Acts 9 – Why did Paul Persecute the Jewish Christians?

Ekhard Schnabel asks this question in Paul the Missionary (44, cf. Early Christian Mission, 2:927-928).  There are rally two questions here.  First, what was the theological motive for Paul’s persecution?  Second, what drove him to pursue Jesus’ followers to Damascus?

Some scholars have argued the Jewish Christians were admitting Gentiles without circumcision.  This seems unlikely, since there is no reference at all to Gentile mission by the Jerusalem Church until Acts 10.  God-fearers were accepted into the synagogue without circumcision, so it is unlikely this would be a problem for Paul, if it had occurred.  Similarly, some argue Gentile believers were not concerned with food traditions.  This too is unlikely for the same reasons as the first, there is no evidence of Gentile converts in the pre-Pauline period.  These two issue are a problem only when a significant number of Gentiles were saved, and especially Gentiles who were not God-Fearers before accepting Jesus as Savior.

A more likely motivation is the possible political / social problems caused by the preaching of a crucified messiah / savior.  How would this play before the Gentiles, especially the Romans?  Could this be an accusation against Rome, and a possible rally-point for anti-Roman activity?   The problem here once again is the lack of evidence for preaching anything to Gentile / Roman audiences.  The early apostolic mission was confined to the temple area and the city of Jerusalem in general.  Remember that the factors which will eventually result in the Jewish War are already in the air some thirty years earlier.  Paul may have been concerned for sparking a revolution by teaching that Jesus is a resurrected King who will return and establish a kingdom.

It is probably best to see Saul opposing the Apostolic teaching as heretical.  That Jesus was the Messiah was absurd, since he was crucified, “hung on a tree,” and therefore a curse, not salvation.  In addition, Schnabel points out that any theology which saw Jesus as Savior is not compatible with the view that salvation comes through faith expressed in obedience to Torah.  A simple example from the gospels will illustrate this point.  When the rich you man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, he understands this in terms of obedience to the foundation of the Law (ie., he keeps all the commandments).  This is not to say Judaism was a “works for salvation” religion, but that one was right with God because God has given Torah and individuals come to God through the perfection of the Torah.

These early followers of Jesus claim that there is no other name by which a person can be saved (Acts 4:12).  Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 concludes with a contrast between the Torah and Jesus. Saul’s motivation is to correct this false teaching within Judaism, using the synagogue punishment system itself.  He likely sees himself as a reformer, working for the high priest, with the goal of dealing sharply with the followers of a condemned Rabbi.

Acts 8:1b-4 – Persecution Scatters the Disciples

This persecution is directly related to the death of Stephen in chapter 7. Since Stephen’s sermon was a statement of judgment against the leadership of Israel for their resistance to the Holy Spirit. There is a progression of resistance in Acts 1-8.  First the apostles are warned, then they are arrested and beaten, then Stephen is tried before the Sanhedrin, and lynched.  Now the whole church of Jerusalem is being suppressed.

Saul is the ringleader of this persecution – he begins to “ravaging the church” (ESV). This verb (λυμαίνω) is only used here in the New Testament, but in the LXX it had the sense of a violent oppression (1 Chron16:10) or even rape (Judith 9:2, 4 Mac 18:8). Keener indicates the word can be applied to torture as well (2:1484). It seems odd from a modern, western perspective to employ violence to suppress sub-group within a religion, although there are plenty of examples of violent clashes between various Christian groups over the centuries. The fact Saul will use such violent measures against the Jesus movement indicates he thought it was a dangerous belief which had to be suppressed by any means. (Saul is just as zealous as those who persecuted Peter in Acts 5, see my comments on that passage).

DandelionBut who exactly is scattered? The apostles are not “scattered,” but remain in Jerusalem. Since Saul led the group which killed Stephen, it seems as though conservative Hellenistic Jews are continuing the persecution.  Since Stephen and Philip are examples in Luke of Hellenistic Jews who have accepted the apostolic message, it also seems likely that this persecution targeted Hellenistic Jewish believers.

Keener recognizes the Hellenists were the special targets of persecution, although Luke says Saul was attaching “all the church.” Keener sees this as another example of Luke’s hyperbolic use of “all” in both the Gospel and the book of Acts (2:1468). Some Hebrew Christians may have been effected even if Saul targeted the Hellenists.

The people persecuted are scattered “throughout Judea and Samaria.”  This may indicate that those who lived relatively nearby left Jerusalem and simply returned to their homes on account of the persecution.  We will find out later that these Hellenistic Jews went as far as Antioch and Damascus as well.

