October 8: Revelation 11:3-14

Revelation 11:3-14

As discussed in the previous daily note, the scene involving the measuring of the Temple is transitional between chapter 10 and this vision of the ‘two witnesses’ in 11:3-14. It establishes the contrast between the “holy city” (with the Temple at the center) and the “great city”, an allegorical distinction between the people of God (true believers) and the surrounding world (the “nations”, spec. the Roman Empire). In this vision, the image has shifted from the shrine (nao/$) of God to a pair of persons—two witnesses:

“And I will give to my two witnesses and they will foretell [i.e. prophesy] for a thousand two-hundred (and) sixty days, having been cast about [i.e. clothed] in a coarse garment [sa/kko$].”

Much ink has been spilled regarding the identification of these two persons—how are they best understood? The visionary character of this section, in context, would suggest that they are figurative, and yet many commentators believe that it refers to a pair of actual (historical) persons expected to appear, or to be active, at the end-time. It is important to begin with the language used to describe them, and the Old Testament traditions which are involved. Three lines of interpretation may be mentioned:

    • Angels—i.e. heavenly beings sent by God as a witness to humankind prior to the Judgment; the reference to the “great city” as “Sodom” would certainly bring to mind the Abraham narrative in Genesis 19, and the two (heavenly) Messengers that come to the city.
    • Messiah-Prophets—the Messianic figure-type of Anointed Prophet, expected to appear at the end-time (prior to the Judgment), according to several traditional patterns, most notably Moses and Elijah (cf. below).
    • People of God (Believers)—that is to say, as witnesses, these two persons represent the people of God, the faithful believers as a whole.

All three of these are more or less clearly present in the text; the vision draws upon the distinct lines of tradition, in various ways, and a proper interpretation must take each of them into account. Let us begin with the primary identification of the two persons/figures as witnesses (ma/rtu$, sg.). The word occurs five times in the book of Revelation, being used in two distinct, but related, ways in the other four references:

    • Of the exalted Jesus, who is given the title “the trust(worthy) [pisto/$] witness” (1:5; 3:14)—this is best understood in two respects:
      • Jesus gives witness of God the Father (YHWH), proclaiming His word and will, and acting as His representative (cf. the context of 1:1ff)
      • This witness entails, in a fundamental way, the sacrificial death of Jesus (the Lamb)
    • Of believers, who follow the example of Jesus, bearing witness of Christ and the Gospel, especially insofar as they follow him to the death (i.e. beginnings of the technical use of the term [“martyr” in English]):
      • In 2:13, Antipas, who was put to death, is given the same title used of Jesus in 1:5—”the trustworthy witness”
      • In 17:16, the believers whose blood was shed are specifically called “witnesses of Yeshua

Is it possible that this two-fold aspect is implied by the fact that there are two witnesses mentioned? The next bit of evidence comes from the parallel identification in verse 4:

“These are the two olive (tree)s and the two lamp(stand)s, the (one)s having stood in the sight of the Lord of the earth.”

This imagery is drawn from the fourth chapter of Zechariah, and, again, there is a clear two-fold aspect involved:

    • Messianic—Olive oil was used for anointing, and, in the context of Zech 3-4, the two olive trees (vv. 3, 11) refer to Zerubbabel and the priest Joshua (“sons of oil”, v. 14) according to early Messianic/Anointed figure-types—Davidic ruler and Anointed Priest, respectively.
    • Heavenly/Angelic—The (seven) lampstands in Zech 4:2-3 are identified as the “eyes of the Lord” (vv. 10-11)—personalized as (heavenly/spirit) beings who represent YHWH in the world, i.e. Messengers (“Angels”), and, one might say, also witnesses. This is reproduced in the book of Revelation (1:4, 12-13, 20; 2:1ff; 5:6). At the same time, we should note:
      • The lampstands are also identified with believers collectively (i.e. congregations/churches), 1:20; 2:1, 5
      • The exalted Jesus is at the center of the lampstands, holding/controlling them (1:12-13; 2:1, cf. also 3:1; 5:6)

Verses 5-6 bring out a number of Messianic details, especially those connected with the Prophet figure-types of Moses and Elijah (for more on this, cf. Parts 2-3 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”):

    • “fire travels out of their mouths” to “eat up” the enemies of God (v. 5)—the idea of the word of God, communicated by the Prophet, as fire is found in Jer 5:14, and is specifically associated with Elijah in Sirach 48:1. Indeed, in Old Testament tradition, Elijah called down fire from heaven (1 Kings 19:36-38). The more direct Messianic association comes from Isa 11:4, in which the mouth of the Messiah (vv. 1-3) slays the wicked. Paul draws upon this in a clear eschatological context in 2 Thess 2:8; as does the deutero-canonical book of 2/4 Esdras (13:10, 37-38, roughly contemporary with the book of Revelation), where the slaying power of the mouth is presented as fire. There is an interesting parallel here with the fire-breathing plague-army of the sixth Trumpet-vision (Rev 9:13-20).
    • “authority to close the heaven” so that rain does not fall (v. 6)—a clear allusion to the Elijah traditions (1 Kings 17:1; 18:1; Lk 4:25; James 5:17)
    • authority to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with plagues (v. 6)—Moses and the Plagues of Egypt (Exod 7:19, etc)

