The Law in Luke-Acts, Part 1: The Temple and Torah Observance

The question of the Old Testament Law (Torah) in the Gospel of Luke has already been addressed in the series “Jesus and the Law”; in this article I will be looking at the overall treatment of the subject by the author of Luke-Acts (traditionally Luke, the physician and companion of Paul). The article will be divided into two parts:

    1. The Temple and Torah observance
    2. The early Mission to the Gentiles, with special emphasis on the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15

The Temple and Torah Observance

This part will be further divided into two main sections:

    • The Temple setting and theme in Luke-Acts
    • Torah observance by the Apostles and other disciples in Acts

The Temple setting and theme in Luke-Acts

This can be examined according to three aspects—narrative, theological, and apologetic—which are interconnected and impossible to separate out entirely; these will be discussed at the appropriate points below. To begin, with one may isolate several main narrative sections in Luke-Acts where the Temple setting and theme is central:

    • The Infancy Narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • The Passion Narrative (Lk 19:28 through chapter 23)
    • The Sanhedrin “trial” scenes in Acts 3-7
    • The Arrest of Paul (Acts 21-22)

The Infancy Narratives (Lk 1-2)

The Temple in Jerusalem provides the setting for three episodes in the Lukan Infancy narratives:

The Angelic annunciation to Zechariah (Lk 1:5-23)—The conception/birth of John the Baptist is announced by the heavenly Messenger Gabriel to John’s father Zechariah, during his priestly duty in the Temple sanctuary (vv. 8-10, 21ff). Gabriel appears to Zechariah standing on the right side of the altar (of incense).

The “Presentation” of Jesus at the Temple (Lk 2:22-38)—Two different rituals are combined in the narrative (vv. 22-24)—the sacrifice for purification after childbirth, and the ‘redemption’ of the firstborn male child—the latter being described in terms of Jesus being presented/dedicated to God in the Temple. This setting also serves as the dramatic stage for the encounters with Simeon (vv. 25-35) and Anna (vv. 36-38).

The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2:41-51)—This famous and dramatic narrative is set in the Temple, following the observance of Passover in Jerusalem (v. 41). The twelve-year old Jesus remains behind—when his parents find him again, he is in the Temple precincts, sitting (as a pupil) with the teachers (of the Law). The exchange between Jesus and his parents in vv. 48-49 is the climax of the episode.

Besides providing a dramatic narrative setting for these episodes, the Temple serves a theological and apologetic purpose for the author (and/or his traditional source[s]). An important point of emphasis is the religious devotion and faithfulness of Zechariah/Elizabeth (1:6) and Joseph/Mary (2:21, 22-24, 27, 39, 41), which includes the prescribed ritual activities (priestly duty, sacrificial offering, observance of Passover) in the Temple. This theme runs through the infancy narrative, culminating in Jesus’ declaration to his parents in verse 49: “…did you not know that it is necessary for me to be in/among the (thing)s of my Father?” Jesus stands in the midst of the Old Testament religious forms and fulfills the righteousness of the Torah and Temple. From an early Christian perspective, he is connected to the older Israelite/Jewish religious world, to venerable figures such as Zechariah/Elizabeth or Simeon/Anna (see esp. Lk 2:25ff, 37-38). This also reflects a positive view of the Temple, which we see throughout Luke (and Acts), more so than in the other Gospels.

The Passion Narrative

There are three traditional elements in the Passion narrative(s) of the Gospels involving the Temple: (1) the symbolic “cleansing” of the Temple by Jesus, (2) the Temple as a setting for Jesus’ teaching during the days before his death, and (3) the tearing of the Temple veil at Jesus’ death. With regard to the Lukan handling of these details, the following should be noted:

