The Acts of the Apostles

“Luke writes history for a church that has a future to look forward to as well as a history to remember.”

Written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles is a continuation of the story of Jesus’ followers.  Luke, traditionally identified as a physician and Paul’s traveling companion, makes his reason for writing these volumes quite clear.  In the opening verses of both Luke and Acts, the writer states that his objective is to write “about all that Jesus did and taught”.

Acts begins by describing the events, confusion, and challenges followers of Jesus experienced immediately following his death.  The experience of the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the midst of these folks is remembered in the Christian church as Pentecost.  Peter clearly stands up in the role of leader and explains how the prophet, Joel, predicted Pentecost.  He continues his ministry, preaching and performing miracles.

Saul (Paul) and his conversion are described as the story continues.  It becomes very clear that Jesus’ message is meant for both the Israelites and the gentiles.  The work done by these first followers of Jesus resulted in the spread of Jesus’ teachings through the world and through the centuries.  Understanding these roots helps us today to connect to our own understanding of this message.

Meet Our Professors

Harry Attridge

Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament

Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).

David L. Bartlett

David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

Introduction

The Book of Acts is the second volume of a two volume work.  The first volume is the Gospel According to Luke and the second volume is the Acts of the Apostles.  The arrangement of our Bibles confuses the close relationship between these two works by separating them with the Gospel of John.  Almost certainly the first readers of Acts would have read our book or heard it as the immediate sequel to Luke’s Gospel.

Traditionally both volumes have been attributed to Luke and Luke has been identified as a physician and as Paul’s travel companion (see Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14 and 2 Timothy 4:11).  The identification of Luke as the author of the Gospel and of Acts is later than the earliest versions of the writings themselves, but in these studies we will refer to the author as “Luke” without trying to make a judgment about whether he was the Luke who is mentioned both in Acts and in the New Testament epistles.

What we can tell about out author is that he is self-consciously a historian.  Each of our four biblical gospels is written for particular purposes, but it is Luke who most clearly states the purpose of his two volume work in the prefaces he writes –Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-5.

In the prologue to Acts, Luke states clearly that this is the second volume of his work.  Both prefaces are addressed to Theophilus.  Theophilus may have been Luke’s patron – the one who invited him to write the two volumes.  Or he may have been simply a friend and acquaintance with whom Luke wanted to share his convictions.  The name “Theophilus” means “Friend of God”, and it is also possible that Luke uses the name as a kind of code for a whole group of seekers who have accepted the monotheism of the synagogue but have yet to be persuaded that Jesus is the great prophet predicted by Moses and indeed is God’s own son.

In Acts there are a few references to a group called “The God-Fearers.”  These were apparently Gentiles who took part in some of the activities of the synagogue but had not become converts to the faith of the Jewish people.  Perhaps they resisted the requirements regarding circumcision and diet, but for whatever reason, they were philosophically interested in the Jewish faith but not yet persuaded to convert.  It is possible that in addressing “Theophilus” Luke is addressing the group of god-fearers who have not yet converted to the Jewish faith and who may in fact be excellent candidates to follow the apostles on “The Way” of Jesus.

As a historian, Luke makes clear in the preface to his first volume that he has not invented his material but that he uses literary sources – like any good historian – to provide the material for his work.  We are quite sure that among the sources for Luke are the Gospel of Mark and a collection of sayings that Matthew also had.  That collection has never been found, but is called “Q” because “Q” is the first letter of the German word Quelle or “source.”  Luke also has material in his gospel that is his alone, including some of his best loved material—the stories around Jesus’ birth and the great parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.

We are less clear what sources Luke may have used in writing Acts, though again it seems likely that he had some written material at hand.  Toward the end of Acts, there are some chapters where the author moves into the first person plural and talks about what “we” did, suggesting that either the author or his source had first-hand reminiscences of some of these events.  We will look at this issue a bit more in our individual sessions.

Of course Luke is not just a historian, he is a historian of the church.  More than any of the other Gospel writers and more than Paul in his epistles, Luke is clear that the church has had a history and will continue to have a history.  Because Luke and Acts are the two volumes of that history we can see that for Luke, his Gospel is in part intended as the first volume of a history of the church.  It is not just the story of Jesus – it is the story of Jesus as the founder of a movement which continues and grows after his death, resurrection and ascension.

In the two volumes, Luke-Acts, this history of the church is traced both temporally and geographically.

In the mid twentieth century the German New Testament Hans Conzelmann wrote a book whose title in English was The Theology of Luke.  However a more literal translation from Conzelmann’s German title is “The Middle of Time.”  Conzelmann argues that for Luke the historian, the story of Jesus is the story of the middle of time, the middle of history.  Not only is Jesus’ story chronologically in the center of history, it is theologically the center, the climactic act of God’s dealing with humankind.

Though some of the details of Conzelmann’s readings of Luke-Acts have been questioned, it seems to us that he persuasively argues that Luke sees history as divided into three great eras – the era of prophecy, up to and probably including John the Baptist; the era of Jesus; and the era of the church.

Because of Luke’s great stress on the movement of the Spirit in the life of the church, it is possible to see in the movement of his work a kind of hint of what would later be Trinitarian theology.  Luke and Acts move from the era of the Father to the era of the Son to the era of the Spirit.  Acts, our book for this study, is above all the history of the Spirit at work in the church.

Geographically Luke and Acts tell the story of God’s activity as it spreads from Jerusalem to Rome.  Both Luke and Acts begin with Jerusalem, and the two volume work ends in Rome.  In part this is how Luke tells of the spread of the Christian movement from somewhat provincial beginnings to the very center of the Roman empire.  In part this is also how Luke indicates that the Jesus story spreads from its Jewish beginnings to include Gentiles and indeed all the company of creation.

As we shall see, this movement is also signaled in Acts from the early concentration on Peter, who was known as apostle to the Jews, to Paul, who was known as the apostle to the Gentiles.  (Though in Acts both Peter and Paul are drawn by the Holy Spirit to a generous view of God’s dealing with Gentiles as well as Jews.)  And of course if Theophilus is a representative of Gentiles seeking faith, it is good news for him to watch the Gospel spread to include sympathetic Gentiles like himself.

Unfortunately none of the New Testament writers give us clear indication of the date of their writing.  Most scholars are convinced that Luke wrote after Mark, because he apparently used much of Mark’s material in his gospel.  There are also clear hints especially in the last chapters of Acts that the generation of the original apostles has now died and that the church is in the hands of a new generation (exemplified by the Ephesian elders).  Our guess, along with many other students of Luke, is that both Luke and Acts were written sometime in the 80s or 90s of our era.

Again we have no clear indication of the audience for which Luke and Acts were originally written, but we are intrigued by the suggestion of Professor Peter Lampe of the University of Heidelberg that the elders of Acts 20 represented a kind of surrogate for Luke’s original readers and that the books were written originally as a guide for churches and church leaders in Ephesus.

Our guesses about dates and first audience are of course speculative.  What is not speculative is that Luke and Acts alike try to provide theological insight and practical guidance for churches in the first generation after the Apostles.  What is not speculative is the claim that unlike Mark and Matthew or even Paul, Luke writes history for a church that has a future to look forward to as well as a history to remember.  Of course Jesus will return, but in the meantime there is a gospel to be preached and churches to be organized.

Further Reading:

Frederick F. Bruce, “The Acts of the Apostles: Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction,” ANRW25.3 (1984) 2569-2603.

C. F. D. Moule, “The Christology of Acts,” in Leander Keck and J. Louis Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays Presented in Honor of Paul Schubert (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966) 159-85.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. How does it help us to read Acts when we see it as the second volume of a two volume work (along with the Gospel of Luke)?
  2. Acts is clearly a kind of “history,” but how is it like and unlike the histories that are written today? What does this suggest about the author’s purpose?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

I. Acts 1-4: The Church Begins in Jerusalem

Of course the Book of Acts is a history of the church and a history of the Holy Spirit, but it is also the story of two heroes – Peter and Paul.  From Acts 1-12, Peter is the dominant figure, and from Acts 13 till the end of our book, the protagonist is Paul.  In chapter 15, for a few verses, their stories overlap.

The prologue to Acts (1:1-5) links Acts closely with the Gospel of Luke, which begins with a similar prologue.  Perhaps our author (whom we’ll call “Luke”) intended from the start to write a two volume history of the church beginning with Jesus its founder and continuing through the imprisonment of Paul.  Perhaps, having written the Gospel, Luke decided some time later to add a sequel.  If the two volumes were planned through from the first, we can assume that the prologue to Luke (Luke 1:1-4) would provide a kind of overture to the whole two volume work.   In either case there are narrative and theological themes that characterize both the Gospel and Acts, though of course the focus of the first work is primarily on Jesus and the focus of the second work on the church that continues his ministry.  We will note some of these themes as we discuss particular passages.

Both Luke and Acts are addressed to Theophilus, whose Greek name can be translated “friend of God.”  It may well be that Luke had a particular friend or patron named Theophilus in mind when he drafted his work   Or he may be using the name as a clue to the kind of reader he hopes to attract – a reader already friendly to God though perhaps not yet fully acquainted with the ministry of Jesus or the growth of the church.  Or perhaps, conveniently, the addressee can be understood both ways.

There is some discrepancy between Acts and Luke’s Gospel in the description of Jesus’ ascension.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends immediately after the resurrection.  In Acts (1:6-12) he continues to appear for forty days before his ascension.  In both cases the disciples are instructed to remain in Jerusalem and promised that they will receive the Holy Spirit.

Already in the first chapters of Acts we see two themes that will be juxtaposed throughout the work – the emphasis on continuity and the emphasis on growth, change, and mission.

