“…Spirit and Life” (continued): Acts and the Pauline Letters

Having examined all of the relevant passages in the Gospel of John, before proceeding to the Johannine Letters, it will be useful to look at some of the key references to the Spirit and Life in the remaining New Testament writings.

I have already discussed the passages in the Synoptic Gospels and the book of Acts, dealing with the Holy Spirit, in an earlier series of notes on “The Holy Spirit in the Gospel Tradition” (the articles “The Spirit in Luke-Acts” cover the Acts references).

Life (zwh/) in Luke-Acts

There are five occurrences of the noun zwh/ in the Gospel of Luke, along with nine of the related verb za/w (“live”). Most of these are derived from the wider Synoptic tradition, such as the use of the expression zwh/ ai)w/nio$ (“Life of the Age”) in 10:25 (+ the verb za/w in v. 28); 18:18, 30. In these episodes, a devout/religious person asks Jesus “What should I do to receive the lot of [i.e. inherit] (the) Life of the Age?”—that is, to inherit the divine/heavenly (eternal) life given to the righteous in the Age to Come (after the Judgment). In the first episode, Jesus elicits from the man the answer of the two-fold “Great Commandment” (Deut 6:5 + Lev 19:18), which came to be understood in early Christian terms as the so-called Love-command (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; James 2:8; cf. also John 13:34-35; 15:9-13; 1 Cor 12:31b-14:1a, etc). In the second episode, Jesus emphasizes the need to follow him, and, in the process, give up the worldly things valued in this life. The only other occurrence of zwh/ in something like the sense of “eternal life” is the saying in 12:15, and in a similar context—i.e., the “life” of a person does not come out of an abundance of (material) possessions.

The verb za/w also refers to “eternal life” in Lk 10:28; we may also note the traditional citation of Deut 8:3 in the Temptation scene: “it is not upon bread alone that man will live” (Lk 4:4)—i.e., one “lives” through the life-giving Word of God. The discourses of Jesus in John develop this idea, as we have seen, especially in the Bread of Life discourse of chapter 6 (and the key-verse of this series, 6:63). A similar idea is expressed in the Lukan version of the saying in 20:38: “But he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live in/by him”. The giving of new (spiritual) life to persons lost or “dead” in sin, so familiar in the Johannine discourses, also appears at the conclusion of the Prodigal Son parable: “…this brother of yours was dead and came alive (again), and had ruined [i.e. lost] (himself) and was found!” (15:32).

Of course, the verb is also used of the actual resurrection of Jesus, as in 24:5, 23; Acts 1:3; 25:19 (on the symbolic/spiritual idea of resurrection, cf. John 5:21-24ff; 11:21-27), and similarly of physical raising of persons from the dead in the book of Acts (9:41 etc).

An interesting use of the verb is in Acts 7:38, where Stephen, in his sermon-speech, refers to the words given by God to Moses as “living sayings/declarations” (lo/gia zw=nta), the idea being that words spoken by the living God are themselves living. The concept of God as the source of life is expressed twice by Paul in sermon-speeches, delivered in a non-Jewish (Greco-Roman) setting—of the one true living God (14:15), and cf. especially the famous philosophical formula cited in 17:28: “for in Him we live and move and have being [e)sme/n]”.

“Life” in the Pauline Letters and Theology

Paul uses the verb za/w (“live, have life”) frequently in his letters (more than 50 times in the undisputed letters). Sometimes it is meant in the ordinary sense of human life (and/or daily living), but quite often it denotes divine/eternal or spiritual Life.

Paul also makes use of the verb zwopoie/w (“make [a]live”)—7 of the 11 occurrences in the New Testament are found in his letters (cf. also John 5:21 [twice]; 6:63; 1 Pet 3:18):

    • Rom 4:17; 8:11—where the reference is specifically to the life-giving (and resurrection) power of God
    • 1 Cor 15:22, 36, 45—the life-giving power of Jesus, specifically through his resurrection (on the last reference, cf. below)
    • 2 Cor 3:6—the life-giving power of the Spirit (Spirit/Law [“Letter”] contrast), cf. also Gal 3:21

The noun zwh/ (“life”) is somewhat less common, occurring 28 times in the undisputed letters (with 9 more in Ephesians and the Pastorals). The specific expression “Life of the Age” (zwh/ ai)w/nio$) occurs five times—Rom 2:7; 5:21; 6:22-23; Gal 6:8 (cf. also 1 Tim 1:16; 6:12; Tit 1:2; 3:7)—usually in a strongly ethical context (but note the emphasis on the “favor” [xa/ri$] of God in Rom 5:21; 6:23).

The remaining Pauline passage which are particularly relevant may summarized as follows:

“Life” in the other New Testament Writings

Before continuing on to look at the references to the Spirit in the Pauline letters, it is worth surveying briefly other occurrences of the noun zwh/ and verb za/w in the rest of the New Testament (excluding the Johannine letters and book of Revelation):

Hebrews
    • The basic idea of eternal life (in the sense of always living) is applied variously to the figure of Melchizedek (as a type/figure of Jesus) in 7:3, 8, 16, 25
    • The figure of God as living (cf. above), along with his Word as living—3:12; 4:12; 9:14; 10:31; 12:22
    • Of the sacrificial (priestly) work of Jesus, which leads to Life—10:20 (“living way”)
    • One lives through trust in Jesus—10:38 (citing Hab 2:4, cf. above)
James
    • The expression “crown of life” as a motif for eternal Life (1:12)
1 Peter
    • Life through (the death and resurrection of) Jesus—1:3 (“living hope”); 2:24
    • Participation/union of believers with Jesus, i.e. we are “living” as he is “living”—2:4-5
    • The living (and life-giving) Word of God—1:23
    • Life comes to believers through the favor [xa/ri$] of God—3:7 (“favor of life”)
    • Believers live “in the Spirit”—3:18 (vb. zwopoie/w); 4:6
2 Peter & Jude

Paul’s View of the Law: Acts vs. the Letters

The articles in this series of Paul’s View of the Law (part of “The Law and the New Testament”) conclude with a short comparative study of the Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Commentators frequently note a number of differences and/or apparent discrepancies between the narratives (involving Paul) in the book of Acts and what he himself relates in the (undisputed) letters—in matters of chronology, the itinerary of the missionary journeys, and so forth. In such instances, critical scholars tend to give priority to the letters, regarding the information in the book of Acts as less reliable; traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, generally consider both Acts and the letters as authentic (and reliable), seeking to harmonize the two as far as possible. Perhaps the most well-known (and often-discussed) historical-critical issue involves the relationship between the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 and Paul’s narrative in Galatians 2. However, important differences have also been pointed out regarding the portrait of Paul painted in Acts, as compared with what he states himself in the letters, and especially in regard to his view of the Law (the subject of these articles). This may summarized by two related questions:

    1. Did Paul himself continue to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law following his conversion? and
    2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the commands and regulations of the Law?

1. Did Paul continue to observe the Law?

Paul states on several occasions in his letters that, prior to coming to faith in Christ, he was most devout and scrupulous in matters of religion, including strict observance of the (written) Law, the Torah (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:4b-6, and Acts 22:3; 26:5). Did he continue to observe it so after his conversion? Many scholars today would say yes, and simply take for granted that he did. However, it must be observed that there is very little actual evidence of this in the letters; in fact, he never makes such a statement about himself, but it could be understood from two passages: 1 Cor 9:20 and Rom 3:31.

    • 1 Cor 9:20—”to the ones under the Law, (I came to be) as one under the Law”. This indicates that Paul voluntarily continued to observe the Law, at least when among his fellow Jews, in order to win them to Christ (cf. below).
    • Rom 3:31—”then do we make inactive/invalid the Law through th(is) trust (in Christ)? May it not come to be (so)! but (rather) we make the Law stand!” Many commentators today read this as if Paul is saying that he and his Jewish Christian co-workers continue to observe the Law. However, there is nothing in the context of the passage to indicate this; the emphasis in Romans 3, especially in vv. 21-31, is the declaration that Jews and Gentiles both are justified through faith, and not by works of the Law (i.e. observing the Law). For more on this passage, see the earlier note and discussion in this series.

By contrast, the following passages indicate that Paul, along with all believers, is free from the Law: 1 Cor 9:20-21; 2 Cor 3:6; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Rom 6:15; 7:6; Phil 3:3, 7-9.

In the book of Acts, there is somewhat more evidence that Paul continued to observe the Law. First, we have his statements generally to this effect, in Acts 24:14, 17-18 and 28:17 (?). We also see:

    • His presence in the Temple (Acts 21:26-27; 22:17-18; 24:17-18); along with other early believers in Jerusalem (Lk 24:53; Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:21ff, 42; 21:22-27), Paul continued to frequent the Temple. However, it is not clear to what extent he participated in the sacrificial ritual; on only one occasion is he seen involved in ritual activity (21:26-27, cf. below).
    • His traveling to Jerusalem for the feasts, at least on several occasions (Acts 18:21 v.l.; 20:16); but note that Acts 20:6 indicates that Passover would have been observed away from Jerusalem.
    • Acts 18:18 refers to a vow (Nazirite?) he had taken, which presumably was done according to the regulations in the Law.

In none of these instances is it recorded that Paul was under obligation, or felt required, to observe the Torah. The most relevant passage is Acts 21:21-26 (cf. below); but even here, his involvement in the Temple ritual was done voluntarily, at the recommendation of James.

2. Did he consider that Jewish believers were still obligated to observe the Law?

Again, a good many commentators today would answer in the affirmative—while Gentiles were not required to observe the Old Testament Law, Jewish believers were still bound to do so. I find not the slightest indication of this in the letters, not even in the most positive references to the Law (Rom 3:1-2; 7:12-14 [cf. also 1 Tim 1:8]; Col 4:11, and, possibly, Rom 4:12; 1 Cor 7:19). As mentioned above, some commentators would read Rom 3:31 as though Paul believed that the Law continued to be binding (for Jewish believers), but I consider this a serious misunderstanding of the passage. The overwhelming number of references, indicating that the Law is no longer in force for believers in Christ, would seem to speak decisively against it—cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; the illustrations in Gal 3-4 (esp. 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31); 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11; Eph 2:15. There are, however, three passages in the book of Acts, which could suggest that Paul held the Torah to be binding for Jewish believers; each of these will be discussed in turn:

Acts 16:3—Paul had the half-Jewish Timothy circumcised, prior to his joining the mission effort. This has often been seen as contradicting Paul’s own teaching regarding circumcision in the letters (Gal 2:3; 5:2-3, 6, 11; 6:12-15; 1 Cor 7:18-19; Rom 2:28-29, also Phil 3:3; Col 2:11; 3:11; Eph 2:11), causing some critical scholars to question the historicity of the detail in Acts 16:3. Much depends on the reason why Timothy was circumcised; there are several possibilities:

    • Jews, including Jewish believers, were obligated to observe the Law, with circumcision being a central covenant obligation; according to later Jewish tradition (m. Kidd. 3:12), children from mixed marriages were still regarded as Jewish.
    • It was a practical measure, to avoid unnecessary hostility and opposition among Jews to the mission.
    • It is an example (and extension) of Paul’s missionary principle expressed in 1 Cor 9:19-23—of becoming like one under the Law in order to reach those who are under the Law.

There is nothing in the context of 16:1ff itself to indicate that Timothy was circumcised because he was required to do so, as would be suggested in the first view. The only reason given in the passage is that he was circumcised “through [i.e. because of] the Jews that were in those places”, which would seem to fit the second interpretation above. However, it is also possible that Paul was generally following the principle he would later express in 1 Cor 9:19-23; for more on this, see the conclusion below. One would like to think that Timothy willingly (and voluntarily) agreed to circumcision, though this is not indicated in the text.

Acts 16:4—In the next verse, we read that Paul delivered the decisions (do/gmata) from the ‘Jerusalem Council’ (Acts 15:19-31) to the believers in the cities of Pisidia and Lycaonia (i.e. Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, etc) in SE Asia Minor, which had been evangelized during the first Missionary journary (Acts 13-14). The letter from Jerusalem (15:23-29) is addressed to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia; Paul is extending it northward and westward in the region. There are two major critical issues involved here:

    1. Paul’s knowledge (and support) of the Jerusalem decrees. He never once refers to these in his letters, even on occasions when the decisions would have been relevant (1 Cor 8-10; Gal 2:11-14, etc; Rom 14; Col 2:16ff). In particular, the decisions appear to be directly on point with the very question Paul addresses in 1 Cor 8-10; if he knew of the decisions, and considered them to be authoritative (and binding) for Gentiles, it is rather strange that he does not refer to them. Many critical scholars consider the detail of Acts 16:4 to be inaccurate—e.g., note how in Acts 21:25 Paul appears to learn of the decrees then for the first time. More to the point, commentators have argued that the Paul of the letters would not have supported the decrees, especially with regard to the dietary restrictions placed on Gentiles (cf. issue #2).
    2. The relation of the decrees to the Torah. In Acts 15:21, James (the speaker) clearly connects the decisions of the Council with the fact that Moses (i.e. the Old Testament Law) is proclaimed and read in cities throughout the region, and followed by devout Jews (including Jewish believers). I have discussed this aspect of the Jerusalem decrees in some detail in a previous article. It is possible, but by no means certain, that, in observing the decrees, Gentile believers are thereby expected to follow the Torah in a limited sense. The emphasis is squarely on the idolatrous and immoral aspects of the pagan culture in which the Gentiles live—things which would also offend the religious and moral sensibilities of Jewish believers everywhere. I believe that the primary focus of the decrees is twofold: (1) as an authoritative exhortation for Gentiles to abstain from things associated with idolatry, and (2) as a way to ensure fellowship and unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

The apparent discrepancy between Acts 16:4 and Paul’s failure to mention the Jerusalem decrees even once in the letters, can be explained one of several ways:

    • Paul was not aware of the decrees when he wrote his letters (contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • He did not consider (or would not have considered) the decrees authoritative and/or binding on Gentiles (again contrary to Acts 16:4)
    • The decrees had only a limited (regional) scope—the areas in Syria and Asia Minor surrounding Antioch—and were not considered binding for Gentile believers in territories further away
    • The decrees had only a limited scope, insofar as they related to places with large Jewish populations (such as the regions around Antioch)—in support of healthy relations between Jewish and Gentile believers—but were not necessarily binding on Gentile believers en masse.
    • The decrees were only binding for a time, eventually being abolished or superseded as circumstances dictated, or through “progressive revelation”; at the time of Paul’s writing, the decrees were no longer in force.

According to a strict, traditional-conservative (harmonistic) reading of the New Testament, only the 3rd and 4th interpretations above are viable options. A consistent and thorough analysis of Paul’s letters, taken by themselves, would, I think, lead one to adopt the 2nd interpretation. Overall, the last view is perhaps the simplest and most practical solution, but it is nowhere so stated in the New Testament, and would have to be assumed.

