New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 29: Acts 6-9

We’re about half way through the year, and I felt it appropriate to repost some housekeeping things I hope you read.

First, I posted the midterm and final I gave when I taught the 2nd half of New Testament at BYU in 2006. (Handouts and answers are down in the comments of that post.) Although we’re just getting into the material covered there,  it may be useful for study/question ideas.

Second, we are starting to run out of story and narrative, Paul is approaching fast. If you haven’t already gotten one, in Paul’s letters it becomes critical to supplement the KJV with a modern translation of the Bible to grasp what he’s saying. As C.S. Lewis said, ” I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given [Paul] so many gifts, withheld from him… that of lucidity and orderly exposition.” My Bible recommendations and reasons are here. Please check them out.

Lastly, in order to make up for last week, I’ll get Lesson 30 up before this Sunday as well. Since we’re into Acts now, I have preexisting notes and lessons I can adapt.

On to today’s reading!

5:1-11 Ananias and Saphira

5:12 What is Solomon’s Portico?  You can see (below) that it’s the very large roofed-but-open-area along the eastern wall, by the Shoshan Gate.

This colonnade like the others that surrounded the temple precinct, provided a meeting place for individuals to discuss Scripture preceding and following the observation of religious rituals. Jesus’ disciples gathered at this location and the early Jerusalem church also met there (John 10:23; Acts 3:11; 5:12). It was located on the E side of the temple complex overlooking the Kidron Valley (Josephus Ant 20.9.7). According to the tradition reported by Josephus, Solomon’s temple utilized a covered area supported by a platform (JW 5.5.1; Ant 8.3.9). The location described as Solomon’s portico in the NT was certainly designed by Herod’s architects. This colonnade was reportedly double columned and spanned 49 feet. The columns were 38 feet tall monoliths of white marble and supported cedar-paneled ceilings. This impressive structure however was overshadowed by the Royal Colonnade at the S end of the temple precinct. No extant remains of Solomon’s Portico are preserved in situ except for the platform on which it was founded.- “Solomon’s Portico (Place),” Anchor Bible Dictionary

BTW, if you’d like to go wander around a virtual Herod’s Temple (with some gaps imaginatively filled in and some inaccuracies IMO), try here.

From Logos/Faithlife.

From Logos/Faithlife.


5:14 “Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women (Acts 5:14 NRS)”

The inclusiveness of early Christianity was one of great its attractions and reasons for rapid growth. It offered a particular afterlife (another attractive innovation of sorts, see here) to those who had traditionally been considered lower in status, to everyone- man, woman, slave, Roman, Jew, Greek, pagan. This is particularly visible in Luke, who includes many stories implicitly elevating those of secondary social status in the Judaic/Greco-Roman world.

6:1-6 LDS have a theological hammer, which inclines us to see everything as a nail. Here in Acts 6, in order to facilitate more equitable and ordererly food distribution, seven men are chosen. We’ve sometimes leaped to the conclusion that these are the Presidency of the Seventy. However, besides taking current Church structure as being static and eternal, it also misreads the scriptures AND probably gets the causality backwards. First, note in v.3, these seven men are NOT chosen by the Apostles, as you might expect. Rather, it’s a democratic thing, they seem to be chosen by the congregation, and are then sent to the apostles who pray and lay their hands on them. (That’s a Judaic thing, not necessarily priesthood ordination nor bestowal of the Holy Ghost.)  All seven have Greek names.

As to causality, our own usage of 7 probably is modeled on the biblical usages that model 7 as a significant number. (3 and 4 were significant. 3+4=7 and 3*4=12, so 3, 4, 7, and 12 tend to pop up a lot.)

Chapter 7- Stephen is accused of blasphemy (meriting the death penalty) and responds by telling Israel’s story. What kind of defense is this?  N.T. Wright has written repeatedly about how early Christians viewed history as culminating in Jesus. God choose Israel to spread the gospel and redeem the world, which would fail, but Jesus as the new Israel would succeed. Jesus was “the climax of the covenant” to take the title of one of his books. In a more popular book, he says

[Stephen] had been accused of speaking against the Temple and the law; of saying that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs which Moses had given, heavy as those customs were with cultural and religious symbolic significance. How was he to respond?

He could simply have waved the charges away. They are obviously false. He hasn’t been saying that at all. Or he could have avoided them and used the opportunity to speak about Jesus himself, about his cruel death and astonishing resurrection, about the future hope of the renewal of all things which was now coming true in him. Instead, he takes the bull by the horns and goes for the big picture. What you need, he says, is to rework your run-up. Tell the story again from the very beginning and get it right this time. Pace out the whole journey, from Abraham onwards, so that you arrive at the present moment at exactly the right speed and from exactly the right angle. Then, and only then, will you understand who Jesus is, and what I and my friends, who believe in him, have and haven’t been saying. In delivering this speech, Stephen (and Luke, in highlighting it so prominently) is doing something which many other Jews of the time were doing, in line with a long biblical tradition (e.g. Nehemiah 9; Daniel 9; Psalms 105 and 106; and, in the first century, the major works of Josephus and sundry other Jewish writings).

