When writing to Christ assemblies in Rome that he did not personally found about his upcoming plans to go to Spain, Paul remarked that he liked to be the one to introduce the good news about Christ rather than build on another person’s foundation (Romans 15:20). The narrative of Acts accords with this picture of Paul as the missionary par excellence who traveled all over the ancient Mediterranean and occasionally had extended stays in certain places. What readers do not really get from Acts is a picture of Paul as a pastor caring for the daily needs of a particular congregation or writing letters to them when he was not present with them. However, one notable exception is in Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian “elders” (presbyteroi) in Miletus which is the sole lengthy speech addressed to Christ followers (20:17-35). It takes the form of a last testament, where Paul reviews his accomplishments and trials, compares his life to a course that he has nearly completed (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Philippians 3:14; 2 Timothy 4:6), encourages the audience who have been made “overseers” (episkopoi) “to shepherd” (poimainein) the flock in their care, predicts the onslaught of false teachers who are savage wolves, and concludes with final encouragements and his own positive example. I am convinced that this passage is a mirror to the structure and situation of Ephesian Christian assemblies in the author’s own day and this explains many areas where the contents of Luke-Acts overlaps with various traditions attested by Papias of Hierapolis. For the case for an Ephesian provenance for the composition of Luke-Acts, see the following online article “Acts in Ephesus (and Environs) c. 115.”
When I enrolled in an undergraduate unit on Luke-Acts back when I was working on my Bachelor’s degree, the textbook we were using was Philip Francis Esler’s Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1987). Esler makes a number of points in his redactional and social-scientific approach to the biblical text, but one key point is that Acts addressed an audience primarily constituted by Jews and non-Jewish “God-fearers” rather than ex-pagans and sought to legitimate their shared beliefs and practices including their open table fellowship. While the bibliography below questions the older view that “God-fearers” (phoboumenoi ton theon) was a technical term for non-Jewish sympathizers who had not become full proselytes, there should be no question that there were interested non-Jews who attended synagogues where the Jewish Scriptures were read, adopted Jewish practices, contributed financially to the Jewish community, or positively interacted with their Jewish neighbours to varying degrees. Esler’s approach offers one possible explanation for why Paul seems to have the greatest successes in persuading Gentile “God-fearers” in the synagogue, while Paul’s letters often seem to indicate that his addressees had abandoned a former life of idolatry (cf. Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:10-11; 1 Thessalonians 1:9). Meanwhile, despite engaging Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17:16-34, Paul’s message does not get much traction among the “Pagans” in Athens.
On the other hand, there have been increasing criticisms of mirror-reading literary narratives such as the Gospels and Acts in order to reconstruct the specific contours of a “community” that was supposedly the initial readers of the text. There may be a few other reasons why the book of Acts focuses on God-fearers in the synagogue. First, it may have been Paul’s actual practice to make connections through the synagogue in every new place he visited and he may have found a more receptive audience since they already had some exposure to the scriptural story that Paul claimed was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. These “Gentiles” could have perceived themselves as reverencing Israel’s God and learning from the Jewish Scriptures and traditions in synagogues on the Sabbath, while also continuing to practice their native customs and cultic practices towards their own ancestral deities. Second, since the Romans were suspicious of new and potentially subversive voluntary associations, the author of Acts may have emphasized that the (largely Gentile?) Christians were in complete continuity with the ancient Jewish scriptural heritage. The focus on the Gentile “God-fearers” helped to serve this purpose.
For a brief bibliography of sources on the “God-fearers,” see:
- Donaldson, Terence. Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism (to 135 CE). Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007.
- Feldman, Louis H. “The Omnipresence of the God-Fearers.” Biblical Archaeological Review 12.5 (1986).
- Fredriksen, Paula. “”If It Looks like a Duck, and It Quacks like a Duck…’: On Not Giving Up the Godfearers.” Pages 25-34 in A Most Reliable Witness: Essays in Honor of Ross Shepard Kraemer. Edited by Susan Ashbrook Harvey et al. Providence: Brown Judaic Series, 2016.
- Kraabel, A. T. “The Disappearance of the ‘God-Fearers.’” Numen 28.2 (1981): 113-126.
- Kraemer, Ross. “Giving up the Godfearers.” Journal of Ancient Judaism 5.1 (2014): 61-87.
- MacLennan, Robert S. and Kraabel, A. Thomas. “The God-Fearers: A Literary and Theological Invention.” Biblical Archaeological Review 12.5 (1986).
