less likely to give all the details of factionalism in the early church. Are there other illustrations of this theological agenda to be found in the book of Acts?

The Book of Acts as Story

In the previous post I briefly discussed the problem of Luke as real history. I used the analogy on a film based on historical events. Luke was forced to select from a wide range of events those which fit his over all agenda and adapt what he did choose to fit the format of a short book.

It is obvious that Luke writes his story as just that, a story. There are elements of the book included in order to enhance the story from the perspective of literature. He intends to tell an interesting story, with foreshadowing and surprising twists. These rhetorical elements are not simply flourishes added as an after-thought; they are essential to the way Luke “does history.”

LukePerhaps the best example of this is the dramatic introduction of the main character of two-thirds of the book. At the end of Chapter 7, Saul is introduced as “approving” the stoning of Stephen. Luke then drops him from the narrative for a chapter to create tension.  The reader knows show this shadowy figure is, but Luke wants to build anticipation for Saul’s introduction. In chapter 9 Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is told he will be the “light to the Gentiles,” yet the plot line is dropped. Luke tells a series of stories about Peter before picking up the thread of Paul’s ministry in chapter 13. This is the work of a story-teller, teasing his readers with hints and foreshadowing of what we know must be coming.

This way of writing history employs a number of rhetorical principles common in history writing in antiquity. Philip Satterthwaite lists elements such as selection and arrangement of material as methods common in Greco-Roman histories. Luke selected some material and ignores the rest. For Luke, who Paul is and how he came to be a part of the Jesus Movement is important, what Thomas did after the resurrection is of no interest at all. By arranging the stories as he has, Luke highlights the importance of Paul for his overall agenda.

In fact, Craig Keener points out that rhetorical techniques were pervasive in ancient historiography (1:131). Although historians sought to restrain themselves, no one opposed good rhetorical technique in history writing. While Polybius was accused of over-using rhetoric to stress the importance of his topic, ancient writers all used literary conventions in order to write a history that was pleasing to the reader.

This makes sense, since no one really wants to read the raw facts of history. A history writer always struggles to find a way to fairly present dry facts in a compelling way. This is why children learn more about history from educational cartoons than their history textbooks. Telling a story of a child who witnesses the events of the American Revolution is more compelling than memorizing a list of facts drawn from American history.

There is some range of opinion for how well Luke was trained in rhetoric. While scholars like Satterthwaite think Luke was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions (337), but Richard Pervo thinks Luke’s use of these styles would be considered rather unrefined to most educated Greek readers (Keener, 139). Keener explains Luke’s use of rhetoric by observing that his target audience is not necessarily the elite historian. In fact, there was no “professional historian” in the first century who would have naturally read a book like Acts. No one will place Luke’s book in the same category as the classic Greek historians, but he does work very hard to create a compelling story in order to present the expansion of Christianity.

One implication of Luke’s use of contemporary Greco-Roman conventions for writing “history as story” is that his original readers would have understood his presentation as a legitimate history, even though it might not qualify as history in the modern sense of the word. I suspect one’s faith commitment to Scripture will have a bearing on this issue, but to what extent does this view of “Luke as Historian” differ from contemporary understanding of history writing? Does it limit (or exclude, some would say) the book of Acts as a source for understanding the church in the first century?

Bibliography: Satterthwaite, Philip. “Acts Against the Background of Classical Rhetoric.” Pages 337-80 in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, Volume 1. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.