Episode 78: The Book of Acts

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The Story and Historical Context of the New Testament Book of Acts

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 78: The Book of Acts. This program will cover The Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament – a book that tells us about how the first generation of Christians burst into action following the death of Jesus, and mobilized throughout the eastern Mediterranean to found churches and spread their message. Most commonly thought to have been composed in the fifteen or so years following 85 CE, Acts picks up the story of Christianity in the aftermath of Jesus’ death. And I’d like to begin this episode with a long quote – a quote in which the Apostle Paul’s companion describes setting out on an eventful and perilous journey – a journey during which Paul was a prisoner – to Rome.
When the south wind blew softly, supposing that they had obtained their purpose, they weighed anchor and sailed along Crete, close to shore. But before long, a stormy wind beat down from shore, which is called Euroclydon. When the ship was caught and couldn’t face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. Running under the lee of a small island called Clauda, we were able, with difficulty, to secure the boat. After they had hoisted it up, they used cables to help reinforce the ship. Fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis sand bars, they lowered the sea anchor, and so were driven along. As we labored exceedingly with the storm, the next day they began to throw things overboard. On the third day, they threw out the ship’s tackle with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars shone on us for many days, and no small storm pressed on us, all hope that we would be saved was now taken away. When they had been long without food, Paul stood up in the middle of them and said, “Sirs, you should have listened to me, and not have set sail from Crete and have gotten this injury and loss. . .we must run aground on a certain island.” But when the fourteenth night had come, as we were driven back and forth in the Adriatic Sea, about midnight the sailors surmised that they were drawing near to some land. They took soundings and found twenty fathoms. After a little while, they took soundings again, and found fifteen fathoms. Fearing that we would run aground on rocky ground, they let go four anchors from the stern, and wished for daylight. As the sailors were trying to flee out of the ship and had lowered the boat into the sea, pretending that they would lay out anchors from the bow, Paul said to the centurion and to the soldiers, “Unless these stay in the ship, you can’t be saved.” Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the boat and let it fall off. . .coming to a place where two seas met, they ran the vessel aground. The bow struck and remained immovable. (Acts 27:9-32,41)1

It’s quite a captivating passage – from the World English Bible translation, by the way – just one small excerpt from the story of Paul’s great journey. This epic journey has the vastness and scope of Homer’s Odyssey, Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts, and Virgil’s Aeneid – and it’s equally fraught with dangers and temptations on all sides. And while the canonical Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John definitely get the most airplay at Christian pulpits, Acts is a monumental narrative for very different reasons. Because Acts tells us what happened after Jesus died, and an infinitesimal handful of his followers – themselves mere humans – had to decide what to do next. [music]

The Authorship and Central Conflicts of Acts

Christianity, as Jesus’ disciples, friends, and family mourned his passing, was in its infancy – a greenhorn among older traditions, and it had not yet survived to be practiced by a second generation. There were crucial questions that needed to be answered. How could the earliest practitioners of Christianity rightly pay homage to their heritage and duties as Jews? How could they convince Rome that their energetic, proselytizing, unorthodox monotheism was not a threat to the civic order of the empire? How was Christ himself to be imagined – as the anguished son depicted in the Book of Mark, or the inscrutable, immaterial orator from the Book of John? And most immediately, would uncircumcised Gentiles who had never seen the Torah be allowed into the fold as worshippers of Christ? Acts tells us the story of how these early, and fundamental questions about Christianity occupied the religion’s first and second generations of practitioners, in an eventful narrative set all over the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. To get us started, let’s talk for a moment about the title and authorship of the Book of Acts.

1650 Guercino--Saint Peter--Crocker Art Museum--Sacramento

Guernico’s Saint Peter (1650). Peter’s position on Gentile conversion is markedly different between Galatians and Acts. With a name from the word cepha in Aramaic, or petra in Greek (both meaning “rock”), Peter is perhaps the most combative of the Apostles, cutting off an assailant’s ear who’s come to execute Christ in the Gospels, and in the apocryphal Acts of Peter, going toe to toe with the nefarious Simon Magus in Rome.

While the book’s full title is The Acts of the Apostles, Acts mostly concerns itself with just two Apostles – initially Peter (1-12), and then Paul (13-28). The main narrative of Acts begins in a second floor room in one of the suburbs of Jerusalem around the year 30, very shortly after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and ends in Rome in about 60, with Paul preaching there on house arrest. In terms of authorship, traditionally, the author of Acts was thought to have been a man named Luke the Evangelist, also the author of the Book of Luke. Some other books of the New Testament support this authorship – in Philemon, thought to have actually been written by Paul, Paul mentions Luke as a “fellow worker” (1:24). In Colossians, Luke is described as a “beloved physician” (4:14) whom Paul knew, and 2 Timothy, Paul describes keeping company with a certain Luke (4:11), although the authorship of these other letters is uncertain. Notwithstanding the evidence that Acts was written by a person who actually knew Paul, though, modern scholarship has largely rejected the notion of Luke the Evangelist, again the author of Luke and Acts, as a direct colleague and traveling companion of Paul. Scholar Christopher Matthews writes that “Luke was probably someone from the Pauline mission area who, a generation or so after Paul, addressed issues facing Christians who found themselves in circumstances different from those addressed by Paul himself.”2 The author of Luke and Acts places special emphasis on Jesus as a prophet among earlier Jewish prophets, and as someone who lived after Paul, the protagonist of Acts, Luke seems driven to write a history of the very first Christians that minimizes the rifts in the Apostolic generation – rifts that Paul himself does not try and gloss over in the same way, as we’ll see later in this series.

The author of Luke-Acts was probably not part of the Apostolic generation. He came along after Christianity’s initial trailblazers had already been at work for perhaps half a century, and the work that they had done fascinated him. Again, and again, the Book of Acts tells the story of Peter and Paul going to places that had never heard of Christianity before, engaging with synagogue leaders and members of the Gentile public, and trying to placate Roman authorities, and in some cases even convert them. But the younger followers of Peter and Paul, like the author of Luke-Acts, rather than proselytizing a new religion in the wilderness, were operating within a small but well networked array of house churches and communication lines set up a generation prior. If the second and third generations of Christians had the comparative advantage of infrastructure, they had the comparative disadvantage of living in decades when some people’s minds had already been made up about Christianity.

In the previous program on the Gospels, we learned that the dramatic action of all four Gospels is a series of confrontations between Jesus and, broadly speaking, the conservative religious functionaries of Jerusalem. In Acts, the central action comes from the same source – friction between Christian ideology and older ideologies already out there in the world. By the 80s and 90s CE – again roughly the timeframe of Acts’ authorship, Christianity was well known enough to be facing three different groups of adversaries, adversaries we meet in the Book of Acts.

Let’s talk about the groups arrayed against Christianity in today’s book. The first of the three groups were conservative Jewish believers. In the Gospels and Acts, we meet strict practitioners of Mosaic Law who find Christ’s flexible attitude toward things like the Sabbath to be heretical. As Saint Paul, in the Book of Acts, hurries around Asia Minor and the Aegean rim, devout Jews are usually the first group with whom Paul engages when he gets to a new town, and they are frequently not eager to convert to the new religion. The second group of the three groups of adversaries that Christians were facing in the 80s and 90s were Roman authorities. Interestingly, though, in Acts, as well as the Gospels, Romans aren’t really the bad guys. Roman officials appear from time to time as a sort of administrative encasement that arbitrates disputes between Christians and devout Jews, but Romans never, in the most of the New Testament, at least, appear bent on persecuting Christians.

After conservative Jews and their more distant Roman overlords, a third group in the Book of Acts takes a stance against the very earliest Christians, and this group is the Greek speaking intellectuals of Athens – an old guard of educated pagans skeptical about the latest cult religion trickling in from the provinces. For the polytheistic world that had produced Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and stoicism, and Epicureanism, Christians were certainly a curiosity. Early pagan reactions to Christianity that we have on record demonstrate that for the greater Mediterranean intelligentsia, it wasn’t so much that the earliest Christians were doing anything heretical, as it was that their exclusive monotheism was intellectually unconscionable. Scholar R.L. Wilken writes that
All the ancient critics of Christianity were unified in affirming that there is no one way to the divine…. It was not the kaleidoscope of religious practices and feelings that was the occasion for the discussion of religious pluralism in ancient Rome; it was the success of Christianity, as well as its assertions about Christ and about Israel…. By appealing to a particular history as the source of knowledge of God, Christian thinkers transgressed the conventions that governed civilized theological discourse in antiquity.3

To the Hellenistic world, something called pleonachos tropos, or a “multiplicity of explanations” was a frequent means of clarifying why things were the way they were. To postulate just one religion as exclusively correct, especially one so novel, went against the norms of the spongy pluralism of Greek speaking urban centers like Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus, cities where Paul spends a lot of time in the Book of Acts.

But really, intellectual disputations with educated pagans and Roman authorities are only a very small part of the story of Acts. In this book of the Bible, Peter, Paul, and other Apostles face their greatest challenge in their confrontations with Jewish advocates of Mosaic Law. And in these confrontations, the goal of the Apostles, again and again, is to convince skeptics that Jesus was the Messiah whose manifestation on earth had been promised at a number of junctures in the Prophetic Books. The author of Luke-Acts is very interested in these prophecies. Apocalyptic prophecies featuring a coming period of great change had always been a part of Judaism’s sacred traditions, but increasingly, in the last couple of centuries BCE, apocalyptic prophecies were all over the streets and synagogues of Jerusalem. Because prophets and prophecies were so important to the author of this section of the New Testament, let’s get a couple of prophecy-related things in our head relevant to the Book of Acts. [music]

Apocalyptic Prophecies and the Apostles

Throughout the Old Testament, but most especially the Prophetic Books, there are references to better times to come.4 Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and more told the story of God’s special covenant with the Israelites. But the history of the 600s, 500s, and 400s BCE, during which the bulk of the Old Testament was written, compelled each new generation of Jews to confront the grim realities of disenfranchisement, exile, and being on the receiving end of military defeats and colonial conquests. The nobility of Judah had returned from Babylon in the 530s, but as centuries passed, and Jerusalem was ruled over by Persians, then Seleucids, and then enjoyed a brief period of autonomy between about 160 and 60 BCE, the fabled time of deliverance for Jerusalem didn’t seem to be coming any time soon. The Book of Daniel, written in the 160s BCE, but set during the Babylonian captivity the 500s, sought to revise the timeline for the coming of the Messiah. What had been wrong about all the prophecies of judgment day, Daniel seemed to propose, was the timeframe – the deliverance of the Jews would actually take a period of 490 years following Daniel’s tenure in Babylon.5

El coloso

The Colossus (c. 1818-25) by a follower of Goya. The apocryphal Book of Enoch told of giants spawned from wayward angels and human females ravaging the earth before the flood. And it also, like so many works of second and first century BCE Second Temple works, prophesied a coming savior – in Enoch’s case, a savior called “The Son of Man” – the same name Christ uses to identify himself variously in the Gospels. Messianic and apocalyptic Jewish literature was pervasive by the first century CE, and the New Testament can be considered part of this movement.

