Jerusalem and the Unity of Believers (part 2)

An important theme of the early chapters of Acts (chs. 1-7) is the unity of believers. This is described in a sequence of introductory/summary passages which punctuate the narratives in these chapters. The main references are:

    • Acts 1:14, part of a transitional passage (vv. 12-14) that follows the Ascension narrative (vv. 6-11).
    • Acts 1:15-26, an introductory, pattern-setting narrative which details the ‘reconstitution’ of the Twelve apostles, and containing a speech by Peter.
    • Acts 2:1, introduction to the Pentecost narrative (2:1-13).
    • Acts 2:42-47, a summary/transitional passage following Pentecost speech by Peter (vv. 14-40).
    • Acts 4:23-31, a narrative which runs, in many ways, parallel to that of 1:15-26, confirming the mission of the apostles and other believers.
    • Acts 4:32-37, a summary/transitional passage, which also serves to introduce the Ananias/Sapphira narrative (5:1-11).
    • Acts 5:42, summary verse to the narrative in 5:17-41 (for similar summary verses, see 2:41, 47b; 4:31[b]; 6:7).
    • Acts 6:1-6, a short narrative describing the first challenge to unity among the Jerusalem believers (note also the summary in v. 7).

It is only after the death of Stephen, and the onset of persecution (8:1-4, cf. also 11:19), that the (local/geographical) unity of the believers is broken—ironically, the dispersion/scattering (8:4) served to inaugurate the early Christian mission to the wider world outside of Jerusalem and Judea. Here are some key points in the descriptions of unity surveyed above:

    • They were devoted to prayer (1:14; 2:42; 4:31) and the teaching of the apostles (2:42; 6:4)
    • They were gathered together as a group/community in one location, which might vary “house to house” (2:1, 46; 4:31)—2:44 may also indicate some form of communal living (such as associated with the community of the Qumran texts)
    • They came together for the “breaking of bread”—common meals and/or eucharistic celebration (2:42)
    • They frequently gathered and attended in the Temple (Lk 24:53; 2:46, cf. also 3:1)
    • They held all things in common, selling possessions and providing for believers who were in need (2:44-45; 4:32, 34-37; 6:1)

There are, in particular, two expressions employed by the author of Acts to emphasize the unity of these early believers—e)pi\ to\ au)to/ and o(moqumado/n.

1. e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (epì tò autó)

This is a relatively common Greek idiom which the author of Acts (trad. Luke) uses in a distinctive manner. It is actually rather difficult to translate literally in English; the closest perhaps would be “upon the same (thing/place)”. In conventional English, it is typically rendered as “together”, in either: (a) a spatial-geographic sense [“in the same place”], (b) in terms of common identity [“for the same cause/purpose etc”], or (c) in the more generic sense of being gathered/grouped together. Where the expression occurs in the LXX, the generic or spatial sense is most likely meant (cf. Exod 26:9; Deut 12:15; 2 Sam 2:13; Ps 4:8[9]; Isa 66:17; Hos 1:11 [LXX 2:2]); a possible exception is the usage in Psalm 2:2, which would probably have been the reference most familiar to many early Christians (cf. Acts 4:25f). The expression also is used elsewhere in the New Testament in a similar manner, in Matt 22:34; Lk 17:35; 1 Cor 7:5; 11:20; 14:23; the last two references in Corinthians provide the closest context to the usage in Acts.

It is perhaps possible to trace a progression, of sorts, in the occurrences of the expression in the book of Acts:

  • Acts 1:15—here, in a parenthetical statement on the number of early believers gathered in Jerusalem, the expression is certainly used in a simple generic sense. However, the notice of the specific number—120—almost certainly is significant in relation to the symbolism of the disciples (the 12 apostles and 12 x 10) as a fulfillment/restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel.
  • Acts 2:1—here either the generic or spatial sense is primarily meant; the combined usage with the adverb o(mou= perhaps indicates the latter.
  • Acts 2:44—probably the spatial/geographic sense is meant here, i.e. the believers were living together (in the same place). To some degree, the communal life is implied, to which (by, for example, holding all possessions in common) is also attached or included a unity of purpose.
  • Acts 2:47b—this is the most difficult reference: “and the Lord set toward [i.e. added to] the (one)s being saved according to (the) day [i.e. daily] e)pi\ to\ au)to/“. The culminating expression is extremely difficult to translate accurately in context. Possibly it has the sense of “all together”, but clearly something more than simple grouping/gathering together is meant. The climactic and emphatic position of the expression suggests a deeper unity of identity and/or purpose is implied. New believers become part of the overall community, which, for the moment is spatially united (in Jerusalem and living/worshiping communally), but soon will be scattered (Acts 8:1-4; 11:19) into the wider mission field.
  • Acts 4:26—this use of the expression comes from a citation of Psalm 2:2 (mentioned above); the context is of earthly rulers taking counsel together (LXX “are led/brought together”) for a definite purpose and with hostile intent (“against the Lord [YHWH] and against his Anointed”). The expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/ translates Hebrew adverb dj^y~ yaµad, “as one, in union, together”. This is the opposite of the unity of early Christians; it is anti-Christian (i.e. unity against Christ), the joining together of enemies/opponents of Christ. The transitional narrative of Acts 4:23-31 reflects the prior arrest/interrogation of the leading apostles (in chapters 3-4) and foreshadows the challenges to unity recorded in chapters 5-6. As previously mentioned, with the execution of Stephen, and the onset of more intense persecution, hostility of enemies will break the spatial unity of believers; however, as 4:23-31 makes clear, the unity of purpose and identity remains unbroken. Perhaps it would be better to speak of unity of spirit (or Spirit), though this transcends ultimately the simple expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/.

It remains to look at the second expression for unity (o(moqumado/n), which I will do in the next day’s note.

(This article is part of the periodic series Jews & Gentiles and the People of God.)

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