I’ve decided to add some visuals to the information we’ve learned in the Gospel of Mark. Here is an infographic detailing the places Jesus visited and the types of events that happened there. Click on the link to see the full size version. Enjoy…
The bishop Papias (c. 60-130) ascribes this gospel to Mark, the companion and interpreter of the apostle Peter, in his (now lost) work, Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord:
“The Elder [Note: most likely the Apostle John] used to say: Mark, in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied him, but later, as I said, Peter, who used to give his teachings in the form of chreiai, [Note: brief anecdotes that tended to be wise, useful, or solemn] but had no intention of providing an ordered arrangement of the logia of the Lord. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong when he wrote down some individual items just as he related them from memory. For he made it his one concern not to omit anything he had heard or to falsify anything.”
Another early church father, Clement of Alexandria (150 – c. 215), said about Mark that: “As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered well what he had said, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly hindered nor encouraged it.” (Fragments of Clement, Eusebius CH 6.14.5-7)
Of note in these early testimonies are a few things to note about the composition of the Gospel:
- Peter was Mark’s primary source of information
- Peter preached in anecdotes about Jesus, likely combining them to make his point
- Mark did not write in “ordered form” i.e. not necessarily chronologically
- Mark wrote for a Roman audience
The author of Mark is most likely John Mark whose mother hosted the disciples in their house after Jesus’ death (Acts 12:12), cousin of Barnabas (Col 4:10; Phlm 1:24) and companion of Barnabas and Saul (Paul) on their first missionary (Acts 13:5,13), a companion of Paul during his imprisonment in Rome and Paul’s delegate in Asia Minor (Philemon 24; Col. 4:10, 2 Tim. 4:11), and a close companion of Peter while he was in Rome (1 Peter 5:13)
Mark is also sometimes identified as the man who carried water to the house where the Last Supper took place (Mark 14:13) and/or as the young man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:51–52).
Mark’s authorship is often considered genuine because it is unlikely that the early church would have assigned the creation of a Gospel to a person of secondary status. John Mark was neither an apostle, nor a person of high prominence in the early church.
It is generally assumed that the book was written for Gentile/Greek Christians in Rome for the following reasons:
- Jewish customs are explained (7:3-4; 14:12; 15:42)
- Mark assumes that the very earliest audience may recognize the names Alexander and Rufus as the sons of Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). Rufus is mentioned as a leader in the church in Rome by Paul (Rom. 16:13).
- Mark does not include a genealogy (something of importance to a Jewish audience)
- Mark interprets Aramaic words and expressions (3:17; 5:41; 7:11,34; 9:43; 10:46; 14:36; 15:22,34)
- Mark uses Roman time rather than Hebrew time (6:48; 13:35)
- Latin terms are used rather than Greek equivalents (5:9; 6:27; 12:15,42; 15:16,39)
- Mark explains Palestinian locations and places
- Few Old Testament quotations or references to fulfilled prophecy are used
The book was probably written in 60-68 AD, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome or the Jewish revolt, as suggested by internal references to war in Judea and to persecution.
Until the 19th century, Matthew was assumed to be the first gospel (which accounts for it’s place in the Bible), but research on the similarities of the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew have lead most people to believe that Mark was the first gospel and was used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. The strongest argument for this is the fact that Matthew and Luke only agree with each other in their sequence of stories and events when they also agree with Mark. (Wikipedia)
Mark states his own purpose in the introduction (and likely title) of his book: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”
Mark writes to an audience of believers to help them better understand Jesus as the one anointed by God who came to usher in the new age, the rule of God, the kingdom of heaven—the messiah. Note that Mark is not making a case to non-believers to convince them that Jesus is the Christ, rather he is writing to strengthen the faith of a community of first century, persecuted Gentile Christians.
Mark confirms Jesus’ true messianic identity by showing that though he was (1) a genuine miracle worker above other miracle workers (and not a magician or crazy person as his enemies charged); (2) the true Son of God (not just a “divine man” but also God’s appointed enthroned ruler); (3) the prophetic Son of Man, both in a humble sense (as in Ezekiel) and eschatological sense (as in Daniel); (4) that all these titles/identities can only be seen clearly understood through the lens of the cross.
The Gospel as Literature:
The Gospels are not biographies
The Gospels are essentially the memoirs of the apostles and disciples of Jesus. They recall the facts about Jesus, the teaching of Jesus and are meant to be a witness to Jesus (Fee), but they are not a full account of Jesus’ life. Gospels are not biographies. They are biographical, but they are not biographies in the modern sense.
The Gospels are purposeful
The Gospels were written to meet the needs of a particular community of believers. The authors of the Gospels were selective and adaptive in their style. They focused in on the narratives and teachings that best suited their purposes.
Many sayings of Jesus were passed around for years as stories (pericopes) without much context. Therefore the primary saying, or point, of the story was what was preserved, not necessarily the full context of the saying. For instance, Paul quotes Jesus talking about his body and blood being represented by the bread and the wine as a sign of the new covenant in his letter to the Corinthians (likely written before or concurrent with the Gospels) without much context. There’s only the mention of “on the night he was betrayed” (1 Cor. 11:23) but no mention of the upper room, the disciples present, the timing of the Passover feast, etc. Paul used this saying in a new context to correct the Corinthians in how they conducted themselves while eating the Lord’s supper. The Gospel writers likely did the same thing; used a saying of Jesus without much context to make a point to their readers. This may account for discrepancies in the usage of a saying, chronology of an event, or even repetition of an event/saying among the Gospels.
The Gospels provide a perspective of Jesus as the messiah
The Gospels are focused on explaining the messiahship of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God, as opposed to, say, Jesus being a carpenter, teacher or friend. The facts and stories they tell of Jesus all are meant to legitimize his claim to be the anointed one of God.
The Gospels are essentially eschatological in nature. All of them show how Jesus inaugurated the new age (the kingdom of God)—which would be a time when God would rule, righteousness (Is. 11:4), peace (Is. 2:2) and the fullness of the Spirit (Joel 2:28) would prevail, God would start of a new covenant (Jer. 31:31), and sin and sickness would be eliminated (Zech. 13:1)—first by performing signs and wonders indicative of the kingdom at work (casting out demons, healing the sick), then by being crucified and raising from the dead. (Fee)
Overall, the identity of Jesus (as ultimately understood by his death and resurrection) is the focal point of Mark’s narrative. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah midway through the gospel (Mark 8:27–30) is the turning point of the book anyway you look at it.
With over 1/3 of the content focused on Jesus’ last week, it has been often said that Mark is a passion narrative with an extended introduction.
Yet, there are several theories as to how Mark structured his gospel. We’ll cover only a few here:
A Geographical Narrative
A reading of Mark through this lens would emphasize Jesus’ call to his disciples to “follow me” (1:17) first by accepting his power (as shown by miracles), his authority (as shown by conflicts with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law), then his identity as messiah (even if not fully understood), then as willing participants to take up the cross and follow him.
1:1-13 – Introduction
1:14-8:26 – Ministry in Galilee
827-10:52 – Journey to Jerusalem
11:1-13:37 – Jerusalem Ministry
14:1-16:8 – Journey to the Cross
A structure of this type of would also serve to de-emphasizes Jerusalem as the center of Christianity as Jesus tells the women after his resurrection to tell the disciples “He is going ahead of you to Galilee”. In other words, Jesus is going to continue working elsewhere.
Some have noted that Mark follows the dramatic structure common to Roman/Greek plays at the time. The structure of the play was as follows:
- First Act: action builds until a point of crisis.
- Second Act: the tension would be diffused as conflicting parties put their individual plans into action.
- Third Act: the clash of the plans produced an overturning of the situation that prevailed in favor of a new one.
These types of dramas also characteristically ended without resolution and often with a tragic or shocking event that prevents closure. (Wikipedia)
Mark’s drama centers around the identity of Jesus. “Who is this man?” Is a common question asked by everyone he encounters.
First Act – 1:16-8:30
- Jesus teaches and heals the crowds
- Jesus is at conflict with the established leadership
- The disciples struggle to understand who Jesus is
Second Act – 8:31 – 14:42
- Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem
- Jesus teaches in the temple and clashes with established leadership
Third Act – 14:43 – 16:8
- Jewish leaders have Jesus arrested and crucified
- God overturns their deeds and raises Jesus to life
This structure emphasizes the identity of Jesus as the Suffering Servant, and that God vindicates injustice done to his faithful followers with the promise of resurrection and victory. (NT40)
A Series of Chiastic Teachings
The word chiasmus (ky-as-mus) is derived from the Greek letter χ (chi) which is indicative of a cross. Chiasmus literally means “placing crosswise, diagonal arrangement.” Each chiasm is a structured repetition of themes starting at the outside and moving to the center. (Clarke)
The reason for this literary technique is to emphasis the midpoint, or the high point of the chiasm. In a pattern of A, B, C, B1, A1, — C would be the main point of the narrative. Take the following illustration from Mark:
A — Jesus sees a fig tree “in leaf” and curses it for having no fruit
B — Jesus and his disciples enter the temple and Jesus drives out those who are buying and selling there
C — Jesus taught them saying, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’ ?
