Couchoud on Acts of the Apostles

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by Neil Godfrey

English: Ananias restoring the sight of Saint Paul
Ananias restoring the sight of Paul: Image via Wikipedia

I’ll try to complete Paul-Louis Couchoud’s explanations for the second-century productions of the canonical New Testament literature starting here with his discussion of Acts. For those who enjoy the stimulation of new (even if old) ideas to spark fresh thoughts, read on.

I left off my earlier series on Couchoud’s thoughts on Gospel origins with his argument that the Gospel of Luke was the last Gospel written and was primarily a response to Marcion. The final remarks in that post were:

On the Emmaus Road Marcion had Jesus remind the travellers that Christ must suffer. Luke goes further and adds that Jesus began with Moses and taught them all that the Prophets said must happen to Christ.

Marcion’s Gospel closed with the words:

Thus it was that the Christ should suffer,
And rise again from the dead the third day
And that there be preached in his name
Repentance and remission of sins to all the nations.

Luke saw what was not said so added:

These are my words that I spoke
While I was yet with you;
How that all things must needs be fulfilled as it is written
In the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms of me.
Then opened he their mind
To understand the Scriptures.

Thus Jesus’ final teaching links up with the first. Marcion is refuted. The Old Testament and Gospel are not in opposition. The Gospel is found in the Old Testament.

Recall that it was Couchoud’s suspicion that the real author of this Gospel and its companion, Acts, was Clement of Rome. So to continue on from there:

Acts of the Apostles – and of the Holy Spirit

First recall that Couchoud sees Luke’s masterpiece innovation as the Holy Spirit. It was this that Luke introduced for reasons of political control:

In this lies his masterpiece. He endowed the Church with a doctrine of the Holy Ghost which was to assure its stability and give it the means of checking the last prophetic explosions — those of Montanus and his prophetesses and energumens. The Holy Ghost is a celestial being derived from God and from Jesus; at times it appears in the form of a dove [i.e. from Mark 1], at others in the shape of tongues of flame [i.e. from Enoch 66:5]. It is burning and weighty, and it falls on him to whom God sends it;  it seizes him. The Holy Ghost took possession of the prophets of the Old Testament and spoke by their mouths. But — here take heed! — it did this only to foretell the coming of Jesus, his sufferings, and his glory. This preparation was not done for the benefit of the prophets nor their auditors, but for Christians [1 Clem 17:1 et al]. Since Jesus’s birth all that has changed. The Holy Ghost fertilized a virgin and consecrated Jesus on earth. When Jesus returned to heaven, he caused the Holy Ghost to fall on the Apostles. Whereon they announced the coming of Jesus, told of his sufferings and his glory; the very things which the prophets of old had foretold. Prophecy is therefore replaced by the Gospel, and the two converge on Jesus. Both to-day are fixed by the written word, and should be the constant reading of the faithful; there is left no further room for prophecy. (p. 272)

So we have the Acts of the Holy Spirit. It opens with this power falling down from on high into the apostles to be witnesses of Jesus.

There is the Ascension, then the re-establishment of the Twelve by casting lots to replace Judas.

Originally 120 persons made up a church, a Christian community of the type Clement [in Couchoud’s mind the real author] would have liked to see in the churches of his time. Then comes the festival of Pentecost, when the Jews celebrate the giving of the Law as a sounding river of fire, so they said, which was divided into seventy tongues for the benefit of the seventy nations. (B. W. Bacon, 1933) By substituting the Holy Ghost for the Law, the festival became a Christian one. (p. 293)

This is a sequel to Jesus’ own baptism in the Gospel. The same spirit that came down on Jesus also came upon the Mother Church — and will descend upon all those other churches that the apostles will establish.

Interjecting with my own reflection here, I wonder if this is a more likely explanation for Luke bypassing the scene of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the Gospel. It is at least a positive reason — consistent with other ways Luke handles Markan stories — rather than the usual negative explanation that Luke was “embarrassed” by the scene in Mark. Is what Luke (Clement?) doing here emphasizing the heavenly source of the Holy Spirit and the continuity of this heaven-sent spirit joining Jesus with the first Church and then all subsequent churches? Would not a reminder that John the Baptist was the agency of that Spirit have detracted from this intention?

Compare later Paul receiving the Holy Spirit through a lowly disciple.

If so, let’s look again at Matthew’s variation on Mark’s baptism scenario. Here the emphasis is on obedience, fulfilling all righteousness, humility. Yes, these can be interpreted as rationales for an embarrassing situation, but can they not just as plausibly be seen as a reshaping of the scene to accord with Matthew’s larger theme of righteousness and being poor in spirit, etc.? Does not this latter explanation have the advantage of coherence with the remainder of the Gospels’ theologies and their treatments of Mark?

