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Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 3-4, Argument 1)

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Galatians 3-4 constitutes the probatio, according to the terminology of classical rhetoric—that is, where the principal arguments are presented and the case made. Paul uses a variety of “proofs”, generally moving between arguments from Scripture, practical illustrations, and personal appeals, in an attempt to persuade and convince his audience. He has already stated the case in 2:15-21 (see the previous discussion), and in these chapters he seeks to persuade the Galatians.

Probatio (Galatians 3:1-4:31)

I divide the probatio into six sections, and will discuss each in turn:

  1. An appeal to the Galatians’ experience (3:1-6)
  2. Scriptural argument: the blessing of Abraham comes by faith (3:7-14)
    —contrasted with the curse of the Law (vv. 10-13)
  3. Scriptural argument: the promise to Abraham comes through Christ (3:15-29)
    Illustration: the nature of a testament/covenant, with a contrast between the Law and the promise (vv. 15-18)
    Statement(s) on the purpose of the Law (vv. 19-25)
    Statement on the promise that comes through Christ (vv. 23-25)
  4. Illustration: Slavery vs. Sonship (4:1-11)
  5. Appeal based on the example and person of Paul (4:12-20)
  6. An allegory from Scripture illustrating Slavery vs. Sonship (4:21-31)

Section 1: Galatians 3:1-6

Paul begins with an appeal to the Galatians’ experience, as believers who have come to Christ. He uses the rhetorical/dialogical technique of calling on his audience to bring forward the argument themselves (“this only I wish to learn from you…”, v. 2), by asking them a two-fold question, framed with a provocative accusation/insult (using the adjective a)no/hto$, “mindless, unintelligent”, i.e. “foolish”):

  • “O senseless [a)no/htoi] Galatians! who has exerted (this evil) influence on you?…” (v. 1)
    • Question: “did you receive the Spirit out of [i.e. from] works of Law or out of (the) hearing of trust/faith?” (v. 2)
  • “Are you thus (so) senseless [a)no/htoi]?…” (v. 3-4)
    • Question: “the one supplying… and working… (is he/it) out of [i.e. from] works of Law or out of (the) hearing of trust/faith?” (v. 5)

In both questions Paul contrasts two parallel expressions:

e)c e&rgwn no/mou
“out of works of Law”
vs.
e)c a)koh=$ pi/stew$
“out of (the) hearing of trust”

These are similar in form, with the preposition e)k (“out of”) in the sense of “from, through, on the basis of”. The expression “works of (the) Law” was already used in 2:16 (cf. my note on this verse), there being contrasted with “trust of Jesus Christ”, which is generally synonymous with “trusting in(to) Jesus Christ” as indicated there in 2:16. Here “works of Law” is set against “hearing of trust”, which probably should be understood in the sense of “hearing (the Gospel) so as to trust in Jesus”.  “Works of Law” is a shorthand for active observance of the commands and ordinances of the Old Testament Law (Torah or “Law of Moses”), particularly in its ritual/ceremonial aspect. Here in Galatians the reference is primarily to circumcision, but would also include the sacrificial offerings, observance of holy days (Sabbath, Passover, etc), dietary regulations, and so forth—even extending to supererogatory acts of religious devotion which go beyond the letter of the law. By juxtaposing the parallel genitive expressions, Paul creates a contrasting distinction—Law vs. faith/trust (in Christ), and the Galatians are ultimately asked to choose between them. The implicit correct answer to Paul’s two-fold question, as he has already stated, is “out of faith/trust“; but what is it that specifically comes out of faith/trust? In the first question (v. 2), it is the Galatians having received the Spirit; in the second (v. 5), Paul refers to:

“the One [i.e. God]
—supplying the Spirit upon you and
—working (work)s of power in/among you”

This indicates the two-sides of the religious/spiritual transformation: (a) the believer who receives the Spirit, and (b) the active work of God in giving the Spirit—both of these are seen as the result of a person hearing (and responding to) the Gospel in faith/trust. In verse 3, Paul also contrasts the Spirit with “the flesh [sa/rc]”, where the (second) question to the Galatians is specified:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed in/with flesh?”

Paul often juxtaposes the Spirit and flesh in his letters, and does so here in Galatians (cf. the allegory in 4:21-31 and  throughout the exhortatio of 5:1-6:10). Clearly, the contrast Spirit/flesh is meant to be understood as directly parallel to faith/Law. The “works of Law” are effectively “works of flesh“. The implication is also clear that, in turning to observance of the Law (“in flesh”, esp. circumcision), the Galatians would be turning away from the Spirit.

This section concludes with a quotation from Genesis 15:6, regarding Abraham; its purpose is two-fold: (a) as a Scriptural illustration of the argument in 3:1-5, and (b) as a transition into the Scriptural arguments of 3:7-29, which center upon Abraham. Because of the importance of this citation (also used by Paul in Romans 4:3ff, 22; and again by James 2:23), it is worth comparing the versions of it side by side:

Genesis 15:6

hq*d*x= oL h*b#v=j=Y~w~ hw`hyB^ /m!a$h#w+
“and he [i.e. Abraham] relied firmly on [i.e. trusted in] YHWH and He counted/regarded it for him (as) righteousness”

Genesis 15:6 [LXX]

kai\ e)pi/steusen Abram tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“and Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

Galatians 3:6

kaqw\$  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“and {even as} Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

The citation in Galatians (like those in Romans and James) matches the LXX, which itself is a fairly literal rendering of the Hebrew, the only real difference being the use of the (divine) passive e)logi/sqh (“was counted”) in Greek rather that the active “he [i.e. God] counted it” in the Hebrew. This verse, and, indeed, the entire Scriptural argument in 3:16-29, is dealt with more precisely in Romans 4 (a passage which will be discussed extensively at the proper point in this series). Paul presents it in rather a different context than we see in James 2:14-26; and this difference will be discussed in a separate note. Suffice it to say, Paul gives more attention to the immediate Scriptural context in Gen 15:1-5, where God discloses to Abraham the promise of a son and heir for him. This theme of promise will be central to the arguments from Scripture in the remainder of Galatians 3 (and 4:21-31).

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Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

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The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6—

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29. These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

  • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
  • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
    (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
    (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

  • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
  • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
  • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action

James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

  • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
  • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is much closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.

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Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 1-2)

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For a proper study of Paul’s treatment of the Law in Galatians, I believe it is important to keep the overall line and structure of his argument in view throughout. For this reason, I will be looking at the relevant verses and passages according to the divisions of the letter as established by the best rhetorical analysis.

In analyzing the structure and rhetorical framework of Galatians, I am generally following the outline of Hans Dieter Betz (Galatians, in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press [1979]). This landmark critical work was among the first to apply modern rhetorical analysis extensively to Paul’s epistles; for a more traditional-conservative approach along the same lines (and using the same basic outline), see B. Witherington, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (T & T Clark / Eerdmans: 1998).

The outline is as follows:

  • Opening Greeting (Epistolary Prescript)—1:1-5
  • Introduction, with direct address to the audience (Exordium)—1:6-10
  • Narration or statement of relevant facts and events (Narratio)—1:11-2:14
  • Statement and exposition of the case (Propositio)—2:15-21
  • Presentation of arguments and proofs (Probatio)—3:1-4:31
  • Exhortation and ethical instruction (Exhortatio)—5:1-6:10
  • Conclusion and Farewell/Benediction (Epistolary Postscript)—6:11-18

Epistolary Prescript (Gal 1:1-5)

This includes the standard elements indicating author and addressee (vv. 1-2), greeting (vv. 3-4) and doxology (v. 5). There are two aspects especially worthy of note: (1) Paul’s self-identification as an apostle (a)po/stolo$), v. 1, and (2) the Gospel summary in v. 4. These are both common features of Pauline opening greetings, but they have a particular significance here in Galatians:

  • Paul as an apostle, that is, one who is set forth as a special emissary and representative (of Christ). This will be a central theme in establishing the argument of the letter—Paul’s role and authority as an apostle to the Gentiles. Note how he qualifies the term “apostle” in verse 1—”not from men and not through a man, but through Yeshua (the) Anointed and God (the) Father”. In other words, his apostolic authority comes directly from Jesus Christ and God the Father. Consider also how his apostleship is connected to the Gospel message here in v. 1 with the concluding formula “…the (One) raising him [i.e. Jesus] out of the dead”.
  • Verse 4 applies to Jesus a more extensive Gospel formula: “the (One) giving himself over our sins, that he might take us out of the standing evil Age, according to the will of our God and Father”. A proper definition and understanding of the Gospel (“good message”) is likewise central to the argument of Galatians, as we will see.

Exordium (Gal 1:6-10)

This represents the introduction of the letter and the beginning of Paul’s direct address to his audience. Verses 6 and 7 provide the causa, that is, Paul’s reason for writing. He begins, “I wonder/marvel [qauma/zw] that…”, a deliberative rhetorical technique that draws attention to the course of action being taken (or about to be taken) by his audience; similarly, his use of the adverb taxe/w$ (“[so] soon/quickly”). Note the two parallel verbs in vv. 6-7:

  • metati/qhmi (“set [something] after”, i.e. change the place of)—metati/qesqe “you have moved (yourselves) away from [a)po\]”
    • The transfer is away from the one calling the Galatians to faith and salvation, i.e. God (but in a secondary sense, also Paul as apostle), and toward (“unto”, ei)$) “another Gospel” (e%teron eu)agge/lion)
  • metastre/fw (“turn after/across”, i.e. turn to a different place or condition)
    • Paul’s opponents (the ones “troubling” [tara/ssonte$] the Galatians) wish “to change/pervert/distort” [metastre/yai] “the Gospel of Christ” [to\ eu)agge/lion tou= Xristou=]

On the one hand, Paul accuses the Galatians of changing over to “another” Gospel, on the other, he accuses certain people of wishing to change/alter the Gospel. Though he does not state it here, it soon becomes clear that this “other Gospel” is represented by the views of the Jewish Christians who would require (or urge) that Galatian believers become circumcised and observe the regulations of the Law (Torah). Paul effectively marginalizes this Jewish-Christian (“Judaizing”) position with his aside regarding this “other” Gospel—o^ ou)k e&stin a&llo (“[of] which there is no other”). That is to say, in Paul’s mind, there is only one Gospel, and it corresponds with the Gospel which he has been proclaiming. As will become clear throughout the first chapters of the letter, this question of the Gentile believers being (or feeling) compelled to observe the Old Testament/Jewish Law is no small matter of indifference or preference, but rather cuts to the very heart of the Christian message. The seriousness with which Paul views the matter is indicated by the double curse (anathema) he gives in verses 8-9. Implied within the curse is an affirmation of Paul’s own apostolic authority—this will be the main focus of the narration in vv. 11ff. Paul’s position and authority as an apostle (representative of Christ) is also indicated in verse 10, which serves as the transitus, or transition, between the exordium and the narratio.

Narratio (Gal 1:11-2:14)

In classical rhetoric, the narratio refers to a statement (narration) of the facts of a case, along with related events, by the author/speaker; it also sets the stage for the principal arguments (or proofs) which follow. Verses 11-12 make up the propositio, or opening statement, intended to influence the audience. This is indicated by Paul’s use of gnwri/zw ga\r u(mi=n (“For I make known to you…”) at the start.

I am not sure why Betz, in his outline of Galatians, treats verse 11 as part of the transitus; his own analysis on pp. 59-60 shows that it is better regarded as the opening of the narratio (part of the propositio).

Here Paul expands upon the point made back in verse 1—that the Gospel he proclaims was not taught to him by other human beings, but came to him directly by revelation from Jesus Christ himself. This fact is intimately connected with his role as a representative and emissary (apostle) of Christ, both aspects—Gospel message and apostolic authority—being central to his exposition. The narratio itself is autobiographical, and can be divided into three parts:

  • Paul’s early career—the call to be an Apostle (1:13-24)
  • The meeting in Jerusalem—confirmation of Paul’s role as Apostle to the Gentiles (2:1-10)
  • The incident at Antioch—questions regarding the Gospel as proclaimed to the Gentiles, concerning Jewish-Gentile relations and the Law (2:1-14)

Paul’s early career (1:13-24)—From the standpoint of this study, three basic themes or points can be isolated:

  • His religious devotion and zeal—that is, his Jewish identity (vv. 13-14)
    The “traditions [lit. things given along, passed down] of the Fathers” certainly includes legal (i.e. commands and regulations of the Torah) as well as extra-legal religious matters. His devotion extended even to persecuting the early Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, which corresponds to the scenario described in Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2ff. Note also how here he effectively contrasts Judaism with the Gospel (presented in v. 15), but not as either competing or complementary religions; rather, the revelation of Jesus Christ to him represents something entirely new.
  • His call and commission as Apostle (to the Gentiles)—it came directly from God and Christ (vv. 15-17)
    This is indicated by two aspects of the narrative:
    (1) He was set apart by God (even before he was born), being called by the favor of God and through the (personal) revelation of Christ (vv. 15-16a)
    (2) He did not consult at first with other Christian leaders (in Jerusalem), i.e. his instruction and earliest ministry work was directly under the guidance of God and Christ (vv. 16b-17)
  • His ministry work becoming accepted within the wider early Christian community—including contact with the apostles in Jerusalem (vv. 18-24)

The meeting in Jerusalem (2:1-10)—I have discussed this passage in some detail in relation to the so-called ‘Jerusalem Council’ of Acts 15. I would generally follow the majority of commentators in their view that Acts 15 and Galatians 2 refer to the same underlying historical event[s], though this identification is not without difficulties. However one chooses to interpret the relation between these passages at the historical level, here we must focus exclusively on what Paul writes in his letter. The following points should be noted:

  • Paul’s attendance in Jerusalem is also the result of a revelation (vv. 1-2, cp. Acts 15:2f)
  • At issue is the Gospel Paul has been proclaiming to the Gentiles (v. 2)
  • There were some (Jewish Christians) in Jerusalem who would require/compel Gentile believers to be circumcised (and, presumably, to observe other Torah regulations as well) (v. 3; this is more prominent in Acts 15:1-11ff)
  • Paul characterizes these Jewish Christians (“Judaizers”) as “false brothers”, indicating that they have come in surreptitiously (infiltrating/spying), and with false/improper motives (v. 4); note the introduction here of a motif (slavery vs. freedom) which will appear throughout the epistle.
  • Paul clearly contrasts this Jewish-Christian view with the “truth of the Gospel”—as such, Paul feels compelled to oppose it (v. 5)
  • The authority and importance of the (apostolic) leaders in Jerusalem, judged in human terms, is devalued by Paul (v. 6, 9)
  • And yet, Paul’s role as apostle to the Gentiles is confirmed—along with his missionary approach and the Gospel he proclaims—by the leaders in Jerusalem (James, Cephas/Peter, and John) (vv. 7-9)

We can detect how many of the important themes and motifs of the epistle, to be expounded by Paul, are introduced and interwoven throughout this narrative. The points of controversy and conflict are brought forward, and already Paul has begun the polemical (and vituperative) treatment of his opponents which will increase markedly in the climactic sections of the letter.

The incident at Antioch (2:11-14)—For a detailed treatment of this section, see my earlier discussion (daily note for July 3), and also on the Peter/Paul controversy in Christian tradition (note for June 30). It also may be worth consulting my notes on the so-called Apostolic Decree from Acts 15. Here we have a narrative snippet from a minor, but significant, event in early Church history, which shows the cultural and religious difficulties in incorporating Gentile (non-Jewish) believers within a largely Jewish-Christian matrix. The incident at Antioch, by all accounts, did not involve Jewish Christians urging or compelling Gentiles to observe the Torah; rather, it had to do with the behavior of the Jewish believers. Should Jews (as believers in Christ) continue faithfully to observe the Torah regulations and/or their religious traditions if it meant separating themselves from fellowship with Gentiles? The issue may even have gone deeper, for Paul speaks of Peter as starting to be in a Gentile manner of living (e)qnikw=$); this perhaps indicates that Peter has ceased to observe certain Torah regulations (such as the dietary restrictions, cf. Acts 10:9-16), at least when living and eating among Gentile believers. Social pressure (from prominent Jewish believers) apparently caused Peter to return to his prior religious scruples. Paul saw and sensed in this a great danger, as it seemed to place Jewish distinctiveness ahead of Jewish-Gentile unity in Christ. This is an important observation directed at those commentators who would view Paul’s arguments regarding the Law in Galatians as being limited to what is necessary for salvation—the incident at Antioch shows that Paul’s argument goes beyond this, for it relates to the very notion of Christian identity. Galatians is first surviving Christian writing (however one dates it exactly) to address this issue head-on.