C 1 — “But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ ”
B1 — Jesus and his disciples leave the temple
A1 — Peter notices that the fig tree is withered
Here the point of the story of the fig tree is to emphasize and illustrate of the fruitlessness of Israel’s worship practices.
Another example: Mark 1:2-12
A — Isaiah promises a messenger (Greek: agellos or angel) will come in the wilderness to prepare the way
B — John the Baptist comes along baptizing people in the Jordan
C — John teaches that “I baptize with water,”
C1 — but that the one who comes after him “will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”
B1 — Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan
A1 — Jesus goes into the wilderness where he is tempted and angels (literally translated: messengers) minister to him
Many such chiastic structures can be found throughout Mark, and some have suggested that the entire book of Mark is a chiasm (the center point being either Jesus telling his disciples that the “Son of Man must suffer and die and after three days rise again” in 8:31, or Jesus’ transfiguration in 8:7 – depending on your break down of events)
This type of structure is helpful in determining what Mark may have intended the point of his narrative to be, particularly those stories that are “sandwiched” or “dovetailed” together (ex. the healing of Jarius’ daughter/the woman with the issue of blood – 8:40-56)
Mark tends to group events in threes (three healings after calling Peter and John as disciples, three events challenging the Sabbath after calling Matthew, etc.).
The most notable grouping of threes may be Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ death and resurrection:
- Mark starts the Passion “when it was evening”, or approximately 6 pm.
- The traditional duration of the Passover meal was three hours, So Jesus left for the Mount of Olives around 9 p.m.
- In the garden, the disciples were not able to remain awake. “Could you not watch one hour?” Jesus asks them three times.
- Judas’ betrayal, therefore, would’ve occurred at midnight.
- The watch of the night between 3 am and 6 am was called cockcrow. During this time, Peter denied Jesus three times
- Jesus was taken to Pilate “as soon as it was morning” likely 6 am.
- Jesus was crucified on “the third hour,” or 9 am.
- When “the sixth hour had come” (12 noon), darkness covered the whole earth for 3 hours
- Jesus was taken down from the cross before 6 pm, before the sun went down.
Son of God
Mark starts his gospel by explicitly stating that Jesus is the Son of God. In the Old Testament, the Son of God often meant Israel (corporately) as God’s people, or the king of Israel (individually) at his enthronement—the moment when the king was adopted by God as his son, thereby legitimizing his rule over Israel. To the Greeks and Romans, the Son of God meant a “divine man”, or a supernatural being. Roman Emperor Augustus, in reference to his relationship with the recently deified Julius Caesar, called himself the “son of a god.” Emperor Domitian would later try to do the same thing. (Wikipedia)
The Son of Man
The title of Son of Man has its roots in the Old Testament, in particular: Ezekiel, the Book of Enoch, (a popular Jewish apocalyptic work of the period), and Daniel (7:13–14).
In most cases in the Old Testament, the moniker of Son of Man (literally”ben adam” ) denotes mankind generally in contrast to God. It is used as a reference to human weakness and frailty in the face of God’s glory and infinite power (see Job 25:6; Psalms 8:4; Psalms 144:3; Psalms 146:3; Isaiah 51:12, etc.). Often the use of Son of Man is as a formal substitute for a personal pronoun. God addresses Ezekiel ninety-three times as “son of man.” (Wikipedia)
In the book of Daniel the term is used apocalyptically to designate the one who comes “with the clouds of heaven” and who approaches “the Ancient of Days.” He receives a kingdom unlimited by race or nationality, time or space. Jesus himself used this particular reference to designate himself when questioned by the high priest. Usage of the term Son of Man in this context would help Jesus clarify his mission as a spiritual one as opposed to the political-nationalistic overtones of the contemporary use of “Messiah.” (Barnes)
Thus, the title Son of Man uniquely defines Jesus’ ministry in terms of both majesty and humility. (Barnes)
It has been suggested that Jesus used the term Son of Man to define himself as a counterpart to the designation of Son of God. The title of Son of God affirms the divinity of Jesus. The use of term Son of man affirms his humanity.
The Messiah as a Suffering Servant
A strong theme in Mark is of Jesus as the “suffering just one” portrayed in many of the books of the Old Testament (Jeremiah, Job, the Psalms, and especially in the “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah). This is in contrast to the Jewish expectation that the messiah was to conquer God’s enemies through military might. The messiah was not supposed to die. He was supposed to reign, as a literal king, forever from the temple.
Note how in the arc of Mark’s gospel narrative Jesus goes from being surrounded by massive, pressing crowds astounded by all he does and says, to dying alone, cursed and derided, on a cross.
The Failure of the Disciples
Over and over again in Mark’s account the disciples fail to understand what Jesus is teaching or doing.
This pattern of God’s followers failing to understand him reflects the Old Testament theme of God’s love being met by infidelity and failure, only to be renewed by God. In the historical context in which the gospel was written, the persecutions of the Christians of Rome under Nero, the failure of the disciples and Jesus’ denial by Peter himself would have been powerful symbols of faith, hope and reconciliation.
To exemplify this, the pivot point of Mark’s gospel—the moment in which Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah—is preceded by the story of the healing of a blind man who needs to be twice touched to truly see (8:22). Thematically, Mark implies discipleship requires a second touch (i.e. Jesus’ death and resurrection) for understanding. Experiencing the Christ through miracles isn’t enough. One must also experience his suffering to truly understand Jesus. Note in this same passage how a disciple’s success (Peter’s confession) is followed by his failure (Jesus rebuking him as Satan) when he says that Jesus doesn’t need to suffer and die. Peter, in what Mark indicates to be mere moments, goes from acknowledging Jesus as the Savior to being accused of working against God.
To Mark, the cross is key to discipleship, both as a filter for understanding Jesus, but also as a way of life.
The Messianic Secret
Throughout Mark, Jesus continually tells people (in particular people he’s healed, or the demons he’s healed them from) not to tell anyone who he is.
William Wrede called this the “Messianic secret” – Jesus’ secrecy about his identity as the messiah.
Mark most likely emphasized this to communicate that the true messiahship of Jesus cannot be recognized in his miracles. The messianic secret of Jesus is that he is the humble Son of Man who has come to suffer and not the Messiah who is going to do great miracles. It is only the story of the suffering and the death of Jesus reveals that the secret of who Jesus really is. (Frontline)
Additional theories have been proposed, e.g. that Jesus issued the commands in order not to become a “celebrity” and be able to move about with ease. (Wikipedia)
Outsiders Understand Better Than Insiders
In Mark, it is the marginal characters who often recognize Jesus for who he truly s first. It is the demons, the women, the pagan Romans who are most likely to call Jesus the Son of God.
A few examples:
- The first ones (and most persistent ones) to declare Jesus as the Son of God are the demons (1:24)
- The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is honored for recognizing his impeding death and the disciples are rebuked for criticizing her (14:8)
- The Roman guard standing at the foot of the cross is the only one who sees how Jesus’ death makes him the Son of God (15:39)
- Unlike Matthew and Luke, but like John, Mark expressly identifies Jesus’s origins as being “out of Galilee.” Mark makes no mention of Jesus’s birth, his father, ancestors, or any connection to Bethlehem.
- Mark emphasizes Jesus’ action more than his teaching (18 miracles, and 4 parables). The word “immediately” occurs 39 times.
- The earliest complete manuscripts of Mark – Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and, with gaps, Alexandrinus – which date from the 4th century, end at Mark 16:8, with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Most scholars believe this to be the original ending, (Wikipedia)
- How do we view discipleship? Just as the blind man needed Jesus to touch him twice to see clearly, what “second touch” do we need to see Jesus clearly?
- What notions of Jesus do we bring to the text? How’s does Mark’s portrayal of Jesus challenge us?
- What did Mark leave out of his gospel that we wish we knew? Why?
- Wikipedia: Gospel of Mark
- Barnes Theological Dictionary
- Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
- Frontline: The Gospel of Mark
- Introduction to Mark
- Gospel of Mark Introduction: The Chapel
- NT40: Introduction to Mark
- Understanding Chiasms: Clarke
Post Discussion Follow-Up
Rather than talk through the logistics of what a gospel is and how Mark may have written his, I created a group activity to illustrate 1) how purposeful storytelling from different points of views are created, 2) how those stories can be listened to by the audience to determine the author’s intent, and 3) to show that multiple perspectives/interpretations on one subject can provide a richer experience than one definitive “biography.”
