4 things Luke knew — but did not say (or hardly said)

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Pervo offers much to think about in his work Dating Acts: between the evangelists and the apologists. Justice is not done to Pervo’s arguments by summarizing any small section of them in dot-point form. The dot-point notes that I’ve already presented from this book —

— are intended to pique interest and thought only, not to present “the whole argument” by any means.

Summarizing here one more nugget in that book with occasional other comments. This one is headed Matters About Which Luke Is Silent but Not Ignorant (pp.133-135). . . .

Despite efforts to hide it, Luke does betray knowledge of

  1. intra-Christian conflict over dogma
  2. Paul’s collection for Jerusalem
  3. controversy over Paul among believers
  4. disputes over the status of Apollos (addressed in 1 Corinthians)

1. Intra-Christian conflict over dogma

I like this one. It explains for me why Luke made these strange references to “Pharisees who believed” — why did he continue to speak of them as some branch apart from the rest of the church?

The author of Acts paves the way for later apologists like Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius to argue that false teachers emerged within the Christian community only after the death of the apostles, including Paul. This historical model is an ideological one: the time of the apostles was the time of unified purity within the Church — an undivided Church that could be appealed to as a final authority.

If Acts 15 is taken as a sure evidence that Luke knew Galatians (see earlier post), now is the time to take a closer look at one other point of comparison between the two.

In Galatians Paul blasts other Christians led by James and Peter (Gal. 2:11-14) for placing themselves in the company of the “false brethren” (Gal.2:4).

Acts 15:1 does not identify these teachers as “false brethren”. The clear implication is that they are from outside Christian circle — “certain others came down from Judea and taught the brethren . . .”

When Luke does eventually give these “certain others” an identity it is not the one addressed in the letter to Galatians. Rather, they are

some of the faction of the Pharisees who believed (Acts 15:5)

(“Faction” or “sect” here is translated from hairesis which later – by the time of Justin Martyr – took on the meaning of “heresy” (Pervo, p.262).)

As said above, Acts 15 on other grounds demonstrates dependence on Galatians. Luke’s intent is to paint a picture of the early church as unified until after the death of the apostles. See Acts 20:29-30 as one of the more direct statements of this. To this end he must re-write the conflict addressed in Galatians as between the Christian community and a side-group he describes as “a sect of the Pharisees who believe”. It is these who in Acts are responsible for the Judaizing teaching of circumcision and observance of the Torah, not “false brethren” within the church according to the original Paul.

2. Paul’s collection for Jerusalem

(I also like this one but for a totally different reason. It gives me a chance to quote F.F. Bruce favorably so I can feel I have something with which to respond to those who have accused me of mindlessly bashing F.F. Bruce because he is F.F. Bruce in another context.)

The letters of Paul make scattered references to his plan to raise a large contribution from among his gentile churches to bring to the saints in Jerusalem.

The closest we get to this in Acts is:

Now after some years I came to bring alms to my nation and to offer sacrifices (Acts 24:17)

Pervo cites F. F. Bruce (p. 134):

. . . [T]he majority of exegetes are certainly right in seeing here a reference to the collection . . . Luke plainly knew about the collection, but, equally plainly, he is very reticent about it. This may have been because it failed so disastrously to achieve its purpose (the most probable explanation) . . .

Pervo adds that “the majority of exegetes also agree that the journey described in Acts 20-21, whatever Luke’s source may have been, had as its object the delivery of the collection.”

It appears that Paul had hoped to win favour among the Jerusalem church with this collection for them, but that it was repudiated. (Some see here an echo of the story of Marcion attempting to win favour in Rome with an offering of 200,000 sesterces that was soon afterwards rejected when he was excommunicated for heresy.)

The closest Luke could come to admitting knowledge of this failed collection is his story that Paul came “to his nation” in order to bring alms and offer a sacrifice. By not ignoring it completely, Luke has re-written the collection from which Paul had hoped for reconciliation with Jerusalem into something that had a negligible taint of failure.

3. Controversy over Paul among believers

This is related to the first point above (intra-Christian conflicts).

That Paul’s teachings were controversial among other early Christians is well known from the letters of Paul himself and second century apologists such as Tertullian.