Propositio (Gal 2:15-21)

The propositio is the primary statement of the case (distinct from the statement introducing the narratio, cf. above), along with an initial exposition, whereby points of agreement and disagreement are laid out. Each of these seven verses is vital to an understanding of Paul’s view of the Law in Galatians. I have discussed and examined them in some detail in a series of notes, and, as such, it is not necessary to repeat that analysis here. The notes proceed according to the following outline of the section:

  • Note 1 (vv. 15-16)—Basic proposition regarding justification and the Jew/Gentile distinction
  • Note 2 (vv. 17-18)—Rhetorical argument to show the problem with applying the Law to (Gentile) believers
  • Note 3 (vv. 19-20)—Relation of the believer to the Law
  • Note 4 (v. 21)—Concluding argument regarding justice/righteousness

The overall statement in vv. 15-21 is further expounded by Paul in chapters 3-4 (the probatio) with a series of arguments illustrating and proving its validity, with the purpose, of course, of convincing and persuading the Galatians. Each of these arguments is important for Paul’s view of the Law and must be examined carefully; this will be the focus of the next article in this series.

 

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Paul’s View of the Law: Introduction

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In this series on “The Law and the New Testament”, it is now time to begin exploring Paul’s view of the Law, which will be done over a series of articles. It is a complex and difficult subject, to which one might easily devote any number of book-length treatments (as indeed scholars have done); here I will attempt a careful survey of the most relevant passages, devoting longer exegetical notes, when necessary, to specific verses. The history of interpretation, fascinating though it may be, will only be introduced when it is especially helpful in elucidating a particular passage; similarly, comparative studies between Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so forth, will be kept to a minimum. Every effort will be made to focus on the fundamental meaning and context of Paul’s words in the letters. Before proceeding, I must offer two explanatory notes:

1) On authorship of the Pauline letters—Of the fourteen letters (or “epistles”) traditionally ascribed to Paul in the New Testament, they may be divided as follows:

  • Undisputed letters—i.e., Paul is indicated as the author in the text and few (if any) commentators question his authorship; there are seven (7) such letters: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, Philemon
  • Disputed letters—Paul is indicated as the author in the text, but at least a fair number of commentators believe the letters are actually pseudonymous; I would break down this category further:
    —where critical scholarship is somewhat divided (2): Colossians, 2 Thessalonians
    —where there is a general critical consensus against Pauline authorship (4): Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus
  • Anonymous letters (1): Hebrews—traditionally ascribed to Paul, though relatively few scholars would hold this today

For the purpose of these studies, I am not including Hebrews in the discussion on Paul’s view of the Law. With regard to the 6 disputed letters, I accept 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, without any real reservation, as among the authentic Pauline epistles. There is more legitimate question surrounding the other four (Ephesians and the Pastoral epistles). I will be including them in these articles; however, as a way of preserving the distinction, they will always be cited or referenced in order after the previous nine letters.

2) On recent interpretive trends—In recent decades, there has been something of a revolution in Pauline studies, in two main respects:

(a) A reaction against the customary Reformation/Protestant view of Paul, with its juxtaposition of law vs. faith, works vs. grace, and so forth. Attempts have been made to present a more “holistic”, nuanced picture of Pauline theology, with more attention paid to his epistolary and rhetorical style, the context of (re-)socialization and community-building in early Christianity, the Jewish background and apocalyptic character of his thought, and so on.
(b) Paul’s Jewish background, in particular, has been given greater emphasis, part of a wider tendency to set early Christianity within a Jewish matrix. Correspondingly, scholars today are much more reluctant to draw a sharp distinction between “Judaism” and “Christianity” in the New Testament.

These articles draw on the more recent scholarship, to some extent, though I have tried very much to allow the text of the epistles to speak for itself. At several junctures, however, it will be necessary to interact with certain modern interpretive tendencies involving key passages—especially in Galatians and Romans, the two letters where the Law is most extensively discussed by Paul.

An Introduction to Galatians

As Galatians contains the most distinct (and controversial) Pauline teaching on the Law, I will be dealing with it first. There are, however, several points which ought to be addressed, by way of introduction:

Historical background and chronology—The historical context of Paul’s argument (including the narration in Gal 2:1-14) has long been a subject of scholarly debate, especially in terms of its relationship with the so-called “Jerusalem Council” of Acts 15. An important question has been whether the Jerusalem meeting described in Gal 2:1-10 refers to the same underlying event of Acts 15 (for more on this question, see my earlier supplemental article on the Jerusalem Council). A number of scholars would hold that the events of Gal 2:1-14 took place prior to those of Acts 15, even that Galatians itself was perhaps written prior to the Council. The main evidence typically cited is:

  • There are several notable differences in the details as narrated in Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10
  • Paul makes no mention of the decisions of the Council of the decree (the letter of Acts 15:22-29) in Galatians
  • Acts 15:24 (in the letter) may be a reference to what Paul mentioned in Gal 2:12
  • The picture in Acts 15 (cf. also 16:4) is of a generally harmonious resolution of the Jewish-Gentile question (on the matter of circumcision and observance of the Torah), with all involved apparently accepting the Jerusalem decisions and decree (as expressed in the letter) as authoritative. This seems to be at odds with the conflict narrated in Gal 2:11-14, and, indeed, with the overall argument of Galatians as a whole.

The last of these points carries the greatest weight, and it is the main reason—i.e. the desire to harmonize Galatians and Acts—that many traditional-conservative commentators hold that Paul’s epistle was written prior to the Council. I find it far more likely that the events described in Gal 2 took place prior to those of Acts 15 than that Galatians itself was written so early. There are essentially three possibilities:

  • That the events in Gal 2:1-14 (and possibly Galatians itself) are to be dated prior to the Council (and the decree/letter) of Acts 15
  • That Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15 describe the same basic event, and that the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14 took place after the Council (and issue of the the letter/decree)
  • That Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15:1-12ff describe the same event, but that the letter/decree of Acts 15:22-31ff was issued some time after the Antioch incident of Gal 2:11-14, the author of Acts combining/conflated separate traditions within the narrative of ch. 15

I am rather inclined to this last option, though it is not without its own difficulties. Many critical commentators would object to any attempt at harmonizing Galatians and Acts as being unnecessary and misplaced. I agree in that I see no need for harmonization from the standpoint of trying to preserve (or defend) the inspiration and historicity of the two accounts—each book ought to be read and/or accepted on its own merits. However, there is still considerable value in examining the historical background of Galatians (and the historical tradition[s] within Acts). At any rate, these are questions and issues which may be brought up, from time to time, during this study of Galatians (esp. involving the narration in chapter 2).

The use of the term “Law”—Of the approx. 130 references to law in the Pauline letters, 70 or so are found in Romans, with another 32 in Galatians. The Greek word is no/mo$ (nómos), and it is virtually always used in the sense of the revelatory instruction (hr*oT, tôrâ) seen as coming from God (YHWH) to Israel (through Moses), and preserved primarily within the five “books of Moses” (the Pentateuch: Genesis–Deuteronomy). This instruction was viewed as normative for Israelites (and Jews), bound up intimately with the idea of the agreement (covenant) God established with his people. From a traditional and religious standpoint, observance of the Torah represented the terms and requirements necessary for preserving the covenant. In the introductory article of this series of “The Law and the New Testament” I have discussed the specific terminology, along with differing nuances of meaning between hroT, no/mo$ and English “law”. Some commentators today, uncomfortable with Paul’s use of no/mo$ (in Galatians especially), would like to substitute or read in a specific meaning or connotation such as “legalism”, “(misuse/misunderstanding of the) law”, and so forth. I disagree completely with such an approach. I find little reason to think that Paul intends anything other than a basic, fundamental reference to the Law/Torah wherever no/mo$ is used in Galatians, Romans, and the rest of the epistles, with but a few possible exceptions. This will be discussed in more detail when dealing with specific passages in Galatians.

On Jewish and Christian identity—Another area of difficulty for many modern-day students and commentators of the New Testament involves the religious distinction between “Judaism” and “Christianity”, with an increasing reluctance to set Christian identity over against the Jewish, at least within the context of the New Testament itself. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably:

  • A more ‘holistic’ and comparative approach to the study of the New Testament (and Pauline studies in particular, cf. above), including more objective analysis of the Jewish background and environment of early Christianity
  • Multi-cultural, religious-pluralistic, and ecumenical trends which have had a significant influence on theology and interpretation today
  • Sensitivity to the painful legacy of centuries of anti-Jewish (and/or anti-Semitic) mistreatment and persecution by ‘Christian’ communities

These are all important matters today which cannot (and ought not to) be ignored. In particular, the modern religious and cultural sensitivity is, on the whole, most laudable, especially with regard to past mistreatment of Jews by supposed Christians. However, it is easy for such noble sentiments to color or distort the historical context and meaning of many New Testament passages. Consider, for example, the famous (and notorious) ‘anti-Jewish’ discursion in 1 Thess 2:14-16, within an epistle almost universally recognized as authentically Pauline—it is so striking, and appears at odds with what is understood (and/or assumed) today about the Jewish Paul, that many commentators seriously doubt that Paul could have said it. Admittedly, it makes for uncomfortable reading today, which is almost certainly the main reason why it is often regarded as a non-Pauline interpolation—many would prefer to remove it from the New Testament!

The same situation applies, to a lesser degree with the way Paul deals with Judaism and the Law in Galatians and Romans; there is less overt conflict expressed in Romans, but Paul’s various arguments in that epistle are not without their own points of controversy (especially in the soteriological/eschatological aspects of chs. 9-11). The forcefulness (even harshness) of the rhetoric and polemic Paul uses at times in Galatians (against his Jewish-Christian opponents, sometimes called “Judaizers”) can also be hard to read (and accept) today; one might naturally question whether Paul is treating his opponents fairly and representing their actual position accurately. However, I would maintain that it is the fundamental issue of religious identity which represents the most difficult, and perhaps controversial, point of the letter. Whatever date one ascribes to Galatians, it is almost certainly the earliest New Testament writing which attempts to define a specific Christian identity, in relation to Judaism (and the Law); and when Paul begins to apply traditional and essential aspects of Jewish identity (such as the promises to Abraham and his descendants) to believers in Christ, there can be little doubt that a new sort of religious identity is being expressed. As indicated above, these can be extremely sensitive matters within today’s cultural and religious climate, and yet they must be addressed and interpreted fairly and honestly, without prejudice.

Concluding outline—The articles in this series on Paul’s View of the Law will proceed according to the following outline:

  1. The Law in Galatians
  2. The Law in Romans
  3. The Law in the remaining Pauline Letters
  4. Paul’s view of the Law in Acts compared with the Letters

Due to the length required, each article may be broken into more than one part, as necessary.

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The Areopagus Speech

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I have already examined the Areopagus Speech by Paul (Acts 17:16-34) in considerable detail—cf. Parts 20 and 21 of the series on the Speeches of Acts. This supplemental article will focus on the specific critical question as to the authenticity of the speech—whether or not it is compatible with what we know of Paul from the (undisputed) letters. At previous points in this series, I have noted the general assumption, shared by many critical scholars, that the speeches are largely the product of the author of Acts (traditionally, Luke), rather than a record of the purported speakers’ actual words. This view is based primarily on two factors:

  1. The way ancient (Greco-Roman and Jewish) historians use and present comparable speeches in their works. Thucydides and Josephus are typically cited for comparison.
  2. A relative uniformity in terms of language, style, citation of Scripture, etc., which is found in most of the speeches, regardless of speaker. The close structural and stylistic similarities between Peter’s Pentecost speech (Acts 2) and Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) are especially noteworthy.

The significance and extent of these two factors, however, may be disputed; traditional-conservative commentators generally regard the speeches as authentic, with perhaps some degree of adaptation and modification by the author. Legitimate arguments can be, and have been, presented on both sides; for the purposes of these studies, I have adopted a moderating position.

In addition to these basic historical-critical concerns, commentators have especially noted some unique and unusual features in the Areopagus speech, which I have already highlighted in the prior articles. According to a number of critical scholars, these features are foreign to Paul’s thought (as expressed in his letters), and, indeed, with New Testament theology as a whole. In their view, this provides a decisive additional argument that the speech is Lukan, rather than Pauline. For a clear and detailed presentation of this viewpoint, see Dibelius’ important and influential study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939) in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, pp. 26-77, followed by more recent commentators such as E. Haenchen (Acts, pp. 527ff).

It will be helpful to discuss again the relevant points in the speech which are viewed as foreign and/or incompatible with Pauline thought, and to offer a summary evaluation.

Verse 22—One might question the positive characterization of the Athenians’ religiosity, here using the comparative adjective deisidaimone/stero$, derived from deisidaimoni/a (deisidaimonía), which is otherwise used in the New Testament only in Acts 25:19 (a general descriptive term [of Judaism] by Festus). The word deisidaimoni/a, often translated “religion”, “religious devotion/practice”, etc, literally means “fear of divine-powers [i.e. daimons]”, either in the positive/neutral sense of “religion” or the negative/pejorative sense of “superstition”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, a daimon (daimw/n/daimo/nion) is always understood from the Jewish (monotheistic) viewpoint as an evil/unclean spirit; only in here (in Acts 17:18) is the word used in the general sense of “(lesser/local) deities” or “divine powers”. In the letters, Paul only rarely mentions “demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21, cf. also 1 Tim 4:1) and refers to Greco-Roman paganism in more standard Old Testament/Jewish terms of idolatry and immorality. However, here in the speech, there can be no doubt that the speaker/author uses the somewhat ambiguous term deisidaimoni/a with irony (their religious devotion actually reflects ignorance of the truth), which he begins to draw out with the example in verse 23. Also, it should be noted that the positive tone can be attributed to a rhetorical device known as captatio benevolentiae—the use of complimentary or flattering language as an appeal to the audience, in the hopes that they will be receptive to the line of argument in the speech.

Verse 23—Here there is perhaps some uncertainty as to the force of Paul’s argument (regarding the altar dedicated “to an unknown god”). Previously, I pointed out several ways one might understand it:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b). The context of Greco-Roman religion in Acts (cf. also 14:15 and 19:26-27ff) expresses the viewpoint, derived from the Old Testament (esp. the Prophets) and Jewish tradition, that the pagan deities (identified with the idols/images) are vain and “nothing” (i.e. they do not really exist). Paul expresses this view as well in 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19 (also Gal 4:8); however, in the same passage he also expresses the more common view in early Christianity, that the deities have real existence but are actually evil spirits (“demons”), cf. 1 Cor 10:20-21. It is actually surprising how rarely Greco-Roman religion is mentioned in the New Testament, becoming a more prominent subject in the theological and apologetic writings of the second century. For this reason, it is difficult to judge how Paul (or the author of Acts) might have handled the matter in addressing pagan Greeks; typically, in the letters, pagan religion is described merely by inference, or under the stock reference of idolatry/immorality. The closest passages to the Areopagus speech would seem to be 1 Thess 1:9 and 1 Cor 12:2, though both are very brief statements.

The verb eu)sebe/w (“treat/regard with good/proper fear”), here used to describe the Athenians’ religion—i.e. good religious ‘fear’, but in ignorance—as well as the related words eu)se/beia, eu)sebh/$, and eu)sebw=$, are never used by Paul in any of the undisputed letters, occurring (frequently) only the Pastoral letters (1 Tim 2:2; 3:16; 4:7-8; 5:4; 6:3-6, 11; 2 Tim 3:5, 12; Tit 1:1; 2:12); they also appear several times elsewhere in Acts (3:12; 10:7).

Verse 25—The argument that God, as eternal Creator of all things, is himself in need of nothing, while relatively common in Hellenistic Judaism, is not much found in either the Old or New Testament writings (but note, e.g. Psalm 50:9-12). Of many examples, see 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple); for similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50. From this basic philosophical observation is derived a general argument against the importance of temple buildings, sacrificial offerings and other religious ritual. The anti-Temple outlook—identifying temples with idol/images as both “made with (human) hands”—appears several places in Acts (esp. in Stephen’s speech, 7:39-50, cf. also 19:26-27), but is not really a point of emphasis in Paul’s letters. The somewhat rare compound verb prosde/omai (“to request [something] besides”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament; similarly the verb qerapeu/w occurs only here in its fundamental sense of “serve, attend, take care of” (elsewhere it always has the specific meaning “heal” [from illness/disease]), and Paul never uses it in the letters.