Why do the apostles stay in Jerusalem? It is quite possible that the apostles took Jesus’ final commission to them seriously and stayed in Jerusalem because they were to evangelize the world starting in Jerusalem. If the persecution that Luke describes in Acts 8:1-3 targeted Hellenistic Jews, then it is possible that the Apostles were not seen as a threat.  F. F. Bruce thought the apostles felt their duty remained in Jerusalem in spite of persecution (Acts, 162-3). There is no indication that Saul was hunting down people like Peter and John, but rather those who were associated with Stephen – Philip for example.

Is there enough evidence to decide Saul was targeting only Hellenistic Christians (like Stephen and Philip)? If he was targeting Hellenists, what was his motivation?

Acts 5:29 – Obeying God Rather Than Man

After Gamaliel defends the apostles, Peter responds to the chief priests. His speech is a summary of all of his previous speeches given in Acts. First, Peter once again says he “must obey God rather than men.” Keener follows most commentators by hearing an allusion to the trial of Socrates (Keener, Acts, 2:1218). People throughout the Mediterranean world knew about the trial of Socrates and these famous words, analogous to most Americans knowing the phrase “give me liberty or give me death.” Peter boldly says he and John are obeying God rather than man, the human authority of the Sanhedrin.

Obeying God Rather Than ManThis is how Peter and the disciples responded to the original order to be silent and not “preach in that name.” Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, since they have been given the Word of God, there is no way that they could be silent (Jer 20:9, for example). While there is no way to know for certain, these words remind me of the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3:16-18. When confronted with certain death, the young men expressed faith in God to save them, but even if God did not save them, they still would not worship the idols of Babylon. So too, the brothers in 4 Maccabees who choose to die horrible deaths rather than compromise their Jewish faith and practice. There are quite a few examples in the literature of the Second Temple period where Jewish people choose death over disobeying God.

Second, Peter bluntly states that this group executed Jesus, but God has raised him from the dead. If these men killed an innocent man, then their lives would be required.  They did kill Jesus. There is no question of that.  But if God raised Jesus, then he was not just innocent. He was God’s messiah!

Third, not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but he is exalted to the highest place possible. Once again, the ascension is considered an important part of the gospel story. He was not only crucified but also raised from the dead, raised to the highest place possible.

Fourth, as a result of this glorification, Jesus can give “repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” Repentance and forgiveness are offered to Israel.  While this is not to take away from the death of Jesus as forgiveness for our sins, Peter connects the death and resurrection to forgiveness of Israel’s sins. What sin? The immediate context is killing an innocent man, Jesus.  “They had indeed sinned in hanging Jesus on the cross, but there is forgiveness and salvation for Israel in him” (Polhill, Acts, 169).

Peter calls on two witnesses to his assertions: the apostles and the Holy Spirit. This is yet another example of the witness theme in the first part of the book of Acts. Peter’s final words are more important – the Holy Spirit has been given to those who obey God.  The implication is clear: The disciples are obeying God rather than man and therefore have the Holy Spirit promised to come in the “last days,” as evidenced by miracles (healing and release from prison), and the Sanhedrin does not have the Holy Spirit.

The response of the Sanhedrin is anger – they want to put Peter to death! This is the same reaction that the Sanhedrin had toward Jesus when he claimed to be the fulfillment of Daniel 7:14.  The Greek here literally means “to be sawn in two,” a metaphor for extreme rage. Therefore, the charge against Peter is blasphemy – accusing the elders of the people of not being obedient to God and killing the Messiah!

Peter and the other disciples are willing to die rather than be silent about Jesus. They boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel and make this proclamation in a way that is almost guaranteed to get them killed. The source of this boldness is the Holy Spirit empowering them to speak in a very powerful way to the people who have the power to torture and kill them. This model of Christian suffering challenges the reader to be ready to stand firm for their faith even though it costs their life.

There is a clear application here, but I suspect it is not the one usually drawn from this verse. I usually hear “Obeying God Rather Than Man” applied to so-called Christian civil disobedience, protesting a perceived governmental intrusion into our (American) religious liberties. But Peter is not protesting government healthcare initiatives here. He says he is ready to die rather than be silent about Jesus. It seems to me most Christians, usually in the West, are silent about who Jesus is and what he really was about, especially when they misapply this verse to their favorite political issue.

Acts 5:17 – Jealousy or Zeal?

Craig Keener points out the people received the apostles’ teaching favorably, but the temple aristocracy is far more aggressive. The power of God on display in the apostles’ preaching invites more persecution (Keener, 2:1205).  In Acts 5:17 the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” and arrested the apostles. The High Priest and his associates were Sadducees, so preaching about the messiah or resurrection from the dead would have been troubling. But there is no indication they persecuted Pharisees or other groups for belief in a resurrection or the messiah, so there is more going on here than a simple doctrinal dispute.