If verses 3-6 tend to emphasis the heavenly and Messianic character of the two witnesses, verses 7ff more clearly reflect the dual aspect of Jesus-Believers as true and faithful witnesses who are put to death. Their role as Heavenly/Messianic Prophets covers the period of 1,260 days (= 3½ years) during which they prophesy, wearing coarse garments (‘sackcloth’, sa/kko$), marking the coming of the Judgment and urging people to repent. In a sense, this period of preaching/prophesying is similar to that of John the Baptist, as well as Jesus (in his Galilean ministry), both of whom were identified in different ways as the Messianic Prophet (Elijah) who would appear at the end-time. Jesus was also associated with the end-time “Prophet like Moses”, though the Gospel tradition identifies him more closely with the Anointed herald of Isaiah 61:1ff. In any case, it is after this time of prophetic proclamation/ministry, that Jesus comes to Jerusalem and is put to death. This Gospel narrative-matrix is very much at work here in Rev 11:3-14.

At the same time, verses 7ff open up an entirely separate line of imagery as well—that of the beast (i.e. wild animal, qhri/on) who attacks the people of God. It is this visionary conflict which dominates much of the second half of the book (beginning with chapter 12). It is introduced here, without any real explanation or elaboration:

“And when they should complete their witness, the wild (animal) stepping up out of the (pit) without depth [i.e. bottomless pit] will make war with them, and will be victorious (over) them and will kill them off.” (v. 7)

As the “beast” (wild animal) is clearly symbolic in the context of the visions which follow (to be discussed), it stands to reason that the two witness are figurative as well; this would seem to be confirmed by the description in verse 8, where several different images are blended together:

    • The body (singular) of the two witnesses is left laying in the streets of “the great city”, which is further given a hybrid identification:
      • Sodom—traditionally associated with wickedness/immorality (and the judgment which came upon it)
      • Egypt—the land of slavery for the people of God (Israel)
      • Jerusalem—here, literally, “where our Lord was put to the stake [i.e. crucified]”

Some commentators, relying on the last detail, would identify the “great city” flatly as Jerusalem (i.e. the actual city). However, I believe that this is overly simplistic, and, indeed, incorrect. In my view the designation “the great city” is meant as a specific contrast to “the holy city” (i.e. where the Temple is located) in v. 2. By comparison, “the great city” is marked by its “wide (street)s” and wickedness (“Sodom”). It is best to see it as a figure for the wider world—i.e. the “nations”, or, the Roman Empire, according to the (historical) setting of the book. By contrast, believers (the people of God, collectively) are represented by the “holy city” and the Temple-complex (cf. on vv. 1-2 in the previous note). The 3½ years (1,260 days) is also a figurative period, drawn from Old Testament tradition, and represents the coming time of distress (and persecution). During this period, believers are to serve as witness of Jesus to the world (the “great city”); many, like Jesus himself, will be put to death as a result. This is the main association in verse 8, identifying the “great city” as the place “where our Lord was put to the stake”.

The death of the witnesses—that is, the time they remain dead—parallels the period of ministry (3½ days | 3½ years). The people of the “great city” rejoice and celebrate (evoking the Roman Saturnalia festival), even as the body of the witness(es) lies dead and unburied in the street (vv. 9-10). The cruelty and wickedness of humankind could not be more simply and vividly expressed. It is possible that the public spectacle-executions of Christians under Nero is in mind here, serving as a pattern for many other early Christian Martyrdom narratives. The period of 3½ days also serves to bring out more strongly the parallel with the death of Jesus (i.e. the traditional motif of three days); like Jesus, after three days, the two witnesses are raised from the dead (v. 11). The parallel is extended, as the witnesses ascend to heaven (v. 12) in a cloud, just like Jesus (Acts 1:9-11). Their enemies look on as they go up in the cloud, even as the nations will watch as Jesus (the Son of Man) returns in a cloud at the end-time (Rev 1:7)

The vision concludes with judgment striking the people of the “great city”, by way of a “great shaking [i.e. earthquake]”. An earthquake is also tied to Jesus’ death (and resurrection) in Matthew’s version of the Passion narrative (27:51; 28:2). Here, however, the more immediate connection is with the six Trumpet-visions in chapter 9, especially the first four, in which various natural disasters and phenomena destroy/afflict a portion (one-third) of the world. In this vision, the earthquake destroys a tenth of the city, killing seven thousand people (v. 13). It is interesting to note the smaller percentage involved, compared with that in the Trumpet-visions. Almost certainly, this reflects the ministry/witness of the two figures, culminating in their death and resurrection/exaltation. That this is meant to blend together features marking both Jesus and his faithful/true followers (believers), was noted above, and must be maintained as a fundamental aspect of any proper interpretation. This work of witness ultimately has a profoundly positive effect for humankind—limiting the extent of the Judgment, and leading people to repentance and the worship of God. This shift from judgment to worship also characterizes the seventh Trumpet vision, which follows in vv. 15-19 (to be discussed in the next daily note). The closing words of v. 14 effectively enclose the visions of chapters 10-11 back within the structure of seven-vision cycle, repeating the refrain from 9:12 (following the fifth vision):

“The second woe (has) come along—see! the third woe comes quickly!” (v. 14)

This third woe refers to the seventh (final) Trumpet vision, and yet, interestingly, no “woe”, as such, is described in vv. 15-19. It functions, rather, as a literary device, here primarily indicating the end, or completion, of the Judgment visions. With chapter 12, an entirely new mode of visionary expression is introduced, one which restates the Judgment narrative along more traditional-historical lines. Before embarking on that interesting study, it is necessary to examine the final Trumpet vision, which we will do in the next daily note.