Verse 26—The premise of the common origin of humankind (from a single person), while obviously assumed from Old Testament narrative and tradition (the line from Adam, Gen 1:26ff; 5:1ff, cf. Romans 5:12ff), is usually not stated in such an abstract manner. In the phrase e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn (“and he made out of one all [the] nation of men”), pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation”, but the specific formulation here is better understood as “(the) entire nation”—i.e. the entire human race, with e&qno$ in a similar sense as ge/no$. It is a more philosophical construct, such as we find, for example, in Philo On the Creation §136, referring to the one man (Adam) as o( panto\$ tou= ge/nou$ h(mw=n a)rxhge/th$ (“the [one] leading/beginning all our lineage [ge/no$]”). The limits in the natural world appointed/designated (by God)—the seasons and physical boundaries (for human habitation)—are also relatively familiar from Greco-Roman philosophy as evidence for the existence and providential care of God (or the gods), a kind of “teleological argument” (cf. the examples cited by Dibelius, Studies pp. 27-37). Citing the seasons, etc., in reference to God’s care and concern for human beings, is known in the New Testament (Jesus’ words in Matt 5:45, cf. also James 5:7), but does not especially occur in Paul’s letters. There is, however, a reasonably close parallel in the brief speech recorded at Lystra (Acts 14:17), cf. below.

Verse 27—This verse is particularly difficult from the standpoint of biblical theology, and is frequently cited as being incompatible/incongruous with Paul’s teaching in the letters.

  • “to seek God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n)—The theme of “seeking God (or the Lord/YHWH)” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), as an exhortation for the people of God, but rarely, if ever, is the concept applied in Scripture within the context of “natural revelation”—i.e., the general religious impulse of all human beings (including non-Jewish/non-Christian pagans). For an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. It must be admitted that Paul, in the letters, does not use this sort of language; indeed, the overall argument of Romans 1-3 would suggest the opposite—that human beings (Jew and Gentile alike) do not truly seek God, nor are they able to do so, being enslaved by sin (apart from Christ), cf. the citation of Ps 14:1-3/53:1-3 in Rom 3:10-12. On a comparison with the famous passage in Rom 1:18-32, see below.
  • “if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”—The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. While this verb implies the “times of ignorance” in which the pagans live, it also suggests that, despite their ignorance, they may somehow find God (at least in part).
  • “and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”—The existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw (cf. verse 24b) indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. Along the lines mentioned above, this concept of the “nearness” of God (even to pagans) is seen as problematic and generally foreign to Paul’s thinking. Perhaps the closest we come to this idea in the letters is the citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8, though the context is rather different, referring specifically to the response (in faith/trust) to the Gospel.

Verse 28—There are two separate issues in this verse: (1) the panentheistic tenor of the statement in v. 28a, and (2) the ambiguity of the citation from Aratus in v. 28b.

First, the classic statement in v. 28a: “for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. It sounds like it was taken out of the Greek philosophers, and yet no clear and convincing source or parallel has been found; the use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). Needless to say, there is nothing quite like this in the New Testament. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

The quotation from Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.), from the opening lines of his verse-treatise Phaenomena, is perhaps even more problematic. The poem begins with Zeus, describing his presence everywhere, and reminding human beings of their dependence on him, stating (as Paul cites), tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen “for we are of (his) lineage”. In the context of ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the basic tenets of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is clearly drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding. For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26.

Verse 29—Curiously, the author/speaker uses this premise as the basis for a critique and condemnation of idolatry (worship of God through images). While the argument against idolatry is common to Old Testament and Jewish tradition, the reasoning in v. 28b-29a is not. One might have expected a reference to the fundamental Scriptural teaching of man created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27; 9:6), which could have been adapted to Greek philosophical concepts without too much difficulty. The neuter substantive adjective qei=on, which refers more generally to “Deity”, is not used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Verse 30—The statement that God has overlooked the “times of ignorance” for pagan Gentiles up until the present time, while similar to the statement made (by Paul) in Acts 14:16, has been thought to run contrary to tenor of Paul’s thought in the letters. On the idea of humankind’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21; for the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) elsewhere in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27. The verb u(perei=don (“look over, overlook”) is not otherwise used in the New Testament. The emphasis on God’s impending judgment in vv. 30b-31, brings the statement more closely in line with the remainder of the New Testament.

Verse 31—The declaration of the coming day of Judgment is common to the basic Jewish and early Christian worldview, and stated in traditional terminology. Only the last words of the verse create difficulty:

e)n a)ndri\ (“in/by a man”)—’Western’ witnesses (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus). Commentators have often wondered why there is not more explicitly “Christian” content in the Areopagus speech, and no specific mention of Jesus (by name, assuming the Western reading to be secondary). This may have been what prompted the addition “Jesus”, in order to, at the very least, clarify the situation and avoid misunderstanding.

pi\stin parasxw=n (“holding alongside a trust”)—this is rather a different use of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters), where it usually refers to faith/belief in Christ (or in God). Here, however, it has the sense of “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness. Interestingly, a few Western witnesses seem to read the verb as an infinitive (parasxei=n)—”to give along trust to all (people)”—perhaps indicating a tendency to interpret pi/sti$ here in its usual sense of faith in God/Christ.

Evaluation—It cannot be denied that there are good number of terms, expressions, and concepts which are rare or unique in the New Testament (and Paul’s letters) as a whole. But, to what extent are they incompatible with Paul’s own thought and approach? The words and phrases, detailed above, which either do not appear at all in the letters, or are used in a rather different sense, would seem to be a strong (cumulative) argument against Pauline authenticity for the speech. However, the problem with such arguments based on vocabulary and linguistic style, is that they require sufficient (relevant) material for comparison. And, the fact is, we have no other substantive example of Paul addressing (pagan) Gentiles outside of a Jewish or Christian context. All of the letters (undisputed and disputed) are written to Christians, and to believers who, presumably, have been given a significant amount of Christian instruction—including familiarity with the Scriptures, Israelite history, elements of a Jewish(-Christian) worldview and thought-forms, etc. The same applies to the rest of the New Testament; the Gospels and the Letters were all written to and for Christians. It has been pointed out, correctly, that the closest parallels to Areopagus speech are from the brief address in Acts 14:15-17; note, for example—

  • The speech begins with an exhortation to turn away from “vain/empty things” (i.e. pagan deities / idols) and toward the “living God”; for a comparable statement, written not too long after the historical event described here, cf. 1 Thess 1:9. This, of course, is the overall theme and emphasis of the Areopagus speech as well.
  • The statement of God as Creator (at the end of v. 15) is parallel to that in 17:24.
  • Though worded differently, verse 16 expresses much the same thought as 17:30 (cf. above)
  • The mention of the seasons (rain and the fruitfulness for harvest) in verse 17 is echoed in 17:26f; both references treat the features of the natural world as a witness to God’s existence and presence, though, again, in rather different language.

It just so happens that these two passages are also the only examples we have in the New Testament of Christian missionaries directly addressing a pagan audience. One must, therefore, be cautious—we simply do not have enough material available for a proper comparison. Can we be certain just how Paul would have addressed a pagan Greek audience at this time? Even if we were to admit, for the moment, that the speeches in Acts 17:22-31 (and 14:15-17) are effectively the product of the author (and not Paul), this does not solve the problem entirely. A number of the distinctive words and expressions in the speech better fit the context of the the book of Acts (rather than the Pauline epistles), but only slightly so. Luke-Acts did have an educated Greco-Roman audience in mind, at least in part, but it was still written primary for Christians and from a Christian standpoint. Theophilus (Lk 1:1; Acts 1:1) was either already a Christian or was at least someone interested in the new faith, perhaps having a similar role as the God-fearer Cornelius in the book of Acts itself (chaps. 10-11).

What about passages in the letters of Paul which are, in some sense, parallel to the Areopagus speech, especially Romans 1:18-32, which is extensive enough to allow for a reasonably fair comparison? This will be discussed in a set of separate (daily) notes, followed by a concluding statement regarding the critical question.

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 21: Acts 17:16-34 (continued)

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The first two sections—the Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21) and the Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)—were discussed in Part 20 of this series; here I will be studying the remainder of the speech.

Central Declaration (vv. 24-29)

These verses, representing the core of the speech, serve the same role as the central kerygma (Gospel proclamation) and Scripture citation/application found in the prior speeches of Acts. Here, in a speech addressed to (pagan) Greeks, we find instead a fundamental theological proclamation—on the true nature of God. This declaration is in response to, and contrasted with, the religious/superstitious deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians which Paul has noted in his introductory address (vv. 22-23). In particular, Paul has drawn upon their practice of erecting altars to “unknown gods” (sg. “[an] unknown god”, v. 23) as a way of introducing to them a new (and different) understanding of God (v. 23b). Verse 24 begins immediately with o( qeo\$ (“The God…”).

I would divide this (theological) declaration into two parts: (1) The nature of God, and (2) The relation of God to humankind.

(1) The Nature of God (vv. 24-27)

Again, it is possible to break this down further: (a) the true God vs. Idols, vv. 24-25, and (b) God as Creator, vv. 26-27.

(a) The true God vs. Idols (vv. 24-25)—These verses declare the nature of the true God, identifying God (o( qeo\$) as:

“the (One) having made the world [ko/smo$] and all the (thing)s in it”

This first premise—that the true God is Creator of the universe—will be expanded in vv. 26-27; the second, related, premise follows:

“this (One) belongs as Lord of heaven and earth”

The demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) indicates that it is specifically the God proclaimed by Paul—YHWH, the God of Israel and the early Christians—who is Creator and Lord of the universe. For a similar use of the demonstrative “this (one)” (referring to Jesus) in the Gospel kerygma of the prior speeches, see Acts 1:11; 2:23, 32, 36, etc. The verb u(pa/rxw literally means “begin under”, but in customary Greek usage it covers a fairly wide range of meaning, such as “to be (present)”, “to belong”, “to exist”, and so forth; I have rendered it above as “belong”, but the phrase could just as easily be translated simply “this (One) is Lord of heaven and earth”. The third premise builds upon the first two, as the last of three steps in v. 24, and for which there are three corresponding steps in v. 25; note—

  • (He is) the (One) having made the world and all the things in it (24a)
    • this One is Lord of heaven and earth (24b)
      • he does not dwell in shrines made with (human) hands (24c)
      • he is not attended/served by the hands of men (25a)
    • (he is) not looking to receive (a single) thing [i.e. is in need of nothing] (25b)
  • He is giving life and breath and all things to all (things/people) (25c)

We move from the outer ring (God as Creator and life-giver) to the inner (worship of God), the central proposition of v. 24c-25a reprising a Temple-motif found earlier in Acts in the speech of Stephen (cf. 7:39-50). In both speeches there is a notable contrast between God the Creator (whose hands made all things) and Temples/Idols (made by hands), with repeated use of xeir– (“hand-“) and the verb poie/w (“make”)—see esp. 7:40-41, 43-44, 48, 50; 17:24-26. While the connection between the Jerusalem Temple and idolatry in Stephen’s speech is somewhat surprising (and problematic), here in Paul’s speech the anti-Temple theme relates to the more obvious critique of pagan religion. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) could easily have quoted here the same passage from Isa 66:1-2 cited in Acts 7:49-50. The closest we come to a Scripture citation in the Areopagus speech is a likely allusion to Isa 42:5 here in vv. 24-25.

The anti-Temple motif, with its corresponding rejection of sacrificial offerings, is tied to a very specific idea: that the true God is not in need of anything. Derived from the basic concept of God as the all-powerful Creator, this specific idea is actually relatively rare in the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 50:9-12), becoming more common in Hellenistic Jewish thought—cf. 2 Macc 14:35; 3 Macc 2:9ff; Josephus Antiquities VIII.107-8, 111ff (on Solomon’s dedication of the Temple). For similar sentiments in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, see Euripides Heracles l. 1345 and Fragment 968; Zeno of Citium in Plutarch Moralia 1034B (“On Stoic Contradictions” 6) and Clement of Alexandria Stromateis V.76 (chap. 11); and Seneca, Letters 41:1-3; 95:47-50.

For God as maker and preserver of the ko/smo$, see e.g. Gen 1:1; 14:19, 22; Exod 20:11; Psalm 146:6; Isa 42:5; Wisdom 9:9; 11:17; 2 Macc 7:23, 28; Philo On the Creation 2.7-12; On the Special Laws I.81. For the specific expression “Lord of heaven and earth”, see Tobit 7:18; Luke 10:21 (also Gen 14:19).

(b) God as Creator (vv. 26-27)—specifically, Creator of human beings:

e)poi/hse/n te e)c e(no\$ pa=n e&qno$ a)nqrw/pwn
“and he made out of one all (the) nation of men”

The expression pa=$ e&qno$ could mean “every nation” or “all (the) nation” (i.e. the entire nation), the latter seeming much more likely in context (cf. the use of pa=$ in 2:36; 3:9, 11). This, of course, relates to the creation account in Gen 1:26ff, but stated in a more abstract and philosophical manner—i.e., from a single person (e)c e(no\$) God made the entire human race. This is followed by two purpose clauses, each governed by an infinitive:

  • katoikei=n (“to put down house”, i.e. to dwell)… v. 26
  • zhtei=n (“to seek”)… v. 27—specifically, to seek God

The first indicates the establishment of human society, the second, religion.

(i) Society—This is seen as developing within the confines of God’s providential control over the natural world. Human beings come to dwell (“put down house”) upon all the face of the earth (e)pi\ panto\$ prosw/pou th=$ gh=$). God the Creator governs the world by marking out and determining (o(ri/sa$):

  • “(the) arranged times/seasons” (prostetagme/nou$ kairou\$)
  • “the marked-out limits” [i.e. boundaries] (ta\$ o)roqesi/a$) for their dwelling

There is some question as to the precise meaning of these expressions, but kairo/$ most likely refers to the natural seasons of the year, and o)roqesi/a to the natural boundaries in the physical world (i.e. mountains, rivers, desert, sea, and so forth). This pairing is also found in Psalm 74:17; and, with regard to the boundaries of human settlement, cf. Deut 32:8.

(ii) Religion—simply put, “to seek God”, or (more literally) “to seek the God” (zhtei=n to\n qeo\n), i.e. the one true God. The theme of “seeking God” is common in the Old Testament Prophets (Amos 5:6; Isa 55:6, et al), though here it corresponds to what we would call “natural religion” (and “natural revelation”); for an interesting reference to seeking God in the context of idolatry, cf. Deut 4:28-29. Of the many relevant passages in Hellenistic Judaism and Greco-Roman philosophy, see e.g., Wisdom 13:6; Philo On the Special Laws I.36; Cicero On the Nature of the Gods 2.153. An interesting clause follows:

“if, indeed, they might touch/feel (about) him and find (him)”

The verb yhlafa/w often has the connotation of exploring by touch, even as far as feeling or groping about (like a blind person). For a use of this verb in a somewhat similar context, see Philo On the Change of Names §126. The statement concludes with the clause:

“and yet (truly) he is present (and) not far from each one of us”

On the existential use of the verb u(pa/rxw, cf. verse 24b above; here it indicates presence, qualified by the expression “not far from” (ou) makra\n a)po). This idea of God’s immanence is relatively rare in the Old Testament (note e.g. Psalm 145:18; Jer 23:23), being expressed more precisely in Greco-Roman and Hellenistic-Jewish thought—cf. Josephus Antiquities VIII.108; Dio Chrysostom Oration 12.28; 30.26; Seneca Letter 41.1; 120:14, etc. We find two somewhat parallel concepts in the New Testament: (a) of the kingdom of God (and salvation) ‘coming near’ (Lk 10:9, 11; 21:28, 30-31; Rom 13:11), and (b) of believers approaching or drawing near to God (James 4:8; Heb 4:16; 7:19, 25; 10:1, 22; 11:6; Eph 2:13), but nothing quite like this statement in Acts (perhaps the nearest example being Paul’s citation of Deut 30:14 in Romans 10:8). It is a powerful theological expression, and one which would likely have appealed to Stoics and other educated Greeks in the audience.

