Saturday Series: Acts 6:1-8:4 (concluded)

Due the length and complexity of the speech of Stephen (Acts 7:1-53ff), I have discussed it over three prior Saturday Series studies (#1, 2, 3); here I will address several key critical and interpretive issues which have thus far been mentioned only in passing:

    1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting
    2. The actual Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen
    3. The view of the Temple in the Speech (and in the book of Acts), and, finally
    4. The Speech in the overall context of Acts

1. The Narrative framework—the Sanhedrin trial setting

A number of factors have led critical scholars to question the historicity/factuality of the Sanhedrin setting:

    • it follows a general (narrative) pattern already encountered in chapters 4 and 5; and, while certainly it is plausible that the Apostles would have had multiple run-ins with the religious and Temple authorities, the pattern is distinct enough (esp. comparing 5:17-42 with 6:8-7:1, 54-60) to suggest a literary device.
    • the Sanhedrin trial setting, especially here in chs. 6-7, is suspicious due to the clear parallels drawn with the trial/death of Jesus (outlined at the end of last week’s study); while this may simply represent an historical synchronicity, it is likely that conscious literary patterning is at work here (at least in part).
    • the speech, and the narrative as a whole, in some ways, makes more sense without the Sanhedrin setting (removing portions of 6:12-15 and 7:1):
      (a) the long historical summary better fits a public sermon than a (defense) speech before a tribunal
      (b) Stephen nowhere in the speech directly deals with the charges against him—more to the point, he does not address the question asked to him directly by the High Priest in 7:1
      (c) the shift between the public dispute in 6:9-10 and the appearance before the Council (6:12ff) is rather abrupt and suggests a narrative adaptation
      (d) the reaction of the audience (to the speech) and the subsequent action in 7:54-60 is more consistent with a mob “lynching” than an official action by the Council—in some ways it better fits the (popular) reaction to a public sermon given by Stephen than the Council’s reaction to a defense speech
      (e) this is perhaps confirmed by the fact that the Council is not mentioned in vv. 54-60; apart from the detail mentioned in v. 58b (possibly), there is nothing to suggest that this is an official action

Traditional-conservative commentators, naturally, are more inclined to accept the narrative at face value; while some literary shaping is certainly present, with omissions and simplifications of detail, none of the events described are implausible per se. Probably the most difficult (apparent) discrepancy, recognized by nearly all commentators, is the fact that Stephen’s speech really does not answer (nor even address directly) the charges against him (according to 6:13-14; 7:1). It is to this question that I now turn.

2. The Speech in relation to the charges against Stephen

As mentioned previously, nearly all commentators have noted that the speech does not seem to address the charges brought before the Council in 6:13-14 (and see v. 11) and, correspondingly, the question of the High Priest in 7:1. Indeed, the most implausible detail in the narrative is that the Council would allow Stephen to talk for several minutes, without interruption, delivering the long (and seemingly irrelevant) historical digression we find in vv. 2ff. It must be admitted that, at least through verse 34, there seems to be no clear purpose to the speech; it is just what it appears to be—a straightforward summary of Israelite history (focused on Abraham, Joseph and Moses), with a significant degree of rhetorical development in the section on Moses (vv. 17-34). This changes in verse 35, and it is to verses 35-53 that we need to look for an answer to the charges against Stephen. I offer the following expository conclusions, based on prior exegesis (see last week’s study and the one prior):

    • Moses is presented as one who receives special revelation from God (through Angelic mediation) at Sinai (vv. 30-34), which leads subsequently to:
      (i) receiving the “living words/oracles” of God at Sinai (again through Angelic mediation, vv. 38, 53)—the Law
      (ii) receiving the type/pattern for the “tent of witness” (vv. 44f)—precursor to the Temple
    • A parallel is drawn between Jesus and Moses; both are: (a) sent by God, (b) made to be a leader and redeemer/savior for the people, (c) a Prophet, and (d) ultimately denied/refused by the people
    • A parallel is also drawn between the Temple and idolatry (the Golden Calf, etc)—both are works “made by (human) hands”
    • Just as Moses was denied/refused by the people, so was Jesus—this ultimately meant a rejection of the words of God, i.e. of the Law and the Prophets

These can be distilled down to two basic accusations leveled by Stephen in this section of the speech, that the people:

    1. acted according to a mistaken conception or idea of the “house” (dwelling) of God—the Tent/Temple
    2. refused to follow the Law-giver and Prophet (Moses/Jesus), and so rejected the Law itself

The first conclusion is stated in vv. 48-50, the second especially in v. 53 (and earlier in vv. 35, 39f). These do, in fact, address the two charges against Stephen, though somewhat obliquely; he has actually turned them around into charges against his accusers! Let us revisit the original claims (according to 6:13):

    1. he speaks words against this Holy Place (the Temple), and thus speaks evil “against God” (v. 11)
    2. he speaks words against the Law (also in v. 11)

In verse 14 this is further described according to teaching that:

    1. Jesus would destroy/dissolve this Place (the Temple)—see Mark 14:58; John 2:19
    2. Jesus would alter the (religious) customs delivered by Moses

The first claim is partially supported in Gospel tradition, and it is certainly possible that Stephen had made statements (related to Jesus and the Temple) which could be interpreted in this way (see below). It is hard to know what to make of the second claim, which better fits the accusations made against Paul (see Acts 21:28, etc). If there is any substance to it at all, perhaps Stephen had taught to the effect that the new (eschatological) age inaugurated by Jesus meant that strict observance of the Law was no longer required. This is only guesswork, for we have nothing by which to assess Stephen’s teaching except for the speech in 7:2-53; and, in the speech itself, he makes no statements which could be in any way understood as anti-Law. It is a rather different matter regarding the Temple, as we shall see.

3. The View of the Temple in the Speech

I have already discussed parallels drawn in vv. 35-50 connecting the Tent/Temple with idolatry. Actually, this negative assessment is generally reserved for the Temple itself, the Tent of Witness (Tabernacle) in the wilderness period being treated more positively. Still, there can be no mistaking the implicit claim, regarding the (semi-)idolatrous nature of the Temple as a work (like the Golden Calf) “made with hands”. It is possible, of course, that Stephen (along with many Jews and early Christians) was not objecting so much to the Temple itself, but rather to the way it had been used and administered. This is the essence of the opposition to the Temple in the Qumran texts—it was being run by an invalid (and corrupt) priesthood. To a lesser degree, one can detect a similar emphasis in Jesus’ “cleansing” of the Temple (as recorded in Gospel tradition), both in the action itself and the saying which cites Isa 56:7 and Jer 7:11 together. However, the use of Isa 66:1-2, in the context of expounding/applying Amos 5:25-27 (along with the summary of Israelite history from the Golden Calf to the building of the Temple), strongly suggests a more fundamental opposition to the actual Temple (and the idea/conception of it). If so, this in many ways contrasts with the positive view of the Temple elsewhere presented in Luke-Acts; note:

    • The role and setting of the Temple in the Infancy narratives (Lk 1-2)
    • Compared with the other Gospels, Luke curtails the Temple “cleansing” scene (Lk 19:45f), and gives extra emphasis to the fact that Jesus was regularly teaching in the Temple precincts (19:47; 20:1; 21:37-38)
    • Luke does not include the Temple-saying reported at Jesus’ “trial” (cf. Mark 14:58 par)
    • After the resurrection, the disciples worship God in the Temple (Lk 24:53), and early Christians continue to frequent the Temple in the early chapters of Acts (2:46; 3:1-10; 5:20-25, 42)
    • Acts 6:11-14 describes the claim that Stephen spoke against the Temple as a “false” charge
    • In Acts 21:17-26, prior to Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the author takes great care to depict that the claim that Paul teaches against the Law and religious ritual is false or unsubstantiated

The presentation in Luke-Acts presumably accords with the historical reality—that the early (Jewish) Christians continued to frequent the Temple, probably until the time of its destruction (70 A.D.), though the emphasis may have been more on the Temple as place for prayer, teaching and fellowship, rather than the sacrificial cult/ritual. Many of the New Testament writings (even Paul’s letters) say little or nothing specifically about the Temple. Eventually in early Christianity, a theology of “replacement” developed, which taught that Jesus (in his own person and work) fulfills (and effectively replaces) the Old Testament religious forms—including the Temple and all of its sacrificial ritual. This is best seen in the Gospel of John, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the book of Revelation, all writings which likely post-date the destruction of the Temple. Luke-Acts probably also stems from this period (c. 70-80 A.D.), but, as indicated above, it demonstrates a more positive view of the physical/historical Temple.

Apart from Stephen’s speech, the nearest parallel to Acts 7:48-50 (with its citation of Isa 66:1-2) is found in Revelation 21:22, which states that there will be no Temple in the New Jerusalem. Rev 21-22 draws heavily upon the eschatological/idealized “New Jerusalem” described in Isa 65-66, and in the later prophecy the Christian theology of replacement/substitution could not be more explicit: “for the Lord God the All-mighty (One) is its shrine, and [i.e. along with] the Lamb”. For believers, ultimately, God (the Father) and Jesus Christ are the Temple. To what extent does Stephen (and/or the author of Acts here) hold such a view? At the very least, the clear use of Isa 66:1-2 in this context would point in that direction. However, the association between the Temple and idolatry probably has more to do with polemical rhetoric (after the manner of the Prophets) than with a developed theological position. Also, one should not ignore the place of the speech in the overall context of Acts, as representing the last great episode of the early Jerusalem Church, prior to the mission into the wider (Gentile) world (see below). Acts records Paul using similar language in regard to Greco-Roman (heathen, polytheistic) religion (cf. Acts 17:24).

4. The Speech in the overall Context of Acts

As indicated above, Acts 6:8-8:1 (which includes the speech of 7:2-53) is the final episode recorded of the early believers in Jerusalem, the first major division of the book (1:128:3). The themes (and style) of Stephen’s speech then would be expected to draw upon the prior chapters, as well as to look forward to what follows. I propose these points for consideration:

    • the sequence of appearances before the Sanhedrin, from a literary/narrative point of view, serve several purposes:
      (a) they provide an effective dramatic setting for proclamation of the Gospel
      (b) they depict early believers fulfilling the pattern and example of Jesus, who also faced opposition from the religious leaders and faced a similar “trial” before the Sanhedrin
      (c) they demonstrate the increasing division/separation between the (Jewish) followers of Jesus and the rest of the (Jewish) people
    • the speech, while it may not entirely fit the Sanhedrin “trial” setting, is nevertheless appropriate here in the narrative:
      (a) it offers a definitive statement as to the place of Jesus and (by extension) early Christians within the Old Testament and Israelite history, and as the fulfillment of it
      (b) the corruption/deterioration depicted through history (leading from true revelation to idolatry) emphasizes the idea that a “new age” has dawned, reflecting the important theme of the “restoration of Israel” found in the early chapters of Acts
      (c) just as Gentiles would need to be instructed in Old Testament history, so here a summary of that history is presented prior to the inauguration of the wider mission (to the Gentiles) as recorded in chapters 8-12ff
    • the climactic position of the narrative makes a longer, dramatic speech fitting, in several respects:
      (a) it records the death of Stephen, the first Christian “martyr”, in terms somewhat similar to Jesus’ own death in the Gospels
      (b) it inaugurates a period of intense persecution, which leads to the dispersal of believers outside of Jerusalem (and Judea) and ultimately into the wider Gentile/Greco-Roman world
      (c) it marks the initial separation between Christianity and Judaism

In conclusion, it may be useful to revisit a basic critical question regarding the speeches in the book of Acts, which is especially acute in the case of Stephen’s speech—that is, the source and nature of their composition. There are two main components to Acts 6:8-8:1: (i) a traditional narrative involving Stephen (reflected in 6:8-15; 7:54-60), and (ii) the speech in 7:2-53. Nearly all scholars would, I think, agree that the core narrative stems from authentic tradition, with some degree of editing or adaptation having taken place. Opinion varies much more greatly regarding the speech; there are four main views:

    1. The speech more or less records Stephen’s actual words (with minor modification), delivered just as the narrative context in Acts suggests—this would be the traditional-conservative view.
    2. The speech is an (authentic) tradition, preserving the substance of what Stephen said (or preached) publicly prior to his death, though much of the actual wording (and style) is probably Lukan (i.e. from the author of Acts); according to this view, the Sanhedrin setting may (or may not) be authentic.
    3. The author (trad. Luke) has set an authentic Christian speech/sermon (or the substance of it) into the mouth of Stephen, inserting it into the traditional narrative and creating the seam at 6:15; 7:1 and 7:54.
    4. The speech is essentially the creation of the author of Acts, though perhaps drawing upon tradition and examples of early preaching, being inserted into the narrative much as in view #3.

Most critical scholars would hold some version of view #3 or 4; my own (personal) view of the matter is closer to the moderate critical position of #2 above. Fortunately the power and effect of Scripture here in Acts (as elsewhere) does not depend on a particular view of historicity and composition, though these are important questions to address; rather, the narrative as it has come down to us—reflecting both historical tradition and inspired creative expression—speaks as a whole, the marvelous end product unique and unparalleled as a work of Christian history, and requiring no defense.