    • The Temple “cleansing” scene is greatly abbreviated (Lk 19:45-46), compared with the account in Mark
    • Luke makes no mention of the “Temple saying” during the ‘trial’ of Jesus (Mk 14:58, Matt 26:60-61, presented as false witness, but cf. Jn 2:19); however, he presumably was aware of the tradition (cf. Acts 6:14), so the omission here is likely intentional
    • Special emphasis is given to Jesus’ presence teaching in the Temple (Lk 19:47; 20:1, 21:5, 37)
    • In Lk 23:45 the Temple veil is torn prior to Jesus’ actual death (cp. Mk 15:38; Matt 27:51)

The Sanhedrin “Trial” scenes in Acts 3-7

The Temple setting and theme is prominent in three different narrative episodes in the early chapters of Acts:

  • Acts 3:1-4:31—a narrative arc including: (a) the healing of a crippled beggar by Peter and John in the Temple precincts (3:1-10), (b) a sermon-speech by Peter (3:11-26), (c) the arrest of Peter and John and their appearance before the Sanhedrin (4:1-22), including a second speech by Peter (vv. 8-12)
  • Acts 5:12-42—a similar narrative arc, involving: (a) additional healing miracles, including mention of the disciples again in the Temple precincts (vv. 12-16), (b) a second arrest of Peter and others, with their miraculous release and instruction (by the Angel) to go and preach in the Temple (vv. 17-21a); (c) search for the disciples, who are found teaching in the Temple (vv. 21b-26); (d) a second appearance before the Sanhedrin (vv. 27-42), with twin speeches by Peter (vv. 29-32) and Gamaliel (vv. 35-39)
  • Acts 6:8-8:1a—a narrative arc involving the arrest (6:8-15) and death (7:54-8:1a) of Stephen, in between which is the speech (set before the Sanhedrin) in 7:1-53; the Temple plays a key role in both the charges against Stephen (6:11-14) and the climactic sections of his speech (7:35-53)

The Arrest of Paul (Acts 21-22)

During Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, he took part in a purification ritual in the Temple (21:23-26), where he was recognized and seized by the hostile crowd (vv. 27-30) and removed from the Temple precincts, being taken into custody by Roman authorities. This sets the stage for the speech by Paul in 22:1-21.

The Significance of the Temple setting and theme

This can be summarized under two basic thematic headings related to early Christianity and Judaism—continuity and conflict:

1. Early Christianity as a continuation of Israelite/Jewish religion (centered on the Temple)
  • This an important theme in the Infancy narratives (cf. above)—the parents of John the Baptist and Jesus are shown as righteous (in the traditional Jewish sense), faithfully observing the commands and ordinances of the Law, including participation in the prescribed Temple ritual. Jesus and his parents encounter similar examples of Israelite/Jewish piety in the figures of Simeon and Anna who regularly frequent the Temple. It is following the pilgrimage festival of Passover in Jerusalem, that Jesus stays behind in the Temple.
  • The theme of teaching in the Temple precincts, extending from Jesus (Lk 2:46; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 22:53) to the apostles (Acts 3:12; 4:2; 5:20-21, 25, 28, 42).
  • After the Resurrection/Ascension of Jesus, the early believers continue to frequent the Temple (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42).
  • Paul, the ‘apostle to the Gentiles’ (in Acts 13-20), willingly takes part (along with observant Jewish Christians) in a Temple ritual (Acts 21:23-26).
2. The Temple as a source and symbol of conflict between early Christianity and Judaism
  • The Temple action (“cleansing”) and saying by Jesus, though minimized in the Lukan narrative (cf. above), clearly serve as a point of conflict and controversy in the early Church. The substance of the charge (that Jesus would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days) in Mk 14:58 par is retained in the accusation against Stephen (Acts 6:14, below).
  • The Temple setting is central to the twin narratives (in Acts 3-5), where Peter and the apostles are arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin; it serves to heighten the sense of conflict (especially in 5:20-25ff).
  • The accusations and charges against Stephen (Acts 6:11-14) are:
    • “we heard him speaking abusive/slanderous words unto [i.e. against] Moses and God” (v. 11)
    • “this man does not cease speaking words against [this] holy Place and the Law” (v. 13)
    • “we have heard him say that Jesus the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this place and make different [i.e. change/alter] the customs which Moses gave along to us” (v. 14)
      The last two are said to have been made by “false witnesses”, and are clearly related to the charge made against Jesus at his ‘trial’ (Mk 14:58 par).
  • The speech of Stephen remarkably draws a connection between the Temple and idolatry (the episode of the Golden Calf, etc) in 7:39-43ff, and questions the value and purpose of the Temple itself (especially with the citation of Isa 66:1-2) in vv. 44-50. The improper approach to God (and His “dwelling”) is further wrapped up in the counter-charge that the Jewish leaders (i.e. the Sanhedrin, implied) are the ones who have not kept the Law (v. 53). I have discussed this at length in the series on the Speeches of Acts.
  • Paul’s arrest in Acts 21-22 (above) is similarly related to accusations against him, that he speaks against the Jewish Law and religious customs (21:20-21). While it is hard to say whether such claims have any basis with regard to Stephen, they could more plausibly be made against Paul, according to his argument in Galatians (and parts of Romans). However, the author of Acts, in presenting the episode of chaps. 21-22, takes pains to emphasize that this is not true of Paul. James’ recommendation for Paul to participate in the purification ritual is specifically made so that other Jews (and Jewish Christians) will know that “(the things) sounded down about you are nothing [i.e. are not true], but (rather) you walk in line and (your)self (are) keeping the Law” (v. 24). When Paul is recognized by the crowd, the accusation is stated: “this is the man teaching everyone everywhere against the Law and this Place” (note the similarity to 6:13). All of this takes place in the setting of the Temple precincts.