Acts 21:21-26—This is almost certainly the most direct (and controversial) passage in Acts related to Paul’s view of the Law. It must be examined in some detail:

  • The Context—At the conclusion of his (third) major missionary journey (18:23-21:16), Paul travels to Jerusalem, and is greeted by the believers there (vv. 17-19), including James and other leaders (elders) in the Church. Presumably he presented the collection of funds for the needy in the Jerusalem Church, which he had laboriously organized and gathered from the congregations in Greece and Macedonia (1 Cor 16:1-4; 2 Cor 8-9; Rom 15:25-28), and which is mentioned (it would seem) in Acts 24:17, but not here in chap. 21.
  • The Issue—James’ address to Paul is recorded in vv. 20b-25, in which the following points are made:
    • In Jerusalem there are many Jewish believers, who continue to be zealous in observing the Torah (v. 20b)
    • It is reported that Paul instructs Jews to forsake the Torah, and not to be circumcised, etc (v. 21)
    • It is assumed that: (a) this cannot be true, and (b) Paul himself continues to observe the Torah (v. 24b)
    • To prove this, James recommends that Paul take part in a purification ceremony (in the Temple) (v. 23-24a)
    • The Jerusalem decrees are also mentioned, indicating, at the very least, that Gentile believers honor and respect the customs of (observant) Jewish believers (v. 25)
  • Summary exposition—James effectively summarizes the controversies between Paul and Jewish believers, regarding his view of the Old Testament Law (as expressed in Galatians and Romans). Admittedly, nowhere in the letters does Paul say anything quite like the claim in verse 21, though the teaching that believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike) are “free” from the Law (cf. above) certainly could be characterized this way. It is perhaps such a (mis)representation that Paul combats, or attempts to avoid, in passages such as Gal 3:21ff; Rom 3:31; 7:7ff. Above, I have examined evidence regarding the extent to which Paul continued to observe the Law himself after coming to faith in Christ, such as James assumes here in v. 24b; the evidence is hardly conclusive, as I shall discuss again below. However, Paul does go along with James’ recommendation and participates in the purification ritual (vv. 26-27), at considerable personal expense it would seem, giving at least a general affirmation of his support for the position of observant Jewish believers. But based on what we have studied thus far in the letters, can we truly say, with James, that “all that of which was sounded down [i.e. reported] to them about you [i.e. Paul] is nothing”? What of the many potentially controversial passages regarding the Law, such as 2 Cor 3:7-18; Gal 2:11-14ff, 19; 3:25, 28; 4:2, 5, 31; 5:1, 6, 13-14, 18; 6:15; Rom 2:28-29; 3:21ff; 6:14-15; 7:1-6; 8:2f; 10:4; Phil 3:3; Col 2:16-17; 3:11, et al.?

Conclusion

A fair and unbiased view of the evidence, from both the letters and Acts, would have to affirm that Paul did continue to observe the Law, but only in a special and qualified sense. Ultimately, the clearest declaration of his own view of the matter comes from 1 Cor 9:20:

“And I came to be to the Jews as a Jew, (so) that I might gain Jews (for Christ), to the (one)s under (the) Law as (one) under (the) Law—not being under (the) Law (my)self—(so) that I might gain the (one)s under (the) Law (for Christ)”

Here he clearly states that:

    1. He observes the Law (i.e. is “under the Law”, u(po\ no/mon) for the purpose of winning Jews to Christ, and not because he is still obligated to observe it—indeed:
    2. He himself is not under the Law. It should be noted, that some manuscripts omit the phrase mh\ w*n au)to\$ u(po\ no/mon (“not being under the Law myself”), but it is present in a wide range of witnesses (including many of the “earliest and best” MSS), and is almost certainly original. While some commentators might dispute it, I regard this as a decisive statement that, along with all other believers in Christ (Jew and Gentile alike), Paul is no longer required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament Law. Note also, in v. 21, that:
    3. He is not without the “Law of God” (cf. also Rom 7:22, 25), and identifies himself as now being under (lit. “in”) the “Law of Christ”. This (being “in Christ”) is an altogether new covenant, as he makes clear in 2 Cor 3:1-18.

The basic principle of freedom in Christ, which Paul consistently teaches (cf. Gal 2:4; 3:25, 28; 4:21-31; 5:1ff, 13; 1 Cor 9:19ff; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 6:7ff; 7:2-6; 8:2ff, 21, etc), also means that believers—certainly Jewish believers—may continue to observe the Torah, and other Jewish customs, either voluntarily, or as a matter of personal conscience. There is a world of difference between “may observe” and “must observe”—I believe Paul would affirm the former, but definitely not the latter. All of the passages in the book of Acts examined above can be understood and interpreted as voluntary observance. In this sense, the claims reported about Paul (according to James) in Acts 21:21 are false; but there are actually two erroneous claims which ought to be rejected:

    • He teaches that Jewish believers must, or should, cease observing the Old Testament Law—false
    • He teaches that Jewish believers must continue (strict) observance of the Old Testament Law—likewise false

When it comes to Gentile believers, the situation is somewhat different; Paul, especially in Galatians, takes the more forceful position, that they should not observe the Torah, and speaks in the harshest terms regarding those who would influence them to do so. However, this must be understood in the historical (and rhetorical) context of the letter, and not turned into any sort of absolute rule to follow. Early Christianity was dominated by Jewish traditions and patterns of thought, and initial Gentile converts could easily be compelled to adopt Jewish religious practices as well. For the most part, this dynamic has long since disappeared from the Church, and there is little inherent danger in (Gentile) Christians today voluntarily adopting customs and practices set forth in the Torah. I will discuss this point again at the very conclusion of this series on The Law and the New Testament.

The Areopagus Speech

I have already examined the Areopagus Speech by Paul (Acts 17:16-34) in considerable detail—cf. Parts 20 and 21 of the series on the Speeches of Acts. This supplemental article will focus on the specific critical question as to the authenticity of the speech—whether or not it is compatible with what we know of Paul from the (undisputed) letters. At previous points in this series, I have noted the general assumption, shared by many critical scholars, that the speeches are largely the product of the author of Acts (traditionally, Luke), rather than a record of the purported speakers’ actual words. This view is based primarily on two factors:

    1. The way ancient (Greco-Roman and Jewish) historians use and present comparable speeches in their works. Thucydides and Josephus are typically cited for comparison.
    2. A relative uniformity in terms of language, style, citation of Scripture, etc., which is found in most of the speeches, regardless of speaker. The close structural and stylistic similarities between Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2) and Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) are especially noteworthy.

The significance and extent of these two factors, however, may be disputed; traditional-conservative commentators generally regard the speeches as authentic, with perhaps some degree of adaptation and modification by the author. Legitimate arguments can be, and have been, presented on both sides; for the purposes of these studies, I have adopted a moderating position.

In addition to these basic historical-critical concerns, commentators have especially noted some unique and unusual features in the Areopagus speech, which I have already highlighted in the prior articles. According to a number of critical scholars, these features are foreign to Paul’s thought (as expressed in his letters), and, indeed, with New Testament theology as a whole. In their view, this provides a decisive additional argument that the speech is Lukan, rather than Pauline. For a clear and detailed presentation of this viewpoint, see Dibelius’ important and influential study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939) in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 26-77, followed by more recent commentators such as E. Haenchen (Acts, pp. 527ff).

It will be helpful to discuss again the relevant points in the speech which are viewed as foreign and/or incompatible with Pauline thought, and to offer a summary evaluation.

Verse 22—One might question the positive characterization of the Athenians’ religiosity, here using the comparative adjective deisidaimone/stero$, derived from deisidaimoni/a (deisidaimonía), which is otherwise used in the New Testament only in Acts 25:19 (a general descriptive term [of Judaism] by Festus). The word deisidaimoni/a, often translated “religion”, “religious devotion/practice”, etc, literally means “fear of divine-powers [i.e. daimons]”, either in the positive/neutral sense of “religion” or the negative/pejorative sense of “superstition”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, a daimon (daimw/n/daimo/nion) is always understood from the Jewish (monotheistic) viewpoint as an evil/unclean spirit; only in here (in Acts 17:18) is the word used in the general sense of “(lesser/local) deities” or “divine powers”. In the letters, Paul only rarely mentions “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21, cf. also 1 Tim 4:1) and refers to Greco-Roman paganism in more standard Old Testament/Jewish terms of idolatry and immorality. However, here in the speech, there can be no doubt that the speaker/author uses the somewhat ambiguous term deisidaimoni/a with irony (their religious devotion actually reflects ignorance of the truth), which he begins to draw out with the example in verse 23. Also, it should be noted that the positive tone can be attributed to a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentiae—the use of complimentary or flattering language as an appeal to the audience, in the hopes that they will be receptive to the line of argument in the speech.

Verse 23—Here there is perhaps some uncertainty as to the force of Paul’s argument (regarding the altar dedicated “to an unknown god”). Previously, I pointed out several ways one might understand it:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b). The context of Greco-Roman religion in Acts (cf. also 14:15 and 19:26-27ff) expresses the viewpoint, derived from the Old Testament (esp. the Prophets) and Jewish tradition, that the pagan deities (identified with the idols/images) are vain and “nothing” (i.e. they do not really exist). Paul expresses this view as well in 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19 (also Gal 4:8); however, in the same passage he also expresses the more common view in early Christianity, that the deities have real existence but are actually evil spirits (“demons”), cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21. It is actually surprising how rarely Greco-Roman religion is mentioned in the New Testament, becoming a more prominent subject in the theological and apologetic writings of the second century. For this reason, it is difficult to judge how Paul (or the author of Acts) might have handled the matter in addressing pagan Greeks; typically, in the letters, pagan religion is described merely by inference, or under the stock reference of idolatry/immorality. The closest passages to the Areopagus speech would seem to be 1 Thess 1:9 and 1 Cor 12:2, though both are very brief statements.

The verb eu)sebe/w (“treat/regard with good/proper fear”), here used to describe the Athenians’ religion—i.e. good religious ‘fear’, but in ignorance—as well as the related words eu)se/beia, eu)sebh/$, and eu)sebw=$, are never used by Paul in any of the undisputed letters, occurring (frequently) only the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12); they also appear several times elsewhere in Acts (3:12; 10:7).

Verse 25—The argument that God, as eternal Creator of all things, is himself in need of nothing, while relatively common in Hellenistic Judaism, is not much found in either the Old or New Testament writings (but note, e.g. Psalm 50:9-12). Of many examples, see 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple); for similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50. From this basic philosophical observation is derived a general argument against the importance of temple buildings, sacrificial offerings and other religious ritual. The anti-Temple outlook—identifying temples with idol/images as both “made with (human) hands”—appears several places in Acts (esp. in Stephen’s speech, 7:39-50, cf. also 19:26-27), but is not really a point of emphasis in Paul’s letters. The somewhat rare compound verb prosde/omai (“to request [something] besides”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament; similarly the verb qerapeu/w occurs only here in its fundamental sense of “serve, attend, take care of” (elsewhere it always has the specific meaning “heal” [from illness/disease]), and Paul never uses it in the letters.

Verse 26—The premise of the common origin of humankind (from a single person), while obviously assumed from Old Testament narrative and tradition (the line from Adam, Gen 1:26ff; 5:1ff, cf. Romans 5:12ff), is usually not stated in such an abstract manner. In the phrase e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn (“and he made out of one all [the] nation of men”), pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation”, but the specific formulation here is better understood as “(the) entire nation”—i.e. the entire human race, with e&qno$ in a similar sense as ge/no$. It is a more philosophical construct, such as we find, for example, in Philo On the Creation §136, referring to the one man (Adam) as o( panto\$ tou= ge/nou$ h(mw=n a)rxhge/th$ (“the [one] leading/beginning all our lineage [ge/no$]”). The limits in the natural world appointed/designated (by God)—the seasons and physical boundaries (for human habitation)—are also relatively familiar from Greco-Roman philosophy as evidence for the existence and providential care of God (or the gods), a kind of “teleological argument” (cf. the examples cited by Dibelius, Studies pp. 27-37). Citing the seasons, etc., in reference to God’s care and concern for human beings, is known in the New Testament (Jesus’ words in Matt 5:45, cf. also James 5:7), but does not especially occur in Paul’s letters. There is, however, a reasonably close parallel in the brief speech recorded at Lystra (Acts 14:17), cf. below.

Verse 27—This verse is particularly difficult from the standpoint of biblical theology, and is frequently cited as being incompatible/incongruous with Paul’s teaching in the letters.

    • “to seek God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n)—The theme of “seeking God (or the Lord/YHWH)” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), as an exhortation for the people of God, but rarely, if ever, is the concept applied in Scripture within the context of “natural revelation”—i.e., the general religious impulse of all human beings (including non-Jewish/non-Christian pagans). For an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. It must be admitted that Paul, in the letters, does not use this sort of language; indeed, the overall argument of Romans 1-3 would suggest the opposite—that human beings (Jew and Gentile alike) do not truly seek God, nor are they able to do so, being enslaved by sin (apart from Christ), cf. the citation of Ps 14:1-3/53:1-3 in Rom 3:10-12. On a comparison with the famous passage in Rom 1:18-32, see below.
    • “if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”—The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. While this verb implies the “times of ignorance” in which the pagans live, it also suggests that, despite their ignorance, they may somehow find God (at least in part).
    • “and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”—The existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw (cf. verse 24b) indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. Along the lines mentioned above, this concept of the “nearness” of God (even to pagans) is seen as problematic and generally foreign to Paul’s thinking. Perhaps the closest we come to this idea in the letters is the citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8, though the context is rather different, referring specifically to the response (in faith/trust) to the Gospel.

Verse 28—There are two separate issues in this verse: (1) the panentheistic tenor of the statement in v. 28a, and (2) the ambiguity of the citation from Aratus in v. 28b.

First, the classic statement in v. 28a: “for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. It sounds like it was taken out of the Greek philosophers, and yet no clear and convincing source or parallel has been found; the use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). Needless to say, there is nothing quite like this in the New Testament. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

The quotation from Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.), from the opening lines of his verse-treatise Phaenomena, is perhaps even more problematic. The poem begins with Zeus, describing his presence everywhere, and reminding human beings of their dependence on him, stating (as Paul cites), tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen “for we are of (his) lineage”. In the context of ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the basic tenets of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is clearly drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding. For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26.