The theme of continuity is evident in the fact that it is Jesus who instigates and authorizes what will be the beginning of the church.  The theme of change or growth is evident in the claim that the major actor in this new chapter of God’s dealing with humankind will be the Holy Spirit.  Continuity is there in the charge to stay in Jerusalem, where church will start; change and growth is there in the promise and command that the gospel will need to spread to the ends of the earth (1:8).  There is also the hint of change, almost a kind of divine revision, in the shirt from the promise the disciples expect – that the Kingdom will be restored to Israel (1:6) – to the promise that Jesus gives – that the Holy Spirit will send them forth into the world (1:8).  Richard Pervo puts it nicely:  “The ends of the earth rather than the end of the world will be the subject of this book.” (Hermeneia, 41)

Continuity is especially evident in the constitution of the believing community, the church before church.  The group gathered in Jerusalem to await the Spirit consists of those who have followed Jesus in his ministry.  The activity they share is that religious practice that has especially marked his ministry in Luke’s Gospel – prayer (1:14).

The concern for continuity is also evident in the appointment of a successor to Judas Iscariot.  The calling of the apostles was not simply the convocation of a congenial group of friends to follow Jesus; it was the appointment of pillars for the coming church – twelve of them to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel (1:15-26).

The account of the death of Judas (1:18) differs fairly markedly from the account in Matthew 27:3-8, reminding us that the gospels are in part the stuff of legend as well as the stuff of history.  What Matthew and Luke agree on is that Judas was up to no good and that consequently he came to no good end.  The requirements for someone to be an apostle are clear in Acts – the apostle must have been with Jesus from the baptism by John to the ascension; and the apostle must have been a witness to the resurrection.  (Does this mean that the apostle must have seen the risen Lord?  If so, Paul would meet the second criterion for apostleship but not the first; of course according to his self-description he was entirely an apostle; Luke will seem not so sure.)  The apostles choose their new member by lot (1:26), a matter of trusting to divine intention rather than democratic or autocratic decision making.

Acts 2 powerfully presents two major motifs of this volume.  We will see further evidence of the juxtaposition of continuity and change.  And we will see a device frequently used in Acts – a narrative is followed and often explicated by a speech.

Here the narrative is the narrative of what happens at Pentecost (2:1-13).  The speech is Peter’s explanation and evangelical plea (2:14-36).  In the narrative, continuity is evident in the fact that the gift of the Spirit is given in Jerusalem, where Luke began his gospel and where Jesus has ended his earthly ministry.  The continuity is further evident in that so far the gift of the spirit and the proclamation of the gospel are given to Jews, and that it all begins in Jerusalem, Zion, King David’s royal city.  (King David is a supporting player in much of Acts, in the frequent quotations from the Psalms.  In our section see 2:25ff)

But there is discontinuity in this story, too – growth and change.  Those believers who receive the Spirit speak in foreign tongues (2:4), and those who speak foreign tongues now hear the proclamation of God’s mighty deeds in their own language.  Remarkably from day one the language of the church has been translatable language.  The Hebrew bible is not Scripture only in Hebrew, and the Gospel is not contained in Aramaic, Greek or Latin.

This is not, however, as sometimes suggested, a reversal of the story of Babel in Genesis 11.  It is not that now all the peoples of the world speak one language; it is that in all the languages of the world, (Jewish) people can hear the mighty acts of God.  Furthermore the point of the story is finally not that the Gospel is about diversity – though of course it has implications for diversity.  The Gospel is about the mighty acts of God, and by the Spirit diverse people are able both to speak and to hear of those acts of God.

The wind and the fire and the tongues and the hubbub, apparently looking like intoxication, remind us that the Holy Spirit is not always the still small voice of calm.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is the rude interrupter, the noisy surprise.

We also note that the kind of speech that Luke associates with Pentecost is not the speech we associate with Pentecostal churches today.  (This of course is not to say that ecstatic speech may not be legitimate worship; it is just not strictly speaking Pentecostal). The followers of Jesus speak intelligible words in a variety of languages, not ecstatic speech that needs an interpreter to be made intelligible.  Peter, in his speech, identifies the language as prophecy.  (For a distinction between ecstatic speech and prophecy, you might want to look at 1 Corinthians 14.)

Peter’s great speech is an interpretation of scripture, an interpretation of the events of Pentecost, and a call to commitment on the part of the hearers.  To this day one might argue that good preaching usually includes attention to a text, attention to a situation, and a call for decision.

We suggested in the introduction to this study that the speeches in Acts were probably largely written by Luke, and we have no way of knowing how far he might be drawing on traditions that were earlier than his writing.  What we can see is that themes that are important to Luke often recur in the speeches he places on the lips of Peter or Stephen or Paul.

Notice that Peter interprets all that has happened in the light of Joel 2:28-32 (Joel 3:1-5 in the Greek translation of Hebrew scripture called the Septuagint).  Peter and Luke add one phrase to Joel’s prophecy – it is not just that all the wonders prophesied will take place “in those days” but that they will take place “in the last days” (2:17).  Many scholars have thought that Luke de-emphasizes the promise of the coming Kingdom of God, and certainly his interpretation of that Kingdom is different than, say, Matthew’s or Paul’s.  However, it might be more accurate to say that for Luke, though the last days have not reached their conclusion and though there may be a long wait ahead, on Pentecost the last days begin with the gift of the Spirit.

Peter’s sermon then cites Jesus’ death as a consequence of human sin and uses Psalm 16 as a text to interpret Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (2:25-28).  Peter preaches crucifixion and resurrection/ascension in order to bring the listeners first to repentance and then to belief (2:38).  As is always the case in Acts, some believe and others do not.  But the believers, who are baptized that very day (catechesis and pre-baptismal classes were yet to come) numbered three thousand (2:41).  The signs and wonders Joel predicted are being enacted in the life of the new church.

In Acts 3:1-10, Peter and John continue demonstrating the mighty acts of God and the power of the Spirit by healing the crippled man.  The power of God that moved Jesus in Luke 4 now moves his followers in Acts 3 and they perform healing miracles very much like Jesus’ own.  As he interpreted the events of Pentecost with a sermon, now Peter interprets the miracle that he and John have performed (3:11-26).  Once again the event points back to the even greater event of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Once again the event and the sermon that interpret it (with help from scripture) call the hearers to repentance and belief, common Lukan themes.

At the end of the speech, three of the officials of Law and order burst in to oppose our heroes and put them in custody (4:1-3).  This arrest echoes the persecution of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel and the persecution of Stephen and then some of the apostles in the Book of Acts.  Yet even in the midst of opposition – and in part in response to opposition – the number of believers grows.

Luke – and the Holy Spirit – provide two more responses to this persecution.  First there is the legal response: Peter and John defend themselves (4:8-12), as Stephen will soon do and as Paul will do repeatedly.  They defend themselves on the basis of Scripture (“The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner,” a favorite Christian proof text (Psalm 118:22), is cited in 4:11).  They proudly identify with Jesus.  And they are saved, at least for now, by the support of the people.

The second response to persecution is the response of prayer (4:23-31).  We have already learned that the apostles devote themselves to prayer; we remember Jesus praying time and again in the Gospel of Luke and now they join in prayer.  Like many a prayer to this day, the pious spend a fair amount of time reminding God of what God has done, leading us to suspect that Luke wants his readers to overhear the prayer and learn from it what is central to his Gospel.

At the very end of the chapter Joseph, nicknamed Barnabas, makes his first appearance (4:36).  We will see much of him as Paul’s companion, but now he illustrates another of Luke’s great hopes for the church.  The church will engage in prayer; we have just seen that.  The church will engage in charity; now Barnabas acts out that gospel practice.

Further Reading:

Loveday Alexander, “The Preface to Acts and the Historians,” in Ben Witherington III, History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 73-103.

Hans F. Bayer, “The Preaching of Peter in Acts,” in I. H. Marshall and David Peterson, eds., Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 257-74.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Professors Attridge and Bartlett suggest that throughout the book of Acts we have emphasis on both continuity and change; in the famous story of Pentecost in Acts 2, how do you see these two themes developed?
  2. What is the purpose and what are some of the themes of Pete’s speech in the latter part of Acts 2? (This is the first of a number of sermons in this book, and they may reflect Luke’s theology as much as they do Peter’s or Paul’s).
  3. How does prayer function for the apostles in these chapters… and what might we learn from these stories about the importance of prayer today?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

II. Acts 5-8: Deepening Community; Growing Mission

Acts 5-8 continues the story of the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, but it also tells of the first stirrings of a more general mission to the Gentile world.  It begins with the curious episode of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11), who are severely punished for their attempt to hold on to some of their own possessions in a community whose custom was to share everything.  Perhaps this was a tale with a moral for the Christians of Luke’s day, who were probably not involved in such a “communist” approach to communal life, but who would be called upon for generous support of the church.  It says, in effect, “Watch out, don’t hold back and deceive the Church!”

Tales of miraculous healings (5:12-16) and persecutions (5:17-42) follow.  An attempt to jail the apostles (5:18) is thwarted by an angel, who releases them and sends them to preach in the Temple.  When Peter and his colleagues are brought before the high priest and the council (the Sanhedrin), he dramatically proclaims his allegiance to God over any human authority (5:29), anticipating a stance of many Christian witnesses since.  Peter again declares the core of his faith (5:30-32), that Jesus, executed by the Jerusalem authorities, has been raised from the dead and appointed to be “Leader (Archegos) and Savior,” to stimulate repentance and forgiveness of sins.  The apostles, guided by the Holy Spirit, are witnesses to this truth.

All elements of Peter’s little speech are significant and typically Lukan.  There is no understanding of a pre-incarnate Jesus; the events that make him “Leader and Savior” are the cross and resurrection.  The purpose of his mission is to deal with sin and to elicit the repentance of many prodigal sons.

