Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jewish Christianity in Acts: In Search of a Sitz im Leben

In Acts, Luke responds to the charge that Paul teaches “all people everywhere against our people, the law and this place [the Jerusalem temple]” (Acts 21:28) with an emphatic, multi-chapter denial:
  • In Acts 22, Paul identifies himself as a Jew who is accurately instructed in the ancestral law, and who is as much a “zealot for God” as his audience in the Jerusalem temple (22:3).
  • In Acts 23, Paul claims to have always conducted himself with a “good conscience” (23:1).
  • On trial before Agrippa and Festus, he denies that he “sinned against the law … or the temple” (25:8).
  • And before the assembled Jewish elders in Rome, he insists that he did nothing “against the people or the ancestral customs” (28:17).
C.K. Barrett, finding Luke’s portrayal of Paul at odds with the Paul of the epistles, concludes that Luke was honestly mistaken: He knew Paul was a Jew, he knew that Jewish Christians in his own day in the late 1st century observed the law, and he assumed that Paul did too, not realizing that “[w]hen Paul expected Jews to eat with Gentiles he was asking them to give up some of their Jewishness” or that the way in which Paul could claim “to be a conscientious Jew" (cf. Acts 23:2) “would have destroyed Judaism as currently understood”*:
“Luke writes in a situation in which it is accepted that Jewish Christians may and do observe the Law, and it is part of his conviction that Paul was both a good Jew (this will be frequently repeated in the ensuing chapters) and a good Christian. Paul was in fact a Jewish Christian of a kind that could hardly continue to exist after the first generation--a fact that was not clearly seen by Luke. The story presupposes that Jewish Christians in Palestine, in Luke's day and before it, continued to observe the provisions of the Law.”*

Wolfgang Stegemann** agrees with Barrett that the charges against Paul reflect actual Jewish opposition to early Christianity, but he transposes the conflict to the late first century. When Acts was written during the reign of Domitian, Luke’s community was located uncomfortably between the synagogue and Roman authority. The Romans suspected Gentile Christians of adopting Jewish ways because they followed a Jewish Messiah, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christian acceptance of Gentiles without circumcision, indifference to the temple, and lax attitudes toward the law could only be regarded as apostasy by Luke’s Jewish neighbours. In addition to theological differences, conflict in Gentile cities caused by Christians tended to affect their Jewish neighbours. As a result, Jews distanced themselves from Christians. For non-Christ-believing Jews, the period after the destruction of the Second Temple corresponded to the period after the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, and their Christians neighbours were like the Hellenizers of the Jewish reform after 175 BCE—people who abandoned the Jewish law and made a covenant with the Gentiles. After 70 CE, the Christian community could be conceived only as an “anti-Israel movement.”

According to Stegemann, actual practice in Luke’s Christian community justifies the conclusions of Jewish outsiders: Although Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Paul’s day as remaining faithful to the law, he shows no real interest in the details of the law, which shows that Torah observance was no longer a live issue in Luke’s own much later church context. Since Luke cannot deny the charges in his own time, he responds to contemporary conflict by projecting it onto the past when observant Jewish Christians still existed in the church and before the decisive break with the synagogue. The effect, I take it, is to blame non-Christ-believing Jews for the parting of the ways, and to attribute long-standing hostility to Jews.

Of interest to me is that these two proposals are almost precisely inverted:
  • For Stegemann, Jewish Christianity is no longer a viable option in Luke’s late 1st-century context, and present conflict (between a Gentile-dominated church and non-Christian Jews) has been retrojected onto the past.
  • For Barrett, Jewish Christianity is still alive and well. Luke lives in a time of harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians in a church that has lost sight of Paul’s radical views about the law (and the conflict that accompanied them), and he has retrojected the absence of conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians onto the past.

If you have read along this far in the hope that you will find out what I think, I am sorry to disappoint. The setting and purpose of Acts--in particular, a setting that makes sense of Acts 21-28--is a great puzzle to me. I don’t have it all worked out.


*Quotations of Barrett are from C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 2; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), pp. 1013-1014, 1058.

**Wolfgang Stegemann, Zwischen Synagoge und Obrigkeit: zur historischen Situation der lukanischen Christen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), cf. esp. pp. 178-9, 186.

Much of the substance of Stegemann’s argument appears in English in chapter 11 of Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

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