That “strange” end of Acts and its equally “strange” middle

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by Neil Godfrey

Revisiting Talbert’s “Literary Patterns” I was reminded of that ending of Acts that continues to bother sometimes. I’ve written on the endings before (see Endings post) and think that half of the problem is our literary tastes, matured on an evolving heritage long since distanced from its ancient roots, and the other half is our preconceived ideas about the theme and purpose of Acts having more to do with our sense of what the book should be about than with what the author may have had in mind.

Personally I like to think the ending of Acts is a conscious modeling in part on the ending of the epic Primary History of Israel. Both conclude with leaders under a form of liberal “house arrest” and being accorded such liberal treatment in their confinement that the reader in both cases is left with a feeling of a new day about to burst out of the chains that are already loosening, or having already burst subsequent to the telling of the tale. There’s more to it than that, but a full discussion is another topic.

But I’d forgotten Talbert’s similar treatment of the other leading apostle in Acts. If readers find Acts ends too abruptly for a natural or deliberate ending — leaving Paul in limbo awaiting trial — then it is worth recalling how the same author finished up his career of Peter half way through the book.

In chapter 12 Peter is released miraculously from prison, with much graphic narrative detail, only to pass on a message about his release to be conveyed to James, and then just when the reader is wanting to know “what next” when James heard the news, etc, the reader is hit with “So then Peter went away to some other place.” And that’s the end of him! Okay, he reappears again to say a few words in Acts 15, but that reappearance only adds to the mystery and inconclusiveness of Peter’s career in Acts.

One is tempted to think the author had no tradition, had no further story to tell about Peter. His only narrative need was to make way for James to head the Jerusalem council (compare the catholicizing intent of the author re this in last half of an earlier post). Most of the previous miracles he gives us about Peter were copies of one’s already narrated in Jesus’ life anyway. Perhaps the church was yet to arrive at details of a “tradition” about how Peter and Paul met their demise.

For Luke, Peter’s and Paul’s lives paralleled each others, and that of Jesus. Their histories were in large part (not totally) being crafted — not “recorded” — by Luke. Peter and Paul were literary and theological functionaries. The author was telling his story, making his theological points. Anyone looking for a biography with answers to the normal human questions that must be raised in biographies (above all, what happened to the leading characters in the end — Peter, Paul and James too) is not reading what the author wrote.

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Neil Godfrey

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