I used Walt Disney’s life as our fact base because he is familiar yet not well known. Also, he died within recent history (so little context is needed), and his impact on our culture is well known and understood. A link to the activity is below:
Scripture: Acts 18:1 – 19:41
- Paul relocates from Athens to Corinth and meets fellow tent makers Aquila and Priscilla (Jews recently ousted from Rome)
- Paul preaches in the local synagog until the Jews there tell him they hate him, then he shakes out his clothes and moves his base of operations next door
- One night Paul has a vision where God tells him to keep speaking and not worry about his safety, so Paul sticks around Corinth a year and a half
- The Jews of Corinth rally and make a formal complaint about Paul to Gallio, the proconsul in the area, but Gallio says he doesn’t care about Jewish in-fighting regarding their own religion
- In frustration, the crowd turns on Sosthenes, the local synagog leader, and they beat him up. Gallio is like, “Whatever”
- Then Paul, Priscilla and Aquila sail off to Ephesus, and after promising to return to Ephesus, Paul keeps going on to Jerusalem then on home to Antioch
- While Paul sets off on his third missionary journey (from Antioch, up through Galatia), a guy named Apollo appears on the the scene in Ephesus. He’s a learned dude, but needs some help from Priscilla and Aquila to get all the stuff about Jesus just right
- Apollos then moves on to Achaia, with lots of support from his fellow believers
- Meanwhile, Paul makes his way back to Ephesus and runs into a dozen of John the Baptists’ disciples and baptizes them in the name of Jesus so they can receive the Holy Spirit
- Paul preaches in the synagogs of Ephesus until the Jews kick him out, then he relocates to a local hall and preaches to the Jews and Greeks for two more years
- Lots of miraculous things happen while Paul is there (some people are healed by just coming into contract with Paul’s work clothes), so a few locals are inspired to try casting out demons on their own using Jesus’ name
- The seven sons of a high priest named Sceva try casting out a demon in Jesus’ name and get the tar beat out of them by the demon possessed man
- Word of the beating gets out and everybody starts taking Jesus’ name a bit more seriously, and some former sorcerers who become Christians are inspired to burn their magic scrolls publicly
- Paul decides to head back to Jerusalem after going through Macedonia and Achaia, then says “I need to get to Rome one of these days”
- In Ephesus, a silversmith named Demetrius raises a ruckus because Paul’s teaching has led to a decline in sales of their locally crafted idols
- The other Ephesian craftsmen get worked up and decide that Paul’s anti-idol position isn’t just hurting their pocket books but also the reputation of their awesome temple to Artemis
- The city gets all hot and bothered and grabs Gaius and Aristarchus, two of Paul’s traveling companions, and drag them into the theater
- Paul wants to go and help his friends, but some of his high-up friends tell him to chill
- There’s mass confusion, and in an attempt to make sure that Jews aren’t being blamed for what the Christian are teaching, a guy named Alexander gets up on the stage, but the crowd just gets worked up all the more and starts shouting, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” for two whole hours
- The city clerk gets up and reminds them of the “fact” that the image of Artemis fell from heaven and Ephesus is her guardian. He points out that the Christians are not robbing their temples, and that proper procedure is for everyone to take everyone else to court. Rome doesn’t like it when there’s a riot in the city and if word gets out that Ephesus is out of control, Roman troops will show up and things will be bad
- Then the clerk sends everyone home
In 27 B.C. Corinth became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. The city was a crucial communications center at the junction of sea lanes to the west and east, and land routes north and south. Corinth had over 200,000 inhabitants during New Testament times. Every two years it hosted the pan-Hellenic Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympic Games.
Corinth was also the “sin city” of Achaia. As is true of many port cities, it did a bustling trade in pleasure as well as goods. The classical Greeks had coined a metaphor from the city’s notorious sin — “to play the Corinthian,” or to “Corinthianize.” This referred to a person who was sexually immoral or who lived a life of lustful debauchery. The city had long been home to the worshippers of Aphrodite — the goddess of love. In classical times, her temple on the Acrocorinth had housed a thousand priestess-prostitutes. At night, they came into the city to offer their services. While such activities were vastly scaled down during Corinth’s Roman days, the city still had a reputation for moral looseness. (GCI)
It is highly likely that Paul took a Nazirite vow (Numbers 6:1-21) in which one abstained from any grape product, including wine, as well as various forms of uncleanness. Paul also would’ve stopped cutting his hair during the period of the vow. At the end of the vow, one normally shaved their hair at Jerusalem and dedicated in the temple.
According to the first century historian Josephus, if a Nazarite devotee was far from Jerusalem, then he was allowed to trim his hair and to bring the trimmings to Jerusalem to be offered with the rest of his hair when his head was shaved (cf. Josephus, War 2.309-324). This appears to have been what Paul did at Cenchrea. (Williams)
The Romans made Ephesus the capital of the province of Asia. It was the third largest city in the Roman Empire (est. population 50,000 to 250,000) (IVP) after Sardis and Alexandria Troas.
Paul the Tent Maker
Most tents in the first century were constructed of leather, so the meaning of “tent maker” was extended to refer to an artisan who produced a variety of leather articles. Many Jewish rabbis of the time were bi-vocational so that they would not have to charge for their teaching. Other traveling teachers in the Hellenistic world expect to receive money for their lectures. In Greco-Roman culture the manual labor of the artisan class was despised. (IVP)
John the Baptist’s Followers
It seems strange that there would be followers of John the Baptist who were unclear that Jesus was the messiah. In fact, according to the Gospel of John, Andrew (Peter’s brother) was one of John’s disciples and learned of Jesus directly from John.
“This is now the fifth time in Acts that John’s role as a precursor to Jesus has been clarified (Acts 1:5; 11:16; 13:25; 18:25). The need to repeatedly take up the issue, plus the fact that John apparently has disciples twenty years after his death in places as far from the Jordan as Alexandria (Apollos) and Ephesus, supports the portrait of John as an important religious figure in his own right” (Luke Timothy Johnson)
It is highly probable that John’s disciples had heard of Jesus but not realized that the baptism of the Holy Spirit had taken place at Pentecost. “In fact, John’s preaching of the imminent arrival of a Messiah in eschatological judgment tied closely together the baptism ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire.’ His followers, even if they had heard about Pentecost, probably would not have seen it as the fulfillment of John’s prophecy, for the purifying fire of final judgment had not immediately followed Pentecost.” (IVP)
Priscilla and Aquilla (and Apollos)
Priscilla is often thought to be the first example of a female teacher in early church history. Coupled with her husband, she was a celebrated missionary a friend and co-worker of Paul, and is often listed before her husband (Acts 18:18-19, 26; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19). At Rome, one of the house churches met at her and her husband’s home. Some scholars have suggested that Priscilla was the author of the Book of Hebrews (as it is the only book in the New Testament with seemingly intentional author anonymity). It has been suggested that her name was omitted either to suppress its female authorship, or to protect the letter itself from suppression. (Wikipedia)
Aquila, husband of Priscilla, was originally from Pontus and also was a Jewish Christian. According to church tradition Paul made him a bishop in Asia Minor.
Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria which has lead some to speculate that he preached in the allegorical style of Philo, a highly influential first century Jewish philosopher. Apollos became a major figure in Corinth, so much so that the members of the church identified themselves as either followers of Paul or Apollos. Apollos is another of the supposed authors of the book of Hebrews.
Artemis of the Ephesians
Artemis of Ephesus was the mother-goddess of fertility. The temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. It supposedly could hold up to 50,000 people and covered an area four times as large as the Parthenon in Athens, or 400 feet by 200 feet in size. (GCI)
Artemis was most often depicted as a multi-breasted woman. She had animals on her skirt to show she had the power over them since she is the supreme “ghost goddess,” and the signs of the zodiac were around her neck to show she could mediate between her followers and their astrological fate. Artemis was believed to have unsurpassed cosmic power. She was called Savior, Lord, Queen of the Cosmos and heavenly goddess. Each year in March or April, Ephesus hosted the month-long festival Artemisa, a time of carnival and religious celebration. Pilgrims flocked from all over the Empire to participate in the impressive ceremonies to Artemis, including offerings at her sacred grove, to enjoy athletics, plays and concerts, and to partake of great banquets and revelry. (IVP)
Worship of Artemis was part of Greek political and cultural identity, and essential to the economic life of the region.
- About this time Paul writes his first known letters to the Thessalonians (c. 51/52 AD), and while in Ephesus he writes letters to the Corinthians (c. 54/55 AD).
- By shaking the dust from his clothes, Paul indicated that he was breaking fellowship with the Jews. “This kind of action was performed by Jews against Gentiles, and its present significance was to indicate that in the sight of the missionaries those who rejected the gospel were no better than the Gentiles, cut off from the true people of God” (Marshall)
- Crispus was among the few that Paul had personally baptized (1 Corinthians 1:14-16)
- Lucius Junius Gallio, the proconsul who hears the case, was the son of Spanish orator and financier Marcus Annaeus Novatus, who, after the relocation of his family to Rome, participated in the highest and most influential circles of society. Gallio’s brother Marcus Annaeus Seneca, a Stoic philosopher, politician and dramatist, was tutor to the young Nero. (IVP)
- Sosthenes is mentioned along with Paul as the sender of 1 Corinthians
- Paul mentioned a deaconess, Phoebe, as being a member of the church in Cenchrea (Romans 16:1). She had been of great help to him and others in the church.