This explains why much of the speech doesn’t seem to be a direct answer to the charges made against Stephen. What we have to do is to listen carefully, to see the way he is telling the whole story, and to note which points, out of the thousands of different things that one could deduce as ‘the moral’ from different bits of the story, he wants to highlight. Instead of a head-on rebuttal of the charges, he has chosen a kind of outflanking movement. Tell the story this way, he is saying, and you will see what I am saying about Jesus and how it relates to everything else that matters.

He starts with Abraham; or rather, of course, he starts with God. ‘The God of glory’—a title which, though it sounds obvious, only occurs elsewhere in scripture at Psalm 29:3. Just in case anyone should repeat the charge that he is speaking blasphemies against the God of their ancestors (Acts 6:11), he is going to set things straight from the start. But then we get to Abraham. The significance of Abraham for understanding both second-Temple Judaism and Christianity as its surprising but powerful offshoot can hardly be overestimated. It is with Abraham that the story of the Jewish people begins; and it is with Abraham that Genesis begins the story of how the world is to be set right. The story of the people of Israel, in other words, does not come as a separate, free-standing entity, but as a way of saying: this is how the creator God is acting to deal with the problem of human sin, social catastrophe, and cosmic disaster as set out in Genesis 3–11. The whole history of the people of Israel is to be understood under this rubric. The call of Abraham to be different, to leave his ancestral home and go to a new land (Acts 7:2–4), is a way of marking him out, of giving him a new vocation. Stephen isn’t denying that. He’s insisting on it.

Stephen homes in particularly, as does Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3, on Genesis 15, the chapter in which God makes a covenant with Abraham and tells him, long in advance, that his descendants will be enslaved by a foreign nation but will be brought out and given the land as their inheritance—the land where at present he lives as a resident alien. The question of the holy land looms large at this point in Stephen’s speech. Even though it has not been mentioned in the charges laid against him, its importance to a first-century Jew (as, in similar ways, to twenty-first-century Jews, though that raises all sorts of other questions!) was beyond question.
Perhaps people were already starting to comment on the way in which the followers of Jesus were cheerfully selling up ancestral property. But, whether or not that is likely, the Temple—which becomes the eventual sharp point of Stephen’s speech—was the theological centre, the place where all the ideology about the land of promise became focused. So Stephen is happy to speak of Abraham’s purchase of a burial place, and of its use by the patriarchs. Apart from anything else, it all sets the scene quite carefully for the story of the Exodus, which, alongside God’s call of Abraham and God’s covenant with him, forms an essential pillar of Jewish identity, and which stands at the heart of what Stephen wishes to say.
But before he gets there, he is already building in to his selective retelling a point which he will develop further in talking about Moses. Joseph was rejected by his brothers, but God used him to become the ruler of all Pharaoh’s household, and indeed of the whole land of Egypt. When his brothers needed food, the man they had to go to was the man they had been jealous of and so had rejected. Fortunately for them, he was gracious to them and gave them what they needed.
Were there already some in Stephen’s audience who saw where this was going? One of the great arts of Christian theology is to know how to tell the story: the story of the Old Testament, the story of Jesus as both the climax of the Old Testament and the foundation of all that was to come (not, in other words, a random collection of useful preaching material with some extraordinary and ‘saving’ events tacked on the end), and the story of the church from the first days until now. -Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1:108–110.

And now we meet Paul. Or Saul? A note on names- Several people in the New Testament have multiple names, as well as nicknames. The best analogue to understand at least some of these is foreign students in the US. Their name may be difficult to pronounce in English or just quite foreign, so they take an English name for English contexts. Among their family and native-speaking friends, however, the English name isn’t used. Paul doesn’t take the name “Paul” at his conversion. Rather, he’s Paul (“Shorty”) in Greek contexts and Saul in Jewish contexts. (It’s only coincidence that the names are so similar in English, but shah-OOL and pow-los are quite different in the original.) Similarly Simon is the Jewish-context name, but Jesus nicknames him Kay-pha (KJV Cephas, “Rocky”), but we know him mostly by the Greek equivalent of his Aramaic nickname, Peter.  John (yochanan) in Judaic contexts is better known to us as Mark in Greek contexts (this is the putative author of Mark), and is sometimes called John-Mark (Acts 12:25)

So Paul is always Saul and vice-versa (see Acts 13:9). But the name people call him depends on the context.

Acts 9 tells us the story of Paul’s conversion. I’ll talk more about this when we come to 1 Corinthians, but a few quick notes. Paul has a vision of the risen Jesus, who has been crucified, which marks Jesus as being cursed by God (Gal. 3:13 and Deu 21:21-23). Jesus does not explain to Paul how one cursed by God can somehow be the glorious resurrected son of God. Paul knows that both things are true, though incompatible. That puzzle, that doctrinal disconnect, some even use the term cognitive dissonance, Paul has to wrestle with, because Jesus gives him no direct answer, only divine and revelatory experience. Paul, at least temporarily, chooses to follow his spiritual experience over what he can put together intellectually. After a few days, and the restoration of his sight, Paul immediately begins to testify that Jesus is the Christ. He will, eventually, be able to reconcile his spiritual experience with his intellectual understanding.

One more point that is often lost. The Gospels and Acts were written at least a decade or two after Paul’s letters, which means that those hearing Acts probably already know who Paul is, but they might not know his back-story. How does learning the background of this powerful apostle change our understanding of him?

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