The Speeches of Acts, Part 1: Overview

The speeches in the book of Acts are one of most distinctive and memorable features of the book; it is also the area where perhaps the largest number of critical questions are to be found. There are, by a varying count, more than twenty speeches, including eight by Peter, nine (or ten) by Paul, one each by James and Stephen, as well as other figures. Most of the orations by Peter and Paul can be categorized as sermons (or sermon-speeches), as can the great historical speech by Stephen, by far the longest in the book. I will attempt, in this series, to discuss each of the noteworthy speeches—some only briefly, others through extended exegesis—in the order which they occur in the book, beginning with the introductory speech of Peter in Acts 1:16-22 (see below).

With regard to the main critical issues surrounding the speeches in Acts, they can be grouped according to: (1) text critical, (2) source critical, (3) historical critical, and (4) literary critical.

1. Text critical. These are two, namely: (a) the overall question of the so-called “Western” recension of Acts, and (b) the form or version of the Old Testament cited in the speeches.

a. The Western Recension. The so-called “Western” text refers to a broad text-type (or textual grouping) of shared characteristics and/or readings, represented primarily (and most notably) by Codex Bezae (D) and a fair portion of Latin MSS, but which also includes (to some extent), other Greek MSS and Versions (Syriac, Georgian, Armenian). It is in the book of Acts that we see (by far) the most extensive differences between the Western text and the Alexandrian and/or Majority text, so much so that one may refer to them as separate recensions. The Western text in Acts is typically longer and more expansive, often with considerable narrative detail not found in the Alexandrian/Majority text. Scholars continue to debate the reasons for two such distinct ‘versions’ of Acts, with a variety of theories having been proposed over the years; it can be a highly technical matter, but I may introduce the topic here in a future article. Today, probably a majority of scholars would consider the Western recension to be a secondary expansion of the ‘original’ text. The differences are related principally to the narrative portions of Acts, and do not affect the speeches to the same extent; however, significant variants will be addressed, as appropriate, when discussing the individual speeches.

b. The Old Testament citations. More relevant to the speeches themselves is the question of the text/form of the Old Testament Scriptures cited within the speeches. I have addressed this to some extent in an earlier post (on the Old Testament in the book of Acts) and will discuss, in turn, individual examples within the speeches. The subject also involves historical- and literary-critical questions: is the Scripture presented as cited by the speaker (Peter, Paul, etc) or (as insertions) by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)? See below for more on this question.

2. Source critical. In past generations, critical scholars tended (at times) to find a separate “source” for each distinct element or genre in a book such as Acts—this might include, for example, a “source” for the various speeches (or groups of speeches). Today, this approach is far less prevalent, with scholars and commentators now positing a simpler, and more general, delineation of possible sources. While less adventurous, perhaps, it ends up being almost certainly a more reasonable (and realistic approach). A very simple division of commonly recognized sources would be:

    • A (loose) collection of Palestinian traditions, written or oral, primarily related to the early Jerusalem church.
    • An Antiochene source—traditions related specifically to the early church in Antioch, but possibly including Petrine, Pauline, and/or other traditions as well.
    • A Pauline source—consisting primarily of an itinerary Paul’s missionary journey, but likely including other traditions (narratives and/or sayings/speeches).

A special point of debate has been the so-called “we-passages” in Acts, where the author moves into speaking in the first person plural. Various theories involving a separate source have been argued in the past; however, in my opinion, the simplest explanation has always been that the author (trad. Luke) has modified the narrative in instances where he was personally present. Many scholars today also concur with this view.

3. Historical critical. The most significant historical-critical question is whether the speeches in Acts essentially reflect the words of the speaker, or of the author. Traditional-critical commentators would tend to take for granted (often as a basic point of dogma), or at least accept, that the speeches in Acts (as in other historical-narrative Scriptures) reflect, more or less, the ipsissima verba (i.e. the actual words) of the speaker. Critical scholars, on the other hand, often tend to view the speeches largely as the product of the author (trad. Luke), having been inserted within the narrative structure for dramatic and kerygmatic/theological effect. A moderating position among critical commentators would hold that, while ultimately the product of Luke (i.e. the author), the speeches have been, to some extent, shaped by underlying traditions (written or oral) involving the (sorts of) things the speakers would have said. A good example of this moderate critical approach can be found in J. A. Fitzmyer’s Commentary on Acts (Anchor Bible Volume 31, 1998), pp. 103-113, 124-128. A seminal (and highly influential) study earlier in the twentieth-century was the treatise “The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography” (1944/49) by Martin Dibelius, published in English translation in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (SCM Press: 1956), pp. 138-185. Scholars such as Dibelius compared the speeches in Acts with those of other Greco-Roman historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, Xenophon, Josephus, etc), on the basic premise that Luke (or the author of Acts) would have adopted an approach compatible with that used by other historians of his time. Most notably, Thucydides and Josephus have been used for comparison, since they both wrote describing events close to their own time. Thucydides offers a frequently cited explanation on how ancient authors would have approached the composition of historical speeches:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. (The Peloponnesian War I.22.1, transl. J. M. Dent, 1910).

