Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

First to the Jews, then to the Gentiles

We are told that the message of the Acts of the Apostles is that Paul first preaches “the good news” to the Jews in the synagogues, the message is not accepted, the Jews reject the message, then Paul turns to the Gentiles and preaches “the good news” to the Gentiles. This theme is amply supported by repetition by Paul of the same sequence of the events. The ending of Acts and the interpretation placed on the Parable of the Wicked Tenants are cited as further supports this argument. But is it correct?

Rodney Stark, using his solid background in the sociology of religion, has shown that the mission to the Jews probably succeeded.[i] The early part of Acts (1-15) was not written for Gentiles. Acts is not particularly edifying for Gentile Christians with its proclamation: “to the Jews first and also the Greek.” This is, in fact, corroborated by the concepts of cultural continuity, expansion through preexisting social networks and the findings of Rodney Stark. For the reasons presented by Stark, the first missionaries concentrated on Hellenized Jews. The audience of Luke-Acts was predominantly of Jewish background[ii] as was the target of Stark's missionaries. A number of scholars have challenged the essentially Gentile composition of the Lucan audience by noting the Judaic roots of Christianity as emphasized by Luke. Fletcher-Louis writes “there is a growing consensus, spearheaded by the work of Jacob Jervell, that accepts essential interaction with Jewish concerns and a Jewish readership.”[iii]

In Acts 13:45, we read: “But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with jealousy, and contradicted what was spoken by Paul, and reviled him.” John Kilgallon has suggested that we need to understand these particular Jews being depicted in this verse against the background of the zealotry having its roots in the centuries of vigorous defense of Jewish religious convictions. Kilgallon goes further indicating that these zealous Jews in Pisidian Antioch are not objecting to the message of “the good news” as such but the fact that Paul is preaching “the good news” outside the synagogue to mere pagans. Inside the synagogues, God fearers hear the message and there is no objection being raised to their presence or their involvement with Judaism.

Returning to the key phrase, “they were filled with jealousy,” we recognize the word, “jealously” is being translated from the Greek word, zealos. More importantly, this “jealousy” occurs before any statement is made about Paul turning to the Gentiles.

Since I believe the verse 45 is a key verse in understanding the sequence of events in Acts and the proper interpretaion of these events, I plan to further investigate this verse and the history of interpretation of this verse. I would be interested in ascertaining how Jervell and “the mighty minority” treat this verse.

After I posted this article, Torrey Seland at Philo of Alexandria posted his comments on a book review of Surviving Sacrilege by Steven Weitzman. Perhaps we can better understand Acts 13:45 if we recognize “the struggle for cultural survival of ancient Judaism, their efforts to preserve religious traditions and the tactics that early Jewish culture employed to sustain itself in the face of intractable, sometimes hostile realities.” Perhaps these certain Jews described by Luke viewed the actions of Paul as threatening cultural survival.

[i]. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton 1996), 49-71.
[ii]. Anderson, EQ 69:3 (1997), 195-215.
[iii]. Fletcher-Louis, 19; footnote 83 on page 19 mentions Jervell, Drury, Salmon, Sterling, Evans, Ellis; and 'mixed community' with respect to Esler and Tyson.

copyrighted 2005


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