The Significance of the Speeches for Interpreting Acts

F.F. Bruce  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 33 - Fall 1990

Historians and Speeches

In classical historiography an important role is regularly filled by speeches ascribed to leading characters in the narrative. A speech in the ap­propriate context could sum up a situation, draw a moral from the immediately preceding section of the narrative, or prepare readers for the next development. When conflicting issues are in­volved in a situation, they can be set out clearly by means of contrasting speeches on the one side and the other.

With regard to speeches as in other respects, Thucydides (471-ca. 403 B.C.) was the great exemplar among ancient historians. He sets out his own policy at the outset of his History of the Peloponnesian War. He does not pretend to reproduce the exact words used by speakers; in fact on many of the occasions when the speeches were delivered he was not even pres­ent. But, he says,

I have put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be most likely to express them, while at the same time I endeavored, as nearly as I could, to give the general purport of what was actually said.[1]Thucydides, History 1.22.1.

The best historians set themselves to follow Thucydides’ example. By lesser historians the introduction of speeches into the narrative was treated as an opportunity for rhetorical exercises calculated to display the writers’ stylistic ability rather than for making a positive contribution to the history. Polybius, three hundred years later than Thucydides, passes severe strictures on such writers: they have little conception of the historian’s task, which is (he says) to instruct serious students and convince them for all time by the truth of the facts and the speeches he records. Whereas the purpose of the tragic poet is “to create illusion in the spectators,” the historian gives absolute precedence to “the truth, his purpose being to confer benefits on learners’.”[2]Polybius, History 2.56.10-12. Polybius himself puts these principles into practice in his use of speeches in the course of his historical work.

Only rarely is it possible to check a historian’s speech report against an independent record of what was said. One of these rare instances occurs in the Annals of Tacitus, where he reports a speech delivered by the Emperor Claudius to the Roman senate in A.D. 48, which happens to have been preserved in an inscrip­tion at Lyon in France.[3]Tacitus, Annals 11.24; the inscription is reproduced in H. Dessau, Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae, 1, no. 212 (Berlin: Weidemann, 1892), 52-54, and in E. Mary Smallwood, Documents Illustrating the Principates of Gaius, Claudius and Nero (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), no. 369, 97-99.

The inscription no doubt keeps more closely to Claudius’ wording; the historian’s report is in Tacitean style and may moreover combine the speech to the senate with an earlier speech made by Claudius on the same subject to another audience; but in substance it is the same speech that is reproduced by the historian and the inscription.


Speeches in Luke’s History

The speeches in Acts should not be considered in isolation from those in the Third Gospel. The Third Gospel, for all the historiographical equip­ment with which its narrative is introduced (Luke 1:1-4; 2:1-3; 3:1-2), belongs to the new gospel genre rather than to the well-established genre of Hellenistic historiography. The speeches in Luke play a more essential part than do those in Acts. In Luke the sayings recorded are for the most part the sayings of our Lord, which were treated with special veneration. They may be recorded in Luke’s style, but the sense which he found in his sources is faithfully reproduced, as is sometimes the very wording, whether he is reproducing parables (e.g. Luke 8:4-15), the sermon on the level place (Luke 6:20-49), or the Olivet discourse (Luke 21:5-33). After an examination of Luke’s version of that discourse with the earlier form in Mark 13:5-37, C. Burkitt concluded that, in spite of various changes, it is essentially the same speech: “what concerns us here is not that Luke has changed so much, but that he has invented so little.”[4]Francis Crawford Burkitt, “The Use of Mark in the Gospel according to Luke,” in The Beginnings of Christianity, ed. Frederick John Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London: Macmillan, 1922), 1:115.

The speeches in Acts fall into several cate­gories: (1) missionary, (2) deliberative, (3) hor­tatory, (4) apologetic. The first category may be further subdivided according to the gospel’s presentation to (a) Jews and Godfearing Gentiles or (b) pagans. The former of these subdivisions may be divided yet again according to the proc­lamation of the message by (i) Peter and his associates or (ii) Paul and his associates.

Peter’s Missionary Speeches

Two of Peter’s missionary speeches were delivered in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the church’s life. The speech on the day of Pentecost was probably delivered in the temple precincts; that following the healing of the lame man was certainly delivered there.