Acts avoids all mention of this fact except in one place. The lay members of the Jerusalem church are said to have been misled by false rumours about the content of Paul’s teaching (Acts 21:20-21). The author has chosen to refute these “rumours” with a narrative that has the leading Jerusalem apostle, James, command Paul “to be a Jew to the Jews” (I Cor. 9:20.) In other words, the author of Acts is attempting to sidestep the controversial nature of the original teachings of Paul by demonstrating that Paul’s practice was not to act against the Torah, and that he did not condemn the law absolutely.

I suspect that if Luke did draw on passages such as 1 Corinthians 9:20 for his solution to the problem of how to bring Paul into unity with the early church, he was using passages that did not belong to the original Pauline writings but were being added (“for clarification”) by others with a similar aim to co-opt Paul for “orthodoxy”. But that’s another story.

4. Disputes over the status of Apollos

Pervo comments on the well-known fact that Luke will remove some personalities, such as Titus, from the story of Paul. Titus was well-known as the one Paul refused to have circumcised with the attitude of “to hell with the Jews who did not like it”. He was replaced in Acts by Timothy whom Paul did circumcise as a concession to the Jews for the sake of Christian harmony.

But Luke “is aware that the superior tactic is to revise or redirect” — as he does with Apollos. (p.135)

Paul informs us that the Corinthian church was divided over rivalries among leaders who included himself and Apollos. (I Cor. 1:11-12; 3:1-10lest one be too quick to assume some degree of “friendly rivalry” among the three leaders referenced by Paul, recall his dismissive attitude towards Peter (Cephas) in Galatians 2.) Luke is careful in Acts to completely remove Apollos from contact with Paul. It may well have been that Apollos was more than just a controversial figure, but one who came to lead a faction opposed to the “orthodoxy” Luke commends.

Although 1 Corinthians thus speaks of competing Christian factions, Luke in his account will only speak of Jewish opposition to the Church at Corinth. (Acts 18) Christian unity remains the ideological fact. The only enemies at this stage are from without.

But the point here is that in Acts, everything Luke says about Apollos could have come directly from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Paul spoke of Apollos’

  • eloquence
  • wisdom
  • of his “unsolicited cultivation of Paul’s garden”
  • that he was connected in some way with a baptizing dispute (1:11-17).

All of these things we know from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians are alluded to in Acts — but with a Lukan spin:

  • Paul was in Corinth before Apollos
  • After Paul left Corinth Apollos arrived there
  • Apollos was an eloquent speaker
  • Very knowledgeable — but limited — a limitation that was removed after further instruction from Paul’s companions, Aquila and Priscilla
  • But he knew only the baptism of John
  • Apollos used his wisdom to persuade the non-Christian Jews to convert to Christianity
  • When Paul later enters the city Apollos had come from (Ephesus) Paul increases the understanding of the converts there by explaining the baptism of the Holy Spirit and conducting them into that new ritual.

Pervo comments that the coincidences between Luke’s account of Apollos in Acts and Paul’s issues in 1 Corinthians go beyond points of fact and extent to specific issues. The facts plus the ideological spin together hint very strongly at Luke’s knowledge of 1 Corinthians and his desire to re-write the issues in that letter and their eventual outcome.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “4 things Luke knew — but did not say (or hardly said)”

  1. If you like interesting insights like that on Luke-Acts have a look at Jacob Jervell’s two books. They totally unraveled a couple of things I had heard my entire life about Luke-Acts. Thanks for bringing these up as well.

  2. I have read reviews of JJ’s books (Unknown Paul and Theology of Acts) and I am sure there is much I could learn from them. I see many grounds for his view that Luke is pointing to the church as being the new Israel — I would like to see NT scholarship come together with those who see the OT writings as being written within the same perspective. That is, that the history and prophets are written as theological messages for a post 5th century Palestinian population. Their message is that “the new Israel” — their audience — is to take warning from the old Israel. The gospel of Mark also seems to me to be fully within this centuries old literary tradition.

    I think I would have a hard time accepting JJ’s understanding that Acts tells us anything about a historical Paul, however. He would need more persuasive arguments than I have seen to date. But always open to being surprised.

  3. Acts 24.17 and 18 are interpolations in a speech attributed to Paul while he was supposedly in Caesarea before the high priest Ananias. The real speech was made by James in Rome to the Senate with the high priest Ananias present. 24.17 contains the phrase ‘I came to Jerusalem’. This is dissimulation to make the reader believe that ‘Paul’ was near to Jerusalem. Paul’s earlier visit to Jerusalem to take alms for the poor and to present offerings, supposedly to pacify believers zealous for the law, is entirely fictitious, as is Paul.

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