June 30: Acts 15:6-11; Gal 1:18; 2:1-11, etc

This is the second of three daily notes commemorating the feast of Peter and Paul (June 29). In the previous day’s note, I looked at several passages in the New Testament and early Christian writings which can be said to reflect opposition between Peter and Paul; today I will be examining passages which more properly represent Christian unity and harmony.

Peter and Paul as a symbol of Church Unity

To begin with, let me briefly summarize the New Testament passages which could reasonably be said to apply to the theme of unity and concord between Peter and Paul:

  • Acts 15:6-11—During the so-called Jerusalem “Council” (which Paul and Barnabas attended, cf. Gal 2:1-10), on the question of whether it was necessary for Gentiles to be circumcised and observe the Law of Moses in order to be part of the Christian Community, Peter affirms the ‘Pauline’ position in no uncertain terms. Note especially the statements in verse 9, that God did not distinguish at all between “us” and “them” (Jews and Gentiles), “cleansing their hearts by trust [i.e. faith]” (the same way); and also verse 11, emphasizing that it is through a gift (or grace) that “we trust to be saved” in the same manner that they (the Gentiles) do. In the earlier narratives in Acts (chapters 10-11), Peter had already been forced to grapple with the issue of the Gentiles coming to Christ (the Cornelius episode, cf. in the series “The Speeches of Acts”), a fact that he references to in vv. 7-8 here.
  • Galatians 1:18—Paul narrates that, several years following his conversion, he visited Jerusalem “to see” (i(storh=sai) Peter (Kefa, the original Aramaic translated by Pe/tro$/Peter, “Rock”). The verb i(store/w has the basic meaning “to gain knowledge/information” from someone; it can be used generally in the sense of “become acquainted with [i.e. get to know] someone”, but here we should probably understand that Paul visited Peter for the purpose of gaining information (such as Jesus traditions, i.e. sayings by the historical Jesus). We should probably infer this, in spite of Paul’s careful claim in v. 17 that he did not consult with anyone in Jerusalem prior to beginning his missionary work. Paul remained with Peter fifteen days, and the two men presumably would have formed some degree of mutual understanding and friendship as a result.
  • Galatians 2:1-10—Most scholars hold that Paul here is describing essentially the same Jerusalem meeting narrated in Acts 15 (above). Whether or not this is so, apparently the meeting ended with an agreement in place, recognizing that Paul was a legitimate missionary (apostle) to the Gentiles, just as Peter was for the Jews (v. 7-9). However, while the episode may have ended harmoniously, to some degree, there is considerable tension in the way Paul tells the story, especially the manner in which he repeatedly refers to the leaders of the Jerusalem Church (including James, Peter, and John) as “the ones thought/considered to be (something)” (cf. esp. verse 6)—on this, see the previous note.
  • Galatians 2:11-12—Even though Paul is describing opposition between himself and Peter in vv. 11-14ff, the context implies that previously they had been on good (or at least better) terms. Prior to the arrival of “men from James”, Peter, it would seem, had been spending time and working (harmoniously with Paul) among the Gentile believers in Antioch.
  • 2 Peter 3:15-16—The author of the epistle (indicated as Peter, 1:1) refers to Paul as “our beloved brother”, mentioning his “wisdom” and the letters (epistles) which he has written (apparently regarding these as authoritative Scripture). However, it should be noted that many commentators (including most critical scholars) believe that 2 Peter is pseudonymous, having been written some time later, after Peter’s death. Even if one were to accept the critical view, it would still be an indication of Peter and Paul being brought together in a positive, unifying manner, in early tradition.

According to Christian tradition, Peter and Paul were both put to death in Rome as martyrs for the faith. Their martyrdom is hinted at, though nowhere specified, in the New Testament—for Peter cf. John 21:18-19; for Paul cf. Acts 20:22-38; 2 Tim 4:6-8. As for the association with Rome, at the end of the book of Acts, Paul is under house arrest in the imperial city, though there is some evidence (in Scripture and tradition) that he may have been released (only to be arrested later a second time). According to 1 Pet 5:13, Peter would seem to be in “Babylon”, often thought to be a code (or cipher) in the New Testament for Rome and the Roman Empire. There is some question among scholars as to whether Peter actually was in Rome, but there can be no doubt that, by the late-first and early-second century, there was a well-established tradition associating both apostles with the imperial city. This is specified in Clement’s epistle (from the Roman church) to the Corinthians (1 Clement 5)—where mention is also made of their martyrdom—and in Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the church of Rome (Rom 4:3).

