The Speeches of Acts, Part 7: Acts 5:27-32

Acts 5:27-32 is the sixth speech in the book of Acts (by my reckoning), and the fifth given by Peter. A careful study of the speeches in the book to this point reveals something of the way the author incorporates them into the overall structure, central to each major narrative section. For an outline of how this functions in chapters 3-4, see parts 5 and 6 of this series. In Acts 3-4 there are three main (connected) narrative sections, each of which contains a speech (following a basic sermon-speech pattern); here in chapter 5, there are two speeches set side-by-side within an extended narrative:

    • Narrative Summary (5:12-16), which follows upon the narrative in 5:1-11, and emphasizes healing miracles performed by Peter and the Apostles.
    • Main narrative (5:17-26), centered on the Apostles’ miraculous release from prison, and divided into two parts:
      (1) vv. 17-21: The arrest of the Apostles (miracle)—who are told (by the Messenger) to go and  preach in the Temple
      (2) vv. 22-26: Officials go to the prison (result/reaction)—told (by a messenger) to go to the Temple, where the Apostles are preaching
    • Speech of Peter (5:27-32) before the Sanhedrin
    • Narrative transition (5:33)
    • Speech of Gamaliel (5:34-40) to the Sanhedrin
    • Narrative Conclusion (5:41-42)

There are some significant parallels to the narrative in chs. 3-4:

    • Context of healing miracle(s)—3:1-10; 5:12, 15-16
    • The Temple setting—3:1ff; 5:20-21, 25-26
    • The Apostles (including Peter) are taken into custody by the religious/temple authorities—4:1-3; 5:17-18
    • The Apostles appear before the religious leaders (the Sanhedrin) and are interrogated—4:5ff; 5:27ff
    • Question/Address by the High Priest—4:7; 5:28
    • Response/Speech by Peter—4:8-12; 5:29-32
    • Peter’s response esp. in 4:19-20; 5:29
    • The Apostles are released (4:21; 5:40) and rejoice/worship together (4:23ff; 5:41-42)

There is clearly a narrative pattern at work here; critical scholars debate the extent to which this matches historical reality (two separate, but similar incidents) or is a literary doublet (based on a single historical incident or tradition). It has even been suggested that the Sanhedrin setting is a literary construct, patterned after Jesus’ ‘trial’ in the Passion narratives, and added for dramatic effect. This would possibly be more likely here in chapter 5, where vv. 26, 33 suggest something of a mob scene, with the ‘Sanhedrin’ setting of vv. 27ff conceivably inserted by the author (cf. the similar setting around Stephen’s speech in chapter 7). There are also literary/narrative parallels between 5:17-21 and Peter’s miraculous (Angelic) release from prison in Acts 12:6-11.

Here is an outline of Peter’s speech in Acts 5:27-32:

    • Narrative Introduction (vv. 27-28), including a question/address by the High Priest (par. to 4:8).
    • Introductory Address (v. 29)
    • {Citation from Scripture} (vv. 30-31)—instead of a direct Scripture citation, there is a central kerygmatic statement, with an allusion to Deut 21:22-23 in v. 30b.
    • Concluding Exhortation (v. 32), with the conclusion of the kerygma and an application to the current situation.
    • {Narrative Summary}—v.33 is a narrative transition to the speech of Gamaliel in vv. 34ff.

Narrative Introduction (vv. 27-28)—this is parallel to Acts 4:5-7, but told in abbreviated form. Here they are simply brought before the “Sanhedrin” (sune/drion, “sitting together”), i.e. the council of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Again they are questioned/interrogated (e)perwta/w, the vb. punqa/nomai in 4:7) by the High Priest, who is not named (Annas and Caiaphas are listed among the Chief Priests who question the Apostles in 4:5-7). It is not clear that verse 28 is actually a question; many of the best manuscripts read:

“We gave along the message to you not to teach upon this name [i.e. of Jesus]…”

Some MSS include the negative particle ou) which would more properly make it a question: “Did we not give along the message to you…?”; however, the negative particle is probably a (scribal) addition to better fit the context of v. 27. The Greek paraggeli/a| parhggei/lamen—literally, “we gave along (as a) message a message given along”—highly redundant in English, reflects Hebrew syntax, with the duplication (using an infinitive absolute form) serving to intensify the main verb; i.e. in English, “we clearly/certainly gave you the message not to teach…!” The verb paragge/llw (parangéllœ, “give/pass along a message”) often has the meaning “pass on an order”, and so generally, “order, command, enjoin,” etc.

The High Priest’s address continues in dramatic fashion:

“…and see!—you have filled Yerushalaim (full) of your teaching, and you wish to bring upon us the blood of this man!”

The last statement is a bit harsh and troubling for those familiar with the Gospels (and sensitive to Jewish-Christian relations); it is a response to the accusation implicit in statements such as those of Peter in Acts 2:23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10-11. We would be inclined to regard it as an exaggeration and distortion by the High Priest, however it matches words spoken by the Jewish crowd in at least one version of the Passion narrative (Matt 27:25). Christians today are extremely cautious about attributing to the “Jews” (in the ethnic-religious sense) responsibility for the death of Jesus. The situation was somewhat different in the early Church, where believers (primarily Jewish Christians) were often at odds (and in conflict) with their own countrymen (sometimes simply referred to as “the Judeans/Jews”).

