Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 1 (Acts 1:6-26)

Acts 1:6-26 (and Matt 19:28 par)

The previous note dealt with the association of the Twelve and the coming of the Kingdom of God, in the context of Matthew 19:28 par (Lk 22:28-30) and the tradition in Acts 1:6ff. I pointed out that there is good reason to think that the number twelve and its symbolism—related to the twelve tribes of Israel—was introduced and applied by Jesus himself. The apparent authenticity (on objective grounds) of the Matt 19:28 saying would confirm this. It is not entirely clear whether the idea is of a concrete earthly kingdom, or a heavenly one. The Synoptic narrative context of Matt 19:28, as it reads in Mark (10:28-31), indicates a contrast between earthly sacrifice/suffering for Jesus’ sake (now) and eternal/heavenly reward (in the future). This contrast seems to have been a common emphasis in Jesus’ teaching, such as we see in the parables and, especially, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3-12; 6:1ff, 19-21; Lk 6:20-26, etc). Matthew’s version of the episode (19:27-30) has a different emphasis, but it would seem that a heavenly context is still implied; the use of the word paliggenhsi/a suggests a time following the resurrection. The parallel in Lk 18:28-30 is somewhat ambiguous, as is the context of 22:28-30 (cf. verse 18).

The problem is that traditional Israelite and Jewish eschatology variously envisioned the coming Kingdom (of God) in earthly and heavenly aspects, drawing upon imagery from both. This is also true in terms of Messianic expectation. Sometimes the establishment of the Kingdom was seen to follow the end-time Judgment and the Resurrection, in other instances a period of (Messianic) rule on earth is envisioned. Certain eschatological schemes combine both aspects, as we see, for example, in the book of Revelation. Paul says very little in his letters regarding a future Kingdom on earth; the imminent, expected return of Jesus seems to coincide with the resurrection (1 Thess 4:14-17), after which believers will remain with him (in heaven). On the other hand, in 1 Cor 6:2, Paul states that believers will play a role in the Judgment of the world, expressing an idea generally similar to the saying of Jesus in Matt 19:28 par. Presumably, this ruling/judging position is thought to take place in heaven, since he also says that believers will judge the Angels (v. 3).

Jesus’ own teaching in this regard is not entirely clear, at least as it has been preserved in the Gospel Tradition. However, following the resurrection (and ascension) of Jesus, early Christians had no choice but to believe that the coming of the Kingdom, in its full sense, in heaven and/or on earth (cf. Matt 6:10), was reserved for the time of Jesus’ future return. In the interim—however brief or long it may be—the Kingdom was realized (on earth) in two primary ways: (1) by the presence of the Spirit in and among believers, and (2) through the missionary work of early Christians, spreading the new faith (from Jerusalem) into the wider world. This is certainly the understanding expressed by the author of Luke-Acts; and, if we take the text at face value, it was also the true purpose and intention of Jesus.

In the prior note, I looked briefly at the question asked of Jesus by the disciples (i.e. the Twelve) in Acts 1:6. Their question indicates that they were thinking in traditional eschatological terms about the coming of the Kingdom—as a socio-political (and religious) entity on earth, headed by Jesus as God’s Anointed representative (i.e. a royal Messiah). By extension, it might have been thought that they (the Twelve) would be ruling this Kingdom as well (cf. again the context of Lk 22:28-30). Jesus does not answer their question directly, and so leaves open, perhaps, the possibility of such an earthly (Messianic) regime in the future; however, his response must be deemed an implicit rejection of their very way of thinking. He deftly redirects the entire thrust of the question (verse 7), and then effectively gives them their answer: instead of expecting the return of an Israelite Kingdom like that of David long ago, the disciples will usher a different kind of Kingdom, involving—(a) the coming of the Spirit in power, and (b) their witness and proclamation of the Gospel message (verse 8).

The Restoration of Israel (Acts 1:12-26)

The disciples’ question (1:6) involved the idea of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel. The author of Acts, doubtless following the (historical) traditions which he inherited, has built upon this theme, which is central to the narrative which follows in the remainder of chapters 1-2. I have discussed this at length in a set of notes (for Pentecost, soon to be posted on this site), and will only provide an outline of that study here.

The theme of the “Restoration of Israel” can be glimpsed already in verses 12-14:

  • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
    a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
    b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
  • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in Jerusalem, in one place (upper room), v. 13. This is a seminal image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
  • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related motifs, expressing the unity of believers together:
    ou!toi (“these”—the twelve, along with the other disciples)
    pa/nte$ (“all”—that is, all of them, together)
    h@san proskarterou=nte$ (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
    o(moqumado\n (“with one impulse”—a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al.
    th=| proseuxh=| (“in prayer”)

Does this not seem a beautiful, concise image of what one might call the “kingdom of God” on earth?