In response, there is an equally interesting judgment by a leading Pharisee, known from Rabbinic sources as Gamaliel, who tells his brethren to leave the followers of Jesus alone.  If God is for them, no one can be against them (5:19).  Here Luke’s concern with the relations between his movement and the traditional people of God surfaces in an interesting way.  He is willing to lay blame for the death of Jesus at the feet of Jerusalem’s leaders (5:30), but wants to portray some of those leaders at least as recognizing that God might somehow be involved in the movement of his followers.

The narrative then turns to the internal situation of the Christian community. The apostles are overwhelmed by the demands of practical service to the widows and orphans in addition to their preaching and teaching responsibilities, and so appoint a group of “deacons” to assist (6:1-7).  At the same time, this administrative move indicates some sort of division within the supposedly harmonious community of Jerusalem believers.  The people particularly in need of help are the “Hellenists,” and the names of the appointed deacons (6:5) are all Greek, and one is identified as a “proselyte of Antioch.”  Much has been written about these “Hellenists” of the early community, most of it speculative.  Luke’s brief account does suggest that an important part of the early Christian community in Jerusalem was composed of Greek-speaking Jews from the diaspora.  As he will indicate, these believers play a major role in the spread of the movement, but before he tells that story, he has another account of persecution and another major speech.

One other feature of the account should be noted.  Luke’s insistence that the deacons are just in a subordinate role of service (6:2) probably reflects conditions of his own day, toward the end of the first century, when the hierarchical organization of Christian communities had begun to develop and the roles of presbyters (elders) and deacons were more distinct, with deacons in a decidedly inferior role.  The actions reported here of exemplary deacons such as Stephen and Philip suggest that they played a much more important role in the life of the community than their title would indicate.

Stephen, one of the deacons, perhaps himself a member of the “synagogue of the Freedman” comprised of Jews of the diaspora (6:9), was arrested on charges that he advocated or predicted the destruction of the Temple and the change of Mosaic custom (6:14).  His response to these charges is a lengthy address to the Council (7:2-53), which provides a concise account of the history of Israel.  The speech highlights on the idolatry of the Exodus generation (7:39-43) and the divine judgment that followed, expressed in the forceful words of Amos 5:25-27.  This sets the stage for the climax of the speech (7:48-50), which renders judgment on the Temple and on any manufactured abode for the divine.  Here again (7:49-50), Stephen is portrayed as calling on scripture (Isa 66:1-2) to make his point.

Stephen’s speech marks a turning point in the stance of the text toward the Temple as a traditional focal point of Jewish piety. Although the Jerusalem community had spent time in the Temple (2:46), its significance in the life of the movement would diminish as the mission to the Gentiles develops. Luke also, with the benefit of hindsight, may also be reflecting on the fate of the Temple, destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE as a result of the Jewish revolt.

Two things result from Stephen’s speech.  The first is his own martyrdom (5:54-60), which imitates the account of Jesus’ death and at the same time introduces the character of Saul (7:58). The second, resulting from the flight of believers from the persecution in Jerusalem, is spread of the gospel to new areas and peoples, first the Samaritans (8:4-25), then an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-40). There are interesting details in both stories.  The Samaritans were baptized by Philip, but did not receive the Holy Spirit at that event.  That occurred only when the apostles Peter and John laid hands on them (8:16-17).  The story once again emphasizes the leading role of the apostles in contrast to the deacons, while it also provides a foundation for later sacramental practice, distinguishing between baptism and confirmation. The account also contains the episode of the attempt to purchase spiritual power by one Simon (8:18), providing the name for the sin of “simony.”  Both of these short accounts probably reflect tensions in the church of Luke’s own day.

The account of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch marks a step toward the development of a mission to the Gentiles, but we are not quite there yet, since the eunuch was apparently a Jewish proselyte, come to Jerusalem to worship (8:27) and was reading the prophet Isaiah (8:28). Interpretation of a famous passage from that prophet (Isa 53:7-8), one of his “servant songs,” as a poem about Jesus, is the means by which Philip brings the eunuch to baptism (8:38) before being spirited away (8:39) eventually to Caesarea, where the next major step in the development of the mission to the Gentiles will take place.

Further Reading:

Lawrence M. Wills, “The Depiction of the Jews in Acts,” JBL 110 (1991) 631-54.

John J. Kilgallen, “The Function of Stephen’s Speech (Acts 7,2-53),” Biblica 70 (1989) 173-93.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Stephen’s speech offers a strong criticism of a focus on a particular sacred space. Is that criticism just a part of the tension between early Christians and their Jewish neighbors or does it have something to say to a twenty-first century audience? Are there “sacred spaces” that we revere more than we should?
  2. Stephen’s speech also offers a model of how one can appropriate the history of God’s people to make a point about what faithful people should do in the present. Can his way of reading the past be adapted for our own use? If so, how would you tell the tale of the community of the faithful to shed light on the present situation of the Church?
  3. What do you make of the curious episode of Ananias and Sapphira? If you had to teach a Bible study on the text, what would you hope student might derive from the story?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

III. Acts 9-12: Gentiles Join the Movement

The Gospel (and baptism) have spread from the Hebrew or Aramaic speaking apostles to the Jews gathered in Jerusalem who speak various languages, to the Ethiopian eunuch, probably also a Jew or at least a proselyte, who has traveled from afar to celebrate the feast in Jerusalem.

Now in Acts 9 the Holy Spirit pauses to recruit one more Jew, Paul.  Then the Spirit uses Paul and Peter to spread the Gospel even farther – to the world of the Gentiles.  The stories of Acts’ two heroes are contrasted and juxtaposed.

Furthermore Acts 9 and Acts 10 provide two rather neatly constructed and detailed narratives – the story of Peter and Cornelius is the longest sustained narrative in the Book of Acts.  In each case our protagonist interacts with a supporting character (Ananias, Cornelius) whose role is essential to the story Luke is telling.

The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is told three times in the Book of Acts, once by the narrator (9:1-9) and twice by Paul in an appearance before the authorities (22:6-21 and 26:12-18).  Each of the three accounts has its own unique features, perhaps indicating that the stories come from different sources available to Luke.  On the other hand it may be that Luke shifts the emphasis from account to account in order to make the story more interesting and to fit the particular narrative context (and theological point) of each chapter.

Paul gives his own account of his call in Galatians 1:13-17.  In that passage he implicitly compares himself to the prophet Jeremiah, and he insists that he is not dependent for his apostleship or his ministry on any one who was an apostle before him.  Perhaps for this reason he nowhere mentions Ananias, who plays such an important role in Acts 9:10-19.  It is also true that in Acts, Ananias is not responsible for Paul’s radical reversal, though he is God’s instrument to restore Paul’s sight, to declare the gift of the Spirit and presumably to baptize him (9:18).  Nor does he speak about the blinding light or the voice from heaven that we find in Luke’s account, though nothing in Galatians rules out the possibility that Paul had some such supernatural experience.

As we read through Acts 9, we note two motifs that are essential for Acts’ overall story.  First, God is entirely in charge.  It is God who sends the light that blinds Saul, and God through Jesus who calls Paul to repentance and fidelity.  It is God through a vision who instructs Ananias, against his own best judgment, to bring Paul into the community of faith.

Second, when God is in charge what God brings about time after time is a “great reversal.”  Peter, who denied Jesus in Luke, has become the great apostle of the Jerusalem church in Acts.  Paul, who has persecuted Jesus and Jesus’ people, now becomes Jesus’ prophet, the founder of new Christian communities and (almost immediately) the object of persecution.

Paul’s move from opponent to proponent of the faith and from outsider to community member and leader drives much of the story of Acts but it is never more succinctly and dramatically signaled than in Ananias’ inspired word to the one who has been his enemy: “Saul, Brother.” (Acts 9:17)

Note, too, that in Ananias’ vision, God tells Ananias (9:15) what in Galatians 1 God tells Paul, that the purpose of Paul’s calling is to bring God’s name before the Gentiles – a foreshadowing of the rest of Acts and of the great turning point of Acts 10.

The rest of Acts 9 fills in the picture for both our heroes – Paul and Peter.  We see Paul’s increasing eloquence and power and at the same time (in the kind of action/reaction movement that drives both Luke and Acts) we see the increasing opposition to his eloquence on the part of the Jewish leaders (9:19b-31).

In Acts 9:32-43, we have two miracle stories where Peter shows forth Jesus’ promise just before his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” (1:8)  The two healings, of Aeneas and Tabitha, move from the briefer to the longer and from the splendid to the truly sensational.

And now Peter is back at the center of our story and ready one of the crucial scenes in our drama – the interaction with Cornelius.

Remember the two themes of the story of Paul and Ananias – (1) God is in charge, and (2) the world gets turned upside down.

Acts 10 is constructed with the care of a good short story.  We watch Cornelius, then we watch Peter; then we watch the two of them together.  But it is God who provides Peter with the vision that brings him to Cornelius and it is God who provides Cornelius with the vision that enables him to welcome Peter.

Cornelius is, of course, a Gentile, which is the great point of our story.  He is also a Gentile who is apparently aware of Israel’s story and sympathetic to Judaism.  He is probably one of those figures Acts refers to as “God-fearers”—those who have not converted to Judaism but have learned monotheism from the Jewish faith.  He may in fact be a kind of surrogate for Luke’s friend or patron or ideal reader Theophilus, a Gentile who is at the same time a friend of Israel’s God.

Notice that Luke, who loves visions, dreams and messengers in Luke 1 and 2, turns to messengers and visions again.  Peter’s vision (10:9-16) is not exactly what it appears to be.  The issue is not really about what Peter can eat.  We get a version of that issue in Acts 15 and another version in Galatians 2.  The issue is about who can be included in the community of the Holy Spirit, in the family of Jesus Christ.  Peter does not understand that this is the meaning of his vision until he comes to Cornelius, learns of Cornelius’ word from God, and claims the fundamental meaning of the vision on the roof:  “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  (Acts 10:34-35)

There is some evidence in Paul’s letters that Peter and Paul may not always have agreed on the scope and requirements for bringing church to the Gentiles, but in the Book of Acts, Peter sounds like Paul before Paul does.  Luke loves like-mindedness.