Verse 29—Curiously, the author/speaker uses this premise as the basis for a critique and condemnation of idolatry (worship of God through images). While the argument against idolatry is common to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the reasoning in v. 28b-29a is not. One might have expected a reference to the fundamental Scriptural teaching of man created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6), which could have been adapted to Greek philosophical concepts without too much difficulty. The neuter substantive adjective qei=on, which refers more generally to “Deity”, is not used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Verse 30—The statement that God has overlooked the “times of ignorance” for pagan Gentiles up until the present time, while similar to the statement made (by Paul) in Acts 14:16, has been thought to run contrary to tenor of Paul’s thought in the letters. On the idea of humankind’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21; for the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) elsewhere in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27. The verb u(perei=don (“look over, overlook”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament. The emphasis on God’s impending judgment in vv. 30b-31, brings the statement more closely in line with the remainder of the New Testament.

Verse 31—The declaration of the coming day of Judgment is common to the basic Jewish and early Christian worldview, and stated in traditional terminology. Only the last words of the verse create difficulty:

e)n a)ndri\ (“in/by a man”)—’Western’ witnesses (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus). Commentators have often wondered why there is not more explicitly “Christian” content in the Areopagus speech, and no specific mention of Jesus (by name, assuming the Western reading to be secondary). This may have been what prompted the addition “Jesus”, in order to, at the very least, clarify the situation and avoid misunderstanding.

pi\stin parasxw=n (“holding alongside a trust”)—this is rather a different use of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters), where it usually refers to faith/belief in Christ (or in God). Here, however, it has the sense of “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness. Interestingly, a few Western witnesses seem to read the verb as an infinitive (parasxei=n)—”to give along trust to all (people)”—perhaps indicating a tendency to interpret pi/sti$ here in its usual sense of faith in God/Christ.

Evaluation—It cannot be denied that there are good number of terms, expressions, and concepts which are rare or unique in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters) as a whole. But, to what extent are they incompatible with Paul’s own thought and approach? The words and phrases, detailed above, which either do not appear at all in the letters, or are used in a rather different sense, would seem to be a strong (cumulative) argument against Pauline authenticity for the speech. However, the problem with such arguments based on vocabulary and linguistic style, is that they require sufficient (relevant) material for comparison. And, the fact is, we have no other substantive example of Paul addressing (pagan) Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. All of the letters (undisputed and disputed) are written to Christians, and to believers who, presumably, have been given a significant amount of Christian instruction—including familiarity with the Scriptures, Israelite history, elements of a Jewish(-Christian) worldview and thought-forms, etc. The same applies to the rest of the New Testament; the Gospels and the Letters were all written to and for Christians. It has been pointed out, correctly, that the closest parallels to Areopagus speech are from the brief address in Acts 14:15-17; note, for example—

    • The speech begins with an exhortation to turn away from “vain/empty things” (i.e. pagan deities / idols) and toward the “living God”; for a comparable statement, written not too long after the historical event described here, cf. 1 Thess 1:9. This, of course, is the overall theme and emphasis of the Areopagus speech as well.
    • The statement of God as Creator (at the end of v. 15) is parallel to that in 17:24.
    • Though worded differently, verse 16 expresses much the same thought as 17:30 (cf. above)
    • The mention of the seasons (rain and the fruitfulness for harvest) in verse 17 is echoed in 17:26f; both references treat the features of the natural world as a witness to God’s existence and presence, though, again, in rather different language.

It just so happens that these two passages are also the only examples we have in the New Testament of Christian missionaries directly addressing a pagan audience. One must, therefore, be cautious—we simply do not have enough material available for a proper comparison. Can we be certain just how Paul would have addressed a pagan Greek audience at this time? Even if we were to admit, for the moment, that the speeches in Acts 17:22-31 (and 14:15-17) are effectively the product of the author (and not Paul), this does not solve the problem entirely. A number of the distinctive words and expressions in the speech better fit the context of the the book of Acts (rather than the Pauline epistles), but only slightly so. Luke-Acts did have an educated Greco-Roman audience in mind, at least in part, but it was still written primary for Christians and from a Christian standpoint. Theophilus (Lk 1:1; Acts 1:1) was either already a Christian or was at least someone interested in the new faith, perhaps having a similar role as the God-fearer Cornelius in the book of Acts itself (chaps. 10-11).

What about passages in the letters of Paul which are, in some sense, parallel to the Areopagus speech, especially Romans 1:18-32, which is extensive enough to allow for a reasonably fair comparison? This will be discussed in a set of separate (daily) notes, followed by a concluding statement regarding the critical question.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 21: Acts 17:16-34 (continued)

The first two sections—the Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21) and the Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)—were discussed in Part 20 of this series; here I will be studying the remainder of the speech.

Central Declaration (vv. 24-29)

These verses, representing the core of the speech, serve the same role as the central kerygma (Gospel proclamation) and Scripture citation/application found in the prior speeches of Acts. Here, in a speech addressed to (pagan) Greeks, we find instead a fundamental theological proclamation—on the true nature of God. This declaration is in response to, and contrasted with, the religious/superstitious deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians which Paul has noted in his introductory address (vv. 22-23). In particular, Paul has drawn upon their practice of erecting altars to “unknown gods” (sg. “[an] unknown god”, v. 23) as a way of introducing to them a new (and different) understanding of God (v. 23b). Verse 24 begins immediately with o( qeo\$ (“The God…”).

I would divide this (theological) declaration into two parts: (1) The nature of God, and (2) The relation of God to humankind.

(1) The Nature of God (vv. 24-27)

Again, it is possible to break this down further: (a) the true God vs. Idols, vv. 24-25, and (b) God as Creator, vv. 26-27.

(a) The true God vs. Idols (vv. 24-25)—These verses declare the nature of the true God, identifying God (o( qeo\$) as:

“the (One) having made the world [ko/smo$] and all the (thing)s in it”

This first premise—that the true God is Creator of the universe—will be expanded in vv. 26-27; the second, related, premise follows:

“this (One) belongs as Lord of heaven and earth”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) indicates that it is specifically the God proclaimed by Paul—YHWH, the God of Israel and the early Christians—who is Creator and Lord of the universe. For a similar use of the demonstrative “this (one)” (referring to Jesus) in the Gospel kerygma of the prior speeches, see Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36, etc. The verb u(pa/rxw literally means “begin under”, but in customary Greek usage it covers a fairly wide range of meaning, such as “to be (present)”, “to belong”, “to exist”, and so forth; I have rendered it above as “belong”, but the phrase could just as easily be translated simply “this (One) is Lord of heaven and earth”. The third premise builds upon the first two, as the last of three steps in v. 24, and for which there are three corresponding steps in v. 25; note—

    • (He is) the (One) having made the world and all the things in it (24a)
      • this One is Lord of heaven and earth (24b)
        • he does not dwell in shrines made with (human) hands (24c)
        • he is not attended/served by the hands of men (25a)
      • (he is) not looking to receive (a single) thing [i.e. is in need of nothing] (25b)
    • He is giving life and breath and all things to all (things/people) (25c)

We move from the outer ring (God as Creator and life-giver) to the inner (worship of God), the central proposition of v. 24c-25a reprising a Temple-motif found earlier in Acts in the speech of Stephen (cf. 7:39-50). In both speeches there is a notable contrast between God the Creator (whose hands made all things) and Temples/Idols (made by hands), with repeated use of xeir– (“hand-“) and the verb poie/w (“make”)—see esp. 7:40-41, 43-44, 48, 50; 17:24-26. While the connection between the Jerusalem Temple and idolatry in Stephen’s speech is somewhat surprising (and problematic), here in Paul’s speech the anti-Temple theme relates to the more obvious critique of pagan religion. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) could easily have quoted here the same passage from Isa 66:1-2 cited in Acts 7:49-50. The closest we come to a Scripture citation in the Areopagus speech is a likely allusion to Isa 42:5 here in vv. 24-25.

The anti-Temple motif, with its corresponding rejection of sacrificial offerings, is tied to a very specific idea: that the true God is not in need of anything. Derived from the basic concept of God as the all-powerful Creator, this idea is actually relatively rare in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 50:9-12), becoming more common in Hellenistic Jewish thought—cf. 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple). For similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50.

For God as maker and preserver of the ko/smo$, see e.g. Gen 1:1; 14:19, 22; Exod 20:11; Psalm 146:6; Isa 42:5; Wisdom 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc 7:23, 28; Philo On the Creation 2.7-12; On the Special Laws I.81. For the specific expression “Lord of heaven and earth”, see Tobit 7:18; Luke 10:21 (also Gen 14:19).

(b) God as Creator (vv. 26-27)—specifically, Creator of human beings:

e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn
“and he made out of one all (the) nation of men”

The expression pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation” or “all (the) nation” (i.e. the entire nation), the latter seeming much more likely in context (cf. the use of pa=$ in 2:36; 3:9, 11). This, of course, relates to the creation account in Gen 1:26ff, but stated in a more abstract and philosophical manner—i.e., from a single person (e)c e(no\$) God made the entire human race. This is followed by two purpose clauses, each governed by an infinitive:

    • katoikei=n (“to put down house”, i.e. to dwell)… v. 26
    • zhtei=n (“to seek”)… v. 27—specifically, to seek God

The first indicates the establishment of human society, the second, religion.

(i) Society—This is seen as developing within the confines of God’s providential control over the natural world. Human beings come to dwell (“put down house”) upon all the face of the earth (e)pi\ panto\$ prosw/pou th=$ gh=$). God the Creator governs the world by marking out and determining (o(ri/sa$):

    • “(the) arranged times/seasons” (prostetagme/nou$ kairou\$)
    • “the marked-out limits” [i.e. boundaries] (ta\$ o)roqesi/a$) for their dwelling

There is some question as to the precise meaning of these expressions, but kairo/$ most likely refers to the natural seasons of the year, and o)roqesi/a to the natural boundaries in the physical world (i.e. mountains, rivers, desert, sea, and so forth). This pairing is also found in Psalm 74:17; and, with regard to the boundaries of human settlement, cf. Deut 32:8.

(ii) Religion—simply put, “to seek God”, or (more literally) “to seek the God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n), i.e. the one true God. The theme of “seeking God” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), though here it corresponds to what we would call “natural religion” (and “natural revelation”); for an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. An interesting clause follows:

“if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”

The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For a use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. The statement concludes with the clause:

“and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”

On the existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw, cf. verse 24b above; here it indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. We find two somewhat parallel concepts in the New Testament: (a) of the kingdom of God (and salvation) ‘coming near’ (Lk 10:9, 11; 21:28, 30-31; Rom 13:11), and (b) of believers approaching or drawing near to God (James 4:8; Heb 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; Eph 2:13), but nothing quite like this statement in Acts (perhaps the nearest example being Paul’s citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8). It is a powerful theological expression, and one which would likely have appealed to Stoics and other educated Greeks in the audience.

(2) The Relation of God to Humankind (vv. 28-29)

Interestingly, instead of a citation from Scripture, here Paul quotes from a Greek poet (Aratus); the citation is in verse 28, with a brief exposition/application in verse 29. This section can be divided:

    • Theological statement (v. 28a)
    • Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)
    • Exposition/Application (v. 29)

Theological statement (v. 28a)—”for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. This triadic formula sounds like it could have been taken straight out of Greek philosophy, but, as of yet, no convincing specific parallel has been found. For a detailed argument that it derives from Epimenides of Crete, see K. Lake in The Beginnings of Christianity V, pp. 246-251 (Additional Note 19) and Dibelius, Studies pp. 48-51. Is there any special significance to the order of the verbs?—”we live” (zw=men) and “we are” (e)sme/n) would seem to be parallel expressions, life and being (existence), with the passive “we are moved” (kinou/meqa) set in between. The use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). The centrality of God with regard to life and being would be consistent both with the panentheistic philosophical context of the speech and the overall Christian message. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)—this is introduced “as some of the (verse-)makers according to you [i.e. your ‘poets’] have declared…” The citation is generally recognized as coming from the opening lines of the popular astronomical and meteorological treatise (in hexameter verse) Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.). A contemporary of Zeno, Aratus appears to have been influenced by early Stoic thought, as reflected in this his major surviving work. “Let us begin from Zeus…” (e)k Dio\$ a)rxw/mesqa), so opens the poem, telling how all things are “full” (mesto/$) of him—streets, marketplaces, seas and harbors—”and we all need Zeus” (de\ Dio\$ kexrh/meqa pa/nte$). This leads into the statement of line 5a:

tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men
“for we are of (his) lineage”

This is the portion Paul cites (tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen). The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is here drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding, a fact which has caused some difficulty for commentators (cf. below). For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26. According to ancient sources, Aratus was from Cilicia (possibly Tarsus), which increases the likelihood that the historic Paul would have been familiar with his work. The same line from Aratus was apparently used by Aristobulus (fragment 4), cf. Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel 13.12.3ff.

Exposition/Application (v. 29)—Paul builds upon this premise (“then being [the] lineage [ge/no$] of God…”), turning it into a (decisive) argument against idolatry (worship of God through images):

“(therefore) we ought not to regard the Deity [to\ qei=on] to be like gold or silver or stone (with the) cut-mark of man’s production and inspiration”

The substantive neuter adjective qei=on refers to God/Deity in the more general sense (used only here in the New Testament); it is another example of accommodation to the understanding of a (pagan) Greek audience. The argument against idols, however, is more squarely within Old Testament and Jewish tradition, e.g. Deut 4:28; Isa 40:18; 44:9-20; Wisdom 13:10; 14:7ff; 15:7-17; and note Acts 19:26. It is interesting the way this traditional Israelite/Jewish polemic identifies the pagan deities precisely with their images, even though no intelligent pagan would have believed that the deity was nothing more than the image itself. The purpose of this distortion was almost certainly to emphasize that the pagan deities did not really exist. Early Christian tradition, on the other hand, operating with the confines of Greco-Roman paganism, tended to take a different approach, regarding the deities as real (evil) spirits (i.e. “demons”). Though Paul occasionally echoes such belief (1 Cor 10:20-21), here, in the Areopagus speech, the Old Testament Prophetic view (that the pagan deities are nothing) is implied (cf. also 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19). The word xa/ragma refers to a “mark” cut into material (including impressing or branding); elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in the book of Revelation for the “mark of the beast”.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)

As with most of the prior speeches in Acts, this is an exhortation to repent (metanoei=n, “have a change of mind”); this is emphasized with a pair of contrasting clauses:

    • V. 30a—me\n (‘on the one hand…’): “God has overlooked the times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]”
    • V. 30b—nu\n now (‘on the other hand’), things (are thus): “he brings along a message to all men (in) all places to repent”

It may be helpful here to track the various instances of the knowledge/knowing motif in the speech:

    • “may we know…?” literally, “are we able to know [gnw=nai]…?”—request by the Athenians (v. 19)
    • “we wish to know [gnw=nai]…”—a more direct request (v. 20)
    • the altar ‘to an unknown [a)gw/stw|] god’ (v. 23a)
    • “what you worship, unknowing [a)gnoou=nte$], I announce to you…” (v. 23b)
    • this period of pagan worship as “times of unknowing [a)gnoi/a$]” (v. 30)

For the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) earlier in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27; on the idea of human’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21. Verse 30 here is a more precise statement of what was previously said by Paul in the short address at Lystra (14:15-17, v. 16); it also reflects the situation indicated in verse 27. The “overlooking” (u(peridw\n, vb. used only here in the NT) of the nations’ past ignorance (and idol-worship) is a sign of God’s patience and graciousness.