I have been looking for online resources that cover Paul’s three missionary journeys of Paul in Acts 13:1-14:28 and 15:30-28:31. I started by checking out the links at NT Gateway and, while some of the links are now broken, I found Craig Koester’s website Journeys of Paul to be a helpful introduction to the various places that Paul visited in Acts. If you have a favourite scholarly resource that you like to use online, please email me and I will add the link below.
There is also a recent Onscript Podcast where Chris Tilling interviews Douglas A. Campbell about his book Paul: An Apostle’s Journey. For online reviews of this book and his earlier Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. The question is whether we should slot the different letters of Paul into the timeline established by Acts or begin any reconstructions of the chronology of Paul’s life, travels, and letter-writing activity primarily from Paul’s own epistles first before looking to the points where Acts may corroborate, supplement, or disagree with them.
Shortly after Paul and the Jerusalem “Pillars” hammered out an agreement on the terms for non-Jews joining the Christ movement, another controversy broke out at Antioch. According to Galatians 2:11-14, the issue was that emissaries sent from the Jerusalem leader James encouraged Peter to withdraw from table fellowship with non-Jews and even Barnabas followed suit, while Paul voiced his disapproval. According to Acts 15:36-41, Barnabas wanted John Mark to accompany him on further travels after he had abandoned the team on a prior mission (13:13), but Paul flatly refused to give John Mark a second chance, even though Barnabas had offered Paul a second chance too (9:27). Some commentators are suspicious of Acts at this point, arguing that it covered up a more serious split between Paul and Barnabas along with the Jerusalem Pillars over how the “Gentile mission” was to be conducted. However, C. Clifton Black counters in Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter that John Mark failed to continue in “the work” (to ergon) of being ministers of the gospel to the nations (p. 38-42). Although Black differentiates John Mark from Paul’s faithful co-missionary Mark in the epistles (pp. 28-29), it seems to me more likely that we are dealing with the same person who is consistently associated with Paul or a Pauline co-worker like Barnabas and Silas/Silvanus (Philemon 23; Colossians 4:10-11; 2 Timothy 4:11; cf. 1 Peter 5:13). Perhaps the reason why Acts ends the narrative about Barnabas and John Mark here, rather than narrating how Mark rejoined Paul’s team as is clear from the epistles, is that the book is just concerned with the missionary expansion of the Jesus movement, even if it was sometimes the result of conflict. Another possibility that I have suggested in an article and book is that the author of Acts may have been aware of traditions about Mark as the writer of a Gospel and may have viewed both the person and the text as important (i.e. connected to apostles) yet flawed. But if the author of Acts was unaware of the traditions about the evangelist Mark that I think may have been developing among certain elders located in Asia Minor at the end of the first century CE (i.e. the Elder John), it is sufficient that Acts abruptly moves Barnabas/John Mark off stage just as he did earlier with Peter (12:17) so that the spotlight could shine on the advancement of the gospel through Paul’s missionary journeys until it arrives in the heart of the Empire.
My research interests are primarily in early Christian literature, while I am dependent on scholars who have the requisite expertise in other fields such as rabbinic literature. Since I mentioned the relationship of the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15 to the Noahide laws, readers might be interested in Christine Hayes’ recent chapter arguing a particular theory about the historical origins and development of the concept of Noahide laws in response to Graeco-Roman conceptions of divine law and Jewish-Christian debate.
The decision reached at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 had far-reaching ramifications for the expansion of the Jesus movement in the non-Jewish world. Jesus’ brother James affirmed the position that non-Jewish Christ followers did not have to become full Jewish proselytes, but he also enjoined four stipulations on them so that they would not offend their Jewish neighbours who heard the Law of Moses read in the synagogue on every Sabbath (Acts 15:20-21, 28-29). Many scholars argue that the rules about abstaining from “idol food” (eidōlothutos), “sexual immorality” (porneia), meat from a “strangled (animal)” (pniktos), and blood (haima) were drawn from the laws enjoined on foreigners in Leviticus 17-18. This, in turn, has often been related to rabbinic discussions of the Noahide laws or the minimal moral requirements demanded of the ancestor of all humankind after the flood (Tosefta Avoda Zara 8.4; cf. Genesis 9:1-7; Jubilees 7:20-28). Nevertheless, Stephen G. Wilson’s monograph Luke and the Law has challenged the thesis that Acts 15:20 was rooted in Leviticus 17-18 and insists that the author of Acts understood these four rules as a basic, universal moral code that Gentile Christians ought to adhere to. Ben Witherington III’s article has proposed another theory that the Apostolic Decree was not related to the instructions given to Noah or the commands enforced on resident aliens in Israel, but was directed against Gentile participation in “pagan” temple cults. Regardless of the rationale for the Apostolic Decree, the issue of whether or not it was appropriate for non-Jews who turned to the God of Israel to eat food that was sacrificed to other deities was clearly a live one among the early Christian congregations (1 Corinthians 8, 10; Revelation 2:14; Didache 6:3; Justin Martyr, Dialogue 35.1-3).