As at Pentecost and at Solomon’s portico, Peter has a sermon to explicate and apply the narrative we have just heard (10:34-43).  As in the other sermons the focus is on Christ as the one who went about doing good, who was crucified by human evil but raised by God’s goodness and power.  Here Peter calls less directly for repentance than he does in his other sermons, but the point of the sermon is clear enough:   “All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins in his name.” (10:43)

There follows a kind of second Pentecost when the Spirit who fell upon the Jews in Acts 2 falls upon the Gentiles, and they too are baptized.

Acts 11 and 12 forward the narrative of the church’s growth and of the opposition to that growth.  Peter reports back to the church at Jerusalem, the council of Jewish believers who profess Jesus as Messiah, and tells them about his experience with Cornelius.  They validate the mission to the Gentiles, an affirmation that will need to be repeated and modified in Acts 15 (11:1-18).

In 11:19-29, two characters we have met now meet each other.  Barnabas is the man who generously sold his property and gave to the church.  Paul is the man whose life was turned upside down on the road to Damascus.  Together they become part of the community at Antioch where followers of Jesus are called “Christian” for the first time (11:26).  Together they take up the task of gathering an offering for those in Judea who are suffering famine.  Barnabas shows the concern for others we already noticed; Paul shows his concern for the poor in Judea that will also be evident in his letters.  A partnership begins.

As the church grows, opposition grows.  James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee, is killed by Herod; Peter is arrested (12:1-5).  God is still in charge, and we meet another angel and see another divine light.  Peter escapes, but the guards who should have prevented his escape are executed by Herod (12:6-19).  Herod adds blasphemy to treachery, and since God is not mocked, “the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms, and died.”

But despite opposition God continues to work, the gospel spreads, and the workers in the vineyard add other workers still: “Then, after completing their mission Barnabas and Saul returned to Jerusalem and brought with them John, whose other name was Mark.” (12:24)

Further Reading:

Janice Capel Anderson, “Reading Tabitha: A Feminist Reception History,” in Amy-Jill Levine, A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles (Cleveland: Pilgrim, 2004) 22-48.

Joseph B. Tyson, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10:1-11:18,” Forums. 3 (2000) 179-96.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. The story of Paul’s experience on the Road to Damascus is one of the classic Christian stories and has influenced the way people think about conversion and Christian faith from the first century to today. You might compare this story to Paul’s own account of his experience with the risen Christ in Galatians 1 & 2. What themes do we see in Luke that shift or elaborate on Paul’s claims?
  2. The story of Peter and Cornelius is the longest single episode in the Book of Acts. How do visions work here, and in Luke, and elsewhere in Acts, to represent messages from God?
  3. The vision of the different kinds of food on a sheet that Peter sees is not first of all about whether to keep cultural food laws (kosher laws). How do we understand the vision and the story around it when it comes to the question of fellowship between Jews and Gentiles int he church? And where do we find barriers today that we need to examine and challenge?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

IV. Acts 13-15: Holding the Church Together

With the conversion of Saul/Paul and the action of the Holy Spirit in making gentile converts in Caesarea, and with the church, now called “Christian,” established in Antioch, the work of expanding the gentile mission now begins in earnest. The process continues with the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul, in what comes to be known as Paul’s “first missionary journey.”  The itinerary takes them from Syrian Antioch, to Cyprus, to the southern coast of Asia Minor, from which they makes a trek up-country to Pisidia, then eventually back to Antioch. Amid many adventures, Paul makes the first of his many speeches in Acts.

Paul and Barnabas land in Cyprus (13:4-12), where, in the presence of the Roman governor, the proconsul Sergius Paulus, they confront a magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus/Elymas.  Paul denounces him and renders him temporarily blind (13:11), impressing the pro-consul, who comes to believe.

Paul and Barnabas then sail to Perga in Pamphilia, but move on immediately to Antioch in Pisidia.  As is their custom in Acts, they first enter the Jewish synagogue, are invited to offer a guest homily, and provide a mini-version of the account of salvation history that we already heard from Stephen in Acts 7.  The story culminates in the coming of Jesus, the descendant of David, whose execution by Pilate is blamed on the Jewish leaders (13:28).  As usual in Acts, the Romans are portrayed as, at worst, reluctant pawns in Jewish efforts to persecute Christians.

Paul’s positive proclamation of the Gospel focuses on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, interpreted through citations from the Old Testament – Psalm 2:7 in v 33; Isaiah 55:3 in v 34 and Psalm 16:10 in v 35.  The significance of Christ’s resurrection is expressed, as is typical of Luke, with the theme of the forgiveness of sins (13:39).  The sermon ends with a solemn warning not to reject the message, citing Habakkuk 1:5.

The sermon is a fine example of Lukan rhetoric.  It is interesting to compare this speech with the themes of Paul’s preaching.  We do not, and will hardly ever in Acts, hear any of the positions for which Paul is duly famous, that all are saved by God’s grace, appropriated in a faithful response that imitates and enshrines the “faith of Jesus Christ.”  Jesus is the focus of belief in Luke, but with a different nuance from what we find in Paul.

The synagogue homily evokes a hostile response from the local Jewish community (13:44-52), which eventually leads the apostles to shake the dust of Antioch off their feet (13:51) and move on to Iconium.  But before they do, they have the opportunity to cite scripture one more time (13:47), finding in Isaiah 49:6 an encapsulation of their mission, to be “a light for the gentiles” to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”  Here Luke probably has it just right.  Although Paul does not cite this text of Isaiah in his own letters, it is quite likely that the vision of universal outreach found in Second Isaiah shaped his understanding of his role and that of the communities that he founded.

More adventure awaits – rejection, again fostered by Jewish opposition, in Iconium (14:1-7), and then acceptance of a sort in Lystra and Derbe (14:8-20), where the locals greet the preaching apostles in their own language as deities, Zeus and Hermes (14:12).  The reaction of these “country bumpkins” contrasts with that of the sophisticated philosophers in Athens in chapter 17.  Both groups appropriate the gospel message through a cultural lens that can distort its meaning.

After their stint in the highlands of Lycaonia, Paul and Barnabas make the circuit of cities they have visited, appointing elders (14:23), before they return to Antioch to report on the success of their efforts (14:24-28).  The organization of local communities around “elders” probably reflects the general organizational structure of the Church in Luke’s day toward the end of the first century, when singular bishops were not yet the dominant force (Cf. also 20:18-25).

Following the “first missionary journey” an event occurs that is very important for Luke’s narrative of the growth and development of Christianity from its Jewish roots to a movement that embraced the Gentile world, a council of leading apostles in Jerusalem.  We also know of this event from Paul’s letter to the Galatians 2:1-10.  Both accounts attest to the importance of the decisions made at this council, although they have slightly different versions of the decisions that were made.

The presenting issue was the demand by some believers that Gentile converts to the movement be circumcised (15:1), a point on which the accounts in Acts and Galatians agree.  Paul and Barnabas represented the church in Antioch (15:2) to a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the issue, where the character of the opposition appears: believers who were Pharisees insistent on the importance of keeping the Mosaic Law (15:5).  Two apostles rise to defend the position that circumcision need not be imposed on Gentile converts.  Peter, claiming to be the apostle to the Gentiles (15:7, contrast Galatians 2:7-8) evokes the episode recounted in Acts 10, where the Holy Spirit took the lead in brining Gentiles aboard (15:7-11).  More elaborately, James, the brother of Jesus, who apparently played a leading role in the Jerusalem community as both Paul and the Jewish historian Josephus relate, takes the floor (15:13-31).  He speaks in favor of accepting uncircumcised Gentiles into the movement, relying on Amos 9:11-12 to support his position (15:16-17).

So far, Luke and Paul’s account in Galatians 2 generally agree.  The leading apostles accepted the possibility of admitting Gentiles without requiring that they be circumcised.  Paul’s account goes on to tell of later developments back in Antioch, from which it becomes clear that the agreement left some other issues undecided (Galatians 2:11-14).  The situation as Paul describes it is that dispute continued over the issue of whether Jews and Gentiles could eat together without observing the Jewish food laws or laws of kashrut.  Peter sided with the faction including “men from James” that required observance of such laws and was famously criticized by Paul in a way that inspired the reformers of the sixteenth century.  So, the Jerusalem Council did not decide, to put the matter in anachronistic terms, whether ham sandwiches and shrimp cocktail could be served at church picnics.  Paul thought Gentiles should be accommodated and fully welcomed as Gentiles, and Peter thought that they should defer to the sensibilities of their Jewish brethren.

Luke’s version of events does not suggest that there was room for such disputes.  After reporting on the speeches of Peter and James, he goes on to provide the text of the formal decision of the Council, something we don’t find in Paul’s account.  The wording of the decision uses the language at home in the formal legal decrees of Greek city states (15:25, “we have decided,” 15:28 “it seemed good…”), and it claims the guidance of the Holy Spirit in making the decision (15:28). The content of the decision is, in its core the same as what Paul’s account implies: circumcision is not required of Gentiles, but it adds stipulations that introduce some minimal attention to kashrut. Believers must avoid “food sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled” as well as basic moral law, “and from fornication” (15:29).

Luke reports briefly on the joyous reception of the decree in Antioch (15:30-35) and on the split between Paul and Barnabas, over what appears to be a personnel issue (15:37).  Paul, in Galatians 2:13, also indicated a rift between himself and Barnabas, although he connects it to the issue of observance of kashrut. That Paul and Barnabas parted company is clear. Luke, desiring to portray the early community as much as possible as a harmonious whole, probably does not want to attribute that disagreement to a matter of principle.