The exhortation (and with it, the speech) concludes dramatically with an announcement of God’s impending judgment. This is an important aspect of early Christian preaching, and it is worth highlighting each element in the verse here:

    • e&sthsen h(me/ran, “he has set (up) a day”—that is, a time when God (and/or his representative) will appear to bring judgment on the world; this is referred to in Scripture and tradition as the “day of the Lord (day of YHWH)”.
    • me/llei kri/nein, “he is about to judge”—this indicates the common (and widespread) Jewish and early-Christian view that end was near and God’s judgment imminent.
    • th\n oi)koumen/nh, “the occupied/inhabited (world)”—i.e., all people, nations, and civilizations, the entire world
    • e)n dikaiosu/nh|, “in justice”—or “with justice”, according to the justice/righteousness of God, and by which the ‘righteousness’ of human beings would be measured.
    • e)n a)ndri\, “in/by a man”—key ‘Western’ manuscripts (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus) in order to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding; some commentators continue to be troubled by the lack of a specific reference to Jesus, but note a somewhat similar use of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) for Jesus elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. above). There may also be an echo here of the Jewish/Semitic “Son of Man” concept and language, so familiar from the sayings of Jesus. The specific Greek expression indicates judgment in the presence of a (human) judge.
    • w!| w%risen, “whom he [i.e. God] has marked-out”—on earlier use of the verb o(ri/zw in this context (of God appointing/designating Jesus), see Acts 2:23; 10:42, the latter reference being very close overall to this verse.
    • pi/stin parasxw\n pa=sin, “holding alongside a trust for all (people)”—this is a different sense of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (where it means “faith/belief” in God and/or Christ); here it might be rendered as “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness.
    • a)nasth/sa$ au)to\n e)k nekrw=n, “causing him [i.e. Jesus] to stand up out of the dead”—this statement that God raised Jesus from the dead is, of course, a fundamental Christian tenet and component of Gospel preaching, appearing prominently in most of the prior speeches of Acts.

Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-34)

Verses 32-33 provide the main conclusion, with a two-fold reaction to the speech, similar to that in verse 18:

    • me\n (‘on the one hand’) some of the people joked/mocked (e)xleu/azon)
    • de\ (‘on the other hand’) some of the people said “(perhaps) we will hear you about this again”, indicating genuine interest or merely a polite refusal (as opposed to mocking)

The speech began with Paul standing “in the middle/midst of them” (v. 22), and now it concludes stating that he “went out of the middle/midst of them”, providing a precise frame to the speech within the narrative. A conclusion to the narrative itself is added in verse 34, which indicates that there was at least some positive response to Paul’s proclamation, and even a few converts (two of which, Dionysios and Damaris, are named).

For many of the references above, as well as other relevant citations from the Old Testament, Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, see Dibelius, Studies, pp. 26-77; Haenchen, Acts, pp. 517-26; Fitzmyer, Acts, pp. 603-13.

Additional Note—Any careful student or reader of the New Testament will likely have noticed a number of details in the Areopagus speech which are a bit unusual—in terms of language, style, and points of emphasis—when compared with the letters of Paul. Indeed, the speech contains several concepts and expressions which are virtually unique in the New Testament, having more in common, it would seem, with Greek philosophy (Stoic thought, in particular). This has led a good many critical commentators to question whether the historic Paul could have (or would have) spoken this way. Due to the sensitivity and difficulty of this question, I will be addressing it in a supplemental article.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 20: Acts 17:16-34

The “Areopagus Speech” of Acts 17:16-34 is the second major speech by Paul in Acts, and the only substantial speech in the book delivered to Gentiles outside of a Jewish (or Christian) context. As such it holds a special place, and is justly famous, though perhaps not nearly so many readers and students of the New Testament are as familiar with this remarkable text as they ought to be. In several important respects, the Areopagus speech is foreshadowed by Paul’s brief address in Acts 14:15-17; the points of comparison will be addressed below. In analyzing the speech, I will be using the same basic pattern and procedure I have adopted throughout this series.

Note: References below indicated by “Dibelius, Studies” are to M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of articles and lectures published in 1951 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen (English translation 1956 by SCM Press: London). Dibelius’ landmark study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939), pp. 26-77, which draws extensively upon the earlier work of E. Norden (Agnostos Theos [1913]), has been especially helpful in locating some of the more relevant references from Greco-Roman literature for background and comparison with details in the Acts narrative.
“Haenchen, Acts” refers to the classic critical commentary by E. Haenchen (English translation of the 14th German edition [1965] by Westminster Press, 1971).
“Fitzmyer, Acts” refers to the commentary by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible (AB) series, vol. 31 (1997).

The basic structure and outline of the speech is as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21, esp. vv. 19-20/21)
    • Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)
    • Central (Theological) Declaration (vv. 24-29), in two (or three) parts:
      • The nature of God (vv. 24-27)
        —God vs. Idols—Temple theme (vv. 24-25)
        —God as Creator (vv. 26-27)
      • Relation of God to humankind (vv. 28-29), with a citation (from Greek literature, v. 28) and application (v. 29)
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)
    • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-33 + 34)

Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21)

These verses present the basic narrative, as drawn from historical tradition.

Verse 16 picks up from the narrative in vv. 10-15, where Silas and Timothy are left behind in Berea and Paul has proceeded on ahead; he is in Athens, waiting for them, according to the text of v. 16. The famous city of Athens was at this time only a faint reflection of its glorious past, having decreased considerably in size and importance; however, it remained prestigious, especially as a symbol of intellectual thought, religion and philosophy. This is perhaps the reason why the episode here was given so much prominence by the author, despite the lack of immediate missionary success (vv. 32-34). From a literary (and missiological) standpoint, Athens was, in many respects, the ideal setting to introduce the Gospel as proclaimed to educated, pagan Gentiles.

parwcu/neto to\ pneu=ma au)tou= e)n au)tw=|—the compound verb parocu/nw means “bring along to a (sharp) point”, i.e. stir or provoke (to anger): “his breath/spirit in him was brought to a (sharp) point”; the verb occurs only once (1 Cor 13:5) elsewhere in the New Testament, with the related noun parocusmo/$ used in Heb 10:24 and Acts 15:39 (of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas).

katei/dwlo$—a compound (intensive) adjective, used only in Christian writings (and only here in the New Testament), indicating (with a bit of hyperbole) “completely (filled) with images”. On religious images (temples, altars, etc) in Athens, see the classical references in Pausanias I.17.1, Strabo 9.1.16, and Livy 45.27.

Verse 17—Mention is made of Paul’s usual missionary practice of attending local Synagogues, where he would have the opportunity to preach and teach to interested Jews and Gentile “God-fearers” (oi( fobou/menoi to\n qeo\n), cf. Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26; (sebo/menoi) 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7. To this is added discussion with pagan Greeks/Gentiles in the marketplace (a)go/ra).

diele/getokata\ pa=san h(me/ran pro\$ tou\$ paratugxa/nonta$, “he related throughout [i.e. discussed/disputed/argued]… according to each/every day toward [i.e. with] the (one)s he struck [i.e. happened to be] alongside”—in other words, every day, whether in the Syngaogue or Marketplace, Paul used every opportunity to speak with those he came across.

Verse 18—Mention is made of Epicureans and Stoics, representatives of two major philosophical branches (or “schools”) in ancient Greece. It is not clear whether v. 18b qualifies these two groups or whether four segments of the audience are indicated: (1) Epicureans, (2) Stoics, (3) those who are skeptical/mocking, (4) those curious about Paul’s religious ideas. It is certainly possible that the Epicureans are depicted as especially skeptical, while the Stoics would have more legitimate interest. There are definite parallels to Stoic ideas and expressions in the speech which follows (cf. below). Of all the philosophical “schools”, Stoicism probably had the most in common with Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are generally contemporaneous with the New Testament, skillfully combines Stoicism (and Platonism) with Jewish tradition and the text of Scripture.

sune/ballon au)tw|—the Epicureans and Stoics “cast/threw (things) together with him”, that is, they discussed and disputed with Paul, the verb sometimes indicating a heated (or hostile) argument.

spermolo/go$ (“seed-gatherer”)—this idiomatic expression characterizes the skeptical/mocking response to Paul (by the Epicureans?). Concretely, it refers to a bird picking up seeds from the ground, but could also be used as a more general reference to someone collecting junk or scraps. In an intellectual (and pejorative) sense, as here, it describes someone who gathers various ideas and teachings (as his own), but without really understanding them.

ce/nwn daimoni/wn dokei= kataggeleu\$ ei@nai, “he seems to be one bringing a message of foreign daimons“—this is the other response to Paul, more sympathetic (or at least curious), but without a clear understanding of what he was proclaiming. The word dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion), of uncertain etymology, originally referred to deities or “divine powers” in a general sense (similar to qeo/$ “god”), but gradually came to mean lesser (local) deities—in particular, the supernatural powers which were thought to be intimately connected with daily life. The fate and fortune (good or ill) experienced at the personal or family level—blessing and prosperity on the one hand, disease/death and misfortune on the other—were due to the influence of daimons. Along these lines, the idea of a personal protecting spirit (similar to a ‘guardian angel’) was relatively common. A uniquely intelligent, creative or charismatic person could also be seen as gifted and guided by a daimon (or “genius”, in the fundamental sense of the word). In the monotheistic environment of Judaism (and early Christianity), there was little place for the daimon concept, the term being used almost entirely in a negative sense, for evil or “fallen” celestial beings, unclean spirits (of disease, madness and possession), and so forth. This New Testament usage ultimately is passed down into English in the transliterated word “demon”. The reference here to “strange deities” is reminiscent of the charges brought against Socrates (Plato Apology 24B, Xenophon Memorabilia I.1.1, cf. also Josephus Against Apion II.267)—note below.

The response to Paul is glossed and explained by the author—Paul was proclaiming (“bringing the good message of”) Jesus and the Resurrection. It is possible that the Greek listeners understood a)na/stasi$ (anástasis, “standing up [again]”, i.e. resurrection) as a specific deity (“Anastasis/Resurrection”) along with Jesus.

Verse 19—Paul is taken to the Areopagus ( &Areio$ Pa/go$, “the fixed point [i.e. peak/hill] of Ares”, i.e. “Mars’ hill”), the famous hill NW of the acropolis. In earlier times, the ruling council of Athens would meet on the hill, but in Paul’s day, the council regularly met in the Agora (market-place) at the “Royal colonnade (Stoa\ Basi/leio$)”. In the narrative, it is not entirely clear whether “Areopagus” refers to the council meeting or to the ancient hill itself—the former appears to fit the narrative context better, but the latter is the more dramatic setting (especially if Paul is thought to be addressing a large crowd). It is possible that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) understood (or applied) the setting differently from earlier historical tradition.

e)pilabo/menoi, “taking (hold) upon him…”—the use of this verb could indicate that Paul is being taken into custody for a hearing (before the Council), cf. Lk 20:20, 26; Acts 16:19; 18:17; 21:30, 33, though it need not indicate anything more than that he was taken away to another location, perhaps implying a private setting (Lk 9:47; 14:4; 23:26; Acts 9:27; 23:19). “They led/brought him upon the ‘hill/peak of Ares'”—taken literally, this might mean “onto the hill”, but it could also mean “before the council” (cf. Acts 9:21; 16:9; 17:6; 18:12); some degree of force(fulness) is perhaps suggested by the use of a&gw (“lead [away]”). However, if Paul is being taken before the council, there is no indication of any (criminal) charge; it has been suggested that the Areopagus council served as an official “advisory board” for regulation of public instruction, etc., but this is far from clear, and by no means certain whether (or just how) it would apply to Paul’s situation.

duna/meqa gnw=nai, “are we able to know…?”—on one level this is simply a request by the Athenians (“may we know…”), but the author of Acts surely intends a play on words, i.e. “(how) are we able to know”? The question sets the stage for the introduction of the Gospel (to interested, educated pagans) in the speech which follows. It also establishes the key motif of the knowledge of God.

h( kainh\ au%th h( u(po\ sou= laloume/nh didaxh/, “(what is) this new teaching being spoken by you?”—the adjective kai/no$ (“new”) is parallel to “foreign/strange” (ce/no$) in verse 18, and both will appear again in the verses which follow. The emphasis is on how different and striking the message of the Gospel is within a (pagan) Greek context, compared with the Jewish/Synagogue setting.

Verse 20—”For you are carrying some (thing)s appearing as strange/foreign into our ears…”

ceni/zonta—from the verb ceni/zw (related to ce/no$, above); concretely it refers to one responding to a stranger (i.e. acting as host), but more abstractly means treating/regarding someone (or something) as foreign—that is, the Athenians regard Paul’s teaching and terminology as strange/foreign.

boulo/meqa ou@n gnw=nai, “we would wish to know”—repeating gnw=nai (“to know”) from v. 19, with the emphasis again on knowledge.

ti/na qe/lei tau=ta ei@nai, “(just) what these things wish/intend to be”—the Greek idiom is very different from English (we would say “…what these things mean“); to our ears it almost suggests that the subject of Paul’s discourse has a will and purpose of its own. For a similar use of this (classical) expression, see Acts 2:12.

Verse 21—Here the author interjects a proverbial reference to Athens (cf. Demosthenes Oration 4.10); note again the presence of the ce/no$/kai/no$ motif, referring to strangers (ce/noi) who join with native Athenians in their desire to hear or to speak of “some (especially) new thing” (ti kaino/teron). While this reference could suggest that Athenians are rather vain and fickle, the underlying message (from the larger narrative standpoint of Acts) is that Gentiles (even pagan Greeks) will ultimately be receptive to the new/strange message of the Gospel.

Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)

The use of the expression “standing in the midst/middle of…” (staqei\$e)n mesw|) elsewhere in Acts (1:15; 4:7; 27:21) strongly indicates that Paul is before the Athenian Council rather than in the middle of the clearing on top of “Mars’ hill” (cf. the ambiguity of the reference to the Areopagus, above). For similar use of the vocative address “Men…” (a&ndre$…), see numerous examples in the prior speeches (Acts 1:11, 16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7, 13). In the remainder of verse 22, Paul praises the Athenians (using a bit of irony and wordplay) for their apparently religious nature, with a practical observation in verse 23—providing an example which sets up the central declaration of the speech.