Overall, it would seem that the moderate critical approach indicated above is the most plausible and realistic. I leave it for each reader to judge whether, or to what extent, this is compatible with a particular view of the inspiration of Scripture (and vice versa). For further discussion on this sensitive question, see my article Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox.

4. Literary critical. This has to do with how the author has crafted and included the speeches within the narrative—the form, structure and style with which they have been presented. It is best to treat this question inductively, allowing it to proceed as each speech is examined. In this regard, it will be useful to look briefly at what I regard as the first speech in the book of Acts (not including Jesus’ address in Acts 1:4b-5, 7-8)—the introductory speech of Peter in Acts 1:16-22.

Acts 1:16-22: The Introductory Speech of Peter

I have discussed Acts 1:15-26 in an earlier article related to the Pentecost narrative (2:1-13)—there I regarded the principal theme of the episode as the reconstitution of the Twelve apostles, part of a wider theme involving the restoration of Israel (the Twelve apostles symbolizing the Twelve tribes). In verses 12-14 we find a sequence of motifs pointing to unity/restoration:

    • The disciples return to Jerusalem (v. 12)
    • They come together into a single (upper) room where they remain (the Eleven apostles are listed) (v. 13)
    • They are firmly together, with one mind/impulse (o(modumado/n), in prayer—joined with the other disciples (including women and Jesus’ relatives) (v. 14)
    • The apostles are to be restored to Twelve in number (vv. 15ff: “it is necessary…”)

In the midst of the disciples—all together (e)pi\ to\ au)to/) about 120 (12 x 10)—Peter stands up and speaks (v. 15). This speech (apart from the author’s parenthesis in vv. 18-19) can be treated as a kind of examplar, or pattern, for many of the subsequent speeches in Acts (especially the major sermon-speeches). Here is the basic sermon-speech pattern:

    • Narrative introduction—this may be a simple introduction or include an extended narrative
    • The speech itself:
      • Introductory address, often with kerygmatic elements, leading into the Scripture passage
      • Citation from Scripture
      • Exposition and Gospel kerygma
      • Concluding exhortation
    • Narrative summary

This pattern fits, in seminal form, Peter’s initial speech to the disciples, which I divide as follows:

  • Narrative introduction (v. 15), to which could be added the transitional narrative of vv. 12-14 (with its list of the Eleven apostles)
  • The Speech (v. 16-22):
    • Introductory address (v. 16-17): “Men, brothers! it is necessary (for) the Writing to be fulfilled, which the holy Spirit spoke before(hand) through the mouth of David, about Judas the (one) coming to be the one who leads the way for the (ones) taking Jesus with (them), (in) that he was (one) numbered down among us and obtained the lot of this service…”
      {Verses 18-19 are the author’s aside, describing an historical tradition involving the fate of Judas}
    • Citation from Scripture (v. 20): “For it has been written in the paper-scroll of (the) Songs [i.e. Psalms]…”—here two short Scripture verses are cited, from Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 (see below).
    • Exposition and Gospel kerygma (v. 21-22)—because of the brevity of the speech, these two sections have essentially been combined, the Gospel proclamation being embedded within the exhortation (see below)
    • Concluding exhortation (v. 21-22)—indicated primarily by the frame of the sentence: “Therefore it is necessary (for)… one of these (men) to become a witness with us”
  • Narrative summary (vv. 23-26), which actually contains the central core narrative of this passage—the selection by lot of the twelfth apostle.