For expectant Jews like Paul of Tarsus, later to be Saint Paul, who knew this and many other apocalyptic passages in the Old Testament, and lived around the time of Christ, the end times were coming, regardless of the Roman centurions strutting around Jerusalem and the diminished heirs of Herod still lording over Galilee and the northeast of Judea. And in the Book of Luke, and elsewhere in the Gospels, we find frequent references to Christ as the manifestation of the Old Testament’s scattered messianic prophecies. Christ tells his disciples in the Book of Luke, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In other words, hang tight, followers, and stay here in Jerusalem, because you’re about to finally receive the deliverance you’ve been hearing about all these centuries. It’s worth saying that in other texts brought into the light of modern scholarship more recently, the notion coming of a Messiah seems to have become a part of Jewish popular culture by the first and second centuries BCE. 1 Enoch, an apocryphal book from the second century BCE, describes an inbound figure called the Son of Man. Two prophecies in the Dead Sea Scrolls show similar ideas, a document called the Aramaic Apocalypse announcing the imminent arrival of the Son of God, and the Messianic Apocalypse announcing an anointed savior. By the late first century BCE, then, Jewish prophecy, from canonical books like Isaiah, to apocryphal ones like Enoch, to scraps of writing stuck in jars in the Dead Sea Scrolls, had been intensely concerned with the idea of an impending savior.

Thus, in the Book of Acts, the case that Peter and Paul have to plead to skeptical Jewish priests and synagogue officials is that the Christians weren’t some rogue breakaway sect, but instead that they were fundamentally a part of Jewish theological history. And these Apostles make their case, in scene after scene of the Book of Acts, with intense persistence. One of the most important things to know as we move into the Book of Acts and the later Apostolic Age is the sense of absolute urgency that Paul and his colleagues display in the New Testament. They believed, according to the text, that the Second Coming was imminent – that during their lifetimes, Christ would return and the wheat would be separated from the weeds, as was promised in the Book of Matthew – Christ famously states that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (24:34), these things being the final judgment and end of the world. Christ’s work, after all, had been left incomplete – Jewish prophecies we read in texts like Daniel (7:13) and 1 Enoch (92:4-5) describe a Messiah actually setting up a heavenly kingdom on earth and helping the righteous triumph over their oppressors – not showing up and dying. To the Apostolic generation, it seems, the sense was that the events of the Gospels had been a prelude to the actual end of days, an end which they themselves would live to see.

This, then, is the message that Paul and the other disciples of Christianity’s first generation in Acts carry to the synagogues of Asia Minor, the Levant, the Aegean rim, and Cyprus – that Christ was that being fated to come to them in Isaiah and elsewhere, and that accepting him as savior was more important than meticulously following the hundreds of commandments in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Pious Jews attending their synagogues, already conscious of being a minority religion in a sprawling empire, react variously to this incendiary message, some hopping onboard immediately, and others resisting with fury and murderous plots.

File"-Saint Paul Writing His Epistles" by Valentin de Boulogne

The main architect of Christianity as we know it today, Paul in Acts has a more collegial and harmonious relationship with the other Apostles in the Book of Acts than he does in some of the letters that he left behind, in which he appears to have had a very definite and uncompromising vision for what Christianity ought to be soon after his conversion.

There’s another thing you need to know before we open Acts, and that has to do with the Apostles themselves. I realize this is very common knowledge in the Christian world, but let’s go over it anyway. The Twelve Apostles were a set of men whom Christ knew personally, who received his teachings directly. One of them – Judas Iscariot – betrays Christ in the Gospels, and so in the Book of Acts, Judas is replaced by a new Apostle called Matthias. Throughout Acts, as the Apostles disperse throughout the eastern Roman Empire, we initially hear the most about Peter and Barnabas. But by Chapter 13, a new figure has appeared, and this is Saul of Tarsus, or Saint Paul – we’ll learn about his name a little later. Paul was not one of the original Twelve Apostles. In fact, as we learn in several junctures of the New Testament, Paul began his career as a Pharisee, that strict, anti-assimilationist sect of ancient Judaism that zealously practiced and enforced sacred Jewish laws, and disparaged theologically divergent trends like Christianity. A one-time persecutor of Christians, following his conversion, in the New Testament Paul becomes a sort of super-Apostle, zipping around the world as fast as ancient transportation technology could carry him, and debating not only with synagogue officials, but also with other Christians. Behind Jesus himself, Paul is broadly understood as the most important figure in Christianity – according to thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche and George Bernard Shaw, a figure perhaps even more important than Jesus – and by the end of this program, we’ll certainly understand why.6

Well, that should be plenty of background to launch us into the Book of Acts, one of the most engrossing books in the New Testament and certainly one of the most important historical documents available to us about the first century CE. Just one more issue to consider before we begin this book – and this is a word of caution about terminology. When we use the words “Jews” and “Christians” while writing about early Christianity, we inadvertently simplify what was a connected spectrum of belief systems. The very first Christians were Jews – they knew about Mosaic Law, and, broadly speaking, they practiced it. It’s only by the end of Paul’s life, perhaps – the mid-60s CE, when for a couple of decades Gentile converts had been getting welcomed into the fold, that we can begin to draw a continuum.

On the far right of the continuum are the Jewish conservatives who require full adherence to Mosaic Law and denounce Christ’s divinity. In the middle is Paul, raised as a zealous Pharisee and cognizant of Jewish history and scripture, but nonetheless firmly convinced that Christ was the messiah spoken of in the Prophetic Books and elsewhere – Paul being a person at the cusp of old and new theologies, comfortable with both sides, eloquent in Hebrew and Koine Greek, and capable of camouflaging himself to fit in either world. And on the left of the Jewish-Christian continuum of this period of history might be a hypothetical Roman average Joe called Publius, who, hearing of Christ’s teachings on the deck of a ship or city marketplace, converted to the religion knowing absolutely nothing about Judaism or its laws. This was the continuum of Judaism and Christianity in the first century CE – Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians. And while it’s important to understand just how many shades of gray there were between Paul and our hypothetical Gentile Publius, it’s equally important to note the variances on the right side of the spectrum – in other words the non-Christian Jews. Occasionally, reading the Books of John or Acts, it seems as though two camps have quickly formed upon Christ’s death – on one hand, hidebound, reactionary Jews, and on the other, progressive Christians. This binary of Jews and Christians does not acknowledge the internal diversity of Judaism’s many sects under the Julio-Claudian dynasty, nor the ideological schisms evident in the New Testament. So, while I don’t have good alternatives to the words Christians and Jews, I think we should imagine these two populations during this timeframe as a squishy Venn diagram that begins with two nearly overlapping circles, and then, over two thousand years of history, slowly moves apart, never, needless to say, parting completely.

As before, quotations come from the inimitable New Oxford Annotated Bible unless otherwise noted. So, let’s go back to the year 30, or so, and journey back to the theologically and culturally evolving territories around Jerusalem. [music]

Acts’ Opening: The Apostles Regroup after Christ’s Death

The Acts of the Apostles begins with Luke’s greeting to a man named Theophilus, just as the Gospel of Luke does. Luke recounts the central events of his Gospel, concluding with the episode of Christ’s resurrection. Luke writes that Christ rose after three days, and promised his disciples a final baptism with the Holy Spirit. Asked about when this would take place, Christ told his followers that this was not for them to know, adding, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). With these words, Luke recounts in the Book of Acts, Jesus was lifted up by a cloud into heaven.

The remaining eleven Apostles, having heard this consequential news, went to a suburb of Jerusalem, where they shared a second floor room. Along with Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, the Apostles prayed. They had lost Jesus, but they had also lost Judas Iscariot to treachery. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself. But in the Book of Acts, as we learn from a public sermon Peter gave shortly after the ascension of Jesus, Judas had fallen in a field and his guts had burst open. That discrepancy, by the way, is a tricky one for Biblical inerrantists to deal with.7 Anyway, someone, Peter said, needed to take Judas’ place – at least that way the Apostles would be whole again. There had been twelve tribes, and so I guess the sense was that there ought to be twelve Apostles. Two believers volunteered, and it was decided that a man named Matthias would assume the position that Judas Iscariot had held.

Peter the apostle

Giuseppe Nogari’s Peter the Apostle (1743). From the opening weeks after Christ’s crucifixion onward, Peter, purportedly the first Catholic Pope, leads the immediate charge in Acts to begin converting the population of Jerusalem and beyond to Christianity.

Time passed, and later that spring, a little less than two months after Jesus died, a miracle took place among the Apostles. The Apostles were at that moment together in a house, and a wind fell down, filling their quarters. Strange, fiery tongues came down on each of the Apostles, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. A moment later, incredibly, they were able to speak foreign languages they had not previously known. The miracle was immediately useful. Jerusalem, after all, was filled with a lot of different kinds of citizens, many of them diasporic Jews who knew languages other than the Biblical ones. As one stunned observer noted, “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power” (Acts 2:9-11). In a funny little scene, in a public assembly in Jerusalem, an observer of the newly polyglot Apostles insisted that they were intoxicated, but Peter countered in one of the New Testament’s funnier lines. Peter said, “Indeed, these [Apostles] are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning” (Acts 2:15). We can only presume that Apostle happy hour began a little later in the day than that.

Then, on a more serious note, Peter began a sermon, starting with a quote from the Prophet Joel. Peter told his audience that they had crucified and killed Jesus, even in spite of the miracles and wisdom Jesus had demonstrated. And Peter concluded Jesus had been “exalted at the right hand of God. . .Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2.33,6). These were piercing words, and they had their intended effect. Peter’s audience of Jerusalem’s citizens asked what they ought to do, and the Apostle told them they needed to repent and be baptized in Christ’s name. And sure enough, about 3,000 people on the scene converted immediately. Acts tells us “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). Conversions brought the Jerusalemites joy and a sense of community. The converts sold their things and gave the proceeds to the greater Christian collective, gladdened by the simplicity of their new lives, and slowly, the Christian community of Jerusalem grew. This, by the way, is the quintessential scene in a thousand years plus of Acts literature and hagiographies – a great speech is made, or a public miracle happens, and a mass conversion follows.

The Apostles had more than words as tools to help them proselytize. They could also perform miracles. At that time there was a man who couldn’t walk, who every day would be sat at one of the gates to the Jerusalem Temple to beg. When he asked Peter and John for a handout, Peter said he had no cash, but instead a gift from Jesus Christ. Peter reached down and healed the man, who thereafter walked into the Temple on his own for the first time, proclaiming his praises aloud to God. The clergy and congregation present in the Temple were understandably awestruck, and Peter used the occasion to deliver a short speech. They had killed all Jesus Christ, he said, but the act had been committed out of ignorance, and had been foretold anyway by divine providence. It was not too late to repent, because a certain time was coming very soon – “the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21). And while Peter’s earlier sermon out in the suburbs had been met with a positive response, key power brokers in Jerusalem were less open to tolerating this new breakaway sect proselytizing in their sacred temple, even in spite of the miracle that had been demonstrated. They had killed Jesus himself. Surely they could do away with some of his lingering minions. [music]

The Earliest Christian Converts in Jerusalem

Priests, together with temple police and prominent Sadducees, had the Apostles Peter and John arrested. The Sadducees, specifically, did not believe in resurrection, and felt that Peter and John’s preaching about it was heretical. The next day, Peter and John were put on trial by the very same high priest who had spurred on Jesus’ murder two months before, Caiaphas. But the Apostles, as always, were prepared. They said they had cured a man who couldn’t walk, and had done so with the power of Jesus. And the ranks of Christians in the area had grown to 5,000 already that spring.

The temple priests, who had perhaps believed they’d squelched the upstart religion by killing its prophet, realized that Christianity wouldn’t be stamped out so easily. Peter and John, the priests observed, were “uneducated and ordinary men” (4:13), but also men who had clout with a growing body of believers. The priests thus knew that they had to act carefully, and rather than killing Peter and John, simply demanded that the Apostles not mention Christ again. Peter and John said that wasn’t going to work, the Apostles proclaiming, “we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (4:20). Having no choice, the temple officials released Peter and John, who continued their ministry.

