Dating the Book of Acts: the Marcionite Context (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues notes from Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle. Previous posts reconsidering the date of the composition of Acts and the Marcionite challenge can be found in my Tyson and Marcion archives.

Tyson begins with Haenchen. Haenchen (on the assumption of a first century date for the composition of Acts) attempted to explain the fact that there is no certain evidence that Acts was widely known before the middle of the second century by it having no “life situation” in the church before then. It was not used in preaching, had no wider value for the church, and only survived because of its association with the Gospel of Luke. H notes that Acts first proved useful in the struggle against Gnosticism and was extensively used by Irenaeus.

For Tyson, Haenchen creates the problem for himself by insisting on a first century date for the composition of Acts while finding no context for its reception before the late second century. Tyson argues that the earlier neglect of Acts is better explained by it not being available than by the assumption that “no earlier writer knew what to make of it.” (p.51)

Tyson explores the possibility of finding a context that would give meaning to both the composition and reception of Acts. Of course a work can find itself being used for purposes in ways its author never intended, but nor is there any reason to avoid asking if their is a context that explains both the composition of Acts and its first usage.

To this end Tyson asks:

  • What are the themes of Acts?
  • What literary patterns are employed?
  • How are the characters portrayed?
  • Why does the author adopt these themes and shape these characterizations?
  • In what historical context does this kind of presentation best fit?

Themes and literary patterns in Acts

Tyson begins with the problem of subjectivity and absence of accepted method in determining the controlling themes in Acts. There are many lists of themes in Acts but no or few clear explanations about how they were determined.

Since questions of genre and the intended audience of Acts are also problematic, and in the discussions depend in part on a subjective assessment of the themes of Acts, Tyson decides he must find a way of determining the fundamental themes of Acts without (circular) reference to genre or audience.

Tyson therefore seeks the dominant themes of Acts in the following:

  1. redactional passages, where the author summarizes or interprets events in his own voice
  2. repeated literary patterns
  3. “exemplary episodes that contain points of stress to which the author returns on several occasions

Some themes will form parts of the structure of the narrative; others will be stressed through repetition.

1. The Summaries and their themes

The summaries lay great stress on the growth of the community (Acts 2:47; 5:14)

in Jerusalem (2:41; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 21:20)

and beyond (9:31; 11:21, 24; 12:24; 14:1; 19:20)

Summaries also stress the order of the community (Acts 2:42, 43; 4:33, 35; 5:12)

This order is maintained by the apostles who were appointed by Jesus (1:2), who proclaim the resurrection and perform miracles. The story of both why and how their number Twelve was maintained is carefully and fully explained (1:15-26). The requirements for apostolic leadership are made clear, and the names of the twelve made public. The apostles speak for the community before potential converts and political and religious leaders; they also control the community’s property ownership and distribution (4:35; 5:1-11).

Summaries emphasize the divine leadership of the community (Acts 2:47; 4:33)

Most prominent examples are the divine guidance in the choice of the twelfth apostle (1:15-26) and the descent of the spirit at Pentecost (2:1-13)

Summaries give special stress to the internal harmony of the community (Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12)

The characteristic word used in this connection is Homothumadon (concord, agreement) which is found nowhere else in the New Testament apart from once in Romans 15:6 — ten times altogether in Acts. (1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12) The story of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) shows awareness of violations of this accord, but also shows how harmony was quickly restored.

2. Literary Patterns and their themes

Note the literary pattern used to support the harmony theme

  1. Harmony: a utopian beginning, exemplified by Barnabas — 4:32-37
  2. Threat: the lie of Ananias and Sapphira– 5:1-2
  3. Resolution: Peter’s condemnation and elimination of the threat — 5:3-10
  4. Restoration: the whole community in awe — 5:11

Note the same literary pattern in Acts 1:12-2:1; 5:12-42; 6:1-7; 8:6-13; 8:14-25 and elsewhere.

Acts 1:12-2:1

  1. Harmony: All united in one room in prayer
  2. Threat: Judas fell, incomplete number
  3. Resolution: Resolution through lots
  4. Restoration: All with one accord in one place again

Acts 5:12-42

  1. Harmony: Another utopia as all united in Solomon’s Porch
  2. Threat: Apostles arrested
  3. Resolution: Gamaliel reasons with the rulers
  4. Restoration: All harmoniously back in temple and homes.