In conclusion, I will discuss briefly two of the sections of the speech—the citation from the Psalms, and the expository kerygma:

The citation from Psalm 69:25; 109:9. Here, as with most such Scripture citations in Acts (and elsewhere in the NT), there are two main issues: (1) the extent to which the quotations conform or differ from either the LXX or Hebrew, and (2) the ways in which the quotation differs in application/interpretation from its original historical meaning and context. Both of these have been discussed in my prior article on the Old Testament in Acts. With regard to the first question, the Scripture quotations in Acts tend to follow, with some modification, the Greek of the Septuagint (LXX). This could be taken as an argument in favor of the citations coming primarily from the author (rather than the speaker), since here at least one might assume that Peter (like James in Acts 15) would more likely cite Scripture from the Hebrew rather than the Greek. Usually any obvious modifications are simple adaptations to the new context of the speaker/author. Here are both citations presented for comparison:

Hebrew MT (Psalm 69:26)

bv@y{ yh!y+Ála^ <h#yl@h(a*B= <t*r*yf!Áyh!T=
“Let their rows (of stones) [i.e. buildings] be destroyed,
let no one be sitting/dwelling in their tents”

Greek LXX (Psalm 68:26)

genhqh/tw h( e&pauli$ au)tw=n h)rhmwme/nh kai\ e)n toi=$ skhnw/masin au)tw=n mh\ e&stw o( katoikw=n
“Let their encampment become deserted/desolate, and let there be no(one) putting down house [i.e. dwelling] in their tents”

Acts 1:20a

genhqh/tw h( e&pauli$ au)tou= e&rhmo$ kai\ mh\ e&stw o( katoikw=n e)n au)th=|
“Let his encampment (be) deserted/desolate, and let there be no(one) putting down house [i.e. dwelling] in it

Hebrew MT (Psalm 109:9)

rj@a^ jQ^y] otD*q%P! <yF!u^m= wym*y`ÁWyh=y]
“Let his days be small [i.e. few], let (one) following [i.e. another] take his appointment/overseeing”

Greek LXX (Psalm 108:8)

genhqh/twsan ai( h(me/rai au)tou= o)li/gai, kai\ th\n e)piskoph\n au)tou= la/boi e%tero$
“Let his days come to be little/few, and may another take his (office of) overseeing”

Acts 1:20b

th\n e)piskoph\n au)tou= labe/tw e%tero$
“(and) let another take his (office of) overseeing”

In both instances, the LXX is a reasonable faithful translation of the Hebrew, and the citation in Acts has been simplified (with slight modification) presumably from the LXX. More significant is the way both passages have been taken out of their original context and applied to the current situation. Psalm 69 is a rather lengthy lament (ascribed to David) detailing the author’s suffering and continued faithfulness to God. Verses 22-28 are an imprecation against the psalmist’s enemies and a call for God to unleash his anger and judgment against them. Early on, this Psalm was understood and interpreted in light of Jesus’ Passion, so the malediction in vv. 22-28 naturally applied to Jesus’ enemies (including the betrayer Judas). Psalm 109 is a similar (personal) lament by the psalmist (again ascribed to David), with verses 6-15 as an extended malediction (or curse) like that in Ps 69:22-28. In Acts, just the short second half of verse 8 is cited, the portion which fits best with the idea of the office/appointment (e)piskoph/, lit. “looking upon, overseeing”) of Judas as an apostle. It was typical for early Christians—including the inspired New Testament authors—to focus on a single word or phrase, or other detail, and use it to apply the entire passage to their own time and to the Gospel message which they were proclaiming. It is important to keep this mind when faced with the apparent freedom with which the Old Testament is cited and applied in the New.

The Expository Kerygma. The kerygma simply refers to the Gospel proclamation as it took place in the early Church. Whatever else one wishes to say about the historicity of these sermon-speeches in Acts, they clearly do preserve early/primitive kerygmatic statements—basic Gospel formulae which are vivid and memorable, easy to preserve and transmit down to others. Here in Acts 1:21-22, we find a Gospel formula embedded within the exhortation:

“Therefore it is necessary (that) of these men, having gone together with us in all (the) time in which the Lord Yeshua went in and went out upon [i.e. about/among] us

…beginning from the dunking/dipping by Yohanan until the day of which he was taken up (away) from us

…one of these (men is) to become a witness of his standing-up [i.e. resurrection] together with us.”

The central clause in bold is similar to that in Acts 1:1-2, which might suggest here a Lukan origin for the speech. On the other hand, it is just as likely that Luke may have patterned the introductory wording in 1:1-2ff after the early kerygma.

The Old Testament in the Book of Acts

This study is preliminary to a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts.