(2) The Relation of God to Humankind (vv. 28-29)

Interestingly, instead of a citation from Scripture, here Paul quotes from a Greek poet (Aratus); the citation is in verse 28, with a brief exposition/application in verse 29. This section can be divided:

  • Theological statement (v. 28a)
  • Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)
  • Exposition/Application (v. 29)

Theological statement (v. 28a)—”for in him (e)n au)tw=|) we live (zw=men) and we are moved (kinou/meqa) and we are (e)sme/n)”. This triadic formula sounds like it could have been taken straight out of Greek philosophy, but, as of yet, no convincing specific parallel has been found. For a detailed argument that it derives from Epimenides of Crete, see K. Lake in The Beginnings of Christianity V, pp. 246-251 (Additional Note 19) and Dibelius, Studies pp. 48-51. Is there any special significance to the order of the verbs?—”we live” (zw=men) and “we are” (e)sme/n) would seem to be parallel expressions, life and being (existence), with the passive “we are moved” (kinou/meqa) set in between. The use of the verb kine/w is particularly suggestive of the Stoic concept of God as Mover (who himself is not moved)—see, for example, Chrysippus in the Eclogues of Stobaeus I.8.42; Philo On Allegorical Interpretation I.6 (cf. Dibelius, Studies, 48). The centrality of God with regard to life and being would be consistent both with the panentheistic philosophical context of the speech and the overall Christian message. The verb za/w (“live”), along with the related noun zwh/ (“life”), often are used in the New Testament in the sense of spiritual/eternal life, and are typically predicated of human beings (believers) in this way; here, of course, ordinary physical/material life is meant. The use of “in him [i.e. God]” (e)n au)tw=|) is even more unusual; Paul often speaks of believers as being “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 12:5; 16:7; 1 Cor 1:30; 15:22, and many more instances), but not of human beings as “in God”—believers are “in God” but only insofar as they are “in Christ” (Col 3:3), and note also this frequent Christological sense in the Gospel and Epistles of John.

Citation from Greek literature (v. 28b)—this is introduced “as some of the (verse-)makers according to you [i.e. your ‘poets’] have declared…” The citation is generally recognized as coming from the opening lines of the popular astronomical and meteorological treatise (in hexameter verse) Phaenomena by Aratus (c. 310-240 B.C.). A contemporary of Zeno, Aratus appears to have been influenced by early Stoic thought, as reflected in this his major surviving work. “Let us begin from Zeus…” (e)k Dio\$ a)rxw/mesqa), so opens the poem, telling how all things are “full” (mesto/$) of him—streets, marketplaces, seas and harbors—”and we all need Zeus” (de\ Dio\$ kexrh/meqa pa/nte$). This leads into the statement of line 5a:

tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ ei)men
“for we are of (his) lineage”

This is the portion Paul cites (tou= ga\r kai\ ge/no$ e)smen). The word ge/no$ literally means something which has “come to be”, i.e., from or out of someone—”we have all come to be from him”. In ancient mythological-philosophical thought, human beings (or, at least, their spirits/souls) were often viewed as being the offspring of the gods in a metaphysical sense. This is foreign to the context of Israelite/Jewish monotheism, where God (YHWH) was only the Father of human beings in a symbolic sense, in terms of family relationship, or as the Creator. Paul (and/or the author of Acts) is here drawing on the pagan philosophical understanding, a fact which has caused some difficulty for commentators (cf. below). For similar (Stoic) language and thought, see Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus ll. 3-5; Dion of Prusa Oration 12.27; 30.26. According to ancient sources, Aratus was from Cilicia (possibly Tarsus), which increases the likelihood that the historic Paul would have been familiar with his work. The same line from Aratus was apparently used by Aristobulus (fragment 4), cf. Eusebius’ Preparation for the Gospel 13.12.3ff.

Exposition/Application (v. 29)—Paul builds upon this premise (“then being [the] lineage [ge/no$] of God…”), turning it into a (decisive) argument against idolatry (worship of God through images):

“(therefore) we ought not to regard the Deity [to\ qei=on] to be like gold or silver or stone (with the) cut-mark of man’s production and inspiration”

The substantive neuter adjective qei=on refers to God/Deity in the more general sense (used only here in the New Testament); it is another example of accommodation to the understanding of a (pagan) Greek audience. The argument against idols, however, is more squarely within Old Testament and Jewish tradition, e.g. Deut 4:28; Isa 40:18; 44:9-20; Wisdom 13:10; 14:7ff; 15:7-17; and note Acts 19:26. It is interesting the way this traditional Israelite/Jewish polemic identifies the pagan deities precisely with their images, even though no intelligent pagan would have believed that the deity was nothing more than the image itself. The purpose of this distortion was almost certainly to emphasize that the pagan deities did not really exist. Early Christian tradition, on the other hand, operating with the confines of Greco-Roman paganism, tended to take a different approach, regarding the deities as real (evil) spirits (i.e. “demons”). Though Paul occasionally echoes such belief (1 Cor 10:20-21), here, in the Areopagus speech, the Old Testament Prophetic view (that the pagan deities are nothing) is implied (cf. also 1 Cor 8:4; 10:19). The word xa/ragma refers to a “mark” cut into material (including impressing or branding); elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in the book of Revelation for the “mark of the beast”.

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)

As with most of the prior speeches in Acts, this is an exhortation to repent (metanoei=n, “have a change of mind”); this is emphasized with a pair of contrasting clauses:

  • V. 30a—me\n (‘on the one hand…’): “God has overlooked the times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]”
  • V. 30b—nu\n now (‘on the other hand’), things (are thus): “he brings along a message to all men (in) all places to repent”

It may be helpful here to track the various instances of the knowledge/knowing motif in the speech:

  • “may we know…?” literally, “are we able to know [gnw=nai]…?”—request by the Athenians (v. 19)
  • “we wish to know [gnw=nai]…”—a more direct request (v. 20)
  • the altar ‘to an unknown [a)gw/stw|] god’ (v. 23a)
  • “what you worship, unknowing [a)gnoou=nte$], I announce to you…” (v. 23b)
  • this period of pagan worship as “times of unknowing [a)gnoi/a$]” (v. 30)

For the theme of ignorance (and use of a&gnoia) earlier in Acts, see 3:17; 13:27; on the idea of human’s failure to perceive and understand God properly (prior to the Gospel), cf. Rom 1:20-23; 1 Cor 1:21. Verse 30 here is a more precise statement of what was previously said by Paul in the short address at Lystra (14:15-17, v. 16); it also reflects the situation indicated in verse 27. The “overlooking” (u(peridw\n, vb. used only here in the NT) of the nations’ past ignorance (and idol-worship) is a sign of God’s patience and graciousness.

The exhortation (and with it, the speech) concludes dramatically with an announcement of God’s impending judgment. This is an important aspect of early Christian preaching, and it is worth highlighting each element in the verse here:

e&sthsen h(me/ran, “he has set (up) a day”—that is, a time when God (and/or his representative) will appear to bring judgment on the world; this is referred to in Scripture and tradition as the “day of the Lord (day of YHWH)”.
me/llei kri/nein, “he is about to judge”—this indicates the common (and widespread) Jewish and early-Christian view that end was near and God’s judgment imminent.
th\n oi)koumen/nh, “the occupied/inhabited (world)”—i.e., all people, nations, and civilizations, the entire world
e)n dikaiosu/nh|, “in justice”—or “with justice”, according to the justice/righteousness of God, and by which the ‘righteousness’ of human beings would be measured.
e)n a)ndri\, “in/by a man”—key ‘Western’ manuscripts (D and Vulgate MSS) add  )Ihsou= (Yeshua/Jesus) in order to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding; some commentators continue to be troubled by the lack of a specific reference to Jesus, but note a somewhat similar use of the demonstrative pronoun ou!to$ (“this [one]”) for Jesus elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. above). There may also be an echo here of the Jewish/Semitic “Son of Man” concept and language, so familiar from the sayings of Jesus. The specific Greek expression indicates judgment in the presence of a (human) judge.
w!| w%risen, “whom he [i.e. God] has marked-out”—on earlier use of the verb o(ri/zw in this context (of God appointing/designating Jesus), see Acts 2:23; 10:42, the latter reference being very close overall to this verse.
pi/stin parasxw\n pa=sin, “holding alongside a trust for all (people)”—this is a different sense of pi/sti$ (“trust”) than we typically see in the New Testament (where it means “faith/belief” in God and/or Christ); here it might be rendered as “assurance”, “proof”, or something similar, i.e. God demonstrating his trustworthiness.
a)nasth/sa$ au)to\n e)k nekrw=n, “causing him [i.e. Jesus] to stand up out of the dead”—this statement that God raised Jesus from the dead is, of course, a fundamental Christian tenet and component of Gospel preaching, appearing prominently in most of the prior speeches of Acts.

Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-34)

Verses 32-33 provide the main conclusion, with a two-fold reaction to the speech, similar to that in verse 18:

  • me\n (‘on the one hand’) some of the people joked/mocked (e)xleu/azon)
  • de\ (‘on the other hand’) some of the people said “(perhaps) we will hear you about this again”, indicating genuine interest or merely a polite refusal (as opposed to mocking)

The speech began with Paul standing “in the middle/midst of them” (v. 22), and now it concludes stating that he “went out of the middle/midst of them”, providing a precise frame to the speech within the narrative. A conclusion to the narrative itself is added in verse 34, which indicates that there was at least some positive response to Paul’s proclamation, and even a few converts (two of which, Dionysios and Damaris, are named).

For many of the references above, as well as other relevant citations from the Old Testament, Jewish and Greco-Roman literature, see Dibelius, Studies, pp. 26-77; Haenchen, Acts, pp. 517-26; Fitzmyer, Acts, pp. 603-13.

Additional Note—Any careful student or reader of the New Testament will likely have noticed a number of details in the Areopagus speech which are a bit unusual—in terms of language, style, and points of emphasis—when compared with the letters of Paul. Indeed, the speech contains several concepts and expressions which are virtually unique in the New Testament, having more in common, it would seem, with Greek philosophy (Stoic thought, in particular). This has led a good many critical commentators to question whether the historic Paul could have (or would have) spoken this way. Due to the sensitivity and difficulty of this question, I will be addressing it in a supplemental article.

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 20: Acts 17:16-34

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The “Areopagus Speech” of Acts 17:16-34 is the second major speech by Paul in Acts, and the only substantial speech in the book delivered to Gentiles outside of a Jewish (or Christian) context. As such it holds a special place, and is justly famous, though perhaps not nearly so many readers and students of the New Testament are as familiar with this remarkable text as they ought to be. In several important respects, the Areopagus speech is foreshadowed by Paul’s brief address in Acts 14:15-17; the points of comparison will be addressed below. In analyzing the speech, I will be using the same basic pattern and procedure I have adopted throughout this series.

Note: References below indicated by “Dibelius, Studies” are to M. Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, a collection of articles and lectures published in 1951 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen (English translation 1956 by SCM Press: London). Dibelius’ landmark study “Paul on the Areopagus” (1939), pp. 26-77, which draws extensively upon the earlier work of E. Norden (Agnostos Theos [1913]), has been especially helpful in locating some of the more relevant references from Greco-Roman literature for background and comparison with details in the Acts narrative.
“Haenchen, Acts” refers to the classic critical commentary by E. Haenchen (English translation of the 14th German edition [1965] by Westminster Press, 1971).
“Fitzmyer, Acts” refers to the commentary by J. A. Fitzmyer in the Anchor Bible (AB) series, vol. 31 (1997).

The basic structure and outline of the speech is as follows:

  • Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21, esp. vv. 19-20/21)
  • Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)
  • Central (Theological) Declaration (vv. 24-29), in two (or three) parts:
    • The nature of God (vv. 24-27)
      —God vs. Idols—Temple theme (vv. 24-25)
      —God as Creator (vv. 26-27)
    • Relation of God to humankind (vv. 28-29), with a citation (from Greek literature, v. 28) and application (v. 29)
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 30-31)
  • Narrative Conclusion (vv. 32-33 + 34)

Narrative Introduction (vv. 16-21)

These verses present the basic narrative, as drawn from historical tradition.

Verse 16 picks up from the narrative in vv. 10-15, where Silas and Timothy are left behind in Berea and Paul has proceeded on ahead; he is in Athens, waiting for them, according to the text of v. 16. The famous city of Athens was at this time only a faint reflection of its glorious past, having decreased considerably in size and importance; however, it remained prestigious, especially as a symbol of intellectual thought, religion and philosophy. This is perhaps the reason why the episode here was given so much prominence by the author, despite the lack of immediate missionary success (vv. 32-34). From a literary (and missiological) standpoint, Athens was, in many respects, the ideal setting to introduce the Gospel as proclaimed to educated, pagan Gentiles.

parwcu/neto to\ pneu=ma au)tou= e)n au)tw=|—the compound verb parocu/nw means “bring along to a (sharp) point”, i.e. stir or provoke (to anger): “his breath/spirit in him was brought to a (sharp) point”; the verb occurs only once (1 Cor 13:5) elsewhere in the New Testament, with the related noun parocusmo/$ used in Heb 10:24 and Acts 15:39 (of the disagreement between Paul and Barnabas).

katei/dwlo$—a compound (intensive) adjective, used only in Christian writings (and only here in the New Testament), indicating (with a bit of hyperbole) “completely (filled) with images”. On religious images (temples, altars, etc) in Athens, see the classical references in Pausanias I.17.1, Strabo 9.1.16, and Livy 45.27.

Verse 17—Mention is made of Paul’s usual missionary practice of attending local Synagogues, where he would have the opportunity to preach and teach to interested Jews and Gentile “God-fearers” (oi( fobou/menoi to\n qeo\n), cf. Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26; (sebo/menoi) 13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4; 18:7. To this is added discussion with pagan Greeks/Gentiles in the marketplace (a)go/ra).

diele/geto kata\ pa=san h(me/ran pro\$ tou\$ paratugxa/nonta$, “he related throughout [i.e. discussed/disputed/argued]… according to each/every day toward [i.e. with] the (one)s he struck [i.e. happened to be] alongside”—in other words, every day, whether in the Syngaogue or Marketplace, Paul used every opportunity to speak with those he came across.

Verse 18—Mention is made of Epicureans and Stoics, representatives of two major philosophical branches (or “schools”) in ancient Greece. It is not clear whether v. 18b qualifies these two groups or whether four segments of the audience are indicated: (1) Epicureans, (2) Stoics, (3) those who are skeptical/mocking, (4) those curious about Paul’s religious ideas. It is certainly possible that the Epicureans are depicted as especially skeptical, while the Stoics would have more legitimate interest. There are definite parallels to Stoic ideas and expressions in the speech which follows (cf. below). Of all the philosophical “schools”, Stoicism probably had the most in common with Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are generally contemporaneous with the New Testament, skillfully combines Stoicism (and Platonism) with Jewish tradition and the text of Scripture.

sune/ballon au)tw|—the Epicureans and Stoics “cast/threw (things) together with him”, that is, they discussed and disputed with Paul, the verb sometimes indicating a heated (or hostile) argument.

spermolo/go$ (“seed-gatherer”)—this idiomatic expression characterizes the skeptical/mocking response to Paul (by the Epicureans?). Concretely, it refers to a bird picking up seeds from the ground, but could also be used as a more general reference to someone collecting junk or scraps. In an intellectual (and pejorative) sense, as here, it describes someone who gathers various ideas and teachings (as his own), but without really understanding them.

ce/nwn daimoni/wn dokei= kataggeleu\$ ei@nai, “he seems to be one bringing a message of foreign daimons“—this is the other response to Paul, more sympathetic (or at least curious), but without a clear understanding of what he was proclaiming. The word dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion), of uncertain etymology, originally referred to deities or “divine powers” in a general sense (similar to qeo/$ “god”), but gradually came to mean lesser (local) deities—in particular, the supernatural powers which were thought to be intimately connected with daily life. The fate and fortune (good or ill) experienced at the personal or family level—blessing and prosperity on the one hand, disease/death and misfortune on the other—were due to the influence of daimons. Along these lines, the idea of a personal protecting spirit (similar to a ‘guardian angel’) was relatively common. A uniquely intelligent, creative or charismatic person could also be seen as gifted and guided by a daimon (or “genius”, in the fundamental sense of the word). In the monotheistic environment of Judaism (and early Christianity), there was little place for the daimon concept, the term being used almost entirely in a negative sense, for evil or “fallen” celestial beings, unclean spirits (of disease, madness and possession), and so forth. This New Testament usage ultimately is passed down into English in the transliterated word “demon”. The reference here to “strange deities” is reminiscent of the charges brought against Socrates (Plato Apology 24B, Xenophon Memorabilia I.1.1, cf. also Josephus Against Apion II.267)—note below.