The Reconstitution of the Twelve (1:15-26)

As stated above, most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel; and, as such, their unity (and the unity of their mission work) similarly reflects the coming together of Israel (the true Israel). Consider, for example, the basic Gospel tradition of the sending out of the Twelve in Mark 6:6b-13 par. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist).

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. Note the possible (even likely) symbolism in the parenthetical notice in Acts 1:15, where the number of disciples gathered together in the house is (about) 120—that is, 12 x 10. There would seem to be a symbolic association of these 120 disciples with a unified/restored Israel.

The Pentecost Narrative (2:1-13ff)

This symbolism continues into the Pentecost scene in chapter 2. Note the following (chiastic outline):

  • The unity of the disciples (together in one place and/or for one purpose—e)pi\ to\ au)to/), verse 1.
    • The house/place of gathering is filled (e)plh/rwsen) with the Spirit, verse 2.
      • Appearance of tongues (glwssai) of fire upon each individual disciple (~120), verse 3
      • The disciples (each) begin to speak in other tongues (glwssai), verse 4
    • The disciples are all filled (e)plh/sqhsan) with the Holy Spirit, verse 4
  • The unity of the crowd—devout Jews (from all nations) in Jerusalem come together in one place, verse 5ff

The way this scene builds upon the prior events of chapter 1 can be illustrated by expanding the outline:

  • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
    • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
      • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
    • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
  • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

This emphasizes more clearly the theme of the “restoration of Israel”, according to the eschatological imagery of the later Old Testament prophets and Judaism, which involves two related themes:

    1. The return of Israelites (Jews) from exile among the nations—this return is to the Promised Land, and, in particular, to Judah and Jerusalem.
    2. The Nations (Gentiles) come to Judah and Jerusalem, bringing tribute and/or worshiping the true God there.

The restoration of Israel in terms of a “regathering” of Israelites and Jews from the surrounding nations was expressed numerous times already in the Old Testament Prophets, especially the latter half of the book of Isaiah; this eschatological expectation was extended to include those of the nations (Gentiles) who come to Jerusalem and join the people of Israel—e.g., Isa 49:5ff; 56:1-8; 60:1-14; 66:18-24; Micah 4:2-5 (Isa 2:3-4). Cf. Sanders, p. 79. This theme became part of subsequent Israelite/Jewish eschatology and Messianic thought (Baruch 4-5; 2 Macc 1:27ff; Ps Sol 11, 17, etc), sometimes expressed specifically in relation to the regathering of the twelve tribesSirach 36:11; 48:10; Ps Sol 17:28-31ff; 1QM 2:2ff; 11QTemple 18:14-16; T. Sanh. 13:10; and also note the motif in Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-3ff (cf. Sanders, pp. 96-7).

Revelation 21:12-14ff

Finally, the connection between the Twelve Apostles and the Twelve Tribes of Israel is presented in the book of Revelation, but in a very different manner from the saying of Jesus in Matt 19:28. It is part of the great vision of the new (heavenly) Jerusalem in 21:1-22:5, which serves as the climax of the book. The gates and walls of the city are described in 21:12-14ff, drawing upon the description in Ezek 48:30-35. Here we find:

    • Twelve gates, named after the Twelve Tribes—that is, the names of the tribes were inscribed on them (v. 12b). The Qumran community drew upon the same tradition (11QTemple 39-41; 4Q365a frag. 2 col. 2; 4Q554). The names on the gates commemorate the heritage of Israel as the people of God.
    • Twelve foundation stones for the city walls, named after the Twelve Apostles (v. 14). The image of Christ and the apostles as “foundation (stone)s” is found several times in the New Testament (1 Cor 3:11; Eph 2:20). There is also a similar idea expressed by the Qumran community, for the leaders of the community (esp. the twelve men of the Council), cf. 1QS 8:1-6; 11:8; 4Q154 frag. 1, col. 1). In the famous declaration of Jesus in Matt 16:17-19, Peter and the Twelve are depicted as stones which make up the foundation of the Church. Cf. Koester, p. 815.

Thus the New Jerusalem—that is, the heavenly/spiritual Jerusalem of the New Covenant (Gal 4:24-26)—honors the heritage and legacy of both Israel (representing the Old Covenant), and the Apostles (representing the beginning of the New). However, there is no idea here of the Apostles ruling—God alone (with Christ) is on the Throne (21:5).