It hardly need be said that the Writings (Scriptures) which make up what we call the Old Testament were essential in early Christian thought and practice, and yet one may tend to overlook just how central they were to the earliest proclamation (kerygma) of the “good Message” (Gospel) and the formation of Christian teaching. Jesus and the apostles were immersed in the language and imagery of the Scriptures, both in the original Hebrew and in Aramaic and Greek translation. The slightest nuance or similarity of phrasing led early believers to associate Scripture passages with Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, even when they originally had a very different context. Almost certainly, florilegia—collections of relevant quotations—began to be compiled early on. We can see this use of Scripture—the stringing together of verses and phrases—throughout the New Testament (cf. Romans 3:10-18; 15:9-12; Hebrews 1:5-13, etc.). Among the Gospels, Matthew in particular frequently cites specific ‘prophetic’ passages: “now this whole (matter) came to be (so) that it might be fulfilled the (word) uttered by the Lord through the Foreteller [i.e. Prophet], saying…” (Matt. 1:22), etc. Of course, Jesus himself is recorded as frequently quoting Scripture.

However, the Gospels make use of the Old Testament in other ways as well. The Gospel of John, especially in the great Discourses (see throughout John 2:13-10:42), emphasizes the festival and holy day settings (Sabbath, Passover, Sukkoth [Tabernacles], etc.) with their associated themes, images and Scripture passages; of the Gospels, John most clearly identifies the death of Jesus with the Passover (John 19:14, 29, 31-36, etc.). As for Luke-Acts, Old Testament stories and details (often using language which directly echoes the Septuagint) shape some of the most distinctive narratives: the Infancy narrative(s), for example, draw upon the birth/childhood of Samuel and the various angelic appearances; the transfiguration account adds details related to the Sinai theophany, and so forth. This extends into the book of Acts: the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2:1-13) likewise echoes the Sinai theophany and giving of the Torah with its related traditions, the exilic/post-exilic theme of the restoration of Israel, etc.—as I discussed in an earlier post.

Two passages, unique to the Gospel of Luke, offer a glimpse behind the early Christian thinking in this regard:

    1. In the resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus, Jesus rebukes the disciples for being “slow to trust all that was spoken by the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets]… was it not necessary for the Anointed to suffer and come into his glory?” (24:25-26)—then it is stated that Jesus, “beginning from Moses and from all the Foretellers he explained through to them the (things) about himself in all the Writings” (24:27, cf. also v. 32).
    2. In the second appearance, to the larger group of disciples, he reiterates earlier teaching that “it is necessary to be fulfilled all the (things which) have been written in the law of Moses and in the Foretellers [i.e. Prophets] and Psalms about me” (24:44)—then it is stated that Jesus “opened their mind through to understand [lit. put together] the Writings” (24:45), saying “thus it has been written (of) the Anointed suffering and rising [lit. standing up] on the third day…” (24:46).

Nothing is said of just which Writings (Scriptures) were indicated, or how they were “put together” for the disciples. Indeed, scholars have been hard pressed to find passages (outside of Isaiah 53) which could be said to refer specifically to the suffering and death of the Anointed (i.e., Christ/Messiah); the same could be said for other details of Jesus’ life and Passion. However, based on evidence from the Gospels and Acts—as well as other early Christian writings and contemporary Jewish traditions—I have compiled a list of relevant Old Testament references, which I included in an earlier post.

The theme encapsulated in Luke 24:25-27, 44-47 continues on in the Book of Acts, both in the historical introductions to the specific narrative episodes and speeches and within the speeches themselves. The disciples, in their preaching and ministry, sought to:

The frequency of these references suggest that both points of belief posed great difficulty and a challenge for the disciples as they proclaimed the early Gospel message to their fellow Jews. The very fact of Jesus’ apparently ignoble death (on the stake [i.e. cross]), without “restoring the Kingdom to Israel”, would have been a tremendous obstacle to viewing him as the Anointed (“Messiah”). Apart from Isa 53 (cf. Acts 8:32-35), very few Scripture passages describe anything like the suffering or death of a (future) Anointed figure; indeed, to judge by contemporary Jewish writings, nearly all of the most commonly cited ‘Messianic’ passages (Gen 49:10; Num 24:17ff; 2 Sam 7; Ps 2; Isa 11:1-5ff, etc) emphasize the victorious (even military) exercise of kingly power. The same is true when one looks at ‘Messianic’ belief and expectation in the Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. (the Qumran texts, Psalms of Solomon, Testaments of Judah/Levi, 1 Enoch [esp. the Similitudes, chs. 37-71], and 4 Ezra)—of these, only 4 Ezra (i.e. 2/4 Esdras) refers to the death of the Messiah (7:29ff), but in a very different setting. It is perhaps noteworthy that only Isa 53 is specifically cited in the narrative context of the disciples expounding the Scriptures (the passages listed above) regarding this very point, and that some of the most common ‘Messianic’ passages are not used in the New Testament at all.