Eusebius, writing in the early 4th century, mentions Peter’s presence in Rome (Church History II.14-15) but gives us scant information about it; the tradition that he followed after Simon Magus is not especially reliable (see the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies for similar traditions, cf. the previous note). In II.25, Eusebius records that both Peter and Paul were put to death during the persecution of Christians under Nero—Paul having been beheaded, Peter crucified—though for earlier witnesses to this he cites only the presbyter Gaius (as to their memorials on the Ostian Way) and a letter from Dionysius bishop of Corinth (a general notice). In III.1, mention is made again of their martyrdom in Rome, along with the detail that Peter was crucified upside down at his own request. The Liberian catalog (list of Popes) from 354 A.D. records the deposition of the remains of Peter and Paul in the middle of the 3rd century.

Peter and Paul, joined together, proved to be a popular image of Christian unity and solidarity, especially within the Roman Catholic tradition. In Rome and its environs, a multitude of churches and monuments have been constructed over the centuries, most notably the great basilicas of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s. Also in the visual arts of the Medieval and Renaissance period—in both Western and Eastern tradition—Petrine and Pauline images and themes often appear together. An especially noble and poignant motif is that of Peter and Paul standing together, or embracing, as below (and in the Note of the Day header above).

PeterPaul

The Speeches of Acts, Part 11: Acts 7:1-53ff (continued)

In the previous two parts of this series (9 and 10), I examined the background and setting of Stephen’s speech, the Narrative Introduction (Acts 6:8-15; 7:1), and the Introductory Address (7:2-42a) which includes the lengthy summary of Israelite history (and the last section of which [on Moses] I discussed in some detail). In this part, I will treat the remainder of the speech, beginning with the citation from Scripture in verses 42b-43.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)

Though the length of the prior historical summary might suggest otherwise, the Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27) here is as central to Stephen’s speech as that of the prior sermon-speeches in Acts, for it begins to address (somewhat more directly) the charges against Stephen regarding the Temple and the Law. The version of Amos 5:25-27 more or less matches that of the Greek LXX, with two minor differences, and two more significant ones:

    • v. 42 has reversed the order of “in the desert” [e)n th=| e)rh/mw|] and “forty years” [e&th tessera/konta]
    • MSS B D (and several others) read “of the god” instead of “of your god” in v. 43, omitting the pronoun u(mw=n
    • v. 43 read “to worship them [proskunei=n au)toi=$]” instead of “yourselves” [e(autoi=$]
    • the conclusion of the citation, “upon those (further parts) of…” [i.e. beyond, past], Acts reads “Babylon” instead of “Damascus” in Amos 5:27, making it relate more directly to the Babylonian exile (which involved the destruction of the Temple)

The Greek version itself appears to be corrupt, having misread (and/or misunderstood) the twin references in Amos 5:26:

    1. <k#K=l=m^ tWKs! (sikkû¾ malk®½em), “Sakkut your king”
      th\n skhnh\n tou= Molox, “the tent of Moloch”
    2. <k#yh@ýa$ bk^oK /WYK! (kiyyûn kô½a» °§lœhê½em), “Kaiwan, star of your god”, or “Kaiwan your star-god”
      to\ a&stron tou= qeou= u(mw=n Raifan, “the star of your god Raiphan”

In the first expression, (a) MT twks was read rel. to hK*s% (s¥kkâ), “woven-shelter [i.e. hut, booth, tent]”, whereas it should almost certainly be understood as the Assyrian-Babylonian deity Sakkut [vocalized tWKs^, sakkû¾]; and (b) “(your) king”, where the MT ilm was vocalized/read as the proper name “Moloch”. In the second expression, it is generally assumed that an original transliteration Kaifan (Kaiphan) became Raifan/Refan (Raiphan/Rephan); in some (Western) MSS of Acts it reads Remfan (Remphan), while in B a3 it is Romfa–n— (Rompha[n]). “Sakkut” and “Kaiwan” are names of Assyrian/Babylonian astral deities (the latter [kayawânu] being the name for the planet Saturn). In the original Hebrew of Amos, the word <k#ym@l=x^ (ƒalmê½em), “your images”, despite its positioning, probably meant to refer to both deities; it is possible, of course, that there is also corruption in the Hebrew MT. Amos 5:26-27 is quoted, more or less following the MT vocalization, in the Damascus Document [CD MS A] 7:14ff, but applied in a very peculiar way (in connection with Amos 9:11).

Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50)

Also unusual is the interpretation which Stephen (and/or the author of Acts) gives to these verses, for it differs significantly from the original context (though far less markedly than that of CD). Amos 5:18-24, 25-27 is part of a series of Woe-oracles pronouncing judgment against Israel (primarily the northern kingdom, under Jeroboam II, centered in Samaria). Verses 18-20 speak of the day of YHWH, how it will come suddenly and unexpectedly—hitting God’s own people right where they live. Verses 21-24 emphasize that God’s judgment extends even to Israel’s religion: He will not accept their worship and sacrificial offering—a theme found elsewhere in the Prophets, most famously in Isaiah 1:10-17. The implication, indicated by the exhortation in Amos 5:24, is that the people are not living and acting according to justice/righteousness. This is expressed most strikingly in Jeremiah 7:1-26, where condemnation is especially harsh against those who act wickedly and yet continue to participate in the religious ritual (esp. vv. 9-11). The current corruption of religion, according to the prophet, is apparently contrasted with the wilderness period (Amos 5:25): at that time Israel did not present sacrificial offerings (those began only when the people arrived in the promised land)—a much better situation than the corrupt (and idolatrous) worship currently being offered up (v. 26)! It is not entirely clear whether or not we should take v. 26 literally: were the Israelites actually worshiping these Assyrian deities, or are the expressions meant to symbolize the idolatrous character of the ritual (corrupted by unrighteousness and injustice). Either is possible—Jeremiah 7:9-10, for example, mentions actual idolatry (Baal worship) together with moral corruption, whereas Isa 1:10ff emphasizes the ethical side.

