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The Open Ending of Acts: Part 2

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.

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