The Book of Acts often describes the communitarian economic structure of the first Christian converts. A passage in Chapter 4 reveals that “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (4:32,4-5). Whether or not the first few thousand converts actually ceded their possessions and lived as an economically interdependent whole, we may never know, but the passage certainly seems to model a church where the highest officials command economic activity. The description of the centralization of resources is capped off in Chapter 5 of Acts with a cautionary story. A man named Ananias had sold some property, but only gave part of the proceeds to the Apostles. When confronted by Peter, Ananias died on the spot, and shortly thereafter, his wife, who had known of the deed, died as well. Afterwards, Acts tells us, “[G]reat fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (5.11).

Notwithstanding this ominous episode, Peter and the other Apostles continued to win converts, particularly through healing the sick. The high priest and Sadducees sought to intervene again, and all twelve Apostles were arrested this time, Peter and John getting their second round of mug shots. At night though, an angel opened the doors of their cells, and by dawn they were back in the temple, preaching again. The priests and temple police were flabbergasted, and afraid to persecute the Apostles due to their growing public support. The Apostles were again confronted by Sadducees and temple priests, and the Apostles insisted again that they were only beholden to God, who had sent Jesus as their savior. The Sadducees and temple priests seethed with anger, but a council member named Gamaliel – a Pharisee who would later be the Apostle Paul’s teacher, and a very important figure in Rabbinical Jewish history, offered some common sense advice. Gamaliel, citing a couple of other recent examples of religious luminaries who had risen up and then fizzled out, told the temple council, “[I]n the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (5:38-9). The council followed Gamaliel’s advice and the Apostles were flogged rather than executed. This did not, however, compel Christ’s followers to slink off into the shadows. [music]

Saint Stephen and the Unconverted Saul

One of the many duties of the Apostles was managing the friction in their already diverse flock of believers. When Greek speaking Christians complained that the Hebrew speaking Christians had been distributing food unfairly, the Apostles convened an assembly. The Apostles said they couldn’t manage the granular matters of food distribution – they had major objectives to accomplish, and so the Christian community elected a diverse body of seven delegates – one which included both Hebrew and Greek speaking Jews as well as a Gentile convert, to manage such things in the future.


Rembrandt’s The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625). Christianity’s first martyr, Stephen is a Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian functionary who, tragically, prays for his persecutors’ forgiveness as they execute him.

One of these new appointees, unfortunately, ran into trouble. His name was Stephen, and though he preached the same message as the Apostles, a conspiracy rose up against him. Accusers from the west had Stephen seized, and, through means of false witnesses and citing some of the more incendiary aspects of Christ’s teachings – such as the prophecy that the Second Temple would be destroyed – Stephen’s foes forced him to explain himself. Stephen’s defense speech was long, and in it, Stephen retold the narrative that stretches from Genesis to 1 Kings, culminating in stories about the Israelites’ long history of apostasy and idolatry, and in the end accusing his accusers of committing the ultimate act of impiety against their god. After his speech, Stephen had a vision of God and Jesus high above him in heaven. But his persecutors, not seeing this omen, dragged him out of Jerusalem and stoned him to death, his prayer for their forgiveness the last words he ever spoke. Stephen’s acquaintances lamented his death and buried him, and he was Christianity’s first ever martyr, and his death signified that the small cells of Christian believers arising in Judea were far from safe.

In Paul’s first appearance in the Bible, Acts tells us that at the time Stephen was being buried, “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (8.3). I should add, for newcomers to this book, that Paul’s name was initially Saul – so Saul and Paul, same person; Saul is his Hebrew name, and Paul his Greek name. But following this brief mention, the scene shifts north, to Samaria, only mentioning Saul slash Paul for a moment. Up in Samaria, that greener region about forty miles north of Jerusalem, the Apostle Philip was performing miracles, curing people of ailments and casting out evil spirits. A prominent local magician, stunned by Philip’s capabilities, hurried to be baptized. Peter and John went up to Samaria to help, and an ugly little incident occurred. The magician whom Philip had converted, whose name was Simon, offered to pay Peter and John some money so that he could have the ability to work miracles, too. The real Apostles rebuked him, and, cowed, Simon asked them to pray for him. This episode, by the way, is where we get the word “simony,” or the buying and selling of holy offices.

While Peter and John headed back down to Jerusalem, the Apostle Philip went down to Gaza. On a roadway there, he met a Eunuch – an official of the Ethiopian Queen, who just happened to be reading a section of Isaiah that predicted the coming of a Messiah. Whoever could this Messiah be? the Ethiopian eunuch asked the Apostle Philip. Philip told the Ethiopian eunuch it was Jesus, and the eunuch didn’t hesitate to get baptized. [music]

The Acts Narration of Saul’s Conversion

It’s at this point in Acts – Chapter 9 – that one of the most famous passages in the Bible occurs – the story of Saul’s conversion to Christianity.8 Saul was heading to Damascus, in order to expand his persecution of Christians there, on behalf of the High Priest. And as Saul approached the city of Damascus, Saul fell over onto the ground, and a voice called out “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (9:4). It was the voice of Christ, and Jesus told Saul to go into the city and await further instructions. Rising, Saul found that he was blind. He entered Damascus and fasted for three days.

As Saul’s fast lengthened, Jesus went to a follower named Ananias and asked him to go to Saul and place his hands over Saul’s eyes to restore Saul’s sight. Ananias was apprehensive – Saul was evil, said Ananias – he didn’t want to be anywhere near Saul. But Jesus said Saul was going to be important to his plans. And so Ananias went to Saul, who could suddenly see again. Saul was baptized, and broke his fast. And then, the former persecutor of Christianity, quite forcefully and abruptly, changed his tune.

All over Damascus, Saul proclaimed the divinity of Jesus. Christians were leery about his sudden turnabout, but nonetheless, as it says in Acts, “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah” (9:22). As a result, Saul became a target, the Jews of Damascus turning against him, but he found out about their plot, and escaped from the city, making his way back to Jerusalem. Once there, Saul wasn’t exactly embraced with open arms by the Apostles, but after hearing his story and his conversion testimony, Saul was shipped off to do missionary work in the coastal city of Caesarea and later his hometown of Tarsus, in southern Turkey. And with Saul introduced, the story of Acts returns to the Apostle Peter. [music]

The Question of the Gentiles and the Death of James the Elder

Peter went west from Jerusalem into a town called Lydda, where he healed a paralyzed man. In another town, Peter brought a woman back from the dead. With news of his miracles proliferating throughout the region, soon a Roman sought to see Peter – a man named Cornelius from the city of Caesarea. Cornelius had received a divine vision telling him to find Peter in the seaside town of Joppa. Peter told Cornelius the basic story of how Christ had come to the Apostles and others as the son of God, and how Jesus had died and returned, and Cornelius was slowly filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit as he listened. The Jewish Christians there were in awe as Cornelius and the other Gentiles began speaking in tongues and praising their God, and in short order, the Romans were baptized. And Cornelius, by the way, is generally considered the first Gentile convert to Christianity, his story in Acts a model of how the new religion was happy to welcome Romans into the fold.

When Peter returned to Jerusalem, news had spread about the conversion of the Gentiles, Jewish Christians asking Peter why he’d gone to mingle with uncircumcised strangers. Peter told them that what had happened had been divinely willed, and they accepted that their God had meant for it to happen. As the new religion spread, winning Jewish and Gentile converts, Barnabas went to Antioch, and then on to Tarsus, where Saul had been hard at work proselytizing for the new religion. When Saul and Barnabas returned to Antioch, for the first time votaries of the new religion had a name – they were called Christians, a Latin word which in its early years had pejorative connotations. But while Saul and Peter had been successful in Tarsus and in Antioch, back at home in Judea, trouble was brewing, trouble involving a king whom Acts somewhat confusingly calls Herod.

Let’s have a quick note on who this “Herod” in Acts is. The Herod in Acts isn’t the elderly king who persecuting the infants of Bethlehem in the Book of Matthew. The Herod whom Acts mentions was a grandson of this Herod the Great, whom historians call Herod Agrippa I. Herod Agrippa I ascended to the throne in 41 CE. He had helped Claudius come to power in the shaky weeks after Caligula’s assassination, and as a reward, Claudius made Agrippa I the ruler of Judea. Agrippa I ruled from 41-43, having unique connections with both the Hasmonean dynasty, the Jerusalem Sanhedrin council, and Rome’s leadership, in his brief reign showing the potential of restoring some autonomy to Judea. Perhaps due to a consciousness of the delicate power balance of Judea, Herod Agrippa I didn’t want any new religions complicating the region he’d just sat down to rule. So that’s a bit of background on Herod Agrippa I – let’s turn back to Acts, and we’re in Chapter 12, now, by the way.

Herod had one of the Apostles killed – this was James the elder. The murder pleased the religious reactionaries of Jerusalem, and soon Peter was arrested, too. The Christian population of the city spoke out against these offenses, and an angel came to Peter in his cell and freed him. Peter went to the family home of one of the other Apostles and announced that he was alive and liberated from prison, to the awe and surprise of the household. While Peter’s reappearance heartened the small circle of the Apostles, the next morning it was a source of great anger for Herod Agrippa I. The king, angrily addressing an assembly of people from coastal cities, was struck down by God, and, as Acts tells us, “he was eaten by worms and died” (13:23). [music]

Paul’s First Missionary Journey

Michelangelo Caravaggio 036

Caravaggio’s The Conversion of Saint Paul (1601), one of the most famous paintings inspired by the New Testament. According to his own letters, Paul’s version of Christianity was the most flexible and explicitly ecumenical of all the first generation of Christians.

With Herod gone, the missionary work of the earliest Christians could grow further. The Apostle Barnabas and the recent convert Saul sailed to Cyprus. There, a magician and false prophet served as counselor to the Roman proconsul. The Roman proconsul wanted to learn about Christianity from Barnabas and Saul, but his magician disdained the religion of the newcomers. Saul acted quickly, praying that the magician would be blind, and sure enough, the magician could no longer see. This demonstration of power convinced the Roman proconsul of Cyprus that indeed the deity of the Christian converts was real. And small note here – Chapter 13 of Acts fills is where Saul starts getting called Paul, perhaps because of his first major conversion of a Roman.

From Cyprus, Paul crossed the Mediterranean and went into the central part of Anatolia. In a town in central Anatolia confusingly called Antioch, not to be confused with the major city of Antioch along the Orontes River in the far south, Paul gave a sermon abridging the history of the Israelites from Abraham to Jesus. The thrust of this sermon was that Jesus came back from the dead uncorrupted, and that “by this Jesus everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (13:39). These were potentially prickly words to the pious Jews of the region, but nonetheless the next Sabbath the entire town came to see Paul and Barnabas speak again. This time, they experienced some pushback from the Jewish population of the region, and Paul and Barnabas told these dissidents, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles” (13:46). The words pleased the Gentiles, but the Jews in the area were angry, and they drove Paul and Barnabas out, to another inland city in central Anatolia called Iconium.

There, a similar process unfolded. Paul and Barnabas preached and converted a number of Jews and Gentiles alike, but another faction of the town schemed against them, and they had to flee the town. They went on to a place called Lystra, where Paul healed a man who couldn’t walk. Seeing this miracle, the Lystrans loudly proclaimed that Barnabas was Zeus, and Paul Hermes.9 Barnabas and Paul said they weren’t gods – they were just people. This might have been an opportunity formore conversions, but angry mobs flooded into Lystra from previous cities Paul and Barnabas had visited in central Anatolia and chased them out, nearly stoning Paul to death in the process. After a few more stops, Barnabas and Paul headed back to Antioch, the first of Paul’s four harrowing missionary journeys complete. [music]

The Jerusalem Council and Paul’s Second Missionary Journey

Guido Reni 044

Guido Reni’s Saints Peter and Paul (1605). The seated Peter here appears to represent the ensconced orthodoxy here, and Paul the more progressive theology, the painting reflecting the story of the Jerusalem Council as it’s told in Galatians rather than Acts.