- Luke introduces Apollos in a way that assures he’s not a renegade preacher, but a teacher in line with Paul and his companions
- Lecture hall of Tyrannus is thought by some to be the auditorium of a local philosopher with the name Tyrannus. Others see Tyrannus as the owner of the building, who rented space to speakers such as Paul. (Tyrannus means “Tyrant,” and it was probably a nickname reflecting the man’s personality.) We know nothing else of Tyrannus. But he was introduced so casually that it’s possible Luke’s readers (especially Theophilus) would have known who he was. (GCI)
- The miraculous “handkerchiefs” and “cloths” that touched Paul and were able to heal others were most likely the sweat rags and aprons that Paul wore when making tents.
- There is no record of a Jewish high priest named Sceva, though it’s possible he was part of a Jewish chief-priestly family. Some commentators speculate Sceva may have been an apostate Jew and the high or chief priest of some pagan cult.
- Luke tells us that the value of the burned sorcerers’ scrolls was 50,000 drachmas. The drachma was a silver coin worth about a day’s wages. The average American makes $48,ooo a year (or $131 a day) bringing the modern equivalent to around six million dollars.
- According to Paul’s letters, he was eager to get to Jerusalem to deliver a collection of money he had taken up to help the poor church members of Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15; Romans 15:25-32). It was a strong desire to show Jerusalem that the Gentile churches stood solidly with their Jewish counterparts, even though they did not observe the same customs. He hoped that the gift of love would increase the solidarity and unity of the Jewish and Gentile elements in the church. (GCI)
- Gaius may have been the man who was baptized by Paul in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:14) and who was a host to him and the church (Romans 16:23). Luke says Gaius was from Derbe in Galatia (Acts 20:4).
- Aristarchus is referred to in Colossians 4:10 and Philemon 24 as being a native of Thessalonica.
- The clerk in Ephesus reminds the crowd that the real danger they all face is to be charged with rioting without cause. Ephesus could lose status as a free city if it failed to maintain law and order through its own local authorities. (IVP)
- Luke seems to use the riot in Ephesus to point out that as long as Christians do not strain the social fabric of a culture through “public blasphemy of the gods,” fair-minded government officials should protect Christians from rash, illegal acts of persecutors (IVP)
- Does Christianity kill culture? Note how the Jews and Greeks feel threatened by the encroachment of the gospel on their way of life. Should Christianity eradicate the various cultures it encounters?
- Everywhere Paul went a riot seemed to break out. Should modern American Christians be bothered by how little disturbance our belief brings to our culture?
Scripture: Acts 11:1-30
- When Peter gets back to Jerusalem he’s confronted by a group of believers who really, really value circumcision
- Peter’s told that because of this Cornelius business, he’s got some ‘splaining to do.
- Peter retells the story of his vision with the animals being lowered down from heaven and how he said, “No thanks,” but God said “It’s cool, they’re clean now” and how Peter ended up at a Gentile’s house and that before he could even finish his sermon the Holy Spirit descended on them (just like it did earlier, at Pentecost, remember?) and he recalled that Jesus had said stuff about baptizing people with the Holy Spirit and so Peter’s like, “I’m not getting in God’s way. Nu uh.”
- And circumcision crew was cool with what had happened… for now
- Meanwhile, some believers start preaching to Gentiles in Antioch
- The church in Jerusalem decided to send Barnabas to Antioch to see what the deelio was
- Barnabas assessed the sitch and found it to be cool.
- Barney then went and found his old pal Saul and brought him back to Antioch where they began preaching and saving folks.
- The people of Antioch labeled these new believers “Christians” (more on this below)
- A bit later, some prophets roll into town with some bad news: famine’s a comin’
- The believers in Antioch round up some supplies for their less fortunate friends to the south and send a care package via Barnabas and Saul
Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was estimated to have between 500,000 and 800,000 people (about the size of Long Beach or larger), including a Jewish colony of 70,000. It had two great colonnaded streets intersecting at the center and dividing Antioch into quadrants, each named after an emperor (Octavian, Tiberius, Trajan and Hadrian). It had temples, theaters, a colonnade, a circus, a bath aqueduct–“all the architectural features and embellishments of a Roman metropolis.” (Coffman)
Culturally, first-century Antioch was a melting pot of Greek, Roman, Semitic, Arabic and Persian influences (GCI), and it had a thriving economy because it sat at the crossroads of trade routes south to Palestine and Egypt, east to Persia and west to the Asia Minor peninsula. It was referred to as “Antioch the Great, Queen of the East.”
The city was not only known for its sophistication and culture but also for its vices. In the city was a temple dedicated to Apollo surrounded by a laurel grove dedicated to Daphne. Daphne was a female nymph associated with fountains, wells, springs, streams, etc, who fatefully attracted the attention of the god Apollo. Apollo chased her down, and just before being overtaken, Daphne pleaded to her father, a rivergod, for help. So he transformed Daphne into a laurel tree.
To commemorate this myth “Seleucus I had constructed the Groves of Daphne, wherein was the mighty temple of the Pythian Apollo. It was a center of vice, featuring the harlot-priestesses of Daphne and Apollo who on occasions engaged in public ceremonies ‘stripped of clothing.'” (Coffman) In these laurel groves, the temple priestesses would be pursued by “worshippers” without the good fortune of being turned into shrubbery.
“Fashion was the only law, pleasure the only pursuit, and the splendour of dress and furniture was the only distinction of the citizens of Antioch.” (Wikipedia)
They were first called Christians:
“Christians” was not a name that the early church gave to themselves. They referred to themselves as “The Way” or “disciples” or “saints” or “believers.” Interestingly enough, the term “disciples” occurs 72 times in Matthew, 44 times in Mark, 38 times in Luke, 77 times in John, and 30 times in Acts–261 times in the first five books of the New Testament; but it is not used even once in the last 22 books of the New Testament. (Coffman) The term “Christian” is used only three times in the Bible (Acts 11, 26 and 1Peter 4), and all of the occurrences have a negative connotation. It wasn’t until the second century that believers formally adopted the name “Christian.”
This was probably for several reasons. First, The term “Christian” was most likely a derogatory term made up by the residents of Antioch (who apparently liked to make up these types of nicknames). “‘Christians’, or Cristianos in Greek, was coined to distinguish the worshippers of Christ from the Kaisarnarios, the worshippers of Caesar.” (Wuest, pg 19). Though Cristianos literally means “made after the pattern of Christ” or “followers of Christ” or “the party of Christ,” which sounds good on the surface, it is the contrast it provides within that culture that is negative. If these people follow Christ then it means they don’t follow Caesar. If they don’t worship Caesar then they are against the empire. If they are against Caesar, they want to ruin the status quo and maybe even overthrow Rome.
Secondly, being given the new designation of “Christian” would’ve opened the door for formal persecution: “As long as it is seen as another variant of Judaism, the church is better able to obtain protection from Rome as a religio licita — a legal religion. Judaism has long enjoyed such protection, and it would be helpful for the church to continue to claim that umbrella for itself.” (GCI) But if it is a new religion, particularly one that looks to usurp Caesar’s authority, then according to Roman law it can (and should) be squashed.
It is notable that it is at this point in history that Christianity took on a new identity through the name “Christian.” The movement could no longer be considered a sect of Judaism once they had begun to let Gentiles into their fold. And so, the (non-believing) Gentiles living in Antioch invented a name to distinguish this unique group of people who are not followers of Caesar, nor Herod, nor Judaism. These people said they belonged to someone called “Christ”. (Note: the Jews would not call them Christians because of their own use of Cristo the Messiah. The Jews had already termed them Galileans or Nazarenes. (Bakers))
- Luke emphasizes that it was circumcised believers who had a problem with Peter, not the whole Jerusalem church (Longenecker). This was a select group of Jewish believers who were particularly zealous for the law.
- Peter taking six people with him was no accident. Ancient laws often required seven witnesses to prove a case true. The number seven was often associated with completeness or importance (eg. seven seals were used to indicate important Roman documents (Barclay))
- Note that Peter does not fully repeat his sermon to his accusers. “He rests his defense, not on what he said, but on what God did” (Furneaux).