If specific Scriptures are not indicated in these narrative introductions and summaries in Acts, they are central to the great speeches (or sermons) which represent early Gospel proclamation (kerygma) and preaching of the Disciples. The main sections of Acts tend to follow a basic pattern:

    • Narrative introduction
    • Speech by a principal character (Peter, Paul, Stephen, etc), usually centered on the quotation and exposition of a passage (or passages) of Scripture
    • Historical/editorial summary (sammelbericht, to use a technical term from German scholarship)

Most of the citations of Scripture come from speeches in the first half of the book (Acts 2-4, 7, 13). Here is a list of quotations (for the sake of convenience, I have adopted this from J. A. Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible Vol. 31, Introduction § 73, p. 90):

    • Acts 1:20—Psalms 69:26; 109:8
    • Acts 2:17-21—Joel 3:1-5
    • Acts 2:25-28—Psalm 16:8-11
    • Acts 2:30—Psalm 132:11
    • Acts 2:31—Psalm 16:10
    • Acts 2:34-35—Psalm 110:1
    • Acts 3:13—Exod 3:6, 15
    • Acts 3:22-23—Deut 13:15-16, 19; Lev 23:29
    • Acts 3:25—Gen 22:18; 26:4
    • Acts 4:11—Psalm 118:22
    • Acts 4:24—Psalm 146:6
    • Acts 4:25-26—Psalm 2:1-2
    • Acts 7:3, 5—Gen 12:1; 17:8; 48:4
    • Acts 7:18—Exod 1:8
    • Acts 7:27-28—Exod 2:14
    • Acts 7:30-34—Exod 3:2, 5-8, 10
    • Acts 7:35—Exod 2:14
    • Acts 7:37—Deut 18:15
    • Acts 7:40—Exod 32:1, 23
    • Acts 7:42-43—Amos 5:25-27
    • Acts 7:49-50—Isaiah 66:1-2
    • Acts 8:32-33—Isaiah 53:7-8
    • Acts 13:22—Psalm 89:21; 1 Sam 13:14
    • Acts 13:33—Psalm 2:7
    • Acts 13:34-35—Isa 55:3; Psalm 16:10
    • Acts 13:41—Hab 1:5
    • Acts 13:47—Isaiah 49:6
    • Acts 15:16-17—Amos 9:11-12
    • Acts 23:5—Exod 22:27
    • Acts 28:26-27—Isaiah 6:9-10

As throughout the New Testament, these quotations often differ in some respect from the standard Greek version (LXX), but occasionally also from any known version, Hebrew or Greek. In this regard, several possibilities ought to be examined:

    1. The extent to which a quotation matches a Greek (or underlying Hebrew) version
    2. It may be a free or loose quotation (from memory)
    3. The quotation may have been consciously or purposefully modified, sometimes yielding an entirely different sense or meaning than that which the text had originally

Scholars and theologians are, at times, bothered by the second and third possibilities, as they seem to violate the ‘sacredness’ of the text, not to mention a straightforward ‘grammatical-historical’ method as the first and most reliable interpretive approach. Even traditional-conservative commentators are forced to admit instances of “inspired (secondary) interpretation” or “inspired application” of the text by New Testament authors and speakers. At the very least, one should recognize the early Christian approach to Scripture, much as that of contemporary Jews (at Qumran and elsewhere), as reflecting a more creative use of the sacred Writings. If one today adopted similar methods, he or she would no doubt be accused of eisegesis—of reading a meaning into the text which was not originally there.

Let us look at an example from the above list:

The Speech of James—Acts 15:13-21

The speech given by James is central to the account of the so-called ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:1-35). It works in tandem with another short speech (by Peter, vv. 7-11), and serves to join the two parts of the narrative: (1) the ‘Council’ dealing with the question of whether Gentile believers must keep the Law of Moses [esp. circumcision], and (2) a letter sent to Gentile believers advising them on what requirements of the Law they ought to keep. Peter’s speech centers on an earlier episode recorded in Acts—the conversion of Cornelius (10:1-11:18). James’ speech, by contrast, uses a passage of Scripture—Amos 9:11-12.