Verse 22b: “I see/consider [qewre/w] how according to [i.e. in] all things you have more ‘fear of daimons‘ [deisidaimoneste/rou$] (than others do)”

As indicated above, a dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion) in the Greco-Roman context is not a “demon”, but rather a lesser/local “divine power” or “deity” in the general sense; deisidaimoni/a means “fear of daimons”, cf. the component dei/dw (“to fear / I fear…”). In this respect, fear can be understood either in a proper and pious sense, or in an excessive and misplaced manner—the distinction, one might say, between religion and superstition (see also in Acts 25:29). On the surface, Paul praises their religion (in the positive sense), using a rhetorical technique known as captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good will”), complimentary language designed to gain the audience’s attention. From an early Christian perspective, of course, the (polytheistic/idolatrous) religion of the Athenians actually reflects the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the “vain/empty things” (14:15) from which people are to turn away.

Verse 23a: “(In) going through (the city) and looking again (carefully) at your seba/smata, I (even) found a step-platform [bwmo/$, i.e. altar] in which there was written upon (it) ‘to (an) unknown god’…”

A se/basma (sébasma) is an object or work of (religious) fear and awe, i.e. of worship and veneration (cf. on the related verb se/bomai above). Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in 2 Thess 2:4 (note also the verb seba/zomai in Rom 1:25). It may refer to a specific object (i.e. idol/image), cultic action (sacrificial offering) or space (temple/altar), or even to the genuine object of worship (the deity or deities) behind the ritual and material elements. Here Paul uses it in the basic sense of the temples and altars in Athens.

The expression “to (an) unknown god” (a)gnw/stw| qew=|) is perhaps the best-known detail in the entire narrative, but, in some ways, it is among the most difficult to interpret. It needs to be examined on three different levels: (a) the historical background, (b) the context of the narrative, and (c) the way Paul (and/or the author) makes use of it.

(a) The historical background—Based on what is known from classical (and early Christian) sources, there are several relevant strands of tradition upon which the narrative may be drawing. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece I.1.4, mention is made of altars “of gods.. named unknown” (qew=n.. o)nomazome/nwn a)gnw/stwn) among those standing on the way to Athens. Pausanias refers to a similar altar “of unknown gods” (a)gnw/stwn qew=n) at Olympia (V.14.8), and Philostratus in the Life of Apollonius VI.3.5 mentions altars “of unknown divine-powers” (a)gnw/stwn daimo/nwn) in Athens. Note the following possible aspects of such references:

(i) Instances where the particular deity, to whom the altar had been dedicated, was not known; there may not have been an inscription originally. This is indicated by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Philosophers I.110 (a story involving Epimenides of Crete), and is probably the best way of reading Pausanias’ reference in I.1.4.
(ii) Altars dedicated to foreign deities; this appears to be the understanding of certain early Christian commentators such as Tertullian (To the Nations II.9, cf. also Against Marcion I.9) and Jerome (Commentary on Titus, 1.12).
(iii) Altars dedicated to ‘unknown’ powers, in the sense of being hidden and mysterious, or, perhaps, which people were unable (or unwilling) to name. There is something of this idea in the story Diogenes Laertius tells (I.110).

(b) The context of the narrative—The narrative in Acts is perhaps best understood according to aspect (iii) above. The author (and/or his underlying tradition) seems to be drawing upon the idea of the large number of altars in Athens, and here we do well to regard the deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians (Acts 17:22) in the full sense of this expression—i.e. they were concerned to provide altars even for strange and unknown deities, lest they offend any divine power unnecessarily. Such religious psychology underlies the context of Apollonius’ advice to Timasion in the account by Philostratus (VI.3.5, mentioned above). It also reflects a basic “superstition”—and ignorance of the true nature of God—which is central to the message in Paul’s speech.

(c) Its use in the narrative—With some clever and ironic wordplay, Paul shifts the meaning of “an unknown deity” (in one of the three senses indicated above) to “the unknown God”. This can be interpreted several ways:

    1. The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
    2. The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
    3. The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (i), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (iii), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (ii):

Verse 23b: “Therefore, the (one) whom you show good fear/veneration [i.e. worship], not knowing [a)gnoou=nte$], this (one) I bring down in a message [i.e. announce/declare] to you”

Again we see the motif of knowledge:

“to an unknown god” = “worshipping (God) without knowledge”

This will be emphasized again in verse 30 with the expression “times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]” that characterizes all of Greco-Roman religious history prior to the introduction of the Gospel. Indeed, it is the knowledge of God that is the central theme of the speech, a point brought home clearly (and immediately) in the central theological declaration that follows in verse 24, and which begins emphatically with o( qeo\$… (“The God…”), i.e. the true God.

This declaration (vv. 24-29) will be examined in the continuation of this study in Part 21.

The Speeches of Acts, Part 19: Acts 15:6-21 (continued)

In Part 18, I looked at the first twelve verses of chapter 15 which comprise the first half of the main section of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” narrative. Here is an outline for the chapter as a whole:

    • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
      Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
      Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
      Transition (v. 12)
      Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
    • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
      The Letter (vv. 22-29)
      Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Verse 12 is transitional between the twin speeches of Peter and James, concluding the one and leading into the next. The two speeches are thus closely connected—two parts of a single message—and within the literary context of the book of Acts it truly represents a transitional point: Peter’s speech looks back toward the Cornelius episode and the early apostolic mission, while James’ looks ahead to the wider mission to the Gentile world. Unlike Peter’s speech, that of James more closely follows the sermon-speech pattern found in the earlier speeches of Acts:

    • Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)
    • Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21), with implicit exposition/application of the Scripture
    • Narrative Conclusion (v. 22), leading directly into the Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)

Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)

There are two elements in this verse, related to the response of the assembled believers (pa=n to\ plh=qo$, “all the full [crowd]”, i.e. the number of those present/involved):

    1. It (sg., the crowd) became silent (e)si/ghsen)—Peter’s words effectively put an end to the (immediate) dispute, cf. a similar reaction in 11:18.
    2. They (pl.) heard (h&kouon)—the people listened to the account of Barnabas and Paul (v. 12b)

It is interesting that the author does include any of Paul and Barnabas’ actual words; from the standpoint of the overall narrative, this of course would not be necessary, since the reader/hearer of the book would already be familiar with the events of chapters 13-14. It is also possible that the author was unaware of precisely what was said, and/or simply chose not to include it for other reasons. The simple statement in v. 12b is effective, however, and quietly serves the purpose of connecting the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas with the miraculous work of God in the Cornelius episode (vv. 7-9).

Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)

The opening of verse 13 (“and with/after their having kept silent…”), following upon the notice in v. 12a, may be an indication of editorial joining of separate traditions, or as a literary device to bring together the two speeches. James uses a vocative address (“Men, brothers…”, a&ndre$ a)delfoi/) familiar from earlier speeches (Acts 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7). The imperative “hear (me)!” (a)kou/sate) also occurs in the prior speeches (2:22; 7:2; 13:16; 22:1); on the importance of hearing (i.e. listening/understanding) in relation to the Gospel witness, etc., see the frequent use of the verb in this context in 1:4; 2:6, 8, 11, 33, 37; 3:22-23; 4:4, 19-20; 8:6; 9:21; 10:22, 33, 44; 11:18; 13:7, 44, 48; 14:9; 15:7, 12 and throughout the book.

In verse 14, James confirms (and re-affirms) Peter’s message regarding the earlier conversion of the Gentiles (in the Cornelius episode):

Shim±ôn [Simeon, i.e. Peter] has brought out [i.e. explained] even as at (the) first (how) God looked (closely) upon (them) to take out of [i.e. from] the nations a people (for/unto) his Name”

The use of the adverb prw=ton (“at [the] first”) clearly relates to Peter’s use of the phrase a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn (“from [the] beginning days”) in verse 7. The use of these expressions in reference to fairly recent events is perhaps a bit unusual, but the basic idea seems to be that from the very beginning of the Christian mission, and with such purpose and intention, God has included Gentiles among those who would come to believe. The meaning is thus twofold: (1) temporal (from the very start), and (2) in terms of importance (a primary, leading purpose). In this light, it is most significant the way that James uses vocabulary and expressions, normally applied specifically to Israel, in reference to Gentile believers:

These themes continue on in the Scripture citation (from Amos 9:11-12) which follows.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)

James cites Amos 9:11-12, in a form which generally corresponds with the Greek (LXX) version; this is noteworthy, since it has several significant differences from the Hebrew (MT) version, differences which are actually essential to the interpretation and application given to the passage here.  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. For more on this, see the supplemental articles on critical questions related to Acts 15.

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.

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. Note how Paul treats Hosea 1:10; 2:3 in a similar manner in Romans 9:25-27.

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)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21)
and Narrative Conclusion (v. 22ff)

James concludes his speech with an authoritative determination, confirming Peter’s message and effectively affirming the missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas among Gentiles—

V. 19: “Therefore I judge (we/you are) not to crowd in alongside the (one)s from the nations turning upon God…”

that is, Jewish believers are not to cause (extra) trouble for Gentile converts by demanding (or expecting) that they should be circumcised and observe fully the Law of Moses (v. 1, 5). This, indeed, seems to accord with the “Law-free” Gospel proclaimed by Paul (esp. in Galatians), and is now so familiar (if perhaps somewhat misunderstood) by non-Jewish believers today that what follows from James in vv. 20-21 could come as a bit of a surprise: “…but we set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from…”, citing four specific prohibitions (requirements) derived, it would seem, from the Law (apparently from Lev 17-18). These four legal requirements are indicated in the letter which follows (vv. 22-29). The nature and historical context of this resolution continues 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, and their precise meaning and significance is, to some extent, lost to us today. However, they are important for a proper understanding of the passage, and, as such, I have discussed them in more detail in the article on Acts 15 in my series on “The Law and the New Testament” and in a supplemental note.

* * * * * *

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?

The Speeches of Acts, Part 18: Acts 15:6-21

In this article, I will be discussing the pair of Speeches (by Peter and James) which are set together in the narrative of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15. This episode is central to the overall narrative of Acts, occurring virtually at the mid-point of the book, though I prefer to regard it as the culminating (and climactic) episode of the first half (chapters 1-15). Here is how I would outline the first half of the book:

  • Introduction—the Disciples with Jesus (Acts 1:1-11)
  • The Believers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-8:3)
    Acts 1:12-26: The reconstitution of the Twelve, with a speech by Peter
    Acts 2:1-47: The Pentecost narrative (the coming of the Spirit), with a speech by Peter
    Acts 3:1-4:31: The healing miracle and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches by Peter and a prayer
    Acts 4:32-5:11: Conflict among the Believers—Ananias/Sapphira
    Acts 5:12-42: Miracle(s) and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches (by Peter and Gamaliel)
    Acts 6:1-7: Conflict among the Believers—the appointment of the Seven (incl. Stephen and Philip)
    Acts 6:8-8:3: The Stephen narrative, with a major speech, concluding with onset of persecution
  • The Early Mission outside of Jerusalem (Acts 8:4-12:25)
    Acts 8:4-40: Two episodes involving Philip (in Samaria and on the road to Gaza), along with an episode of the Apostles in Samaria (Peter and Simon Magus)
    Acts 9:1-31: The Conversion and early Ministry of Saul Paulus (Paul) (around Damascus)
    Acts 9:32-43: Two episodes (healing miracles) involving Peter (in Lydda/Sharon and Joppa)
    Acts 10:1-11:18: Peter and Cornelius (in Caesarea): first outreach to Gentiles, with two speeches by Peter
    Acts 11:19-30: Introduction to the Church in Antioch
    Acts 12:1-25: The arrest (and miraculous release) of Peter, followed by the death of Herod Agrippa
  • Paul’s (First) Mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-15:35)
    The sequence of the mission (Acts 13-14): (a) Departure from Antioch (13:1-3); (b) On Cyprus (13:4-12); (c) In Pisidian Antioch, with a major sermon-speech (13:13-52); (d) At Iconium (14:1-7); (e) At Lystra, including a short speech (14:8-20); (f) The Return to Syrian Antioch (14:21-28)
    Acts 15:1-35: The Jerusalem Council—The Reaction/Response to Paul’s Mission

I would further outline Acts 15:1-35 as follows:

  • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
    Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
    Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
    Transition (v. 12)
    Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
  • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
    The Letter (vv. 22-29)
    Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

There are major longstanding (and much debated) critical issues associated with Acts 15, involving: the historical background, chronology, the blending of separate traditions, the authenticity of the speeches (and the letter), the relationship to Paul’s account in Galatians 2, and so forth. I am dealing with the historical background and questions related to the Torah as part of my current series on “The Law and the New Testament”; several of the critical difficulties will be treated, to some extent, in a supplemental article. Here I am limiting discussion to the speeches in 15:6-21, though in so doing I will touch upon several of the critical points.

Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)

These verses provide a narrative summary of events leading to the meeting in Jerusalem. The ‘Western’ text typically shows significant expansion and other differences (indicated below) compared with the Alexandrian/Majority text—most scholars today would regard these as secondary expansions, but it is possible that they reflect authentic tradition.

Verse 1: This states the conflict—”some coming down from Judea taught the brothers that ‘if you are not circumcised in the customary way of Moses [i.e. according to the Law of Moses], you are not able to be saved'”

    • Western MSS specify the people from Judea as being believers (“ones having trusted”) from the Pharisees (cf. verse 5); other MSS (including D) read “and walk [kaiperipathte] in the customary way of Moses”, indicating that they believed it necessary for Gentile converts to observe the Torah completely.

Verse 2: The controversy is stated simply—”and (as there was) coming to be no little standing (up) and searching [i.e. uproar/commotion and dispute] toward them for Paul and Barnabas…”; it follows that “they [i.e. the congregation of Antioch] set/appointed Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them to step up into Jerusalem, toward the apostles and elders, about this searching [i.e. dispute]”
Note the differences in the Western text (italicized), in the context of more conventional translation:
“And Paul and Barnabas had no small confrontation and dispute with them, for Paul told them [i.e. Gentile converts] strongly to remain just as (they were when) they came to believe; but the ones coming from Jerusalem gave the message to [i.e. ordered] them, Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, to go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, so as to be judged before them [i.e. before the apostles and elders] about this question”
The Western version presents a somewhat different picture, emphasizing the role and authority of the Jerusalem church.

Verse 3: This verse narrates the journey of Paul and Barnabas (and the others), mentioning their travel through Samaria. Two points are emphasized especially: (1) that they were sent forth by (lit. “under”) the congregation [e)kklhsia] (of Antioch), and (2) along they way they explained (lit. “led out thoroughly”) the conversion of the Gentiles, which brought great joy to the other believers.

