Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ernst Haenchen on the Purpose of Acts

The introduction to Ernst Haenchen's classic commentary on Acts contains no separate section on the purpose of Acts, but it is clear enough from his discussion that he thinks Acts was written (1) to reassure Christians (a) about the continuation of the Christian story after the death and resurrection of Jesus (i.e., to respond to the delay of the parousia) and (b) about the salvation-historical continuity of Gentile Christianity with the story of Israel (i.e., to demonstrate the legitimacy of the law-free Gentile mission). In addition to reassuring Christians about these two theological issues, Acts was also written to address a political problem. In the face of criticism by Jews, Luke wrote (2) to convince Romans that Gentile Christianity should be tolerated as a religio licita, just as Judaism was:
Luke's narrative suggests "a problem-free, victorious progress on the part of the Christian mission. But in reality Luke the historian is wrestling, from the first page to the last, with the problem of the mission to the Gentiles without the law. His entire presentation is influenced by this. It is a problem with two aspects: a theological and a political. By forsaking observance of the Jewish law Christianity parts company with Judaism; does this not break the continuity of the history of salvation? That is the theological aspect. But in cutting adrift from Judaism Christianity also loses the toleration which the Jewish religion enjoys. Denounced by the Jews as hostile to the state, it becomes the object of suspicion to Rome. That is the political aspect. Acts takes both constantly into account" (100).
Luke's answer to the theological question about salvation-historical continuity also responds to the political problem:
"As a religion of the resurrection, Christianity was in the direct line of succession to Judaism. And one cannot ... expect the Roman State to trouble itself with theological niceties alien to its concern. On the other hand Christianity does not imply any transgression of Roman laws. Consequently the intelligent representatives of Rome always took a benevolent view of the Christian mission" (102).
According to Haenchen, Luke conveys the continuity between Christianity and Judaism (a) by emphasizing that the extension of the Gospel to Gentiles was divinely initiated and (b) by depicting Paul and the apostles--those who first carried the Gospel to Gentiles--as completely law-observant. Haenchen declares that "Luke knows no break in Paul's attitude to the law" (625). Paul's trial narrative, with its stress on Paul's innocence, illustrates this.

But Jewish Christianity was no longer a factor in Luke's Gentile church, and there were no longer any actual positive connections with non-Christian Jews when Luke was writing. In Acts, Jewish Christians (represented by the apostles, the Seven and Paul, etc.) play a symbolic role in witnessing to Jesus and securing the transition to a Gentile Church. This means both that Jewish Christianity has transitioned to Gentile Christianity and that "Christianity was in the direct line of succession to Judaism" (102).

Haenchen seems to suppose that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, any Jewish Christianity that still existed survived as an inconsequential Christian sect: "Jewish Christians after 70 had become unimportant, and the Gentile Christians were not Paulinists who had to contend with Judaizers for recognition. Luke no longer hoped for the conversion of the Jews" (693).

According to Haenchen, then, Acts depicts Jewish-Christianity as Torah observant, but because Jewish Christianity had, for all intents and purposes, passed from the scene, the church of Luke's day still represents a movement away from Judaism and the law. Although Luke claims continuity with Judaism, the evidence for that continuity lies in the past. Paul, according to Luke, may have been innocent of the charges against him, but the church of Luke's day was not. Luke's Jewish contemporaries were, in fact, right to accuse Christians of opposition to the Torah, Temple and the Jewish people (Acts 21:28). "For Luke the Jews are 'written off'" (128).

This is the third (or fourth) post in a series on the purpose of Acts. The earlier posts in this series, which also link to some of my reflections on the topic from previous years, are here:
Jewish Christianity in Acts: In Search of a Sitz im Leben
Part 1: Reflections on Hermeneutics and the Purpose of Acts
Part 2: The Purpose of Acts: Some Alternatives

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