In Stephen’s speech in Acts, a rather different point of view is implied: during the wilderness period, the Israelites did not offer sacrifices to God (even though they should have!), and instead actually practiced idolatry during those years. This idolatry began with the Golden Calf (7:40-41), whereupon God “gave them over” (v. 42) to worship the heavenly bodies (sun, moon, and stars, etc). However, it would seem that this interpretation is not so much historical as it is rhetorical (and didactic); note the pattern, which I extend to the verses (vv. 44-47) which follow:

    • Failure to obey Moses in the wilderness—idolatry (the Golden Calf), vv. 39-41
      • The (portable) tent of witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness, following God’s words to Moses, vv. 44-45
      • David and Solomon seek instead to build a (fixed) house (Temple) for God, vv. 46-47
    • The people are “given over” to more serious and persistent idolatry (leading to the Exile), vv. 42ff

The history of Israel, then, is depicted according to two different progressions—one involving idolatry and corruption of religion (the outer pair above), the other involving the building of a house (temple) for God (the inner pair). That these are meant to be understood in parallel (and corresponding terms) becomes even more clear if one includes the Scripture citation (of Isaiah 66:1-2) that follows in vv. 49-50 and present them in sequence:

    • Failure to obey Moses’ words—beginning of idolatry, vv. 39-41
      • The people are given over to more serious idolatry, v. 42a
        • Citation from Amos 5:25-27, in vv. 42b-43
    • A portable Tent, according to God’s instruction to Moses—beginnings of a “house”, vv. 44-45
      • Construction of a more permanent (fixed) house for God, vv. 46-47
        • Citation from Isaiah 66:1-2, in vv. 49-50

The interpretative key to all this is found in verse 48, which summarizes the Isaiah passage that follows:

“but the Highest does not put down house [i.e. dwell] in (buildings) made with hands…”

Isa 66:1-2 is part of an eschatological/idealized vision of a “new Jerusalem” in 65:17ff, where the people live in peace and harmony in relationship with God. Verses 1-4 of chap. 66 shift the focus to religious worship, questioning the very purpose and value of the Temple and its ritual. Acts cites vv. 1-2a precisely according to the LXX, except for ti$ to/po$ (“what place”) instead of poi=o$ to/po$ (“what sort of place”). The two principal nouns in v. 1—oi@ko$ (“house”) and  to/po$ (“place”)—are commonly used of the Temple. Verses 3-4 identify the ritual sacrifices (offered at the Temple) with outright wickedness, to the point of referring to the (prescribed) ritual as a “miserable” (/w#a*) and “detestable” (JWQv!) thing—both words can be euphemisms for idolatry. This echoes a regular prophetic theme that religious worship is worthless (even detestable) in God’s eyes if it is not accompanied by (personal and communal) righteousness and justice, or if it is similarly corrupted by idolatrous behavior; Jeremiah 7 provides perhaps the most striking example (see above). Isaiah 66:1-5 has a clear parallel earlier in the book (Isa 1:10-17), only here we find a more direct declaration of true worship (in 66:2b):

“This (is the one) I will look on [i.e. give attention to]—to (the one who is) humble/lowly and stricken of spirit/breath and trembling upon my word”

This very much prefigures the language of Jesus in the Beatitudes (and elsewhere in his teaching), and it is significant that Jesus himself says very little about the Temple and its ritual—the few statements which are preserved in the Gospels tend to be critical, such as the citation of Hos 6:6 in Matt 9:13; Mark 12:33 par and the sayings associated with the “cleansing” of the Temple in Mark 11:15-17 par (citing Isa 56:7; Jer 7:11). Keep in mind that in John’s account of the Temple “cleansing”, Jesus uttered a saying similar to that reported during his ‘trial’: “loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine and in three days I will raise it (again)” (Jn 2:19). Of course, such a claim was also part of the charge against Stephen (Acts 6:13-14).