With the decision of the council of Jerusalem in place, the stage is set for Paul’s expanding mission in the heart of the Greek world.

Further Reading:

David Moessner, “Paul in Acts: Preacher of Eschatological Repentance to Israel,” New Testament Studies 34 (1988) 96-104.

Richard Bauckham, “James and the Gentiles (Acts 15.13021),” in Ben Witherington III, History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 154-84.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. The Story of Paul and Barnabas in the wilds of Lycaonia (Acts 14) graphically portrays a tension between the Gospel and the culture that it addresses. Are there elements of the contemporary scene, either locally, nationally, or globally, that present a similar tension between what Christians stand for and what the culture can perceive? Are there ways of bridging the gap between the two?
  2. In several of the episodes of this part of Acts, significant tensions between believers in Christ and traditional Jews become prominent. What do you make of those tensions? Are there similar tensions in the contemporary relationship between Christians and Jews? Or are there analogous tensions between Christians and other religious traditions, such as Islam. What do we, as twenty-first century Christian believers make of such interfaith tensions?
  3. Acts portrays Paul as influenced by important passages from the Hebrew scriptures. How important for us in the twenty-first century are the connections with those Biblical passages? How do we understand our relationship with the scriptures of ancient Israel?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

V. Acts 16-17: “Apologetic” Ministry

In the section from Acts 16:1-17:15 we see enacted some familiar themes.  The message spreads; opposition arises; Paul is unfazed; God is in charge.  In Acts 17:16-34 Paul preaches the good news to Gentiles, but Gentiles whose training has been not in Hebrew scripture but in Greek thought.

In Acts 16:1-5 we are further reminded of what Paul’s letters also indicate: Paul’s apostleship included a company of colleagues.  When Paul and Barnabas part (unhappily) at the end of Acts 15, Paul picks Silas as his new companion and then in chapter 16 adds Timothy to the group.  There is perhaps an echo here of the way in which the company of the apostles had to be filled up when Judas separated – much more dramatically – from their company.  Like the twelve, Paul does not witness alone.

There is a more significant tension between Acts and Galatians when it comes to the story of Paul’s having Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:1-5). The reasons Timothy needed to be circumcised are a little unclear.  Would the fact that he had a Gentile father guarantee that he was uncircumcised, despite the fact that Jewish identity, at least for the Rabbinic tradition, usually passes through the mother?  Does Paul have him circumcised in order to placate the Jewish Christians or to appease Jews who would otherwise oppose the Christian movement?  (In Acts we see how well that worked.)  What is oddest about the story is that Paul has the circumcision performed and then goes on to inform his (Jewish) listeners of the decision reached at the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, which explicitly does not demand circumcision of the uncircumcised.  (See last week’s study and Acts 15:28-29).  Paul, the first-person letter writer, unlike the “Paul” in this narrative, apparently wrote the book of Galatians to condemn people who would do what he, as the character in Acts, has just done – insist on circumcision as a requirement for male participation in the community.  The one possible way to square this circle is to suggest that Paul thought of Timothy as Jewish (through his mother) and insisted on circumcision as a requirement for Jewish Christians but not for Gentile ones.  We have always been skeptical of the claim that Paul thought Jews required circumcision to be justified while Gentiles did not.

In the brief section 16:6-10 we note again that God is in charge and that God is expanding Paul’s mission wider and wider.  As Carl Holladay points out, in Acts 15:36 Paul suggests to Barnabas that their next journey should be a return visit to the communities where they have already planted the seed of the gospel, but now Paul is called by a man from Macedonia to expand his itinerary far to the west. (See Holladay’s notes in the Harper’s Bible Commentary, p. 1100)  By now we know that in Luke and Acts visions and messengers are sent by God to further God’s agenda (see Luke 1:6, 2:10, Acts 9:3, 10:3, 10:11).

In Acts 16:10 we find the first passage that is written in the first person plural – “we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia.”  Scholars disagree over the significance of this use of the first person.  It may be an indication that at some points in his narrative the author (perhaps Luke) introduces himself into the action to show that he was an eye witness.  It may be that this and other first person accounts show our author using a written source, again presumably from an eyewitness (see Luke 1:2).  It may be that, like other writers of the time, Luke uses this device to make his narrative more vivid.

Now Paul stops in Philippi, to found the church to which he wrote his affectionate epistle to the Philippians.  In Acts 16:11-15 we find the story of the conversion of Lydia, which highlights an important feature of Paul’s churches, both in Acts and in the letters:  women of relatively high rank often play a role of considerable influence in the new Christian communities.  We also note an important feature of Acts’ own narrative: when a person comes to faith he or she is then baptized – presumably both in water and in the Holy Spirit.  And, in a feature that has puzzled Baptists from the time of the Reformation on, it looks as though as head of a household – family and slaves – Lydia has the whole lot baptized along with her.

The next section of Acts, 16:16-35, presents one of the longest and liveliest vignettes in the whole book.  Note a few features of the text.  The slave girl has prophetic powers because she is possessed by a magic spirit.  As is often the case in the Gospels, the demonic spirit says the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Paul and Silas are indeed “slaves of the most High God” and they are about to proclaim “the way of salvation” (16:17).  Paul exorcises the spirit, perhaps because it is only a spirit and not The Spirit, and perhaps because here as elsewhere Acts wants to insist that even right proclamation should not be undertaken for gain.  No prophet for profit, Professor Attridge might say. (How dare he!)

In the next section (vv. 19-24) we see the complicated relationship among Christian Jews, synagogue based Jews, and the Roman authorities – a relationship that will shape much of the drama of the opposition to Paul.  As with Peter in Acts 12:6-19, God provides a miracle, but here the point is not the escape but the opportunity for witness.  The jailer is about to kill himself, presumably because he has failed in his custodial duties, but Paul – knowing both the jailer’s mind and the current census of the jail – persuades him to preserve his own life.

It is this miraculous knowledge more than the miraculous earthquake that moves the jailer toward faith, and his question gives Paul the chance to preach a very Pauline sermon, brief though it be: “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.”  (Acts 16:31; see Paul’s version of such proclamation in Romans 10:10)

The story ends with a dramatic encounter between Paul and the Roman authorities.  Perhaps because they have heard of his generosity to the jailer, the Roman authorities want Paul and Silas to leave jail secretly and be on their way.  The Paul of Acts like the Paul of the letters specializes in speaking and acting boldly.  Now, one might think a little belatedly, Paul announces that he and Silas are Roman citizens and should be vindicated in the full light of day.

However grudgingly the authorities agree, apologize and yet apparently ambivalent about this new movement, tell them to get out of dodge, or in this case, Philippi (16:39).

In Acts 17:1-15 the journey of Paul, Silas, and Timothy continues.  In both Thessalonica and Beroea they share the good news first in the synagogue.  In Thessalonica the Jews vigorously object.  In Beroea Paul fares somewhat better till the aforementioned Thessalonian opponents arrive to stir up the crowd.  In both Thessalonica and Beroea there are Gentiles who come to believe.  In Thessalonica it is clear and in Beroea probable that the Gentiles who listened eagerly to Paul were, like Cornelius, already interested in the teaching of the synagogue.  When the Bereoans bring Paul to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy temporarily behind, he preaches to Gentiles who had not been listening eagerly at the fringes of the synagogues.

Acts 17:17-21 sets the scene for Paul’s speech at the Areopagus.  The general description of the Athenians as philosophical faddists (v. 21) takes on more specific shape in the description of Paul’s debating opponents as Stoics and Epicureans.  There is no doubt that Stoicism and Epicureanism were alive and well as philosophical options during Paul’s time and during the time of Acts,  but attempts to locate his speech as a direct response to particular Epicurean or Stoic writings remain mostly guesswork.  The stuff was in the air as John Locke was in the air at the time of the American Revolution and Sigmund Freud and his critics are in the air now – whether or not most of us have read any of these thinkers or can quote them in detail.

There are two ways of reading the setting of the speech at the Areopagus and each is plausible.  One possibility is that Luke sees this as a kind of hearing on the model of the trial of Socrates who was sentenced to death by the Council at the Areopagus for his theological mistakes.   Perhaps Luke is saying that, like Socrates, Paul was unjustly accused.  If this is the setting for our narrative, then the narrative ends when Paul escapes in 17:33.

The other possibility is that Paul is satisfying the curiosity of some of the Athenian thinkers.  He therefore goes to the Areopagus further to specify his claims about God and Jesus.  If this is the case, then in 17:33 he wraps up the speech and walks away. Acts has instances both of testimony before accusers and of preaching before potentially sympathetic audiences.  (For the former, see for instance Paul’s defense in Acts 22, and for the latter, Peter’s speech in Acts 2:14-36.)

Whatever the occasion, what Paul delivers is a classic example of apologetic preaching – that is, he makes the case for the Christian movement to unbelievers.   It is somewhat beside the point whether Paul’s sermon would make a convincing case in a philosophical theology class, then or now.  We can see how he adapts what he has to say to his audience.

First he assumes that they are worthy of his attention.  Apologetic preaching for Paul does not begin with condemnation but with commendation.  (If “you are extremely religious” [17:22] is ironic, it is almost impossible to make sense of the rest of the discourse).

Second he pays attention to the concrete situation of his hearers, drawing their attention to the altar he has seen, dedicated “to an unknown God.”  Again we have no way of knowing whether such an inscription stood on a first century Athenian altar, or whether Luke applies editorial license either in changing or inventing the inscription.

Paul’s ability to be observant opens to a fairly simple but straightforward theological argument, not from Scripture as his sermons to Jews always do, but from a claim that God is evidently creator of the world.  Like his later interpreter St. Augustine, Paul claims that all of us seek and long for God, but that the God we seek has already drawn near to us.  At this point Paul quotes a line of Greek poetry; again there are good guesses as to his source but no absolute certainty (Acts 17:28).