Saturday Series: Acts 6:1-8:4 (continued)

Acts 6:1-8:4, continued

In the previous studies (last week and the week prior) 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). This week, 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” [en t¢ er¢¡mœ] and “forty years” [ét¢ tesserákonta]
    • MSS B D (and several others) read “of the god” instead of “of your god” in v. 43, omitting the pronoun hymœ¡n
    • v. 43 read “to worship them [proskyneín autoís]” instead of “yourselves” [heautoís]
    • 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. Heb. sikkû¾ malk®½em, “Sakkut your king”, but Grk. t¢n sk¢n¢¡n tou Moloch, “the tent of Moloch”
    2. Heb. kiyyûn kô½a» °§lœhê½em, “Kaiwan, star of your god”, or “Kaiwan your star-god”, but Grk. to ástron tou theoú hymœ¡n Raiphan, “the star of your god Raiphan”

In the first expression, (a) MT twks was read as related 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 (mlk) was vocalized/read as the proper name “Moloch”. In the second expression, it is generally assumed that an original transliteration Kaiphan became Raiphan/Rephan; in some (Western) manuscripts of Acts it reads Remphan, while in B a3 it is 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 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. 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
    • A portable Tent, according to God’s instruction to Moses—beginnings of a “house”, vv. 44-45

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 tis tópos (“what place”) instead of poíos tópos (“what sort of place”). The two principal nouns in v. 1—oíkos (“house”) and tópos (“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” (Heb. °¹wen) and “detestable” (šiqqûƒ) 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 [cheiropoí¢ton] and within three days I will build another house made without hands [acheiropoí¢ton]” (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 érga tœn cheirœ¡n autœ¡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” (vb poiéœ); in the Life of Moses II. 88, Philo refers to the Tent with the same expression “made with hands” (cheiropoí¢tos)
    • in verse 48, the Temple is specifically referred to in terms of a house “made with hands” (cheiropoí¢tos)
    • the citation of Isa 66:2a [LXX] in verse 50, by contrast, refers to God as the one whose hand (cheír) has “made (epoí¢sen) 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; Josephus Antiquities 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 concluding part of this study (next week).

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 aeí (“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]”, díkaios, cf. 3:14), which has led them to become “betrayers” (prodótai, [ones] giving [Jesus] before [the Roman authorities]) and “murderers” (phoneís)
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; Josephus 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 [diepríonto] 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 (huiós tou anthrœ¡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:

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 [homothymadón] rushed (ahead) upon him…”

The adverb homothymadón 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 our study next week.

Saturday Series: Acts 6:1-8:4 (continued)

Acts 6:1-8:4, continued

At the heart of the Stephen episode in Acts 6:1-8:4 is the great sermon-speech in chapter 7. Last week, we looked at this speech from the critical standpoint of the literary and thematic structure of the narrative. This establishes the overall setting and background of the speech, as well as the Narrative (Introduction) which precedes it in 6:8-15, according to the outline:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel kerygma, we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

Our study this week will focus upon the speech proper.

Introductory Address (7:2-42a)

Stephen begins with a vocative address, similar to that of Peter in his great Pentecost speech (e.g., in Acts 2:14, 22, 29; see also the beginning of Paul’s address in Acts 22:1):

Ándres adelphoí kai patéres, akoúsate
“Men, Brothers and Fathers—hear!”

Instead of the kerygmatic (i.e., Gospel proclamation) phrases and statements found in the prior sermon-speeches of Acts, Stephen here delivers a lengthy summary of Israelite history in “deuteronomic style”, extending from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf; for Old Testament parallels to such an historical summary, see Joshua 24; Psalm 78, 105; Ezekiel 20:5-44; Nehemiah 9:7-27, and also note the historical treatment given in the Damascus Document [CD] 2:14-6:1 (Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 364).

Nearly all commentators have noted that this is a curious way to address the question posed by the High Priest in v. 1; it also hardly seems an appropriate way for an accused man to offer defense (apologia) in a ‘trial’ setting. This has served as an argument in favor of the view that the Sanhedrin setting and framework to the speech is a secondary (and artificial) construction by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)—for more on this, see further below.

There is perhaps a tendency to gloss over this lengthy recital of Old Testament history; it can seem rather tedious, even irrelevant, in context. It may be tempting, indeed, to skip on ahead to verse 43ff, or even verse 54ff; however there are several reasons why it is important to include this section (and to read it carefully):

First, there is a rhetorical and narrative structure to the speech (see above) which is disrupted if one omits (or ignores) the historical summary; it is vital to a proper understanding of the speech as a whole.
Second, it is important to recognize the place that the Old Testament narrative had for early Christians and in their Gospel preaching; the way Paul references the Scriptures in his letters makes it clear that even Gentile converts must have been made familiar with the Old Testament and Israelite history as part of their basic instruction. Early Christians also saw themselves as fulfilling the history of Israel along with the promises God made to her, and so the Old Testament narrative was, in many ways, fundamental to Christian identity.
Third, the cumulative effect of the speech is lost if one ‘skips ahead’; in particular, the Scripture citation and exposition in vv. 43ff are climactic to the historical summary and really cannot be understood correctly outside of that context.

There are a number of ways one may outline this section; for a useful five-part outline, see Fitzmyer, Acts, p. 365. I have opted for a tripartite structure, as follows:

    • Abraham—the promise made by God to his people (vv. 2-8)
    • Joseph—the sojourn/exile of God’s people in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16)
    • Moses—the exodus out of Egypt toward the land of promise (vv. 17-42a); this portion can be broken down further:
      (a) {the first forty years}—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22)
      (b) forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29)
      (c) forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34)
      —”This Moses”… who led Israel out of Egypt (vv. 35-37)
      —”This (Moses)” is the one who was with the congregation (of Israel) in the wilderness (vv. 38-39a)
      ** The Israelites refused to hear/obey (Moses) in the wilderness—turned to idolatry (the Golden Calf, vv. 39b-42a)
Abraham (vv. 2-8)

The first two sections (on Abraham and Joseph) are relatively straightforward summaries of passages from Genesis, with simplification and compression of detail. The summary of Abraham is taken from Genesis 11-12, with quotations or allusions from Psalm 29:3 and Deut 2:5, followed by references to Gen 17:8; 15:13-14 (LXX); Exod 3:12; Gen 17:10; 21:4. The key verse is v. 5, emphasizing God’s promise to Abraham’s descendents—Gen 17:8 (and 48:4); also Gen 12:7; 13:5; 15:18-20; 24:7. This theme of promise already appeared in Peter’s earlier speech (Acts 3:25), and will also be mentioned in Acts 7:17; 13:32; 26:6; the covenant promise to Abraham would play a key role in Paul’s writings (Galatians 3-4; Romans 4; 9:1-9ff). Verse 7 cites Exodus 3:12 (LXX), with one small difference: instead of “in/on this mountain” (en tœ¡ órei toútœ) we find “in this place” (en tœ¡ tópœ toútœ), which better fits the Temple context underlying the speech.

Joseph (vv. 9-16)

The section on Joseph draws on portions of Genesis 37-46, along with allusions to Psalm 105:21; 37:19; there are also references to Deut 10:22 and Exod 1:6 in verse 15, along with a conflation of Gen 23:16-20 and 33:19 in verse 16. The overall setting of Israel in Egypt naturally fits the theme of exile and the dispersion (Diaspora) of the Israelite/Jewish people—a motif which could already be seen with Abraham leaving his homeland, and sojourning to the land of promise.

Moses (vv. 17-42a)

This section (on Moses) is by far the most developed, demonstrating a clear rhetorical (and didactic) structure. Verses 17-34 adopt the (traditional) scheme of dividing Moses’ life (of 120 years) into three equal periods of 40:

    • forty years—Moses in Egypt (vv. 17-22) [drawn from Exodus 1-2]
    • forty years—Moses visits his people in Egypt (vv. 23-29) [from Exodus 2]
    • forty years—Moses receives revelation from God, with a promise to deliver the people from Egypt (vv. 30-34) [Exodus 3:1-10, direct quotations and paraphrase]

Vv. 23 and 30 begin with similar Greek expressions:

“and when/as forty years’ time was filled (up) [epl¢roúto] for him…” (v. 23)
“and forty years having been filled (up) [pl¢rœthéntœn]…” (v. 30)

It is also worth noting some key extra-biblical and/or traditional details mentioned in this section:

    • Moses’ beauty—Exod 2:2 [LXX]; Philo, Life of Moses I.9, 18; Josephus, Antiquities II.224
    • Moses’ learning—Philo, Life of Moses I.20-24; II. 1; Jos. Antiquities II.236 and eloquence—Philo, Life of Moses I.80; Jos. Antiquities II.271 (cf. also Sirach 45:3)
    • The Angel (of the Lord) in the burning bush—Exod 3:2 [LXX] (MSS D H P S 614 of Acts 7:30 read “of the Lord”)

The revelation by theophany (manifestation of God), i.e. His Presence—even if understood in Exod 3:1-10 as occurring through ‘Angelic’ mediation—is an important theme, as it closes this section on Moses’ life and leads into the forceful section in vv. 35-38ff with its emphasis on false worship and idolatry. Even so, it must be admitted (along with many commentators) that the precise point of the speech (taken through verse 34) is hard to see; it certainly does not answer the charges against Stephen, and appears on the surface to be a long (even irrelevant) digression. The tone of the speech, however, changes suddenly and dramatically with verse 35, with the repeated use of the demonstrative pronoun (hoútos, accusative toúton, “this [one]”).

“This (Moses)…” (vv. 35-38)—the speech moves from historical summary (in vv. 17-34, similar to the sections on Abraham/Joseph), to a series of statements extolling Moses’ role in the Exodus and wilderness period, drawing attention especially to the person of Moses by the repeated, staccato-like use of the the demonstrative pronoun (“this”). This not only represents forceful rhetoric, but also serves to draw a clear and unmistakable parallel between Moses and Jesus, as we shall see. Keep in mind a similar use of the demonstrative pronoun in referring to Jesus already in Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36; 4:10-11; 5:31 (“this [one], this Jesus”; also “this name”, Acts 3:16; 4:17; 5:28); the Temple also has been referred to as “this place” (see Acts 6:13-14; 7:7).

    • V. 35—”this [toúton] Moses, whom they denied/refused… this (one) [toúton] God set forth (as) a leader and redeemer…”
    • V. 36—”this (one) [hoútos] led them out, doing marvels and signs…”
    • V. 37—”this [hoútos] is Moses, the (one) saying to the sons of Israel…”
    • V. 38—”this [hoútos] is the (one) coming to be in/among the called-out (people) in the desolate (land)…”

Verses 36-37 specifically emphasize Moses’ role in the Exodus—the deliverance of God’s people out of Egypt; in verses 38-39, the emphasis is on Moses’ role with the congregation (ekkl¢sía) of Israel in the wilderness. Verse 39 (beginning with the relative pronoun hós [dative hœ¡]) is transitional, stressing the disobedience of the people and leading into the section on the Golden Calf (vv. 40ff). The following details clarify the parallel drawn between Moses and Jesus:

    • the people denied/refused [¢rn¢¡sato] Moses (v. 35, see also 39ff) just as they denied Jesus (Acts 3:13, same verb)
    • “leader [árchœn] and redeemer [lytrœt¢¡s]” (v. 35) are titles similar to those applied to Jesus in Acts 3:15; 5:31 (cf. also 2:36)
    • Moses and Jesus are both “sent” by God (vb. apostéllœ) in v. 35; 3:20, 26
    • “wonders and signs” (v. 36) are parallel to the miracles of Jesus (2:22, cf. also 4:30)
    • Jesus as fulfillment of the “Prophet (to come) like Moses” from Deut 18:15 (cited v. 37, and in 3:22-23)
    • Moses was with the “called-out” people (ekkl¢sía) of Israel in the wilderness (v. 38), just as Jesus is with the “called-out” people (ekkl¢sía), i.e. the believers in Christ, the “church” —the word is first used in this latter sense in Acts 5:11, and occurs frequently from 8:1 on; it was used in the LXX in reference to the people gathering/assembling (to receive the Law, etc), especially in Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16.

The central theme of the theophanous revelation of God at Sinai (already emphasized in vv. 30-34) is brought out again here in verse 38—the closing phrase is especially significant, as it relates to one of the main charges against Stephen; it is useful, I think, to look at it in context with verse 39a:

“(this [Moses])… who [hós] received living lógia to give to us, to whom [hœ¡] our Fathers did not wish to become as (ones) who listen under [i.e. {are} obedient]…”

The neuter noun lógion, related to the more common lógos, (“account, word”), more properly refers to something uttered, i.e., “saying, announcement, declaration”; in a religious context especially it is often translated as “oracle”. For the idea of “living words/oracles” see Lev 18:5; Deut 32:46-47; note also a similar expression “the words/utterances of this life” in Acts 5:20.

The Golden Calf (vv. 39-42a)—the second half of verse 39 leads into the episode of the Golden Calf:

“…but they thrust (him [i.e. Moses]) away from (them) and turned in their hearts (back) to Egypt”

Verses 40-41 are taken from the account of the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:1-6), emphasizing unlawful/inappropriate sacrifice (thysía, [ritual] slaughtering) and idolatry (worship of an image, eídœlon). Most important are the closing words of verse 41:

“…and they were happy [lit. of a good mind] in the works of their hands [en toís érgois tœ¡n cheirœ¡n autœ¡n]”

This last phrase introduces the idea of things “made with hands” (tied specifically to idolatry), which will play a vital role in the remainder of the speech.

In verse 39, it is stated that the people turned [estráph¢san] in their hearts (back to Egypt, and idolatry); now, in verse 42a, God turns [éstrepsen, same verb] and gives the people over [parédœken] for them to do (hired) service [latreúein, in a religious sense] to the “armies of heaven” (i.e. sun, moon, stars and planets). Of the many references warning against the consequences of image-worship, see for example, Hos 13:2-4; for a fundamental passage warning against worship of the celestial bodies, see Deut 4:16ff. On this idea of God giving/handing transgressors over to an even more serious form of idolatry, see Wisdom 11:15-16 and the famous passage in Romans 1:24-28; often there is the sense that the result (and punishment) of idolatry will resemble the very thing that was being worshipped (see Jer 19:10-13, etc).

