Saturday, August 2, 2014

Reading Luke's Silences about Jewish-Christian law observance part 2

Some readers of Acts conclude from Luke's general silence about such things as Sabbath observance and the food laws that Jewish believers were no longer required to keep the laws that distinguished Jews from non-Jews. After all, Paul on trial in Jerusalem claims to believe the law and the prophets (24:14); he does not explicitly say that he observes every jot and tittle. For these readers, the Lukan Paul's silence about Sabbath observance is deafening. When Paul claims not to have violated the law (25:8), we understand him to add under his breath, " I interpret it."

Other readers conclude from hints early on in Acts (and in Luke's Gospel!) that Jewish "Christ-believers" are presented as Torah observant. For these readers, Luke's silence about explicit violations of the law confirms not only that Jewish-Christians do keep the law, but that they must. According to Acts, salvation is by faith, of course (Acts 15:11), but just as Gentile Christ-believers are required to keep the terms of the apostolic decree, so Jewish Christians are required to live under the terms of the Mosaic covenant.

When do we conclude a silence is significant? When do we assume Luke expected his readers to take for granted what he did not say?

Two (rather obvious) suggestions: (1) we can be more confident about the function of the law in the story Luke does tell. Silences are secondary. (2) Luke's comments and silences need to be controlled by our understanding of the narrative. A strong case for a particular reconstruction can be made if we can explain how it ties into another of Luke's themes or into the narrative argument of Acts--or both.

Even so, there remains a degree of guesswork, of gap-filling and ambiguity. And at times we must leave gaps unfilled, concluding that Luke simply does not speak to the question. For example:

  • References to the "apostolic decree" in Acts 16:4 and 21:25 indicate that Luke believed the prohibitions against blood and the meat of strangled animals apply to all Gentile Christians everywhere. What would Luke have said about a Gentile believer who continued to indulge in non-Kosher rare steak and the meat of strangled animals?
  • A variation on the same scenario: Imagine an apostate or non-observant Jew who becomes a follower of Jesus. Would Luke's church instruct him to keep the law as well as believe in Jesus?

Obviously, scenarios that Luke does not address can still be useful to think with. They have the potential to shed light on Luke's historical context and his reasons for writing.

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