Moreover, Paul argues, since we humans are God’s offspring and created as God’s images, it is impossible that sub-human images “gold, silver, or stone” could rightly represent the human-making God (v.29).  Paul here echoes traditional Jewish criticism of idolatry (see Second Isaiah, Wisdom of Solomon).

To this point Paul has argued from general theological principles, but now he shifts into a kind of indirect nod to Christian faith followed by a full-fledged assault (vv. 30-31).  The nod comes with the eschatological claim that God will judge people for their ignorance.   In a Jewish context Peter and Paul claim that it is ignorance that led the Jews to crucify Jesus.  In this Greek context Paul argues that the ignorance is evident in the practices of idolatry and polytheism.

And now the all-out Christian claim: this judgment will happen in the man Jesus whom God has raised from the dead.   The Athenians have already been much atwitter about Paul’s preaching of Jesus and Resurrection (perhaps thinking that Resurrection, a Greek word in the feminine, is a goddess who accompanies the male God Jesus in v. 18).  In classic terms Paul has preached a kind of proto-gospel, preparing his hearers for the gospel itself.  But before the altar call he has to move beyond his general monotheistic claims to name Jesus and his resurrection.

Unlike many earlier evangelical moments in Acts where many believe, here the believers seem to be few – but perhaps two names are still known in Luke’s community: Dionysius and Damaris.

No wonder he thought it was time to head on to Corinth.

Further Reading:

Hans Conzelmann, “The Address of Paul on the Areopagus,” in Leander Keck and J. Louis Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays Presented in Honor of Paul Schubert (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966) 217-30.

Karl O. Sandnes, “Paul and Socrates: The Aim of Paul’s Areopagus Speech,” JSNT 50 (1993) 13-26.

Alexander J. M. Wedderburn, “The ‘We’-Passages in Acts: On the Horns of a Dilemma,” ZNW 93 (2002) 78-98.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. When Paul has Timothy circumcised to keep the Jewish leaders content, is this consistent with what we know of Paul elsewhere in Acts or in his letters? Why does he do this?
  2. What are the causes for the growing opposition to Paul, and how does God help him and his companions in their times of trouble?
  3. We call sermons to people who are non-believers “apologetic” sermons, and in Acts 17 Paul preaches to Greeks who don’t know their Bibles—at all. What clues does he give us to how we might talk about our faith to people who are not part of faith communities today?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

VI. Acts 18-20: Co-Operative Ministry

The next chapters of Acts conclude Paul’s so-called “second missionary journey” and then report on the “third missionary journey,” which largely focuses on Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, on the western coast of Asia Minor, in the mid-fifties of the first century.

In the first episode after Paul’s important speech on the Areopagus, he visits Corinth (18:1-17), a city on which he in fact lavished a good deal of attention.  The account in Acts reports the first of Paul’s many visits to the city.  Later visits are mentioned in the two canonical letters to Corinthians, probably spent when Paul was headquartered at Ephesus.  Luke reports that Paul, encouraged by a vision, stayed in Corinth for eighteen months (18:11), teaching in various locales.  As usual in Acts, Paul began in the synagogue (18:4).  The pattern encountered in Paul’s earlier missionary activity repeats itself here.  Opposition from the Jews leads Paul to relocate to the house of Titus Crispus, a god-fearer or Gentile attracted to Jewish ways, who lived next door to the synagogue (18:7).  Despite the tension with the Jewish community, some, like Crispus, an official of the synagogue, believed and were baptized (18:8).  Luke continues to balance his depiction of Jewish opposition to the Christian message with accounts of Jews who joined the movement.

Luke then records an episode important for establishing the chronology of Paul’s ministry, his encounter with the Roman proconsul Gallio (18:12-17). Jewish opponents haul Paul before Gallio, but the proconsul dismisses the case on the grounds that Paul was not guilty of breaking any Roman law.  His behavior was “about words and names and [the Jews’] own law” (18:15), not a matter that merited his attention.

However accurate or imaginative Luke’s account of the appearance before Gallio, it is likely that he knows of the historical presence of Gallio as the Roman proconsul. Both Latin literary sources and inscriptional evidence provide information about him.  He was born Marcus Annaeus Novatus, the oldest son of the orator Lucius Annaeus Seneca of Spain.  His brother was the famous politician and philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was the tutor and eventual chief minister of the emperor Nero. Gallio had been adopted by another Roman household, of Junius Gallio, from whom he derived the name by which we know of him in Acts.

An inscription found at the Greek shrine of Delphi, the original fragments of which were uncovered in 1905, records a communication to Delphi from the emperor Claudius, which mentions his twenty-sixth acclamation as emperor, an event that we can date to the first half of the year 52. The emperor’s communication refers to a report by the proconsul describing the depopulation of Delphi, which the emperor takes steps to reverse.  Gallio was, therefore, in office probably at least in the year 51-52, with his term beginning the spring of 51. Proconsuls at this time usually served for terms of a single year. If that calculation is correct, and Luke’s report has at least the basic facts correct, Paul encountered Gallio sometime during 51-52.  To pin down exactly when in the eighteen months of stay Paul encountered Gallio is difficult to determine.  Luke’s subsequent reference to the “considerable time” (18:18) is too vague to be useful as a chronological indicator.  A reasonable guess is that Paul was in Corinth late 50 to late 51 or early 52.

Locating Paul in Corinth in the early 50’s is compatible with other chronological information that we can glean from his letters and from Acts.  The report of his arrival in Corinth mentions that he there encountered a Jewish couple named Aquila and his wife Priscilla (or Prisca for short).  They will continue to accompany Paul on his next missionary journey and be with him in Ephesus when he comes into contact with Apollos (18:26).  At their first appearance (18:2) it is noted that they had been expelled from Rome along with other Jewish residents by the emperor Claudius.  According to late Roman sources, this expulsion took place in the year 49.  If, as most scholars suspect, that date is correct, it would make sense for this couple, who continue to play a role in Paul’s life, to have met him at this time in the Greek east.

Paul next travels east to Jerusalem and Antioch (18:22) and then back to Ephesus, after visiting some of the churches he had founded in Asia Minor. Paul’s own letters do not give any information about this visit to Jerusalem.  From those letters we gather that after the apostolic council mentioned in Acts 15 and Galatians 2, Paul continued his missionary activity and engaged in a symbolic collection for the poor of the church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9).  From his own account, it would appear that he did not return to Jerusalem until he was ready to deliver that collection (Romans 15:25) at the end of his ministry in Ephesus.  Luke may have confused some of Paul’s movements eastward with a visit to Jerusalem, or he may possibly know about a brief visit that Paul does not mention.

When he returns from the east, in Luke’s account, he meets in Ephesus another apostle, Apollos, who, along with Prisca and Aquila, he instructs more fully in the faith (18:24-28). This eloquent native of Alexandria (18:24), sometimes thought to be the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, worked, along with Paul, in the mission field of Corinth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) and was with Paul when he sent First Corinthians to that community (1 Corinthians 16:12), as were Aquila and Prisca (1 Corinthians 16:19).  These interconnected references give us a small glimpse into the missionary team of which Paul was a part.  Although in hindsight, he looms large above the rest, Paul always had a several important fellow workers in the task of spreading the good news.

The next chapter focuses on Paul’s stay in Ephesus. His initial reception in Ephesus brings him into contact with disciples who only know the baptism of repentance taught by John the Baptist (19:3). Paul rectifies the situation, baptizes and lays his hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit (19:5).  His preaching in the synagogue meets the customary negative response and he sets up shop in another venue, as he had in Corinth.  His new venue, the “lecture hall of Tyrannus” (19:9) evokes the teaching milieu of an ancient orator or philosopher, and he stays there for two years, probably during 55-57.

Miracles continue to accompany Paul’s ministry, including exorcisms that outdo the activities of Jewish rivals, the sons of Scaeva (19:11-18). Paul’s success has the incidental benefit of driving down the price of magic books (19:19-20).

The climax of Paul’s stay in Ephesus is a civil disturbance led by Demetrius, a silversmith whose idol-making business suffered because of Paul’s preaching (19:21-41).  His fellow silversmiths and their sympathizers raise a ruckus in support of the great goddess Artemis (19:27-28), who was worshipped in her renowned temple in the city.  The venue for the tumult is the magnificent theater of Ephesus (19:29), preserved to this day, which could accommodate some 25,000 spectators.  Luke probably wants us to envision such a crowd protesting Paul’s activity, which is finally quieted by the reasoned appeal of the town clerk (19:35).

Having dodged the bullet of rioting Ephesians, and inspired by a vision commanding him to go to Jerusalem and eventually to Rome (19:21), Paul decamps from Ephesus.  Luke certainly has Paul’s itinerary generally correct this point, although he insists on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who directs Paul’s way.

Paul visits some of his congregations for a final time, stopping in Macedonia and Greece before returning to Asia Minor (20:1-5).  Two episodes complete the account of this period of his life.  In Troas, Paul’s lengthy sermon after a shared sacred meal puts one of the congregants to sleep.  Ironically named “Lucky” (Euthychus), he falls out a window and apparently dies, but Paul, sensing life still in him, revives him, to the amazement of all (20:7-12).  The episode recalls a famous story in Homer’s Odyssey about one of Odysseus’s shipmates, Elpenor, whom he encounters in his trip to the underworld (Odyssey 11.59-78).  As often Luke will dress whatever historical reminiscence he may have in an attractive literary garb.

