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Acts as a Source (3)

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The Convergence and the Distance Between the Letters and Acts

The Convergence

To do justice to Acts, we recognize that in some significant respects (and others could be mentioned) the book does show some correlation with the letters:

bulletThe recollection that a significant turning point in Paul’s life is associated with Damascus, in the context of Paul’s persecuting activity, and that soon thereafter Paul is actively proclaiming Jesus Christ;
bulletPeriodic visits to Jerusalem, one for a post-conversion acquaintance; another for the conference; and a final visit  (though Acts, as already noted, has four and perhaps five visits);
bulletAwareness of the problem of assimilating gentiles into the church, and discussion of the problem at the Jerusalem conference;
bulletReferences to two of Paul’s associates, Timothy and Silvanus ( = Silas, in Acts?);
bulletThe progression of Paul’s founding missions from Philippi to Thessalonica, to Corinth (by way of Athens), and eventually to Ephesus (Acts is not very clear about a mission to Galatia proper); and
bulletHis progress at the close of his career from Ephesus, to Macedonia, and Corinth, in anticipation of the final visit to Jerusalem.

The Distance between the Letters and Acts

We have already indicated that Acts got the Jerusalem visits wrong, and we have noted further discrepancies in matters of greater or lesser importance. We now take a look at how Acts differs from the letters in two very important areas: the resurrection appearance to Paul, and the Jerusalem conference.

The Resurrection Appearance to Paul, in  the Letters and Acts

As earlier summarized in Beginnings (1),

1) According to the letters, it was an experience of seeing the risen Lord; that is, this was a resurrection appearance, as much as any of the other appearances referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.

In Acts, Paul’s experience is not acknowledged as a resurrection appearance. 

Paul hears the words of Christ, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14; see also 9:5-7; 22:8-10; 26:15-18). The emphasis is on hearing, not seeing. Paul sees a light, to be sure (Acts 26:13). But only indirectly and inconspicuously are any references to seeing Jesus introduced (Acts 9:17, 27; 22:14-15, 18; 26:16). Just when Acts seems to be on the verge of admitting Paul as a witness of the resurrection, the author excludes him by calling the experience a “heavenly vision” (Acts 26:16, 19). The key to understanding the author’s ambivalence is likely to be found in his persuasion that (a) all resurrection appearances happened in Jerusalem or vicinity, and (b) all resurrection appearances took place during the forty days before Christ’s ascension into heaven. In other times and places, people may have visions, but not resurrection appearances. Thus, for the author, Paul has come on the scene too late, and on the wrong stage, to have received a resurrection appearance. After the forty days of Easter, Paul can have a heavenly vision or audition, but he cannot be a witness of the resurrection.

2) According to the letters, Paul’s resurrection appearance was spiritual and inward, a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16). This immaterial quality seems to be related to the fact that these texts [1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:3-8; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16] make no mention of an empty tomb. The tomb may or may not have been empty, but the belief in the resurrection arose from having met the risen Jesus, not from having viewed an empty tomb.

In Acts, we observe the author’s tendency at work, to materialize spiritual happenings, with the flashing light from heaven, the falling to the ground, and the blindness.

The author of Luke-Acts is distinctive among New Testament writers in tending to emphasize physical, external phenomena: at the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove (Luke 3:22); when Jesus appears to the disciples (Luke 24:36-43), he demonstrates the physical character of his body by eating food; at Pentecost, a sound comes from heaven and fills the house, and tongues as of fire rest upon the disciples.

3) According to the letters, it was an objective experience, in that it had a matter-of-fact quality which differentiated it from a trance or vision, such as the one mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:1-7.

In Acts, it was a vision.

The author readily acknowledges that Paul sees a vision (see Acts 26:19), but it is a vision of the heavenly Jesus, and not of the resurrected Christ in physical form of the forty days, now inaccessible even to Paul. The author of Acts was evidently working from a view of the resurrection and of post-resurrection events which stands virtually alone among New Testament writers.

Elsewhere, we find references to the resurrection of Jesus (frequently in Paul), or to his exaltation (Philippians 2:9; 1 Timothy 3:16), suggesting that resurrection and exaltation could be used interchangeably. For the author of Acts, on the other hand, resurrection and exaltation were successive, not interchangeable. Because of  the vivid, narrative form in which he expressed it (Luke 24:13-53; Acts 1:1-11), the view of Luke-Acts became historically the prevailing view, as in the Apostles’ Creed, or the Nicene Creed. 

Now 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 serves as a kind of bench mark, if not historical bedrock, for understanding Jesus as raised from the dead, in what Paul might have called a spiritual body—the text mentioning nothing of an empty tomb or physical characteristics. By contrast, Luke-Acts represents the next stage of narrating the resurrection appearances. The author does not deny that Christ was raised in some mysterious kind of spiritual body, but he seems to clothe the spiritual body with physical characteristics (Luke 24:39-43; compare Matthew 28:9; John 20:19-29).

Once a physical body was attributed to the risen Christ, the problem was to explain why he no longer appeared in a physical body. The “solution” offered by the author of Luke-Acts—a solution which has created other problems, both ancient and modern—was to restrict the resurrection appearances to the forty days of Easter, and to introduce the notion of an ascension of the body with physical characteristics into heaven, as an explanation of why he was no longer appearing in physical form. Given this post-resurrection scenario in Luke-Acts, Paul’s experience could not be a resurrection appearance: he could receive a vision of the heavenly Jesus only, and thus his qualifications as an apostle were dubious (see below).

4) According to the letters, this experience validated Paul’s call as an apostle, a claim which does not ever seem to have been in question so far as his apostolic peers were concerned. In a similar way, the experience formed the basis for his gospel.

In Acts, Paul is appointed to a task, but not commissioned to be an apostle.