- The complaint against Peter does not seem to have been that he had baptized a Gentile, but that he had baptized a Gentile without first requiring him to submit to circumcision and come under the law of Moses. (Coffman)
- The “circumcised believers” may have had a practical concern: Peter, a leading apostle, has disregarded the sacred and traditional laws of separation in order to associate with a Gentile. Thinking in terms of the Jewish paradigm of Israel as God’s holy nation, some emphasize that the church is a holy people. It is to be separate from the pollution of the world, including fraternizing with Gentiles. But now the church is tainted because one of its leaders violated ritual separation. If they fail in this regard, they might suffer the fate of the Hellenistic Jewish Christians who were persecuted and expelled. The Sanhedrin may persecute the remaining, and more conservative, Jewish converts in Jerusalem. (GCI)
- Fear of tainting the holiness of the church may have caused the Jerusalem mother church to acknowledge James as its leader, rather than any of the apostles. James was known to be a scrupulous practitioner of the Torah, for which he is called “James the Just,” or “James the Righteous.” He enjoyed a good reputation with the Jewish community, which would’ve helped diffuse any potential crisis with the Sanhedrin.
- Note how the believers preach about the “Lord Jesus” to the Greeks in Antioch (verse 20). To the Greeks Jesus is called the “Lord” and “Savior” (words commonly used to describe Caesar) vs. “Christ” or “Son of Man” (Jewish words to designate the Messiah) (Bruce)
- Prophets are important in the early church. Luke mentions them several times in Acts (13; 15; 21). Paul lists prophets as belonging to a God-ordained function in the church (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4). The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and he ranks the latter next after apostles (Ephesians 2). He also recognizes prophets as having an important charismatic function (1 Corinthians 14;Ephesians 3). (GCI)
- It seems that the Jerusalem church is living on the edge of destitution. Its more wealthy members may have been the Hellenists who fled the city. The early practice of selling personal property to contribute to the common fund may have reduced the economic strength of the church community. Thus, it is ill-prepared to cope with a famine that strains its resources to the breaking point. (GCI)
- “The new congregation in Antioch — composed of gentiles who a short time before were considered questionable subjects for the gospel — responds generously to the appeal for help in Judea.” (William Willimon)
- The debate over wether the Gentiles christians needed to be circumcised (and follow the Mosaic Law, in general) raged on for decades after this event. Why didn’t Peter’s vision and actions resolve it once and for all? Why do you think Paul never relays the story of Cornelius in his letters as justification for how he thought about Gentile converts? This issue split many churches in its day. Do we have a similar debate going on in our churches today? What is it and how can it be resolved?
- We don’t know the names of the people who first took Christianity to the Greeks in Antioch after Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, nor do we know the names of the people who opposed Peter when he got back in Jerusalem, but both anonymous groups represent two ends of the spectrum: the early adopters and the protective traditionalists. Which side would you find yourself on in a similar situation? What is the benefit to the church of you being on that side? What is the benefit of you being on the other side?
- A surprising amount of generosity is shown by the fledgling church in Antioch towards the “mother church” in Jerusalem. Are we still this generous? Do we still see churches across the world this connected and caring for each other? Why? Why not?
- Prophets were an important part of the early church. Why do you think we don’t talk about them much? What is it about 21st century, Americanized Christianity that finds the idea of prophets predicting the future unpalatable?
- Christians eventually came to be known by an name that was originally intended as an insult. What insulting term(s) would our society label Christians as today? Are any of those labels worth wearing?
Scripture: Acts 9:1-43
- Saul’s doing his thing–persecuting christians–when he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus
- There’s a blinding light and Jesus tells Saul that he is the one whom Saul is really persecuting, and that Saul should go into Damascus and await instructions
- Saul is blind for three days and doesn’t feel like eating
- God tells Ananias (one of his disciples in the area) to go and heal Saul
- Ananias is (understandably) reluctant to go. Word has it that Saul isn’t a very nice guy
- God tells Ananias to go anyway ‘cuz he’s got plans for Saul, so Ananias goes and heals Saul
- Saul starts preaching about Jesus immediately, which ticks off the Jews in Damascus
- The Jews look for a chance to kill Saul, but he gets smuggled out of the city by his friends, then shipped off to Jerusalem
- The disciples in Jerusalem don’t want anything to do with Saul (word had it that Saul wasn’t a very nice guy), but Barnabas takes him under his wing and introduces him around
- Saul argues with the Hellenistic Jews, which ticks them off, and yet another group of people want him dead
- Saul gets sent home to Tarsus
- Meanwhile, Peter’s in Lyddia and heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas
- Elsewhere, in Joppa, a disciple named Tabitha dies
- Peter is called in and brings Tabitha back from the dead. Back. From. The. Dead.
- Peter sticks around the area awhile, staying at the house of Simon the tanner
Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in eastern Asia Minor, which was known for its university. “The historian-geographer Strabo says Tarsus is a leading center of philosophy, rhetoric and law. [Geography14.5.13.] Tarsus is also an important center of Stoic philosophy, so Paul would be familiar with the leading Stoics and their beliefs.” (GCI)
Paul was the son of an orthodox Jewish father, quite possibly a Pharisee — a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3), “a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees” (Acts 23). At an early age Paul was sent to Jerusalem to study at the school of Gamaliel. He was apparently a good student. Paul would claim: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1) He quite possibly stayed with his sister in Jerusalem (Acts 23).
Growing up in Tarsus would’ve allowed Paul to learn “Classic Greek”, Greek philosophy, and Koine Greek which was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire, spoken by the common people. (Wikipedia)
“Paul is a Hellenistic or Grecian Jew, like Stephen. He knows Greek culture, and is as comfortable in the Hellenistic world as he is in strict Judaism. But he is also part of the Jewish world in Jerusalem, speaking Aramaic like a native. He may have been in the Hellenistic Jewish ‘Synagogue of Freedmen,’ where he heard Stephen speak. Like many Freedmen, Paul was more fanatically Jewish than many Jews native to Jerusalem. Paul may be a member of the Sanhedrin, or perhaps a younger assistant, and if so, he heard Stephen speak before it.” (GCI)
“The Way” was a name used by the early Christian community to designate itself (Acts 18, 19,22, 24). It was used to proclaim that they knew the way to salvation, or an understanding of what was needed to walk the pathway to salvation. It was also an acknowledgment of Jesus’ designation of himself as “the way, the truth and the life”.
It is interesting to note that the “Essene community at Qumran used the same designation [The Way] to describe its mode of life.” (NCC)
However, outsiders did not refer to the church as “the Way” but as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24; 28), or as “Christians” (Acts 11).*
- Acts 9 records the first of three accounts of Paul’s conversion. The other two are in Acts 22 andActs 26.
- Saul’s name was probably not changed to Paul when he converted to Christianity. “The testimony of the book of Acts is that he inherited Roman citizenship from his father. As a Roman citizen, he also bore the Latin name of ‘Paul’—in biblical Greek: Παῦλος (Paulos),and in Latin: Paulus. It was quite usual for the Jews of that time to have two names, one Hebrew, the other Latin or Greek.” (Wikipedia). So it is likely that he changed his name to Paul as part of his missionary efforts to reach the Gentiles.
- Paul had “letters to the synagogues in Damascus” implying a “commission to bring them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. From this, it seems that the sanhedrim at Jerusalem claimed jurisdiction over all synagogues everywhere. They claimed the authority of regulating everywhere the Jewish religion.” (Barnes)
- Why Damascus? “It is not certainly known just who ruled Damascus during that period, but the eclipse of Roman authority for a time is proved by the fact that no coins with the image of Caligula or Claudius have been discovered there, whereas there have been found many with the image of Augustus or Tiberius who preceded them, and many with the images of emperors who succeeded them, thus leaving a gap, viewed by Wiesler as proof that during those two reigns Rome had no authority in Damascus.” (Coffman) In other words, it was likely highly populated by Jews and perceived by Saul as a stronghold for orthodox Judaism worth defending.
- Jesus’ words to Saul on the road to Damascus (“…why do you persecute me?”) reveal “one of the profoundest doctrines of Christianity, namely, that Christ is still upon earth in the person of his followers who compose his spiritual body; and that whatever is done to Christ’s church is done to himself!” (Coffman). Christ and his church are one. He feels what we feel. It’s now wonder that Paul would go on to write about the church as Christ’s body in great length in his letter to the Corinthians.