In other words, need we really attribute embarrassment to the Baptism scenes in Matthew and Luke (and its non-inclusion in John)? Why not consider that these later authors were doing what they did with nearly every other detail they adapted from Mark — positively recast each detail according to each evangelist’s personal theological views? I suppose this can be said to imply some level of embarrassment, but surely no more than anything else in Mark that these authors chose to modify. But more significantly, surely, is the fact that such an interpretation is consistent with all the other ways in which they treated Mark’s anecdotes.

Taming unruly tongues

Paul’s churches had been plagued with inarticulate gibberish said to be the language of angels, or tongues-speaking (glossolalia). Luke was wanting to bring order and control into the churches and mavericks, prophets and unruly “prophets” acting independently like this had to be stamped out. So Luke placed its origin in the controlled Jerusalem Church (not Paul’s churches) and showed readers that it was nothing other than “a marvellous and valuable polyglottism”.

Starting thus

Starting thus from an utterly mythical point of departure, Luke undertakes the history of the early Church. He had at his disposal meagre tales current among the Palestine communities and a Life of St. Paul which was probably by Marcion. He did not hesitate to employ matter of his own, and took care to balance evenly the relative importance of Peter and Paul, from both of whom the Roman Church pretended to derive its origin, attributing to them both the same doctrine and the same miracles. It was his aim and his craft to model the difficult transition from the religious myth to genuine history in a convincing manner by means of a very free hagiographic legend. (p. 294)

So Acts was written.

The Holy Spirit had to be transported, like the torch in a classic race, from Jerusalem to Rome.

At each stage the Jews had to be offered the Gospel first, they had to reject it, and then it could be offered to the Gentiles. This pattern was to demonstrate that the faith was not a new religion as Marcion taught, but the oldest religion, the true religion of Israel. Prophecy had foretold that those same people would reject it. Prophecy also told of Jesus’ life. So to preach the Gospel was to teach that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.

So to accept the Gospel and Jesus was to accept the Old Testament and the “true” religion of Israel. Contra Marcion.

The old warnings of the imminent coming of the Lord were thrust into the background. They were “replaced by a simple affirmation of the bodily resurrection.”

In fact, Luke presents as the most ancient Christian doctrine that which was in reality the teaching developed against Marcion in the middle of the second century. (p. 294)

One word to the Jews, another to the Gentiles

Matthew composed sermons that were designed to appeal to Jews and to win them over. Not so Luke. The sermons to the Jews he places in the mouths of Peter, Stephen and Paul are mere formalities.

The case of the Jews is lost beforehand as it had to be. The true objection of the Jews which John dealt with directly was the difficulty of recognizing any other God than God, and it is evaded by Luke. Peter accuses the Jews of having crucified and denied “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you,” whom God raised again and made Lord and Christ. That the Jews may have still less excuse, the divinity of Jesus is reduced to what it became in the degenerate christology of Hermas, adoption * by God. As for Stephen, he thought to convict the Jews of ever having rebelled against their own God (Acts vii. 51-52). . . .

* This adoption is there for good reason. It must not be taken to be the conception out of which Christianity emerged. It is a residue, not a germ. (p. 295)

Interjecting again, excuse me. I find a lot that is fascinating to think about here. So here is an argument that the low christology in Acts is not evidence of a primitive Christianity but is a tactical innovation to cast more blame upon the Jews. The Jews could be “forgiven” (not quite the right word) for thinking Jesus a blasphemer if he was considered a rival to God in heaven, but if he was little more than a “son of God” in the sense that other biblical heroes were or could have been, then they have no excuse at all for their rejection of him.

Couchoud also argues John is a second-century Gospel. But there is something here that addresses, I think, another reason to see John as second century. The Jewish insistence on a very strict concept of a sole God was, from what I understand, very much a product of rabbinic Judaism that only emerged (probably in parallel with Christianity) after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. Christianity carried over more of the older “traditions” of Second Temple beliefs including teachings of the likes of Enoch. The God being or Godhead was not such a monolithic unitary concept for all Jews then. There were possibly shades of a mutated “polytheism” among them with angels and hypostases even standing in for God at times. Couchoud says John dealt with Jews who had a problem with Christianity’s concept of God and Jesus’ position, but I think should also be considered a grappling with a distinctly second-century phenomenon.