Following Paul’s first generally successful missionary journey, the question of whether or not Gentiles could convert to Christianity continued to cause a rift in the new religion. Converts from the Pharisees, who had come to Christianity with a passionate devotion to the laws of Moses, and laws written on top of even those, didn’t like the idea of Romans and Greeks and others scuttling into the Christian fold without any knowledge of Jewish law, and without circumcision. A meeting of the Apostles and other Christian leaders convened in Jerusalem, and in this meeting, the Apostle Peter gave a speech. He asked the strict votaries of Mosaic laws the following pointed question: “Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Acts 15:10-11). In other words, following Mosaic Law had been difficult for the Jews themselves – was it really productive to subject the Gentile followers of Jesus to the same requirements?

The Apostle James the Younger weighed in, saying that perhaps the Gentiles ought to just follow some basic Mosaic laws – no carved idols, no drinking blood, no eating animals that haven’t been ritually butchered, and lastly, “to abstain. . .from fornication” (15:20). Following these discussions, messengers were sent up to where Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch with information about James’ proposition, but the matter wasn’t settled immediately, as Paul and Barnabas were in the midst of making some decisions. The story that the Book of Acts tells here about this counsel, by the way, is completely different than the one that Paul himself tells in the Epistle to the Galatians, written thirty of forty years before Acts, and we’ll talk about that next time.

Anyway, to stick with Acts, Paul and Barnabas were about to embark on a second missionary journey, but Barnabas wanted to bring a disciple and Paul didn’t, and so Paul ended up setting out alone, beginning his second mission. Early in this journey, in an inland city of Anatolia he had visited earlier, Paul was joined by a disciple named Timothy, and the two directed their course northwest, farther than Paul, or perhaps any Christian, had ever traveled before. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Paul went northwest, embarking from the Aegean coastal city of Troas, island hopping on Samothrace, and then disembarking at Neapolis in the Northern Aegean. Then they went inland to Philippi, where, eighty or ninety years earlier, the forces of Mark Antony and Octavian had beaten those of Brutus and Cassius, and Paul and his retinue remained in Philippi for a little while.

There, Paul won converts and exorcised a spirit from a slave girl. For his rabble rousing, Paul and his fellow missionaries Silas and Timothy were put in jail in Philippi, but an earthquake broke the prison open. A jailer was about to kill himself for having lost all the prisoners, but Paul stopped him, saying they were all still there, and the jailor and his family converted to Christianity soon thereafter. With this crisis averted, Paul and Silas set out again, through Greek cities on the northern rim of the Aegean, until they came to the large Greek city of Thessalonica.

There was a synagogue in Thessalonica, and Paul went there on three separate Sabbaths to debate with the Greek Jews about the coming of Jesus. Paul had little luck in Thessalonica – Paul was captured by city officials, and the man at whose house he was staying had to pay his bail. Paul had better luck in the nearby Greek city of Berea, where Jews at a synagogue welcomed the news that a Messiah had arisen in the east. And thereafter, Paul went south, where, for the first time, he visited the city of Athens. [music]

Paul Abroad in the Aegean

In Athens, Paul first concentrated his ministry on the synagogue and the agora, where Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. They asked if he would tell them a bit more about his beliefs, and Paul stood in front of the large rock west of the Athenian Acropolis called the Areopagus and gave a short speech about the Christian God. The speech, as we saw some episodes ago, not only presented the basics of the new Christian religion, but also demonstrated Paul’s familiarity with Greek thought. Paul emphasized that God “is not far from each one of us” (17:27), in a head nod to stoic pantheism. Fascinatingly, Paul actually quoted the stoic philosopher Posidonius, and the Greek astronomer Aratus. Some audience members were skeptical, others made curious, and others still converted. And with the seeds of Christianity sowed in Athens, Paul moved on to the city of Corinth.

In Corinth, Paul continued his pattern of debating with Jews in synagogues. But particular opposition by Corinth’s Jewish establishment frustrated Paul, and he resolved to go to the Gentiles, instead, where he had much better luck. In fact, Paul performed successful missionary work in Corinth for a year and a half before he ran into real trouble. Now, we’ve heard this story before in episodes on the Roman philosopher Seneca. The rich Seneca’s brother Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia around 52 CE, the Roman province that included the Peloponnese and lower Greek mainland. Corinth’s Jews voiced a complaint about Paul’s ministry, saying Paul was breaking their religious laws. The proconsul Gallio, however, said this didn’t have anything to do with him, and so Paul went unpunished. Having wrapped up his missionary work in the cities of mainland Greece for the moment, Paul crossed the Aegean, landing in the city of Ephesus, on the west coast of Anatolia. While he briefly visited the Jews in Ephesus, Paul seemed in a hurry to get back to the Jewish heartland, and so he sailed all the way to the port city of Caesarea, following on to Jerusalem, and then wrapping up his second missionary journey where it had started in Antioch.

Meanwhile, in Ephesus, an enthusiastic convert named Apollos was making inroads with Christian missionary work, and fending off Jewish criticisms at the same time. Apollos went over the Aegean to work in Corinth, and by this time Paul had set off yet again – this time directly across Anatolia to the city of Ephesus. Paul remained there in Ephesus for two years, and his work in the Roman province of Asia, or western Anatolia, was so prolific that by the end of it, as Acts says, “all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord” (19:10). Paul grew to have great healing powers, so that even cloths that touched him had healing properties. And when traveling Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of Jesus to perform miracles, they were attacked by evil spirits, thus proving more and more to the residents of Asia that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah. Not everyone was happy about this. A silver merchant named Demetrius, who had made large profits off of statues of the goddess Artemis, spoke out against Paul, but the controversy died down. Having spent a long and successful two years getting a foothold for Christianity in western Anatolia, Paul packed his bags and began the next part of his third missionary journey, returning to first the northern territories of mainland Greece, then spending another two months in Corinth before arching around the northern rim of the Aegean and sailing back Anatolia again. There, when a young man named Eutychus fell asleep, and fell to his death while listening to Paul’s long sermon, Paul brought the boy back to life.

Paul and his gang of fellow missionaries, a diverse set of talented converts, then went south along the western shore of Anatolia, visiting the Aegean port cities of Assos, Mytilene, Chios, Samos, and Miletus. Before leaving Miletus, Paul summoned the church leaders of Ephesus, where he’d spent two years. His purpose for convening them was not a celebration. Paul told his colleagues that he would not see them again, and he said that grim times lay ahead – they would be persecuted, he said, and betrayed from within. Paul and the Ephesians prayed together, and the next day Paul began his journey back to Jerusalem. After crossing the easternmost Mediterranean, Paul and his companions disembarked at Tyre, arriving, for the first time in years, in the region of Jesus’ home. [music]

Paul Returns to Judea and Is Imprisoned

Paul’s return to the Jewish homeland was bittersweet. In the city of Ptolemais, a little south and inland of Tyre, Paul heard a dark prophecy – he would be tied and delivered into the hands of the Gentiles. Not easily shaken, Paul said he was ready to suffer any fate for proclaiming the news of Jesus’ coming. When he reached Jerusalem shortly thereafter, although he had a warm reception from the Apostles and other disciples, Paul realized that Jerusalem continued to face religious conflicts related to Mosaic Law to the extent that he was unaccustomed during his years abroad. Specifically, the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem tended to be strict followers of Mosaic Law, and they’d learned that Paul was recruiting converts whether or not they knew the rules of the Pentateuch. These Jewish Christians told Paul about James the Younger’s plan, mentioned several chapters earlier – all Christians would keep up some basic pillars of Mosaic Law, and Jerusalem’s Christians told Paul that letters had gone out communicating this compromise regulation.

But Paul, it seemed, had been too long abroad. He had been keeping company with a Gentile convert named Trophimus the Ephesian, and was accused of bringing this man into the Temple – a capital offense. Paul was dragged out of the temple and beaten, and might have died then and there and then had the Roman tribune not been summoned. The tribune, learning Paul was no threat to Roman rule, allowed him to address his people, and in a long speech, appropriately in Hebrew, Paul told them who he was. And this, by the way, is one of the main sources we have for biographical information on Paul. Paul told the assembly in Acts,
I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of [the priest] Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted [Christians] up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. (22:3-5)

The opening of this speech, we can assume, had an important effect. If the conservative Jews in the audience had a problem with his missionary work, they learned first and foremost that he had once been a strict Pharisee who understood full well the importance of Mosaic Law and had once prosecuted others for not following it.

Paul in prison by Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s Paul in Prison (1627). Paul’s years incarcerated in Caesaria are thought to have produced some of his epistles.

After disclosing his background, Paul then told his Jewish audience of his conversion on the road to Damascus – of hearing Christ’s voice, losing his vision, and regaining it. He emphasized that before his conversion, he had been present during the stoning and murder of the disciple Stephen, and that he had approved of the killing, but that Christ had changed everything for him. But Paul’s long speech to his Jewish critics in Jerusalem did not win them over. They burst into rage once more, and Paul was led away by the tribune to some barracks, where he was to be whipped. Paul, however, had a trick up his sleeve. He told the tribune that he was a Roman citizen. For the Roman officials of Judea, this complicated the situation, and so the next day, a tribunal was arranged between Paul and Jerusalem’s Sanhedrin Council. And in this tribunal, Paul did something very clever.

He said that there were Pharisees and Sadducees present. There were important historical differences between these sects – one was that, as Acts puts it, “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (23:8). And Paul exploited these differences, appealing to the Pharisees as one of their own. The Pharisees in the audience said that indeed a spirit may have spoken to Paul. And the tribunal assembly degenerated into chaos. Paul was taken into the barracks for the night to keep the peace. The next morning, a core of forty conservative Jews resolved to fast until they had killed Paul.

But word of the conspiracy reached the Roman officials by means of Paul’s nephew, and soon preparations were made to get Paul over to the comparatively safer coastal city of Caesarea. There, his trial proceeded, the prosecutors, the high priest Ananias and his attorney Tertulus; the defendant and defense, Paul; the judge, the Roman governor, Antonius Felix, who ruled Judea from about 52-56 CE. The trial had no immediate outcome. Felix, who was married to a Jewish woman, was already much better informed than most Roman provincial officials, and when Felix heard Paul speak, he didn’t hear anything that set off any red flags. And so Paul was simply kept in Caesarea in prison, neither divine miracles nor the Apostles coming to his aid.

Two years passed, and a new governor came to rule over Judea called Porcius Festus. The high priests of Jerusalem then saw an opportunity – they wanted Paul transferred to Jerusalem so they could kill him along the way. The new governor held a trial in which the conservative priests of Jerusalem leveled accusations of unrest and impiety against Paul. Backed into a corner, Paul said that as a Roman citizen he would make his appeal directly to the Emperor. And the Roman governor Festus said, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go” (25:12).

A final hearing was necessary, though. Festus didn’t quite know what to tell the Emperor about Paul. So Festus summoned the last of the Herodians – this was Herod the Great’s grandson Herod Agrippa II, to be present at the trial. Once again, Paul told his story. He’d been born a Pharisee and had imprisoned and otherwise punished Christians. He’d converted on the road to Damascus, and ever since had been trying to show Jews and Gentiles alike that Christ was the Messiah written of at several junctures of the Old Testament. Agrippa listened carefully, and in the end, said Paul deserved neither death nor imprisonment; indeed, had he not appealed to the Emperor, he could have just been set free.

