2008-01-28

Dating the Book of Acts: Marcionite Context 2 — and beyond

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by Neil Godfrey

Continued from Dating Acts: Marcionite context . . . (see also Tyson and Marcion archives)

After attempting a form of controlled analysis for determining the main themes and their supporting literary patterns in Acts, and arguing that the results are best explained as a response to the Marcionite challenge, Tyson examines the characterizations of Peter and Paul in Acts to see if they also are best explained the same way.

Tyson leaves what I think is a major gap in his discussion of how the author presented Peter in Acts but I’ll leave that discussion till after outlining Tyson’s argument.

Characterization of Peter

There is no subtlety in how the author of Acts portrays this leading apostle. We all know Peter is the leader — (Tyson specifies that he is depicted as the leader of the church at Jerusalem), miracle-worker, bold and convincing speaker before rulers and converting crowds of thousands (2:41), taking the initiative in reconstituting the Twelve in the wake of the demise of Judas, interpreter of divinely sent visions (10:28 ) and miracles (2:14-16). Sinners drop dead (5:1-11) or beg for mercy (8:20-24) at his word and his mere shadow heals the cripples (5:20). Not even prison chains and guards can hold him (12:8-10).

But Tyson asks, if the author knew the epistles of Paul, why did he portray Peter this way? In Galatians Paul portrays a Peter who is unstable, very much “unleaderlike” — I would add, as much more akin to the Peter of the synoptic gospels. There Jesus had to regularly correct him; in Galatians Paul assumes that role.

Tyson asks if it is possible the author of Acts derived his alternative image of Peter from 1 Clement, thought to be written near the end of the first century. (Tyson, of course, is arguing for a second century date for canonical Luke-Acts.) That document elevates both Paul and Peter to leadership status, and speaks of Peter’s sufferings. But there is no indication of his relationship to the Jerusalem church or of his role as a prominent preacher and witness there.

Tyson believes that the best explanation for the way Peter is drawn in Acts is the Marcionite context. Marcion relied exclusively on the letters of Paul, and declared the other apostles, including Peter, to be false apostles. Paul seems to be referring to the Jerusalem apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15 when he criticizes those known as “super apostles”, whom he calls “false apostles”, implying they were preaching a “different gospel” (cf Gal.1:6-7).

Tyson argues that a Marcionite challenge would have provided the perfect foil for the way the author of Acts accounted for Peter.

He was answering the charge that Peter

  • was an unreliable and false apostle
  • was not a dependable witness to the faith — nor even the resurrection (Marcion’s gospel apparently disputed Peter’s witness of this)

and, it should be added, also answering the charge that Jerusalem was the birth place and base of this false witness and gospel.

A question — the limits of the anti-Marcion hypothesis?

While I like the idea of canonical Luke-Acts being a response to Marcionism, I cannot avoid a problem when it comes to Tyson’s discussion of Peter in support of this. If Acts was composed so late, then surely the author knew of the gospel of Matthew. And if, as Tyson’s argument goes, the same author heavily redacted Luke to become a companion volume to Acts, then why would he have omitted any reference in his gospel to Jesus’ promise to give the keys of heaven to Peter and use him as a foundation stone for his church (Matt.16:18)?

This passage in Matthew would surely have served as the most direct challenge conceivable to Marcionism.

If Matthew was written as a response to the “Paulinism” many see in Mark (compare Matthew’s heavy emphasis on obedience to a law more binding than that of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 23, etc.) one might easily see Matthew’s depiction of Peter’s confession as a direct rebuff to the name and authority of Paul.

If the author of Acts intended to show that Paul stood subordinate to the Twelve then surely this claim about the leader of the Twelve would have found a prominent place in the debate.

The broader catholicizing agenda of Acts — embracing James, and group work, too?

To me the best explanation is that while Marcionism might have been a/the prime challenge that its author was addressing, it was not the only one. Marcionites looked to Paul as The (Sole) Apostle. But there were others who looked to James. Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Galatians appears to acknowledge James as the leader of the Jerusalem community by naming him first among the pillars there.

The Gospel of Thomas informs believers that James is the primary focal point of the church on earth. It was even believed among some Christian quarters that God willed the destruction of Jerusalem because of the martyrdom of James. And James was undeniably a representative of a form of Jewish Christianity.

The author of Acts obviously had no problem with allowing James to assume the leadership of the Jerusalem church. Presumably this was because James represented the same Jewish flavoured Christianity as Peter also represented and that stood in opposition to Marcionism .

But there was more than the inclusion of those Christians who looked to James at work here.

Peter does not wield Matthew’s keys to the kingdom of heaven willy nilly — or ever at all, really, in Acts.

  • In the appointment of Matthias to fill the twelfth position Peter may initiate the action, but the action is carried out by the collective as they roll the dice while praying to God. Matthias is not added by Peter, but by God, through the acceptance of “the Twelve”.
  • Peter’s first dramatic miracles are performed in partnership with John (3:1, 12).
  • Similarly in the appointment of the Seven. Peter is not seen there. It is the Twelve who summon the community and give directions for how they were to appoint the new leaders.
  • Philip and others are used to first push the ethnic boundaries of the church by evangelizing among the Samaritans and to an Ethiopian.
  • And in the conversion of the Centurion, Peter is confused at first, not knowing what the vision he has just seen means. He has to explain both to the centurion’s household that he is letting God decide how things turn out and what they mean.
  • And after that moment, he is summoned to give an account of his actions to those “of the circumcision”, presumably among both the apostles and brethren (Acts 11:1-3).

Peter is a leader — even THE leader in the early chapters of Acts. But he is not the sole leader of the Jerusalem community. The author of Acts is stressing the significance of not only Peter, but of the authority of the Twelve with Peter, and even of James eventually.

Justin Martyr is witness, in Trypho, that at the time of Marcion, other well entrenched traditions throughout the Christian “philosophy” included the belief that its beginnings could be traced to The Twelve at Jerusalem, and that among those Christians were those who followed Jewish customs, and that these were to be accepted as brethren, too.

Canonical Luke-Acts comfortably fits in such an environment.

Matthew 16:18 could well have been a response too much in the faces of those the author of canonical Luke-Acts wanted to embrace. It could serve well in a power conflict between West and East. But it risked supplanting the idea of the Twelve as an authoritative foundation from Jerusalem. Note that Matthew even concluded his gospel with some of the Twelve (or Eleven) doubting the resurrection.

To continue with the characterization of Paul . . . .

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