Acts 6:1-7

  1. Harmony: Disciples multiplying
  2. Threat: Murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists
  3. Resolution: The Twelve appoint the Seven
  4. Restoration: Disciples multiplying again

Acts 8:6-13

  1. Harmony: Samarian multitudes of one accord through Philip
  2. Threat: Enter Simon the Sorcerer, reputed to be “the great power of God”, who has a large following
  3. Resolution: Simon also believes
  4. Restoration: Simon, amazed, is united and continues with Philip

Acts 8:14-25

  1. Harmony: News of Samarian converts spreads and they receive the holy spirit
  2. Threat: Simon the Sorcerer’s “Simony”
  3. Resolution: Peter rebukes Simon forcing him into retreat
  4. Restoration: Preaching among the Samaritans is resumed

So the theme of harmony is underscored by this repeated literary pattern. Harmony is presented as the natural and original order of the church, threats to it are quickly resolved, and the church is then restored to its utopian condition.

Below when we discuss the episodes of Paul we will see further use of a repeated literary pattern.

3. Themes in exemplary episodes with repeated stress points

The theme of the community’s fidelity to Jewish traditions and practices is seen in the centrality of the temple setting for many episodes in the early part of Acts.

Believers gather in the Temple (2:46; 5:12) which is the centre for many episodes – 2:46; 3:1, 2, 3, 8, 10; 4:1; 5:20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 42. The apostles perform their miracles there, they pray there, they preach there. The temple is also the centre of conflict. The apostles are arrested there, but return on their release to speak to everyone gathered there.

The theme of Jewish opposition:

The Jewish leaders oppose the apostles — Acts 4:1,5, 8, 23; 5:17, 21, 24, 26

Individual Jewish opponents are named — Acts 4:6

Apostles appear before the Sanhedrin, some of whom want them executed — Acts 5:27, 34

Gamaliel, described as a Pharisee and teacher of the law, argues in favour of the apostles.

Tyson selects a few of these “exemplary episodes” to illustrate:

i. The episode of the Hellenists vs the Hebrews in Acts 6:1-7

This episode uses the literary patten discussed above:

Harmony: Growth of the numbers of disciples

Threat: Hellenists complain about the Hebrews

Resolution: The Twelve call everyone together, propose a plan, all accept the plan, and the Seven are ordained

Restoration: Disciples multiply again, and even priests join them

The narrative continues an emphasis on themes introduced in earlier chapters:

the order of community is shown by apostles’ convening the assembly and proposing and executing the plan; the ordination of the Seven allowing the Twelve to do their work. So as new characters are introduced the themes of harmony and order are still in the forefront of the narrative.

ii. The episode of Stephen in Acts 6:8-7:60

This episode focuses on the themes of Jewish opposition and the early Church’s fidelity to Jewish practices:

The opposition begins with diaspora Jews (1:9) but quickly extends to the people and leaders of Jerusalem (1:12). The charges are blasphemy against Moses and God and speaking against Torah and Temple.

Stephen stresses the church’s common heritage with the Jews, identifies himself and the church with Israel and his accusers (“our ancestors”, “our nation”), makes abundant use of the Pentateuch and figures from the Jewish scriptures.

The speech stresses that the charges against him (and the community) are false, implying that the church did not at all teach against Moses or the Law or the Temple.

The author will make the same point in a later episode in regard to Paul (21:18-28)

The author uses Stephen to argue that the Jewish people have always been stiffnecked and opposed to the will of God. Without citing any specific incidents he also accuses them of having always murdered their prophets. Thus the Jewish opposition to Jesus and the Christians is merely an extension of the characteristics of the Jewish people.

At the end of the speech Stephen no longer speaks of “our ancestors” but of “your ancestors”, thus distancing himself from their rebellion; and he finally accuses the Jews of being the ones who do not observe the Torah.

Hence the reader is being persuaded that it is Stephen and the Christians who are the true “Jews” or believers and observers of the Torah, while the Jews are continuing in their age-old habit of opposing the will of God.