After a brief voyage (20:13-16), Paul stops at Miletus, not far from Ephesus, whence he summons the elders of the community for a farewell address (20:18-35; cf. 14:23).  Here Luke uses many of the conventions of the rhetoric of farewell discourses and testaments, declaring Paul’s innocence (20:26), warning of future dangers (20:29), including doctrinal challenges from within (20:30).  These warning sound similar to those issued by some deutero-Pauline letters (1 Tim 1:3-11; 2 Tim 3:1-9) and other later writings of the New Testament (2 Peter 2; Jude 5-16; 1 John 2:18-26).  Luke also has Paul repeat some of the main themes of his own theology, the importance of repentance as the hallmark of faith (20:21) and the belief that Paul’s life, and that of the Church, is firmly guided by the Holy Spirit (20:23). Luke evokes Paul’s own hortatory style when he makes him offer himself as an example of behavior (20:34-35; cf. 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1), although he ends on what appears to be a jejune proverbial note, “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (but cf. 2 Corinthians 9:7).  With the elders left behind given their instructions, Paul is ready to travel to Jerusalem.

Further Reading:

Cheryl Exum and Charles Talbert, “The Structure of Paul’s Speech to the Ephesian Elders (Acts 20,18-35),” CBQ (1967) 233-36.

Charles Kingsley Barrett, “Paul’s Address to the Ephesian Elders,” in Jacob Jervell and Wayne A. Meeks, eds., God’s Christ and His People: Studies in Honour of Nils Alstrup Dahl (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1977) 107-21.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. This section of Acts seems to have some significant historical data. How important is it for our understanding of early Christianity to uncover and confirm such data?  How important is it to us to classify Acts as a work of history?  Does our answer say more about us or about Acts?
  2. The persecution of Christians in Ephesus because of the disturbance of the economic order fits into a more encompassing theme in Luke. Can you recall other texts in Luke or Acts that offer a similar perspective?  What do you make of that perspective?
  3. The account in Acts of the departure speech of Paul to the elders of Ephesus seems to presuppose a certain kind of church order. How does the organization of the church here compare with other accounts in the New Testament? How important or even normative for us is the model of the church implicit here.
  4. Paul’s speech to the elders of Ephesus warns against various threats to the Christian community. Are there analogies in the current situation of the Church to the challenges that the speech outlines?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

VII. Acts 21-23: The Defense of the Gospel

In his thorough and helpful scholarly commentary on the Book of Acts, Richard Pervo wisely suggests that the last chapters remind us of the last chapters of the Gospel According to Luke.  As we look at these two books we see that in each case the pace of the narrative hastens us toward the conclusion.  In each case the protagonist (Jesus in Luke, Paul in Acts) faces danger, challenge and serious opposition.  In each case he defends the faith.  Luke takes us through Jesus’ death as an exemplary and forgiving martyr; Acts takes us up to the point where surely the first readers knew that Paul was about to be martyred.  In Luke, of course, the death of Jesus is trumped by his resurrection.  For the community that reads Acts, we suspect that the death of Paul is trumped by the realization that the churches he founded remain and grow.

These last chapters of Acts continue the author’s twofold focus on the gospel among the Jews and the gospel among the Gentiles.  In chapters 21-23 Paul confronts Jewish opposition in Jerusalem.  In chapter 25 after further trials (literally) and tribulations, Paul goes to Jerusalem where he will end his days.

Acts 21:1-16 succinctly trace Paul’s journey from Ephesus to Jerusalem.  There is a brief stop at Tyre where we see Paul’s charismatic power – that he has so charmed the believers over the course of seven days that they all head to the beach to wish him a tearful farewell  (21:1-6).

Then they (“we” in the telling) head to Caesarea by way of Ptolemais.  In Caesarea Paul’s story is linked to the early chapters of Acts and his mission tied to the earlier mission of the Jewish Christians when Paul visits with Philip, whom we last saw in Acts 8:4-40.  After the brief mention of Philip’s prophetic daughters (perhaps gifted like some of the women in Corinth, cf. 1 Cor 11:5).  However, the only oracle Luke presents comes instead from Agabus who uses a kind of modest sign-act to predict Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem.  (Acts 21:11; for Agabus see also Acts 11:27-28).  Agabus’ prediction fills something of the role that Jesus’ own predictions of his arrest serve in Luke’s Gospel. Both the characters in the story and the readers of the story are warned of what is to come, and the characters urge Paul not to continue his journey.  Paul, again imitating his Lord sets his face steadfastly for Jerusalem and eventual martyrdom.  The community affirms Paul’s intention with its prayer – “The Lord’s will be done.”  Their prayer echoes Jesus at the Mount of Olives and the prayer he taught his disciples.  (Luke 22:42, 11:2 in some texts).

It is almost impossible to figure out what features in the story of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem are historically accurate.  How does this visit to James correspond to Paul’s description of his relationship to the Jerusalem church in Galatians 2:2-10 or to the account of his visit in Acts 15?  Is this visit to be understood in the light of Paul’s often stated intention to bring an offering to Jerusalem from the Gentiles (e.g., Romans 15:25-29)?  Does the rather hostile reception he receives from the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem indicate that the offering itself was refused?  Most problematic, what sources and facts lie behind the account of Paul’s joining the oath-takers in their visit to the temple and financing their offerings there?  And why does James give the rules for observance by Gentile believers (Acts 21: 25) that had already been decided and promulgated in Acts 15?

What seems clear is that once again Luke is insisting that Paul did not intend to disrespect or disobey the leaders in Jerusalem.  In Luke’s estimation, Paul saw the Christian story to stand in continuity with the story of Israel, and Luke apparently understood that Jews were to continue in observance of the law.  The whole episode emphasizes again the unity of the early church – Jew and Gentile, James and Paul. Reading between the lines, however, it is easy for us to see how tenuous that unity may actually have been.

The dramatic story of Paul’s arrest in 21:27-36 is likewise lively but a little confusing.  Jews from outside Jerusalem accuse Paul of destroying the Torah in his relationship to the Gentiles and specifically accuse him of taking a Gentile into the temple – though as we have seen his companions in the temple were vow-taking Jews.  A riot breaks out, and in a classic case of blaming the victim, the tribune arrests Paul – in part to keep the peace and in part to find out, from the victim, what the riot was about.  The cry of the crowds echoes the cries about Jesus in Luke 23:18-21.   Now the cry is about Paul: “Away with him!” (Acts 21:36).

Luke cleverly sets up the opportunity for Paul to defend himself to the people.  Apparently the tribune has mistaken Paul for a major Egyptian terrorist (leading four thousand assasins!).  When Paul speaks fluent Greek, the tribune realizes this is no Egyptian.  Paul claims citizenship in Tarsus and his Jewish heritage as the reasons he should be allowed to speak; the tribune permits it.  Paul speaks his defense in Hebrew (Aramaic); apparently only his Jewish audience is to understand what he says.

Paul’s “defense” turns out to be entirely offensive to his Jewish audience.  Luke is leading us toward the conclusion of his story where the Gospel has become the Gentiles’ heritage.  Paul recites autobiographically what Luke has presented biographically in Acts 9 – the story of the Road to Damascus experience, now with an epiphany in the Jerusalem temple added on.

Paul starts by setting himself firmly among the Jews.  The claim that he grew up in Jerusalem and studied with Gamaliel is not confirmed by any of his letters, but it does strengthen his credentials as an observant Jew.  Paul expands the description of his role as persecutor of Christians beyond the descriptions in Acts 9 and Galatians 1:13.  His goal was to put believers in prison and from there they would be delivered to death.  Surely there is a hint of irony here as those who know Paul’s story realize that he will soon follow the fate of his earlier victims.

As Richard Pervo points out, the story of Paul’s Damascus experience shifts from the emphasis on conversion (in Acts 9) to an emphasis on call – and the mission to the Gentiles.  In this sense Acts 22 is closer to Galatians 1 than is Acts 9.  In Galatians Paul clearly sees his encounter with the risen Lord as a moment of call, very much like the call that came to Jeremiah.  (See especially Galatians 1:15-16).

In Acts 22, the amount of space devoted to Ananias is severely cut and Ananias’ vision is omitted.  The missionary call is moved from the Damascus road to the temple, where the risen Lord tells Paul to be on his way to the Gentile mission.  This is a charming combination of prophetic call and prudential advice: “Get out of here before they take your life, and while you’re at it, just keep going till you reach Gentile territory.” (Acts 22:17-21)

At the end of our episode the tribune has again both apprehended and rescued Paul.  As he has before, at the very last minute Paul pulls out his “Roman citizen” card.  It turns out that he has done even better than the tribune, who had to buy his citizenship while Paul inherited his.  The bystanders are filled with awe, and the tribune is moved to try to sort this out in yet another way, by convening a meeting of the chief priests and their council to try to figure out what it is they have against this Jew who is also a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:30-31).

We think it is fair to say that Acts 23 is narrated in such a way as to put “the Jews” in the worst possible light.  In Acts 23:1-10 the High Priest acts like a boor, and the members of the council are tricked by the clever Paul into having a House of Representatives like debate between the right and the left.  The Left (the Pharisees who think that Scripture is to be interpreted more flexibly than the Sadducees) agree with Paul about the resurrection, and Paul is right enough that he is a defender of resurrection, though here he fails to note that it is Jesus’ resurrection in particular that is the heart of his gospel.  The Pharisees, because they do believe in angels and spirits, think it’s possible that Paul has had a genuine revelation.  Apparently the debate becomes so violent that Paul, once again the victim, is in danger of being torn in pieces and again Lysias, the tribune, intervenes to save his life.

There is a pattern in this latter part of Acts.  Neither the Jews nor the Roman/Gentile authorities have any very clear sense of what’s going on, but the Jews usually act out of malice and the Romans/Gentiles out of compassion, or at least a rough sense of justice.

Almost certainly Luke continues to write his work in ways to encourage Roman support and to praise Roman wisdom.

In Acts 23:11 we have another of those divine messages that sets the agenda.  (Remember our early claim that in this book God is in charge.)  Now Paul’s mission is clear; he is to testify in Rome.