It is an interesting exercise to compare the autobiographical anecdotes in Paul’s letters about his call to proclaim the Messiah among the nations and the ensuing debate about how such a mission was to be conducted with the later account of these same events in the book of Acts. According to Paul, he initially responded to his prophetic calling by going to Arabia before he returned to Damascus (Galatians 1:17), while Acts 9:19-22 follows the narrative of the vision that blinded Paul on the road to Damascus with his subsequent ministry in Damascus. Both 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 and Acts 9:25 agree that Paul had to secretly escape from Damascus by being lowered in a basket over the city’s wall, though the former claims that the threat came from Aretas IV, the king of Nabatea (ca. 8 BCE – 40 CE), and the latter that the threat was from a local Jewish group that was antagonistic towards Paul’s message. Acts 9:26-27 then describes how Barnabas introduced Paul to the “apostles” in Jerusalem, whereas Paul recounts his first meeting with Peter and Jesus’ brother James as taking place three years after his “call” (Gal 1:18).
Here is where it gets more complicated. Paul goes on to Caesarea and then Tarsus (Acts 9:30) when his storyline is interrupted to narrate a few stories about Peter’s miracles and his preaching to the first Gentile “converts” (9:32-11:18). The spotlight shifts back to Paul in Acts 11:25 as Barnabas finds Paul in Tarsus and brings him to Antioch where the pair have a year-long ministry. In Antioch, a prophet named Agabus predicts a famine in Judaea, which the narrator dates to the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius (ca. 41-54 CE), and Paul and Barnabas are sent to Jerusalem with resources to assist with the famine relief (Acts 11:27-30). This seems to be Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem (but cf. Mark Goodacre’s case that we have two variant accounts of one meeting). Acts 13-14 covers Paul’s first missionary journey which terminates when some individuals from Judaea demand that Paul’s non-Jewish Christ-followers get circumcised, leading Paul and Barnabas to travel to Jerusalem a third time to resolve this matter in a public conference with the apostles and James in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29). Unfortunately, although the side of Paul and Barnabas was vindicated at the Jerusalem Council, the two missionaries part ways in Antioch (15:35-41).
Galatians 2:1-10 may be describing the last meeting in Jerusalem between Paul, Barnabas, and the Jerusalem Pillars over the question of whether non-Jewish Christ followers had to fully adopt Jewish customs including circumcision and Torah-observance. Moreover, Paul follows this report by sharing a conflict over table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles that he had with Peter and Barnabas in Antioch (Galatians 2:11-14). However, where Galatians seems to differ is that Paul does not speak about any other visit to Jerusalem between his first meeting with a few key church leaders there and his private conference with them 14 years later and Paul does not give any details in Galatians about the Jerusalem Decree (Acts 15:20-21, 29) that apparently resolved the issue of how non-Jewish and Jewish Christ followers could maintain fellowship with each other. Thus, some scholars argue that Paul and Barnabas raised the concerns that they had in Galatians 2:1-10 during their second visit with the apostles/Pillars in Acts 11:27-30 and that the controversy in Antioch in Galatians 2:10-14 actually precipitated the great Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15. On the other hand, other scholars respond that there are far more correspondences between Galatians 2:1-14 and Acts 15 than with Acts 11 and it is unlikely that 14 years transpired between Acts 9:26 and 11:27.
Here are some online articles and blog posts by Pierson Parker, Robert H. Stein, Ben Witherington III, Mark Goodacre, Matt Page, J. Peter Bercovitz, Loren Rosson, Bill Heroman, Phillip J. Long, Jeremy Sweets, and Michael Barber that discuss this chronological issue in further detail. Please let me know if there are other blog posts on this question. My own inclination is that the author of Acts has deliberately reshaped the account of Galatians 2 to suit Acts’ larger theological purposes.