This particular High Priest was responsible for killing Jesus in the first place. To claim a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) was raised form the dead by God is to declare the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God” as Gamaliel will say later in the passage.

jealousKeener discusses jealousy as a motivation for persecution in Acts. There are several other times in the book where enemies of the gospel become jealous and begin to persecute a preacher of the Gospel. In Acts 13:45 the synagogue reacts with jealousy after Paul’s sermon, and the Jews in Thessalonica who oppose Paul are described as jealous (Keener 2:1206). He goes on to examine envy in an honor-shame culture, where good fortune breeds jealousy. In fact, it is a Greco-Roman rhetorical strategy to claim your opponents are motivated by jealousy. Keener concludes by saying the aristocratic Sadducees may have been annoyed by the popular Pharisees, but for a group of uneducated Galileans claim divine author and grow in popularity was too much (1208).

zealousI disagree with using honor-shame as a background for the word jealousy in this context. The noun ζῆλος is often translated “zeal,” a positive characteristic. Paul himself will use the same word to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he was willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law.

It is possible a Jewish reader would read “filled with jealousy” as a “a zealous keeper of the Law.” None other than Matthias the father of Judas Maccabees was described as zealous in defense of the core of Jewish faith at the beginning of the revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

1 Maccabees 2:24-29 When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal (ζηλόω) and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar.  At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.  Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous (ὁ ζηλῶν) for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. 29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there.

Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.

The High Priest in Acts 5:17 is not jealous that the apostles are gaining followers nor is he envious of the apostles. He believes the preaching of the apostles is a dangerous idea which could destabilize the core institutions of Judaism in the first century. Even though the apostles are not telling their followers to stop keeping the Law, the High Priest strongly objects to the idea of a suffering messiah who dies and is raised from the dead. He is therefore willing to physically punish those who are preaching the resurrection.

How does this understanding of “zeal” anticipate what happens in Acts 6-7?  Does this help understand Rabbi Saul’s passion in Acts 9?

Persecution as Opportunity – 1 Peter 3:13-16

Persecution is therefore not a cause for fear, but rather an opportunity to honor Christ and revere him as Lord (as opposed to Caesar!) Peter is not commanding a completely passive acceptance of suffering. Rather, he tells the readers to be ready to give an answer when asked about their hope in Christ (v. 15b). Typically this verse is used to encourage people to know what they believe and why they believe it.

This is a good application (and it is true that you ought to know why you believe what you do), but Peter has in mind believers who are being unfairly harassed because of their faith in Jesus. Although it may not be the case than anyone has Suffering Churchbeen tried before a court on account of their faith in Jesus, the word Peter uses here is typically used for a legal defense (ἀπολογία, Acts 22:1, 25:16; 1 Cor 9:3). The believer is not to revile his opponent or repay insults with insults, but he is ready to give an honest answer when asked why he suffers for his faith.

The command is to be prepared, meaning that the believer has already knows why they are willing to put up with harassment for their faith.  To prepare something is to do the work ahead of time. The word “always” or “constantly” also implies that the reasons for one’s faith are prepared and always available. Peter does not envision a sudden rush of the Holy Spirit inspiring someone to give a good defense, rather the believer has ready an explanation for why they are humbly suffering for their faith.

By way of analogy, if someone is called into court on some charge, a lawyer “prepares a case.” this means there is some investigation of the evidence so that the lawyer can anticipate questions and give a good answer. A lawyer who comes into court without ever looking at the case ahead of time will fail and the person under arrest will be convicted.

This defense is to be “with gentleness and respect.” Since the Roman world was used to verbal abuse between philosophical schools, it would be very easy for the Christian to give his defense of his faith with the same sort of abuse the orator heaps on his opponents.

This is a very convicting verse since there are many Christians who have no idea what they believe, or if they do know what they believe, they are unable to give much of a reason for that belief. (The old hymn, I need no other argument, I need no other plea, it is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me – that is a nice sentiment, but perhaps knowing a little bit of the “device or creed” will help confirm one’s faith when suffering does occur!)

The “hope we have” should be taken as eschatological. In the midst of suffering, the believer can know than Jesus is going to return at some point at render justice. For the believer, that means vindication (they were suffering unjustly) and reward, but for the persecutor, it means punishment.

The point of all of this is that the Christian ought to maintain a clear conscience so the outsider will be ashamed to slander the Christian faith (v. 16). This seems to me to be opposite of Christianity in recent years, or perhaps it only seems so because the media is able to broadcast a few particularly shameful examples of Christian hypocrisy. Think for a moment about presidential candidates claiming to be Christian yet giving hate-filled and vulgar speeches.

Rather than dwell on people who are shameful yet claim to be believers, what are some positive examples of Christians who are living out this “patient suffering” and have given outsiders no reason to slander them?