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:

LXX:

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”)

Acts/James:

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?

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