The speech on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14-36, 38-40) begins with an explanation of the strange phenomena which attended the de­scent of the Spirit on the disciples. The outburst of glossolalia drew a crowd together, and Peter, standing up with his eleven fellow apostles, ex­plained that this was the fulfillment of what had been foretold in Joel 2:28-32: that in the last days God would pour out his Spirit on “all flesh.” True, this was only the beginning; “all flesh” had not yet received the Spirit, but his outpouring on some was the token that these were the “last days” – the days for the fulfillment of all that the prophets had spoken.

Peter then went on with a systematic presen­tation of the apostolic preaching: The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the pro­phetic Scriptures, showing that in him God, in accordance with his promise, had decisively visited his people. To the witness of the Scrip­tures Peter and his companions added their personal testimony: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Let the hearers, then, turn to God in acknowledg­ment of Jesus, crucified by men but exalted by God, and the gift of the Spirit would be theirs too.

The speech in the temple court following the healing of the cripple (Acts 3:12-26) has been assigned to a different source from the narrative of Pentecost. This may be so, but more impor­tant is the presence of some factors that under­ score the primitive character of this speech.

The healing of a man whom everyone had known as a beggar at the Beautiful Gate-the spectacle of him “walking and leaping and praising God” (Acts 3:8) – caused a crowd to gather at the east end of the Outer Courts; and Peter (with John) improved the occasion by proclaiming that this miraculous cure was evi­dence, not of any special power or skill pos­sessed by the apostles, but of the continuing power of the name of Jesus. Jesus had healed cripples during his Palestinian ministry, and he was still doing so in resurrection as his disciples acted in his name and exercised his power. God had exalted his rejected Servant Jesus, said Peter, quoting the opening words of the fourth Isaianic Servant Song, and now through him was an­nouncing amnesty to those who repented of having rejected him. If they repented, not only would their sins be wiped out but they would enjoy a period of respite before Jesus returned as the Christ to inaugurate the consummation of all that the prophets had foretold.

This speech seems to envisage the possibility of a national conversion of Israel, whereas the speech on the day of Pentecost holds out only the hope that a repentant minority, a remnant, may be rescued from ”this crooked generation” (Acts 2:40). This probably conforms fairly well to Luke’s perspective (whereas Paul, as Rom. 11:25-27 suggests, contemplated – not imme­diately, but at the consummation – the salvation of “all Israel”).

Further fragments of the primitive preaching occur in the apostles’ defense before the San­hedrin in Acts 4:8-12 and 5:29-32. In the former passage, Jesus is equated with the stone rejected by the “builders,” the rulers of Israel, but raised by God to be the capstone of the pediment (Ps. 118:22). In the latter passage, the apostles affirm more briefly that God has exalted the rejected and crucified Jesus, and through him is now offering Israel an opportunity to repent and receive his forgiveness. They insist again that they are personal witnesses to the validity of what they affirm and that through their witness the Holy Spirit is himself bearing witness to the truth of their message.

Peter’s Preaching to Gentiles

One further sample of apostolic preaching is assigned to Peter (Acts 10:34-43). This time the message is proclaimed to the household of Cornelius of Caesarea – a Gentile indeed, but a Gentile who worships the God of Israel and practices several of the pious customs of Jewish religion. Such God-fearing Gentiles (a term which covers any degree of sympathy with Judaism short of proselytism) had a background of Old Testament knowledge, especially if they attended the synagogue and heard the Scriptures read. Peter presupposes that Cornelius has this background of knowledge and builds on it. Unlike the people of Jerusalem, Cornelius knows of Jesus only by hearsay. Accordingly, Peter proceeds thus:

This is the message which God sent to the people of Israel-the message of peace through Jesus the Messiah, who is Lord of all. It tells of what took place throughout the whole country of the Jews, beginning from Galilee after John’s baptismal preach­ing. It tells how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses of all that he did throughout the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hang­ing him up on a gibbet, but God raised him on the third day and caused him to appear, not to all the people but to witnesses whom he had appointed in advance-to us, namely, who actually ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and bear witness that he is the one designated by God to be judge of living and dead. This is the one to whom all the prophets bear witness, to the effect that every one who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.