- “Luke describes Paul’s work in Acts in terms of [the words spoken by God to Ananias in Acts 9:15]. Paul will take the gospel to the Gentiles (13:46-47) and defend himself before kings such as Agrippa, and even Caesar (26:2-23; 25:12). Paul will also preach to the ‘people of Israel’ (9:15).” (GCI)
- “Ananias, out of respect to what the Lord had revealed to him, referred to Saul as ‘brother,’ not merely a ‘brother Israelite’ but as a brother in Christ.” (Coffman)
- Luke describes Saul’s method of preaching by using the verb “proving” which means “placing together,” “bringing together,” or “comparing.” “Paul is placing Old Testament references to the Messiah with each other — and alongside their fulfillment in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. This placing together is meant to lead Jews to see Jesus as the one who fulfilled what the Scriptures say about their hoped-for Messiah.” (GCI)
- in Jerusalem Paul debates the Hellenistic Jews, the same group to whom Stephen preached, and which ultimately led to Stephen’s arrest, trial and death. In a sense, Paul is taking up the work Stephen began. “In a bit of irony, Paul ends up at odds with the same group he represented, or even led, in its conflict with Stephen.” (GCI) “Jerusalem was the city where he had led the persecutions against the church; there he had stood consenting to the death of Stephen; there he was acquainted with those implacable foes of the Lord and of his kingdom who had formerly been his allies, friends, and fellow-persecutors. He knew their bitterness and their unwavering hatred of Christianity; and yet, to that city, before those people, and in the presence of those very same individuals, he boldly and unequivocally preached the gospel of the Son of God.” (Coffman)
- “Tabitha is prepped for burial. There is no evidence that they expected that Peter would raise her up to life. the apostles had as yet raised up no one from the dead–as even Stephen had not been restored to life–we have no authority for assuming, or supposing, that they had formed any such expectation.” (Barnes)
- Peter’s words to Tabitha to raise her from the dead (“Tabitha, get up”) are reminiscent of Jesus’ words to the dead girl in Mark 5 (“Little girl, get up!”), which in its Aramaic form Tabitha kumi would have differed in only one letter from Jesus’ command Talitha kumi [“Little girl, get up”]). [Longenecker, 382.]
- The fact that Peter lodged with a tanner would have been significant to both the Gentile and Jewish Christians, for Judaism considered the tanning occupation unclean. (NCC)
- When Jesus says that Saul’s persecution of the church is a persecution of himself, what does that say about our role as the church? What does that say about how God feels about what happens to the church and what the church does? What responsibilities does this convey for us?
- It was very bold of Paul to go to the people he had wronged and request to be included, and even bolder still to go to the people he used to cavort with and tell them they were wrong. Would you do the same?
- Why was Barnabas willing to take Paul at his word (that he had converted to Christianity) when the other disciples were so hesitant? Who is an “enemy of the faith” that you would have a hard time believing had truly had a change of heart?
- Luke recounts Paul’s dramatic conversion story three times (Acts 9, 22, 26), but tells of the “testimony” of other people’s conversion very rarely. What does this tell us about the importance of our own personal testimony?
- The account of Peter raising Tabitha from the dead is parallel to the account of Jesus raising Jarius’ daughter from the dead. Peter saw a situation that looked similar to one Christ had been in, and walked closely in his footsteps to achieve the same results. How can we recognize situations similar to those Jesus was in? How can we walk closely in his steps? What results can we expect?
- Wikipedia entry on Paul the Apostle
- US Conference of Catholic Bishops
- Barnes Notes on the New Testament
- Coffman’s Commentary on Acts
- Grace Communion International
*Interesting side note (that will be taken up again in Acts 11): The term “Christian” was a derogatory term made up by the residents of Antioch (who apparently liked to make up these types of nicknames). “‘Christians’, or Cristianos in Greek, was coined to distinguish the worshippers of Christ from the Kaisarnarios, the worshippers of Caesar.” (Wuest, pg 19). Also, “The Hebrew equivalent of “Nazarenes”, Notzrim, occurs in the Babylonian Talmud, and is still the modern Israeli Hebrew term for Christian.” (Wikipedia)
Post Discussion Perspectives:
- People without “dramatic” testimonies (like Paul’s) feel like they don’t have a story to share, but that it’s important to use “testimony” in discussing God’s effect on people’s life.
- Testimonies of our encounter with God are meant to inspire hope and show God acting, not impress. If the focus is the convert, the story is ineffective.
- The passion and hard-lined attitude that Saul had in persecuting Christians was the same zeal with which he advocated for Christ after his conversion.
- Saul was trying to do the right thing by killing Christians–he was trying to preserve orthodoxy. How many people railing against the church now actually have the right intentions but the wrong perspective?
- Saul gave up a promising career in the Sanhedrin, and a comfortable life in Jerusalem, to become a wandering preacher, hated, beaten and spending several years of his life imprisoned. What would you give up?
- Paul was kind of a jerk, but God can use jerks (which should encourage all of us).
- Interesting how the men with Saul, who had started on their journey with him to go and kill Christians, helped him after his conversion. They witnessed Saul’s conversion, what happened to their own beliefs? They didn’t proceed with a persecution in Damascus. What did they do, think, believe?
- Luke’s choice of stories are interesting in that they often show a parallel between Peter and Jesus, and then Peter and Paul.
Scripture: Acts 6:1-15
- The traditional Aramaic-speaking Jews are accused by the Greek-speaking Jews of overlooking immigrant widows in the daily distribution of food
- The Twelve apostles think it is not a good use of their time to “wait on tables,” so they appoint a few holy guys, like Stephen, to do it
- Stephen gets into (and wins) numerous arguments with a local synagog (or two — see below)
- The members of the synagog(s) decide the best way to shut Stephen up is to charge him with blasphemy
- Stephen gets dragged in front of the Sanhedrin and accused of dissing Moses (i.e. the law and the temple)
- Stephen looks really chill despite the fact he’s facing the death penalty
Hellenistic vs. Hebraic Jews
The first difference between these groups was language. Hebraic Jews spoke almost exclusively Aramaic (the language of the homeland), whereas the Hellenistic Jews spoke Greek (the language of the Gentiles/invaders). Secondly, though both of these groups lived in Jerusalem, the Hebraic Jews had lived for many generations in the nation of Israel whereas the Hellenistic Jews were part of the Diaspora, and had more recently returned from abroad to settle in Jerusalem. Third, the Hebraic Jews tended to be traditionalists and whole-heartedly rejected Greek/Gentile culture, but the Hellenized Jews felt they could include many elements of Greek culture into their lifestyle** and still be true to their beliefs.
One can imagine that the Hellenized Jews thought they could help their old-school, traditional brethren update their primitive beliefs/practices by incorporating elements of modern Greek culture. Conversely, the established Jewish community felt that any Jews who were willing to assimilate into the surrounding culture were giving up on Judaism. The Hellenistic Jews would advocate the pursuit of modernity. The Hebraic Jews would advocate that no good Jew would ever abandon their original culture, history, and religion.
The Daily Distribution of Food
The early church had started to build a charitable infrastructure quickly as indicated by the earlier chapters in Acts where people shared their possessions (2:44) and sold their possessions (4:34) so that no one was in need. The daily “soup kitchen” described in this chapter gives us a sense of how that manifested itself on a day to day level.
No doubt with several thousand members now part of the church it took considerable effort to manage the requests for help and the money offered to help. To make matters worse, immigrant widows from the Diaspora would probably be especially needy. They’d be less likely to have local family around to help, and if there was a language barrier they’d have a hard time understanding how or where to get help.
In the Jewish synagogues at the time, three men were appointed to care of the poor, especially the widows, orphans and foreigners (groups of people God was explicit about caring for–see: Deuteronomy 10:18;14:29; 16:11, 14; 24:17, 19-21; 26:12-13; 27:19; Malachi 3:5; Isaiah 1:17, 23; 10:2; Jeremiah 5:28; 7:6; 23:3; Ezekiel 22:7; Psalm 93:6). They were called by the Hebrews Parnasin or Pastors and they distributed a weekly quppah, or poor basket of food and clothing. From these existing practices the apostles took the idea of appointing “servants” (sometimes translated deacons) in the early church. They most likely appointed seven men so that each person could be responsible for a single day of the week. The number of people appointed to oversee the program, and the fact that it was daily rather than weekly✢, may be an indication of the magnitude of the needs they were trying to fulfill. The needs may also have been magnified by the fact that the temple/synagog funds were probably being withheld from widows who became Christians.
The Laying On of Hands
This is the first mention of this practice in Acts. The laying on of hands accompanies several other important events including baptism (Acts 8); healings (Acts 9, 28) and the commission to ministry (Acts 13). In the Old Testament the laying on of hands generally symbolized a conferring of office and responsibility (Numbers 8, 27). The actual placement of hands is done by a few individuals, but they did so on behalf of the whole community. The same thing is true in Acts as the apostles lay hands on the seven men signaling that the whole church approved of them.
This wasn’t done to impart any special power or ability, but to designate that they had received the authority/approval of those who laid their hands on them.
Synagog of Freedmen
“Freedmen” were former slaves (or their children) who had been emancipated. These people may have been the descendants of those Jews subjugated by Pompey the Great and had been since liberated from Rome. Some have speculated that there were several hundred synagogues in Jerusalem at the time. Luke may have been indicating that there were up to five synagogues of Freedmen (i.e. Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia (the apostle Paul’s home town), and of Asia), or that there was one synagog with members from all these areas. It is speculated that Saul (soon to be Paul) attended one of these synagogues.*
To “speak blasphemous words against Moses” refers to contempt for the temple and its rituals and to be disrespectful of the Torah (“the law of Moses”). As indicated in chapter 7, Stephen is declaring that salvation comes through Jesus and therefore the system of worship centered on the Jerusalem temple is no longer needed. The Jews saw the temple as the foundation and focus of Jewish life, worship and salvation. The Temple was where God lived, and was the only place where a sacrifice could be offered. The Law could never be changed. Stephen was saying that the Temple would pass away (and was never where God lived to begin with), and that the Law was but a stage toward the Jesus.