But Paul had appealed, and it was time, following his two years of incarceration in Judea, to make a long and uncertain voyage westward, farther than he’d ever gone before, deep into the Central Mediterranean. Paul sailed with other prisoners up the coast of modern day Israel, and then followed the south coast of Anatolia westward. Paul had been through these waters before as a missionary, but never a captive. Crete, however, was new territory altogether, and Paul told the ship’s crew that going out over the open ocean would be a perilous plan – it was autumn and they still had a long way to go. But the ship set out nonetheless, disabled soon enough by raging storms. Food supplies were lost, and the ship was adrift for weeks. Paul made an effort to use his spiritual visions and natural equipoise to help guide the ship, and eventually its meandering course brought it to Malta, where it wrecked on a reef – we heard some of that in the beginning of this episode.

The natives of Malta treated the shipwrecked strangers kindly, warming them with fire. Upon their first meeting, Paul was bitten by a viper, and the Maltans expected his imminent demise. Paul was unaffected, though, and the locals began to suspect that he was a deity. Thereafter Paul’s healing powers came in handy – he cured a local leader’s son of sickness and began miracle healings of all the sick Maltans, and as a result, the Maltans were happy to help the easterners winter there, and thereafter depart with replenished supplies. The ship disembarked in the spring, passing Syracuse, and Messina, and the legendary strait where Odysseus had once steered between Scylla and Charybdis. A short jaunt up the west coast of Italy brought them to Rome, where Paul was put on house arrest.

He met with the Jews of Rome, telling them what had taken place back in the home country. As always seemed to be the case, some of them were persuaded by his explanation that Jesus was the Messiah, while others voiced their doubts. And while we strongly suspect that Paul died in Rome some time in the mid-60s, and apocryphal literature tells of how this happened, the Book of Acts ends with the image of the great missionary preaching there on house arrest. Acts tells us “He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:30-1). And that’s the end. [music]

Two Great Questions of Acts: The Roman Context and the Issue of Gentile Conversion

Well, that’s the end of the Book of Acts, anyway. What I want to do now is talk a bit more about the history behind this book. To me, the main story of Acts is that at the beginning of the book, Christians are a miniscule subset of Judea’s ethnically Jewish population, and by the end of the book – just 30 years later – Christianity is an intercontinental presence with cells set up all over the Eastern Mediterranean, practiced by people from all sorts of different backgrounds. In order to accomplish this geographical and demographic expansion, two things had to happen. The first was that Christianity had to learn to exist without looking like a seditious cult to Roman centurions and magistrates. The second was that many of the Apostles and other disciples had to finally decide that making new converts master the Pentateuch’s 613 commandments, and asking male converts to be circumcised, would greatly hinder the new religion’s potential for growth. I want to spend the rest of this program answering these two questions – first, what we know about Christianity expanding over its first couple of centuries, and second, what we know about how Gentile Christianity came to be. Let’s start with the tale of early Christianity in the eastern Roman Empire.

From what we’ve heard so far – Gospels and Acts – Romans don’t look especially evil in the New Testament.10 In the Gospels, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate denies that Christ is guilty of anything and only gives him up to temple officials out of fear of a furious mob in Jerusalem. Christianity’s first Gentile convert, Cornelius, a Roman from Italy, is a great guy from the beginning, and even more so once he converts. The proconsul of Cyprus, seeing one of Paul’s miracles, is subsequently persuaded to readjust his faith. Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, won’t condemn Paul, respectfully staying out of the religious disputations of his province. Later, the Roman appointed governor Felix, who is married to a Jewish woman, doesn’t want to have Paul fall into the hands of Jerusalem’s vengeful traditionalists. Generally speaking, the Roman figures in the Gospels and Acts are either powerful overlords whose impartial rationality shields Christians from diehard Jewish traditionalists, or more simply, they’re willing converts, able to be dazzled by the miracles and messages of Christianity without mention of the Torah or circumcision. And in dealing with the way that Romans are portrayed in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, we have a question to answer. And that question is how Christians were actually perceived and treated by Roman ruling administrations over the first century after the death of Christ.

From several non-Biblical sources produced during the 100s CE and a little afterward, we have records of the Greco-Roman reception of the first Christians. One thing that comes up at several junctures in the pagan historians of antiquity is that while the pluralistic pantheons of the Greco-Roman world fit smoothly into Roman ruling administrations, Christians had a certain sticking point with what the Romans demanded of them. This sticking point was the mandate to worship the emperor as a god. The old and ductile polytheism of the Mediterranean always had room for a new god or three, but as for Jews, Christians, and everything in between during Christianity’s first century, the demand to worship the Roman Emperor was a bit of a pickle.

Before Christianity came along, Jews already had a long history of resistance to Hellenistic theology and culture. Way back in the 160s BCE, the Maccabean revolt had been fought over a Seleucid king who profaned the Second Temple and set up an altar to Dionysus there. A century and a half later, King Herod the Great proved willing to have a carved eagle set over the main gate to the newly rebuilt temple in homage to Augustus, and he was furious when temple students took it down. But to turn to the first full-fledged confrontation between a megalomaniacal Roman emperor and a devout Jewish clergy, we actually have to revisit the Book of Acts. Herod Agrippa I, again the grandson of Herod the Great, is anathemized in Christian history. In Acts, Herod Agrippa becomes the murderer of the Apostle James the elder. He was, as far as we know, the first person to kill an Apostle, and it’s only through a divine miracle that Peter, whom Herod Agrippa has incarcerated, doesn’t share the same fate.

That’s what’s in Acts. But if we look at historical accounts beyond the Bible, Agrippa I also did something greatly beneficial for the entire province of Judea several years prior – likely 40 CE, when Christianity was even younger and more vulnerable than it would be by the end of Peter and Paul’s lives. One of the places where Jews and Christians often drew a line in the sand, as I said a moment ago, was avowing faith toward Rome’s emperors as gods. The emperor Caligula, put off by the more distinct and culturally alien features of Judea, demanded that a statue of himself be carved and installed in the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Anyone who knew anything about Jewish culture understood that this was a terrible idea, and Herod Agrippa I, along with the Syrian governor under whom he worked, collaborated to stall and stall the production and installation of the statue. When Caligula did the world a favor by getting assassinated early in 41, the project, thank goodness for everyone, was abandoned.

Tacitus’ Account of the Great Fire of 64

Robert, Hubert - Incendie à Rome - Hubert Robert’s The Fire of Rome, 18 July 64 AD (1785). Tacitus’ Annals (15) gives us our earlist date for the persecution of Christians, which Tacitus claims took place after this fire.
That story of Caligula’s statue, though, doesn’t quite relate to Christianity proper, or how Romans dealt with the first Christians. For this information, we need to turn to a different source – one of the most well-known passages in the Roman historian Tacitus, who lived from about 56-120. This passage in question was written about 50 years after the Great Fire of Rome in 64, and it’s about the Great Fire. Tacitus first describes the fire as a national and cultural tragedy. He writes that Rome was “divided into fourteen regions, of which four remained intact, while three were laid level with the ground: in the other seven nothing survived but a few dilapidated and half-burned relics of houses.”11 Following the total destruction of so much of the Roman capital, the Emperor Nero took it upon himself to build a new, and unprecedentedly opulent imperial residence. And the allocation of resources for this project, in a time of such great public need, caused outrage against Nero. At just this same moment, the city’s religious officials were working overtime making burnt offerings to Rome’s pantheon of deities. And as Tacitus writes – fairly long quote here coming up, and note ahead of time that Tacitus calls Christ “Christus” and does not have a high opinion of Christians. Tacitus writes,
Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated. . .But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order. Therefore, to scotch the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the utmost refinements of cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue. First, then, the confessed members of the sect were arrested; next, on their disclosures, vast numbers were convicted, not so much on the count of arson as for hatred of the human race. And derision accompanied their end: they were covered with wild beasts’ skins and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight failed were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero had offered his Gardens for the spectacle, and gave an exhibition in his Circus, mixing with the crowd in the habit of a charioteer, or mounted on his car. Hence, in spite of a guilt which had earned the most exemplary punishment, there arose a sentiment of pity, due to the impression that they were being sacrificed not for the welfare of the state but to the ferocity of a single man. (15:44)

Following their intercontinental journeys and tireless missionary work, then, the Apostles Peter and Paul fell to the hands of a very nasty imperial administration some time in the mid-60s, both men, maybe, being the victims of this purge we just heard described by Tacitus.12 Tacitus’ attitude toward Christianity is plainly pejorative – the historian calls Christians people “loathed for their vices,” accuses them of “pernicious superstition” and implies that their beliefs are “horrible and shameful.” At the same time, Tacitus acknowledges that Christians were not by any means scorned across the board, and even intimates for a groundswell of public support for them during their first historically documented persecution in Rome.

Tacitus himself lived in an age when Roman emperors and their provincial administrators still didn’t know quite what to do with Christians. The passage I read to you a moment ago comes from Tacitus’ book Annals, written in the mid-110s CE, at which time the Emperor Trajan had ascended to the throne. But another emperor presided over a timeframe especially important to the New Testament. The Emperor Domitian ruled from 81-96 CE, over a period that may have produced Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and possibly Revelation. And the Emperor Domitian, a dark horse emperor who likely never expected to rule, demanded adulation and deification. Rome’s more tyrannical emperors – like Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Commodus, for instance – wanted their divinity to be taken earnestly.

Cassius Dio’s Account of Domitian

Domitian, according to the ancient historian Cassius Dio, went after Jews, and possibly Christians as well. Dio writes that “As a consequence of his cruelty the emperor was suspicious of all mankind and ceased now to put hopes of safety in either the freedmen or the prefects.”13 And in 95 CE, Domitian, never shy about using violent executions, had his cousin and his cousin’s wife killed. Dio tells us that “The complaint brought against them both was that of atheism, under which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were killed and the remainder were at least deprived of their property.”14 While the words “Jewish ways” may be coded language for Christianity, the early fourth century church historian Eusebius is explicit about Domitian’s persecution of Christians. Eusebius writes that Domitian “showed himself the successor of Nero’s campaign of hostility to God. He was the second to promote persecution against us.”15 Although we don’t have much to go on in terms Domitian’s possible persecution of Christians, doing so would have been perfectly in character for the violently authoritarian emperor.

At best, for the first generations of Christians, Romans were what we see in the Gospels and Acts – an iron superstructure that could annihilate you, but preferred to ignore you. At worst they were what we hear of in Tacitus’ account of the Great Fire – a sadistic regime on the prowl for a readymade scapegoat to pillory and torture. We should note that the evidence for official Roman attitudes and practices toward Christians during the religion’s first century is quite thin, existing in a few scraps, scraps that have come down to us from a largely Christian filtration system. And this same system has given us one other primary source on Christianity’s first century.