The main Scripture citation (from Amos 5:25-27), along with the remainder of the speech, will be examined in next week’s study. I hope you will join me.

References above marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 31 (Doubleday / Yale: 1998).

Saturday Series: Acts 6:1-8:4

Acts 6:1-8:4

This week we will begin a series of studies on the great sermon-speech of Stephen in Acts 7. The length and complexity of this section makes it worthy of an in-depth critical study. Different aspects of New Testament criticism will be explored as they relate to the passage. Specific points will be dealt with in the exegetical notes. The main critical issues are intrinsic to the sermon-speeches of Acts as a whole. These may be summarized as follows:

    • Textual Criticism—relating primarily to the use of Scripture (quotations and allusions) in the speeches; the citations generally follow the LXX, but there are differences, as well as places where the Greek text in Acts may reflect an independent translation from the Hebrew.
    • Historical Criticism—this involves: (1) the specific historical tradition (and setting), (2) the historical reliability of the episode (as it is presented by the author), and (3) the question of whether (or to what extent) the form of the speech in Acts reflects the actual early Christian preaching and/or words spoken by the person to whom the speech is attributed.
    • Source Criticism—questions relating to: (a) the source of the historical tradition (and what form that might have taken), and (b) the source of the speech itself (touching upon the historical-critical issues noted above).
    • Literary Criticism—an examination of how the historical tradition (and the speech) was adapted and developed by the author, setting the material within the literary and thematic framework of the book of Acts (or of Luke-Acts as a whole).

Let us begin with an introductory literary examination, considering the place of the Acts 7 sermon-speech within the overall narrative context. The sermon-speech of Stephen is by far the longest in the book and serves as the climax of the first division (Acts 1:1-8:4)—the story of the early believers in Jerusalem. The persecution recorded in 8:1-4 sets the stage for apostolic mission outside of Judea and the mission to the Gentiles. Stephen’s speech is part of a larger narrative arc, from 6:1 to 8:4:

    • Introductory Narrative (6:1-7)—Stephen and the Seven “deacons”, with summary in verse 7
    • Main Narrative (6:8-15)—the story of Stephen: his arrest and appearance before the Sanhedrin, which serves as a narrative introduction to the speech
    • The Speech of Stephen (7:1-53)
    • Continuation of the Narrative (7:54-8:1a)—the crowd’s reaction and the death of Stephen, which serves as a narrative summary/conclusion to the speech
    • Concluding Narrative (8:1-4)—onset of persecution and the dispersal of believers out of Jerusalem and Judea

There are several details in this narrative which indicate that it is transitional between the story of the early Jerusalem believers (centered around Peter) in chapters 1-5 and the missionary outreach which follows:

    • Stephen is a member of a second group of (seven) men who serve a ministry and leadership role in the congregation, separate from the (twelve) Apostles (6:2-3ff).
    • Though not Apostles, men such as Stephen still share in the miracle-working gift and power of the Spirit (6:8); more than simply waiting on tables (v. 2ff), Stephen was capable and empowered to teach and preach. It is specifically said of him that he was “full of trust (in God) [i.e. faith] and (the) holy Spirit” (v. 5) and “full of favor (from God) [i.e. grace] and power” (v. 8), and that he spoke “with wisdom and (the) Spirit”. Philip, another member of the Seven, has a similarly prominent role in Acts 8.
    • Stephen (and apparently the rest of the Seven) are connected with the “Hellenists” (6:1). Though its precise meaning is disputed, here the term “Hellenist” (transliteration of (Hellenist¢¡s, “Greek” or “one who speaks Greek”) probably refers to Jews (i.e., Jewish Christians) who primarily (or entirely) speak and read in Greek. Most likely this includes many Jews from the surrounding nations (the Diaspora) who came and dwelt (“put down house”, 2:5) in Jerusalem and were among the early converts (2:6ff, 41).
    • In verse 9ff, Stephen is shown in close contact with other Hellenistic Jews (from the Diaspora), indicated as being members of several different groups—Libertini (free Roman citizens in Italy), and people from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia (i.e. in Asia Minor). Here “synagogue” (synagœg¢¡) refers not to a building, but to a congregation that meets together for worship and study. Probably five different congregations (along national/ethnic) lines are meant; though it is possible that the last four groups were all part of the Libertini. This detail echoes the Pentecost narrative in Acts 2, as well as foreshadowing the upcoming dispersion (“diaspora”) of Christians into the wider mission field.

Stephen’s speech, though familiar, is probably not so well-known as one might think. It is actually highly complex, especially when looked at within its context in the book of Acts. Despite its length and complexity, it still fits the basic pattern for the speeches of Acts:

    • Narrative Introduction—the speech follows upon the main narrative (or first part of it) in 6:8-15, with the question of the High Priest to Stephen in 7:1.
    • Introductory Address (7:2-42a)—instead of Gospel proclamation (kerygma), we find here a lengthy summary of Israelite history, from the call of Abraham to the Exodus and the incident of the Golden Calf.
    • Citation from Scripture (vv. 42b-43)—from Amos 5:25-27.
    • Exposition and Application (vv. 44-50), including a second Scripture citation (from Isa 66:1-2) which is parallel to the prior passage.
    • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 51-53), with a faint kerygmatic detail in v. 52b.
    • Narrative Summary—the narrative continues/concludes in 7:54-8:1a.

The literary framing of the sermon-speech develops a number of key themes in the book of Acts. Especially important is the way the material is framed as a conflict-episode. In chapters 3-5, the author presents us with two major conflict episodes (4:1-22; 5:17-42), in which the missionary work (Gospel preaching) of the early Christians is opposed by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. This, of course, develops the conflict scenes in the Gospel (of Luke)—culminating with the Passion narrative (the arrest, interrogation of Jesus before the Council, and his subsequent death). Jesus himself prophesied to his disciples that they would have to endure similar opposition (Lk 21:12-17 par). The Stephen episode in chaps. 6-7 is the one which most closely follows the pattern of Jesus’ own Passion. Let us see how this is established in the narrative introduction to the sermon-speech.

Narrative Introduction (6:8ff; 7:1)

The main narrative is divided into two parts: (1) the arrest of Stephen with his appearance before the Sanhedrin (6:8-15) and (2) the death of Stephen (7:54-58), with the speech occurring in between. 6:8-15 effectively serves as an introduction to the speech. Much as in chapters 3-4, 5, the miraculous, Spirit-filled ministry of the early Christians (vv. 8-10) provokes a hostile response from the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Stephen, like Peter and the Apostles, is seized and brought before the Council (the Sanhedrin) for interrogation (v. 12; see 4:1-6; 5:17-18ff). Stephen’s opponents, it is said, “threw (in) men under(neath)” (i.e., acted underhandedly, in secret) to make claims against him; this, in turn, “moved [i.e. stirred/incited] the people together” to act, as well as the religious leaders (elders and Scribes) who had him arrested, and brought (“into the [place of] sitting togther”, i.e. the Sanhedrin) to face additional charges. Three specific claims or charges against Stephen are mentioned:

    1. “we have heard him speaking words of (abusive) slander uttered unto [i.e. against] Moshe [i.e. Moses] and God” (v. 11)
    2. “this man does not cease speaking words uttered down on [i.e. against] [this] holy (Place) and the Law” (v. 13)
    3. “we have heard him recount/relate that this Yeshua the Nazarean will loose down [i.e. dissolve/destroy] this Place and will make different [i.e. change/alter] the customary/usual things that Moshe gave along to us” (v. 14)

The dual charge in vv. 13-14 is said to have been made by “false witnesses” —this, along with the mention of dissolving/destroying the Temple, establishes a clear and obvious parallel with Jesus’ “trial” before the Sanhedrin as narrated in the Synoptic Gospels (see Mark 14:56-59 and the par Matt 26:59-61); there is also an echo of the High Priest’s question to Jesus (Mark 14:60 par) here in Acts 7:1. These correspondent details have led many (critical) scholars to the conclusion that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) has consciously patterned the narrative framework after that of Jesus’ trial (note the similar framing in chs. 4-5), and that the Sanhedrin setting is secondary (and artificial) to the basic narrative and the speech of Stephen. I will address this point further on.

It is possible to summarize and simplify the charges against Stephen:

    1. he says harsh and evil things against Moses and God
    2. he speaks against the Temple and the Law of Moses (i.e. the Old Testament / Jewish Law)
    3. he says that Jesus will abolish/destroy the Temple and alter the religious customs (rel. to the Law of Moses)

The first claim should probably be viewed as a vulgarized or simplistic form of the last two, which themselves appear to be parallel versions of the same idea—the abolition of the Temple and the Law. But what exactly is involved? Elsewhere in early Christianity, we find two related claims made (against Jesus and Paul):

    • In Synoptic tradition, as indicated above, witnesses at Jesus’ ‘trial’ before the Council claimed that Jesus said: “I will loose down [katalýœ, i.e. dissolve/destroy] this shrine ‘made with hands’ and through [i.e. within] three days I will build another ‘made without hands'” (Mk 14:58)—the Matthean version is simpler: “I am powered [i.e. able] to loose down [katalýsai] the shrine of God and, through [i.e. within] three days, to build the house (again)” (Mt 26:61) Mark and Matthew say that these were “false witnesses” (as in Acts 6:13); however, Jesus is recorded as saying something similar in John 2:19: “Loose [lýsate] this shrine, and in three days I will raise it” I have discussed this saying at some length in an earlier article.
    • In Acts 21:27-28, upon the occasion of Paul’s arrest in the Temple precincts, the claim is made against him that: “This is the man (the one) teaching every(one) everywhere against the People and the Law and this Place…” The reaction to Paul may simply be due to the way he dealt with Gentiles (in relation to the Law); however, his complex (and controversial) arguments in Galatians and Romans, especially, could certainly be viewed by many Jews (and Jewish Christians) as speaking against the Law.

The charges against Stephen seem to be a combination of these—i.e., (a) he was repeating a saying/teaching of Jesus similar to that of John 2:19 (cf. also Mk 13:1-2 par), and/or (b) he was teaching that the ‘new age’ in Christ meant that it was not necessary to observe the Law and/or Temple ritual. There is no way of knowing for certain whether either of these were fundamental to Stephen’s own argument—Acts 6:10 provides no information; all we have to go by is the speech in 7:2-53. This is most significant, since the High Priest asks Stephen directly whether these charges are true: ei taúta hoútœs échei, “if these (things) thus hold (true)?” (7:1) One might expect that Stephen would address the charges in defense; but his response provides a most interesting answer, as we shall see.

A final detail in the narrative here is in 6:15:

“And stretching (to look) [i.e. looking intently] unto him, all the (one)s sitting down in the (place of) sitting-together [i.e. council, Sanhedrin] saw his face—as if the face of a (heavenly) Messenger!”

This precedes the High Priest’s question and heightens the drama greatly; it also foreshadows the conclusion to the narrative in 7:54ff, with Stephen’s vision of the exalted Christ (Son of Man) in Heaven at God’s right hand.

With this narrative setting in mind, we will begin to examine the sermon-speech itself, in next week’s study.

Saturday Series: Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32) (continued)

Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32), continued

This Pentecost-themed study is focusing on the use of the Joel 2:28-32 (Heb 3:1-5a) oracle in the Pentecost sermon-speech by Peter (Acts 2:14-40). As I noted last week, in examining the use of Joel 2:28-32 (both by Peter and by the author of Acts) several factors must be considered:

    1. The original context of the passage
    2. How this was applied to the early Christian context (of Peter’s speech), and
    3. How the author of Acts adapted the text to fit this application (at the literary level, within the narrative setting)

The first point was discussed in last week’s study. Here, we will be looking at the final two points.

Application to the Early Christian Context (Peter’s Speech)

However one judges the historicity of the Sermon-Speeches in Acts, they appear, in the form we have them, as well-constructed literary productions in Greek. The Scripture citations tend to follow the LXX Greek version of the Old Testament, and yet this does not mean that the speaker (in this case, Peter), at the historical level, could not have cited the Scripture in the manner and context indicated. It simply means that such a speech, as we have it, is no mere stenographic reproduction, but a careful literary adaptation—and this includes the Scripture quotation.

Let us see how the Scripture passage was applied in the context of Peter’s speech. First, the Text. The quotation from Joel closely follows the Greek (LXX) version, with the following notable variations:

    • “in the last days” (en taís eschátais h¢mérais) instead of “after these things” (metá taúta) [verse 17 / 2:28]
    • the positions of “young ones/men” (hoi neanískoi) and “old ones/men” (hoi presbýteroi) are reversed
    • the addition of “my” (mou) to “slave men” and “slave women” [i.e. male and female slaves] (doúlos/doúl¢) [verse 18 / 2:29]—indicating that these are slaves/servants of the Lord.
    • the addition of “and they will foretell [i.e. prophesy]” (kai proph¢teúsousin)—this repeats what is stated in verse 17 [2:28], and gives added emphasis on the theme of prophesying (see below).
    • the addition of “up above” (ánœ) and “down below” (kátœ) [verse 19 / 2:30]
    • the last portion of Joel 2:32 [3:5] as been left out: “so that in mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be the (one) being saved, according to that (which) the Lord said, and they are (ones) being given the good message [euangelizómenoi], (those) whom the Lord has called toward (Himself)” (translating from the LXX; euangelizómenoi is a misreading of the Hebrew ba´rî¼îm [“among the survivors”])

In some manuscripts the quotation conforms more precisely with the LXX (as in the Alexandrian text represented by codex B), but this is likely a secondary ‘correction’. The version of the quotation which has been adapted to the context of the speech (especially in vv. 17-18) is almost certainly original. Overall the LXX here reflects a fairly accurate translation from the Hebrew. At the historical level, one would expect that Peter might rather have quoted from the Hebrew—if so, it is understandable that the author (trad. Luke) might simply substitute in its place the LXX (with some modification). On the (critical) theory that the speech is primarily a Lukan composition (set in the mouth of Peter), adapting the Greek version would be a natural approach.