Introductory Address (verse 29)—Peter (along with the [other] Apostles) respond with a declaratory statement:

“It is necessary (for us) to obey God more than [i.e. rather than] men”

The verb translated “obey” (peiqarxe/w) is somewhat difficult to render literally—it has the fundamental meaning “persuade [or be persuaded] by [i.e. submitting to] (that which is) chief [i.e. ruling]”, especially in the sense of submitting to the rule of law or government. One might render the statement as—

“It is necessary for us to submit to [or trust in] the rule of God rather than (the rule of) men”

or something similar. This declaration reiterates the words of Peter (and John) in 4:19-20:

 “If it is just in the eyes of God to hear [i.e. listen to] you more [i.e. rather] than God, you (be the) judge;
we are not able (but) to speak the (thing)s we have seen and heard”

They are responding to the directive (or threat) by the Jewish leaders in 4:17-18, which the High Priest makes reference to here in 5:27. The use of peiqarxe/w (a component of which is the verb pei/qw), introduces the theme of obedience (i.e. being persuaded by, obeying) which become prominent in vv. 32, 36-37, 39b.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 30-31)—instead of a Scripture citation, we have here a kerygmatic statement (with a Scriptural allusion, cf. below), elements of which can be found in the prior sermon-speeches of Acts:

“The God of our Fathers raised (up) Yeshua, whom you took thoroughly in hand [i.e. to kill], hanging (him) upon (a piece of) wood [i.e. tree]—this one [i.e. Jesus] God lifted high to his giving [i.e. right] hand (as) a leader and savior, to give a change of mind [i.e. repentance] to Yisrael and release [i.e. forgiveness] of sins”

    • o( qeo\$ tw=n pate/rwn (“the God of our Fathers”)—cf. 3:13, and (possibly) underlying the apparent corruption in 5:25a.
    • h&geiren  )Ihsou=n (“raised Yeshua/Jesus [from the dead]”)—cf. 3:15; 4:10; also 2:24, 32.
    • o^n u(mei=$ diexeiri/sasqe krema/sante$ e)pi\ cu/lou—the language is different here, but the same idea (that they took and crucified Jesus) is found in 2:23, 36; 4:10.
    • o( qeo\$ . . . u%ywsen th=| decia=| au)tou= (“God … lifted high to his right hand”)—cf. 2:33-34 (and note esp. 7:55-56).
    • a)rxh=gon kai\ swth=ra (“[as] a chief/leader and savior”)—cf. 3:15-16; 4:12; for a similar combination, see Hebrews 2:10.
    • dou=nai meta/noian . . . kai\ a&fesin a(martiw=n (“to give change of mind/understanding … and release of sins”)—cf. 2:38; also 3:19, 26.

Somewhat contrary to the (critical) view that the speeches of Acts are largely the product of the author (trad. Luke), such phrases and expressions almost certainly preserve pieces of early Gospel preaching and proclamation (kerygma). There are two distinctive details added here:

    1. The verb diaxeiri/zw—”handle throughout/thoroughly, take thoroughly in hand”, or “lay hands (forcefully) on”, that is, in order to “put to death, kill”; elsewhere in the New Testament it is used only in Acts 26:21.
    2. Instead of the verb stauro/w (“put to the stake”, i.e. crucify), we have the expression krema/sante$ e)pi\ cu/lou, “hanging (him) upon (a piece of) wood [i.e. tree]”. We find the same expression in Acts 10:39.

The description of crucifixion as “hanging upon a tree”, and the Greek wording in particular, are derived largely from Deuteronomy 21:22-23 (LXX). The original context is the regulation that a criminal hung to death on a tree not be left there overnight—otherwise the dead body of such a person (“cursed by God”) would defile the land. By the time of the New Testament, however, the expression came to be a euphemism for crucifixion—cf. the Qumran texts 4QpNah i 6-8 (alluding to those crucified by Alexander Jannaeus, cf. Jos. Ant. 13.379-80, War 1.93-98) and 11QTemple 64.7-12. Paul famously applies the same Old Testament reference to Jesus in Galatians 3:13.

Concluding Exhortation (v. 32)—properly the declaration in this verse serves to conclude the kerygma of vv. 30-31 and apply it to the current situation:

“And we are witnesses of these things (I have) uttered, and (also) the holy Spirit which God has given to the (ones) obeying him”

The theme of the Apostles as witnesses (esp. to Jesus’ resurrection) is an important one in Acts (cf. already in 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15), as is God’s sending/giving the Spirit (Acts 1:5, 8; 2:17-28, 33, 38; 4:31, and of course the Pentecost narrative of 2:1-4ff). An exhortation is embedded in the last words of the verse (“to the ones obeying him”)—the verb translated “obey(ing)” is the same used in verse 29 (peiqarxe/w, see above).

Narrative Summary (v. 33)—as indicated above, this verse serves as a narrative transition between the speeches of Peter and Gamaliel:

“And (at this) the (one)s hearing were cut [lit. sawn] through and wished to take them up [i.e. do away with them, kill them]”

The same verb diapri/w (“saw/cut through”) is used in Acts 7:54 for a similar reaction to Stephen’s speech; only we find a dramatic progression—here the crowd (i.e. the Jewish leaders) wants to kill Peter and the apostles but are kept from doing so, there they carry through and execute Stephen (7:58). Critical scholars have noted that both episodes seem to better fit a (public) mob scene than a private Sanhedrin session, leading to the theory that the setting of the Sanhedrin is a literary construct by the author (drawing upon the ‘trial’ of Jesus in the Gospels) added to heighten the dramatic effect. The argument is, I think, perhaps stronger in the case of Stephen’s speech, which I will be discussing in turn.

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