Here is a comparison of Amos 9:11-12:

Translation of the Hebrew (MT)

11 In that day I will raise up [lit. make stand] the woven-shelter of David th(at) is fallen,
and I will wall up her [pl.] (holes that are) bursting out;
And I will raise up [lit. make stand] his [sg.] torn-down-remains [i.e. ruins],
and I will build her [sg.] as in (the) days of distant (past)
12 In order that they possess the remainder of Edom
and all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—
utterance of YHWH (the one) doing this.

Greek (LXX) with translation

11 e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| a)nasth/sw th\n skhnh\n Dauid th\n peptwkui=an kai\ a)noikodomh/sw ta\ peptwko/ta au)th=$ kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)nasth/sw kai\ a)noikodomh/sw au)th\n kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
12 o%pw$ e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn [to\n ku/rion] kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ o( poiw=n tau/ta

11 In that day I will raise [lit. stand] up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and I will build up/again her [sg.] fallen-parts, and I will raise [lit. stand] up/again her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] and I will build her [sg.] up/again even as (in) the days of the (past) age
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out [the Lord], says the Lord God the (one) doing these things.

Acts 15:16-18

11 meta\ tau=ta a)nastre/yw kai\ a)noikodmh/sw th\n skh/nhn Daui\d th\n peptwkui=an kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)noikodomh/sw kai\ a)norqw/sw au)th/n
12 o%pw$ a&n e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn to\n ku/rion kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ poiw=n tau=ta
gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$

11 After these (things) I will turn up/again [i.e. return] and I will build up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] I will build up/again and I will set her [sg.] straight up/again,
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out the Lord—says the Lord doing these things,
known from (the) age.

The LXX generally follows the Hebrew of v. 11, although in very flat translation, having lost nearly all of the color and texture of the verse. The citation in James/Acts matches neither the Hebrew or LXX all that closely; it generally follows the vocabulary of the LXX, but in a much simpler form. The most notable differences between the LXX and James/Acts for v. 11 are:


e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| (“in that day”)

{no corresponding phrase}

repeats a)noikodomh/sw (“I will build up/again”)

kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
(“even as [in] the days of the [past] age”)


meta\ tau=ta (“after these [things]”)

a)nastre/yw (“I will turn up/again [i.e. return]”)

uses a)norqw/sw (“I will set straight up/again”)

{no corresponding phrase}
(reflected in gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$?)

For verse 12, LXX (A) and James/Acts are nearly identical, and both are very different from the Hebrew: “they may possess the remainder of Edom” has turned into “the remainder of men might seek out [the Lord]”—this seems to be the result of a two-fold error in translation:

    1. <d)a$ (Edom, defective spelling) was mistaken for <d*a* (Adam/man)
    2. Wvr=yy] (“they [may] possess”) was either mistaken for (or ‘corrected’ to) Wvr=d=y] (“they [may] seek”)

The lack of a clearly identified subject for the verb in Hebrew would have added to the confusion: the ‘remainder’ and ‘all the nations…’ became the subject (who/what seeks out) in the Greek version. There being no clear object for the ‘seeking’ it was easy enough to add a pronoun or “the Lord” as both the A-text and Acts/James do. That these verses would have proved difficult for Greek translators to understand, several centuries after the fact, is not surprising; it remains troublesome even today. Consider, for example, the complex set of referents indicated by the various pronominal suffixes in verse 11. As for verse 12, there are three ways to read the text:

    1. “all the nations…” is a coordinate object with “Edom”. That is, Israel will possess “Edom and all the nations”. There are two difficulties with this view: (a) the lack of a parallel object marker (Áta) for “all the nations”, and (b) the phrase “my name is called upon” being applied to the nations, which is unusual in the Old Testament. The sense would be that the nations possessed by restored Israel will come to have God’s name called upon them—that is, they will effectively be converted.
    2. “all the nations…” is the subject, coordinate with Israel (implied). This would be translated as follows: “They—even all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom”. Though such a role for the nations may fit the outlook of the LXX and Acts, it seems rather foreign to the original context of Amos; however the idea of nations united/cooperating with Israel could conceivably be in mind.
    3. The phrase “which my name is called upon them” is substantively the subject, but does not apply to “all the nations”. This would be translated: “They—(those for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom and all the nations”. Here the sense would be that the (restored) Israel is identified (only) with those upon whom God’s name is called. This is an interesting possibility, and one which does fit the context of Amos to some extent.