Pliny the Younger Discusses Christians with the Emperor (c. 112 CE)

From the reign of Trajan, we have a famous correspondence with the author and magistrate Pliny the Younger, dated about 112 CE. Pliny was at this juncture serving as the imperial governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a province on the north-central coast of Anatolia, where there were evidently enough Christians to cause a stir. That alone suggests the spread of Christianity in the 60 or so years after Paul’s missionary work in Anatolia, which we read about today in Acts. Paul’s ministry was concentrated in the southwest part of Asia Minor – by 112 Christianity seems to have migrated all the way up to the Black Sea on the Anatolian coast and taken root there. What the correspondence of Pliny the Younger makes clear, other than the geographical spread of Christianity, is that Christians were persecuted beneath the Emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117, but that there also wasn’t any definite imperial policy on how such persecutions should be carried out. Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan in roughly 112 CE,
Having never been present at any trials concerning those who profess Christianity, I am unacquainted not only with the nature of their crimes, or the measure of their punishment, but how far it is proper to enter into an examination concerning them. Whether, therefore, any difference is usually made with respect to ages, or no distinction is to be observed between the young and the adult; whether repentance entitles them to a pardon; or if a man has been once a Christian, it avails nothing to desist from his error; whether the very profession of Christianity, unattended with any criminal act, or only the crimes themselves inherent in the profession are punishable; on all these points I am in great doubt. In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been brought before me as Christians is this: I asked them whether they were Christians; if they admitted it, I repeated the question twice, and threatened them with punishment; if they persisted, I ordered them to be at once punished: for I was persuaded, whatever the nature of their opinions might be, a contumacious and inflexible obstinacy certainly deserved correction. (XCVII)16

Right, Pliny, you wouldn’t want people honestly answering questions about their religious beliefs. Anyway, Pliny’s letter continues after this point. Pliny tells Trajan that he has received anonymous tips that certain provincials were Christians, only to have these same individuals deny the charges and pray to Rome’s gods, revile the name of Christ, and worship the emperor’s statue.

Pliny then tells the Emperor Trajan a little about Christians based on his observations. First of all, Pliny writes, Christians are everywhere. In fact, Pliny laments, “[T]his contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country. Nevertheless, it still seems possible to restrain its progress.” While Pliny was ultimately against the spread and practice of Christianity, his descriptions of what the Christians actually did in his province aren’t exactly incriminating. He says that when Christians were put to the question about their practices, “They affirmed. . .that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.” Trying to delve deeper into what made Christians tick, Pliny reveals that he tortured two female slaves, but discovered only “evidence of an absurd and extravagant superstition.” Pliny’s goal, he tells the Emperor Trajan, was enforcing a ban on public assemblies, a ban that Trajan had evidently required.

If Pliny were looking for approval for his actions, the Emperor Trajan delivered it in his response, which I’ll quote here in full. The Emperor Trajan wrote to Pliny, again in about the year 112,
You have adopted the right course. . .in investigating the charges against the Christians who were brought before you. It is not possible to lay down any general rule for all such cases. Do not go out of your way to look for them. If indeed they should be brought before you, and the crime is proved, they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that where the party denies he is a Christian, and shall make it evident that he is not, by invoking our gods, let him (notwithstanding any former suspicion) be pardoned upon his repentance. Anonymous informations ought not to he received in any sort of prosecution. It is introducing a very dangerous precedent, and is quite foreign to the spirit of our age.17

The Roman Emperor Trajan, to put it simply, comes off as relatively indifferent about Christians, briskly telling Pliny it’s good to confront them and force recantations, but also that they’re not a top priority, and further that no governor should stoop to the level of mucking through anonymous accusations. A later letter from the Emperor Hadrian to the proconsul of Ephesus, written about a decade later, reveals that Trajan’s successor was also leery about witch hunts based on mere hearsay. The Emperor Hadrian wrote, “if the inhabitants of your province will so far sustain this petition of theirs as to accuse the Christians in some court of law, I do not prohibit them from doing so. But I will not suffer them to make use of mere entreaties and outcries. . .lest innocent persons be disturbed, and occasion be given to the informers for practicing villainy.”18 So from these famous sources, though their authenticity has often been called into question, we can get a general sense of Roman executive attitudes toward Christianity as the gates of the second century opened.

The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Peter and Paul’s generation lived in cities and tracts of countryside where ruling administrations were suspicious of public assembly, and wanted to keep money and goods circulating smoothly. Their primary reason for prosecuting Christians was the maintenance of public order, rather than stamping out heresy. Christians willing to recant in front of authorities and keep their community rituals under the radar survived. Those unwilling to disavow their faith, and those more brazen in the observance of rituals, made themselves targets for Rome’s authorities, for whom severe corporal punishment was standard operating procedure. We can note Pliny’s casual mention that he tortured two female slaves, presumably Christians, for information, and that Trajan doesn’t even remark on it. For a first or second century Christian, then, even when out and out persecutions weren’t flaring up, the status quo required secrecy and cooperation with authorities, or incarceration, torture, and death would result. However, as touch and go as this world sounds for Early Christianity, it’s important to note that we don’t have historical evidence for state sanctioned persecutions directly against Christians until the 200s CE. Scholar Timothy Beal writes, “There were no general statewide persecutions of Christians, Jews, or other religious minorities under Domitian, Nero, or any other emperor until much later, in the third century. Although certainly horrifying for those witnessing or suffering them, persecutions of Christians and Jews as resisters of Roman civil religion tended to be sporadic and individual.”19

Second Century Regional Flareups Against Christians

Tertullian (BM 1879,1213.146)

The theologican Tertullian (c. 155-240) wrote somewhat morbidly about the sporadic persecutions of Christian communities, although he died a little before the Decian persecution of 250 CE – the first major state-backed persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.

As with much of our programs on the New Testament and Early Christianity, what I’ve told you here is common knowledge, though it’s always good to visit and revisit primary sources that we have. By the early second century, in historian Henry Chadwick’s words, “The [Roman] authorities had now discovered that the Christians were virtuous folk, but inexplicably hostile to the old religious tradition and so obstinate in their dissent as to forfeit sympathy and preclude toleration.”20 The policy, as the Nerva-Antonine dynasty lengthened, was that Christians could be executed if they didn’t recant their faith. And while this policy resulted in high profile martyrdoms during the 100s – Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Telesphorus of Rome, and the Christian philosopher Justin Martyr, regional flare-ups against Christians could be even more deadly. Christian historians record a persecution in Lugdunum, or modern day Lyon, France. The persecution, which took place in 177 toward the end of Marcus Aurelius’ reign, began with a ban on Christians entering public places, escalated with acts of vandalism and theft of Christian public property, and culminated in the torture and execution of dozens of victims. Thereafter, as the church historian Eusebius puts it, writing around the year 300, “[T]he bodies of the martyrs, after having been exposed and insulted in every way for six days, and afterwards burned and turned to ashes, were swept by the wicked into the river Rhone which flows near by, that not even a relic of them might still appear upon the earth.”21 Such persecutions, as the second and third centuries drew onward, could come from top down imperial proclamations. But they could also stem from clannish superstitions. The great Christian theologian Tertullian, who was a teenager when the incident at Lugdunum happened, later wrote that the pagan mobs of the Roman world “think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightaway the cry is, ‘Away with the Christians to the lion!’ What! shall you give such multitudes to a single beast?”22 The gallows humor at the end of the quote reveals the extent to which, by 200, Christians in the Roman Empire were accustomed to wide variety of oppressions and maltreatments.

Considering all of these reports of early Christians being treated harshly in the Roman world, it’s striking that the Book of Acts, the first ever narrative of Christians out in the wilds of Rome, paints a very neutral portrait of the Roman Empire. By the time Acts was written, Paul and Peter had, according to many sources, been murdered following the purges after the Great Fire of 64. Judea had been ravaged from 66-73 during the First Jewish-Roman War, and the Second Temple destroyed by Romans. The author of Acts would have had every reason to condemn and vilify Rome with all the acrimony and venom of the Septuagint’s Prophetic Books, which so often foretell the gory and degrading deaths of Israel’s ancient enemies. Romans, even after occupying Christianity’s home turf, had butchered Apostles and laid waste to the Holy Land. So why doesn’t Acts, then, revile Roman leadership and foretell its destruction, as Revelation does?

Acts’ Cautious Take on Rome

There several answers to this question. First, any Koine Greek tract heralding the destruction of Rome, if found on the person of a practicing Christian, would be bad news for said Christian and their community. Adopting a generally neutral posture toward the Roman Empire may be a practical measure of self defense in the New Testament. Paul and his contemporaries believed that Jesus Christ was returning to earth imminently to separate the sinners from the saints, but even so, in the mean time, the earliest Christians may have understood it would be injudicious to bat the hornet’s nest. Second, the erudition shown in Paul’s sermons in Acts demonstrates a person comfortable with the intellectual history of Greece and Rome. We will likely never know exactly which Greek, and even Latin texts Paul or the author of Luke-Acts read, but it seems that they had read quite a few, and moreover, that the authors of every New Testament book except for Revelation did not see Greco-Roman culture as a pagan morass through and through, but instead as a diverse and variegated body they’d been called on to inspire and teach. In the last Gospel, John writes that Christ’s cross bore an inscription in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, (19:20) suggesting that by the 80s and 90s, the same timeframe as the Book of Acts, Christianity’s mission was already explicitly ecumenical. The new religion, unlike the one we see in the Pentateuch, was by the time of Acts not a faith doctrinally rooted in an ethnicity.

The broader geopolitical context of Acts likely also contributed toward its generally nonpartisan presentation of Roman rule. To believers like Peter and Paul, the Old Testament’s nostalgia for a unified theocracy under kings like David and Solomon would have seemed anachronistic. While they were devout Jews who surely believed the Historical Books’ narrative of a sprawling, unified, and militarily dominant Israel, they must have also seen that recent history suggested such a thing wasn’t going to happen any time soon. For a century, the Hasmoneans had demonstrated that Judea could be ruled indigenously by Jewish monarchs, but this dynasty’s limited influence and ultimate dissolution suggested that colonial occupation was going to continue for a while to come. Herod and his heirs, for a time, had brokered deals with the Romans, with mixed blessings to Judea, but by the end of the first century their imprint was over, Judea had suffered horribly for its attempted insurrection between 66 and 73, and Rome did not appear to be going anywhere any time soon. To the second, third and fourth generation of Christians who followed in Paul’s path, it was not time to gripe about the fallen world of the present and fantasize about an eventual divine rescue. It was time to accept the dangers and limitations of the Roman world, pack bags, hurry over gangplanks onto the decks of ships, climb into the saddles of horses and donkeys, and more broadly, as today’s book’s title suggests, to act. [music]

Gentiles and Jews in the Gospels

Now that we’ve talked a little bit about the Roman context of the Book of Acts, let’s move onto a connected topic. This connected topic, as I mentioned earlier, is the issue of Gentile conversion to Christianity. To state the obvious, it’s hard to imagine Christianity expanding with the velocity that it did across ethnic, economic, and geographical lines if Paul and his colleagues had demanded circumcision and observance of Mosaic Law out of all new converts. Greeks and Romans of the 40s and 50s CE seem to have often been pleased to hear that a gentle redeemer figure, preaching kindness, pacificism, and egalitarianism had come to save their souls and their embattled world. We can imagine that such converts would have been less amenable to mastering the literally hundreds of pages in the Pentateuch related to dietary rules, cleanliness regulations, sex, and animal sacrifice, and additionally that circumcision would not have been a prominent selling point, either. To us today, the uncoupling of Christianity with Mosaic Law that took place over the first couple of centuries CE seems pragmatic and expedient. To the Apostolic fathers and their disciples, though, this was the main theological concern of a generation, and I think we should talk for a moment about how it went down.

Mosaic of the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac from the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

A mosaic of the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5:1-20, Matt 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39) being exorcised, early sixth century, Basilica of Saint Apollinaire Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. The story may be a tacit jab at Gentiles and their habits of keeping herds of pigs.