According to Leviticus 24:16: “…anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”
The Face of an Angel
“The description is of a person who is close to God and reflects some of His glory as a result of being in his presence (Exodus 34:29ff).” (Marshall)
It is used in the Old Testament to denote peculiar wisdom, 2 Samuel 14:17; 19:27, or the impression which will be produced on the countenance by communion with God; a look of calm serenity and composure.
- The “daily distribution of bread” gives a sense of what is happening in Acts 2 and 4 where believers “shared everything” so that there wasn’t “a needy person among them.”
- The apostles do not ignore the problem with the widows, nor chastise the widows for complaining. Nor do they try to hold on to this important responsibility, because they can do it only if they neglect their duty to preach.
- The seven men all have Greek names, indicating that they are probably Hellenists themselves; the people (and the apostles) show great sensitivity to the offended Hellenists by appointing Hellenists to take care of the widows’ distribution.
- Nicolaus, the last-mentioned of the seven, is a convert (proselyte) to Judaism from paganism. Only full converts are called proselytes. They are instructed in Judaism, baptized and circumcised.
- “Deacon” is not a title in this context. It is a verb, not a noun. It means “servant.” One speculation on the origin of the word is that it means “through the dust,” referring to the dust raised by the busy servant or messenger.This group is formally named as the Seven (Acts 21:8), even as the original apostles are called the Twelve. In effect, the office of the Seven is as unique as that of the original apostles.
- The word tables is sometimes used with reference to money, as being the place where money was kept for the purpose of exchange, etc., Matthew 21:12. Here the expression could mean “to attend to the pecuniary transactions of the church, and to make the proper distribution for the wants of the poor.”
- The same Greek word is used for both distribution (Acts 6:1) and ministry (Acts 6:4). The idea behind the word in both instances is service.
- The punishment for blasphemy was stoning to death. Curiously, this is similar to the charge brought against Jesus. Not more than a few months ago, this same Sanhedrin heard testimony that Jesus said he would destroy the temple and build it again in three days (Matthew 26).
- Who is being overlooked by the church today? Are there any deep-rooted prejudices we’re using as a filter to decide who gets help and who doesn’t?
- The widows did the right thing by making their need known, the apostles did a good thing by realizing they don’t have the bandwidth to fix it themselves, and the Seven did a good thing by taking on a relatively simple task as a ministry. Is this a formula to solve disputes in the church? How do we resolve them now?
- Where were Peter and John at this crisis? Apparently Stephen stands alone before the Sanhedrin as Jesus did. Why didn’t Gamaliel speak up again?
- What was inaccurate about the charges brought against Stephen? What was accurate?
- Why did the apostles insist on choosing holy men just to hand out food to the poor, then give them such a ceremonial blessing? What does this say about the importance of these types of ministries to them? What does it say about the importance of unity and fairness in the church? Do we treat similar problems the same way today?
- A good description of the Hellenist vs. Traditional Jews
- Great commentary on Acts 6
- Guzik’s commentary on Acts 6
*Interesting side note: “The mention of Cilicia suggests this may have been Paul’s synagogue before he was converted. He came from Tarsus in Cilicia.” (Lovett) This may explain why Paul (then Saul) was present at the stoning. He may have also been present as a student of Gamaliel (a member of the Sanhedrin). Paul may have tried his wits against Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew (don’t forget, Paul saw himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” a devoted Pharisee at the time) and lost, which may have fueled his hatred and subsequent persecution of Christians.
**Some commentators note that the Hellenistic Jews were willing to violate Jewish law to fit in with Gentiles by reversing circumcisions so they would fit in at the gymnasia.
✢The distribution of provisions to the poor may have been part of the “agape feasts.” As Joachim Jeremias describes it in his book: The Jerusalem church assembled daily, probably in the evening, where they listened to the Twelve’s teaching, prayed, ate together, and distributed goods to the needy.
Post Discussion Perspectives:
- With regards to the commissioning of the Seven: this was a ministry (feeding the widows) that taken seriously not just because of the immediacy of the need, but because of the emphasis put on this responsibility by God (see numerous Old Testament quotations above). Taking care of the widows was something God instructed his community to do over and over and over again. The next question that came up was: Which instruction(s) reiterated time and again by Jesus should the church be appointing people to run with now? The suggestions ranged from more traditional church appointments like church planting and missions, to jobs/ministries/positions that aren’t clearly defined in the church like: loving one another, breaking down barriers between people, and helping individuals utilize their full talents.
Luke is generally considered to be the author of the combined volumes of the Gospel of Luke and Acts.
Luke is mentioned briefly a few times in the Paul’s letters (Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11). He was a Gentile and a physician who lived in Antioch in Ancient Syria. He is thought to have been a disciple of Paul, following him until the apostle was martyred, and according to tradition Luke died at the age of 84 years. (Wikipedia)
Scholars think that the composition of the writings, as well as the range of vocabulary used, confirm that the author was an educated man.
Luke is thought to have been an eyewitness to several of the incidents in Acts based on the pronoun changes from the first to the third person (the “we” passages) in Acts 16:10; 20:5; 21:1.
Luke addresses both his gospel and the book of Acts to “most excellent Theophilus.” There are several theories about who this person, or persons, may be:
An Un-Identified Prominent Official or Person of High Standing in Rome
The phrase can be translated as “your excellency, Friend of God (or Loved of God)” and may refer to a prominent official in the government. In Acts, Luke uses the same title (“most excellent”) to refer to the Roman governors Felix and Festus (23:26; 24:3; 26:25).
Some think he was a representative member of the intelligent middle-class public in Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a less prejudiced and more favorable opinion of Christianity. Theophilus may have already learned something about the rise and progress of Christianity, and Luke’s aim was to put him in possession of more accurate information than he already had. (F.F. Bruce)
Other’s think that Theophilus may have been Paul’s lawyer during his trial period in Rome.
Theophilus ben Ananus
Some think that Luke was writing to Theophilus ben Ananus, High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem from 37-41. This Theophilus would have been a Sadducee and brother-in-law of Caiaphas, the High Priest who condemned Jesus. (Wikipedia)
Scholars point to internal evidence to support this claim:
- Account of Zacharias – a priest who had a vision of an angel in the Temple
- Mary’s purification (niddah – separation due to ritual impurity)
- Jesus’ firstborn redemption rituals (pidyon haben)
- Jesus’ pilgrimage to the Temple when he was twelve, implying his bar mitzvah
- There’s no mention of Caiaphas’ role in Jesus’ crucifixion
- An emphasizes Jesus’ literal resurrection, including an ascension into heaven as a realm of spiritual existence
Titus Flavius Sabinus II
Some think that Theophilus was the converted Roman official Titus Flavius Sabinus II, a former Prefect of Rome and older brother of future Roman Emperor Vespasian. His wife, Pomponia Graecina, is presumed to have converted to Christianity, and possibly used her son-in-law’s status as Lord Mayor of Rome to try to protect Paul while he was under house arrest during his first stay in Rome. (Wikipedia)
A General Audience
Some think that Theophilus was not a person. The word in Greek means “Friend of God” and so Luke was writing to anyone who fits that description.
The book concludes during the second year of the residence of Paul at Rome (c. 62 AD), and makes not mention of any further dealings with Paul, or of any other event of history. Considering Luke’s apparent admiration for Paul, it would seem that the book was written around this time, with Paul still in prison, still alive. Thus, many conclude it was competed by 63 AD, and was most likely written in Rome. (Barnes)
Tradition holds that Paul was freed from Roman prison in the mid 60’s, only to be later re-imprisoned and ultimately martyred (c. 68 AD). Why Luke would’ve intentionally left out these significant events about someone he spent the entire second half of Acts focused on seems unusual, but still, many scholars believe that Luke-Acts was written much later (80-110 AD).
To Strengthen Theophilus’ Faith
Luke tells us himself that he personally researched and gathered material for his gospel and Acts – he “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” so he could “write an orderly account” of what he knew about the Christian movement. Though Luke surely edited the material he had, and structured it to make sense to his reader, he states that he tried not to base it on his personal opinion. Luke wrote down the information “handed down” to him from “those who from the first were eyewitnesses” so that Theophilus would “know the certainty of the things [he had] been taught.” (GCI)
Note that Luke didn’t write his gospel or Acts to provide justification as to whether or not any of the events actually happened, but rather to encourage Theophilus’ faith–to explain what happened and what it all meant. (Wikipedia)
To Legitimize Christianity Politically
During the time in which Luke wrote, Christians were seen by the Roman government as subversives to the Imperial Cult, and to the Jews they were perverters of their religion. It is of little doubt that the majority of the first century public saw Christianity as a dangerous sect, an illegitimate religion, and definitely not the one true “Way.”