Contrast the sermons to the Gentiles:

On the other hand, the sermons to the Gentiles are persuasive, different in tone and effect from those to the Jews. Peter tells them that the God of Israel is “no respecter of persons; but in every nation he that fears him and does right is acceptable to him” (Acts x.34). That same Holy Ghost which the Jews withstand comes down on the heathen. Barnabas and Paul teach the Lycaonians that the Creator has “suffered all the nations to walk in their own ways,” and has made himself manifest by the good he has done,” in that he gave you from heaven rain and fruitful seasons, filling your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts xiv. 16). * Had not the finest of the pagans discovered that already for themselves? Luke places at Paul’s service the finest flowers culled from his acquaintance with Attic orators, Stoic poets, and philosophers when he makes him speak before the Athenian Areopagus . . . [17:22 – Lycurgus; 17:28a – Epimenides; 17:28b – Aratos] . . .

* Compare these expressions with those in which Clement speaks of the Creator in I Clem. xx. 4: “The teeming earth, according to his will, abounds in its proper season, in food for man and for beast.” (pp. 295-296)

Now why have I not read this before? Okay, I’m not a scholar and do not have the opportunity to dedicate my life to reading all that I want. It had never occurred to me before that there is this author-designed different treatment of the Jews and Gentiles before, at least not like this. I must re-read those sermons and check out this claim for myself.

But Couchoud has a striking way of making a point. After quoting Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus he notes:

Here is indeed a surprise: the God of the Stoics turns out to be Jahweh himself. That very God which Israel had failed to know the heathen had perceived and adored.

Retrojecting Rome’s College of Elders to the Jerusalem Apostles

The established Church was governed by Elders (whose charge was the Word of God) and by deacons who assisted with the material welfare.

Luke would say that such had been its organization from the very beginning. He therefore made the Apostles to be the original College of Elders; and the first deacons were, willy-nilly, the Hellenist Christians who were in opposition to the Hebrews. (p. 296)

Now there is a lot of interesting explanatory power here to some longstanding curiosities in Acts. One notes Couchoud’s wink to the anti-semitic theme here, too. 

So Luke had to correct the old Peter legends (and those of Paul, too) and bring such independents into the team: the first Apostles had to be always a collective just as was the Church government of Rome. This effort led to a lot of clumsiness, such as when he tries to team up Peter always with John so Peter is no longer a head above the rest. Compare the oddness of him trying to describe Peter fastening his eyes upon one seeking healing, “with John” (Acts 3:4)

I don’t follow Couchoud’s thoughts when he addresses the contributions made to the Jerusalem apostles through people selling their own properties. He says this was Luke’s way of interpreting the large collections which were sent to these apostles. The faithful learn, moreover, that the ancient rigour in the obligation of giving to the Elders a share of their wealth for the needs of the Church was relaxed to some extent. I don’t understand why there had to be wealth in the hands of the Jerusalem Twelve to be explained in the first place. I may have missed something earlier in the book.

Marcion in the Guise of Simon Magus

Though deacons could baptize the prayers of the apostles were required before the Holy Spirit could be given.

Note the deacon Philip going down to the Samaritans and baptizing many of them, yet without them receiving the Holy Spirit.

From this we deduce [really induce, but never mind] that there were baptized Christians who nevertheless had not received the Holy Ghost. Who can these be? you may ask. They were those Christians who did not belong to the communion of the Apostles. These would be the Marcionites, you think, and the narrator of Acts bring in Marion’s very self in the guise of Simon Magus. (p. 297)

This Simon was a Samaritan Gnostic. Justin Martyr was a native of Samaria and could have offered information about him (1 Apology xxvi; lvi) to the author of Acts.

[H]ere he is introduced as a mighty magician known as the Great Power of God. Mark what follows! Simon is baptized. He sees Peter and John giving the Holy Ghost.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God.

Beneath the mask of Simon, called the father of all heresies, stood the recent heretic who had thought to buy with money the communion of the Church of Rome. Marcion had not yet died. Did the Church dream that the power of God might be moved by prayer to bring him back repentant to the fold, that the Church might not be divided? Peter adds:-

Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

Simon’s answer left some hope. (pp. 297-298 — I have copied another translation in place of Couchoud’s quotation of Acts 8)

I have always wondered about that inconclusive ending leaving Simon in spiritual limbo. This is the first time I have come across an explanation for it. Of course we have other arguments, such as those of Roger Parvus and Hermann Detering that this Simon was really a cipher for Paul himself, or rather that Paul was a cipher for Simon.