Between Mark and John, the Gospels, which were composed over a period of about four decades, show an evolving attitude toward Gentiles and Jews. Put very simply, small pieces of evidence in all four texts demonstrate that while Mark, Matthew, and to a lesser extent Luke occasionally show a disparaging attitude toward Gentiles, John is more likely to generalize about Jews – often in an unfavorable way.23 So let’s start with Mark, Matthew and Luke, and just consider a few passages where snide remarks are made in regards to Gentiles. In Mark, Christ tells his disciples, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mark 10:42), and Jesus goes on to say that his disciples will not be led by such vainglorious despots. In Matthew, Jesus also uses Gentiles as an example of what not to do, telling his disciples that the Gentiles are an insular group. His words are “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matt 5:47). Also in Matthew, Christ indicates that Gentile prayers are effusive but insincere, telling his listeners, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt 6:7). In another passage still from Matthew, Gentiles are again held up as an example of poor conduct, Jesus telling his followers, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things” (Matt 6:31-2).

And in all of the Synoptic Gospels – in other words Mark, Matthew, and Luke, a strange episode occurs that scholars call the Exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20, Matt 8:28-34, Luke 8:26-39). This is that demon which, once confronted, announces, “My name is Legion, for we are many” (Mark 5:10). And in an episode which I find to be objectively bizarre, the demon asks Jesus not to cast it out of the country altogether, but instead to let it possess a herd of pigs. For whatever reason, Jesus does so, and two thousand possessed pigs hurry down an embankment to drown in the sea. There may be some allusion here to Moses drowning the Pharaoh’s army in Book of Exodus. But the repeated episode can also be read as a degrading dig at Gentiles, whose herds of pigs would have been an anathema to the religious conservatives of Jerusalem and beyond, and no great loss as far as they were concerned. All of the Synoptic Gospels, then, have their occasional moments of scorn toward Gentiles and their practices. But Matthew, of all the Gospels, is the most Jewish. In Matthew, Jesus proclaims that Mosaic Law – the 613 commandments of the Pentateuch – is for all time, and any who want to enter into heaven must follow it. The Book of Matthew’s Jesus proclaims, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:18-19). These don’t sound like the words of someone with a loosey-goosey attitude toward the old law codes of Leviticus and its companion books. Whoever wrote Matthew did not want Christianity extracted from its Jewish roots.

But the Gospel of John, in contrast to the earlier three Gospels, seems written with a Gentile audience in mind, and of all the Gospels, is most ready to generalize about what historically would have been a specific set of religious leaders and temple police at work in Jerusalem around 30 CE, calling them, again and again, merely “Jews.” In their interactions with Christ, John writes, “The Jews were astonished” (7:15), “The Jews answered him” (8:48), “The Jews did not believe” (9:18). The author of John describes how the Pharisees “loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God” (12:43). And, not assuming that his audience knows Hebrew or Aramaic, whoever wrote John pauses his narrative from time to time to translate Hebrew words into Greek (1:38, 1:41, 20:16). By the end of John, as I mentioned a moment ago, Christ’s cross is carved with an inscription in Aramaic, Greek, and Latin, so that the message “King of the Jews,” meant as an aspersion but also an inadvertent acclamation, is available to Gentiles and Jews alike.

Now this is potentially incendiary territory, so let me just say that I don’t think the Gospels are, as a set, either anti-Gentile or anti-Semitic. I do think, though, that if we accept the general scholarly consensus that Mark came first, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John, we can find small tendrils of evidence in the Gospels that late first century Christians were rapidly becoming less Jewish in their worldview, writing as they in many cases were in the worldly centers of Asia Minor and the Aegean rim, and not in Jerusalem.

Gentile and Jews in the Acts

Artgate Fondazione Cariplo - Gemito Vincenzo, Il filosofo (Masto Ciccio) o San Paolo

The Philosopher Paul by G. Vincenzo (1917). While the attitudes of the other Apostles toward Gentiles appear inconsistent throughout the New Testament, Paul, after the road to Damascus, is presented as staunchly pro-Gentile.

The Book of Acts tells the story of how this evolution took place. At its outset, in the 30s CE, we are in much the same situation as Christ found himself – Jewish Christians argue against conservative Jews, and Jewish Christians run afoul of temple police and succumb to persecution and mob violence. These confrontations between Jews and Jewish Christians take place in Chapters 6 and 7 of Acts, which tell of Christianity’s first martyr, Saint Stephen. Stephen, a Greek speaking Christian Jew, has been appointed to help the small Christian community ensure that it gets food out to Greek speaking as well as Aramaic speaking Christian Jews. Stephen preaches heresies against Mosaic Law, and at the climax of his confrontation with Jerusalem’s authorities, Stephen calls them “stiff-necked” persecutors of prophets who killed both John the Baptist as well as Christ. Not taking kindly to these grave charges, Jerusalem’s temple personnel stone Stephen to death while a silent Saul, not yet converted, looks on with approval.

Soon, however, what began as an inter-Jewish movement begins spread elsewhere. Philip heads up to the heterogeneous territory of Samaria to begin work there (8:4-25), later getting an Ethiopian eunuch to convert in the desert south of Jerusalem (8:26-40). As Paul converts, a steady stream of miracles on the part of Peter (9:32-43) continues to attract attention. Then, wonder of wonders, an Italian centurion called Cornelius gets a divine message and converts with some help from Peter. Paul and Barnabas trek up to the diverse urban center of Antioch (11:19-26) to begin their outreach there. As James the Elder and Peter run into trouble due to Herod Agrippa I (12:1-24), Paul and Barnabas dash up into Asia Minor, and when they return to Jerusalem, they do so at a critical point (13:1-14:28), a point at which all of the first half of Acts seems to be building to. This is the council in Jerusalem, told quite briefly in the first 21 verses of Chapter 15 of Acts, which records what might be the most important decision ever made in Christian theology. This decision, in the words of the Apostle James the Younger, is as follows: “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (15:19-20). In these two verses, James radically simplifies the Pentateuch’s rules list into some very basic regulations. The earlier Book of Galatians, as we’ll see next time, tells this story differently, but however this abridgement of Mosaic Law took place, its positive effect was opening the floodgates of Christianity to the average person on the street.

It’s easy enough in hindsight to marvel at the rather hardheaded and unsentimental way that the Apostolic period simplified the law codes of the Pentateuch into just a few maxims. This simplification process, which did much to secure a future for Christianity, nonetheless required devout Jews like Peter and Paul to take the teachings of Christ over and above those of their ancestors. When they unhitched Christianity from the Torah’s law codes, they did so with foresight, and personal risk, but also with humbleness. The open-minded Christian Jews of the first century would have been well versed in Mosaic Law, and tossing it by the wayside required them to jettison something they’d spent years studying, contemplating, and in Paul’s case, at least, enforcing.

The Later Fate of Jewish Christianity

Interestingly, though, Jewish Christians like the Apostles continued to be a presence long after the Acts of the Apostles was composed. In about 160, the Christian Apologist Justin Martyr pondered whether Christians who practice Mosaic Law will be saved or damned in his book Dialogue with Trypho. In the book, Trypho is a Jewish man with whom Justin himself talks, and in Chapter 47 of the volume, the two discuss the issue of Jewish Christians. The Jewish Trypho asks, “But if some one. . .after he recognizes. . .Christ, and has believed in and obeys Him, wishes, however, to observe [Mosaic Law], will he be saved?”24 Justin, the author of the dialogue, answers affirmatively, stating, “In my opinion, Trypho, such a one will be saved, if he does not strive in every way to persuade other men – I mean those Gentiles who have been circumcised from error by Christ, to observe the same things as himself, telling them that they will not be saved unless they do so.” To Justin, then, at work a whole century after Paul, it was perfectly fine to be a Christian who followed Mosaic Law, too. No one was going to be harmed if you wanted to eat kosher and also pray to Jesus.

The Jewish Christian movement, though, faced increasing problems as Christianity evolved in the Gentile world. To Jewish traditionalists, the belief that Yahweh had a son named Jesus Christ was a heresy, as it had been from the beginning. To Gentile Christians who’d never had contact with Judaism proper, the fact that Christians wanted to observe Mosaic Law was somewhere between eccentric and impious. And further, over the second, third, and fourth centuries, we find increasing historical evidence of full blooded Gentile Christian communities that didn’t want to have anything to do with Judaism. Historian Henry Chadwick describes an increasing population of Gentiles
who had no desire to stress their debt to Judaism and were inclined to the unconciliatory view that the destruction of Jerusalem by the. . .Romans in A.D. 70 was nothing but the merited judgment of providence for the murder of Jesus, which was itself only the last of a long line of stiff-necked refusals of God’s word in the prophets. . .The Old Testament was seen as the history of a people with an ineradicable capacity for apostasy, despite the continual warnings of the prophets. The Mosaic Law was not God’s permanent will, but a temporary and provisional measure given by God to a hard-hearted people to punish lapses into worse things.25

The authors of New Testament books like Luke and Acts tried their best to build an ideological housing that would accommodate a wide range of Jews and Gentiles. A century later, Justin Martyr was still confident that Jewish Christians, provided that they didn’t push their Mosaic Law on anyone, were just as pious as Gentile Christians. But the various glimmers of early Christian sectarianism we can see in the Gospels foretold the ultimate, and often destructive split between Gentile Christians and their religion’s roots in the apocalyptic prophecies of Judaism. [music]

Acts, Apocryphal Acts Books, and Contemporary Greek Adventure Novels

There’s just one more point worth making about the Book of Acts today before we go – a little morsel of information that I think is worth considering for our purposes, considering the literary emphasis of this podcast. We’ve gone over the main events of Acts, and considered the book’s Roman context and the narrative it offers about the slow historical unfastening of Judaism and Christianity. But we haven’t really considered Acts as an adventure story, which we now briefly should. We opened this episode with a passage about Paul’s shipwreck on the way to Rome – a passage that, as we noted, might have come from the pages of the Odyssey or Aeneid. The Aeneid in particular, like Acts, told the tale of a beaten remnant regrouping after a defeat, forging a new identity and new alliances, embarking on expansive divinely guided voyages, and both stories end in Rome, at the dawn of a new age, their protagonists having evolved to meet the demands of the history they have endured.26 One of the many things that the book of Acts was to Christian posterity, then, was a heroic epic – the tale of Christian pioneers forging into the wilderness of the pagan world, and what they met there.

Iphigenia in Tauris by V.Serov (1893)

Iphigenia in Tauris by V. Serov (1893). Euripides’ romantic adventure stories, and whatever lost literary history with which they were associated, had a far reaching influence, stoking a general interest in stories of innocents abroad. This interest comes into the forefront with Greek New Comedy, Roman plays of Plautus and Terence, and perhaps Second Temple Jewish stories of brave protagonists like Tobit, Daniel, and Judith trying to make their way in the world. By the first and second centuries CE, these narrative traditions had coalesced to form what scholars call Apostolic Romances.

There are, in fact, many surviving books of Acts of the Apostles, produced over the course of mostly the 100s CE, although none of them are canonical.27 The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla offers us more details about Paul’s journeys through Anatolia, how he met a virgin on the verge of becoming a bride who ended up pledging herself to Christianity instead, and how in his martyrdom he left even the Emperor Nero slack jawed and in a state of awe. The Acts of Peter tells us of the Apostle Peter’s further confrontations with the heretic Simon Magus, and later, Peter’s heroic martyrdom in Rome – he was crucified upside-down according to this apocryphal book. The Acts of John tell of another virgin convert, and John’s various healings, mostly in the Anatolian city of Ephesus. The apocryphal Acts of Thomas, nearly the length of a novel, describes how Jesus’ brother ventured to India in order to win converts there, and how his conversions of the brides of various Indian officials caused all sorts of calamities. There are more apocryphal Acts books than these – the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Philip, the Acts of Barnabas, and surviving manuscripts suggest that incidents from these books circulated independently – especially Apostolic martyrdoms. By the late 300s CE, these apocryphal Books of Acts were, finally, being formally shouldered out of the Catholic canon, though some church fathers prior to this discussed them as though they were inspired works.28 The surviving apocryphal Books of Acts are an extravagant and untamed body of texts – stories of Apostles forging ahead with Christian missionary work while sex and violence propel the plots along. They are pervasively tales of virginal Christian converts beleaguered by pagan lusts, of Apostles grandstanding in pagan amphitheaters and temples, stunning Greeks and Romans with miracle after miracle; of Apostles harried and harmed and finally killed off by benighted skeptics, though wondrous events at their deaths catalyze massive conversions.