What is the significance of these changes, and how does the subsequent modified Scripture relate to the message of both the speaker (Peter) and author?

In the narrative, no exposition is given by Peter, other than the statement that events of the moment are a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy (v. 16). It is interesting to consider how Peter (and/or the author of Acts) applies this prophecy to the current situation. The phenomenon of speaking in tongues, though the principal occasion of the crowd’s amazement, appears to be only marginally connected with the prophecy. I would say that there are three main points of contact which are being emphasized:

    • God’s sending his Spirit upon the believers, and their being filled with the Spirit
    • That believers—both men and women—will prophesy
    • This pouring out of the Spirit specifically indicates it is the last days

Along with this, we have a central theme that runs throughout the work of Luke-Acts as a whole: that prophecy in the New Age (that is, the time of the New Covenant) is realized through the proclamation of the Gospel.

In many ways, the Joel oracle represents (along with Jeremiah 31:31-34) the keystone Old Testament prophecy regarding the “new age” (the New Covenant) inaugurated by the work of Jesus Christ. Consider the elements which are combined in this passage:

    • That God is doing a new thing, pouring out of his Spirit upon all people—young and old, men and women, slave and free alike (cf. Gal 3:28).
    • That God’s people will now be guided directly by the Spirit (on this theme, cf. Jer 31:34; 1 John 2:27).
    • Even the least of His people will be able to prophesy—that is, speak the revelatory word or message of God (in this regard, note the interesting passage Num 11:24-29).
    • This signifies that it is the “last days” (i.e. the end times)
    • Salvation (in Christ) is being proclaimed to all people

This is also an instance where the New Testament speaker/author has been relatively faithful to the original historical context of the prophecy (discussed in last week’s study). A simple outline of the main sections of the book of Joel would be:

    • 1:20-2:11—Judgment on Judah/Jerusalem (“day of YHWH”)
    • 2:18-32—Restoration and blessing (material and spiritual) for the survivors in Judah/Jerusalem
    • 3:1-16—Judgment on the Nations (“day of YHWH”), contrasted with the fate of (the restored) Judah/Jerusalem

Note the central position of the restoration theme, which includes the oracle in 2:28-32. Even though the context implies that the restoration indicated in 2:18-32 will be reasonably soon (not left for the indefinite future), it is not specified precisely when it will occur. Even today, there is a considerable divergence of views among commentators as to how such passages should be interpreted. Regardless, in Acts, it is clearly the spiritual side of Israel’s future restoration that is emphasized, being applied to believers in Christ—a theme which is found throughout the early chapters of the book. What is perhaps overlooked by many modern interpreters is the prominence of the eschatological motif. This is indicated here by:

    • The alteration of the LXX metá taúta (“after these [things]”, Hebrew “after/following this”) to en taís eschátais h¢mérais (“in the last days”) of Joel 2:28 [3:1] in v. 17, specifying clearly that this is the last-days / end-times.
    • The natural phenomena described in Joel 2:30-31 [3:3-4], included in vv. 19-20 are eschatological/apocalyptic images which came to be associated quite distinctly with God’s end-time Judgment—see especially in the Synoptic tradition (Jesus’ Olivet/Eschatological Discourse), Mark 13:14-15ff par.

Even though the natural wonders of Joel 2:30-31 are not technically being fulfilled at the time of Peter’s speech, they clearly signify that, in the mind of Peter (and, to some extent, the author of Acts), the end-times are definitely at hand. This belief in, and expectation of, the imminent judgment of God (and return of Christ), found in nearly all the New Testament writings, may trouble some traditional-conservative commentators (wishing to safeguard a certain view of Scriptural inerrancy); however, it is an important aspect of early Christian thought which cannot (and ought not to) be ignored or explained away.

The Application with in the literary and thematic framework of Acts

Nearly all of the sermon-speeches in Acts follow a basic format:

      • Narrative introduction—this may be a simple introduction or include an extended narrative
      • The speech itself:
        • Introductory address, often with kerygmatic elements, leading into the Scripture passage
        • Citation from Scripture
        • Exposition and Gospel kerygma
        • Concluding exhortation
      • Narrative summary

The relative length and complexity of Peter’s sermon-speech in Acts 2 stretches and expands the central portion of the outline. I divide the speech itself into three main sections, each of which has: (a) an introductory address, (b) Scripture citation, and (c) exposition/application. Each section begins with a (vocative) address to the crowd, according to three parallel expressions:

    • ándres Ioudaíoi—Men, Yehudeans [i.e. Judeans, men of Judea]!… (v. 14)
    • ándres Isra¢lítai—Men, Yisraelis [i.e. Israelites, men of Israel]!… (v. 22)
    • ándres adelphoí—Men, Brothers!… (v. 29)

The variation may be merely stylistic, but it is also possible that a progression is intended—from geographic (Judea) to ethnic-national (Israel) to a more intimate familial designation (Brothers).

The Joel oracle is the Scripture cited in the first section (see the outline pattern above):

    • Introductory address: “Men, Judeans…” (vv. 14-16), leading into the Scripture citation. There is no direct kerygma other than to turn the attention of the crowd to the current phenomenon they are experiencing, that it is a fulfillment of Scripture. But note also the concluding citation of Joel 2:32a in verse 21.
    • Citation from Scripture: Joel 2:28-32 [3:1-5 in Hebrew] (vv. 17-21).
    • {There is no specific exposition given or concluding exhortation in this section—application of the Scripture is implicit}

The way that the narrative introduction (vv. 1-13) leads into this section is significant, in the way that it develops certain key Lukan themes. The introduction has the following thematic outline:

    1. Introductory statement (unity of the Disciples), verse 1.
    2. Manifestation of the Spirit, verses 2-4.
    3. Reaction of Jews in Jerusalem (united voice of the crowds), verses 5-13.

It is important to note the parallel theme of Israelite/Jewish unity:

    • The apostles (now reconstituted as twelve) and wider group of disciples (~120 = 12 x 10) are symbolic of the unified (12) tribes of Israel—note that they return to Jerusalem (Acts 1:12), gathering together in a single place (upper room)
    • The Jews dwelling in Jerusalem—whether temporarily for the feast, or on a more permanent basis (the verb katoikéœ could indicate the latter)—have come from all the surrounding nations (representing the exile/dispersion) and are gathered together in one place

I regard this as reflecting the key eschatological theme of the restoration of Israel. This sense of unity is most important when we consider the three sections which make up the speech in vv. 14-36. The crowd speaks with one voice (vv. 7-11)—a literary device, to be sure, but one of real significance. Note the thematic structure here:

    • The disciples speak with the various tongues (languages) of the nations (v. 3-4)
      • All of the crowd can understand, and responds with one voice (vv. 5-11)
    • The crowd is confused by hearing the various tongues (v. 7-8, 12)
      • Peter, speaking for the disciples, responds with one voice (vv. 14ff)

There is reflected here a kind of reversal, not only of the exile/dispersion, but also of the confusion of tongues in the Babel episode—an (eschatological) theme hinted at in Old Testament and Jewish tradition (see for example Zeph 3:9).

The exposition/application of the Scripture was discussed above. The prophetic theme is that of the coming of God’s Spirit upon all the people in the New Age (of Israel’s restoration), so that they all would function as prophets (the role no longer being limited to select/chosen individuals). In the context of Luke-Acts, this is fulfilled by the coming of the Spirit on the disciples of Jesus (believers) in the Pentecost episode (2:1-4ff). The significance of the Spirit’s presence and work in this regard was established at the beginning of the Acts narrative, by the statement of Jesus (to his disciples) in 1:7-8. In the New Age of the New Covenant, believers represent the true people of God. They (and we) are all called to prophesy, through the presence and power of the Spirit, which means the proclamation of the Gospel. The ecstatic/supernatural phenomenon of “speaking in tongues [i.e. foreign languages]” is a means (and symbol) for the communication of the Gospel message to the peoples of the different nations.

As noted above, there is no direct exposition of the Joel oracle, neither is there any clear kerygmatic formula in the text at this point, except, I should say, for the concluding citation from Joel 2:32a [3:5a] in v. 21:

“and it will be (that) every (one) that should call upon the name of the Lord will be saved”

In its original context, of course, it refers to calling upon the name of God (YHWH) for salvation, etc; however, in an early Christian context, it takes on a new meaning in reference to the risen/exalted Jesus as Lord [kýrios, see Acts 2:36, etc]. In this regard, note the key kerygmatic statement in Acts 4:12.

Saturday Series: Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32)

Acts 2:16-21 (Joel 2:28-32)

This week’s study, in celebration of Pentecost, will focus on the use of the Joel 2:28-32 (Heb 3:1-5a) oracle in the Pentecost sermon-speech by Peter (Acts 2:14-40). This is one of three Scriptures cited in the speech, and the second of two major citations (the other being Psalm 16:8-11) that anchor the speech and frame the kerygma (Gospel proclamation) in verses 22-24.

In examining the use of Joel 2:28-32 (both by Peter and by the author of Acts) several factors must be considered:

    1. The original context of the passage
    2. How this was applied to the early Christian context (of Peter’s speech), and
    3. How the author of Acts adapted the text to fit this application (at the literary level, within the narrative setting)

The first point will be discussed in this study; the second and third will be addressed in a follow-up study next week.

The original context of Joel 2:28-32

The work is comprised of four distinct oracles—1:2-20, 2:1-17, 2:18-32[3:5], and 3:1-21 [4:1-21]. The first two oracles focus on the coming invasion, with a call to repentance, and mourning in light of the destruction that this judgment will bring (as devastating to the people as a massive locust-attack on the crops). In the last two oracles, the focus shifts to the promise of restoration/renewal—the onset of a period of peace and prosperity—along with the ultimate judgment on the nations.

The dating of the book has varied considerably, and there continue to be differences of opinion among commentators. The (military) invasion by a foreign power (1:6ff), compared to a locust-attack (v. 4, cf. Judg 6:5; 7:12; Prov 30:27; Nah 3:15-16; Jer 46:23), would naturally focus the context on the campaigns and conquests of either the Assyrian or Babylonian forces. In the case of an invasion threatening Judah/Jerusalem, this would mean a time-frame corresponding to either 701 or 598/588 B.C., respectively. The apocalyptic and eschatological elements in the oracles of chapters 2 and 3 make a 6th century setting much more likely.

A basic outline of the book is as follows:

    • Joel 1:2-20: A lamentation for the land which has been desolated by a locust invasion (probably symbolic of a enemy military invasion)
    • Joel 2:1-11: Announcement to Judah/Jerusalem of an impending enemy invasion, with eschatological characteristics—it is God’s own judgment on the land, signifying the “day of YHWH” (verse 11)
      • Joel 2:12-17: A call to repentance for all the people in the land
    • Joel 2:18-27: A declaration that God will restore the fertility and bounty of the land, bringing blessing back to the people (described in material terms, as recovery from the locust attack)
    • Joel 2:28-32 [3:1-5 Heb]: A promise of spiritual blessing (i.e. the pouring out of God’s own Spirit) upon the all the people in the land—this will follow after the material blessing and restoration mentioned previously, and relates specifically to the survivors (i.e. the remnant) of the judgment (v. 32 [3:5]).
    • Joel 3:1-16 [4:1-16 Heb]: Announcement of God’s judgment on the Nations (following the restoration of Judah/Jerusalem, v. 1)—again this signifies the eschatological “day of YHWH” (v. 14, cf. 2:11).
      • Joel 3:17-21 [4:17-21 Heb]: The future fates of Judah/Jerusalem and the Nations are contrasted.

It could also be outlined more simply as:

    • 1:20-2:11—Judgment on Judah/Jerusalem (“day of YHWH”)
    • 2:18-32—Restoration and blessing (material and spiritual) for the survivors in Judah/Jerusalem
    • 3:1-16—Judgment on the Nations (“day of YHWH”), contrasted with the fate of (the restored) Judah/Jerusalem

Even though the context implies that the restoration indicated in 2:18-32 will be reasonably soon (not left for the indefinite future), it is not specified precisely when it will occur. Even today, there is a considerable divergence of views among commentators as to how such passages should be interpreted.

The oracles in 2:18-3:21 demonstrate a strong apocalyptic and eschatological emphasis, typical of a tendency that developed in the Prophetic writings of the exilic and post-exilic period. The trauma of the Exile (both for the northern and southern Kingdoms) led to this emphasis on a future hope—when Israel would be restored, and there would be a reversal of fortune, whereby the people of Israel would flourish in a ‘golden age’ of peace and prosperity, while the nations (collectively) would face judgment. Joel 3 is one of the few passages in the Old Testament—and perhaps the earliest of these—where the “day of YHWH” motif, and the nation-oracle message of judgment (against individual nations), was broadened to apply to all the nations together.