This speech has been reproduced in full, because it is a comprehensive summary of the apostolic preaching, exhibiting its four main features: the fulfillment of prophecy; the facts of Jesus’ ministry, death, and exaltation; the apostles’ personal witness; and the assurance of forgiveness to all who believe in Jesus.

By means of these speeches Luke sums up the subject-matter of his “former treatise” and indi­cates its significance and the manner of its appli­cation. By means of them, he interprets his narrative of the early days of the expanding church. This, he says, is how the gospel was presented effectively, and this, he implies, is how it should be presented in his own day.

Paul’s Preaching to Jews and God-fearers

Paul, by his own account, was called distinc­tively to be Christ’s apostle to the Gentile world. Yet Luke portrays him as going to the synagogue first in one place after another. Paul knew that the gospel which he was commissioned to pro­ claim was directed to all and sundry, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16); he knew moreover that in the synagogues of Greek and Roman cities he was likely to find some Gentile sympathizers attending the sabbath services, and if they could be won to faith in Christ they might form a nucleus of Gentile believers in each city that he visited. How he made his approach to this kind of situation is illustrated by Luke in his account of what took place at Pisidian Antioch, in the Roman province of Galatia.

Paul and Barnabas came to this city while they were traversing Central Asia Minor, and went to the synagogue on the first sabbath after their arrival. There they were invited (“after the reading of the law and the prophets”) to pass on any “word of exhortation” they had for the congregation. Paul accepted the invitation, and his address is summarized in Acts 13:16-41. It may have been based on some part of the Scripture readings; in any case, it conforms to well­ attested patterns for synagogue sermons.[5]See Jan Willem Doeve, Jewish Hermeutics in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1954), 175-76; John William Bowker, “Speeches in Acts: A Study in Proem and Yelammedenu Form,” New Testament Studies 14 (1967-68), 96-111.

Paul, addressing the congregation and the Gentile sympathizers who were present, began with a historical survey of the mighty acts of God in the history of Israel from the Exodus to the establishment of David’s kingship. This sur­vey follows an Old Testament precedent, seen especially in Psalm 78. Then he moved directly from David to Jesus, claiming that in him, and preeminently in his resurrection, the divine promises to David about the perpetuity of his dynasty were fulfilled. As before, when Jesus’ resurrection is introduced, the evidence of wit­nesses is emphasized: “He appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusa­lem, who are now his witnesses to the people.” They are indeed the resurrection witnesses in Luke’s Gospel; but here Paul is the preacher, and Paul would have said, and undoubtedly did say, “Last of all he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:8). Luke does at least portray the historical Paul sufficiently well to make him use the language of justification. Through Christ, says Paul toward the close of his address, “forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every believer is justified from all things, from which Moses’ law could never have justified you” (Acts 13:38-39). This is not perhaps how Paul would have phrased it, but there is not such a gap in sense between this form of words and his state­ments about justification as some commentators have argued. Against Paul’s words here Tyndale placed the marginal comment: “Faith justifieth, and not the law” – which sums up the meaning rather well.

At any rate, here the main features of the apostolic preaching recur: the testimony of the Scriptures, their fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth, the appeal to personal witness, and the call for repentance and faith (coupled with a stern warning, in the language of the prophets, of the peril of unbelief). The similarity between this Pauline address and those of Peter may be considered as an illustrative commentary on Paul’s words: ”Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (1 Cor. 15:11).

Paul’s Preaching to Pagans

But the gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews, and Paul was pre-eminently the apostle to the Gentiles-not only to the “God-fearing” Gen­ tiles who had a background of synagogue wor­ship and Bible knowledge but to pagans also, who had no such background. What would the fulfillment of prophecy mean to a pagan audi­ence? Later apologists like Justin, defending the gospel in treatises addressed to Roman emperors or magistrates, might naively employ the argu­ment from prophecy; Luke knows better than to imagine that this argument could make any impression on pagans lacking the “pre-under­standing” to appreciate it.