References above marked “Sanders” are to E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Press: 1985). Those marked “Koester” are to Craig R. Koester, Revelation, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 38a (Yale: 2014).

February 6: Acts 10:36; 15:7, etc

Before concluding this series of daily notes on the “gospel” (eu)aggel-) word group, it is worth examining the usage in the book of Acts, as a supplement to the earlier notes on the Gospel of Luke (on 4:18 and 7:22). Nearly all commentators agree that the book of Acts was written by the same author (trad. Luke) as the Gospel, so it would stand to reason that much, if not most, of the vocabulary was similar. However, a careful study of the sermon-speeches in Acts would seem to confirm that, at the very least, the author has preserved authentic traditions and elements from the earliest Christian preaching. This must be considered in any study of the use of the eu)aggel- word group in Acts.

I noted previously that the use of the verb eu)aggeli/zomai is distinctively Lukan: it occurs 10 times in the Gospel of Luke, and only once in all the other Gospels combined (at Matt 11:5, part of a “Q” tradition shared by Luke [7:22]). A number of these occurrences (cf. my earlier note for a breakdown) clearly reflect Lukan composition, being found in summary narration that is characterized by the author’s distinctive language and style. The same is true, and even more so, in the book of Acts, where the verb is found fifteen (15) times, and nearly all in Lukan summary narration—5:42; 8:4, 12, 25, 35, 40; 11:20; 14:7, 21; 15:35; 16:10; 17:18. This then, demonstrates again the author’s predilection for the word (writing c. 70 A.D.), and tells us relatively little about earlier Christian usage. However, the verb does occur three times in the context of the speeches (10:36; 13:32; 14:15), and so we must consider seriously the possibility that the speakers themselves (Peter, Paul) made use of the verb (or the underlying Hebrew/Aramaic rc^B*, “bring [good] news”). Let us briefly consider each of these passages:

Acts 10:36

This is part of Peter’s sermon-speech to the household of Cornelius, and should be compared with the earlier sermon-speeches in chapters 2-5 (analyzed in my series “The Speeches of Acts”, to be posted here). I would maintain that, whatever Lukan character these speeches have in their literary form (i.e. in the book of Acts), they preserve authentic examples of early kerygma (proclamation/preaching of the Gospel). This early “good message” was extremely brief and presented in a simple narrative format. For Peter’s speech in chapter 10, verses 37b-41 (+ 42b-43) comprise the Gospel message. There is relatively little theological content, and essentially no developed Christology at all. The emphasis is on:

    • An outline of Jesus’ life, beginning with the preaching of John the Baptist (i.e. the primitive Gospel narrative)
    • The death, and resurrection (and exaltation) of Jesus by God (to a position in heaven), and
    • The impending (end-time) Judgment, to be inaugurated by Jesus in his role as Anointed One (and heavenly “Son of Man”)

To this is added a pair of key themes found in the earliest preaching: (a) his appearance as the Anointed One was prophesied in the Scriptures (v. 43a), and (b) trusting in him leads to forgiveness of sin (v. 43b). By all accounts, this was the earliest “good message” (Gospel), and is more or less accurately preserved in the book of Acts. This helps us to evaluate the use of eu)aggeli/zomai in verse 36, at the very start of the kerygma:

“He [i.e. God] se(n)t forth th(is) account [lo/go$] to the sons of Yisrael, bringing (the) good message (of) peace through Yeshua (the) Anointed, that (one who) is Lord of all, (and) you have seen this utterance [r(h=ma] coming to be (made known) down (through) the whole of Yehudah…” (vv. 36-37a)

It is important to note that the “Gospel” as such is not referred to with the noun eu)agge/lion, but with the word lo/go$ (“account”), understood as a spoken message or announcement (r(h=ma, “[something] uttered, utterance”). Moreover, unlike the Lukan use of the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, where it clearly refers to the preaching of the Gospel in a technical (Christian) sense, its use here (by Peter) seems to have a rather different meaning, indicated by the use of ei)rh/nh (“peace”) as a direct object. In other words, peace is proclaimed as a good message. This would seem to go back to the most common (original) context of the eu)aggel- word group—the good news of the outcome of battle, the resolution of military conflict, the removal of danger for the public, etc (cf. the earlier note). The Hebrew <olv* has a somewhat wider range of meaning than Greek ei)rh/nh—it often refers to health, welfare, well-being, etc, in a more general sense. The removal of sin (cf. the previous note) eliminates the hostility between humankind and God, and saves believers from the impending Judgment (i.e., the “anger” of God, cf. Rom 1:18ff).