The oracle of 2:18-32 [Heb 2:18-3:5] itself can be divided into three parts:

    • Vv. 18-20—A promise of salvation, in terms of the defeat/removal of the invading forces (from the north)
    • Vv. 21-27—A time of peace and prosperity—especially in terms of the fertility and (agricultural) fruitfulness of the land
    • Vv. 28-32 [3:1-5]—The manifestation of YHWH’s presence among His people, as part of a powerful theophany that anticipates the judgment of the nations (chap. 3)

There is a similar sort of dual-aspect of Land/People in Isa 44:3 (which I discussed in a prior study):

    • Blessing on the landwater poured out on it, irrigating the fields and making them fertile again
    • Blessing on the people—the spirit poured out on them, stimulating the people and making them fertile (in a religious, ethical, and spiritual sense)

The second aspect—the pouring out of the spirit [rûaµ] of God—is expressed in vv. 28-29. What is especially notable, however, is the way that the idea of the spirit coming upon all the people is defined in such precise detail. Here is a translation of vv. 28-29 from the Hebrew (3:1-2):

“And it will be, following this, (that)
I will pour out my spirit [rûaµ] upon all flesh,
and your sons and daughters will act as n¹»î°,
and your older (one)s will dream dreams,
and your choice (young one)s will see visions;
and even upon the servants and upon the (serv)ing maids,
will I pour out my spirit in those days.”

The term n¹»î° is key, and has been left untranslated above. In the ancient Near Eastern religious setting, a n¹»î° was essentially a spokesperson for God—that is, one who communicates the word and will of God to the people. The term is translated in Greek as proph¢¡t¢s, and again into English as “prophet”. Such a person was chosen and gifted, by the Spirit of God, to function in that leadership role.

In ancient Israel, the ideal of charismatic, Spirit-empowered leadership very much dominated the early tradition. The people were governed by an inspired n¹»î° (or ‘prophet’), beginning with Moses and his successor Joshua, followed by the Judges and the great prophet-figure of Samuel. The early kingship (Saul and David) continued to exhibit this same charismatic-prophetic character, though gradually the prophetic role evolved into a separate office employed by the royal court. In any case, only certain individuals were chosen and gifted (by God) to serve as a genuine n¹»î°.

An important theme, found theme found at a number of points in the Prophetic writings reflects what we might call a ‘democratization’ of the ancient principle of spirit-inspired leadership. That is to say, the Spirit of God comes upon the land and its people as a whole, rather than on select individuals. This idea seems to have developed among the later Prophets, likely as a reaction (at least in part) to the trauma of the Exile. The collapse of the Israelite/Judean kingdoms, and the loss of the monarchy, left a void for the principle of spirit-inspired leadership. Two separate, distinct concepts took root during the exile, in response to this void.

On the one hand, the hope for a future ruler from the line of David, who would restore the fortunes of Israel, became an important component of Messianic thought; the roots of this tradition can be found in the exilic Prophetic writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel. At the same time, an entirely different line of thought took shape—that of the anointed/inspired Community. Both of these lines of tradition coalesced in the Qumran Community, and, somewhat similarly, among the early Christians as well.

This ‘new’ manifestation of the Spirit can be seen, for example, in the Deutero-Isaian passage of Isa 44:1-5 (v. 3); other relevant passages can be found in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. In some respects, however, these Prophetic texts are simply drawing upon much earlier aspects of Israelite historical tradition. Consider the Moses tradition(s) in Numbers 11:10-30, which I examined in a prior study in the series “The Spirit of God in the Old Testament”. By all accounts, these have to be at least as old as the historical traditions in Judges and Samuel, with their striking record of the ancient principle of charismatic (spirit-inspired) leadership at work.

In the Numbers passage, the inspired status of Moses—as the spokesperson (n¹»î°) and intermediary between YHWH and the people—is broadened out to include 70 chosen/appointed elders (vv. 16-17ff). The wording to describe this process is most significant:

(YHWH speaking) “And I will lay aside (something) from (the) spirit [rûaµ] that is upon you, and I will set (it) upon them…”

When this occurs in the narrative (vv. 25ff), the 70 elders begin to “act as a n¹»î°” , just like Moses—i.e., they become active, inspired (prophetic) leaders, who communicate the word and will of God to the people. When Moses’ young attendant Joshua becomes alarmed at this, the great leader utters an extraordinary statement that broadens the prophetic/inspired gift even further:

“Who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) n®»î°îm, (and) that YHWH would give His spirit [rûaµ] upon them!” (v. 29)

Ideally, all the people would function as inspired leaders/spokespersons, gifted to know and understand the word and will of YHWH directly from Him. This doubtless relates to the broader tradition of Israel as a holy, chosen people, a nation made up entirely of anointed/inspired priests and kings, etc (Exod 19:6). The ideal could not be maintained initially, as reflected by the people’s response to hearing and experiencing the voice of God at Sinai (20:18-21). Moses came to be designated as the spokesperson (n¹»î°), and, similarly, certain individuals (and only they) were selected to function as priests.

In the time of Israel’s restoration, a new covenant will be established between God and His people (see Jeremiah 31:31-34, etc). It marks the beginning of a New Age, and oracles such as Joel 2:28-32 are thus eschatological, describing the things that will happen at the end of the current Age (judgment of the nations, etc) and the beginning of the new.

How does the reference to the Spirit in vv. 28-29 fit into this eschatological framework, in light of our discussion above? We may gain a better sense of this by considering the thematic structure of the oracle chiastically, as follows:

    • Promise of salvation for the land and its people (vv. 18-20)
      • God’s presence brings life and blessing to the land of Israel (vv. 21-26)
        • He dwells in the midst of His people (v. 27)
        • He pours His Spirit on all the people (vv. 28-29)
      • God’s presence brings judgment to the earth and its nations (vv. 30-31)
    • Promise of salvation for Jerusalem (Zion) and its people (v. 32)

The spirit (rûaµ) of YHWH essentially refers to His presence, reflecting a manner of expression well-established in Old Testament tradition, going back to the Creation narratives. Thus the “pouring out” of His Spirit is a symbolic expression related to the presence of YHWH among His people. The era of the restored Israel essentially marks a return to the initial moment of the Sinai theophany, when the people collectively stood in God’s presence, prior to the designation of Moses as the spokesperson (n¹»î°) who would stand in their place (Exod 20:18-21). Now all the people are such spokespersons or ‘prophets’ (n®»î°îm), no longer requiring any select individual to serve as intermediary. Now the entire Community is inspired, with the Spirit coming upon them even as it once did the king (at his anointing), or upon the person gifted to function as a n¹»î°.

With this background of Joel 2:28-32 in view—especially the eschatological aspect of the promise of God’s Spirit (the prophetic Spirit) coming upon all of the people—we may now turn to the application this prophecy in the book of Acts. This we will do in next week’s study.

Saturday Series: Luke 24:50-53

Here in the Saturday Series, I will be beginning a set of studies on the Book of Acts, looking at various critical issues and how they relate to a thorough and accurate interpretation of the book. Acts is essentially a history—of the early Christian movement, and the missionary activity of the apostles and other early believers. As such, there are many important historical-critical questions and issues to be addressed. These involve the historical background of the narrative, the historical reliability of the episodes recorded, and how that history is presented within the religious and literary framework of the book.

Of special importance are the sermon-speeches that appear throughout the book of Acts, featuring prominently within the narrative structure. The nature of these speeches raise a number of challenging critical questions. I have addressed most of these in considerable detail in my earlier series “The Speeches of Acts,” and will only be touching on a few of them in the current studies. The sermon-speeches are part of a complex literary and artistic structure, and can only be explained fully by commentary that takes into account the literary-critical scope of the work. Such analysis examines the composition of the book—how the narratives were put together, the style and rhetoric used, the development of the principal themes, the theological points of emphasis, and so forth.

With regard to the text of Acts, there is one major text-critical issue which all scholars and students of the book must confront. The book of Acts exists in two versions, or recensions: one represented by the majority text (including the “oldest and best” manuscripts), and the other by the so-called “Western Text”. The label “Western” refers primarily to the great uncial manuscript D (the Beza Codex, or Codex Bezae), along with a large number of Latin (and various other) manuscripts. There are important differences throughout the New Testament that mark these manuscripts as “Western”; however, they are much more pronounced in the book of Acts. The differences are often so great that one can rightly speak of a separate version or recension of the text.

Scholars continue to debate the nature and origins of the two ‘versions’ of Acts, with most commentators holding that the Bezae/Western version represents a secondary development. The Western text (of D, etc) tends to be much more expansive, and so is considered to be secondary, on the basis of the general critical principle that the shorter reading is more likely to be original (lectio brevior potior). However, in a few key instances, the ‘Western’ text has a markedly shorter reading; B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, in the notes to their critical edition to the New Testament, identified a number of these and referred to them by the rather confusing label “Western non-interpolations”. An interpolation is a technical-critical term for a secondary addition to the text. Westcott and Hort held that, in these selected occurrences where the Western text has the shorter reading, the Western reading is to be considered original, against the weight of evidence from the (longer) majority text.

Nearly all of these “Western non-interpolations” are in Luke-Acts, with most occurring in the Passion and Resurrection narratives of the Gospel of Luke. Previously, many critical commentators accepted the Westcott-Hort evaluation of these shorter readings; in more recent decades, however, the situation has changed, and most modern commentators now tend to accept the longer ‘majority’ text in these instances. Papyrus discoveries (such as the Bodmer Papyri) have added important manuscript support for the originality of the longer readings.

In this week’s study, as a way of introducing this area of critical analysis (of Luke-Acts), I wish to focus on the variant readings at the close of Luke’s Gospel.

Luke 24:50-53

Luke’s Gospel concludes with a scene (apparently still on Easter day) which, in the “oldest and best” manuscripts (Ë75 a B C* L 1 33 579 etc), reads as follows:

50  Ex¢¡gagen dé autoús [éxœ] héœs prós B¢thanían kaí epáras tás cheíras autoú eulóg¢sen autoús. 51 kaí egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n kaí anephéreto eis tón ouranón.
“And he brought/led them out[side] until toward Bethany, and lifting over (them) his hands he spoke well to them [i.e. blessed them]; and it came to be, in his speaking well to them [i.e. blessing them], he stood (apart) from them and was carried up into the heaven.”
52 Kaí autoí proskyn¢¡santes autón hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s 53 kaí ¢¡san diá pantós en tœ¡ hierœ¡ eulogoúntes tón Theón.
“And they, kissing toward him [i.e. worshiping him], turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy, and they were through all [i.e. continually] in the sacred place [i.e. temple] speaking well to [i.e. blessing] God.”

(The Majority text differs slightly, primarily in reading eis B¢thanían [“unto Bethany”] instead of prós B¢thanían [“toward Bethany”] in v. 50, and adding kaí ainoúntes or ainoúntes kaí [“blessing and praising God”] in v. 53.)

There are, however, two major variants (omissions) in the key Western MSS (D, Old Latin a b d e ff2 l, and the Sinaitic Syriac):

    1. Verse 51 reads: kaí egéneto en tœ¡ eulogeín autón autoús diést¢ ap’ autœ¡n “and it came to be, in his blessing them, he stood (apart) from them” (without kaí anephéreto eis tón ouranón “and he was carried up into the heaven”). In other words, it relates that Jesus simply “parted” from them, without any reference to an ascension into heaven.
    2. Verse 52 continues: kaí autoí hypéstrepsan eis Ierousal¢¡m metá charás megál¢s “and they turned back unto Jerusalem with great joy…” (without proskyn¢¡santes auton “worshiping him”).
      See how this shorter version of vv. 50-53 reads, in context, in conventional translation:
      “And he led them out toward Bethany, and raising his hands over (them) he blessed them; and it came to be, in his blessing them, (that) he parted from them; and they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and they were continually in the Temple, blessing God.”

These are both so-called Western “Non-Interpolations” (see above). The first of the two (in v. 51) is far more significant, especially since, in addition to the Western MSS, the shorter reading is also found in the Georgian version (group 1) and the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus (a*).

How is one to explain this variant? As indicated above, the vast majority of MSS, including all the early/best Greek MSS (Ë75, a [corrected], A, B, C, K, L, W, X, D, etc.) contain the words “and he was carried up into the heaven” (kai anephéreto eis ton ouranón). The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? There are a number of possibilities:

Reasons for Omission (in support of the longer text):

    1. To avoid contradiction with the chronology in Acts. It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. This is probably the most popular explanation.
    2. A scribal mistake. A scribe may have skipped from a)p’ au)twn kai in v. 51 to ou)ranon kai au)toi at the end of v.51 & start of v. 52 (homoioarcton: each has the segment nkai). However, this would require that (the precursors of) a and D both made the same mistake, which is rather unlikely.
    3. Theological reasons. Some scholars have thought that the so-called “Non-Interpolations” (involving the Resurrection appearances and “Ascension”) exhibit a purposeful tendency in the Western text (in Luke-Acts) to eliminate concrete references to the resurrection body of Jesus, and physical nature of the Ascension, etc. With regard to the Ascension in particular, see especially Eldon J. Epp’s article “The Ascension in the Textual Tradition of Luke-Acts”, in New Testament Textual Criticism: Its Significance for Exegesis. Essays in Honor of Bruce M. Metzger. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981, pp. 131-145.
    4. The support of Acts. Acts 1:2 would seem to indicate that the Gospel referenced the Ascension (áchri h¢¡s h¢mérasanel¢¡mphth¢, “until which day…he was taken up”). Assuming this is the case, it could be (rightly) argued that the author would not say he described an event which he in fact did not record. It should be noted that several Western witnesses also omit reference to the ascension (anel¢¡mphth¢) in this verse.