Paul is chosen to bear the name of Jesus before gentiles and kings and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15; compare 22:15, 21; 26:16-18). Yet for all the marvelous phenomena accompanying his vision, one thing was lacking: there was no apostolic call. Acts seems to have been reluctant to concede the apostolic title to Paul, in part because, for the author, the Twelve were identical with the apostles (and Paul of course was not one of the Twelve); and in part because, as earlier noted, Paul was not a witness of the resurrection during the forty days before the ascension—now that Christ was ascended to heaven, he could no longer be seen as the other apostles had seen him.

Paul emerges in Acts, not so much as an apostle (Greek, apostolos), but as a missionary extraordinaire, who functioned under appointment by the Antioch church, was sent out by that church on the so-called first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3), reported back to Antioch on his return, and was appointed by Antioch a delegate to the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:2). To be sure, the cognate verbs apostellein and exapostellein (“to send out”) are used in the Acts accounts of the conversion (22:21; 26:18); but this is hardly conclusive, since Ananias too is sent (apostellein, 9:17), to minister to Paul in his blindness. Curiously, we are left with two texts (Acts 14:4, 14), which appear to acknowledge Paul’s apostleship (and Barnabas’) after all. 

Acts 14:4, 14   4But the residents of [Iconium] were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles [i.e. Paul and Barnabas]. . . . 14When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of [plans to offer sacrifice to them], they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd [to dissuade them] . . . .

We will not try to decide whether these texts reflect the inconsistency of the author, who perhaps let these references stand from whatever kind of source he had for the first missionary journey; or whether (less likely) the author all along assumed Paul’s apostleship, and assumed that his readers assumed it too. To the extent that Acts acknowledged Paul as an apostle, he was a subordinate apostle.

Concerning the position of Acts on the subordination of Paul to Antioch, we have rather good evidence from Galatians that Paul’s apostolic credentials had been challenged in some quarters, to the effect that he was somehow dependent upon the Jerusalem apostles. We can by no means exclude the possibility that such doubts about his apostleship, raised by his opponents and transmitted as traditional material along with more favorable recollections of Paul, might have influenced the author of Acts unwittingly, to the extent that he did not affirm Paul’s apostleship, or affirmed it in only a limited fashion. This attitude of the author seems to be reflected in a passage like Acts 15:2, where Paul and Barnabas and others are appointed by the Antioch church to go up to Jerusalem to discuss the circumcision question with the apostles and elders—as if there were apostles in Jerusalem, but not in Antioch. Likewise, Paul is represented in Acts 13:30-31 as deferring to others as witnesses of the resurrection: “But God raised [Jesus] from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people.”

The Distance between Acts 9, Acts 22, and Acts 26

We have called attention to discrepancies between Acts and the letters, but we also need to be aware of conflicting details in the way the author tells the story of Paul’s conversion, in chapters 9, 22 and 26. From the viewpoint of the author’s contemporaries these discrepancies would not be a sign of carelessness in details, but of good story telling. Click on conversion, for the texts.

bulletIn Acts 22:7, 9; 26:14, Paul alone hears the voice; in 9:4, 7, his companions hear the voice, too.
bulletIn Acts 26:13 the light flashes around both Paul and his companions (compare 22:9), whereas in Acts 9:7 they see nothing.
bulletIn Acts 9:4; 22:7 Paul falls to the ground; in 26:14 all of his companions fall to the ground as well.

Although an interpreter might try to understand these differences as a case where the author of Acts is relying on “oral tradition,” this explanation has to assume the persistence of such transmission over a period of fifty years or more, and because of the inconsistencies does not enhance our estimation of either the author or his sources. If such an interpreter also accepts the hypothesis of authorship by Luke, a companion of Paul, one can only wonder why the author did not have an account of the “conversion” directly from Paul. 

The Jerusalem Conference, in  the Letters and Acts

At the outset, we identify several general, though important, similarities between Galatians 2:1-10 and Acts 15:1-21. (For a more detailed discussion of the conference in Galatians, click on Conference and Paul and Galatia (1).)

  1. A meeting is held in Jerusalem (not overlooking the fact that for Galatians it is Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem and for Acts it is his third visit), to discuss a crucial issue, whether gentile converts should be circumcised.
  2. The leaders present are Paul, Barnabas, Cephas (Peter), James, and John (not mentioned in Acts). Titus also is present, but not mentioned in Acts.
  3. The decision rendered is that circumcision should not be required.

The differences between the two accounts are substantial.

  1. (Galatians) Paul goes to Jerusalem by revelation.
    (Acts) Paul goes to Jerusalem as a delegate of the Antioch church.
  2. (Galatians) Cephas, or Peter, comes to the conference representing the mission to the Jews; Paul, representing the mission to gentiles. 
    (Acts) Peter comes to the conference as the champion of the law-free gentile mission, the one designated to preach to the gentiles; he gives a Pauline-sounding message (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas report on what they have been doing.
  3. (Galatians) The decision is by consensus, of the pillars (Cephas, James, John), and of Paul and Barnabas.

    (Acts) The decision is rendered by James, the Lord’s brother, something of a Jerusalem primus inter pares [first among equals].
  4. (Galatians) Paul’s law free gentile mission is approved; nothing is added.
    (Acts) Circumcision is not required, but the “apostolic decree” is imposed: gentile Christians are to abstain from idols, from fornication, from whatever has been strangled, and from blood.
  5. (Galatians) The dual mission is approved: Paul and Barnabas to the gentiles; James, Cephas and John, to the Jews.
    (Acts) No reference—except that Paul continues to preach to the Jews (in Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Corinth, and Ephesus).
  6. (Galatians) A collection for the poor (of Jerusalem) is agreed to.

    (Acts) No reference.

     Click on Next for Acts as a Source (4)


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