Saturday Series: Acts 8:26-40

Acts 8:26-40

This week’s study is related to recent notes and articles on the famous ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, an important Scripture passage that was interpreted in a Messianic sense by early Christians, and applied to the person and work of Jesus. In the last part of the article on this passage in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”, I explored how the poem came to be understood by early Christians. Portions from it were cited in the New Testament, in Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 2:23-25; Matthew 8:17; John 12:38; Rom 10:16, along with several other possible allusions (see, for example, Mk 9:12).

In this study I wish to explore further how verses 7-8 of the poem were utilized in the Acts 8 episode (vv. 26-40). Scripture quotations are central to the Acts narratives, but feature most prominently within the sermon-speeches. For example, in the great Pentecost sermon-speech of Peter (2:14-41), there are three Scripture citations which are used: Joel 2:28-32 (vv. 17-21); Psalm 16:8-11 (vv. 25-28); and Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35). These passages are fundamental to the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), being expounded and applied to Jesus (his death and resurrection). For a study of these Scriptures in the context of the Pentecost sermon, see Parts 2 and 3 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

The episode in 8:26-40 does not contain a sermon-speech, but it does illustrate the early Christian mission and Gospel preaching in action. Thus it is appropriate that a Scripture citation (of Isa 53:7-8) occurs at the center of the episode. To demonstrate the centrality of the Scripture, it may be helpful to present an outline of the episode as a chiasmus:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27ab): Philip encounters the Ethiopian
      • The mission: guidance by the Spirit (vv. 27c-29)
        • Question regarding the Scripture (vv. 30-31)
          • Scripture citation (vv. 32-33)
        • Explanation regarding the Scripture (vv. 34-35)
      • The mission: baptism and the work of the Spirit (vv. 36-39a)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 39-40): Philip and the Ethiopian separate

Clearly, the Scripture citation lies at the very heart of the episode. In this instance, an exposition of the lines from the Servant poem forms the basis for the Gospel preaching. No actual preaching is recorded, merely the summary statement that Philip “gave to him the good message (regarding) Yeshua” (v. 35). He did this by “beginning from this Scripture” that the Ethiopian was reading. That is to say, the Scripture formed the basis for the preaching of the Gospel.

From the standpoint of the Acts narratives, as they record the earliest Christian preaching and missionary work, this is most significant, for a number of reasons. Foremost is the importance of the use of the Scriptures by early believers to demonstrate two key points regarding Jesus: (1) that he was the Anointed One (Messiah), and (2) that the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah was prophesied in the sacred Writings.

The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die, especially in the painful and disgraceful manner of crucifixion, was so contrary (and repugnant) to Jewish expectations, it had to be explained. How could Jesus have endured such a death, if he is truly the Messiah? The early Christians worked hard to reconcile and explain this, as they began their missionary work among Israelites and Jews in the area. It was necessary to marshal Scriptural support for the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die (and then rise from the dead). This is an important point of emphasis in the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, and is mentioned, either directly or implicitly, on a number of occasions—see Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:26-27, 32, 44-45ff; Acts 3:18; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 13:27; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23.

As it happens, there are relatively few Old Testament passages which can be used in support of the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die. The Servant poem in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is certainly one of these; indeed, it may be regarded as the foremost such Scripture passage. It is thus quite proper that it should feature prominently in at least one of the missionary episodes in the book of Acts.

Before proceeding to an examination of how verses 7-8 of the poem are used within the narrative, we must briefly consider them from the standpoint of textual criticism. The text as it appears in Acts 8:32-33 is virtually identical to the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation. Only in the first line of v. 8 is there any difference. In some manuscripts of Acts, the reading is “in the humiliation of him” (i.e., “in his humiliation”), including the pronoun; but this is really only a minor variation, perhaps intended to bring greater clarity to the passage. The pronoun may be original, being omitted in certain manuscripts in order to conform the citation to the LXX.

Being a translation of poetry, it is not surprising that the Greek only loosely renders the Hebrew text. Here is a literal translation (in English) of the original Hebrew, with a corresponding translation of the Greek LXX, side by side:

Hebrew [MT]
LXX
“And he, being pressed (down), was (op)pressed,
and (yet) he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep to (the) slaughter he was carried (along),
and like a ewe before (the one) shaving her is bound,
and he did not open his mouth.
From oppression and from judgment he has been taken,
(and now) his (life) cycle—who thinks on it?
For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living;
from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch (came) to him.”
“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth;
from the lawlessness of the people, he was led to death.”

Only in the first line of verse 8 does the LXX differ substantially—in meaning and emphasis—from the Hebrew:

Hebrew:
“from oppression and from judgment he has been taken”
LXX/Acts:
“in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away)”

I understand the Hebrew to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX (and in the Acts citation), however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (ho díkaios), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode (compare with 1 Peter 2:23-25), and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13.

Even more significant is the fact that the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8, omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering. In Hebrew, this line reads:

“from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch [i.e. of death] (came) to him.”

The Greek translation, of the LXX, which would also have been used in Acts, reads:

“from the lawlessness [plur.] of the people, he was led to death.”

The reference is to the sin (and guilt) of the people. The Hebrew term (peša±) refers specifically to a violation of the covenant with YHWH (essentially an act of rebelliousness), while the Greek word (anomía) means “(act of) lawlessness”. Regardless of which aspect is being emphasized, it is the sin of the people that results in the death of the Servant. He is judged/punished by God for the people’s sins, not his own.

The author of Acts cannot have left out this line by accident; it must have been omitted on purpose. The best explanation is that the author simply did not wish to emphasize the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death. As we have seen (above), that aspect was not an important part of the Gospel preaching in Acts, nor does it feature prominently in the theology of Luke-Acts as a whole. Only one reference in the book of Acts (20:28) could be viewed as expressing anything like a clear belief in the vicarious, atoning character of Jesus’ death.

An interesting historical-critical question is whether this lack of reference to the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death is due to the early character of the preaching in Acts. If the sermon-speeches (in the early chapters, especially) represent authentic Gospel preaching from the period c. 35-50 A.D., then the relative lack of theological development would not be all that surprising. The focus of such early preaching was on the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection, the injustice of his death, and his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God. Forgiveness of sin was definitely part of this proclamation, but it does not appear to have been specifically tied to the nature of his death.

Even the traditional emphasis on the establishment of the new covenant through Jesus’ death (his blood, see Lk 22:20 par) does not feature prominently in the book of Acts (see 3:25-26). This contrasts notably with Paul’s letters, written in the period c. 52-62 A.D., where the various theological (and Christological) aspects of Jesus’ death are developed in complex and powerful ways.

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