The response to Paul is glossed and explained by the author—Paul was proclaiming (“bringing the good message of”) Jesus and the Resurrection. It is possible that the Greek listeners understood a)na/stasi$ (anástasis, “standing up [again]”, i.e. resurrection) as a specific deity (“Anastasis/Resurrection”) along with Jesus.

Verse 19—Paul is taken to the Areopagus ( &Areio$ Pa/go$, “the fixed point [i.e. peak/hill] of Ares”, i.e. “Mars’ hill”), the famous hill NW of the acropolis. In earlier times, the ruling council of Athens would meet on the hill, but in Paul’s day, the council regularly met in the Agora (market-place) at the “Royal colonnade (Stoa\ Basi/leio$)”. In the narrative, it is not entirely clear whether “Areopagus” refers to the council meeting or to the ancient hill itself—the former appears to fit the narrative context better, but the latter is the more dramatic setting (especially if Paul is thought to be addressing a large crowd). It is possible that the author of Acts (trad. Luke) understood (or applied) the setting differently from earlier historical tradition.

e)pilabo/menoi, “taking (hold) upon him…”—the use of this verb could indicate that Paul is being taken into custody for a hearing (before the Council), cf. Lk 20:20, 26; Acts 16:19; 18:17; 21:30, 33, though it need not indicate anything more than that he was taken away to another location, perhaps implying a private setting (Lk 9:47; 14:4; 23:26; Acts 9:27; 23:19). “They led/brought him upon the ‘hill/peak of Ares'”—taken literally, this might mean “onto the hill”, but it could also mean “before the council” (cf. Acts 9:21; 16:9; 17:6; 18:12); some degree of force(fulness) is perhaps suggested by the use of a&gw (“lead [away]”). However, if Paul is being taken before the council, there is no indication of any (criminal) charge; it has been suggested that the Areopagus council served as an official “advisory board” for regulation of public instruction, etc., but this is far from clear, and by no means certain whether (or just how) it would apply to Paul’s situation.

duna/meqa gnw=nai, “are we able to know…?”—on one level this is simply a request by the Athenians (“may we know…”), but the author of Acts surely intends a play on words, i.e. “(how) are we able to know”? The question sets the stage for the introduction of the Gospel (to interested, educated pagans) in the speech which follows. It also establishes the key motif of the knowledge of God.

h( kainh\ au%th h( u(po\ sou= laloume/nh didaxh/, “(what is) this new teaching being spoken by you?”—the adjective kai/no$ (“new”) is parallel to “foreign/strange” (ce/no$) in verse 18, and both will appear again in the verses which follow. The emphasis is on how different and striking the message of the Gospel is within a (pagan) Greek context, compared with the Jewish/Synagogue setting.

Verse 20—”For you are carrying some (thing)s appearing as strange/foreign into our ears…”

ceni/zonta—from the verb ceni/zw (related to ce/no$, above); concretely it refers to one responding to a stranger (i.e. acting as host), but more abstractly means treating/regarding someone (or something) as foreign—that is, the Athenians regard Paul’s teaching and terminology as strange/foreign.

boulo/meqa ou@n gnw=nai, “we would wish to know”—repeating gnw=nai (“to know”) from v. 19, with the emphasis again on knowledge.

ti/na qe/lei tau=ta ei@nai, “(just) what these things wish/intend to be”—the Greek idiom is very different from English (we would say “…what these things mean“); to our ears it almost suggests that the subject of Paul’s discourse has a will and purpose of its own. For a similar use of this (classical) expression, see Acts 2:12.

Verse 21—Here the author interjects a proverbial reference to Athens (cf. Demosthenes Oration 4.10); note again the presence of the ce/no$/kai/no$ motif, referring to strangers (ce/noi) who join with native Athenians in their desire to hear or to speak of “some (especially) new thing” (ti kaino/teron). While this reference could suggest that Athenians are rather vain and fickle, the underlying message (from the larger narrative standpoint of Acts) is that Gentiles (even pagan Greeks) will ultimately be receptive to the new/strange message of the Gospel.

Introductory Address (vv. 22-23)

The use of the expression “standing in the midst/middle of…” (staqei\$e)n mesw|) elsewhere in Acts (1:15; 4:7; 27:21) strongly indicates that Paul is before the Athenian Council rather than in the middle of the clearing on top of “Mars’ hill” (cf. the ambiguity of the reference to the Areopagus, above). For similar use of the vocative address “Men…” (a&ndre$…), see numerous examples in the prior speeches (Acts 1:11, 16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7, 13). In the remainder of verse 22, Paul praises the Athenians (using a bit of irony and wordplay) for their apparently religious nature, with a practical observation in verse 23—providing an example which sets up the central declaration of the speech.

Verse 22b: “I see/consider [qewre/w] how according to [i.e. in] all things you have more ‘fear of daimons‘ [deisidaimoneste/rou$] (than others do)”

As indicated above, a dai/mwn (daímœn, neut. daimónion) in the Greco-Roman context is not a “demon”, but rather a lesser/local “divine power” or “deity” in the general sense; deisidaimoni/a means “fear of daimons”, cf. the component dei/dw (“to fear / I fear…”). In this respect, fear can be understood either in a proper and pious sense, or in an excessive and misplaced manner—the distinction, one might say, between religion and superstition (see also in Acts 25:29). On the surface, Paul praises their religion (in the positive sense), using a rhetorical technique known as captatio benevolentiae (“capture of good will”), complimentary language designed to gain the audience’s attention. From an early Christian perspective, of course, the (polytheistic/idolatrous) religion of the Athenians actually reflects the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) prior to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the “vain/empty things” (14:15) from which people are to turn away.

Verse 23a: “(In) going through (the city) and looking again (carefully) at your seba/smata, I (even) found a step-platform [bwmo/$, i.e. altar] in which there was written upon (it) ‘to (an) unknown god’…”

A se/basma (sébasma) is an object or work of (religious) fear and awe, i.e. of worship and veneration (cf. on the related verb se/bomai above). Elsewhere in the New Testament, it appears only in 2 Thess 2:4 (note also the verb seba/zomai in Rom 1:25). It may refer to a specific object (i.e. idol/image), cultic action (sacrificial offering) or space (temple/altar), or even to the genuine object of worship (the deity or deities) behind the ritual and material elements. Here Paul uses it in the basic sense of the temples and altars in Athens.

The expression “to (an) unknown god” (a)gnw/stw| qew=|) is perhaps the best-known detail in the entire narrative, but, in some ways, it is among the most difficult to interpret. It needs to be examined on three different levels: (a) the historical background, (b) the context of the narrative, and (c) the way Paul (and/or the author) makes use of it.

(a) The historical background—Based on what is known from classical (and early Christian) sources, there are several relevant strands of tradition upon which the narrative may be drawing. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece I.1.4, mention is made of altars “of gods.. named unknown” (qew=n.. o)nomazome/nwn a)gnw/stwn) among those standing on the way to Athens. Pausanias refers to a similar altar “of unknown gods” (a)gnw/stwn qew=n) at Olympia (V.14.8), and Philostratus in the Life of Apollonius VI.3.5 mentions altars “of unknown divine-powers” (a)gnw/stwn daimo/nwn) in Athens. Note the following possible aspects of such references:

(i) Instances where the particular deity, to whom the altar had been dedicated, was not known; there may not have been an inscription originally. This is indicated by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Philosophers I.110 (a story involving Epimenides of Crete), and is probably the best way of reading Pausanias’ reference in I.1.4.
(ii) Altars dedicated to foreign deities; this appears to be the understanding of certain early Christian commentators such as Tertullian (To the Nations II.9, cf. also Against Marcion I.9) and Jerome (Commentary on Titus, 1.12).
(iii) Altars dedicated to ‘unknown’ powers, in the sense of being hidden and mysterious, or, perhaps, which people were unable (or unwilling) to name. There is something of this idea in the story Diogenes Laertius tells (I.110).

(b) The context of the narrative—The narrative in Acts is perhaps best understood according to aspect (iii) above. The author (and/or his underlying tradition) seems to be drawing upon the idea of the large number of altars in Athens, and here we do well to regard the deisidaimoni/a (“fear of divine-powers”) of the Athenians (Acts 17:22) in the full sense of this expression—i.e. they were concerned to provide altars even for strange and unknown deities, lest they offend any divine power unnecessarily. Such religious psychology underlies the context of Apollonius’ advice to Timasion in the account by Philostratus (VI.3.5, mentioned above). It also reflects a basic “superstition”—and ignorance of the true nature of God—which is central to the message in Paul’s speech.

(c) Its use in the narrative—With some clever and ironic wordplay, Paul shifts the meaning of “an unknown deity” (in one of the three senses indicated above) to “the unknown God”. This can be interpreted several ways:

(a) The Athenians recognize that there is at least one “unknown” divine power, in addition to all the more familiar deities—Paul uses this to introduce the (true) God of Scripture and the Gospel to them.
(b) The Athenians effectively believe a hidden deity called “(the) Unknown”—i.e., the true deity which lies behind their flawed and mistaken religious conceptions, and which Paul now reveals to them.
(c) The Athenians’ (errant) religious seeking has led them to erect altars even to strange and unknown deities, an example of the “times of ignorance” (v. 30) which Paul now would dispel with the truth of the Gospel and revelation of the true God.

The narrative context suggests (a), the overall language and tone of the speech indicates (c), but Paul’s immediate response in v. 23b is closer to (b):

Verse 23b: “Therefore, the (one) whom you show good fear/veneration [i.e. worship], not knowing [a)gnoou=nte$], this (one) I bring down in a message [i.e. announce/declare] to you”

Again we see the motif of knowledge:

“to an unknown god” = “worshipping (God) without knowledge”

This will be emphasized again in verse 30 with the expression “times of unknowing [a&gnoia, i.e. ignorance]” that characterizes all of Greco-Roman religious history prior to the introduction of the Gospel. Indeed, it is the knowledge of God that is the central theme of the speech, a point brought home clearly (and immediately) in the central theological declaration that follows in verse 24, and which begins emphatically with o( qeo\$… (“The God…”), i.e. the true God.

This declaration (vv. 24-29) will be examined in the continuation of this study in Part 21.

 

blog-header-3_LawNT

The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15

By | Exegetical/Study Series, Supplemental Study | No Comments

As a supplemental study to the article “The Law in the Book of Acts”, part 2 (in the series “The Law and the New Testament”), I will here discuss, in summary fashion, a number of key critical questions surrounding the “Jerusalem Council” narrative in Acts 15. Hundreds of pages could be (and have been) written on these questions—here it will not be possible to treat them thoroughly, but to outline the issues involved and provide some helpful observations for further study. The main questions are:

  1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?
  2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?
  3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?
  4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

1. How does Acts 15 relate to Galatians 2?

This is a longstanding critical and interpretive question, which is connected with the date of Paul’s letter and the general location of the Galatian believers to whom it is addressed. “Galatia” may refer to: (a) the territory of the kingdom of Galatia, (b) the Roman province of Galatia (including portions of Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia to the south), or (c) areas where Galatian (Celtic) language is spoken (including portions of Phrygia & Lycaonia). The older Galatian territory (centered on the cities of Ancyra, Pessinus and Tavium) was considerably north of the sites (in Phrygia, Lycaonia and Pisidia) visited by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). In the second and third journeys, Paul and his companions are said to have traveled “through Phrygia and Galatian territory” (16:6) and “through Galatian territory and Phrygia” (18:23). The reference in 16:6 would imply territory north of the cities visited in Acts 13-14, though there is no indication they went as far east as Ancyra; a northwestern journey, along the Asian-Galatian boundary, is described, ending at Mysia and the NW coastline (Troas). The same general region is presumably meant in 18:23, but here it may include the southern Lycaonian and Phrygian area visited in the earlier journeys.

The main issue is whether “Galatia” in the epistle includes the cities evangelized by Paul and Barnabas during the first missionary journey (South Galatian option), or is limited to territory further north (though likely not as far north as Ancyra). The majority of scholars today (including most critical commentators) favor the North Galatian option. However, the South Galatian option, made popular especially by the archeological work and writings of W. M. Ramsay at the end of the 19th century, continues to be preferred by a good number of more traditional-conservative commentators, as it allows for easier harmonization of the narratives in Acts 15 and Gal 2 (see below). For a good modern defense of this position, see e.g., F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians (NIGTC) (Paternoster Press / Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 3-18, 43-56.

There are important similarities and differences between Acts 15 and Galatians 2. The main similarities:

  • Paul and Barnabas travel to Jerusalem for the express purpose of explaining/defending the missionary approach taken with regard to Gentiles (Acts 15:1-3f, 12; Gal 2:1-2)
  • A key point of contention involves circumcision, and whether Gentile converts should be compelled to be circumcised (Acts 15:1, 5; Gal 2:3)
  • Paul and Barnabas meet with the leaders of the Jerusalem church, including Peter and James (Acts 15:4, 6, 7ff, 13ff; Gal 2:2, 6-9)
  • Other Jewish believers present argue that Gentiles must be circumcised and observe the Law (Acts 15:5; Gal 2:4-5)
  • The leaders of the Jerusalem church accept the missionary approach taken by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:7ff, 22, 25-26; Gal 2:7-9)

The main differences:

  • In Galatians (2:2), Paul says he went to Jerusalem according to a revelation (kata\ a)poka/luyin), where as in Acts (15:2) Paul and Barnabas were appointed and sent by the church in Antioch
  • There is no mention in Acts of Titus (Gal 2:1, 3)
  • In Galatians (2:2), Paul meets with the Jerusalem leaders privately (kat’ i)di/an), while in Acts the meeting seems to be in front of the full assembly (15:4, 6, 12, 22)
  • In Acts, the basic outcome of the meeting is an authoritative decision on what is (and is not) required by Gentile converts; in Galatians, it has more to do with the missionary status of Paul and Barnabas (2:7-9) (but note also Acts 15:25-26)
  • In the Acts account, Paul and Barnabas, on their return, deliver the decision of the council to Gentile believers, accompanied by rejoicing and the restoration of peace (15:22, 30-31; 16:4); there is no suggestion of any of this in Galatians

Most of these differences are easy enough to explain as a product of the different (autobiographical and rhetorical) purpose and style of Paul’s account; indeed, most scholars would accept that the two accounts describe the same basic event. More significant, I would say, is the very different tone that characterizes the two accounts—Acts 15 shows a peaceful (and decisive) resolution to the question, accompanied by powerful speeches by Peter and James and an authoritative letter sent from the council to all Gentile believers (willingly delivered by Paul and Barnabas themselves). This harmonious picture contrasts notably with the presentation and argument in Galatians. How could the serious and controversial incident Paul describes in Gal 2:11-14—involving both Barnabas and Peter and “men from James”—have taken place so soon (apparently) after the decisions of the Council in Acts 15? Indeed, how is one to explain the fierce conflict between Paul and other Jewish Christians over the question of the Law and circumcision that pervades throughout Galatians, if things were as harmonious as the conclusion of Acts 15 suggests? A controversy between Paul and Barnabas is recorded in Acts 15:36ff, but it apparently has nothing to do with the Jewish-Gentile question in Gal 2. A solution is at hand in the South Galatian theory (above)—identifying the Galatians of the epistle with the territory (in Phrygia, Pisidia and Lycaonia) evangelized in the first missionary journey (Acts 13-14); this allows for the epistle to have been written prior to the Jerusalem council (the Jerusalem visit of Gal 2:1-10 usually equated with the one mentioned [barely] in 11:30).

While I think that the South Galatian theory is generally plausible, I see no compelling reason to consider Galatians as having been written before the Jerusalem Council. There are enough similarities in content and style between Galatians and Romans & 2 Corinthians, to suggest a comparable time-frame for composition. I find a date sometime during (or after) the second missionary journey as more likely (cf. Acts 16:6). Even so, is it possible that the events narrated in Gal 2:1-14 took place prior to the council? The reference to “certain (men) from James” (v. 12) might correspond with what James indicates in the letter (15:24). Paul offers no indication as to exactly when this all took place; though the context perhaps suggests a time not too far removed from the composition of the letter. This question will be taken up again further below.