This brings us to a key motif in Stephen’s speech: the idea of the Temple as something “made with hands”; note the references:

    • the charge against Stephen in Acts 6:13-14 echoes the saying of Jesus reported at his trial (and partially confirmed by John 2:19); the Markan version of this saying has an interesting detail (italicized):
      “I will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine made with hands [xeiropoi/hton] and within three days I will build another house made without hands [a)xeiropoi/hton]” (Mk 14:58)
    • in the speech (7:41), the Golden Calf (and, by extension, any idol) is cited as “the works of their hands” (ta e&rga tw=n xeirw=n au)tw=n)
    • the Tent of Witness (v. 44f), i.e. the Tabernacle, is viewed positively (much moreso than the Temple) in the speech, yet it too is something “made” (poie/w); in the Life of Moses II. 88, Philo refers to the Tent with the same expression “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
    • in verse 48, the Temple is specifically referred to in terms of a house “made with hands” (xeiropoi/hto$)
    • the citation of Isa 66:2a [LXX] in verse 50, by contrast, refers to God as the one whose hand (xei/r) has “made (e)poi/hsen) all these things [i.e. all creation]”

The statement in verse 48 was a truism actually well-understood by ancient people—that the invisible, transcendent Deity did not “dwell” in human-built shrines in an actual, concrete sense. This was admitted by king Solomon at the dedication of the Jerusalem Temple, as recorded in 1 Kings 8:27 (cf. 2 Chron 2:6; Jos. Ant. 8.107). A physical temple or shrine represented a religious accommodation toward human limitations, a way for human beings to relate to God in time and space, by ritual means; however, like any human institution (even one divinely appointed), it was prone to corruption and abuse. Temple priests (and/or the religious-political leaders who controlled them) were often powerful (even wealthy) persons who exercised considerable influence over ancient society. Jesus’ harshest words were directed toward the religious leadership, and the fiercest opponents of Jesus (and early Christians in Jerusalem) were the “Chief Priests” who controlled much of the Temple establishment. Beyond this, however, we do find here, to some degree, strong criticism against the Temple itself, which I will discuss in the next (concluding) part of this series on Stephen’s speech.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53)

Instead of the exhortation in the sermon-speech pattern, we have here a harsh and vehement accusation toward those in the audience (the Sanhedrin), which proceeds along three points (still drawing upon the historical summary):

    1. they “fall against” [i.e. resist/oppose] the holy Spirit—as their fathers did (v. 51)
    2. they became ones who betrayed and murdered the “Just One” [Jesus]—as their fathers pursued and killed the prophets (v. 52)
    3. they received the Law (as a divine revelation), but did not keep it—along with their fathers (implied) (v. 53)

Several of the expressions in verse 51 are taken straight from the Old Testament:

The particle a)ei (“always”, i.e. continually, regularly) connects the current people (esp. their leaders) with those in the past who rebelled against God. Opposition to the Holy Spirit (by persecuting the Christians) is the most prominent, immediate transgression—from this, Stephen works backward:

Verse 52—their role in the death of Jesus (“the Just [One]”, di/kaio$, cf. 3:14), which has led them to become “betrayers” (prodo/tai, [ones] giving [Jesus] before [the Roman authorities]) and “murderers” (fonei=$)
Verse 53—even prior to this, by implication, they had not kept the Law (of Moses); it is not certain just what is meant by this: from an early Christian standpoint, rejection of Jesus was tantamount to rejecting the Law and Prophets, but whether he is charging them otherwise with ethical or ritual transgressions is hard to say.
For the idea of the Law having been delivered by heavenly Messengers (Angels), cf. Deut 33:2 LXX; Jubilees 1:27-29; Jos. Antiquities 15.136; Galatians 3:19; Heb 2:2 and earlier in Acts 7:38.

Narrative Summary (7:54-8:1a)

The reaction is similar to that in Acts 5:33, with the same phrase being used:

and having heard these things, they were cut/sawn through [diepri/onto] in their hearts…”

In the earlier narrative, Gamaliel is able to prevent the crowd from taking violent action (5:34ff); here the hostility builds as they “grind/gnash their teeth upon him”. Verse 55 picks up from 6:15, emphasizing that Stephen was under the power of God (“full of the holy Spirit”), and stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] into heaven, he saw a vision of Jesus standing at the right-hand of God. The image of Jesus having been raised and exalted to the “right hand” of God in Heaven was an important piece of early Christian preaching (influenced by Psalm 110:1), as seen previously in Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31. It is hard to say whether there is any special significance to Jesus standing (normally he is described as seated), but it certainly adds to the dramatic effect, and may draw greater attention to the “Son of Man” connection.

In describing his vision (v. 56), Stephen refers to Jesus as the Son of Man (ui(o\$ tou= a)nqrw/pou), the only use of this title in the New Testament by someone other than Jesus himself. This is curious, and may reflect authentic historical detail, however, it is just as likely that the reference is primarily literary—to enhance the parallel between the trial/death of Jesus and Stephen; note:

    • the setting before the Sanhedrin
    • the (false) charges, and their similarity—6:11, 13-14; Mark 14:55-58 par
    • mention of the Son of Man at the right hand (of God)—v. 56; Luke 22:69 par
    • the prayer, after Psalm 31:6—v. 59; Luke 23:46
    • the loud cry before death—v. 60; Luke 23:46
    • the prayer for forgiveness—v. 60; Luke 23:34

There certainly would seem to be some degree of conscious patterning here. The dramatic moment leading to the execution (by stoning) is described vividly in verse 57:

“and crying (out) with a great voice, they held together their ears and with one impulse [o(moqumado/n] rushed (ahead) upon him…”

The adverb o(moqumado/n was used repeatedly in the early chapters of Acts (1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12; cf. also 8:6; 15:25) as a keyword to express the unity and solidarity of believers in Jerusalem; here it is used in an entirely opposite sense—to depict a (unified) opposition against Christ (cf. also 18:12; 19:29). Here, opposition has finally broken into open violence against Christians. The mention of Saul in 7:58 and 8:1a sets the stage for the intense, if short-lived, persecution which follows (8:1-4; 11:19a).