Paul’s case treated with the greatest of care

Couchoud here repeats what many scholars have likewise suggested, but it’s interesting to read it from his perspective:

Paul’s case had to be treated with the greatest care, for Paul was the Apostle by whom the Holy Ghost had been brought to Rome. The greater part of this book is devoted to his story, and his epistles were intended to complement the Gospels. Yet this terrible fellow had always taught that he held his title of Apostle from God himself. In fact he had been a prophet, the most untameable of the lot, and to bring him in was to risk upsetting the whole orderly system. Luke had therefore to bring him into line. Into what place did he fall in the order: The Prophets, Jesus, the Apostles, the Elders? Fortune had directed that Paul, after many years of free apostleship, had entered into the communion of the Apostles of Jerusalem, and again, after he had quitted that community, had returned to it. Our author’s aim was to efface all traces of independence and of variation. He therefore brought Paul, immediately after his conversion, into the company of the Twelve. The title of Apostle was left to him, as it was also to Barnabas. The number of Apostles, authorized authors or inspirers of the New Testament, was thus brought up to fourteen. The Holy Ghost was not given to him by one of the Twelve, but by a pious disciple, at Jesus’s command. (pp. 298-299)

It starts to make more sense of the way 12 apostles could become 14 if we hypothesize that Luke was shaping this collective as a template for the church government in his own day.

Barnabas is a Levite of Cyprus and as such can be seen as a link between the Jewish priesthood and the Apostles.

Luke took Paul’s letter to Galatians as the basis of his tale of his conversion. Paul’s own account of his conversion in his defence before King Agrippa (Acts 26:12-20) follows the outline of Galatians — receiving the call directly from Jesus himself and receiving no investiture through man’s hands. Luke inserts into this outline another scene he took from Josephus: the tale of the conversion of King Izates by the Jew Ananias. Thus the name and role of Ananias in Paul’s conversion.

So having been brought into the faith through the humble Ananias Paul preached the Gospel at Damascus. It was “many days” after that that he finally went up to Jerusalem where Barnabas brought him into the fellowship of the Apostles. Paul was then “in Jerusalem going in and out” among the brethren there.

Fortified with this knowledge, the pious reader can read the Pauline Epistles without running any risk. He will be able to put the right interpretation on them and will be able to correct what Paul said himself about his first apostleship. (p. 300)

I’m fascinated by the idea that Damascus and Antioch were birth cities of significant movements that eventually gelled into Christianity. Can’t help wondering that Palestine, Jerusalem included, were really only ideological constructions of a later time. Don’t know. Or maybe Jerusalem was a spiritual “gnostic-like” sister of Damascus and Antioch, too?

So Paul is invested with the Holy Spirit that first came to the Jerusalem apostles and so is able to safely undertake his many journeys.

He meets disciples in Ephesus who were baptized only with John’s baptism and is able to exercise the same power of the other apostles by praying the Holy Spirit down upon them (Acts 19:1-8) — just as Peter and John had done for the Samaritans. “He appoints Elders with Apostolic authority.”

In Ephesus Paul warns the church of the future heresy that is to break out in Asia (20:28-30) — the area thickest with Marcionism.

Finally he comes to Rome as a prisoner, preaches for the last time the Gospel before the Jews first and then the Gentiles. “Isaiah’s prophecy of Israel’s unbelief is fulfilled utterly.”

The End

When the two volumes dedicated to Theophilus have been read through . . .  The origins of Christianity now appear perfectly simple and clear. Once the way is indicated, the road unrolls itself in perfect order. Only by an effort of thought can the reader distinguish the artifice with which the parts have been joined together, with which a jumble of myth and confused history have been mingled and moulded into these grand, calm, and noble forms. (p. 301)

There are weak spots in Couchoud’s argument but there is also an abundance of gems. To paraphrase Ashleigh Brilliant (must acknowledge him given his notoriety for litigiousness!) Couchoud’s case may not be totally perfect but parts of it are excellent fodder for thought.

Next, the Epistles.

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Couchoud on Acts of the Apostles”

  1. Fascinating. Read Eisenman? The reason Luke’s John the Baptist is in PRISON when Jesus is BAPTIZED (by him) is that Luke didn’t want it to seem like Jesus needed help being THE MAN. John, coming later, with even MORE early Church father influence, has the initiation of Jesus by his PREDECESSOR completely removed, not just suppressed. This is familiar in the ways that James, Simeon bar Cleophas (“Peter”), and Judas (Thomas, not “Iscariot” his fictional schmuckazoid alter-ego) are minimized to point of irrelevancy, when ALL OF THEM were MASTERS –initiating Masters who SAVED. That’s what the Gospel of Judas is all about and the scholars have YET to learn! JUDAS was the sacrifice on his way to becoming the MASTER that Jesus made him to be when he INITIATED HIM (“What will those baptized in your Name do?” at 56:12 “Judas”). The “Name” is the Apophasis Logos, the WORD.

    That’s as far as got tonight. I’ll read more in the morning. Really good stuff. Which disciple gave the Spirit to Paul?

  2. Pingback: Remembering |

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