As the fifth century opened, the Christian canon was formally closed, with only the canonical Book of Acts passing muster. And yet the broader genre of Apostolic Acts remained a middle ground for heroic stories about the Apostles healing, exorcising, helping the needy, and occasionally just having entertaining adventures. This body of literature has been termed “Apostolic romances” in modern scholarship – a body of Christian novellas and short stories that borrowed from the conventions of early Greek novels written during the second and third centuries.29 And at the root of much of it is the book we’ve read in this episode – the canonical Book of Acts of the New Testament.

To zoom way out, then, the canonical Book of Acts influenced other Christian Books of Acts and Saint’s Lives. Some of these apocryphal books of acts were well known enough to have disseminated stories widely believed in Christian history, like Paul having died in Rome a martyr, and Peter being crucified upside-down, which are not actually in the New Testament. Other apocryphal Acts range from adventuresome fan fiction to ridiculous penny dreadfuls – complete with murder, rape, torture, necrophilia, and all the fixtures of sensational fiction. When we look at this body of early Christian writings, produced between 0 and 300 CE, it’s hard not to notice that this is the same timeframe that also produced history’s first surviving romantic adventure novels – Chariton’s Callirohe, Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon, Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesian Tale, and more. These ancient Greek novels, like the canonical and non-canonical Christian Books of Acts, and written in the exact same timeframe, are adventure narratives in which stouthearted and morally upright protagonists, beleaguered by mustache-twirling villains, shipwrecks, and unsympathetic strangers, make their way forward and eventually are rewarded for their virtue. And we have just a little bit of this narrative superstructure in the New Testament Book of Acts. The canonical Book of Acts is understood to have plenty of basis in historical fact, but perhaps its occasional overtones of heroic adventure story did have some other roots in the ancient Greek and Roman tales of Odysseus, Jason, Aeneas, and countless other stories available to writers literate in Koine Greek.

The canonical Book of Acts, together with the half dozen or so major surviving apocryphal Books of Acts, ultimately launched one of the most massively popular genres of Christian writing – the hagiography, or Saint’s Life. From Saint Stephen in the Book of Acts to the heroic martyr tales of the Late Middle Ages, well over a thousand years of Christian enthusiasts wrote and copied what we might call pious superhero tales, only with superheroes who die at the end with various combinations of mass conversions, miracles and general fanfare. We will certainly read some of these in coming installments of Literature and History, and these stories, today understood as broadly fictional narratives, emerged from a confluence between pious and secular Greek language writings that we begin to have evidence for in the first century CE. Way back during the second century BCE, Roman playwrights like Plautus and Terence were telling stories, adapted from Greek, of innocent young protagonists harrowed, but ultimately triumphant, after various sequences of adventures. Also during the second century BCE, Second Temple Jewish texts like Daniel and Judith, and slightly before this, Tobit, were telling adventures of righteous young protagonists in dangerous worlds. The confluence of these two traditions – Greek and Latin stories about innocents abroad; Hebrew and Aramaic stories about upright Jews standing up for their traditions – the confluence of these two traditions happened in the international language of Koine Greek, and the New Testament Book of Acts, and to some extent the Gospels themselves reflect this great narrative synthesis. [music]

Moving on to the New Testament Epistles

Well that, folks, was the New Testament Book of Acts, which, for its historical value, its erudition, and its walloping and eminently readable narration, has always been one of my very favorite books of the Bible. Now, we have three more programs on the canonical New Testament to go in this sequence, and the next two will be on the Pauline Epistles and Catholic Epistles. These are non-narrative books of the Bible, and they range from very long and theologically consequential to extremely short texts whose inclusion in the New Testament feels kind of arbitrary. As miscellaneous as the New Testament Epistles are, though, we’re really going to have one overarching goal as we go through them in the next two programs, a goal I’d like you to start thinking about ahead of time. That goal is this – I’d like you to think, whatever your background – about what you know about what the New Testament says about salvation. Because if you think that it says “If you’re good, you go to heaven, and if you’re bad, you go to hell,” that is incorrect. What is actually printed in the New Testament about salvation is incredibly complicated, as we’ll see in the next couple of shows. And while doctrinally, we’ll focus on what the Epistles say about salvation, historically, we’re going to dive into the 100s and 200s CE, studying what happened after the Apostolic generation passed away, and how Rome’s famous crisis of the third century worked distinctly to the favor of Christian missionaries, to the extent that the Emperor Constantine declared general amnesty for Christians in 313 with the Edict of Milan.

I have a quiz on this program at literatureandhistory.com if you want to review what you’ve learned about the Book of Acts and some of the history behind it. For you Patreon supporters, in the spirit of our efforts to keep Second Temple Judaism and its great diversity in mind as we forge forward into Early Christianity, I’ve recorded the entirety of the Song of Songs for you, one of the many Second Temple books that demonstrate just how diverse and rich the Jewish canon was becoming over the Persian and Hellenistic periods. If you want to try out that quiz or help me make this show on Patreon, there are links to do so right there in your podcasting app. Thanks for caring about this material and sticking with me through some of these long, dense programs on the New Testament – I’ve got a song coming up if you want to hear it, and if not, I’ll see you soon.

Still here? So I had a curious experience this week. I happened to read the same – relatively obscure commandment – several times in rapid sequence. I read it in Leviticus (3:17) and Deuteronomy (12:16), and then in the apocryphal Book of Jubilees (21:6-7). It came up again today in Acts (15:20). It wasn’t something I’d thought about before. But after reading it in the Old Testament, New Testament, and apocryphal literature, I am now absolutely certain, even though I never really wanted to do so, that I am not allowed to drink blood. As with so many of the Bible’s legal codes, yes, surely there is some ancient ritual, cultural or immunological purpose behind this commandment. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t make fun of the fact that some five hundred years of earnest Jewish and Christian commentators thought it fit to set down for posterity in their sacred works that you are not, under any circumstances, allowed to drink blood. So this song, in their honor, is called “Don’t Drink Blood.” Thanks for being here, and I’ll see you next time.

[“Don’t Drink Blood” Song]


1.^ World English Bible. Public Domain, 2020, p. 716.

2.^ Matthews, Christopher. “The Acts of the Apostles.” In The New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 1919.

3.^ Wilken, R.L. “Religious Pluralism and Early Christian Thought.” Printed in Remembering the Christian Past. Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 42-3.

4.^ Is 2:2, 9:5-6, 11:6-9, 25:9; Jer 31:13-14; Dan 12:1-2, 12-13, Ez 37:4-6; Hos 6:1-2; Joel 2:26, 3:1, 3:20-1; Hab 2:14; Mal 3.1,3.

5.^ Dan 9:24.

6.^ Nietzsche’s Antichrist (40-4) and George Bernard Shaw’s Preface to Androcles the Lion both make the case that posthumous salvation was Paul’s (in their minds, lamentable) contribution to Christianity.

7.^ The passages to compare are Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18.

8.^ The story is told in Paul’s own words in Gal 1:13-17, and returned to in Acts in 22:4-16 and 26:9-18.

9.^ This presents us with an interesting textual parallel to an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Baucis and Philemon, an old couple, are Phrygians (Met 8.875), and the town of Lystra was in the general region of Phrygia. In their story in Ovid’s poem, Baucis and Philemon are visited by a disguised Zeus and Hermes – exactly those same gods who the Lystrians suppose are visiting them in the New Testament. That’s about as far as the parallel goes, though.

10.^ See Acts 18:15, 19:37, 23:29, 25:25, 26:32 and especially 13:12 and 19:31.

11.^ Tacitus. Annals 15:40. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Tacitus. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 12406. Further references to the Annals will be from this edition and noted parenthetically in this transcription.

12.^ The apocryphal 29th chapter of Acts shows Paul active in Hispania following his two year house arrest in Rome.

13.^ Dio 67:14. Quoted in Complete Works of Cassius Dio. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 20031.

14.^ Historian Henry Chadwick proposes that “atheism and Jewish sympathies” are “Dio’s polite circumlocution for Christianity.” Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Penguin, 1993, p. 27.

15.^ Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1. Translated by Kirsopp Lake. G.P. Putnam, 1926, p. 235.

16.^ Pliny the Younger. The Letters of Pliny the Younger. Translated by William Melmoth and Revised by F.C.T. Bosanquet. Kindle Edition, Location 2991.

17.^ Ibid, (XCVIII).

18.^ Printed in Martyr, Justin. The Apologies of Justin Martyr. Suzeteo Enterprises, 2012. Kindle Edition, Location 1191.

19.^ Beal, Timothy. The Book of Revelation. Princeton University Press, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 636.

20.^ Chadwick (1993), p. 28.

21.^ Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1. Translated by Kirsopp Lake. G.P. Putnam, 1926, p. 437.

22.^ Tertullian. Apology for the Christians (XL). Delphi Classics, 2018. Kindle Edition, Location 4909.

23.^ For a general discussion on this see NOAB 1747 (Mark) and NOAB 1880 (John).

24.^ Martyr, Justin. Dialogue with Trypho (47.1-3). Fig, 2012. Kindle Edition, Location 947.

25.^ Chadwick (1993), p. 22.

26.^ Naturally, scholarship has gone pretty far down this road. Dennis MacDonald’s Luke and Vergil: Imitations of Classical Greek Literature (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) compares various details (e.g. mourning of Euryalus’ mother (Aen 9.473-502) with women at the cross (Mark 15:40-1, Luke 23:49), the mourning of the fallen Pallas (Aen 11.34-8) and women at Jesus’ tomb (Mark 15:40-1)).

27.^ The Acts of John is often dated to the period between 150-200, Acts of Paul and Thecla the end of the 100s, and Peter, also, the end of the 100s. See Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Scriptures. Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 93, 109, 135, respectively. Thomas is a little later (the third century, see ibid, p. 122).

28.^ Origen, for instance, alludes to the Acts of Paul and Thecla (De Principiis 1.2.3) as though it’s truthful, just as Hippolytus of Rome alludes to the same work (Commentary on Daniel 3.29.4) accepting it as factual. By Jerome, though (Illustrious Men (7)) and Augustine (Sermon on the Mount (i.20.65)) the apocryphal Books of Acts were under fire for their associations with various ascetic purist branches of Christianity like the Priscillianists, Encratites, and Manichaeans, the docetic view of Jesus advanced in some of these (e.g. Acts of John (101-2) and the dream visitations throughout Thomas being a particular sticking point. (Though the episode commonly called Third Corinthians in the Acts of Paul and Thecla sees the titular Apostle pushing back firmly against the docetic view of Christ.)

29.^ James, M.R. The Apocryphal New Testament. Clarendon Press, 1924, p. 438. Scholar J.K. Elliot, revising M.R. James, agrees that the apocryphal books of Acts “seem to owe much to pagan romances” (Elliot, J.K. “Preface.” Printed in Elliott, J.K. The Apocryphal New Testament. Oxford University Press, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 194).