By way of conclusion, I will discuss some key points of criticism and overall interpretation of the speech in the next part of this series.

The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus: The Temple (Part 1)

The second Day of Christmas (Dec 26) is also the holy day (feast) of St. Stephen—deacon of the earliest church and first Christian martyr (Acts 6:1-8:1f). Sometimes his martyrdom is associated thematically with the “massacre of the Innocents” (Matthew 2:16-20), but otherwise there is little connection between Stephen and the Infancy Narratives. As I am going to be treating Stephen’s speech (or sermon) in detail as part of a series on the Speeches in the Book of Acts; here I will discuss only the theme of the Temple (7:44ff), as the Jerusalem Temple plays a key role in the Lukan Infancy narratives (ch. 1-2).

The view and place of the Temple in early Christianity is an extremely complex question, one particularly complicated by several historical factors:

  • Jews of the period (such as the Community of the Qumran texts), occasionally leveled strong criticism against the current priesthood and Temple cult (though not necessarily the Temple itself); these critiques have a biblical basis, and can already be found in the Old Testament Prophets (see below).
  • The conflicts between Jews and early Christians, often resulted in harsh polemic, some of which is preserved in the Gospels and New Testament itself; this must be judged and analyzed most carefully.
  • Portions of the New Testament were written in the shadow of the Jewish Revolt (66-70 A.D.) and the destruction of the Temple—this event would have a profound effect on Christian views of Judaism in the late-first and early-second centuries (see esp. the Epistle to the Hebrews and the so-called Epistle of Barnabas).

The relationship of Jesus himself to the Temple is also hotly debated in many quarters; however, at least two points are fairly certain (on purely objective grounds):

  • Jesus acted in a symbolic (and shocking) fashion on at least one occasion in the Temple—the so-called “cleansing” of the Temple, recorded in all four Gospels (Mark 11:12-19 par.; John 2:12-22). The precise interpretation and significance of this event is still disputed, with three different explanations offered in the Gospels themselves (Mark 9:17 par.; John 2:[16], 17; and John 2:18-22).
  • Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:1-2 par.); this is confirmed, presumably from a separate line of tradition, in the Passion narrative of Jesus’ appearance before the high council (Sanhedrin) (cf. Mark 14:57-59; 15:29 and par.). Underlying the charge against him at the ‘trial’ must be a saying akin to that in John 2:19, which implies not only the destruction of the Temple but that Jesus will raise/build it again (“made without [human] hands”, a)xeiropoi/hto$ in the claim of Mark 14:58). Interestingly, Luke does not include this claim (regarding the Temple) in his account of the Sanhedrin session (see below related to this point).

In Stephen’s conflict with the Jewish authorities and crowds, there may have been a similar “threatening” statement regarding the future of the Temple, judging from the claim recorded in Acts 6:13-14; this claim has two parts:

(a) he utters words against [this] Holy Place [i.e. the Temple] and the Law, and
(b) he says that Jesus will

[i.] unloose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this [Holy] Place and
[ii.] alter the customs which Moses has passed down.

This ‘trial’ matches that of Jesus’ before the Sanhedrin in many ways, and the narrative may have been consciously shaped to this end by the author of Acts (trad. Luke). The high priest asks Stephen “if these things (said about you) should be held thus [i.e. are true]?” and this is the setting which introduces the famous speech of chapter 7—a sermon couched within a history lesson. Many scholars have noted that the long summary of Old Testament history is a strange response for such a setting, and, indeed, seems not to answer the high priest’s question in v. 1. However, if one studies the speech itself closely, there is an implicit answer by the time one reaches verse 44. Note the following:

  • The section on Moses (vv. 30-38) presents an entirely positive view of the Law and “customs”, at least as it they are described in v. 38, in light of the Sinai revelation—that Moses “received living words/accounts [lo/gia] to give to us”. This concludes what may be deemed the first (positive) half of the speech, centered upon the Patriarchs (Abraham–Moses).
  • The remainder of the speech (vv. 39-53) emphasizes the negative side of Israelite history, which starts with a failure to obey the revelation given to Moses (v. 39). There are three sections to this half of the speech:
    • The idolatry of Israel in the wilderness (vv. 39-43), which ends with a quotation from Amos 5:25-27
    • The building of the Temple, contrasted with the (divinely ordained) Tent (vv. 44-50), which also ends with a quotation (Isaiah 66:1-2)
    • An extremely harsh condemnation of Israel’s disobedience (vv. 51-53)
  • The concluding words in verse 53 especially make clear that what is at issue is not the Law (of Moses) as such, but the people’s refusal to obey it.

The real difficulty (and ambiguity), however, comes just at the point of verse 44—that is, the place and nature of the Temple. The logic of vv. 43-44 seems to work at two levels:

  • The Tent (Tabernacle) is contrasted with the idol-worship during the wilderness period—both are according to a tu/po$ (“stamp, pattern”): the idols according to the figures [pl.] of pagan deities (v. 43), the Tent (skhnh/) according to the pattern [sing.] which Moses saw revealed by God.
  • The Temple appears to be set parallel to the idol-worship of the wilderness period: just as Israel failed to obey the divinely-established Law and followed after idols (vv. 39-43), so Israel failed to continue with the divinely-established Tent and had (under Solomon) a Temple built (vv. 44-50).