2. Does the Acts 15 narrative reflect separate historical traditions and/or does it record a single historical event?

There are four basic components to the narrative in Acts 15:1-35:

  • The basic narrative surrounding the “Council” (vv. 1-6, 12), centered on the question of whether Gentile converts must be circumcised and required to observe the Law—little if any detail is provided of the actual debates and discussion which took place, but is summarized simply in vv. 6, 12.
  • The speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-11, 13-21), with the narrative transition/join of verse 12.
  • The Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—somewhat surprisingly, circumcision is not specifically addressed; rather, emphasis is placed on four religious restrictions which Gentile believers are required to observe (also stated in vv. 20-21).
  • The narrative summary in vv. 30-35, which only briefly mentions delivery of the letter (vv. 30-31, cf. also 16:4).

A standard critical approach recognizes two historical traditions at work: (1) a tradition of the meeting held in Jerusalem to address the Gentile question (but perhaps with little detail of the meeting itself available to the author), and (2) a letter addressed to Gentile believers (from the ‘Council’). Many scholars would doubt the authenticity of the speeches by Peter and James in vv. 7-21, viewing them (along with the speeches in Acts as a whole) primarily as the work of the author himself (trad. Luke). On the question of the authenticity of the letter and speeches, cf. below.

An interesting theory would separate the traditions of the meeting and the letter, at the historical level, with the letter seen as having been written on a subsequent occasion (and for a somewhat different purpose). The author of Acts has combined/conflated the traditions, making it appear as though they took place at the same time. This critical theory has the advantage also of harmonizing Acts 15 and Gal 2, at least in part; the chronology might be taken as follows:

  • The Jerusalem meeting, on the question of the acceptance of Gentile converts, and whether they must be circumcised (and observe the Law)—Gal 2:1-9; Acts 15:1-6, 12. The missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas was accepted, i.e. Gentile converts were not required to observe the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 15:10-11, 19, 28).
  • The incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14) demonstrated the difficulty involved with Jews and Gentiles relating with one another—some Jewish Christians apparently were willing to adopt Gentile customs, others opposed this. Paul attributes the problem to the presence and influence of “men from James” (Gal 2:12, cf. Acts 15:24).
  • Eventually a letter was drawn up—from James and the Jerusalem church—and sent to Gentile believers in the area surrounding Antioch. Gentile Christians are required to observe certain restrictions (related to pagan cultural and religious practice) which would be especially offensive to Jews.

The main difficulty with such a reconstruction is that it more or less ignores the overall narrative as composed in Acts 15. The substance of the letter is already indicated in James’ speech (vv. 19-21), which, in turn, is presented as taking place at the same time as Peter’s speech during the Jerusalem meeting (cf. the join in v. 12f). Moreover, Acts 15:22, 30-31 shows Paul specifically delivering the letter in Antioch, and even farther afield (16:4). The historicity of this particular detail has been seriously questioned by scholars, since Paul makes no mention of the letter (or the Jerusalem decree itself) in any of his epistles, neither in Galatians nor in 1 Corinthians 8-10 (on the issue of food which has been sacrificed to idols). Even in Acts 21:25, James seems to present to Paul the restrictions in the letter as though they would be something new and unfamiliar to him. And yet, if Paul was indeed unfamiliar with the letter, then the notice in 15:30-31 and 16:4 would have to be factually wrong (or at least highly misleading)—other believers may have delivered the letter (to Antioch and elsewhere), but not Paul. On the other hand, if the letter had been made known widely in the area around Antioch, how could Paul have not known about it? More to the point, would the Paul who wrote Galatians and Romans even have accepted the decision with the legal-religious restrictions placed on Gentile believers? If he regarded them as valid and authoritative, why does he not bring them up in 1 Cor 8-10? There is no easy answer or solution to these difficulties.

3. How does the Letter in vv. 22-29 relate to the episode as a whole?

This has already been discussed in the section prior, but it may be useful to look more closely at how the letter functions within the narrative as we have it. Certain key details should be noted:

  • It follows directly upon the speeches of Peter and James (vv. 7-21), and, as such, provides an authoritative formulation of their decision and resolution of the conflict narrated in vv. 1-6.
  • It is the product of the entire assembly as well as the Holy Spirit (vv. 22-23, 25, 28).
  • It provides sanction for the ministry of Paul and Barnabas—in the wake of the conflict at Antioch regarding Gentile believers and the Law, Paul and Barnabas journey to Jerusalem where they meet with the apostles, elders and the entire assembly; after this, they return to Antioch with an official resolution of the controversy (via the letter) (vv. 22-23, 25-26, 30-31ff).
  • It makes clear that Jewish-Christian opposition to the Pauline approach to the Gentile mission does not come from the official leadership of the Jerusalem church (v. 24, cf. Gal 2:12); rather, Jerusalem is in agreement with Paul and Barnabas.
  • Its requirements for Gentile believers, at the very least, emphasize a respect for the Law and Jewish religious custom (v. 28-29, cf. also vv. 20-21; 21:25). This fundamental sense of harmony between early Christianity and its Jewish heritage is an important theme of Luke-Acts.

Moreover, the letter cannot be separated from the speeches of Peter and James, as the following basic narrative outline indicates:

  • Narrative introduction (vv. 1-5), with the conflict framed in verse 1 and 5
    • Speeches of Peter and James (vv. 6-21)—expressing the authoritative and inspired judgment and interpretation of the Apostles
    • Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)—expressing the authoritative, inspired judgment of the entire assembly
  • Narrative conclusion (vv. 30-35), with the resolution (at Antioch) framed by verses 30, 35, leading to a resumption of the Antiochene/Pauline mission

I have discussed the speeches of Peter and James in some detail as part of my series on the Speeches of Acts.

4. How accurate is the overall presentation in Acts 15?

Several historical-critical questions related to Acts 15 have been addressed above; here I will briefly treat several specific areas of critical investigation.

The accuracy of the main historical tradition—The tendency among critical scholars is to admit the general accuracy of Paul’s account in Galatians 2 (though shaped by autobiographical, rhetorical, and polemic emphases), but to discredit or disregard the Lukan account in Acts 15 (assuming that they relate to the same underlying event[s]). Traditional-conservative commentators, on the other hand, are much more willing to assume (or require) the historical accuracy of the Acts narrative. It is hard to judge to matter fairly, since neither account (Gal 2 or Acts 15) provides enough specific detail for a proper comparison; especially, we would very much like to know more about the incident at Antioch in Gal 2:11-14, but are left to speculate on the precise circumstances involved. There is nothing implausible about the brief narrative in Acts 15:1-6, though doubtless much historical detail has been left out, glossed over, or otherwise simplified. It may be too that the author of Acts has purposely crafted the narrative to present as harmonious a picture of early Christianity as possible—this seems likely, and I would stress that an idealized portrait is not necessarily mistaken or in error. There must have been fierce debate and disputes over the Gentile question, but this is only hinted at in Acts 15:2, 5-7a, 12; a more realistic, detailed presentation would almost certainly read a bit more like Paul’s rhetorical-polemical approach in Galatians.

The authenticity of the speeches—I have mentioned previously the basic critical approach to the speeches in Acts, that they are primarily the product of the author (trad. Luke), rather than reflecting the actual words of the purported speakers. The basis for this view is generally two-fold: (a) what is known of the way ancient historians (such as Thucydides, et al) included and made use of speeches, and (b) certain relatively common and uniform stylistic characteristics and details throughout all the speeches in Acts (regardless of speaker, etc). Traditional-conservative scholars, mainly for dogmatic reasons, tend to regard the speeches as more or less accurate records of the speaker’s genuine words (though with at least some degree of editing/modification). In my studies on the Speeches of Acts, I have assumed a more moderate position overall—the speeches reflect authentic tradition, but likely have been adapted (to a greater or lesser extent) by the author, in the narrative context, to create and contribute to a literary work of art. This appears especially to be the case with regard to the use of Scriptural citations within the speeches (cf. below). For the speeches of Peter and James in Acts 15, the following, in particular, have been noted by critical scholars and commentators:

  • The use of the Cornelius episode in vv. 7-9, 14—It has been argued that reference to the Cornelius episode here is literary rather than historical, that is, its significance is based on what hearer/reader of Acts is familiar with (from the prominent narrative of chs. 10-11), more than its relevance to the (historical) Jewish believers in Jerusalem at the moment. A certain narrative tension is implied—what the reader knows (from chs. 10-11) vs. what the Jerusalem Christians have apparently forgotten. There are indeed, certain curious details—for example, Peter’s description of the episode as having taken place “in the beginning/bygone days” (v. 7, cf. also v. 14), though in the narrative context it could not have occurred all that long ago. More to the point, if the event had the importance/significance attached to it in the book of Acts, how could the Christians of Judea/Jerusalem have so (quickly) neglected or forgotten it?
  • Peter’s characterization of the Law in vv. 10-11—Many commentators find it unlikely that the presumably devout Jewish Christian Peter (cf. 10:9-16) would have referred to the Law this way: as a burdensome “yoke” that even Jews could not bear. Paul does once refer to the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1), but in Jewish tradition, it is typically described as a “yoke” in a positive sense (see m. Abot 3:5). Verse 10, combined with the emphasis on the favor/grace of God received by faith/trust, certainly does seem to have a ‘Pauline’ sound to it; but it is not clear that this precludes it has having come from Peter.
  • The citation of Amos 9:11-12 in vv. 16-18—It is significant that James, though presumably addressing the assembly in Aramaic (see his use of Shim’ôn/Simeon in v. 14), quotes a version of Amos 9:11-12 that generally corresponds to the Greek LXX, which includes two important textual variants apparently resulting from a misreading of the Hebrew text. For the form of this citation, see my discussion in the series on the Speeches of Acts. Traditional-conservative commentators, eager to defend/preserve a certain idea of inspiration (and/or inerrancy), are generally left with two options: (a) James cites the correct (Hebrew) text and it is the received MT that is corrupt, or (b) he is making (inspired) creative use/application of the variant Greek text. The first option I take as highly unlikely, the second is far more plausible.
  • The restrictions/requirements (from the letter) in vv. 19-21—There is only a problem here if one views the letter as a separate tradition combined/attached by the author in shaping the current narrative. By such a theory, the reference to the requirements of the letter in v. 20 is virtually precluded as being authentic. On its own merits, the idea that the author has combined or conflated separate traditions is interesting and somewhat attractive, but many questions and difficulties are involved with this approach as well (see above).

The authenticity of the letter—This question is extremely difficult to judge, though in general (on objective grounds), I find it much less likely that the author has composed a letter than that he may have done so for the speeches. One strong argument in favor of authenticity, it seems, is the limitation in the letter’s address to Gentile believers “in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia”, i.e. the center of the historical conflict (cf. Acts 15:1-5; Gal 2). A pseudonymous letter would probably have been addressed to a wider or more general audience. Also, if the author has added any details to the narrative, it is far more plausible that, finding the four prohibitions in the letter, he included them in James’ address (in 15:20; 21:25), rather than adding them into a (fictional) letter. The textual and interpretive difficulties surrounding these four items make it virtually certain that they are authentic historical details—the tendency among scribes and authors is to clarify and smooth over difficulties, not to create them.

On the reception of the letter—It is here that the most serious historical questions are to be found, which I have already touched on above. The fact that Paul never mentions the letter (with its requirements) in any of his epistles, even where it would directly apply (in Galatians or 1 Corinthians 8-10), is noteworthy. Either Paul was (1) unaware of the decree, or (2) did not cite or use it because: (a) he disagreed with it, (b) did not regard it as authoritative, or (c) did not feel it appropriate in the context and circumstances of his writing. In Acts 21:25 James appears to bring up the decree (and the four requirements) with Paul as though it would be something new or unfamiliar to him. All of this could be viewed as somewhat at odds with the picture in Acts 15:30-31; 16:4, where it is indicated that Paul delivered the letter and transmitted the requirements of the decree. Consider also the overall tone in Galatians, the argument in 2:14ff, and the specific notice in 2:6.

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 19: Acts 15:6-21 (continued)

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In Part 18, I looked at the first twelve verses of chapter 15 which comprise the first half of the main section of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” narrative. Here is an outline for the chapter as a whole:

  • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
    Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
    Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
    Transition (v. 12)
    Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
  • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
    The Letter (vv. 22-29)
    Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

Verse 12 is transitional between the twin speeches of Peter and James, concluding the one and leading into the next. The two speeches are thus closely connected—two parts of a single message—and within the literary context of the book of Acts it truly represents a transitional point: Peter’s speech looks back toward the Cornelius episode and the early apostolic mission, while James’ looks ahead to the wider mission to the Gentile world. Unlike Peter’s speech, that of James more closely follows the sermon-speech pattern found in the earlier speeches of Acts:

  • Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)
  • Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)
  • Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)
  • Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21), with implicit exposition/application of the Scripture
  • Narrative Conclusion (v. 22), leading directly into the Letter from the Council (vv. 22-29)

Narrative Introduction/Transition (v. 12)

There are two elements in this verse, related to the response of the assembled believers (pa=n to\ plh=qo$, “all the full [crowd]”, i.e. the number of those present/inolved):

  1. It (sg., the crowd) became silent (e)si/ghsen)—Peter’s words effectively put an end to the (immediate) dispute, cf. a similar reaction in 11:18.
  2. They (pl.) heard (h&kouon)—the people listened to the account of Barnabas and Paul (v. 12b)

It is interesting that the author does include any of Paul and Barnabas’ actual words; from the standpoint of the overall narrative, this of course would not be necessary, since the reader/hearer of the book would already be familiar with the events of chapters 13-14. It is also possible that the author was unaware of precisely what was said, and/or simply chose not to include it for other reasons. The simple statement in v. 12b is effective, however, and quietly serves the purpose of connecting the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas with the miraculous work of God in the Cornelius episode (vv. 7-9).

Introductory Address (vv. 13-14)

The opening of verse 13 (“and with/after their having kept silent…”), following upon the notice in v. 12a, may be an indication of editorial joining of separate traditions, or as a literary device to bring together the two speeches. James uses a vocative address (“Men, brothers…”, a&ndre$ a)delfoi/) familiar from earlier speeches (Acts 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:15, 16, 26, 38; 15:7). The imperative “hear (me)!” (a)kou/sate) also occurs in the prior speeches (2:22; 7:2; 13:16; 22:1); on the importance of hearing (i.e. listening/understanding) in relation to the Gospel witness, etc., see the frequent use of the verb in this context in 1:4; 2:6, 8, 11, 33, 37; 3:22-23; 4:4, 19-20; 8:6; 9:21; 10:22, 33, 44; 11:18; 13:7, 44, 48; 14:9; 15:7, 12 and throughout the book.

In verse 14, James confirms (and re-affirms) Peter’s message regarding the earlier conversion of the Gentiles (in the Cornelius episode):

Shim±ôn [Simeon, i.e. Peter] has brought out [i.e. explained] even as at (the) first (how) God looked (closely) upon (them) to take out of [i.e. from] the nations a people (for/unto) his Name”

The use of the adverb prw=ton (“at [the] first”) clearly relates to Peter’s use of the phrase a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn (“from [the] beginning days”) in verse 7. The use of these expressions in reference to fairly recent events is perhaps a bit unusual, but the basic idea seems to be that from the very beginning of the Christian mission, and with such purpose and intention, God has included Gentiles among those who would come to believe. The meaning is thus twofold: (1) temporal (from the very start), and (2) in terms of importance (a primary, leading purpose). In this light, it is most significant the way that James uses vocabulary and expressions, normally applied specifically to Israel, in reference to Gentile believers:

  • “God looked (closely) upon (them)” (o( qeo\$ e)peske/yato)—By the time of the New Testament, the verb e)piske/ptomai (cf. also the less common e)piskope/w and the related noun e)piskoph/) was often used of God’s care and concern for his people (Gen 21:1; 50:24-25; Exod 3:16; 4:31; Deut 11:12; Ps 8:4; Zeph 2:7; Zech 10:3 etc), sometimes in the semi-technical sense of his coming (eschatological) visitation, for salvation/deliverance and also judgment/punishment (the emphasis on judgment tends to dominate in the OT, Exod 32:34; Job 35:15; Ps 59:5; 89:32; Jer 5:9, 29; 9:9; 11:22; 30:20; 36:21 etc, but contrast Ps 65:9; 80:14; 106:4; Jer 15:15; 29:10; Ezek 20:40; Sirach 46:14). In the NT, see especially Luke 1:68, 78; 7:16; also Lk 19:44; 1 Pet 2:12; Heb 2:6.
  • “to take out of the nations” (labei=n e)c e)qnw=n)—For the fundamental idea of God choosing Israel from among all the nations to be his (holy) people, see esp. Exod 19:5; 23:22 [LXX]; Deut 7:6; 14:2; 26:18-19. Often the verbs used in Greek are ai)re/w (“take/seize [for oneself]”, cf. Deut 26:18) or e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, Deut 14:12 and cf. its use in Acts 15:7). On a similar use of the common verb lamba/nw here (“take/receive”), see e.g. Num 8:6; Amos 2:11.
  • “a people (for/unto) his Name” (lao\n tw=| o)no/mati)—For the idea of God’s name upon, in, and among his people, see esp. Exod 23:21; Num 6:27; Deut 12:5, 11, 21; 14:23-24; 18:19f; 28:10; 2 Sam 6:2; 7:13; 1 Kings 8:16-19, 29; 2 Kings 21:4, 7; 2 Chron 6:6; 7:14; Psalm 69:36; 91:14; 118:26; Isa 29:23; 43:7; 52:6; 65:1; Jer 13:11; 23:27; Mic 4:5; Zech 10:12; 13:9; Mal 1:11; 3:16.