The people of Lystra, who mistook Barnabas and Paul for gods in disguise and were about to pay them divine honors, had to be taught about the true God against the background of such knowledge as they possessed. The world in which they lived, said the two missionaries, was created by the true God; the sustenance which they derived from it for their daily needs was supplied by his providence. It was no divine visi­tants who had come among them, but human beings like themselves, bringing them good news and urging them to abandon the vanities of pagan worship and turn to the living God. It was he said the missionaries, who made hea­ven, earth, and sea and everything in them; moreover, “in past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways; yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good and gave you from heaven rains and fruit­ful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).

Jews and God-fearing Gentiles did not need to be told of the living God; they knew of him already. But pagans knew nothing of him. The

knowledge of the true God was the first lesson they had to learn. Paul and his colleagues who sent the first letter to the Christians of Thessa­lonica similarly reminded them how they had “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Only when this first lesson had been learned could they go on to the second lesson, which taught them (as the Thessalonians were further reminded) “to wait for his Son from hea­ven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

Luke says nothing here about the second lesson at Lystra; yet it was taught, and some paid heed to it. At a later stage in his narrative he speaks of “brothers” at Lystra, as well as in other cities of that area, and in particular of “a Jewish woman who was a believer,” whose son Tim­othy became Paul’s closest associate (Acts 16:1-3).

In his speech before the court of the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31), Paul takes much the same line with the cultured pagans of Athens as he had taken with the less sophisticated pagans of Lystra. The Areopagus speech was described by Martin Dibelius as “a hellenistic speech about the true knowledge of God,”[6]Martin Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, trans. Mary Ling (London: SCM Press, 1956), 57. and this description can be readily accepted (although some­thing depends on the intended nuance of the adjective hellenistic). Paul’s point of contact with his audience is provided by an altar dedica­tion, “To the (or ‘an’) unknown God.” To those who thus acknowledge that God is unknown to them, Paul undertakes to make him known. God is the creator of all things in general and of human beings in particular, for whose daily needs he makes provision. Human beings are the offspring of ·God, in whom (to quote a Greek poet) they “live and move and have their being·:; they must not cherish unworthy thoughts of his nature, imagining that he can be depicted in the form of any created thing or confined in any material building or that he has needs which human hands can supply. Hitherto God has tolerated this culpable ignorance of his true nature, but now a halt must be called: he has fixed a day on which human beings will be judged for their response to him, and he has marked out the man to whom he will entrust this judgment by raising him from the dead.

It continues to be a disputed question whether the Paul of the epistles could or could not have delivered such a speech as this. Let the style be Luke’s; as for the substance, I can but repeat my conviction that, if the author of Romans 1-3 had been invited to present his case before this Athenian audience, he could well have done so in terms not unlike those of the Areopagitica of Acts 17. If not, let us be told how in fact he would have made a beginning with such an audience.

Like the Lystra speech, the Areopagitica is more praeparatio evangelica than direct gos­pel; but for this kind of public some form of preparation was necessary. For Jewish hearers the preparation had already been laid in the Hebrew scriptures; for pagans the preparation lay ready to hand in the evidence of God’s creative and providential action, but the nature of this evidence needed to be brought out and brought home persuasively, because it was gen­erally unrecognized or misinterpreted.

Luke, then, presents samples of gospel preach­ing to a variety of audiences. In his “former treatise” he has stated at length what the gospel is; now he records how it was made known and how it was received. There are minor nuances of difference between Peter’s preaching to Jews and Paul’s, but what they have in common is more obvious and more important. This, Luke would have his readers understand, is how to present the gospel to Jews and God-fearing Gen­ tiles; and when he reproduces the preaching at Lystra and Athens, this, he implies, is how it should be presented to pagans.


Deliberation at Jerusalem

The outstanding examples of deliberative oratory in Acts are found in Luke’s account of the Council of Jerusalem, when “the apostles and the elders were gathered together to see about the matter” of the terms on which Gentile believers might be accepted as fellow heirs of salvation and fellow members of the church (Acts 15:6-29). The question would not readily have arisen in the Jerusalem church itself, which comprised none but Jewish Christians, but it was forced on the leadership by events in Antioch. In Antioch many Gentiles heard the gospel and believed it, and were incorporated into the church of that city, it appears, on equal terms with Jewish believers, no question of their cir­cumcision having evidently been raised.

