Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Three or Four Views on the Law in Acts

Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I keep returning to the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law. In 2014, in what was at least the third post on some aspect of the topic, I concluded that leaving the puzzle unsolved would be better than forcing all the pieces to fit:
Rover as "sober second thought"
As I have tried to push for consistency, for an interpretation of Acts that makes sense of all the data, I have found myself offering readings of individual passages that, on sober second thought, seem unsustainable. After multiple attempts to walk away with a solution to the problem of Luke and the law, it dawned on me that allowing two readings of Luke's silences to sit side-by-side without deciding finally between them is better than a tour de force that forces all the evidence to fit instead of admitting honestly where the difficulties are. (Click here for the whole post; here and here for earlier posts; and here, here, and here, for subsequent posts.)
For better or worse, by the time the essay I was working on was complete, I had decided to try my hand at a tour de force. Although I did allow that Luke may have envisioned a change in the food laws to enable Jewish believers to eat whatever was set before them by baptized gentile believers, I argued not only that Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Acts as consistently Torah-observant, but that he also thought Jewish believers in his own day should continue to observe the law.

I am now far enough removed from the argument of that essay to want to subject it to “sober second thought.” I like to tell myself that when I am not completely convinced by what I am saying I am probably trying to get at something important. Difficult questions exist for a reason. If the answers were obvious, the questions would have been resolved already. Still, while I was confident enough to go into print with it, aspects of the argument have always troubled me.

For one thing, my conclusions seem to put the author of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts at odds with the apostle Paul. Try as I might, I have not been able to persuade myself that comments about the law in Paul’s letters are addressed only to non-Jews, as proponents of the “Paul within Judaism” perspective tend to argue. When in Romans 6:15 Paul declares “we are not under law but under grace,” I take it that he includes all believers in Jesus, both Jews and gentiles. Paul’s self-description as one who became “without the law to those without the law” (1 Cor 9:21) and who was “persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14) is difficult to square with the Paul of Acts who insists, “I have in no way committed an offense against the law of the Jews” (Acts 25:8 NRSV)—if, that is, Luke means that Paul maintained a fully Torah-observant lifestyle.

To be clear, Paul’s letters do not determine what Acts must mean or vice versa. The unity of Scripture is, in my view, a theological dictum, not a hermeneutical method that can be used to impose an artificial harmony on the text. Nevertheless, I admit that my inability to reconcile the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters results in a certain amount of uncomfortable dissonance.

More importantly, the difference between my reading of Acts and my reading of Paul’s letters raises historical questions about the setting and purpose of Acts. Where in the late first or early second century would you encounter a church composed of Torah-observant Jewish Christians and law-free gentile believers? Was Luke really so unaware of the kind of things Paul said about the law in his letters?

There are also niggling doubts about bits and pieces of Acts that could point in other directions. Was I explaining the text or explaining it away?

Apart from being more reluctant to draw conclusions from the narrative of Acts about law observance in Luke’s own later context, I haven’t changed my mind on any major point (yet). But I have decided that I want to re-evaluate the puzzle of Luke’s attitude toward the law along the more expansive lines of what I suggested back in 2014—not by defending one option, but by presenting the main alternatives as persuasively as I can, and evaluating the evidence as fairly as I can.

My plan in subsequent posts is to use this space to think through the evidence and the options in more detail. Feedback, corrections, and comments are welcome.

Other posts in this series:
Preliminary Taxonomies


Donald Johnson said...

In Rom 14:14, the word is koinos, which does not mean unclean, it means common or profane. A way to profane something is to offer it to an idol. Paul is saying that if someone thinks something has been offered to an idol or otherwise profaned, then for them it is profaned.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Donald. You are quite right that the normal word for "unclean" food in the LXX is ἀκαθάρτος not κοινός, and I probably haven't paid enough attention to the difference. Nevertheless, Paul in Romans 14 sets up his argument by contrasting someone who eats everything and someone who eats only vegetables. Regardless of the specific issue Paul is addressing, the context suggests that he would not place any restrictions on food as long as it is received with thanksgiving and does not cause anyone to stumble.