Despite some syntactical awkwardness, I feel that the first way of reading the verse remains the best option. Of course, there is always the possibility of corruption having crept into the Masoretic text; unfortunately, only one Dead Sea document (a Prophets scroll from Wadi Murabba‘at) contains v. 12, highly fragmentary, but apparently conforming to the MT. Otherwise, apart from the variant reading of LXX/Acts, there is little basis for asserting textual corruption here.

There are other textual, literary and historical-critical difficulties regarding the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts, such as:

    • At the historical level, would James have cited such a passage of Scripture from the Greek? If so, did he recognize a discrepancy with the Hebrew?
    • To what extent is this quotation the product of the author (traditionally Luke) rather than the speaker (James), whether in terms of translation or insertion?
    • What is one to make of either author or speaker using a version of Scripture which is apparently at odds with the original (inspired) Hebrew text?

These are important questions, both for an understanding of the composition of the book (Acts), and in terms of how we regard the nature and extent of inspiration. However, both are rather too complex to deal with adequately here; I will be treating such questions in at least some detail in the series on the Speeches of Acts.

Admitting that there are difficulties with the version of Amos 9:11-12 cited by Acts/James, just how does the author/speaker make use of it, and how does this differ from the original context of the passage?

Consider first the original setting of these verses in the book of Amos: they are part of an ‘epilogue’, both to the sequence of visions (7:1-9:6) and the book as a whole. After searing proclamations of judgment, concluding with a vision of destruction for Israel (9:1-6), there is a promise of restoration, beginning in vv. 7-8, and more fully in vv. 11-15. The “woven-shelter” (hKs often translated “hut”, “booth”) of David, central to this passage, is a curious image—overall, the reference seems to be to the Kingdom (of Judah) and Jerusalem (but perhaps representative of the whole Kingdom) in ruins; however the “booth”, with its echo of the exodus and wilderness wandering (commemorated by the festival of toKs), may refer to an Israelite identity that predates/transcends the Kingdom (at least the divided Kingdom of Amos’ time). The restored Israel will possess again the land (vv. 14-15), including the territory of Edom and, it would seem, the surrounding nations (v. 12), accompanied by a time of renewed prosperity (vv. 13-14).

In James’ speech (Acts 15:13-21), these verses are applied to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, in particular to the episode of Peter and Cornelius (vv. 7-11, 14; cf. 10:1-11:18). This is done by “catchphrase bonding”, an ancient interpretive method, but one which is rather foreign to us today. By this method, different passages of Scripture (which may be otherwise unrelated), are connected by the presence of a common/similar word or phrase. Here the triggering phrase is “a people for/to His Name”:

V. 14: Simeon [i.e. Simon Peter] has related [lit. led out] even as (at the) first God looked closely upon (it) to take out of (the) nations a people for/to His Name.

The verb e)piske/ptomai (or e)piskope/w), here translated somewhat literally as “look closely/carefully upon”, has a relatively wide semantic range—”consider [i.e. think upon]”, “observe”, “examine”, “inspect”, and ultimately to visit/attend (for the purpose of examination, inspection, etc). This latter technical meaning underlies the word e)pi/skopo$ (typically translated “overseer”).
The verb lamba/nw can have the sense of “take” or “receive”, depending on the context.
“Name” is in the dative (tw=| o)no/mati), but there is no preposition, which has to be supplied in English.

One well-versed in the Scriptures—whether James of the author of Acts—might quickly associate this phrase with the reference in Amos 9:12; and, while the context of the Hebrew is perhaps not so suitable, the Greek of the LXX is very much to his purpose, for it speaks of the nations “upon whom My Name is called” seeking out [the Lord]. Unmistakably, this here is a reference to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles (such as Cornelius) seeking God (the Lord) and responding to Christ (the Lord) in the proclamation of the Gospel. In other words, James associates the LXX version of Amos 9:12 with the early Christian mission and conversion of the Gentiles. Interestingly, in the Greek, it is no longer the remnant of Israel specifically involved but rather the remnant of (all?) men.