Torah observance by the Apostles and other Disciples in Acts

The episode in Acts 21 (discussed above) brings out more clearly the fundamental issue of whether, or to what extent, the early Christians faithfully observed the commands and ordinances of the Law (Torah). Though the evidence is relatively slight, the book of Acts suggests that the early believers in Jerusalem (Jewish Christians) were observant. The following passages may be noted:

    • The Apostles and early Christians continued to frequent the Temple (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1; 5:42); though they are not depicted especially participating in the Temple ritual, it is likely that they did so as well (cf. Acts 3:1; 21:23-26).
    • The charge that Stephen speaks against the Law (Acts 6:13) is presented as false testimony; there is no clear evidence that he ever did such, though there does appear to be an anti-Temple theme in his sermon-speech (cf. Acts 7:35-53).
    • Peter’s objection to the command in the vision of Acts 10:9-16 suggests that he faithfully observed the dietary regulations in the Torah; on this, see below.
    • The conflict leading to the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15 clearly shows that many, if not most, Jewish Christians were strictly observant, and some wished that Torah observance be required of Gentile converts as well (v. 1, 5); cf. also 11:1-3ff. This will be discussed in more detail in the next part of this series.
    • The circumcision of Timothy (Acts 17:3), in apparent contrast with Gal 2:3-5 (and the argument throughout Galatians, etc).
    • James, the leading figure of the Jerusalem Church, is depicted as a staunch supporter of the Torah, both in Acts 21:17-26 and (to a lesser extent) in 15:12-29. Other Jewish believers in Jerusalem are described as “zealous for the Law” (21:20; cf. also 22:12) and as those who would regularly take part in the required Temple ritual (vv. 23-24). James is concerned to quash any rumors that Paul opposed the Law and Jewish religious custom (vv. 21ff), and so recommends that Paul participate in the ritual.
    • In addition to Paul’s participation in the ritual of Acts 21:23-26, he makes several direct statements in his subsequent defense speeches regarding his support and observance of the Law—cf. Acts 22:3, 17; 24:11-14, 17; 25:8. The question of Paul’s observance of the Torah, as well as the portrait of Paul in Acts compared with the Epistles, will be addressed later in this series.

A treatment of the mission to the Gentiles and the “Jerusalem Council” will come in the second part of this article; here, however, it is necessary to discuss briefly Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9-16 (cf. also 11:5-10).