This last point many traditional-conservative commentators would dispute, for it runs contrary to much of the Old Testament with its strong emphasis on the positive, divinely-authorized nature of the Solomonic Temple; and yet a comparison of verses 39-43 and 44-50 would seem imply, at the very least, some sort of criticism against the Temple, especially if one looks at the similar positioning of the two Scripture passages: Amos 5:25-27 (which condemns idolatry and the “shrine” of ‘Moloch’) and Isaiah 66:1-2 (which questions the necessity and value of a “house” for God).

Interestingly, much of this ambiguity surrounding the Temple actually exists within the older strands of Scripture going back (very nearly) to the time of David and Solomon. Consider:

  • In Solomon’s prayer of dedication (cf. esp. 1 Kings 8:27ff), he asks much the same question we see in Isa 66:1-2ff. Only the emphasis in the former passage is one of humility in the face of God’s greatness, requesting the Almighty to condescend to be present with his people on earth. In the latter passage, the very Temple cult or ritual is debased in comparison with the importance of personal character and right behavior before God (see Isa 1:10-17ff for similar themes).
  • The oracle of Nathan in 2 Samuel 7: verses 1-7 appear to oppose the idea of building a permanent ‘house’ for God, while verses 11b-16 seem to support the building of such a house (Temple). Many critical scholars hold that an earlier anti-Temple oracle has been joined with a pro-Temple one, by means of vv. 8-11a to create a harmonious whole. It is a matter of considerable debate; traditional-conservative scholars would tend to accept the harmonious (or harmonizing) view of the ‘final’ text as original and authentic. For a good overview of the classic critical position (and variations thereof), along with some detailed notes, see F. M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History and Religion of Israel (Harvard:1973, 1997), pp. 241-261.

If one were to read Acts 7:44-50 in light of (the critical interpretation) of 2 Samuel 7:1-16, one would detect a similar emphasis: the Tent as a moveable (and temporary) dwelling was God’s intention, rather than a (permanent) house of cedar and stone. If this is the direction of Stephen’s argument, it may explain a curious textual variant in Acts 7:46 (variation unit in italics):

…David, 46who found favor in the eye/face of [i.e. before] God and asked to find a tent for the house of Jacob

This seems to be the best reading, supported a wide range of early witnesses (Ë74 a* B D sahpt al), while other manuscripts and versions read “…for the God of Jacob“. Most likely, scribes found the idiom “house of Jacob” difficult to understand in this context and “corrected” it to “God of Jacob”. But what does it mean to have a tent “for the house of Jacob”? If one understands “house” as a euphemism for the Temple, an intentional contrast may be at work here—as if to say: the Tent is for the people (of Israel), not for God (who has no need of a tent-dwelling), so that they can worship Him; to make the dwelling permanent (and ornate) may put Israel on the path toward a kind of idolatry. A developed, commercialized Temple ritual only increases the danger for priestly corruption and abuse, which was indeed a common complaint in the New Testament period. When one adds to this the fact that the priests and religious authorities played a role in Jesus’ execution, and were now persecuting his followers, the polemic force of Stephen’s speech here can be appreciated. In a purely Christian sense, spiritualizing the argument, we might say that as believers we ourselves, and together, are the (true) Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16-17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16; also Eph 2:21).

Of the four Gospels, Luke has the most positive overall presentation of the Temple. As indicated above, the Lukan account of Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Sanhedrin does not include the claim about destroying and rebuilding the Temple, nor does it contain any such saying of Jesus (John 2:19); however it does contain the “cleansing” scene (though much shorter, Luke 19:45-46) and the prediction of destruction (Luke 21:5-6). In between these two episodes, Luke specifically indicates that Jesus taught in the Temple every day (19:47-48, cf. partial parallel in Matt 21:14f, 23 and Mark 13:1 par.). Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the disciples were in the Temple “through it all (i.e. continually)”, blessing (and praising) God. The apostles are likewise recorded worshiping in the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (Acts 2:46; 3:1ff; 5:20ff), while Jewish Christians in Jerusalem continue to frequent the Temple (Acts 21:26ff).

The Temple plays an even more prominent role in the Lukan Infancy narrative. It is the setting of three major espisodes:

  1. The heavenly Messenger (Gabriel) appears to Zechariah while he serves in the Temple, in the Sanctuary (Holy Place), at the time of prayer (probably during the afternoon/evening sacrifice), to announce the coming birth of John (Luke 1:5-25).
  2. The infant Jesus is ‘presented’ at the Temple, where Mary and Joseph encounter two devout figures (Simeon and Anna) who represent Israel’s faith and ‘Messianic’ hope (of which Jesus is seen as the fulfillment) (Luke 2:22-38).
  3. The boy Jesus in the Temple (“…it is necessary for me to be in/among the [things] of my Father”) (Luke 2:41-50)

The significance of the Temple in the Lukan Infancy Narrative will be discussed in more detail when we come to the key passages in chapter 2—vv. 22ff, 41ff—in subsequent notes.