According to Galatians 2:11-14, Cephas (i.e. the Aramaic equivalent of the Greek nickname Petros or Peter) was pressured by emissaries from James to withdraw from his earlier practice of freely eating with non-Jews. Paul rebukes Cephas for behaving hypocritically in formerly living like a Gentile (ethnikōs) while demanding that non-Jews Judaize (ioudaizein) by adopting Jewish customs. Did the issue revolve around what one could eat (e.g., unclean food or clean food not prepared according to appropriate standards?) or with whom one could eat (e.g., was mixed table fellowship perceived by some as erasing social distinctions with regards to who was a member of the covenant people?). If you are interested in researching this question further, you may be interested in this edition of the Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters dedicated to the incident at Antioch. A few other articles of note include James D. G. Dunn’s “The Incident at Antioch (Gal. 2:11-18)” JSNT 18 (1983): 3-57 and Paula Fredriksen’s “Judaism, the Circumcision of Gentiles, and Apocalyptic Hope: Another Look at Galatians 1 and 2” JTS 42 (1991): 532-564.
Peter is credited with inaugurating the “Gentile mission” when he evangelized the centurion Cornelius and the people gathered in his household in Caesarea (cf. Acts 10-11). Before Peter met with Cornelius, he had a vision where he was commanded three times to eat the unclean animals that were lowered on a sheet from heaven. The primary message of the vision is about welcoming non-Jewish persons into the fold of the Jesus community. However, some scholars also understand the vision to deal with questions about mixed table fellowship between Jewish and non-Jewish individuals, confronting Peter’s assumption that it was even unlawful to visit Cornelius at his house in 10:28. I came across an older post by Michael Bird that lists several texts attesting to a range of attitudes over “Jews eating with Gentiles” and a few other texts are added in the comments. I would only add a few comments. First, we have to be careful how we evaluate the accusations that Jews refused to dine with others due to their alleged hatred of humanity in the Greco-Roman sources. These elite writers polemically distorted the cultural practices of all the subject peoples who were contrasted with their “civilized” imperial rulers. Second, the beliefs and practices of first-century Jews in Judaea or in the Diaspora were not monolithic. Thus, there was probably a spectrum from the absolute rejection of fellowship with non-Jewish outsiders (or perhaps also with other Jews perceived not to live up to the same standards of Torah observance or ritual purity), to permitting table fellowship as long as the Jewish diners could use their own utensils to cook kosher food or could eat only vegetables, to Jews who assimilated to varying degrees to the customs and diets of their non-Jewish neighbours. This may be related to the controversy over table fellowship in Antioch discussed in Galatians 2:11-14, so I will list some resources on that incident in the next post.
When we last looked at the narrative of Acts, Saul of Tarsus commenced a persecution campaign against the followers of “The Way” in the aftermath of Stephen’s martyrdom. This had the unintentional effect of dispersing Christ followers throughout the region, leading to the expansion of the movement such as when the evangelist Philip introduced the good news about Jesus in Samaria. However, Acts goes on to narrative a famous scene: Saul was armed with letters from the Jerusalem high priest authorizing him to target Christ followers in the synagogues of Damascus, but while travelling on the road to Damascus he was blinded by an extraordinary appearance of the risen Lord. It is an interesting exercise for students to compare the three accounts in Acts 9:1-19, 22:3-21, and 26:4-18 and write down what lead up to these events and what did the participants see and hear in each account. This gives valuable insights into Luke’s rhetorical interests in shaping his historiographical account.
Lay Christian readers often understand this as the moment when Saul of Tarsus converts and becomes the Apostle Paul. However, he is still called by the name of “Saul” in Acts 9:22, 24; 11:25, 30; 12:25; 13:1-2, 7, 9 and, although Paul was labelled as a “Christian” (26:28), he could still self-identify as a Pharisee (23:6). Acts often reveals the Semitic names of characters that we also know from Paul’s letters, including Barnabas (Joseph in 4:36), Mark (John in 12:12), and Silvanus (Silas in 15:22). Second, the book of Acts tends to restrict the title “apostle” or “sent one” for the Twelve who lead the Jerusalem Church with the exception of Acts 14:4, 14. Finally, the book of Acts emphasizes how Paul and the Jerusalem apostles are faithful to their Jewish heritage, even rejecting the description of the movement as the troublesome “school” (haeresis) of the Nazaraeans (24:5), and likely understands the scene as Saul’s prophetic call to preach repentance to the nations in light of God’s climatic action in the person of Jesus the Messiah. I have further information about Paul’s biography in this post.