This was quite shocking to many members of the Jerusalem church, and some of them-on their own initiative, it seems-went to Antioch and assured the Gentile believers that they could not be saved unless they were circumcised in accordance with the Mosaic law. This caused confusion in the Antiochene church, which sent a delegation to Jerusalem to raise the issue with the leaders of the church there. The leaders met to discuss the matter, apparently in the presence of members of the congregation, some of whom, especially believers of the Pharisaic party, made their views known. Gentile be­lievers, they said, must be circumcised and taught to observe the Jewish law before they could be welcomed as brothers in the faith.

Peter, who may have returned from foreign parts in order to attend this meeting, spoke of his own experience. When he had preached to Cornelius and his friends at Caesarea, God had shown his will in the matter by ”giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us,” said Peter; “he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). To require circumcision from Gentile believers, then, was to impose a condition which God had not imposed. It was, in effect, “tempting God.” After further discussion, James—..:’James the Lord’s brother,” as Paul calls him (Gal. 1:19)­ summed up the sense of the meeting and gave his ruling. He saw in the Gentile mission the ful­fillment of the oracle of Amos 9:11-12. In its original form, this oracle foretold how “David’s tent” would be set up again, and the Edomites and all the other nations which had once been ruled by David would be brought back under the sway of his dynasty. In the Septuagint version (which James quoted) the oracle was spiritual­ized to foretell how the “rest” of humanity­ that is all the nations called by the same of the God of Israel-would seek the true God. This was now happening before their eyes, said James. By accepting the gospel, nations which David had never ruled (not to speak of those he had ruled) were submitting to the dominion of “great David’s greater Son.” This was God’s doing; it was not for them to dictate to God how he should accomplish his work of grace in the Gentile world.

But if Gentile and Jewish believers were to coexist within one fellowship, the Gentiles might reasonably be asked to abstain from cer­tain practices, in matters of food and sex, which Jews found specially offensive. The outcome of the Council of Jerusalem, accordingly, was a letter sent from the leaders of the Jerusalem church to the church of Antioch and her daughter churches, embodying their resolution, which was primarily not theirs but the Holy Spirit’s: “that you abstain from food that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (which in this context may have particular ref­erence to marital unions within limits forbidden by levitical law). Nothing further was to be required of them; if they observed these necessary abstentions, all would be well.

The church of Antioch and her daughter churches were content with this decision. Peter no doubt welcomed this solution of the problem which he had faced at Antioch when some peo­ple “from James” persuaded him to desist from his current practice and restrict his table-fellow­ ship to Jewish Christians only (Gal. 2:11-14). Now he succeeded in having an acceptable com­ promise sponsored by James himself and em­ bodied in the Jerusalem decree. To Peter indeed, the bridge builder among the primitive church leaders, the decree was welcome not only because it relieved him of personal embarrass­ment but also because it provided a bridge between the church of Jerusalem and the Gentile churches. With the greater energy, therefore, he appears in the course of his wider ministry to have recommended its terms as a reasonable modus vivendi for mixed churches in other places, including (in all probability) Corinth.

Paul’s attitude in the matter is made clear when he answers a question from the church of Corinth about the propriety of eating the meat of animals that have been sacrificed to idols. He does not cite the Jerusalem decree but appeals to first principles. There is nothing wrong in Christians’ eating such meat, he says, if they thank God for it and take it with a clear con­ science. If, however, their conscience is uneasy about eating it, or if their example in doing so makes other Christians uneasy in conscience or even tempts them to sin (by doing something that their conscience disapproves of), then Christian charity will counsel voluntary absten­tion. Meat is neither here nor there, but the spiritual health of men and women is of paramount importance. Paul was as conscious as Peter of the need for bridge-building, but the bridge which he attempted to build between the Jeru­salem church and the Gentile churches was the “collection for the saints” (1 Car. 16:1). Unfor­tunately, however, it does not appear that this enterprise succeeded in bridging the gap as Paul hoped it would.

Luke, for his part, no doubt approved of the Council’s decision because it safeguarded the position of Gentile Christians in the church, and he recorded it as a precedent worthy to be fol­ lowed where the relevant conditions prevailed. As a Gentile Christian himself, who had perhaps been a “God-fearer” before he became a Chris­tian, he valued what he perceived to be a charter of enfranchisement for Gentile Christians.