Acts 13:32

Here the context is Paul’s sermon-speech in Pisidian Antioch, which resembles Peter’s Pentecost speech of chapter 2 in many important ways. This similarity probably reflects a measure of Lukan editing, but it may also indicate that, by the time of Paul’s ministry in Antioch (c. 46-47 A.D.?), there was a relatively well-established outline and format to Gospel preaching, at least within a Jewish setting. Paul uses the verb eu)aggeli/zomai in much the same was as Peter in chap. 10 (above). Here, however, the emphasis is not on God as the source of the “good message”, but, rather, on Paul (and his fellow ministers) as messengers bringing the good news. This is an emphasis found frequently in Paul’s letters, as we have seen. In Peter’s speech, the verb was used at the start of the kerygma; here it occurs after, at the conclusion:

“And we bring (as) a good message to you the message coming to be upon (it) toward the Fathers, that God has fulfilled this to us their offspring…” (vv. 32-33a)

This immediately precedes Paul’s exposition/demonstration of the Gospel (through citation and interpretation of Scripture) in vv. 33b-37, and his exhortation in vv. 38-39ff. These two components are directly parallel to the two parts of 10:43 in Peter’s speech (cf. above). It must be admitted that Paul’s use of eu)aggeli/zomai is closer to Luke’s (as well as to Paul’s own in the letters), yet it still does not correspond entirely to the technical meaning that attached to the word group among early Christians. Instead, the Gospel (i.e. the “account”, or kerygma) is identified, in a particular way, with the message (e)paggeli/a), or “promise” made by God to Israel and the Patriarchs. The association is primarily Messianic, but also is connected with the forgiveness of sin. Both of these aspects are developed by Paul in his letters.

Acts 14:15

The third occurrence of the verb in the speeches of Acts is Paul’s brief sermon-speech in Lystra (14:15-17); as in Peter’s chapter 10 speech, the use of eu)aggeli/zomai precedes the proclamation proper:

“Men, (for) what [i.e. why] are you do(ing) these (thing)s? Indeed, we are men (who) suffer similarly with you, (and are) bringing a good message to you: to turn away from these empty (thing)s, (and back) upon the living God…”

This is the first sermon-speech in Acts address to a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience, and, in these speeches, Paul appears to frame the kerygma rather differently, beginning with a declaration of the falseness (“emptiness”) of the ancient polytheistic religion. In this regard, the Lystra speech foreshadows the great Athens speech in chapter 17. This use of eu)aggeli/zomai is a bit closer to Paul’s usage of the verb in his letters, but still, it seems to me, is a distance removed from the technical early Christian terminology. Here the essence of the “good message” is the opportunity for humankind to turn away from false conceptions of God, and the sinfulness which that entails (expounded vividly by Paul in Romans 1:18-32). It does not refer, per se, to the act of proclaiming the Gospel; it is still “good news” in a more general sense.

Acts 15:7; 20:24

Finally, we should note two occurrences of the noun eu)agge/lion, which otherwise does not appear in the Gospel of Luke. Both occurrences are in speeches, suggesting that, at least at those points, neither Lukan composition or editing is directly involved. In other words, the use of the noun likely derives from historical tradition, and/or any sources used by Luke in recording the speeches. The first instance is from the short speech by Peter at the Jerusalem conference of chapter 15, an episode central to the book of Acts. It draws upon the scene with Cornelius, during which (according to the narrative) Peter made use of the related verb. The parallel use of the noun here could be seen as confirmation that the usage derives from authentic tradition (as opposed to Lukan composition). This authenticity, in my view, receives further confirmation from the expression “the account [lo/go$] of the good message”: “…(that) the nations (were) to hear the account of the good message and to trust” (v. 7b). It would seem that the word lo/go$ (“account”) reflects more primitive early Christian (apostolic) terminology.

When we turn to Acts 20:24, we move closer to Paul’s use of the word in his letters—as the message about who Jesus is and what God has done through him. This deeper theological connotation is shown by the expanded expression “the good message of the favor of God” (to\ eu)agge/lion th=$ xa/rito$ tou= qeou=). At the same time, we have the familiar Pauline use of the eu)aggel- word group to describe and characterize his ministry: as a messenger bringing the good news of Jesus. In the context of the narrative, this speech was given at Miletus to the elders of the congregations of Ephesus; at the historical level, this would have taken place in the late 50’s A.D., roughly contemporary with the letters of 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, and (probably) Galatians. It is the last occurrence of the eu)aggel- word group in Acts, and certainly indicates a notable development in meaning and theological significance, comparable to what we find in the letters.