Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Death of Jesus in Acts

As I prepared to teach the book of Acts last semester I was worried that I would not find anything really practical to talk about. I was determined to show that Acts is not a church growth manual or a template for evangelism. If it is true that "We can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer" (Gadamer), then we are on firmest exegetical ground when we learn to track the concerns that were important to Luke. But what happens when Luke's questions are totally foreign to our own? What happens if, as I was increasingly convinced, Luke's primary concern is, on the one hand, the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel in the church, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of Gentiles in the assembly of God's people? What is the practical significance of this question in a mostly Gentile church?

Of course, Luke has other concerns as well, and I probably missed the obvious by focusing on what Acts is not. Be that as it may, I was delighted that the course coalesced (finally and to some extent) around a hugely practical theme that, I think, holds the answer to one of the major questions in Acts scholarship. The theme is suffering; the question is the significance of the death of Jesus in Acts. I have talked around the question before (e.g., here and here): The speeches in Acts mention the necessity of Jesus' death but concentrate on the saving significance of his resurrection. Did Luke think Jesus' death was just some tragic mistake that God put right?

A couple years ago (!) I suggested that disciples participate in the saving significance of Jesus' exodus (= his death) by following him to their own death. I saw more clearly last semester that the same pattern plays out in Acts. Thus, Stephen calls for forgiveness on his executioners as Jesus did (Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34 [?]), Peter is arrested by Herod with plans for his execution on Passover (Acts 12), and Paul, like Jesus, goes on a long journey to Jerusalem, before his trial and eventual execution (in Rome). The significance of these "Peter, Stephen, Paul parallels" is not so much to model the main characters in Acts as prophets like Jesus, the prophet like Moses (so David Moessner), but to model the pattern of discipleship for Luke's readers.
  • In Acts 14:22 Paul declares "we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."
  • In Acts 20:35, Paul presents his own life as a model for the Ephesian elders. 
  • Those who read on to the triumphal end of Acts know well enough from the predictions along the way how Paul's own life will end. Inasmuch as Paul's life is exemplary, this too is a summons. Theophilus is not allowed to sit comfortably on the sidelines.

I conclude, then, that the missing references to the significance of Jesus' death in Acts are found in the portrayal of Jesus' followers, who suffer like he did. If Luke thinks God's promises to Israel are fulfilled in the church, then the cruciform pattern of church life must also be connected in some way to the already-present-but-not-fully-here kingdom of God.


Ben Byerly said...

I'm very much with you on that Acts is not a missions manual (a popular notion in my context.) On the theme of suffering, I assume you've seen Scott Cunningham's monograph on the subject.

I too think the Gadamer point of understanding the question is key.

Here's my question for you. What do you make of Jervell's suggestion that Luke-Acts is written to "Jewish
or Diaspora Judean believers in Jesus(to recall a previous series of yours on terminology)? (I find Fitzmyer's largely linguistic case for a Gentile audience unconvincing when you consider a completely Hellenized Diaspora synagogue situation.)

Further, what would you think of a case which argues that Paul's mission in Acts is part of an overall defense of Paul; it focuses almost exclusively on controversies--riots, jailing, etc-- surrounding Paul's mission in ways that enhance his conduct and honor.

On the whole then, Acts becomes a response to more Judaizing (anti-Pauline) pressures on the church (like Galatians, Hebrews, and even John's Gospel.) The early part reinforces part of Paul's gospel--that recent events fulfill Israel's promise--and shows how most of the controversies pinned on Paul are already characteristic of the Jerusalem apostles. In fact, the most controversial point--inclusion of Gentile non-proselytes--is pinned on Peter.

I'd appreciate your gut reactions on these questions because I know you've been thinking about Acts for a long time.

d. miller said...

Thanks Ben, for your meaty comment and for the reminder about Scott Cunningham. Cunningham's book came out as I was beginning work on an MA thesis on Persecution in Luke-Acts. I recall being somewhat annoyed at the close overlap in topics, especially as Cunningham's book was so good, but I haven't really looked at it since then. (And I had forgotten how long I've been thinking about suffering in Luke-Acts.) I don't remember whether he draws the same connection between the suffering of believers and Jesus' own suffering-exodus.

With regard to your questions: I've puzzled more about--the perhaps unanswerable--question of Luke's ethnicity, and am interested in the suggestion that he was a Ioudaios (so Greg Sterling, etc.), but my working assumption is that Luke was probably a Gentile God-fearer before his conversion to Christianity (or the sect of Jesus' followers) and that he is writing to a primarily non-Jewish audience. The main reason is the negative valence given to Ioudaios in the 2nd half of Acts. These are still open questions for me, however. I like Jervell's fresh perspectives on all sorts of things, but in general tend not to be completely convinced by his arguments.

The idea that Acts defends Paul was proposed by John Knox, I believe, who argued that Acts was intended to legitimate the Pauline letter corpus. My working model is closer to Robert Maddox's thesis that Luke-Acts was written to confirm the Gospel. This gives it a more pastoral thrust, though I suppose defending Paul and other pastoral motivations are not mutually exclusive.

If Acts is a response to Judaizing pressures, where do you locate it historically? This would be an interesting contrast to F.C. Baur's/C.K. Barrett's conclusion that, for Luke, the Jew-Gentile conflict lies well in the past.

As you requested, these are gut reactions. I'll be interested to see how you flesh out your proposal.