Exhortation at Miletus

The one hortatory speech in Acts is Paul’s farewell address to the elders of the Ephesian church whom he had called to meet him at Miletus (Acts 20:18-31). This is the only speech of Paul in Acts which is delivered to Christians; it is not surprising, then, that it has more in common with his letters to churches­ especially, in point of fact, with the later ones­ than does any other of the Pauline speeches in Acts.

Paul does not expect to see his Ephesian friends again, and his farewell address has something of the quality of a testament (a well established literary form), designed not for one church only but for all the churches west and east of the Aegean, where Paul had completed an especially fruitful phase of his apostolic ministry. There is also an apologetic note in the speech. Paul’s opponents had tried to prejudice his converts’ minds against him in his absence, and he appeals to their personal knowledge of his character and actions to show that he had conducted himself irreproachably while he was with them. He commends his own example to his hearers.

He foresees, too, that the opposition which has already begun to manifest itself within his churches will increase, that they will be invaded also by false teachers from elsewhere who will try to entice them away from their allegiance to the pure gospel which they have learned from him. On the church leaders, then-he calls them “guardians” (episkopoi) while Luke calls them “elders” (presbyteroi)-Paul lays a solemn charge to be on their guard against enemies within and without the fold, while they dis­ charge their ministry as shepherds to the “flock of God.” They themselves are entrusted to God, whose word supplies the equipment they need for their task.

The mention in verse 28 of “the church of God which he has purchased with his own blood,” or “. . . with the blood of his own (Son),” is the clearest reference in Luke’s twofold history to the redemptive efficacy of the death of Christ. This has been explained as an attempt by Luke to impart a Pauline flavor to the speech; but it is the authentic Paul who can be discerned here, “not evangelizing but recalling an already evan­gelized community to its deepest insights. In other words, the situation, like the theology, is precisely that of a Pauline epistle, not of pre­liminary evangelism.”[7]Charles Francis Digby Maule, “The Christology of Acts,” in Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays in Honor of Paul Schubert, ed. Leander E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn (Nashville/New York: Abingdon Press, 1966), 171.

By the time Luke wrote, the impending troubles against which Paul warned his hearers had begun to be realities, in the church of Ephesus and other churches (cf. 2 Tim. 1:15); his reproduction of Paul’s admonition was therefore timely and salutary.


Stephen’s Defense

If the Areopagus speech may be taken as a precursor of a later well developed form of Christian apologetic-the defense of the gospel against pagan religion- Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:2-53 is a precursor Christian apologetic against the Jews. The line between apologetic and polemic is difficult to draw. Stephen’s speech is traditionally called his “ap0logy”–his reply to the charge of blasphemy brought against him before the Sanhedrin-but the term “apol­ogy” can be justified only in so far as the speech sets forth Stephen’s defense of the teaching which had brought him into court. But Stephen acts on the principle that attack is the best form of defense, and he is unsparing in his criticism of his accusers and the tradition for which they stand. His speech is not one designed to concil­iate his judges and win an acquittal; it is de­signed indeed to have just the opposite effect.

God, it is emphasized, cannot be confined to one holy land, one holy city, or one holy house. He appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, he was with Joseph in Egypt, he spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai. In the wilderness after their departure from Egypt, the Israelites h;d the “tent of testimony,” erected according to the divine pattern, and that was all the equipment necessary for the acceptable worship of God. Israel was always intended to be a pilgrim peo­ple, for whom such a movable sanctuary was appropriate. By building a permanent house for God, Solomon encouraged the idea of a static community, with God’s presence restricted to its midst. Stephen’s accusers might charge him with speaking against the temple and predicting its destruction, but such a temple was never in God’s plan for his people.

Not only so, but from the days when Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egypt and the tribes in the wilderness murmured against Moses, the people of Israel had always resisted the mes­sengers of God and the Holy Spirit who spoke through them. The present generation had crowned the record of their ancestors, the per­secutors of the prophets, by rejecting God’s supreme messenger, the Righteous One himself.