After the Stephen episode a new theme finds regular reappearances, the theme of the community’s inclusion of Gentiles.

iii. The episode of the conversion of Cornelius

The author uses a series of anecdotes to show how the church changed ethnically from Jewish to Gentile. The primary exemplar is the story of Cornelius but this is prepared for by a series of smaller episodes that begin with the time of Stephen. It change began among Samaritans and diaspora Jews, those on the ethnic periphery of the Jerusalem Jews. There is a convert from Ethiopia, believers in Damascus and converted Hellenists in Antioch. All of these forerunners gradually extend the ethnic base from the core of Jerusalem Jews until the climactic conversion of Cornelius, regarded narratively as the first true Gentile.

(Tyson does not make the following observation, but I suspect the author in his lead up to the conversion of full gentile Cornelius was also setting the scene with the healing of Aeneas, the namesake of the founder of the Romans, and another healing at Joppa, the port from which Jonah left on his unavoidable way to preach to the gentile Assyrians.)

So the literary pattern is:

  1. to the Jews first and within the setting of Jewish customs, thereby demonstrating the theme of fidelity to Jewish practices and customs by the believing community;
  2. followed by Jewish opposition to the believer community
  3. and rejection of their message;
  4. followed by theme of inclusion of the gentiles

iv. The paradigmatic episode of Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52)

This same theme, the community’s inclusion of Gentiles, governs the Pauline mission, Acts 13-28.

The same literary pattern is used repeatedly here, too. Paul enters a city, goes first to the Jews, or some Jews and God-fearers, meets with some success but always ends up with a major rejection. From then on he goes to the Gentiles where he meets with often unbounded success. This provokes further Jewish opposition, and results in his expulsion. But before he leaves he announces publicly that since the Jews have rejected him he will thenceforth offer salvation to the more receptive Gentiles (13:46; 18:5; 28:28).

Paul’s announcement in 13:46 is a statement of how the author controls the story. Paul regularly begins each new mission to a city with a visit to the synagogue, thus reinforcing the theme of fidelity of the believing community to the Jewish traditions and practices.

See also Acts 13:13-52; 14:1-7; 17:1-9, 10-15; 18:1-17

The theme of Jewish rejection of the Christian message

This theme is dominant in the later episodes of Acts. In the earlier chapters the Jews embrace the message but with the mission of Paul we read of their initial partial acceptance and then their rejection of the message. Meanwhile the conversion of the Jews back in Jerusalem continues offstage — 21:20.

So the literary pattern that the author plies to the Paul stories ties together 4 of the above themes:

  1. fidelity of the believing community to the Jewish traditions and practices — Paul always begins with the synagogue
  2. the community’s inclusion of Gentiles
  3. Jewish rejection of the Christian message
  4. Jewish opposition to the community

The major themes for the whole of Acts thus identified are:

  1. growth of the community
  2. order of the community
  3. divine leadership of the community
  4. internal harmony of the community
  5. community’s fidelity to the Jewish traditions and practices
  6. Jewish opposition to the community
  7. the community’s inclusion of Gentiles
  8. Jewish rejection of the Christian message

Why these themes?

Themes and literary patterns are under the control of the author, so it is not enough to say that any sources used led the author to read the events that way.

Some of the themes may be accounted for as rhetorical devices: utopian beginnings to present the church in a good light, Jewish customs to give it the credibility of venerable roots, Jewish opposition to distance Christians from contemporary Jews.

Tyson however sees many of these themes as best explained by a motivation to counter Marcionism.

  1. Marcion taught a split between Paul and the older apostles.
    1. Compare the theme of harmony.
  2. Marcion taught the leadership of Paul (and Tyson does not say it, but Marcionism was also known for its lack of disciplined organizational structure and chains of authority).
    1. Compare the theme of order under leadership of the apostles.
  3. Marcion opposed the application of Jewish practices and customs and traditions.
    1. Compare the theme of fidelity to Jewish traditions and the Hebrew scriptures.

Tyson next looks at the characterization of Peter and Paul and believes he finds support for the above Marcionite explanation.

That’s a future post/s.

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Neil Godfrey

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