The plot thickens with the effect of making the Jews look even worse and the Romans even more accommodating.  In 23:12-25 forty Jews take an oath to assassinate Paul.  Paul’s unnamed nephew conveniently brings the word to the tribune.  The tribune goes to extraordinary length to Felix, the regional governor who lives in Caesarea.  Secular sources tell us that Felix was a freed slave who rose to considerable power and married into the ruling Herodian family, perhaps not entirely out of romantic motives.

Almost certainly Luke’s account here recalls something of Paul’s actual progress from Jerusalem through Caesarea to Rome.  What we as readers notice, however, is that in complicated and conflict ridden ways, God is moving Paul to where Paul is supposed to be: to Rome to bear witness.

Further Reading:

Jerome Neyrey, “The Forensic Defense Speech and Paul’s Trial Speeches in Acts 22-26,” in Charles H. Talbert, ed., Luke-Acts (New York: Crossroad, 1984) 210-24.

Dean P. Béchard, “The Disputed Case against Paul: A Redaction-Critical Analysis of Acts 21:27-22:29,” CBQ 65 (2003) 232-50.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What are some of the ways in which this final journey of Paul to Rome remind us of Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke? How does this help us understand the themes of the Book of Acts?
  2. Bartlett and Attridge suggest that Luke in his gospel and in Acts uses geography with a kind of preaching purpose. In Luke the story begins in Jerusalem and returns to Jerusalem.  In Acts the story begins in Jerusalem and spreads to Rome.  How does geography work in these chapters and what theological uses might these geographical references have?
  3. In Chapter 22 Paul makes one more speech in his own defense, and really in defense of the whole Christian movement. In doing so he tells in the first person the story of the Damacus road trip that Luke tells in the third person in chapter 9.  What are the themes of the defense here, and how does the story of Paul’s conversion or call fit into that defense?

 

 

Yale Bible Study

The Acts of the Apostles

VIII. Acts 24-28: The Gospel, the Romans, the Jews

The final chapters of Acts have the flavor of courtroom drama as Paul defends himself and the movement of which he is a part, in the face of both Jewish and Roman authorities.  In the process, Luke offers an apology to the wider world both for his favorite apostle and for his community.  His overarching goal, as has been evident for some time, is to show that the Christian movement, which fulfills the hopes and aspirations of Biblical Israel, is not a danger to the Roman civic order.  Whatever negative reputation it may have has been generated by its enemies, mainly leaders of the Jewish community, who reject its key claims.  This defensive strategy makes Jews into villains, and contributed both to the short term and long term difficulties between these two Abrahamic traditions.  Yet Luke is not entirely negative in his attitude toward the Jewish people.  As has been the case throughout his narrative, he portrays some Jewish interlocutors as at least willing to listen to their Christian contemporaries and some indeed accept its message.

The legal drama begins in Caesarea with a hearing before the governor, Felix, in the presence of the high priest.  Tertullus presses the charges against Paul and claims (24:1-8) that, as a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes,” Paul tried to profane the Temple, a crime that we know merited capital punishment.  Paul’s defense (24:10-21) disputes the facts and makes himself out to be a pious Jew, “believing everything laid down by the Law.”  Paul suggests that the matter under dispute is simply his belief in the resurrection (24:21), as he had already argued in his earlier confrontation with the council (23:6-10).

The governor, Felix, defers a decision, although he takes the opportunity to learn what Paul has to say, hearing about “justice and self control and future judgment” (24:35).  Unable to secure a bribe from Paul, he leaves him in prison for two years, until he is replaced by a new governor, Porcius Festus.  We do know from other sources that these two governors served in succession as the Roman procurators of the region, but we do not know the exact date of when the change of leadership occurred, although it is probably close to 60 CE.

With a new governor there is a new hearing, in which Paul insists on his rights as a Roman citizen (cf. 22:25-29), and Festus promises to send him, as requested, to Rome (25:1-12).  But before he goes, he has the chance for one more apologetic speech. The Jewish king, Herod Agrippa II, the grandson of Herod the Great, and his wife Bernice were paying a courtesy call on the new governor.  Agrippa ruled a territory, primarily in what is now Lebanon, that included a small portion of the land governed by his father and grandfather, but he maintained some jurisdiction over the activities of the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, he tried in vain to stop the Jewish revolt against Rome that broke out in 66.   Conversations between Festus and Agrippa apprise the Jewish king of the details of Paul’s case and reveal the judgment of Festus that Paul “had done nothing deserving death” (25:25), the typical judgment of Roman authorities about the Christians in Acts. In order to gather materials for his memo of transmittal, Festus proposes one more hearing for Paul in the presence of Agrippa (25:13-27).

Paul’s final defense speech is directed primarily toward the Jewish king, whom he addresses with a typical captatio benevolentia (26:2-3), an effort to gain the good will of his addressee.  Most of the points in the speech are familiar from Paul’s earlier appearances. He recalls his life as a pious Pharisee and claims that he is now persecuted because of his belief in the (Pharisaic) belief in resurrection (26:4-8). The claim serves Luke’s insistence on the authentic Jewish roots of the Christian faith.

Paul reminds Agrippa of his service as a persecutor of Christians (24:9-11), then tells of his Damascus Road experience (26:12-17).  The account differs in minor details from the two previous versions of the story (9:1-9; 22:6-11).  One interesting feature of this account is the remark attributed to Jesus, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”  Luke’s readers familiar with classical literature would catch here another allusion, this time to a Greek proverb found, for instance, in the remarks of the god Dionysus in the Bacchae of Euripides (794-95).  The point of the proverb is that it is useless to resist the divine will, and Paul duly accedes to the will of Jesus to make him an apostle so that gentiles might “receive forgiveness of sins and a place among” the sanctified (26:17). Paul continues with an account of his missionary activity, with its focus on a call to repentance and the continuity of his message with Moses and the prophets (26:19-23).

Following the speech there is a bit of repartee, with Festus declaring Paul mad, and Agrippa dismissively asking whether Paul was really attempting to persuade him (26:24-29). The grandees leave, declaring Paul innocent of any crime and worthy of being freed if he had not appealed to Caesar (26:30-32). The usual pattern of a declaration of innocence thus concludes the chapter and Paul’s time in Israel.

The journey to Rome follows, a chapter full of peril for our hero.  It begins with one of the “we” passages (27:1-8), either a fragment of a diary of someone who was with Paul on the voyage or a literary device that brings the audience into the dramatic account of the voyage. Danger increases as the ship, sailing late in the season, encounters a storm off the southern coast of Crete (27:13-20).  As the storm continues, Paul encourages his fellow-sailors to endure, since an angel had told him that he would stand before Caesar (27:21-26). After two weeks of being driven in heavy seas, Paul celebrates a eucharist (27:35) and prepared for the worst.  Finally the ship runs aground, with all hands safe and sound, as Paul had predicted (27:39-44).

The landfall turns out to be Malta, where Paul encounters natives reminiscent of the inhabitants of Lycaonia (14:8-18).  These locals see a viper on Paul’s hand and expect him to die of poison.  When he does not, they think him a god (28:1-6). Fortunately another local aristocrat, Publius, received Paul and his entourage, and Paul returns the favor by curing his father.  After winter on Malta, Paul and his companions sail to Rome (another “we-passage,” 28:7-16).  Paul has finally reached a goal envisioned in Jesus’ proclamation in 1:8 that the gospel would be preached throughout the world.  It remains for Paul to do so.

The book of Acts closes with Paul preaching.  After summoning leaders of the Jewish community, who profess ignorance about him (28:12-22), he tries to convince them in the usual way, arguing about Jesus from Moses and prophets (28:23).  As has been the case throughout Acts, the results are mixed, with some accepting and others rejecting Paul’s message (28:24).  The account of Paul’s preaching ends on a solemn note of judgment that encapsulates one of the major themes of the whole book.  As Isaiah 6:9-10 said of the Israelites of his day, they listen but do not understand, look but do not see.  Paul draws the inference that Luke’s narrative illustrates: salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, who will listen (28:29). Luke concludes with the note that Paul continued preaching in Rome for two years, “with boldness and without hindrance” (28:30).

Why Luke ends here has intrigued many readers over the years.  Tradition stemming from the end of the first century in the First Epistle of Clement, sent from Rome to Corinth by the leadership of the Roman community, attests that Paul died as a martyr with Peter under the persecution of Christians launched by Nero in 64.  Later sources give varying accounts of his martyrdom, which is monumentally memorialized in the Church of St. Paul Fuori le Mura (“Outside the Walls”).  Acts, probably written well after that event, chooses not to tell the tale of martyrdom, which becomes a focal point of much later Christian hagiography.  No, for our author, the true tale ends on what he takes to be the most positive note: the Gospel has been proclaimed, and as his readers would know, it took root in the soil of Italy.

Further Reading:

Colin Hemer, “The First Person Narrative in Acts 27-28,” Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985) 79-109.

G. W. Trompf, “On Why Luke Declined to Recount the Death of Paul: Acts 27-28 and Beyond,” In Charles H. Talbert, ed., Luke Acts (New York: Crossroad, 1984) 225-39.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Now that you have worked through all of Acts, how would you evaluate the various examples of Paul’s rhetoric? Do his speeches in Acts reflect what you know of Paul?  Do they offer models of how contemporary Christians might address problems confronting the Church today?
  2. By now you have read a good deal about the apologetic dimensions of Acts, particularly its stance toward the Roman empire. Having weighed all the elements, how would you characterize that stance?  Do you think it offers a model of how Christians should relate to our contemporary political environment?  If not, why not?  Do other scriptural texts play a role in your answer to the question?
  3. The ending of Acts has puzzled most commentators. What do you make of it?  If Luke knows of the death of Paul, why does he not describe it?
  4. If you have studied Paul’s letters, does the portrait of Paul in Acts conform to your understanding of the Apostle? If not, how does the image of Paul in Acts differ from what you might create from study of his letters?