Peter’s Vision (Acts 10:6-16; 11:5-10)

The vision involved the descent of a vessel filled with all kinds of animals—clean and unclean (cf. the dietary regulations in Lev 11:1-47; Deut 14:3-20). A voice commanded Peter to “stand up… slay (the animals) and eat” (v. 13), the implication being that he should eat the unclean animals as well. To this Peter objects saying, “not so, Lord, (in) that I have not ever eaten any (thing) common and unclean” (v. 14). In response, the (heavenly) voice declares: “(that) which God has cleansed you must not consider common” (v. 15). It is a striking and powerful scene, but how is it to be understood? Is it simply about food (dietary regulations), or is it symbolic—or both?

Some commentators have tried to suggest that the vision does not abolish the dietary laws, but is simply meant as an example that the Gentiles should be accepted into the Church. I find this most unlikely, even though it is the primary interpretation given in 11:18. While the symbolism regarding acceptance of the Gentiles is certainly correct (see vv. 28b, 35, 45 and 11:1ff), the argument related to the dietary laws themselves seems abundantly clear and specific. It may be helpful to distinguish between the meaning of the vision itself (as a possible independent historical tradition) and the role it plays in Acts 10-11. Taken at face value, the vision appears to be about food and the dietary restrictions of the Torah regarding “clean and unclean” animals; if so, then declaration in verse 15 means that God has declared all animals clean and that they may be eaten without restriction. This would effectively abolish the dietary laws in Lev 11, etc.; however, it must be admitted that the specific logical consequences of the vision do not play any role further in Acts, nor in the rest of the New Testament. Apart from the behavior of Peter narrated in Gal 2:12, it is hard to find evidence of any apostolic sanction for Jewish Christians to disregard the dietary regulations. Upon hearing Peter’s account of the vision (and subsequent events), the Jewish believers accept that Gentiles have come to salvation, but make no comment about the implications related to clean and unclean food. This certainly accords with the purpose of Acts—the emphasis is on the inclusion of the Gentiles, not a commentary on the Torah regulations per se.

The force of the vision itself may be appreciated by a closer examination of the actual language and symbolism used; first, there appears to be a two-fold aspect to the symbolism of the vision, marked by the adjective pa=$ (“all”):

    • “All [pa/nta] kinds of animals” (v. 12)—this indicates a removal of the clean/unclean distinction in the dietary laws; note Peter’s objection (“I have never eaten anything [pa=n] common or unclean”).
    • “All parts of the earth”—as symbolized by the vessel as a “great sheet” with four corners set down upon the earth (v. 11); this indicates the universality of the Christian mission (to the Gentiles), cf. Lk 24:47; Acts 1:8; 2:5ff; 9:15.

In addition, note the careful structure of Peter’s objection (following the dietary laws) and the divine response (vv. 14-15):

    • Not anything common [koino/$]
      • Not anything unclean [a)ka/qarto$]
      • God has cleansed [kaqari/zw]
    • Do not call/consider common [koino/w]

It is a clear, symmetric argument, which certainly appears to undo or abolish the dietary regulations in the Torah. If the vision originally (at the historical-traditional level) addressed the food laws specifically, the author of Acts has deftly incorporated it into the Cornelius narrative of chapters 10-11. This is indicated by the presence of several details—for example, the three-fold vision (10:16) coincides with the appearance of three men (vv. 17-19); similarly, just as the visionary scene “steps down” from heaven to meet Peter (v. 11), so Peter “steps down” (vv. 20-21) to meet his visitors (the same verb katabai/nw is used). This complex thematic interweaving is appropriate, for the question of the dietary laws is ultimately interwoven with the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, as is made abundantly clear in the episode at Antioch narrated in Galatians 2 (cf. the recent notes on Gal 2:11-21). For Jewish-Christian missionaries, to continue observing the dietary restrictions of the Torah meant that Gentiles would effectively be required to do the same if they wished to enjoy proper table fellowship with their fellow (Jewish) believers. Paul saw the serious problem this created, both at the practical and deeper theological levels.

The next part of this article will deal specifically with the mission to the Gentiles and the central episode of the “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15.

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