Reasons for Addition (in support of the shorter text):

    1. Literary or Theological reasons. Although Luke-Acts may have been published together as a ‘two-volume’ work, by the mid-second century (at the latest), the Gospel of Luke was being copied and distributed bound together (in codex form) with the other Gospels; meaning that, as in nearly all printed New Testament editions today, it was separated from the book of Acts. The shorter reading, if original, would close the Gospel with the suggestion that Jesus simply “parted” from the disciples—a rather unexciting and possibly misleading conclusion. The scribal tendency was always to add Christological details, rather than remove them; it would have been natural to add the few extra words (both in v. 51 and 52), in order to exalt the portrait of Christ.
    2. The shorter text removes the chronological difficulty with Acts. This argument cuts both ways (see above), for the longer text could be said to be the more difficult reading (lectio difficilior potior). However, since Luke explicitly records the Ascension taking place at least 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3ff), would he (the same author of Luke-Acts, by general consensus) have created the confusion by recording the Ascension (apparently) taking place on the day of the Resurrection (Luke 24:50-53)?
    3. Additional support from Acts. It is possible that the phrase áchri h¢¡s h¢mérasanel¢¡mphth¢ (“until which day…he was taken up”) in Acts 1:2 should not be taken to imply that the Ascension was narrated in the Gospel, but only events which took place prior to that day. In this regard, to note the reference (v. 22) in Peter’s subsequent address (Acts 1:15-22), where nearly similar language is used. Could the author of Acts simply be reproducing the phrasing from v. 22, as part of his “prologue”, without specific reference to details in the Gospel?
    4. Evidence from the Church Fathers. The Ascension is referred to numerous times in writings of the 1st-3rd centuries, for example:
      Epistle of Barnabas 15; JUSTIN: 1 Apology 26, Dialogue with Trypho 82, 87, On the Resurrection ch. 9; IRENAEUS: Against Heresies I.10, III.17, IV.33.13, 34.3, V.31, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching 41, 84; CLEMENT: Stromateis VI. ch. 15; ORIGEN: On First Principles Pref §1, II.6.1, 7.2, On Prayer §23, Against Celsus VII.8; TERTULLIAN: Against Marcion V.8, Against Praxeas 25, 30, Prescription Against Heretics 13, On the Resurrection 51; The Muratorian Canon; Epistle of the Apostles 18; Cyprian On the Lord’s Prayer §8, etc. (by no means an exhaustive list). Most of these references are to the narrative in Acts 1:9ff; Ephesians 4:9-10, or to the belief generally; however, I have not been able to find a single clear reference to the long text of Luke 24:51-52 cited in any writing up through the third century (outside of the Diatessaron [§55], a work with a singularly difficult textual history). Moreover, in Tertullian’s fourth book Against Marcion, in which he goes over many details of Luke’s Gospel, up through the Resurrection appearances (chapter 43), he does not cite the long text of v. 51 or 52, and makes no reference to the Ascension (cf. Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, pp. 257-8).
    5. The Western Non-Interpolations. Despite protests from scholars on both sides of the argument, it is hard to avoid the notion that the 9 key “non-interpolations”, eight of which are all found together in the same set of MSS (D a b d e ff2 l), stand or fall together—most likely, they are all original, or they are not. If one accepts the shorter text in the previous 7 Lukan instances, then one really ought to do so here as well.

Clearly, intrinsic/transcriptional arguments can be made for both sides. Ultimately, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming textual evidence. If the longer reading is, in fact, original, I suspect that the apparent discrepancy (with Acts) may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. On the other hand, the clear scribal tendency was to add significant Christological details to the Gospel narrative, rather than omit them (even when there are apparent discrepancies involved); it seems to have been much more acceptable to modify (instead of deleting) difficult words in the text. The presence of the longer reading(s) in the Bodmer Papyrus (Ë75, c. 200) have turned the tide decisively; however, I am by no means so certain the shorter reading(s) can be dismissed as easily as many commentators do today.

Saturday Series: Acts 8:26-40

Acts 8:26-40

This week’s study is related to recent notes and articles on the famous ‘Servant Song’ of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, an important Scripture passage that was interpreted in a Messianic sense by early Christians, and applied to the person and work of Jesus. In the last part of the article on this passage in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”, I explored how the poem came to be understood by early Christians. Portions from it were cited in the New Testament, in Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 2:23-25; Matthew 8:17; John 12:38; Rom 10:16, along with several other possible allusions (see, for example, Mk 9:12).

In this study I wish to explore further how verses 7-8 of the poem were utilized in the Acts 8 episode (vv. 26-40). Scripture quotations are central to the Acts narratives, but feature most prominently within the sermon-speeches. For example, in the great Pentecost sermon-speech of Peter (2:14-41), there are three Scripture citations which are used: Joel 2:28-32 (vv. 17-21); Psalm 16:8-11 (vv. 25-28); and Psalm 110:1 (vv. 34-35). These passages are fundamental to the Gospel proclamation (kerygma), being expounded and applied to Jesus (his death and resurrection). For a study of these Scriptures in the context of the Pentecost sermon, see Parts 2 and 3 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

The episode in 8:26-40 does not contain a sermon-speech, but it does illustrate the early Christian mission and Gospel preaching in action. Thus it is appropriate that a Scripture citation (of Isa 53:7-8) occurs at the center of the episode. To demonstrate the centrality of the Scripture, it may be helpful to present an outline of the episode as a chiasmus:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 26-27ab): Philip encounters the Ethiopian
      • The mission: guidance by the Spirit (vv. 27c-29)
        • Question regarding the Scripture (vv. 30-31)
          • Scripture citation (vv. 32-33)
        • Explanation regarding the Scripture (vv. 34-35)
      • The mission: baptism and the work of the Spirit (vv. 36-39a)
    • Narrative conclusion (vv. 39-40): Philip and the Ethiopian separate

Clearly, the Scripture citation lies at the very heart of the episode. In this instance, an exposition of the lines from the Servant poem forms the basis for the Gospel preaching. No actual preaching is recorded, merely the summary statement that Philip “gave to him the good message (regarding) Yeshua” (v. 35). He did this by “beginning from this Scripture” that the Ethiopian was reading. That is to say, the Scripture formed the basis for the preaching of the Gospel.

From the standpoint of the Acts narratives, as they record the earliest Christian preaching and missionary work, this is most significant, for a number of reasons. Foremost is the importance of the use of the Scriptures by early believers to demonstrate two key points regarding Jesus: (1) that he was the Anointed One (Messiah), and (2) that the death (and resurrection) of the Messiah was prophesied in the sacred Writings.

The idea that the Messiah would suffer and die, especially in the painful and disgraceful manner of crucifixion, was so contrary (and repugnant) to Jewish expectations, it had to be explained. How could Jesus have endured such a death, if he is truly the Messiah? The early Christians worked hard to reconcile and explain this, as they began their missionary work among Israelites and Jews in the area. It was necessary to marshal Scriptural support for the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die (and then rise from the dead). This is an important point of emphasis in the overall narrative of Luke-Acts, and is mentioned, either directly or implicitly, on a number of occasions—see Luke 18:31; 22:37; 24:26-27, 32, 44-45ff; Acts 3:18; 5:42; 8:5; 9:22; 13:27; 17:2-3, 11; 18:5, 28; 24:14; 26:22; 28:23.

As it happens, there are relatively few Old Testament passages which can be used in support of the idea that the Messiah would suffer and die. The Servant poem in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is certainly one of these; indeed, it may be regarded as the foremost such Scripture passage. It is thus quite proper that it should feature prominently in at least one of the missionary episodes in the book of Acts.

Before proceeding to an examination of how verses 7-8 of the poem are used within the narrative, we must briefly consider them from the standpoint of textual criticism. The text as it appears in Acts 8:32-33 is virtually identical to the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation. Only in the first line of v. 8 is there any difference. In some manuscripts of Acts, the reading is “in the humiliation of him” (i.e., “in his humiliation”), including the pronoun; but this is really only a minor variation, perhaps intended to bring greater clarity to the passage. The pronoun may be original, being omitted in certain manuscripts in order to conform the citation to the LXX.

Being a translation of poetry, it is not surprising that the Greek only loosely renders the Hebrew text. Here is a literal translation (in English) of the original Hebrew, with a corresponding translation of the Greek LXX, side by side:

Hebrew [MT]
“And he, being pressed (down), was (op)pressed,
and (yet) he did not open his mouth;
like a sheep to (the) slaughter he was carried (along),
and like a ewe before (the one) shaving her is bound,
and he did not open his mouth.
From oppression and from judgment he has been taken,
(and now) his (life) cycle—who thinks on it?
For he was cut off from (the) land of (the) living;
from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch (came) to him.”
“And he, through being ill-treated, did not open up the mouth;
as a sheep led upon the slaughter,
and as a lamb before the (one) shaving him (is) without voice,
so he did not open up his mouth;
in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away);
his (period of) coming to be, who brings (it) through [i.e. tells/declares it] (to us)?
(for it is) that his life is taken (away) from the earth;
from the lawlessness of the people, he was led to death.”

Only in the first line of verse 8 does the LXX differ substantially—in meaning and emphasis—from the Hebrew:

“from oppression and from judgment he has been taken”
“in the humiliation, judgment [i.e. justice] for him was taken (away)”

I understand the Hebrew to mean that the oppression and judgment (from YHWH) which fell upon the Servant led to his death (i.e., being “taken”). The sense in the LXX (and in the Acts citation), however, is that judgment/justice has been taken from the Servant—that is, he suffered and died unjustly. In this regard, the LXX translation provides a better fit to the circumstances of Jesus’ death. Early Christians took great pains to emphasize that the crucifixion of Jesus was an act of injustice, and that he himself was innocent and undeserving of such punishment.

If the citation of vv. 7-8 here is intended to illustrate the substance of the early Christian Gospel preaching, it seems clear that two aspects are most relevant to the message: (a) Jesus’ innocence and the injustice of his death, and (b) his meekness and humility (i.e., silence) in the face of this injustice. These two aspects are central to the understanding of Jesus as “the Righteous One” (ho díkaios), and we can see the importance of it for the earliest Gospel proclamation (kerygma)—cf. 3:13-15; 4:25-28; 5:28-31; 7:52, etc.

It is interesting that the aspect of the Servant’s vicarious/sacrificial suffering and death is not emphasized in the Acts episode (compare with 1 Peter 2:23-25), and the lines of the poem which bring out this aspect are not cited. This seems to reflect the thought of believers in the earliest period. While forgiveness of sin was made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus, this is expressed primarily through his exaltation (to heaven) by God, rather than through his death as an atoning sacrifice. While the latter is certainly part of the New Testament message, there is little or no evidence of it in the preaching recorded in the book of Acts. On this point, we may compare the reference to Jesus as the servant (of God) in 3:13.

Even more significant is the fact that the author of Acts cuts off the citation of Isa 53:7-8, omitting the final line that refers specifically to the vicarious, atoning nature of the Servant’s suffering. In Hebrew, this line reads:

“from (the) breaking (faith) by his people (the) touch [i.e. of death] (came) to him.”

The Greek translation, of the LXX, which would also have been used in Acts, reads:

“from the lawlessness [plur.] of the people, he was led to death.”

The reference is to the sin (and guilt) of the people. The Hebrew term (peša±) refers specifically to a violation of the covenant with YHWH (essentially an act of rebelliousness), while the Greek word (anomía) means “(act of) lawlessness”. Regardless of which aspect is being emphasized, it is the sin of the people that results in the death of the Servant. He is judged/punished by God for the people’s sins, not his own.

The author of Acts cannot have left out this line by accident; it must have been omitted on purpose. The best explanation is that the author simply did not wish to emphasize the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death. As we have seen (above), that aspect was not an important part of the Gospel preaching in Acts, nor does it feature prominently in the theology of Luke-Acts as a whole. Only one reference in the book of Acts (20:28) could be viewed as expressing anything like a clear belief in the vicarious, atoning character of Jesus’ death.

An interesting historical-critical question is whether this lack of reference to the vicarious/sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death is due to the early character of the preaching in Acts. If the sermon-speeches (in the early chapters, especially) represent authentic Gospel preaching from the period c. 35-50 A.D., then the relative lack of theological development would not be all that surprising. The focus of such early preaching was on the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection, the injustice of his death, and his identity as the Anointed One (Messiah) and Son of God. Forgiveness of sin was definitely part of this proclamation, but it does not appear to have been specifically tied to the nature of his death.

Even the traditional emphasis on the establishment of the new covenant through Jesus’ death (his blood, see Lk 22:20 par) does not feature prominently in the book of Acts (see 3:25-26). This contrasts notably with Paul’s letters, written in the period c. 52-62 A.D., where the various theological (and Christological) aspects of Jesus’ death are developed in complex and powerful ways.

Saturday Series: The Passion and Resurrection (Textual Criticism)

I have decided to switch the subject of the Saturday Series study for this Holy Saturday, on the eve of Resurrection Sunday (Easter). I thought it worth reprising the content of an earlier article that dealt with the key textual variants (variant readings) in the Passion and Resurrection narratives. A study of such variant readings is central to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament—the primary goal of which is to determine, as far as possible, the original form of the text. For those who are familiar with the Gospel narrative, but perhaps have never studied these variant readings, the questions and issues surrounding the text may come as something of a surprise.

We will proceed through the key variation units (and the textual variants) one by one.