These themes continue on in the Scripture citation (from Amos 9:11-12) which follows.

Citation from Scripture (vv. 15-18)

James cites Amos 9:11-12, in a form which generally corresponds with the Greek (LXX) version; this is noteworthy, since it has several significant differences from the Hebrew (MT) version, differences which are actually essential to the interpretation and application given to the passage here.  A comparison of Amos 9:11-12:

Translation of the Hebrew (MT)

11 In that day I will raise up [lit. make stand] the woven-shelter of David th(at) is fallen,
and I will wall up her [pl.] (holes that are) bursting out;
And I will raise up [lit. make stand] his [sg.] torn-down-remains [i.e. ruins],
and I will build her [sg.] as in (the) days of distant (past)
12 In order that they possess the remainder of Edom
and all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—
utterance of YHWH (the one) doing this.

Greek (LXX) with translation

11 e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| a)nasth/sw th\n skhnh\n Dauid th\n peptwkui=an kai\ a)noikodomh/sw ta\ peptwko/ta au)th=$ kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)nasth/sw kai\ a)noikodomh/sw au)th\n kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
12 o%pw$ e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn [to\n ku/rion] kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ o( qeo\$ o( poiw=n tau/ta

11 In that day I will raise [lit. stand] up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and I will build up/again her [sg.] fallen-parts, and I will raise [lit. stand] up/again her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] and I will build her [sg.] up/again even as (in) the days of the (past) age
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out [the Lord], says the Lord God the (one) doing these things.

Acts 15:16-18

11 meta\ tau=ta a)nastre/yw kai\ a)noikodmh/sw th\n skh/nhn Daui\d th\n peptwkui=an kai\ ta\ kateskamme/na au)th=$ a)noikodomh/sw kai\ a)norqw/sw au)th/n
12 o%pw$ a&n e)kzhth/swsin oi( kata/loipoi tw=n a)nqrw/pwn to\n ku/rion kai\ pa/nta ta\ e&qnh e)f’ ou^$ e)pike/klhtai to\ o&noma/ mou e)p’ au)tou/$ le/gei ku/rio$ poiw=n tau=ta
gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$

11 After these (things) I will turn up/again [i.e. return] and I will build up/again the tent of David th(at) has fallen and her [sg.] dug-down-remains [i.e. ruins] I will build up/again and I will set her [sg.] straight up/again,
12 how that the (ones) remaining down [i.e. the remainder] of men, and every nation upon whom my name has been called, might seek out the Lord—says the Lord doing these things,
known from (the) age.

The LXX generally follows the Hebrew of v. 11, although in very flat translation, having lost nearly all of the color and texture of the verse. The citation in James/Acts matches neither the Hebrew or LXX all that closely; it generally follows the vocabulary of the LXX, but in a much simpler form. The most notable differences between the LXX and James/Acts for v. 11 are:

LXX:

e)n th=| h(me/ra| e)kei/nh| (“in that day”)

{no corresponding phrase}

repeats a)noikodomh/sw (“I will build up/again”)

kaqw\$ ai( h(me/rai tou= ai)w=no$
(“even as [in] the days of the [past] age”)

Acts/James:

meta\ tau=ta (“after these [things]”)

a)nastre/yw (“I will turn up/again [i.e. return]”)

uses a)norqw/sw (“I will set straight up/again”)

{no corresponding phrase}
(reflected in gnwsta\ a)p’ ai)w=no$?)

For verse 12, LXX (A) and James/Acts are nearly identical, and both are very different from the Hebrew: “they may possess the remainder of Edom” has turned into “the remainder of men might seek out [the Lord]”—this seems to be the result of a two-fold error in translation:

  1. <d)a$ (Edom, defective spelling) was mistaken for <d*a* (Adam/man)
  2. Wvr=yy] (“they [may] possess”) was either mistaken for (or ‘corrected’ to) Wvr=d=y] (“they [may] seek”)

The lack of a clearly identified subject for the verb in Hebrew would have added to the confusion: the ‘remainder’ and ‘all the nations…’ became the subject (who/what seeks out) in the Greek version. There being no clear object for the ‘seeking’ it was easy enough to add a pronoun or “the Lord” as both the A-text and Acts/James do. That these verses would have proved difficult for Greek translators to understand, several centuries after the fact, is not surprising; it remains troublesome even today. Consider, for example, the complex set of referents indicated by the various pronominal suffixes in verse 11. As for verse 12, there are three ways to read the text:

  1. “all the nations…” is a coordinate object with “Edom”. That is, Israel will possess “Edom and all the nations”. There are two difficulties with this view: (a) the lack of a parallel object marker (Áta) for “all the nations”, and (b) the phrase “my name is called upon” being applied to the nations, which is unusual in the Old Testament. The sense would be that the nations possessed by restored Israel will come to have God’s name called upon them—that is, they will effectively be converted.
  2. “all the nations…” is the subject, coordinate with Israel (implied). This would be translated as follows: “They—even all the nations (for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom”. Though such a role for the nations may fit the outlook of the LXX and Acts, it seems rather foreign to the original context of Amos; however the idea of nations united/cooperating with Israel could conceivably be in mind.
  3. The phrase “which my name is called upon them” is substantively the subject, but does not apply to “all the nations”. This would be translated: “They—(those for) which my name is called upon them—will possess the remainder of Edom and all the nations”. Here the sense would be that the (restored) Israel is identified (only) with those upon whom God’s name is called. This is an interesting possibility, and one which does fit the context of Amos to some extent.

Despite some syntactical awkwardness, I feel that the first way of reading the verse remains the best option. Of course, there is always the possibility of corruption having crept into the Masoretic text; unfortunately, only one Dead Sea document (a Prophets scroll from Wadi Murabba‘at) contains v. 12, highly fragmentary, but apparently conforming to the MT. Otherwise, apart from the variant reading of LXX/Acts, there is little basis for asserting textual corruption here.

There are other textual, literary and historical-critical difficulties regarding the citation of Amos 9:11-12 in Acts, such as:

  • At the historical level, would James have cited such a passage of Scripture from the Greek? If so, did he recognize a discrepancy with the Hebrew?
  • To what extent is this quotation the product of the author (traditionally Luke) rather than the speaker (James), whether in terms of translation or insertion?
  • What is one to make of either author or speaker using a version of Scripture which is apparently at odds with the original (inspired) Hebrew text?

These are important questions, both for an understanding of the composition of the book (Acts), and in terms of how we regard the nature and extent of inspiration. For more on this, see the supplemental articles on critical questions related to Acts 15.

Admitting that there are difficulties with the version of Amos 9:11-12 cited by Acts/James, just how does the author/speaker make use of it, and how does this differ from the original context of the passage?

Consider first the original setting of these verses in the book of Amos: they are part of an ‘epilogue’, both to the sequence of visions (7:1-9:6) and the book as a whole. After searing proclamations of judgment, concluding with a vision of destruction for Israel (9:1-6), there is a promise of restoration, beginning in vv. 7-8, and more fully in vv. 11-15. The “woven-shelter” (hKs often translated “hut”, “booth”) of David, central to this passage, is a curious image—overall, the reference seems to be to the Kingdom (of Judah) and Jerusalem (but perhaps representative of the whole Kingdom) in ruins; however the “booth”, with its echo of the exodus and wilderness wandering (commemorated by the festival of toKs), may refer to an Israelite identity that predates/transcends the Kingdom (at least the divided Kingdom of Amos’ time). The restored Israel will possess again the land (vv. 14-15), including the territory of Edom and, it would seem, the surrounding nations (v. 12), accompanied by a time of renewed prosperity (vv. 13-14).

In James’ speech (Acts 15:13-21), these verses are applied to the early Christian mission to the Gentiles, in particular to the episode of Peter and Cornelius (vv. 7-11, 14; cf. 10:1-11:18). This is done by “catchphrase bonding”, an ancient interpretive method, but one which is rather foreign to us today. By this method, different passages of Scripture (which may be otherwise unrelated), are connected by the presence of a common/similar word or phrase. Here the triggering phrase is “a people for/to His Name”:

V. 14: Simeon [i.e. Simon Peter] has related [lit. led out] even as (at the) first God looked closely upon (it) to take out of (the) nations a people for/to His Name.

One well-versed in the Scriptures—whether James of the author of Acts—might quickly associate this phrase with the reference in Amos 9:12; and, while the context of the Hebrew is perhaps not so suitable, the Greek of the LXX is very much to his purpose, for it speaks of the nations “upon whom My Name is called” seeking out [the Lord]. Unmistakably, this here is a reference to ‘God-fearing’ Gentiles (such as Cornelius) seeking God (the Lord) and responding to Christ (the Lord) in the proclamation of the Gospel. In other words, James associates the LXX version of Amos 9:12 with the early Christian mission and conversion of the Gentiles. Interestingly, in the Greek, it is no longer the remnant of Israel specifically involved but rather the remnant of (all?) men. Note how Paul treats Hosea 1:10; 2:3 in a similar manner in Romans 9:25-27.

It is all the more extraordinary that this universal reference to the nations would be associated with the “fallen booth/tent of David”, which in Amos clearly refers to Israel and the Davidic Kingdom. However, this is fully in accord with the implicit theme (in Luke-Acts) of the “restoration of Israel” in terms of the early Christian mission—beginning with the Twelve (symbolic of the twelve Tribes) and other believers in Jerusalem, to the Jews of the dispersion (among the nations), and then to ‘God-fearers’ and other Gentiles (non-Jews among the nations). Even in the Hebrew of Amos 9:12 there is the idea of nations who are (or come to be) associated with Israel and share “God’s Name upon them”.

In this light, one should also recognize an eschatological aspect of this reference in Acts. The introductory phrase itself (“after these [things] I will return”), found neither in the LXX or the Hebrew, seems to carry such a nuance. God returns to His People (cf. for example the echoes of the Sinai theophany in Acts 2), establishing His Kingdom in the new Age (“last days” cf. Acts 2:17ff, etc) which now consists of both Jews and Gentiles (cf. Paul’s grand eschatological hope/expectation in Romans 9-11). It is clear from the Qumran texts that Amos 9:11 was understood in an eschatological/Messianic sense. The Florilegium (4Q174), which strings together related Scripture passages (with a brief interpretation), associates Amos 9:11 with the promise of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Sam 7:

This (refers to the) “Branch of David”, who will arise with the Interpreter of the Law who [will rise up] in Zi[on in] the [l]ast days, as it is written: “I will raise up the hut of David which has fallen”, This (refers to) “the hut of David which has fall[en”, which he will raise up to save Israel. (translation from García Martínez & Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition Vol. 1 [Leiden/Brill, 1998/2000], p. 353)

Here the “booth/hut of David” is identified with the Messianic designation “Branch of David”, that is to say with a specific Anointed (Messianic) figure. A similar use of Amos 9:11 is found in the Cairo version of the Damascus Document (CD 7:15-16 [MS A]); this passage mentions in sequence: (a) coming days of judgment and tribulation [citing Isa 7:17], (b) exile of the ‘booth of the king’ [Amos 5:26-27], (c) raising up the ‘booth of David’ [Amos 9:11], (d) the coming of the ‘star’ [Interpreter of the Law] and ‘sceptre’ [Messiah/Prince] who will smite the nations [Num 24:17]. Such eschatological expectations are very far removed from the book of Acts (cf. 1:6ff, not to mention most of the New Testament as a whole); that is to say, they have been transferred into a different framework:

Jewish expectation c. 1st century B.C./A.D.
(Qumran texts, etc.)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Appearance of an Anointed figure (Messiah)
  • Judgment/war on the (wicked) nations
  • Restoration of the Kingdom

Early Christian expectation (1st cent. A.D.)
(Jesus’ teaching, Apostolic preaching, rest of NT)

  • Signs of travail, persecution, etc
  • Judgment on the World
  • Return of Christ (Parousia)
  • Entry into Life in Heaven with God/Christ
    (references to an earthly ‘Messianic’ kingdom are rare in the NT)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 19-21)
and Narrative Conclusion (v. 22ff)

James concludes his speech with an authoritative determination, confirming Peter’s message and effectively affirming the missionary approach of Paul and Barnabas among Gentiles—

V. 19: “Therefore I judge (we/you are) not to crowd in alongside the (one)s from the nations turning upon God…”

that is, Jewish believers are not to cause (extra) trouble for Gentile converts by demanding (or expecting) that they should be circumcised and observe fully the Law of Moses (v. 1, 5). This, indeed, seems to accord with the “Law-free” Gospel proclaimed by Paul (esp. in Galatians), and is now so familiar (if perhaps somewhat misunderstood) by non-Jewish believers today that what follows from James in vv. 20-21 could come as a bit of a surprise: “…but we set upon them [i.e. send to them] (in writing) to hold (themselves) away from…”, citing four specific prohibitions (requirements) derived, it would seem, from the Law (apparently from Lev 17-18). These four legal requirements are indicated in the letter which follows (vv. 22-29). The nature and historical context of this resolution continues to be debated; and, of course, as the Church grew to become predominantly Gentile, and influenced greatly by Paul’s writings, these restrictions soon disappeared, and their precise meaning and significance is, to some extent, lost to us today. However, they are important for a proper understanding of the passage, and, as such, I have discussed them in more detail in the article on Acts 15 in my series on “The Law and the New Testament” and in a supplemental note.

The association of Amos 9:11-12 with this question of keeping the Law has an interesting parallel in the passage from the Damascus Document (mentioned above). There the “fallen booth of David” is specifically identified with the Books of the Law (Torah), related to the congregation as a whole. The reference in Num 24:17 (“star” and “sceptre”) was understood as foretelling the coming of an “Interpreter of the Law” and a “Prince of the Congregation”—these two will restore obedience to the Books of the Law (and Prophets) “whose sayings Israel has despised”. So here we have two distinct interpretations of the “booth of David” found in the Qumran community (and related groups):

  • Identified with the coming (Anointed) One who will save/restore Israel
  • Identified with the Torah, which the coming (Anointed) One[s] will restore to Israel

Can we not see Jesus as both Anointed (Christ) and Torah (Word of God), who comes to save His People?