Such a thoroughly negative assessment of the Jerusalem temple is unparalleled in the New Testament. To find anything like it one must go back to Jeremiah, and even in Jeremiah the temple is the Lord’s house, called by his name but polluted by unworthy worshipers (Jer. 7:2-14). In Luke’s writings the temple is a holy place, where God still makes himself known to his people. The narrative of the Third Gospel begins and ends in the temple (Luke 1:7-28; 24:53) and Jesus calls it “my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49). In Acts not only the Jerusalem apostles (Acts 3:1) but even Paul goes there to worship; Paul actually receives a communication from the risen Lord there (Acts 22:17-21). Nev­ertheless Luke records Stephen’s speech, not only for its historical value as a manifesto of Hellenistic Christianity but also, perhaps, be­ cause it adumbrates the final rejection of the temple as the house of God. There came a time when, in Luke’s eyes, the temple lost the sanctity it once enjoyed. That was when Paul, during his last visit to Jerusalem, was set upon in the tem­ple precincts and dragged into the outer court, “and immediately the gates were shut” (Acts 21:30). Luke’s intention in recording this incident as he does was well brought out by T. D. Bernard: ” ‘Believing all things which are writ­ ten in the law and in the prophets’ and ‘having committed nothing against the people or cus­toms of [his] fathers’, he and his creed are forced from their proper home. On it as well as him the temple doors are shut.”[8]Thomas Dehany Bernard, The Progress of Doctrine in the New Testament (Bampton Lectures, 1864; reprint Grand Rapids: Zonder­ van, 1949), 134.


Paul’s Apologetic

Six apologetic speeches are put on the lips of Paul in the period following his arrest in Jeru­salem. These are highly relevant to the purpose of Acts. It is unlikely that this purpose was to provide material for Paul’s defense when his appeal came up for hearing before Caesar-Acts was hardly published in time for that-but even after Paul’s trial was over, and indeed after his life had come to an end, these speeches made a substantial contribution to the continuing defense of Christianity in the Roman world. They are addressed respectively to a crowd of Jerusalemites in the temple precincts (Acts 22:1-21), to the Sanhedrin (23:1-6), to Felix, Roman procurator of Judaea (24:10-21), to Felix’s successor Festus (25:8, 10-11), to the younger Agrippa (26:2-23), and to the leaders of the Jewish community in Rome (28:17-28).

A rumor that Paul had violated the sanctity of the temple by taking a Gentile friend within forbidden bounds led to his being attacked by a hostile crowd. He was opportunely rescued by Roman soldiers from the Antonia fortress, but the crowd was still demonstrating in the outer court when Paul received permission to address them from the top of a flight of steps leading up from there to the fortress. He tried to con­ciliate their good will by speaking to them in Aramaic, and stressed his early upbringing in Jerusalem and his training in the school of Gamaliel, while in telling of his call to the apostolic ministry he enlarged on the part played by Ananias of Damascus, ”a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there.” But when he went to tell of his commission to evangelize Gentiles-a commission received, remarkably enough, in the precincts of the temple itself-their fury broke out afresh, and nothing further could be said.

Equally abortive was his appearance before the Sanhedrin. His opening claim to have lived up to that time in all good conscience before God did not go down well with the high priest, who ordered one of the attendants to strike him on the face; when Paul, after this interruption, declared himself to be a Pharisee, contending for the resurrection faith, the Sadducees and Phari­sees in the council fell to disputing, and the meeting broke up in disorder.

These two defenses were inconclusive. Luke probably relates them to show that neither the Jerusalem populace nor the authorities had any firm basis for charges against Paul.

When his case came up before the Roman procurators, however, the hearings were con­ducted more in conformity with proper judicial procedure.

Paul’s defense before Felix is in form a reply to the speech for the prosecution made by Tertullus, the orator presenting the Sanhedrin’s case. The charge against Paul emphasized three points, two general and one particular: (a) Paul is a perfect pest, fomenting agitation in Jewish communities throughout the provinces, (b) he is a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes, and (c) more specifically, he was caught in the act of committing sacrilege against the temple.

This last charge, serious though it was, was easily refuted. Paul deals with it first and again last. He was engaged in a religious exercise in the sacred precincts when he was suddenly accused of sacrilege by some Jews from procon­sular Asia. They should be present in court to give evidence, he said; in fact they could not be produced.