Luke 22:19-21

The first variant I will explore comes from the Lukan version of the Last Supper. To begin with, it might be useful to look at the three Synoptic accounts side-by-side, along with Paul’s traditional account from 1 Corinthians (notable add/omit variants are in square brackets):

Note: Unless otherwise indicated, the translation is my own, quite literal in style. Parentheses indicate helping English words; a slash indicates two alternates for rendering the same word, for the sake of clarity. Italicized words are left untranslated, as there is no single English word quite appropriate in context. The noun diath¢¡k¢ (diaqh/kh) literally means something that is “set/placed through(out)”, i.e. an “arrangement”. It is often used in the context of a “disposition” or “testament” (such as a last will). In the New Testament, the usage follows the Greek version(s) of the Old Testament, where diath¢¡k¢ translates the Hebrew b§rî¾ (tyr!B=), a word which fundamentally refers to a binding agreement—especially in the religious-theological sense of the agreement established by God with the people of Israel (Abraham and his descendants).

Mark 14:22-25 Matthew 26:26-29 Luke 22:14-23 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
22And (at) their eating, taking bread (and) blessing, he broke (it) and gave to them and said: “Take, this is my body.” 23And taking (the) cup (and) expressing gratitude, he gave (it) to them, and all drank out of it. 24And he said to them, “This is my blood, of the [new] diatheke, which is (being) poured out for (the sake of) many. 25Amen, I say to you that no, no longer shall I drink out of the produce of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26And (at) their eating, taking bread (and) blessing, Jesus broke (it), and, giving to the learners, said: “Take (and) eat, this is my body.” 27And taking [the] cup and expressing gratitude, he gave (it) to them, saying: “Drink out of it, all (of you), 28for this is my blood, of the [new] diatheke, which is (being) poured out around/concerning many unto the release/forgiveness of sins. 29And I say to you, I shall not drink again from the produce of the vine until that day when it drink it new, with you, in the kingdom of my Father.” 14And when the hour came to be, he fell/sat down (to eat), and the apostles with him. 15And he said to(ward) them, “With longing, I have longed to eat this pascha with you, before by suffering. 16For I say to you that I shall not eat it until that (time) it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. 17And receiving/taking (the) cup (and) expressing gratitude, he said: “Take this and divide (it) unto yourselves; 18for I say to you [that] no[, no longer] shall I drink from the produce of the vine from now on, until the (time) when the kingdom of God comes.” 19And taking bread (and) expressing gratitude, he broke (it) and gave to them, saying: “This is my body [that is given for you: do this unto my remembrance.” 20And like(wise) the cup, with/after the dining, saying: “This the cup is the new diatheke in my blood, that is poured out for you.] 21But more—see, the hand of the one giving me over (is) with me upon the table. 22That the Son of Man indeed travels according to that which was marked-out/determined, but more—woe to that man by whom he is given over!” 23And they began to question toward themselves (as to) the one of them who perhaps it might be, the (one) about to do this. 23For I took over from the Lord that which I also have given over to you: that the Lord Jesus, in the night that he was given over, took bread 24and, expressing gratitude, broke (it) and said: “This is My body which is [broken/given] for you. Do this unto my remembrance.” 25Like(wise) the cup, with/after the dining, saying: “This the cup is the new diatheke in my blood: do this, how often if you drink, unto my remembrance.” 26For, how often if you eat this bread and drink this cup, you announce the death of the Lord until the (time) when he comes.

Note especially the orange highlighted text above, to demonstrate how close 1 Cor. 11:24-25 is to the disputed portion (vv. 19b-20) of Luke 22.

The textual tradition of Luke 22:17-20 is somewhat confused, as is indicated by the fact that six major variants are attested for this passage. The Metzger/UBS Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (second edition, pp. 148-150) provides a nice table summary, which I include here captured out of Biblesoft’s electronic version:

Actually, these six variants really can be reduced down to two: a long version, which includes vv. 19b-20, and a short version, which does not have the verses. The text-critical question then is: which of these is most likely the original reading? Was vv. 19b-20 added (an interpolation) by scribes at some point in the process of transmission, or were they deleted?

Interestingly, the manuscript evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the long version, as it is the reading found in every Greek MS except one. It is found in the oldest relevant papyrus (Bodmer, Ë75) and the major uncials (a A B C K L T W, etc.) as well as most miniscules and ancient Versions (translations). It is decidedly the Majority reading, including the entire early Alexandrian Tradition. On the other hand, the short version is only found in Codex Bezae (D) and in five Old Latin manuscripts (a d ff2 i l). Didache chap. 9 might also be a witness to an original cup-bread sequence (i.e., the short version).

The superior external (manuscript) evidence would seem to clinch the decision in favor of the long version, were it not for the fact that no one has been able to provide a good explanation as to how the shorter text ever could have happened. It does not appear to be the result of (any obvious) scribal accident. Moreover, a scribe, puzzled by Luke’s cup-bread-cup sequence, would more likely have remove the first mention of the cup, rather than the second, and thereby bring the sequence into harmony with the other Gospels (see above). Beyond this, it is a general rule of textual criticism that, in a choice between two readings, the shorter version is more likely to be original (lectio brevior potior)—though there are exceptions, of course. The long version has sometimes been called the more difficult reading (which generally is to be preferred); but I tend to regard both, in their own way, equally difficult. I must confess, it is a bit hard to imagine a pious scribe deleting vv. 19b-20, with their vital soteriological content. On the other hand, it is a bit easier to imagine a scribe adding these verses, given their obvious similarity to 1 Cor. 11:24-25—such familiar verses could have quickly taken root in the manuscript tradition, to be forever preserved in the Majority text.

One of the strongest modern advocates for the short text has been Bart Erhman, who devotes a lengthy discussion to the question in his book The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford: 1993, pp. 197-209). While I disagree with much of his view of Lukan theology, he makes some excellent points regarding this passage. Here I cite a diagram (p. 206) which shows, from his point of view, the natural structure and continuity of the shorter text:

(A) And taking bread, giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, This is my body (v. 19a)

(B) But (pl¢¡n) behold, the hand of the one who betrays (tou paradidóntos) me is on the table (v. 21)

(A1) For (hóti, continuation!) the Son of Man goes as it was ordained for him (v. 22a);

(B1) But (pl¢¡n) woe to that man through whom he is betrayed (paradídontai) (v. 22b)

In the late 19th and early 20th century, influenced by Westcott and Hort’s analysis (this passage was one of their “Western non-Interpolations”), more scholars were willing to regard the short text as original; today, very few are willing to do so. Joseph Fitzmyer’s discussion of the issue in his classic 2-volume commentary (Anchor Bible 28A pp. 1386-1392) is as good as any. Fitzmyer, among others, brings out how Luke’s unusual cup-bread-cup sequence may simply preserve more of an original (historical) Passover context. There would have been (at least) three cups in the ceremony: a first cup (qiddûš) to sanctify the feast day, a second (hagg¹d¹h) following the liturgy, and a third (“cup of blessing”, kôs šel b§r¹k¹h) following the meal proper. In this scenario, the cup of vv. 17-18 could be the first or second cup, with the cup of the diatheke (‘new covenant’) in vv. 19b-20 would be the third. While it does not at all explain the omission of vv 19b-20 in the short version, this is a most attractive interpretation.

Overall, it is impossible to ignore the external (manuscript) evidence for the long reading, and I would tend to accept it as original. However, I do not regard it nearly as certain as many do today.

Mark 14:24; Matthew 26:28

A much smaller, related variant was noted in the table above. Quite a few manuscripts, in both passages, read t¢s kain¢s diath¢k¢s (“the new covenant/testament”) instead of t¢s diath¢k¢s (“the covenant/testament”). As in the case of Luke 22:19-20 above, it is important to note that a high percentage of substantive textual variants involve the question of harmonization between passages (especially in the Gospels). Scribes were prone, intentionally or unintentionally, to modify the text of a Gospel to match that of another (also to modify an Old Testament quotation to match that of the Seputagint, and so forth). As a result, in choosing between variant readings, the one which more closely harmonizes with another passage, typically is less likely to be original. In this instance, kain¢¡s (“new”) is probably not original, and is most likely a harmonization, either from Luke 22:20 or 1 Cor. 11:25. It is also worth noting that scribes (orthodox ones, at least) were more apt to add a significant soteriological or Christological detail than to remove it.

Luke 22:43-44

The next variant involves a famous detail of the prayer scene in the Garden; the passage is as follows (with the disputed portion in double-square brackets, according to the Nestle-Aland critical text [27th ed.]):

40genomenos de epi tou topou eipen autois: proseuchesthe m¢ eiselthein eis peirasmon. 41kai autos apespasth¢ ap’ autœn hœsei lithou bol¢n kai theis ta gonata pros¢ucheto 42legœn: pater, ei boulei parenengke touto to pot¢rion a)p’ emou: pl¢n m¢ to thel¢ma mou alla to son ginesthœ. [[43œphth¢ de autœ angelos ap’ ouranou enischuœn auton. 44kai genomenos en agœnia ektenesteron pros¢ucheto: kai egeneto ho hidrœs autou hœsei thromboi haimatos katabainontos epi t¢n g¢n.]] 45kai anastas apo t¢s proseuch¢s elthœn pros tous math¢tas heuren koimœmenous autous apo t¢s lup¢s, 46kai eipen autois: ti katheudete? anastantes proseuchesthe, hina m¢ eiselth¢te eis peirasmon.

40And coming to be upon the place, he said to them: “Pray not to enter into testing.” 41And he drew out from them like a stone’s throw (away), and setting (down) the knees he prayed, 42saying: “Father, if you wish, carry away this cup from me, but more—(let) not my will but yours come to be.” [[43And a Messenger from heaven was seen (by/unto) him, strengthening him. 44And coming to be in agony, more fervently he prayed: and his sweat came to be like thick-drops of blood going down upon the earth.]] 45And rising from the prayer, coming to(ward) the learners he found them sleeping from sorrow, 46and he said to them: “What, you are asleep? Stand up (and) pray not to come into testing.”

Unlike the case of vv. 19-20 (see above), in this instance the external (manuscript) evidence is evenly divided:

    • Manuscripts Ë69 (apparently), Ë75, aa, A, B, N, R, T, W, 579, family 13 mss, etc., as well as a number of key early translations (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, etc.) and a number of Church Fathers (such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria), do not include vv. 43-44. A number of additional manuscripts include the verses but mark them with asterisks as suspect.
    • Manuscripts a*, D, K, L, X, G, D, 565, family 1 mss, etc., along with key translations (Syriac, Coptic, Latin, etc.), and a number of Church fathers, do include the verses.

To judge by some of the best/earliest Alexandrian manuscripts, a slight edge would be given to the shorter text, as well as on the basis of the principle lectio brevior potior (“the shorter reading is [generally] to be preferred”). However, it is hard to say which is the more difficult reading. Did scribes add the verses, perhaps to help combat “docetic” Christologies by emphasizing the suffering of Jesus? Or, did scribes delete the verses, because they seemed to give too much emphasis on the human suffering of Christ? It is always easier to explain how such variants were preserved in the manuscripts, than to explain how they first came about.

In any event, the change, whichever direction it occurred (add or omit), must have taken place before the end of the second-century, since late-second- and early-third-century witnesses attest both forms of the text. Vv. 43-44 clearly represent an ancient tradition — early Church Fathers like Justin Martyr (see the Dialogue with Trypho c. 103) cite it, though not specifically as coming from the Gospel of Luke.

On the whole, the text-critical evidence appears to be slightly in favor of the shorter reading. So cherished and familiar are vv. 43-44, however—and such a powerful ancient tradition—that even scholars who reject them as original still feel compelled to include them (bracketed, as in the Nestle-Aland text above) and to comment upon them.

Mark 14:68, 72

This is an interesting instance of a small, but notable seeming discrepancy between the Gospels. Only Mark mentions the rooster “giving voice” (crowing) twice—both in the prophecy (14:30), and here in these verses. However, here the textual evidence is a bit confused, almost certainly due to attempts to harmonize the account—but in which direction? Was kai alektœr ephœn¢sen (“and [the] rooster gave voice [i.e., sounded/crowed]”) added to the end of v. 68 (it is missing from a number of manuscripts) in order to fulfill (literally) Jesus’ prophecy by recording two crowings; or, was it deleted in order to harmonize with the other Gospels. The manuscript evidence is divided. Again, in v. 72, a number of manuscripts do not have the words ek deuterou (“from/for a second [time]”), and the same question can be asked.

Luke 23:34

For students unfamiliar with these text-critical questions, it may come as a bit of a surprise that a good number of early manuscripts (Ë75, ac, B, D*, W, Q, 0124, 579, 1241, and some Syriac and Coptic translations) do not include Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness: ho de I¢sous elegen: Pater, aphes autois, ou gar oidasin ti poiousin. (“And Yeshua said, ‘Father, release/forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.'”) This is a wide range of good (and geographically diverse) textual witnesses, including the earliest relevant Papyrus (Bodmer, Ë75). On the other hand, the majority text, including both family 1 & 13 MSS, and the entire later Koine text tradition, along with key early manuscripts (a*, C, Dc, L, G, D, 0117) and many early translations, include the text. Once again, the manuscript evidence is fairly evenly divided, perhaps with a slight edge to the shorter reading, though it is hard to say for certain. Was this an ancient (authentic) saying of Jesus that was inserted in this location by early scribes? I disagree with scholars who claim that it is easier to explain its omission than its insertion. Orthodox scribes, on the whole, appear to have been reluctant to delete Christologically significant sayings or details, and were more likely to add or preserve them. It is quite possible that, once the saying became embedded in the textual tradition (however this exactly came about), it was really too wonderful ever to be removed.