Verse 4: The arrival in Jerusalem—”and coming to be along in(to) Jerusalem, they were received along (Western MSS add ‘greatly’) from [i.e. by] the congregation [e)kklhsia] and the apostles and the elders, (and) they gave the message (again) as many (thing)s as [i.e. all of the things] God did with them”.

Verse 5: This summarizes the opening of debate, along the conflict lines established in verse 1 (note the similarity here to the Western text of v. 1). Certain men from the Pharisees (who had come to believe in Jesus) “stood up”, saying that “it was necessary for them [i.e. Gentile converts] to be circumcised and (also for them) to keep the law of Moses”. Western MSS (including D) identify these Pharisees with “the ones who gave the message [i.e. ordered] them [i.e. Paul and Barnabas] to go up to the elders”, according to the Western text of verse 2.

Verse 6: This describes the meeting proper—”The apostles and elders (Western MSS add ‘ with the full [congregation]’) were brought together to see about this word/account [i.e. this particular subject or issue]”.

The question clearly had to do with whether Gentile converts were (or should be) required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). The principal issue, in terms of Jewish identity, of course, was circumcision—but this reflected the wider point of dispute regarding Torah observance. The controversy itself suggests that the early (Jewish) Christians observed the Law faithfully (cf. Acts 10:13-14, 28; 11:1-3, 8; 21:20-26), and would have expected other Christians to do the same. The conversion of Gentiles created an understandable religious difficulty (addressed in the Cornelius episode of chaps. 10-11). The debates must have been fierce—the author of Acts does not express this in any real detail, taking care to present a more harmonious overall picture of the Church. The disputes themselves in chapter 15 are hardly described at all, being mentioned only to set the narrative, by way of introductory participial clauses:

    • genome/nh$ de\ sta/sew$ kai\ ou)k o)li/gh$… (“and [there] having come to be no little standing [up] and searching [i.e. debate/dispute]…”), v. 2a—this leads into the appointment of Paul and Barnabas (and others) to go to Jerusalem.
    • pollh=$ de\ zhth/sew$ genome/n$… (“and [there] having come to be much searching [i.e. debate/dispute]…”) v. 7a—this leads into the speech by Peter.

Speech by Peter (15:7-11):
Introductory Address (v. 7)

The participial opening clause of 7a is followed by Peter’s response (“standing up Peter said toward them…”); this “standing up” (a)nasta/$) by Peter in response to the disputing (zhthsi$) may be seen as parallel to the “standing” (sta/si$, i.e. commotion, dissension, uproar) which accompanies the disputing (zhthsi$) in verse 2. Ultimately, Peter’s speech silences the commotion (verse 12). He begins with a vocative address (a&ndre$ a)delfoi/, “Men, brothers…”) used elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:16, 26, 38). Notes on each phrase follow in turn:

u(mei=$ e)pi/stasqe o%ti, “you (may) stand (your mind) upon [i.e. understand] that”—i.e., “you know/understand that…”, for a similar address, cf. Acts 10:28; 19:25; 20:18.

a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn, “from beginning/leading days”—this expression normally would mean “from days (long) ago”, which is a bit unusual in context here, since the events to which Peter is referring (the Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11) cannot have taken place all that long ago; however, it may be have a rhetorical or literary usage here, to emphasize that it took place at the very beginning (and in a central/leading position) of the Gospel proclamation (see a similar play on words in 11:15).

e)n u(mi=n, “in/among you”—this is connected with what follows (“God gathered out [from] among us”); there should probably be understood here also a subtle emphasis on Jewish identity, cf. the reference to “the ones fearing God [i.e. Gentile ‘Godfearers’] among you [e)n u(mi=n]” in Paul’s speech, 13:26).

e)cele/cato o( qeo\$ “God gathered (me) out from”—the verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “choose, select”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ (“[one] gathered out, chosen, ‘elect’), may be used (a) of disciples and believers chosen by Christ (and/or God), Lk 6:13; 18:7; Jn 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Acts 1:2, 24; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Rom 8:33; Eph 1:4; James 2:5; 1 Pet 2:9 etc; (b) Israel and the Fathers chosen by God, Acts 13:17; (c) Jesus as the Elect/Chosen One, Lk 9:35; 23:35; 1 Pet 2:4, 6; (d) believers chosen for a special mission or duty, Acts 6:5; 15:22, 25. The specific Greek expression (with the preposition e)n “in/among”) can be found in the LXX (1 Sam 16:10; 1 Kings 8:16, 44; 11:32, etc). The noun e)kklhsi/a, customarily rendered “congregation, church” is derived from a verb with a similar basic meaning, e)kkale/w (“call out”), which is used only rarely in the LXX (not in a religious sense) and never in the NT.

dia\ tou= sto/mato/$ mou, “through my mouth”—on this idiom, often used in the sense of the revelation (by the Prophets, etc) in Scripture, cf. Lk 1:70; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25; for the apostolic witness (preaching/proclamation) taking place through “(opening) the mouth”, see also Acts 8:35; 10:34; 18:14.

a)kou=sai ta\ e&qnhkai\ pisteu=sai, “(for) the nations to hear… and trust”—hearing and trusting (i.e. “believe, have faith”) are commonly associated with the Gospel proclamation and conversion throughout Acts (and elsewhere in the New Testament); the emphasis on the Gentiles (“the nations”) is clear, especially in the context of the current controversy (cf. Acts 10:45; 11:1, 18; 13:46-48; 14:27; 15:3).

to\n lo/gon tou= eu)aggeli/ou, “the word/account of the good message [i.e. Gospel]”—this seems to be a combination of two separate, but related, expressions used throughout Acts: (a) “the word/account of God” (or “…of the Lord)”, Acts 4:31; 6:7; 8:25; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, et al, and (b) “the good message” (“good news”/Gospel), Acts 20:24, also 8:12, 35; 10:36; 13:32, etc. See also the related expressions in Acts 5:20; 13:26; 16:17.

Central Narration: Citation from Recent History (vv. 8-9)

The sermon-speech pattern for many of the prior speeches in Acts includes a central citation from Scripture (see the speech of James, below); here, the citation consists instead of a narration of recent events, similar to that in 11:1-18 (for the notes on this earlier speech by Peter, cf. Part 14). The narration in chapter 11 is much more extensive, here it is limited to a pair of concise statements:

    • “And the heart-knowing God witnessed to them, giving the holy Spirit, even as he did to us” (v. 8)
    • “and he judged/separated through [die/krinen] nothing between us and them, cleansing their hearts by/in trust” (v. 9)

It is also possible to discern a chiastic structure:

    • God who knows (all) hearts—witness
      • giving the holy Spirit
        • to them just as (also) to us
        • no separation between us and them
      • cleansing (i.e. making holy)
    • Their hearts (in response to God)—trust/faith

For an interesting association between the Holy Spirit and cleansing, see the rare (but notable) textual variant in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:2). For the descriptive epithet “heart-knowing” (kardiognw/sth$) applied to God, see its use earlier (by Peter) in Acts 1:24; cf. also 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:9; Jer 11:20; 17:10.

The first half of Peter’s statement (verse 8) summarizes Acts 10:44-48 (also 11:15ff). In the second half (verse 9), Peter comments on the events described in v. 8, explaining them, much as one might expound and apply a Scripture passage (as in sermon-speech pattern). Two actions of God are mentioned, indicated by the verbs:

  • diakri/nw—this is an intensive compound form of kri/nw (“to separate, judge”, sometimes with the nuance of “make distinction, discriminate”), the idea here being that God does not make any distinction between Jew and Gentile. See the careful use of this verb in chapter 10-11 (10:20; 11:2, 12), with clever wordplay covering its various shades of meaning. Note also in this regard Peter’s reference to God in 10:34 as one who is not a “taker/receiver of faces” (proswpolh/pth$), a Semitic idiom (“to raise/lift the face”), which in a judicial context often carries the meaning of showing favoritism or partiality in rendering judgment. The message is that God shows no preference or partiality—in God’s eyes, and in Christ, Jews and Gentiles are on an equal footing (see Paul’s famous declaration in Galatians 3:28f).
  • kaqari/zw (“cleanse, make clean”)—the only other use of this verb in Acts, also occurs in chapters 10-11, from the heavenly voice in Peter’s vision (10:15; 11:9): “that which God has made clean, you must not treat as common”. The voice tells Peter that God has made/declared clean all animals (i.e. all food, related to the dietary laws), but with the deeper meaning as well that all people (Jews and Gentiles both) are clean (from a ritual standpoint), and may be cleansed (from a spiritual standpoint). There is certainly also a reference to baptism, involving the forgiveness of sin, though this is usually understood in terms of release/freedom rather than cleansing. However, the association of the Holy Spirit and baptism with water and fire—both are agents and images of purification—is longstanding in Christian tradition, going back to the early Gospel tradition (Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16, cf. Acts 1:5; 11:16). It is interesting to note that in Acts 10-11, the Holy Spirit is manifest (baptism by the Spirit) prior to baptism with water (10:44-46; 11:15-16). The question is whether the Gentiles should be allowed to be baptized as fellow Christians (with water), 10:47; 11:17—in other words, God has already chosen to accept and baptize them (with the Spirit), now it is up to other (Jewish) Christians, whether or not to accept them. Peter, by his use of the verb kwlu/w (“cut off, prevent, hinder”) in 10:47 and 11:17, equates preventing Gentiles from being baptized (“cutting off water”) with opposing (trying to “cut off”) God.

Syntactically, the verbs in verse 9 form a parallel with the two in verse 8:

    • e)martu/rhsen, aorist active indicative, positive—”he witnessed” (to them [i.e. Gentiles])
      • dou/$ (participle)—”giving” (the holy Spirit)
    • die/krinen, aorist active indicative, negative—”he judged/separated” (nothing between [Jews and Gentiles])
      • kaqari/sa$ (participle)—”making clean” (their hearts)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 10-11)

This also is comprised of a pair of statements—one negative (regarding the Law), one positive (regarding favor/grace):

V. 10—”Now, therefore, (for) what [i.e. why] do test God to set a yoke upon the neck of the(se) learners [i.e. disciples] which neither our Fathers nor we had strength to carry?”
V. 11—”but through the favor of the Lord Yeshua we trust to be saved, according to the (same) way as those also (do)”

There is something of a ‘Pauline’ ring to this—trust (faith) and favor (grace) juxtaposed with observance of (i.e., works of) the Law. For a statement similar to that in verse 11, see Eph 2:5, 8; cf. also Rom 3:24; 5:2, 15ff; 6:14-15; 11:6; Gal 2:21; 2 Thess 1:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 2:11, etc. The statement in verse 10 sounds very unusual (from a Jewish-Christian perspective); in Jewish tradition, the Law is sometimes referred to as a “yoke”, but in a positive sense (m. Abot 3:5), as part of the covenant that binds the people of Israel to God (cf. also in relation to Jesus’ teaching, Matt 11:29-30). Some critical scholars have questioned whether the historical Peter would have made such as statement as we find here (on this point, see further below at this end of this article). Paul does once refer (in a rhetorical flourish) to the the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1); for similar thought along these lines, see Acts 13:38-39; Gal 2:16; Rom 2:25-27.

Narrative Conclusion (v. 12)

In response to Peter’s speech, the full assembly is silent (the same result we see in 11:18). This means that the dispute effectively came to an end; whether or not this entirely resolved matters (at the historical level), there can be no doubt that, from the standpoint of the author of Acts, Peter’s message (with the declaration in verses 10-11) is to be regarded as decisive, waiting only to be confirmed by the words of James which follows. It is the speech of James (Acts 15:13-21) which will be discussed in detail in the conclusion of this article (in Part 19 of this series).

The Law in Luke-Acts: The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15

As a supplemental study to the article “The Law in the Book of Acts”, part 2 (in the series “The Law and the New Testament”), I will here discuss, in summary fashion, a number of key critical questions surrounding the “Jerusalem Council” narrative in Acts 15. Hundreds of pages could be (and have been) written on these questions; here it will not be possible to treat them thoroughly, but to outline the issues involved and provide some helpful observations for further study. The main questions are:

    1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?
    2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?
    3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?
    4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?

This is a longstanding critical and interpretive question, which is connected with the date of Paul’s letter and the general location of the Galatian believers to whom it is addressed. “Galatia” may refer to: (a) the territory of the kingdom of Galatia, (b) the Roman province of Galatia (including portions of Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia to the south), or (c) areas where Galatian (Celtic) language is spoken (including portions of Phrygia & Lycaonia). The older Galatian territory (centered on the cities of Ancyra, Pessinus and Tavium) was considerably north of the sites (in Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia) visited by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). In the second and third journeys, Paul and his companions are said to have traveled “through Phrygia and Galatian territory” (16:6) and “through Galatian territory and Phrygia” (18:23). The reference in 16:6 would imply territory north of the cities visited in Acts 13-14, though there is no indication they went as far east as Ancyra; a northwestern journey, along the Asian-Galatian boundary, is described, ending at Mysia and the NW coastline (Troas). The same general region is presumably meant in 18:23, but here it may include the southern Lycaonian and Phrygian area visited in the earlier journeys.

The main issue is whether “Galatia” in the epistle includes the cities evangelized by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (South Galatian option), or is limited to territory further north (though likely not as far north as Ancyra). The majority of scholars today (including most critical commentators) favor the North Galatian option. However, the South Galatian option, made popular especially by the archeological work and writings of W. M. Ramsay at the end of the 19th century, continues to be preferred by a good number of more traditional-conservative commentators, as it allows for easier harmonization of the narratives in Acts 15 and Gal 2 (see below). For a good modern defense of this position, see e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (NIGTC) (Paternoster Press / Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 3-18, 43-56.