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The Speeches of Acts, Part 18: Acts 15:6-21

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In this article, I will be discussing the pair of Speeches (by Peter and James) which are set together in the narrative of the so-called “Jerusalem Council” in Acts 15. This episode is central to the overall narrative of Acts, occurring virtually at the mid-point of the book, though I prefer to regard it as the culminating (and climactic) episode of the first half (chapters 1-15). Here is how I would outline the first half of the book:

  • Introduction—the Disciples with Jesus (Acts 1:1-11)
  • The Believers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-8:3)
    Acts 1:12-26: The reconstitution of the Twelve, with a speech by Peter
    Acts 2:1-47: The Pentecost narrative (the coming of the Spirit), with a speech by Peter
    Acts 3:1-4:31: The healing miracle and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches by Peter and a prayer
    Acts 4:32-5:11: Conflict among the Believers—Ananias/Sapphira
    Acts 5:12-42: Miracle(s) and the Apostles before the Sanhedrin, with two speeches (by Peter and Gamaliel)
    Acts 6:1-7: Conflict among the Believers—the appointment of the Seven (incl. Stephen and Philip)
    Acts 6:8-8:3: The Stephen narrative, with a major speech, concluding with onset of persecution
  • The Early Mission outside of Jerusalem (Acts 8:4-12:25)
    Acts 8:4-40: Two episodes involving Philip (in Samaria and on the road to Gaza), along with an episode of the Apostles in Samaria (Peter and Simon Magus)
    Acts 9:1-31: The Conversion and early Ministry of Saul Paulus (Paul) (around Damascus)
    Acts 9:32-43: Two episodes (healing miracles) involving Peter (in Lydda/Sharon and Joppa)
    Acts 10:1-11:18: Peter and Cornelius (in Caesarea): first outreach to Gentiles, with two speeches by Peter
    Acts 11:19-30: Introduction to the Church in Antioch
    Acts 12:1-25: The arrest (and miraculous release) of Peter, followed by the death of Herod Agrippa
  • Paul’s (First) Mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-15:35)
    The sequence of the mission (Acts 13-14): (a) Departure from Antioch (13:1-3); (b) On Cyprus (13:4-12); (c) In Pisidian Antioch, with a major sermon-speech (13:13-52); (d) At Iconium (14:1-7); (e) At Lystra, including a short speech (14:8-20); (f) The Return to Syrian Antioch (14:21-28)
    Acts 15:1-35: The Jerusalem Council—The Reaction/Response to Paul’s Mission

I would further outline Acts 15:1-35 as follows:

  • Part 1: Main Narrative (15:1-21)
    Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)
    Speech of Peter (vv. 7-11)
    Transition (v. 12)
    Speech of James (vv. 13-21)
  • Part 2: Letter from the Council (15:22-35)
    The Letter (vv. 22-29)
    Narrative Conclusion (vv. 30-35)

There are major longstanding (and much debated) critical issues associated with Acts 15, involving: the historical background, chronology, the blending of separate traditions, the authenticity of the speeches (and the letter), the relationship to Paul’s account in Galatians 2, and so forth. I am dealing with the historical background and questions related to the Torah as part of my current series on “The Law and the New Testament”; several of the critical difficulties will be treated, to some extent, in a supplemental article. Here I am limiting discussion to the speeches in 15:6-21, though in so doing I will touch upon several of the critical points.

Narrative Introduction (vv. 1-6)

These verses provide a narrative summary of events leading to the meeting in Jerusalem. The ‘Western’ text typically shows significant expansion and other differences (indicated below) compared with the Alexandrian/Majority text—most scholars today would regard these as secondary expansions, but it is possible that they reflect authentic tradition.

Verse 1: This states the conflict—”some coming down from Judea taught the brothers that ‘if you are not circumcised in the customary way of Moses [i.e. according to the Law of Moses], you are not able to be saved'”
Western MSS specify the people from Judea as being believers (“ones having trusted”) from the Pharisees (cf. verse 5); other MSS (including D) read “and walk [kai…peripathte] in the customary way of Moses”, indicating that they believed it necessary for Gentile converts to observe the Torah completely.

Verse 2: The controversy is stated simply—”and (as there was) coming to be no little standing (up) and searching [i.e. uproar/commotion and dispute] toward them for Paul and Barnabas…”; it follows that “they [i.e. the congregation of Antioch] set/appointed Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them to step up into Jerusalem, toward the apostles and elders, about this searching [i.e. dispute]”
Note the differences in the Western text (italicized), in the context of more conventional translation:
“And Paul and Barnabas had no small confrontation and dispute with them, for Paul told them [i.e. Gentile converts] strongly to remain just as (they were when) they came to believe; but the ones coming from Jerusalem gave the message to [i.e. ordered] them, Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them, to go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, so as to be judged before them [i.e. before the apostles and elders] about this question”
The Western version presents a somewhat different picture, emphasizing the role and authority of the Jerusalem church.

Verse 3: This verse narrates the journey of Paul and Barnabas (and the others), mentioning their travel through Samaria. Two points are emphasized especially: (1) that they were sent forth by (lit. “under”) the congregation [e)kklhsia] (of Antioch), and (2) along they way they explained (lit. “led out thoroughly”) the conversion of the Gentiles, which brought great joy to the other believers.

Verse 4: The arrival in Jerusalem—”and coming to be along in(to) Jerusalem, they were received along (Western MSS add ‘greatly’) from [i.e. by] the congregation [e)kklhsia] and the apostles and the elders, (and) they gave the message (again) as many (thing)s as [i.e. all of the things] God did with them”.

Verse 5: This summarizes the opening of debate, along the conflict lines established in verse 1 (note the similarity here to the Western text of v. 1). Certain men from the Pharisees (who had come to believe in Jesus) “stood up”, saying that “it was necessary for them [i.e. Gentile converts] to be circumcised and (also for them) to keep the law of Moses”. Western MSS (including D) identify these Pharisees with “the ones who gave the message [i.e. ordered] them [i.e. Paul and Barnabas] to go up to the elders”, according to the Western text of verse 2.

Verse 6: This describes the meeting proper—”The apostles and elders (Western MSS add ‘ with the full [congregation]’) were brought together to see about this word/account [i.e. this particular subject or issue]”.

The question clearly had to do with whether Gentile converts were (or should be) required to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). The principal issue, in terms of Jewish identity, of course, was circumcision—but this reflected the wider point of dispute regarding Torah observance. The controversy itself suggests that the early (Jewish) Christians observed the Law faithfully (cf. Acts 10:13-14, 28; 11:1-3, 8; 21:20-26), and would have expected other Christians to do the same. The conversion of Gentiles created an understandable religious difficulty (addressed in the Cornelius episode of chaps. 10-11). The debates must have been fierce—the author of Acts does not express this in any real detail, taking care to present a more harmonious overall picture of the Church. The disputes themselves in chapter 15 are hardly described at all, being mentioned only to set the narrative, by way of introductory participial clauses:

  • genome/nh$ de\ sta/sew$ kai\ ou)k o)li/gh$… (“and [there] having come to be no little standing [up] and searching [i.e. debate/dispute]…”), v. 2a—this leads into the appointment of Paul and Barnabas (and others) to go to Jerusalem.
  • pollh=$ de\ zhth/sew$ genome/n$… (“and [there] having come to be much searching [i.e. debate/dispute]…”) v. 7a—this leads into the speech by Peter.

Speech by Peter (15:7-11):
Introductory Address (v. 7)

The participial opening clause of 7a is followed by Peter’s response (“standing up Peter said toward them…”); this “standing up” (a)nasta/$) by Peter in response to the disputing (zhthsi$) may be seen as parallel to the “standing” (sta/si$, i.e. commotion, dissension, uproar) which accompanies the disputing (zhthsi$) in verse 2. Ultimately, Peter’s speech silences the commotion (verse 12). He begins with a vocative address (a&ndre$ a)delfoi/, “Men, brothers…”) used elsewhere in the speeches of Acts (cf. 1:16; 2:14, 22, 29; 3:12; 5:35; 7:2; 13:16, 26, 38). Notes on each phrase follow in turn:

u(mei=$ e)pi/stasqe o%ti, “you (may) stand (your mind) upon [i.e. understand] that”—i.e., “you know/understand that…”, for a similar address, cf. Acts 10:28; 19:25; 20:18.

a)f’ h(merw=n a)rxai/wn, “from beginning/leading days”—this expression normally would mean “from days (long) ago”, which is a bit unusual in context here, since the events to which Peter is referring (the Cornelius episode in Acts 10-11) cannot have taken place all that long ago; however, it may be have a rhetorical or literary usage here, to emphasize that it took place at the very beginning (and in a central/leading position) of the Gospel proclamation (see a similar play on words in 11:15).

e)n u(mi=n, “in/among you”—this is connected with what follows (“God gathered out [from] among us”); there should probably be understood here also a subtle emphasis on Jewish identity, cf. the reference to “the ones fearing God [i.e. Gentile ‘Godfearers’] among you [e)n u(mi=n]” in Paul’s speech, 13:26).

e)cele/cato o( qeo\$ “God gathered (me) out from”—the verb e)kle/gomai (“gather out”, i.e. “choose, select”) and the related noun e)klekto/$ (“[one] gathered out, chosen, ‘elect’), may be used (a) of disciples and believers chosen by Christ (and/or God), Lk 6:13; 18:7; Jn 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Acts 1:2, 24; 1 Cor 1:27-28; Rom 8:33; Eph 1:4; James 2:5; 1 Pet 2:9 etc; (b) Israel and the Fathers chosen by God, Acts 13:17; (c) Jesus as the Elect/Chosen One, Lk 9:35; 23:35; 1 Pet 2:4, 6; (d) believers chosen for a special mission or duty, Acts 6:5; 15:22, 25. The specific Greek expression (with the preposition e)n “in/among”) can be found in the LXX (1 Sam 16:10; 1 Kings 8:16, 44; 11:32, etc). The noun e)kklhsi/a, customarily rendered “congregation, church” is derived from a verb with a similar basic meaning, e)kkale/w (“call out”), which is used only rarely in the LXX (not in a religious sense) and never in the NT.

dia\ tou= sto/mato/$ mou, “through my mouth”—on this idiom, often used in the sense of the revelation (by the Prophets, etc) in Scripture, cf. Lk 1:70; Acts 1:16; 3:18, 21; 4:25; for the apostolic witness (preaching/proclamation) taking place through “(opening) the mouth”, see also Acts 8:35; 10:34; 18:14.

a)kou=sai ta\ e&qnh… kai\ pisteu=sai, “(for) the nations to hear… and trust”—hearing and trusting (i.e. “believe, have faith”) are commonly associated with the Gospel proclamation and conversion throughout Acts (and elsewhere in the New Testament); the emphasis on the Gentiles (“the nations”) is clear, especially in the context of the current controversy (cf. Acts 10:45; 11:1, 18; 13:46-48; 14:27; 15:3).

to\n lo/gon tou= eu)aggeli/ou, “the word/account of the good message [i.e. Gospel]”—this seems to be a combination of two separate, but related, expressions used throughout Acts: (a) “the word/account of God” (or “…of the Lord)”, Acts 4:31; 6:7; 8:25; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5, et al, and (b) “the good message” (“good news”/Gospel), Acts 20:24, also 8:12, 35; 10:36; 13:32, etc. See also the related expressions in Acts 5:20; 13:26; 16:17.

Central Narration: Citation from Recent History (vv. 8-9)

The sermon-speech pattern for many of the prior speeches in Acts includes a central citation from Scripture (see the speech of James, below); here, the citation consists instead of a narration of recent events, similar to that in 11:1-18 (for the notes on this earlier speech by Peter, cf. Part ). The narration in chapter 11 is much more extensive, here it is limited to a pair of concise statements:

  • “And the heart-knowing God witnessed to them, giving the holy Spirit, even as he did to us” (v. 8)
  • “and he judged/separated through [die/krinen] nothing between us and them, cleansing their hearts by/in trust” (v. 9)

It is also possible to discern a chiastic structure:

  • God who knows (all) hearts—witness
    • giving the holy Spirit
      • to them just as (also) to us
      • no separation between us and them
    • cleansing (i.e. making holy)
  • Their hearts (in response to God)—trust/faith

For an interesting association between the Holy Spirit and cleansing, see the rare (but notable) textual variant in the Lukan version of the Lord’s Prayer (Lk 11:2). For the descriptive epithet “heart-knowing” (kardiognw/sth$) applied to God, see its use earlier (by Peter) in Acts 1:24; cf. also 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 7:9; Jer 11:20; 17:10.

The first half of Peter’s statement (verse 8) summarizes Acts 10:44-48 (also 11:15ff). In the second half (verse 9), Peter comments on the events described in v. 8, explaining them, much as one might expound and apply a Scripture passage (as in sermon-speech pattern). Two actions of God are mentioned, indicated by the verbs:

  • diakri/nw—this is an intensive compound form of kri/nw (“to separate, judge”, sometimes with the nuance of “make distinction, discriminate”), the idea here being that God does not make any distinction between Jew and Gentile. See the careful use of this verb in chapter 10-11 (10:20; 11:2, 12), with clever wordplay covering its various shades of meaning. Note also in this regard Peter’s reference to God in 10:34 as one who is not a “taker/receiver of faces” (proswpolh/pth$), a Semitic idiom (“to raise/lift the face”), which in a judicial context often carries the meaning of showing favoritism or partiality in rendering judgment. The message is that God shows no preference or partiality—in God’s eyes, and in Christ, Jews and Gentiles are on an equal footing (see Paul’s famous declaration in Galatians 3:28f).
  • kaqari/zw (“cleanse, make clean”)—the only other use of this verb in Acts, also occurs in chapters 10-11, from the heavenly voice in Peter’s vision (10:15; 11:9): “that which God has made clean, you must not treat as common”. The voice tells Peter that God has made/declared clean all animals (i.e. all food, related to the dietary laws), but with the deeper meaning as well that all people (Jews and Gentiles both) are clean (from a ritual standpoint), and may be cleansed (from a spiritual standpoint). There is certainly also a reference to baptism, involving the forgiveness of sin, though this is usually understood in terms of release/freedom rather than cleansing. However, the association of the Holy Spirit and baptism with water and fire—both are agents and images of purification—is longstanding in Christian tradition, going back to the early Gospel tradition (Matt 3:11 / Lk 3:16, cf. Acts 1:5; 11:16). It is interesting to note that in Acts 10-11, the Holy Spirit is manifest (baptism by the Spirit) prior to baptism with water (10:44-46; 11:15-16). The question is whether the Gentiles should be allowed to be baptized as fellow Christians (with water), 10:47; 11:17—in other words, God has already chosen to accept and baptize them (with the Spirit), now it is up to other (Jewish) Christians, whether or not to accept them. Peter, by his use of the verb kwlu/w (“cut off, prevent, hinder”) in 10:47 and 11:17, equates preventing Gentiles from being baptized (“cutting off water”) with opposing (trying to “cut off”) God.

Syntactically, the verbs in verse 9 form a parallel with the two in verse 8:

  • e)martu/rhsen, aorist active indicative, positive—”he witnessed” (to them [i.e. Gentiles])
    • dou/$ (participle)—”giving” (the holy Spirit)
  • die/krinen, aorist active indicative, negative—”he judged/separated” (nothing between [Jews and Gentiles])
    • kaqari/sa$ (participle)—”making clean” (their hearts)

Concluding Exhortation (vv. 10-11)

This also is comprised of a pair of statements—one negative (regarding the Law), one positive (regarding favor/grace):

V. 10—”Now, therefore, (for) what [i.e. why] do test God to set a yoke upon the neck of the(se) learners [i.e. disciples] which neither our Fathers nor we had strength to carry?”
V. 11—”but through the favor of the Lord Yeshua we trust to be saved, according to the (same) way as those also (do)”

There is something of a ‘Pauline’ ring to this—trust (faith) and favor (grace) juxtaposed with observance of (i.e., works of) the Law. For a statement similar to that in verse 11, see Eph 2:5, 8; cf. also Rom 3:24; 5:2, 15ff; 6:14-15; 11:6; Gal 2:21; 2 Thess 1:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 2:11, etc. The statement in verse 10 sounds very unusual (from a Jewish-Christian perspective); in Jewish tradition, the Law is sometimes referred to as a “yoke”, but in a positive sense (m. Abot 3:5), as part of the covenant that binds the people of Israel to God (cf. also in relation to Jesus’ teaching, Matt 11:29-30). Some critical scholars have questioned whether the historical Peter would have made such as statement as we find here (on this point, see further below at this end of this article). Paul does once refer (in a rhetorical flourish) to the the Law as a “yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1); for similar thought along these lines, see Acts 13:38-39; Gal 2:16; Rom 2:25-27.

Narrative Conclusion (v. 12)

In response to Peter’s speech, the full assembly is silent (the same result we see in 11:18). This means that the dispute effectively came to an end; whether or not this entirely resolved matters (at the historical level), there can be no doubt that, from the standpoint of the author of Acts, Peter’s message (with the declaration in verses 10-11) is to be regarded as decisive, waiting only to be confirmed by the words of James which follows. It is the speech of James (Acts 5:13-21) which will be discussed in detail in the conclusion of this article (in Part 19 of this series).