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).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 1 (Matt 19:28; Lk 22:28-30)

Here I will be looking specifically at the tradition of the Twelve Disciples (or Apostles), in terms of the significance (and symbolism) of the number twelve.

As mentioned in the previous note, the tradition of Twelve Disciples, representing the circle of Jesus’ closest followers, is extremely well established in early Christian tradition. The number is clearly fixed, even if the specific names which make up the list differ. Apart from the references to the calling of the Twelve (discussed in prior notes), they are mentioned as a group numerous times in the Synoptic Gospels, in passages which almost certainly derive from more than one strand of tradition. They are also mentioned twice in the Gospel of John, in 6:67-71 (cf. the previous note) and 20:24. Beyond the passage in Acts 1:12-26, they are mentioned as a group in 6:2, and are likely to be meant by the use of the expression “the apostles” (oi( a)po/stoloi), at least in the first half of the book (cf. 1:2; 2:42-43; 4:33ff; 5:2, etc). Paul also refers to “the Twelve” in 1 Cor 15:5.

The Significance of the Twelve

An obvious explanation as to the significance of the number Twelve, lies in an association with the twelve Tribes of Israel. Indeed, this is the only explanation which the New Testament itself offers. An intriguing critical question has been whether (or to what extent) this association (with its symbolism) goes back to Jesus himself. A careful examination of the evidence, however slight, suggests that, on objective grounds, it most likely does. There is one tradition in the Synoptic Gospels which makes a connection between the Apostles and the Tribes of Israel clear.

Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:28-30

Here we have a parallel saying by Jesus, which, according to most (critical) commentators, is part of the so-called “Q” material—that is, traditions shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. The two ‘versions’ appear in very different locations of the Gospel narrative, but share the same basic meaning and significance—referring to the reward which will come to Jesus’ close disciples (i.e. the Twelve) for following him faithfully, to the end. The setting in Matthew is the discussion Jesus has with Peter and the other disciples (19:23ff) in the aftermath of the encounter with the ‘Rich Young Ruler’ (19:16-22). Both episodes are part of the wider Synoptic tradition, as represented by Mark 10:17-31 (cp. Lk 18:18-30). The Matt 19:28 saying is essentially ‘inserted’ between Mk 10:28 & 29; compare:

“And the Rock {Peter} began to give account [i.e. relate/say] to him [i.e. Jesus], ‘See, we released [i.e. left] all (thing)s and have followed you.’ Yeshua said (to him), ‘Amen, I give (this) out [i.e. relate/say] to you: (that) there is no one who (has) released [i.e. left] house or brothers or sisters or mother or offspring or fields on behalf of me…'” (Mk 10:28-29)

“Then the Rock {Peter}, giving forth (an answer), said to him, ‘See, we released all (thing)s and followed you. What, then, will there be for us?’ And Yeshua said to him, ‘Amen, I give (this) out [i.e. say/relate] to you: that you, the ones following me (will) …. judging the twelve stems [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael. And every one who (has) released [i.e. left] houses…on behalf of my name…'” (Matt 19:27-29)

The Matthean ‘additions’ are marked in blue—consisting of the saying in v. 28, and the additional words by Peter which allow for the saying to make sense in the narrative context. Here is the saying in full:

“You, the ones following me, in the (time of) coming to be (born) back (again), when the Son of Man should sit upon his seat (of rule) (in) splendor, you also will sit upon twelve (ruling) seats, judging the twelve stems [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

The idea is clear enough—the reward of the Twelve will be to rule over the Twelve Tribes of Israel in the Age to Come. The Greek word paliggenesi/a literally means “coming to be back (again)”, in the sense of coming to be born again, i.e. rebirth (or regeneration). It occurs only once elsewhere in the New Testament (Titus 3:5), where it carries the specific idea of spiritual rebirth (by the Spirit) for believers. Already in ancient Greek (esp. Stoic) philosophy, it was used in an eschatological sense for the renewal of the world at the end of the (current) Age. It also had the basic denotation of “rebirth” for the human soul, whether concretely (reincarnation/metempsychosis) or in a spiritual/symbolic sense (in the Mystery religions, etc). For Greek-speaking Jews, both aspects came to be combined into the idea of the resurrection which would take place at the end of the Age, following the time of God’s Judgment upon the world.

The parallel saying in Luke (22:28-30) is set during the “Last Supper” shared by Jesus and his close followers in Jerusalem. Again, this appears to be a Lukan ‘insertion’ into the core Synoptic narrative. It is actually part of a collection of teaching and instruction, given by Jesus to his disciples, which is unique to Luke’s Gospel in this particular context. Verses 24-30, with the joining v. 23, are included after the narrative corresponding to Mark 14:17-25 (22:14-22). Similarly, verses 35-38 come after Mk 14:26-31 (22:31-34). Whatever else one may say about it, the location of vv. 28-30 is striking, occurring just after the saying(s) of vv. 25-27, for which there is a Synoptic parallel (the episode of Mk 10:35-45 par), albeit in a different narrative setting. The dispute between the disciples in v. 24, along with the teaching (on discipleship) which follows in vv. 25-27, are juxtaposed with Jesus’ woe against the disciple who betrays the Son of Man (vv. 21-23). These verses appear after the dedication of the bread/cup, instead of before (as in Mark/Matthew). Note the way this juxtaposition appears in Luke:

    • Saying of Woe for the disciple who betrays the Son of Man (vv. 21-22)
      —the disciples begin to discuss/debate among one another as to who this betrayer could be (v. 23)
      —the disciples begin to dispute which one of them should be considered the greatest (v. 24)
    • Instruction for the disciples—the ideal/importance of humility and sacrificial service (vv. 25-27)

Whether or not this order of events is strictly historical, it certainly creates a powerful literary (and artistic) effect. The implication of the teaching in vv. 25-27 is that the disciple who rejects it, seeking his own interests and importance, is like the disciple who betrays Jesus. The saying corresponding to Matt 19:28 follows in vv. 28-30:

“But you, the ones having remained throughout with me, in the (time)s of my testing, I will also set through(out) for you—even as my Father set through for me—a kingdom, (so) that you might eat and drink upon my table in my kingdom, and you will sit upon seats (of rule), judging the twelve stems [i.e. tribes] of Yisrael.”

The italicized portions correspond most directly with Matt 19:28, the remainder being unique to the Lukan version. Some critical commentators would hold that the non-italicized words simply reflect the author’s adaptation of the “Q” saying to the context of the Last Supper. If so, then the reading “seats” instead of “twelve seats” is likely also an adaptation to account for the betrayal by Judas. A more traditional-conservative approach to the matter would, almost certainly, require that two distinct sayings, which just happen to be similar to one another, are involved.

Regardless of the historical-critical question, the essential meaning of the core saying in both ‘versions’ is the same. This raises an entirely different problem of interpretation, which I will address in the next note.