It is all the more extraordinary that this universal reference to the nations would be associated with the “fallen booth/tent of David”, which in Amos clearly refers to Israel and the Davidic Kingdom. However, this is fully in accord with the implicit theme (in Luke-Acts) of the “restoration of Israel” in terms of the early Christian mission—beginning with the Twelve (symbolic of the twelve Tribes) and other believers in Jerusalem, to the Jews of the dispersion (among the nations), and then to ‘God-fearers’ and other Gentiles (non-Jews among the nations). Even in the Hebrew of Amos 9:12 there is the idea of nations who are (or come to be) associated with Israel and share “God’s Name upon them”.

In this light, one should also recognize an eschatological aspect of this reference in Acts. The introductory phrase itself (“after these [things] I will return”), found neither in the LXX or the Hebrew, seems to carry such a nuance. God returns to His People (cf. for example the echoes of the Sinai theophany in Acts 2), establishing His Kingdom in the new Age (“last days” cf. Acts 2:17ff, etc) which now consists of both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Paul’s grand eschatological hope/expectation in Romans 9-11). It is clear from the Qumran texts that Amos 9:11 was understood in an eschatological/Messianic sense. The Florilegium (4Q174), which strings together related Scripture passages (with a brief interpretation), associates Amos 9:11 with the promise of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Sam 7:

This (refers to the) “Branch of David”, who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: “I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen”, This (refers to) “the hut of David which has fall[en”, which he will raise up to save Israel. (translation from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition Vol. 1 [Leiden/Brill, 1998/2000], p. 353)

Here the “booth/hut of David” is identified with the Messianic designation “Branch of David”, that is to say with a specific Anointed (Messianic) figure. A similar use of Amos 9:11 is found in the Cairo version of the Damascus Document (CD 7:15-16 [MS A]); this passage mentions in sequence: (a) coming days of judgment and tribulation [citing Isa 7:17], (b) exile of the ‘booth of the king’ [Amos 5:26-27], (c) raising up the ‘booth of David’ [Amos 9:11], (d) the coming of the ‘star’ [Interpreter of the Law] and ‘sceptre’ [Messiah/Prince] who will smite the nations [Num 24:17]. Such eschatological expectations are very far removed from the book of Acts (cf. 1:6ff, not to mention most of the New Testament as a whole); that is to say, they have been transferred into a different framework:

Jewish expectation c. 1st century B.C./A.D.
(Qumran texts, etc.)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Appearance of an Anointed figure (Messiah)
  • Judgment/war on the (wicked) nations
  • Restoration of the Kingdom

Early Christian expectation (1st cent. A.D.)
(Jesus’ teaching, Apostolic preaching, rest of NT)

    • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
    • Judgment on the World
    • Return of Christ (Parousia)
    • Entry into Life in Heaven with God/Christ
      (references to an earthly ‘Messianic’ kingdom are rare in the NT)

Finally, it is interesting to consider the wider context of James’ speech in Acts—namely, the question of whether, or to what extent, Gentile believers must keep the Law of Moses. Many Jewish Christians held the strict view that it was necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised to keep the Law of Moses (i.e. in its entirety)—cf. Acts 15:5, etc., and all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In response, James limits the ‘requirement’ to those things which traditionally applied to those associated with Israel (as aliens/sojourners), cf. especially Lev. 17-18. The nature and historical context of this resolution (Acts 15:19-21, and in the letter, vv. 22-29) continue to be debated; and, of course, as the Church grew to become predominantly Gentile, and influenced greatly by Paul’s writings, these restrictions soon disappeared. However, the theme of the believer’s relation to the Old Testament Law code(s) continues to be a significant and controversial matter.

The association of Amos 9:11-12 with this question of keeping the Law has an interesting parallel in the passage from the Damascus Document mentioned above. There the “fallen booth of David” is specifically identified with the Books of the Law (Torah), related to the congregation as a whole. The reference in Num 24:17 (“star” and “sceptre”) was understood as foretelling the coming of an “Interpreter of the Law” and a “Prince of the Congregation”—these two will restore obedience to the Books of the Law (and Prophets) “whose sayings Israel has despised”. So here we have two distinct interpretations of the “booth of David” found in the Qumran community (and related groups):

Identified with the coming (Anointed) One
who will save/restore Israel
Identified with the Torah, which the coming (Anointed) One[s]
will restore to Israel

Can we not see Jesus as both Anointed (Christ) and Torah (Word of God), who comes to save His People?