There are important similarities and differences between Acts 15 and Galatians 2. The main similarities:

    • Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem for the express purpose of explaining/defending the missionary approach taken with regard to Gentiles (Acts 15:1-3f, 12; Gal 2:1-2)
    • A key point of contention involves circumcision, and whether Gentile converts should be compelled to be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 5; Gal 2:3)
    • Paul and Barnabas meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including Peter and James (Acts 15:4, 6, 7ff, 13ff; Gal 2:2, 6-9)
    • Other Jewish believers present argue that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law (Acts 15:5; Gal 2:4-5)
    • The leaders of the Jerusalem church accept the missionary approach taken by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:7ff, 22, 25-26; Gal 2:7-9)

The main differences:

    • In Galatians (2:2), Paul says he went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), where as in Acts (15:2) Paul and Barnabas were appointed and sent by the church in Antioch
    • There is no mention in Acts of Titus (Gal 2:1, 3)
    • In Galatians (2:2), Paul meets with the Jerusalem leaders privately (kat’ i)di/an), while in Acts the meeting seems to be in front of the full assembly (15:4, 6, 12, 22)
    • In Acts, the basic outcome of the meeting is an authoritative decision on what is (and is not) required by Gentile converts; in Galatians, it has more to do with the missionary status of Paul and Barnabas (2:7-9) (but note also Acts 15:25-26)
    • In the Acts account, Paul and Barnabas, on their return, deliver the decision of the council to Gentile believers, accompanied by rejoicing and the restoration of peace (15:22, 30-31; 16:4); there is no suggestion of any of this in Galatians

Most of these differences are easy enough to explain as a product of the different (autobiographical and rhetorical) purpose and style of Paul’s account; indeed, most scholars would accept that the two accounts describe the same basic event. More significant, I would say, is the very different tone that characterizes the two accounts—Acts 15 shows a peaceful (and decisive) resolution to the question, accompanied by powerful speeches by Peter and James and an authoritative letter sent from the council to all Gentile believers (willingly delivered by Paul and Barnabas themselves). This harmonious picture contrasts notably with the presentation and argument in Galatians. How could the serious and controversial incident Paul describes in Gal 2:11-14—involving both Barnabas and Peter and “men from James”—have taken place so soon (apparently) after the decisions of the Council in Acts 15? Indeed, how is one to explain the fierce conflict between Paul and other Jewish Christians over the question of the Law and circumcision that pervades throughout Galatians, if things were as harmonious as the conclusion of Acts 15 suggests? A controversy between Paul and Barnabas is recorded in Acts 15:36ff, but it apparently has nothing to do with the Jewish-Gentile question in Gal 2. A solution is at hand in the South Galatian theory (above)—identifying the Galatians of the epistle with the territory (in Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia) evangelized in the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14); this allows for the epistle to have been written prior to the Jerusalem council (the Jerusalem visit of Gal 2:1-10 usually equated with the one mentioned [barely] in 11:30).

While I think that the South Galatian theory is generally plausible, I see no compelling reason to consider Galatians as having been written before the Jerusalem Council. There are enough similarities in content and style between Galatians and Romans & 2 Corinthians, to suggest a comparable time-frame for composition. I find a date sometime during (or after) the second missionary journey as more likely (cf. Acts 16:6). Even so, is it possible that the events narrated in Gal 2:1-14 (if not the letter itself) took place prior to the council? The reference to “certain (men) from James” (v. 12) might correspond with what James indicates in the letter (15:24). Paul offers no indication as to exactly when this all took place; though the context perhaps suggests a time not too far removed from the composition of the letter. This question will be taken up again further below.

2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?

There are four components to the narrative in Acts 15:1-35:

    • The basic narrative surrounding the “Council” (vv. 1-6, 12), centered on the question of whether Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to observe the Law—little if any detail is provided of the actual debates and discussion which took place, but is summarized simply in vv. 6, 12.
    • The speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-11, 13-21), with the narrative transition/join of verse 12.
    • The Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—somewhat surprisingly, circumcision is not specifically addressed; rather, emphasis is placed on four religious restrictions which Gentile believers are required to observe (also stated in vv. 20-21).
    • The narrative summary in vv. 30-35, which only briefly mentions delivery of the letter (vv. 30-31, cf. also 16:4).

A standard critical approach recognizes two historical traditions at work: (1) a tradition of the meeting held in Jerusalem to address the Gentile question (but perhaps with little detail of the meeting itself available to the author), and (2) a letter addressed to Gentile believers (from the ‘Council’). Many scholars would doubt the authenticity of the speeches by Peter and James in vv. 7-21, viewing them (along with the speeches in Acts as a whole) primarily as the work of the author himself (trad. Luke). On the question of the authenticity of the letter and speeches, cf. below.

An interesting theory would separate the traditions of the meeting and the letter, at the historical level, with the letter seen as having been written on a subsequent occasion (and for a somewhat different purpose). The author of Acts has combined/conflated the traditions, making it appear as though they took place at the same time. This critical theory has the advantage also of harmonizing Acts 15 and Gal 2, at least in part; the chronology might be taken as follows:

    • The Jerusalem meeting, on the question of the acceptance of Gentile converts, and whether they must be circumcised (and observe the Law)—Gal 2:1-9; Acts 15:1-6, 12. The missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas was accepted, i.e. Gentile converts were not required to observe the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:10-11, 19, 28).
    • The incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) demonstrated the difficulty involved with Jews and Gentiles relating with one another—some Jewish Christians apparently were willing to adopt Gentile customs, others opposed this. Paul attributes the problem to the presence and influence of “men from James” (Gal 2:12, cf. Acts 15:24).
    • Eventually a letter was drawn up—from James and the Jerusalem church—and sent to Gentile believers in the area surrounding Antioch. Gentile Christians are required to observe certain restrictions (related to pagan cultural and religious practice) which would be especially offensive to Jews. On these restrictions, I have devoted a short series of notes to them.

The main difficulty with such a reconstruction is that it more or less ignores the overall narrative as composed in Acts 15. The substance of the letter is already indicated in James’ speech (vv. 19-21), which, in turn, is presented as taking place at the same time as Peter’s speech during the Jerusalem meeting (cf. the join in v. 12f). Moreover, Acts 15:22, 30-31 shows Paul specifically delivering the letter in Antioch, and even farther afield (16:4). The historicity of this particular detail has been seriously questioned by scholars, since Paul makes no mention at all of the letter (or the Jerusalem decree itself) in any of his epistles, neither in Galatians nor in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (on the issue of food which has been sacrificed to idols). Even in Acts 21:25, James seems to present to Paul the restrictions in the letter as though they would be something new and unfamiliar to him. And yet, if Paul was indeed unfamiliar with the letter, then the notice in 15:30-31 and 16:4 would have to be factually wrong (or at least highly misleading)—other believers may have delivered the letter (to Antioch and elsewhere), but not Paul. On the other hand, if the letter had been made known widely in the area around Antioch, how could Paul have not known about it? More to the point, would the Paul who wrote Galatians and Romans even have accepted the decision with the legal-religious restrictions placed on Gentile believers? If he regarded them as valid and authoritative, why does he not bring them up in 1 Cor 8-10, where they would have been directly on point? There is no easy answer or solution to these difficulties.

3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?

This has already been discussed in the section prior, but it may be useful to look more closely at how the letter functions within the narrative as we have it. Certain key details should be noted:

    • It follows directly upon the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-21), and, as such, provides an authoritative formulation of their decision and resolution of the conflict narrated in vv. 1-6.
    • It is the product of the entire assembly as well as the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-23, 25, 28).
    • It provides sanction for the ministry of Paul and Barnabas—in the wake of the conflict at Antioch regarding Gentile believers and the Law, Paul and Barnabas journey to Jerusalem where they meet with the apostles, elders and the entire assembly; after this, they return to Antioch with an official resolution of the controversy (via the letter) (vv. 22-23, 25-26, 30-31ff).
    • It makes clear that Jewish-Christian opposition to the Pauline approach to the Gentile mission does not come from the official leadership of the Jerusalem church (v. 24, cf. Gal 2:12); rather, Jerusalem is in agreement with Paul and Barnabas.
    • Its requirements for Gentile believers, at the very least, emphasize a respect for the Law and Jewish religious custom (v. 28-29, cf. also vv. 20-21; 21:25). This fundamental sense of harmony between early Christianity and its Jewish heritage is an important theme of Luke-Acts.

Moreover, the letter cannot be separated from the speeches of Peter and James, as the following basic narrative outline indicates:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-5), with the conflict framed in verse 1 and 5
      • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)—expressing the authoritative and inspired judgment and interpretation of the Apostles
      • Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—expressing the authoritative, inspired judgment of the entire assembly
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 30-35), with the resolution (at Antioch) framed by verses 30, 35, leading to a resumption of the Antiochene/Pauline mission

I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James in some detail as part of my series on the Speeches of Acts.

4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

Several historical-critical questions related to Acts 15 have been addressed above; here I will briefly treat several specific areas of critical investigation.

The accuracy of the main historical tradition—The tendency among critical scholars is to admit the general accuracy of Paul’s account in Galatians 2 (though shaped by autobiographical, rhetorical, and polemic emphases), but to discredit or disregard the Lukan account in Acts 15 (assuming that they relate to the same underlying event[s]). Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, are much more willing to assume (or require) the historical accuracy of the Acts narrative. It is hard to judge to matter fairly, since neither account (Gal 2 or Acts 15) provides enough specific detail for a proper comparison; especially, we would very much like to know more about the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14, but are left to speculate on the precise circumstances involved. There is nothing implausible about the brief narrative in Acts 15:1-6, though doubtless much historical detail has been left out, glossed over, or otherwise simplified. It may be too that the author of Acts has purposely crafted the narrative to present as harmonious a picture of early Christianity as possible—this seems likely, and I would stress that an idealized portrait is not necessarily mistaken or in error. There must have been fierce debate and disputes over the Gentile question, but this is only hinted at in Acts 15:2, 5-7a, 12; a more realistic, detailed presentation would almost certainly read a bit more like Paul’s rhetorical-polemical approach in Galatians.

The authenticity of the speeches—I have mentioned previously the basic critical approach to the speeches in Acts, which would hold that they are primarily the product of the author (trad. Luke), rather than reflecting the actual words of the purported speakers. The basis for this view is generally two-fold: (a) what is known of the way ancient historians (such as Thucydides, et al) included and made use of speeches, and (b) certain relatively common and uniform stylistic characteristics and details throughout all the speeches in Acts (regardless of speaker, etc). Traditional-conservative scholars, mainly for dogmatic reasons, tend to regard the speeches as more or less accurate records of the speaker’s genuine words (though with at least some degree of editing/modification). In my studies on the Speeches of Acts, I have assumed a more moderate position overall—the speeches reflect authentic tradition, but likely have been adapted (to a greater or lesser extent) by the author, in the narrative context, to create and contribute to a literary work of art. This appears especially to be the case with regard to the use of Scriptural citations within the speeches (cf. below). For the speeches of Peter and James in Acts 15, the following, in particular, have been noted by critical scholars and commentators:

  • The use of the Cornelius episode in vv. 7-9, 14—It has been argued that reference to the Cornelius episode here is literary rather than historical, that is, its significance is based on what hearer/reader of Acts is familiar with (from the prominent narrative of chs. 10-11), more than its relevance to the (historical) Jewish believers in Jerusalem at the moment. A certain narrative tension is implied—what the reader knows (from chs. 10-11) vs. what the Jerusalem Christians have apparently forgotten. There are indeed, certain curious details—for example, Peter’s description of the episode as having taken place “in the beginning/bygone days” (v. 7, cf. also v. 14), though in the narrative context it could not have occurred all that long ago. More to the point, if the event had the importance/significance attached to it in the book of Acts, how could the Christians of Judea/Jerusalem have so (quickly) neglected or forgotten it?
  • Peter’s characterization of the Law in vv. 10-11—Many commentators find it unlikely that the presumably devout Jewish Christian Peter (cf. 10:9-16) would have referred to the Law this way: as a burdensome “yoke” that even Jews could not bear. Paul does once refer to the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1), but in Jewish tradition, it is typically described as a “yoke” in a positive sense (see m. Abot 3:5). Verse 10, combined with the emphasis on the favor/grace of God received by faith/trust, certainly does seem to have a ‘Pauline’ sound to it; but it is not clear that this precludes it has having come from Peter.
  • The citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18—It is significant that James, though presumably addressing the assembly in Aramaic (see his use of Shim’ôn/Simeon in v. 14), quotes a version of Amos 9:11-12 that generally corresponds to the Greek LXX, which includes two important textual variants apparently resulting from a misreading of the Hebrew text. For the form of this citation, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts. Traditional-conservative commentators, eager to defend/preserve a certain idea of inspiration (and/or inerrancy), are generally left with two options: (a) James cites the correct (Hebrew) text and it is the received MT that is corrupt, or (b) he is making (inspired) creative use/application of the variant Greek text. The first option I take as highly unlikely, the second is far more plausible.
  • The restrictions/requirements (from the letter) in vv. 19-21—There is only a problem here if one views the letter as a separate tradition combined/attached by the author in shaping the current narrative. By such a theory, the reference to the requirements of the letter in v. 20 is virtually precluded as being authentic. On its own merits, the idea that the author has combined or conflated separate traditions is interesting and somewhat attractive, but many questions and difficulties are involved with this approach as well (see above).

The authenticity of the letter—This question is extremely difficult to judge, though in general (on objective grounds), I find it much less likely that the author has composed a letter than that he may have done so for the speeches. One strong argument in favor of authenticity, it seems, is the limitation in the letter’s address to Gentile believers “in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”, i.e. the center of the historical conflict (cf. Acts 15:1-5; Gal 2). A pseudonymous letter would probably have been addressed to a wider or more general audience. Also, if the author has added any details to the narrative, it is far more plausible that, finding the four prohibitions in the letter, he included them in James’ address (in 15:20; 21:25), rather than adding them into a (fictional) letter. The textual and interpretive difficulties surrounding these four items make it virtually certain that they are authentic historical details—the tendency among scribes and authors is to clarify and smooth over difficulties, not to create them.

On the reception of the letter—It is here that the most serious historical questions are to be found, which I have already touched on above. The fact that Paul never mentions the letter (with its requirements) in any of his epistles, even where it would directly apply (in Galatians or 1 Corinthians 8-10), is noteworthy. Either Paul was (1) unaware of the decree, or (2) did not cite or use it because: (a) he disagreed with it, (b) did not regard it as authoritative, or (c) did not feel it appropriate in the context and circumstances of his writing. In Acts 21:25 James appears to bring up the decree (and the four requirements) with Paul as though it would be something new or unfamiliar to him. All of this could be viewed as somewhat at odds with the picture in Acts 15:30-31; 16:4, where it is indicated that Paul delivered the letter and transmitted the requirements of the decree. Consider also the overall tone in Galatians, the argument in 2:14ff, and the specific notice in 2:6.

The Law in Luke-Acts, Part 2: The Mission to the Gentiles

The Mission to the Gentiles

In this part (cf. the earlier Pt 1), I will explore the Law in the book of Acts in terms of the early Christian Mission to the Gentiles, as presented in chapters 10-14, along with a specific discussion of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in chapter 15.

The Early Mission into the Gentile World

This will be treated, rather briefly, under several headings:

    • Missionary Themes and Motifs in the early chapters
    • Conflict with Judaism
    • The Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11
    • The (first) Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14)

Missionary Themes and Motifs (in Acts 1-9)

Acts 1:8—Jesus’ final instruction to his disciples (according to the narrative of Luke-Acts) emphasizes the worldwide character (i.e. into all the Greco-Roman world) of the eventual Christian mission; it fairly well serves as a summary of book of Acts itself:

“and you will receive power of the holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses—in Yerushalaim and [in] all Yehudah and Shomrôn, and until the end(s) of the earth

Cf. also the declaration in Luke 24:47 that the Gospel (repentence and forgivness of sins) “should be proclaimed in his [i.e. Jesus’] name unto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem”.

