Here is a bibliography covering the spectrum of scholarly views about how the Jewish community is portrayed in the book of Acts:
- Brawley, Robert L. Luke-Acts and the Jews: Conflict, Apology, and Conciliation. SBL Monograph Series 33. Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1987.
- Dunn, James D.G. Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, AD 70 to 135. Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1992.
- Jervell, Jacob. Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972.
- Levine, Amy-Jill. “Luke and the Jewish Religion.” Interpretation 68.4 (2014).: 389-402.
- Lieu, Judith. Christian Identity in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman World. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
- Saldarini, Anthony J. “Interpretation of Luke-Acts and Implication for Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” Word & World 12.1 (1992): 37-43.
- Sanders, Jack T. The Jews in Luke-Acts. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
- Tannehill, Robert C. “Israel in Luke-Acts: A Tragic Story.” Journal of Biblical Literature 104 (1985): 69-85.
- Tiede, David L. Prophecy and History in Luke-Acts. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980.
- Tyson, Joseph B. Luke-Acts and the Jews: Eight Critical Perspectives. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988 (including chapters by Jacob Jervell, David L. Tiede, David P. Moessner, Jack T. Sanders, Marilyn Salmon, Robert C. Tannehill, Michael J. Cook, and Joseph B. Tyson).
- Tyson, Joseph B. Luke, Judaism, and the Scholars: Critical Approaches to Luke-Acts. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
- Weatherly, John A. “The Jews in Luke-Acts.” Tyndale Bulletin 40.1 (1989): 107-117.
- Wilson, Stephen G. Related Strangers: Jews and Christians 70-170 CE. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995.
Throughout Acts, we saw the impressive growth of the Jerusalem Church as it numbered in the thousands (2:41; 4:4) and steadily increased until there were myriads of Christ followers in Jerusalem (21:20). Moreover, although James indicated that there were suspicions among the Jewish Christ followers that Paul was counselling diaspora Jews to abandon the Mosaic Law (21:21), which the narrative refutes by showing Paul’s willingness to undergo purification rites and his innocence concerning the charge that he brought a non-Jew into the temple beyond the outer court (21:22-29), the Jews in Rome did not receive negative reports about Paul from their compatriots in Judaea (28:21-22).
Nevertheless, the narrative also presents a polemical portrait of Paul’s Jewish opposition in Jerusalem and in the diaspora synagogues. Three times Paul denounces his opponents and seems to signal his plan to minister exclusively to the “Gentiles,” quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 about how the people’s hearts have become hardened in the last instance (13:46; 18:6; 28:26-28). However, he returns to preach in the synagogues after the first two statements and he continues to welcome and minister to “all” who came to visit him after the last statement. How do we deal with this narrative tension?
For some scholars, Luke-Acts teaches a supersessionist theology. The Jerusalem Church and the non-Jewish “God-fearers” were just a bridge from the Israel of the past to the mainly non-Jewish “Christians” (cf. 11:26; 26:28) of Luke’s present who were now at the center of the divine purposes for the world. It is possible that the Lukan version of Jesus’s ministry in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30) already foreshadowed this result as it expands on Jesus’s sentiment about how prophets are not received in their hometown with the anecdote about how Elijah and Elisha were sent to heal those outside the covenant people. On the other hand, the book of Acts consistently indicates that some Jews were persuaded by the apostles and Paul’s message including in Rome (28:24). There is no identification of Christians as the new Israel and there are also eschatological promises for the restoration of Israel that yet remain unfulfilled (Luke 1:54-55; 68-73; 2:30-32; 21:24b; Acts 1:6-7).
Again, how do we solve the narrative tension? The Christ assemblies known to the author of Acts may have been predominantly, though not exclusively, constituted by non-Jewish members. As a tiny marginalized group, the author of Acts may have wished to positively emphasize the Christians’ continuity with the antiquity of the rich Jewish Scriptural heritage while contrasting them with the much larger and more established Jewish minority. The social interactions between Jews, Christians, and others in the ancient Mediterranean were likely much more complex on the ground; some Jews function as literary foils for the purposes of Christian identity construction in the book of Acts. Unfortunately, this polemic was turned into a weapon when Christians attained political power and this contributed to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the author of Acts may have also looked beyond the contemporary circumstances of the Christians to a more hopeful future of justice, peace, and reconciliation when the divine promises for Israel and all the nations are finally realized.
Mark 16:7-8 ends on a cliff-hanger: the tomb has been unsealed, the “youth” in white (i.e. an angel) has proclaimed to the women that the risen Jesus is waiting to reunite with the disciples in Galilee, and the women hurry off in reverent silence. At this point the curtain drops, leader the reader to wonder what would have happened next if Mark’s narrative had continued and what might be their role in the story in proclaiming the good news about the resurrected and vindicated Jesus.
The open ending of Acts 28:30-31 has a similar effect. Paul hinted at his impending death in his Miletus speech (20:24, 25, 38), was seized as a perceived agitator in Jerusalem (21:27-36), stood trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin (22:30-23:10) and the Roman procurators Antonius Felix (ca. 52-58 CE) and Porcius Festus (ca. 59-62 CE) alongside King Herod Agrippa II (ca. 53-93 CE) (23:33-24:27; 25:1-26:32) in echoes of Jesus’ passion, made a fateful appeal to the emperor (25:11-12; 26:32; cf. 23:11) that lead him to be transferred to Rome on a perilous sea journey (27:1-44), and was placed under house arrest in Rome (28:30). Readers may wonder about the outcome of Paul’s trial in Rome. Indeed, one of the classic arguments for dating Luke-Acts before 64 CE is that the book was finished before the outcome of Paul’s trial was known; the book also does not note the martyrdom of Peter or James (cf. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History [WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1989], 365, 407-8). There is a further hypothesis that Paul was initially released from Roman imprisonment, possibly explaining his further travels documented in the Pastoral Epistles and 1 Clement 5:6 (cf. Romans 15:24), before he was re-arrested in Rome and executed (2 Timothy 4:6, 16).
On the other hand, there seem to be subtle hints in the texts above that the author of Acts knew that Paul’s solitary Roman imprisonment and his testimony before the emperor would end in death. Moreover, Acts was not writing a biography of Paul, nor of Peter in the first half of the narrative, but explaining how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth by reaching the heart of the Empire (1:8). Since the narrative achieved its purpose in the final act, the curtain is closed at this point.
In light of the last post about Paul’s pastoral address to the Ephesian elders, there is an edited volume entitled Paul as Pastor (ed. Brian S. Rosner, Andrew S. Malone, and Trevor J. Burke; London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018) that may be of interest. The second chapter covers Paul’s pastoral example in Acts. I noticed that many of my fellow scholars working within the Australian College of Theology consortium contributed to this book.
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).