To the charge of being a Nazarene leader, Paul replies that he is a loyal Jew, worshiping the God of his fathers according to “The Way”; in particular, he affirms Israel’s ancestral hope of resur­rection. To the charge of fomenting trouble throughout the empire he makes no specific response. Felix, and after him Festus, were con­cerned with what took place in their own pro­vince of Judaea, but this more general charge no doubt figured in the indictment against Paul before the imperial tribunal, and Luke’s whole narrative serves as an answer to it.

It would not have been necessary for Paul to make his defense before Festus as well as Felix had Felix not deferred his discharge until his recall from office. When he was recalled, Felix decided not to offend the Jerusalem authorities more than he had done already; he therefore left Paul in custody and Festus found himself faced with a lawsuit in which he felt out of his depth. Paul’s defense before Festus is summed up in the threefold denial that he was guilty of any crime against Jewish law, against the temple, or against Caesar (Acts 25 :8). This last denial probably alludes to the charge of disturbing the peace of the provinces.

Being afraid, however, that Festus’ inexperi­ence might work to his disadvantage, Paul availed himself of a Roman citizen’s right and appealed to Caesar-appealed to have his trial transferred from the jurisdiction of a provincial court to that of the supreme tribunal in Rome. Paul’s appeal relieved Festus of the responsi­bility of coming to a judicial decision about him. His chief remaining responsibility was to prepare a statement of the progress of the case thus far for the information of the imperial court. His staff would normally do this for him, but a rare opportunity presented itself of composing a better informed report than might otherwise have been possible. The younger Agrippa, king of a territory east and northeast of Lake Tiberias, arrived in Caesarea to greet the new procurator of Judea and, because of his reputation as an expert on the Jewish religion, Festus believed he could help him to get his bearings on this un­fathomable case. Agrippa expressed a desire to hear Paul, and a suitable occasion was arranged. Paul’s speech before Agrippa is one of the great speeches of Acts, but it had no forensic significance. Agrippa could not in any case have exercised any judicial authority in Judea, and by his appeal to Caesar Paul had taken the matter out of the hands of the emperor’s representative, Festus. No momentous issue hung on the out­ come of the speech, and Paul could speak freely as he says himself (Acts 26:26). He outlines his public career from the period preceding his conversion to the present moment, and Luke presents the speech as Paul’s apologia pro vita sua summing up those aspects of Paul’s course of life which he himself wished to emphasize in his portrayal of the man. He stresses the resurrec­tion hope as an essential element in Israel’s religious heritage, and the validation of that hope by the resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s message, ”saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would happen” (verse 22), represents the full flowering of the ancient faith of Israel.

The last speeches of Paul in Acts were made at the two interviews he had with the leading Jews of Rome after his arrival in the city. To them he insists on his loyalty to Israel’s religious foundation: “It is for the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain” (Acts 28: 20). But when he assured them that he lived according to the ancestral customs, did they contrast his way of life with that of other Jews who were in custody in Rome at that time and restricted their diet to figs and nuts sooner than risk eating food which was unfit for pious Jews?[9]Josephus, Life 14.

The defense of the gospel against the Jews, a recurrent theme in Acts, reaches its climax with Paul’s farewell words to those leaders of the Roman Jews. When the majority of them remain unconvinced by his argument, he pointedly quotes the warning from Isa. 6:10 about ears that will not hear and eyes that refuse to see (quoted also in Mark 4:12; par. Matt. 13:13-15 and John 12:40) and concludes: “Take knowledge, then, that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles: they will listen” (Acts 28:28). Paul’s last words in Acts thus give definitive expression to one of the Leitmotivs of the book.

These speeches, then, provide ‘Luke with a vehicle for his insistence (a) that Christianity is the true fulfillment of Old Testament revelation, freed from national restrictions to be accepted by all nations, and therefore entitled to be granted the liberty enjoyed by Jewish communi­ties throughout the world; and (b) that Chris­tianity is no threat to Roman law and order. Its leading exponent in the Roman Empire had been found guiltless by successive authorities of the charges brought against him and his associates, and their decision was valid for the Christian movement in general. (If Nero’s action was at variance with their decision, Nero had, by com­mon consent, deviated from the principles of Roman justice, and no responsible Roman would wish to follow Nero’s precedent.)

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