Luke seems to have a political objective, too — to show that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman government. Although riots sometimes broke out when the gospel was preached, Luke notes that the problems were caused by Jews or Gentiles, not the Christian preachers. Throughout Acts, Roman officials repeatedly find Paul innocent of wrong-doing, and they allow the gospel to continue to be preached. (GCI)
To Defend Paul
Luke frequently defends Paul against accusations that he was preaching against Judaism. Luke communicates to us that Paul did not teach Jews to abandon their traditions, nor did he abandon them himself–Paul participated in Jewish rituals both in Ephesus and in Jerusalem. According to Luke, Paul only preached to Gentiles when the Jews didn’t listen. Also, Luke reiterates three times that Jesus miraculously called Paul and commissioned him as an apostle.
To Show Jesus as Still Alive And Active
“Luke’s thesis is this: Jesus remains active, though the manner of his working has changed. Now, no longer in the flesh, he continues ‘to do and to teach’ through his ‘body’ the church….This is the story of Acts.”(David J. Williams)
To Explain The Cultural Shift in Christianity Towards Gentiles
During Luke’s lifetime, Christianity was becoming more Gentile than Jewish. Luke faced the theological problem of explaining how the Messiah, promised to the Jews, came to have an overwhelmingly non-Jewish church. Luke seems to answer this by constantly reiterating how the message of Christ went to the Gentiles only after the Jews rejected it. (Wikipedia)
How to Read Acts:
History With a Purpose
Acts is a selective history. Luke does not attempt to chronicle all the actions and events of the early church. In fact, he focuses in on a narrow number of people and highlights only key events in their ministry. Of the twelve disciples, Luke spends the most time on Peter, and the majority of the second half of the book features Paul almost exclusively. God was most likely doing a great number of other things through other believers at this time that did not fit the purposes of Luke’s narrative.
History, Not Law
Though it’s tempting to treat Acts as a template for how the church should work, Luke did not write his book to be a guide for how the church should operate, nor for how the church should conduct evangelistic endeavors. This book is descriptive, not prescriptive. (GCI)
Geographic Spread of Christianity
Some commentators have outlined the book geographically, using a formula Jesus gave his disciples: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). (GCI) Thus, Luke shows the migration of Christianity outwardly from Jerusalem in a similar pattern.
At the highest level, the book traces the geographic movement of Christianity from Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish nation, to Rome, the center of the Gentile world.
Ethnic Spread of Christianity
Luke also wants to explain how Christianity moved from its Jewish foundations to spread to the Gentile world. (GCI) He starts with the church as only having Jewish members, then shows how believers branch out to include Hellenistic Jews, Samaritans, and eventually Gentiles. Acts 15, the very middle of the book, highlights the pivot of the church towards a primarily Gentile population as Luke outlines the Council of Jerusalem’s decision to include Gentiles into Christianity without requiring them to follow traditional Jewish rites and practices.
Continuity of Christ’s Work Continuing Through Peter Then Paul
Luke draws several parallels between Jesus, Peter, Paul throughout Acts.
|Raises a young girl from the dead by saying, “Little girl, rise.” (Aramaic: talitha, kum) (Luke 8:40)||Raises an old widow, named Tabitha, back from the dead (Aramaic: Tabitha, kum) (Acts 9:36)||Brings a young man back from the dead. (Acts 20:9)|
|Determined to visit Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) – 7 mentions of his journey to Jerusalem||Determined to visit Jerusalem (Acts 19:21) – 7 mentions of his journey to Jerusalem|
|Told Sanhedrin that he was the ‘cornerstone the builders rejected” (Luke 20:17)||Tells the Sanhedrin that Jesus was the “cornerstone the builders rejected” (Acts 4:11)|
|Jesus is slapped by the priest’s assistants (Luke 22:63)||Paul is slapped at the high priest’s command (Acts 23:2)|
|Four trials in which Jesus is declared innocent three times (Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, Pilate)||Four trials in which Paul is declared innocent three times (Sanhedrin, Lysias, Festus, Agrippa)|
|Inaugural sermon focused on the Davidic covenant (2:22)||Inaugural sermon focused on the Davidic covenant (13:26)|
|Use of Psalm 16 to show that Jesus was to rise from the dead (Acts 2:27)||Use of Psalm 16 to show that Jesus was to rise from the dead (Acts 13:35)|
|Healing of other though indirect contact – Peter’s shadow (Acts 5:14)||Healing of other though indirect contact – Paul’s garments (Acts 19:11)|
|Rebuked a Jewish magician – Simon (Acts 8:18)||Rebuked a Jewish magician – Elymas (Acts 13:6)|
|Declined divine worship (Acts 10:25)||Declined divine worship (Acts 14:11)|
|Miraculously released from prison (Acts 12:6)||Miraculously released from prison (Acts 16:25)|
Summary: Major Personalities, Regions and People
|Peter and John||Jerusalem||Jews|
|Greek-speaking Jews: Philip and Stephen||Jerusalem, Samaria and Judea||Jews, Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch|
|Paul and Peter||Damascus, Judea, Antioch, Jerusalem and Asia||Jews, God-fearing Gentiles and pagans|
|Paul the missionary||Europe and Asia Minor||Gentiles and Jews|
|Paul the prisoner||Jerusalem, Caesarea and Rome||Gentile rulers, Gentiles and Jews|
Universality of Salvation
the message of the universality of salvation is that salvation is not limited to a particular culture and is not to be earned by observing ethno-cultural religious rights and laws, even Jewish ones. Restrictions of place, ritual cleanness, race, and commandments such as circumcision are not required by God for salvation.Thus, the good news, the gospel, of salvation reaches the very capital of the human kingdoms of the then-known world. (Barnes)
Luke is reiterating that salvation wasn’t just for pious Jews, rather it was for the everyman (publican, tax collector), and even the Gentiles.
A general outline of the various sermons in Acts:
- The age of fulfillment predicted in the Old Testament has dawned, the promises have been fulfilled, the Messiah has come.
- This has taken place in Jesus of Nazareth.
- He was descended from the seed of David and went about teaching, doing good, and executing mighty works by the power of God through which God indicated his approval of him
- Jesus was crucified in accordance with the purpose of God and raised by the power of God
- The church is witness to these things.
- Jesus has been exalted into heaven at the right hand of God, where he reigns as the messianic head of the New Israel with the title “Lord.”
- The Holy Spirit in the church is now the seal of Christ’s present power and glory.
- Jesus will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things.
- Therefore, all who hear should repent and be baptized for the remission of sins.
Political Innocence of Christians
The bulk of the speeches and sermons in Acts are addressed to Jewish audiences, with the Romans featuring as external arbiters on disputes concerning Jewish customs and law. The Romans never move against Jesus or his followers unless provoked by the Jews, in the trial scenes the Christian missionaries are always cleared of charges of violating Roman laws. (Wikipedia)
The Kingdom of God
A common Jewish view of history divided it into two “ages.” The first was a time of proclamation and preparation in which God often worked indirectly and figuratively. The second age was the “age of fulfillment, ” when God would work personally and directly to deal with human sin and resultant problems; at that time he would reestablish his sovereign control (the kingdom of God). This second period would last until the “world (or age) to come, ” the consummation of God’s work and of world history. The point of passage from the former to the latter age was expected to be marked by the direct intervention of God, either personally or through his agent (the Messiah). At that point the kingdom of God, the age of fulfillment, the messianic age, the age of salvation, would become a present reality. (Barnes)
Acts begins with Peter announcing the arrival of the age of fulfillment at Pentecost. Jesus is the turning point in time; he and his ministry are not the middle period, but the central, decisive moment, the “Day” in God’s saving history. The teachings of Jesus, the preaching and actions of the apostles, assume that what was future to Old Testament writers is now present. (Barnes)
God’s work had entered a new phase; things would never be the same again. Old patterns, law, practices, and the rest could and must be reevaluated.
- There are 18 speeches in Acts. (GCI)
- Acts contains a nearly a quarter (23%) of the occurrences of the word “Spirit” in the New Testament. (GCI)
- The title “Acts of the Apostles” was first used by Irenaeus in the late 2nd century (Wikipedia)
- Luke-Acts together account for nearly a third (27.5%) of the New Testament.
- Why do you think Luke narrowed his history to primarily focus on Peter and Paul’s efforts to build the kingdom? Who else would you have liked Luke to write about?
- Whose acts does this book really record? What title would you have given it?
- How can we read this to determine what should be normative for the church and what was unique for that place and time?
- Wikipedia: Acts of the Apostles
- Grace Communion International Commentary
- Barnes Commentary
- Wikipedia: Theophilus
- Baker’s Theological Dictionary
- Study Bible Forum