Acts 1:15-26ff—As I have argued previously, the reconstitution of the Twelve, and the united presence of the believers together in one place in Jerusalem (2:1ff), are symbolic of the (end-time) restoration of Israel—an important theme in the early chapters of Acts. This idea of the (post-exilic) restoration of the twelve tribes, gathered from among the nations, was typically described in eschatological language, both in the Old Testament Prophets and subsequent Jewish tradition; often this involved, in some manner, the inclusion of Gentiles—see especially in the book of Isaiah (Deutero-Trito Isa 45:22; 49:5-6; 56:6-8; 60:3-7; 66:18-19ff), and cf. also Mic 4:1-2 (Isa 2:2-3); Zech 2:11; 8:20-23; Tobit 14:6.

Acts 2:4ff—There are echoes of the ancient Babel tradition (confusion of tongues) in the Pentecost narrative (the confusion created by the disciples speaking in tongues), a point I have demonstrated as well in prior studies. The hearing of the Word of God in the languages of the nations also reflects Jewish traditions surrounding the Sinai revelation (trad. set at Pentecost, cf. Exod 19:1). The reversal of the division of language (representing fundamental division of the nations), is also an eschatological motif (e.g. Zeph 3:9) which admirably serves the theme of the mission to the Gentiles in Acts.

Acts 2:5-11—The list of nations (set in the mouth of the crowd, as a literary/dramatic device) covers much of the territory of the Roman empire and its environs (i.e. the known world at the time). Even though these are Jews dwelling or residing in Jerusalem, they still represent the nations. The symbolism is two-fold: (1) the Jews returning to Jerusalem/Judah from the nations, and (2) the nations coming to Jerusalem to hear the word of God—both are important eschatological themes (see above) and foreshadow the mission into the Gentile world. For additional references to the universality of the Christian mission in Peter’s subsequent sermon-speeches, see Acts 2:21, 39; 3:25; 4:12.

Acts 6:1-6—This brief traditional narrative (which sets the stage for the story of Stephen in 6:8-8:1) indicates the influence of “Hellenists” (Jewish believers who exclusively, or primarily, speak and read Greek) in the early congregation. Some of these believers may have come from the Diaspora (2:5-11, 14, 41; cf. 6:9ff), that is from among the nations; all of the Seven (6:5-6) have Greek names, and at least one (Nikolaos) is described as a proselyte (Gentile convert to Judaism). This socio-religious dynamic may have contributed to the opposition to Stephen, and the charges against him (6:11-14). The ‘anti-Temple’ elements in his speech (in 7:35-50, cf. below) especially seem to point toward the wider Gentile mission—note the similarity of language in Paul’s speech at Athens (17:22-29). Following Stephen’s execution, the onset of persecution causes the believers to be scattered (a new Dispersion) out of Judea (8:4ff; 11:19) and into the Gentile world.

Acts 8:26ff—It is not clear whether the Ethiopian official (‘eunuch’) is a Diaspora Jew, a proselyte, or simply an interested Gentile (a ‘God-fearer’). The ambiguity may be intentional; at any rate, he holds a place (in the narrative framework) between the Diaspora Jews of 2:5-11 and the Gentile God-fearer Cornelius (chs. 10-11), and, as such, his encounter with Philip is set at the threshold of the mission to the Gentiles.

Acts 9:15—The visionary words (of Jesus) to Paul specifically declare that he “is to take up (and carry) my name in the eyes of (the) nations…”, directly emphasizing (for the first time in Acts) a mission to the Gentiles.

Conflict with Judaism

Issues related to the Law (Torah) in Acts occur within the framework of these two historical and narrative themes: (1) the mission to the Gentiles, and (2) early Christian conflicts with Judaism. Interestingly, for the most part, the conflicts with Judaism are not specifically tied to the Gentile mission.

Appearances before the Sanhedrin—There are three episodes where believers are taken into custody and brought before the Jewish council (“Sanhedrin”) in Jerusalem, in Acts 4:1-22; 5:17-41; and 6:8-8:1. There is a similar narrative arc to each of these episodes, increasing in severity, leading ultimately to the mob-execution of Stephen. The reasons indicated for the believers being taken into custody are as follows:

    • The priests and Sadducees were worried/troubled because the believers were proclaiming resurrection from the dead in Jesus (4:1-2)
    • The High priest, and those with him (identified as Sadducees), were “filled up with hot (zeal/jealousy)”, presumably because of the popular effect and success of the early Christian preaching (5:17)
    • Hellenist Jews who disputed with Stephen secretly gathered supporters and stirred up the crowd against him with (slanderous) claims (6:11); this leads to an action by the Council, with charges (apparently brought by false witnesses), 6:12-14.

The Sanhedrin action is clearest in the case of Stephen, with a ‘trial’ setting that has a number of definite similarities with the ‘trial’ of Jesus. The charges are related to those against Jesus as well (cf. 6:14; Mark 14:58 par), but they also look forward to the claims brought against Paul at his arrest in Jerusalem (21:28). With regard to Stephen and Paul, the claim is that they speak against the Law and the Temple. There is no indication that Stephen spoke against the Law, but there are anti-Temple sentiments in his speech (7:35-50) (on this, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts). In the book of Acts, Paul says nothing opposing the Law or the Temple (the closest we find is in 13:39); in fact, the author takes care in the narrative to indicate that this is not true of Paul (cf. 21:20-24ff). Elsewhere, in Galatians (and parts of Romans), Paul’s line of argument certainly could be (and doubtless was) understood by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as being “against the Law”.

Opposition to Paul’s Mission Work—This is described already in chapter 9, following his conversion, in response to his early preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem (9:22-25, 29-30). During the story of his missionary journeys in Acts, the Jewish opposition is a (stereo)typical element in the narrative, with little attempt to flesh it out in detail; a definite pattern emerges, which is doubtless both historical and literary:

Even though Jewish opposition gradually leads to Paul focusing more on outreach to Gentiles, this mission does not appear to be the basis of the opposition. As in 5:17, the reason typically given is jealousy (13:45; 17:5), apparently due to the success of his preaching with other Jews and Gentile proselytes/God-fearers (in the synagogue setting). However, there certainly were substantive religious objections as well, as we see described (in seminal form) in 9:22-23:

“but Saul [Paul] was much more empowered and threw together the Jews (in confusion) [i.e. confounded them]…bringing together (points to show) that this (one) [i.e. Jesus] is the Anointed.
And as [i.e. after] sufficient days were filled up, the Jews consulted/decided together to take him away [i.e. to kill him]…”

See also the charge brought against him in Corinth (18:12), which is similar in tone and substance (even if presented maliciously) in 21:28. Thus we find three sources of opposition:

    • Jealousy with regard to the success of Paul’s mission
    • Paul’s (effective) proclamation and demonstration that Jesus is the Anointed One (“Messiah”)
    • The view, whether or not accurate to any extent, that Paul teaches against the Law

The last of these relates more directly to the Gentile mission, as we see also in the core narratives of chapters 10-11 and 15; in these episodes, however, as in Galatians, the opposition comes from Jewish Christians.

The Cornelius Episode (Acts 10-11)

I have already discussed this in detail as part of the series on the Speeches of Acts; here I will only highlight the most salient points:

    • Cornelius is identified as a devout “God-fearer”—i.e. a Gentile who follows Jewish belief, ethics and tradition (at least in part), is sympathetic and supportive of Judaism, faithful in prayer and charitable giving, etc. This is important in that it sets the initial mission to the Gentiles within a Jewish context. Cf. also the central episode of 13:13-52.
    • Central to the narrative of chapter 10 is Peter’s vision (vv. 9-16), which effectively abolishes the dietary restrictions involving clean and unclean animals (cf. Lev 11; Deut 14:4-20). When Peter objects to the divine command to slay and eat from both clean and unclean animals (vv. 13-14), the heavenly voice declares bluntly: “that which God (has) made clean you must not treat as common” (v. 15). The importance of this scene (and the difficulty surrounding it) is indicated by the fact that Peter narrates it a second time in chapter 11:5-11.
    • There are two levels of meaning to Peter’s vision: (1) literal, abolishing the dietary restriction (involving clean and unclean animals), and (2) symbolic, abolishing the ethno-religious distinction between Jew and Gentile. It is the latter interpretation that is in view in 10:28; however, it is hard to see how the plain sense of verse 15 can be ignored or denied—if valid, then it is the first instance in Acts where regulations from the Torah are abolished (or re-interpreted) in a Christian context. While the consequences of this view are not dealt with specifically in Acts, they seem to underlie the episode in Galatians 2:11-14, and would clearly be a practical concern in Jewish-Gentile relations in the mission field.
    • Peter accepts the invitation and visits Cornelius, entering his house, despite the basic religious objection voiced in 10:28: “it is not proper/lawful [i.e. against custom] (for) a Jewish man to join (with) or come toward another tribe/clan [i.e. race/nation]”—note the same basic objection, stated in more certain terms in 11:3 (“you went in toward men having foreskin [i.e. uncircumcised] and ate with them”).
    • The objection (11:3), from Jewish believers in Jerusalem, with regard to Peter’s action emphasizes two points: (a) circumcision and (b) Jews eating with Gentiles, which are central to the two main portions of chapter 15 respectively (cf. below).
    • Acceptance of Gentiles believers is confirmed by the miraculous work of God (10:44-46; 11:15-16); the question is whether Jewish believers would accept this (indicated by formal admission to baptism), 10:47-48; 11:17.
    • The narrative concludes with a fundamental acceptance that God has given to Gentiles salvation (“repentance unto [eternal] life”), 11:18.

The (first) Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14)

The missionary work of Paul and Barnabas was centered primarily within the Synagogue setting, preaching to Jews and Gentile proselytes or ‘God-fearers’ (13:5, 14ff, 44; 14:1); see especially the central sermon by Paul at Pisidian Antioch (13:13-52), discussed as part of the series on the Speeches of Acts. Note the following important details of the sermon:

    • The addresses in vv. 16, 26, 38 unite Jews and (Gentile) God-fearers under the label “brothers”
    • The promise to the Fathers (of Israel) is fulfilled to their children (Jews and Gentiles both) in Christ (v. 32-33)
    • Salvation and forgiveness are connected with freedom, and contrasted with the Law of Moses (vv. 38-39) (a theme developed more substantially by Paul in Galatians and Romans)
    • Paul emphasizes his (and Barnabas’) role as chosen missionaries to the Gentiles (vv. 46-48); note, in particular, the citation of Isaiah 49:6 in v. 47 (cf. also Luke 2:32).

This episode represents a shift in focus—both historically (of Paul’s) mission, and in terms of the narrative of Acts—toward the Gentiles. Even though Paul would continue to preach in the Synagogues, he and his co-workers would increasingly address Gentiles outside of a Jewish context. This is clearly narrated (for the first time) in 14:8-18 (cf. also 17:17b ff).

The “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15

Many critical questions and difficulties surround the narrative of Acts 15:1-35 (the so-called “Jerusalem Council”), which I am addressing (at least in part) in a supplemental article. Here, I wish to focus on the main issues involved, both from the standpoint of historical tradition, and the way this tradition has been understood and shaped within the narrative framework by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The narrative can be divided into two main portions, which I treat here under the following headings:

    • What is not required of Gentile converts (15:1-21)
    • What is required of Gentile converts (15:22-35)

What is not required of Gentile converts (15:1-21)

The first half of the narrative can be outlined as follows:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-5), which establishes the conflict and the primary issue involved
    • Speeches of Peter (vv. 6-11) and James (vv. 13-21), with a joining transition in verse 12—the speeches of these leading apostles provide an authoritative determination of the issue.

Both of these sections have been analyzed in considerable detail in the series on the Speeches of Acts. The narrative introduction is framed by statements in vv. 1 and 5 which set the conflict:

V. 1: Believers (“certain [ones]”) from Judea (to those in Antioch): “If you are not circumcised in the custom/practice of Moses, you are not able to be saved”
Western MSS add “and walk in the custom/practice of Moses”
V. 5: Certain believers from the Pharisees (to the rest of the [Jewish] believers in Jerusalem): “It is necessary to circumcise them [i.e. Gentile converts] and to give along the message (that they are) to keep the Law of Moses

Clearly observance of the (entire) Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah) was at issue, but the main concern involved circumcision (also the principal question in Galatians). Interestingly, there is no record of the considerable debate, dispute and other discussion which must have taken place (summarized generally in vv. 6-7a, 12); rather, space is devoted entirely to the (positive) speeches of Peter and James:

  • Peter’s speech—Interpretation of recent events (conversion of Cornelius) as the work of God, confirmed by the miraculous gift of the Spirit, with no distinction between Jew and Gentile (vv. 7-9)
    • Determination: Observing the Law is referred to as a “yoke” which even Jews are not able to bear (thus it should not be forced upon Gentiles); rather we trust/believe that we all (Jew and Gentile alike) are saved by the favor/Grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 10-11) (there is a curious ‘Pauline’ ring to this which many commentators have noted)
  • James’ speech—Interpretation of Scripture (Amos 9:11-12), with its message of the (eschatological and ‘Messianic’) restoration of Israel (see above), applied to the Christian mission to the Gentiles (vv. 13-18)
    • Determination: His (authoritative) judgment is that Jewish believers should not “crowd in alongside” the Gentile converts, i.e. should not pressure or require them to observe the Law (v. 19)

What is required of Gentile converts (vv. 22-35)

The second half of the narrative follows an outline parallel to the first half:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-5)
      • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)
      • The Letter (from the Council) (vv. 22-29)
    • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Just as verses 1 and 5 frame the conflict in the Introduction, so verses 30 and 35 frame the resolution (with its setting in Antioch). The believers rejoice at the letter (v. 31), they are strengthened and encouraged (v. 32), and peace is restored (v. 33). There are interesting details in the letter itself (discussed in the supplemental article), but the basic thrust of it follows James’ own determination in verses 19-21, and indeed, the narrative as a whole:

    • Verse 24—in the narrative context this would refer to verse 1-2, though many critical scholars hold that it refers to a separate (later) conflict (such as in Gal 2:12ff).
    • Verses 25-27 repeat what is narrated in v. 22; though it is just as likely that v. 22 derives from the letter.
    • Verse 28 follows the judgment of Peter and James in vv. 10, 19.
    • Verse 29 follows James’ statement in vv. 20-21.

As it is verses 20-21, stating what is required for Gentiles to observe, relating to the Law (Torah) and Jewish religious custom, which provide the greatest interpretive difficulty for us today—and since they are vital to a proper understanding of the early Christian view of the Law (as recorded in Acts)—I am devoting a separate note specifically to discuss them.

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.