Mark 15:25 and John 19:14

In order to harmonize the chronology between the Synoptic gospels and John, a few manuscripts and versions, read hekt¢ (“sixth [hour]”), instead of trit¢ (“third [hour]”) at Mark 15:25; correspondingly, the opposite variant occurs in a number of manuscripts (ac Dsupp L X D Y, etc.) at John 19:14. The apparent chronological discrepancies between the Passion accounts of John and the Synoptics are notorious, and represents a long-standing, and widely discussed area of New Testament interpretation. All three Synoptics appear to record the Last Supper as a Passover meal; and yet John (in 19:14 and 31) explicitly notes that Jesus was crucified on the day of Passover eve (when the lambs were slaughtered). There have been a number of attempts to reconcile these discrepancies, and so preserve strict historical accuracy in all four Gospels; but these solutions, while possible, are not entirely convincing. A theory, popularized by A. Jaubert (La date de la Cène [1957]; The Date of the Last Supper [1965]; and other articles) posited that Jesus and his followers, as recorded in the Synoptics made use of an older [364-day] solar calendar (also utilized by the Qumran sect, and in the Book of Jubilees, etc.), while John records Jesus’ crucifixion on Passover eve according to the [“official”] Jewish lunar calendar. This theory was once in vogue, but has since fallen somewhat out of favor.

In any case, this textual variant would seem to be more of a simple attempt at harmonization. A reminder that, as we have seen, this sort of variant occurs quite often in the manuscript tradition.

Mark 15:28

Quite a few of the early manuscripts do not have verse 28: kai epl¢rœth¢ h¢ graph¢ h¢ legousa, kai meta anomœn elogisth¢ (“And the Writing was fulfilled which says, ‘and he was counted with the lawless'”). If it is indeed an interpolation, it was most likely added from the parallel in Luke 22:37. As I have noted above, scribes were prone to adding Christological details (such as the fulfilment of messianic prophecy), or to harmonizing the text to that of the other Gospels.

Luke 23:42

Here the variant involves but a single preposition (eis versus en) with an accompanying change in case. The “good thief” on the cross asks of Jesus:

Mn¢sth¢ti mou hotan elth¢s (“Remember me when you come…”)

      1. eis t¢n basileian sou. (“…into your kingdom.”)
      2. en t¢ basileia sou. (“…in/with your kingdom.”)

The first variant, which seems to refer to Jesus coming into the presence of his Father in heaven (after death), is the reading of MSS Ë75 (the oldest relevant Papyrus), B, L, and the Latin versions. The second variant, would appear to have an eschatological meaning (i.e., when Jesus comes [again] in [or along with] his kingdom), and is attested by the majority of Greek manuscripts (a, A, C2, R, W, Y, 0124, 0135, family 1 & 13 mss, and the later Koine/Byzantine text tradition). It is hard to say for certain, based on the manuscript evidence, which reading is more likely to be original. Jesus’ response seems to imply the first variant, but he may also be “correcting” the second variant—that is, the thief asks Jesus to remember him when he comes to set up his kingdom, but Jesus responds that the thief will be with him in paradise today.

John 19:29

An interesting detail: a few manuscripts read hyssœ (“[putting round] a pole”), instead of hyssœpœ (“[putting round] a hyssop [branch]”). The latter is almost certainly the correct reading, the former arising perhaps as a scribal accident. However, it may have been preserved in these few manuscripts because it seemed to make more sense in context. John may be bringing out an explicit connection with Passover (see Exodus 12:20). It is important to recognize that textual changes, especially in the relatively rare instances they are made intentionally, are typically not made out of a malicious intent – rather, they generally are the result of a pious regard for clarifying the text when its meaning seemed to them ambiguous or obscure.

Mark 15:34

Another interesting detail: a few ‘Western’ manuscripts (including D) read ho theos mou ho theos mou, eis ti œneidisas me? (“My God, my God, unto what [i.e. why] have you reproached me?”), instead of ho theos mou ho theos mou, eis ti engkatelipes me? (“My God, my God, unto what have you abandoned me?”). oneidízœ has the basic sense of “insult, disgrace”, also “revile, reproach”. It would seem that a scribe, perhaps not understanding how God could, or would, “abandon / leave behind” Jesus, may have intentionally modified the text. This touches upon the sensitive question of intentional alterations (whether orthodox or heretical/heterodox) to the text of Scripture. As indicated above, these are relatively rare occurrences – indeed, it is often hard to tell for sure whether a scribal change was intentional or accidental. But it is a real phenomenon in the textual tradition.

Matthew 27:49-50

A number of important manuscripts (a, B, C, L, al) include the words allos de labœn longch¢n enyxen autou t¢n pleuran, kai ex¢lthen hydœr kai haima (“and another, taking a spear, pricked his side, and water and blood came out”) – a detail otherwise known from the Gospel of John (19:34) – at the end of the verse. Oddly, in Matthew these appear prior to Jesus’ cry and death. Are these words, then, original, having been deleted because of their strange location? Or was it introduced from John, perhaps accidentally, by way of a marginal comment. The evidence would rather seem to be against the words being original here. Again, however, the addition of Christological details, such as the water and blood from his side, would have been tempting to scribes, especially when they harmonize with other familiar passages in the Gospels.

Luke 24:6

A few manuscripts, primarily ‘Western’ (D with at least seven Latin mss), do not include the words ouk estin hœde, alla ¢gerth¢ (“He is not here, he has risen”). The shorter text, despite the slight manuscript support, has been accepted as original by a number of scholars (past and present), as a so-called “Western non-Interpolation” (for more on this term, see the concluding note below). The general argument in favor of these shorter readings (besides lectio brevior potior – “the shorter reading is [generally] to be preferred”), is that there is no good reason to account for the words being deleted or omitted, whereas they could easily have been added to harmonize with Matthew/Mark. However, I think that, in this instance, the superior manuscript evidence is decisive – I would tend to regard the longer text as original.

Luke 24:12 and 40

Two more examples of possible interpolations: a number of ‘Western’ manuscripts (D, with Latin and Old Syriac mss) do not include v. 12: ho de Petros anastas edramen epi to mn¢meion kai parakypsas blepei ta othonia mona, kai ap¢lthen pros heauton thaumazœn to gegonos (“But Peter, standing up, ran upon/to the memorial/tomb, and, stretching out [to look], saw the linen-strips alone, and he went from [there], wondering to himself [about] what had come to be”); as well as v. 40: kai touto eipœn edeixen autois tas cheiras kai tous podas (“And, having said this, he showed to them the hands and the feet”). The external manuscript support for these verses is overwhelming, including all the earliest/best manuscripts (except D): Ë75, a, A, B, K, L, W, X, D, etc. Notwithstanding, some scholars consider the shorter reading in each case to be original (‘Western non-Interpolations’ – see below), the verses having been added from John (20:3-7 and 20). Modern detailed studies of both Gospels, however, have led scholars rather to the general conclusion that, here in the Passion and Resurrection narratives, in particular, Luke and John are both drawing upon common tradition. Especially in the case of v. 12, where the account is greatly truncated compared with that in John, a scribal insertion is far less likely.

LUKE 24:51

Here again, Western manuscripts (D, Old Latin mss), along with the Siniaitic Syriac MS and the original hand of a have the shorter reading, without the words kai anephereto eis ton ouranon (“and he was carried up into the heaven”). The vast majority of MSS, including all the early/best Greek MSS (Ë75, a [corrected], A, B, C, K, L, W, X, D, etc.) contain the words. The manuscript evidence would seem to be decidedly in favor of the longer reading, but internal considerations make it a bit less certain. In which direction did the change occur? It is certainly possible that scribes, noticing the apparent discrepancy between v. 51 and Luke’s own account of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-11, deleted the words. In the Gospel, it would seem that the Ascension takes place on the same night as the Resurrection, whereas in Acts (v. 3) it occurs 40 days later. On the other hand, a scribe may have inserted the words, in order to have the Gospel end with an account of the Ascension. Of course, this may well have been Luke’s intention as the author. I suspect that the apparent discrepancy may be the result of Luke compressing/conflating the narrative, thereby giving the impression that it all happened on one night. This sort of handling of historical narrative was quite common with ancient writers, as unsatisfying as it might be to our modern sensibilities. The longer reading, I think, is more likely original.

Final Note on “Western Non-Interpolations”

A number of the most significant variants discussed above involve the so-called “Western non-Interpolations”. This awkward term comes from Westcott and Hort in their greatly-influential late-nineteenth century critical edition of the New Testament. I will examine this interesting topic a bit further, perhaps, in a subsequent article. All it really means is that there are a number of key instances where the “Western” group of manuscripts (of which the Beza Codex [D] is the most prominent) has the shorter reading. This is especially significant, because the Western text (in Luke-Acts) typically is more expansive and usually has the longer variant reading. In a number of such instances, Westcott and Hort, followed by later scholars, accepted the shorter reading as original, even when the vast majority of manuscripts agree with the longer reading. The originality of these shorter readings is being increasingly rejected by critical scholars today, largely due to the presence of the longer readings in the early (Bodmer) Papyri.

Textual Note on Luke 19:38

This note is supplemental to the Saturday Series study on the Triumphal Entry scene, as well as to the articles (on Psalm 118:26 and Zech 9:9) in the series “The Old Testament in the Gospel Tradition”.

There is a text-critical question surrounding Luke 19:38, which is part of the Lukan version of the Triumphal Entry (19:28-39). The greatest textual variation, between the Synoptic versions, is found in the record of the exclamation by the crowds (Mk 11:9-10; Matt 21:9; Lk 19:38; cp. Jn 12:13b). The exclamation is each case is identical in substance, but differing in detail. It is based on Psalm 118:26, but adapted to reflect a Messianic interpretation and expectation by the crowd.

In all four versions, the crowd recites Ps 118:26a: “Blessed is the (one) coming in the name of the Lord”. The original context and background of the Psalm had to do with the return of the (victorious) king to Jerusalem following battle (vv. 10ff), but early on it was used in a ritual/festal setting (vv. 26-27), and was recited as one of the ‘Hallel’ Psalms on the great feasts such as Passover and Sukkoth (Tabernacles). Jesus identified himself as the “one coming” in Luke 13:35 (par Matt 23:39), and there is very likely also a reference to this in Lk 19:41-44 (immediately following the Entry), blending, it would seem, the ancient traditions underlying Mal 3:1 and Psalm 118:26.

We might also note the detail, unique to John’s account, of the use of palm branches by the crowds (Jn 12:13a), which could have a royal connotation (cf. 1 Maccabees 13:51; Testament of Naphtali 5:4). For a similar example of the crowds greeting an approaching sovereign, see Josephus, Wars of the Jews 7.100-103.

In addition to the use of Psalm 118:26, in all four Gospels, the crowds, in greeting Jesus, variously include references to David, King, or Kingdom, which serve to emphasize the figure-type of the royal/Davidic Messiah:

    • Mark 11:10: “…blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
    • Matt 21:9: “Hosanna to the to the son of David…!”
    • Luke 19:38: “Blessed is the (One) coming, the King…[or, the coming King]”
    • John 12:13 “…[and] the King of Israel!”

In Mark and Luke, this royal/Davidic element is patterned after the wording of Psalm 118:26, making clear that the Davidic Messiah (identified with Jesus), specifically, is the one who is coming “in the name of the Lord”. In this regard, the variant readings in Lk 19:38 are of particular interest. The majority of textual witnesses (ac A K L D Y f1 f13 al) read o( e)rxo/meno$ basileu/$ (“…the [one] coming [as] king”). Several others (W 1216 al) read o( e)rxo/meno$ (“the [one] coming”), which simply reproduces Psalm 118:26 [LXX] and omits the royal/Davidic element. The ‘Western’ text (of D a c d ff2 i, etc) has an expanded reading which establishes two distinct, parallel phrases: “Blessed (is) the (one) coming in (the) name of (the) Lord, blessed (is) the king!”. The reading of Vaticanus (B), with slight marginal support in the versions (Armenian version), is regarded by many textual critics as the most difficult reading, and the one which best explains the rise of all the others: o( e)rxo/meno$ o( basileu/$ (“… the [one] coming, the king”). Cf. UBS/Metzger, pp. 144-5.

If we except the latter reading (of B) as the most likely original form of the text, then the Lukan form of the acclamation reads:

“Blessed (is) the (one) coming, the king, in (the) name of (the) Lord!”

In this instance “the king” (o( basileu/$) functions as a gloss on the expression “the (one) coming”, making clear that the one who is coming (in the name of the Lord) is “the king” (i.e., the Davidic Messiah). As I note above, this Messianic interpretation restores much of the original background and setting of the Psalm—viz., that of the return of the king to Jerusalem following his victory in battle. For first-century Jews, this very much would have reflected their expectation for the Davidic Messiah—that he would subdue and judge the nations, and establish a glorious new Kingdom on earth, centered at Jerusalem.

For the second part of the crowd’s acclamation in Lk 19:38, cf. my earlier article in the series “Birth of the Son of God”. The Lukan version of the Synoptic tradition, at this point, seems to have been consciously shaped in relation to the wording of the Angelic song (Gloria in Excelsis) in the Infancy narrative (2:14)—as if intended to draw a connection between Jesus’ birth and his impending death.

References above marked “UBS/Metzger” are to A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Second Edition), by Bruce M. Metzger (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft / United Bible Societies: 1994).