Jesus Tradition in the Acts of the Apostles
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- Ehrman accepts Acts as reliable history
- Acts as a second century product
- Judas treated as an historical figure
- More Aramaic tradition?
- Quoting Paul quoting Jesus
- The speeches in Acts
- Adoptionism: Jesus becomes God’s son
- Tracing the sequence of ideas about Jesus
- Syncretizing two separate movements
* * * * *
Canonical Sources Outside the Gospels and Paul
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 106-113)
In the midst of addressing the testimony to an historical Jesus in epistles both canonical and outside the New Testament, Bart Ehrman devotes several pages to the “Jesus Tradition in Acts.” In introducing Acts he fails to enlighten his readers that there is great uncertainty within mainstream scholarship over the historical reliability of the content of this document. Furthermore, he accepts without question that the author of Luke was the author of Acts, and thus what was known to the former was known to the latter.
Is Acts reliable history?
Ehrman fails to question any aspect of this ‘history’ of the spread of the faith. He treats everything from Acts as though it were part of known Christian tradition, and as reliable as anything else. . . .
— No matter that the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is nowhere mentioned in the epistles (despite their focus on inspiration and revelation).
— No matter that the figure and martyrdom of Stephen is nowhere attested to outside Acts.
— No matter that in Acts the settling of the issue of requirements for gentile converts is presented in an Apostolic Council which the authentic Pauline letters seem to know nothing about.
— Nor is the dramatic shipwreck episode at the end of Acts mentioned by early writers who talk about Paul, inviting us to see it as sheer fiction, emulating a popular element in second century Hellenistic romances. (The so-called “we” passages, often alleged to be from a Lukan journal, have also been identified as a common literary feature in recounting travel by sea, such as is found in earlier parts of Acts surrounding such travels.)
When and why was Acts written?
There is also no discussion about the dating of this document.
Ehrman places it in the most traditional position, some time in the 80s of the first century, shortly after the most traditional dating of the Gospel of Luke, c.80 CE. No mention is made that much critical scholarship has moved toward a date at least a couple of decades, sometimes more, into the second century (Townsend, Mack, O’Neill, Tyson, Pervo). And, of course, no mention that the first attestation to Acts comes around 175 in Irenaeus, with possibly an allusion to it a decade or so earlier in Justin. That such a ‘history’ could have lain unnoticed for so long if it had been written a century earlier (or more, for those who maintain it was written before Paul’s death), is not considered worthy of note.
As long ago as 1942, John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament) presented a compelling case that Acts was not written until the 140s or 150s, an ecclesiastical product to counter Marcion’s appropriation of Paul in which he used the letters to demonstrate that Paul operated independently of the Jerusalem apostles and with a very different view of Jesus.
Thus, Acts was written and designed to show the opposite, that Paul immediately upon his conversion subordinated himself to the pillars and subscribed to their teachings, lock, stock and circumcision. Which is why the speeches in Acts, clearly composed by the author, show the identical content between those of Peter and those of Paul. (Neither does Ehrman discuss the considerable discrepancies between Acts and the Pauline epistles.)
Independent witnesses to Judas’ death
Ehrman hardly covers himself in glory with his treatment of the figure of Judas in Acts. According to him,
the author of Acts has access to traditions that are not based on his Gospel account so that we have yet another independent witness. (DJE? p. 107)
Independent from whom? Was Luke the author of the Gospel “independent” of Luke the author of Acts? It seems that for Ehrman every saying or anecdote which can be found nowhere else, or fails to agree with some other version of that saying or anecdote, constitutes an “independent witness” to the historical Jesus.
Ehrman calls “an interesting tradition” the statement in Acts
. . . by the apostle Peter about the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, who is said to have purchased a field with the money he received for turning Jesus in to the authorities. Judas is said to have fallen headlong on the field and spilled his innards out. It is for that reason, Peter indicates, that the field came to be known as “Akeldama,” an Aramaic word meaning “Field of Blood” (1:16-19). (DJE? p. 107)
Ehrman points out that, in addition to Mark and John, not even the Luke of the Gospels mentions the death of Judas. How this helps the case for common authorship is uncertain, but he contrasts the Acts scenario with that of Matthew, who presents a different version of Judas’ death: by suicidal hanging. What is common between them is that both involve a “Field of Blood”: in Acts, the place of Judas’ blood-spilled death; in Matthew, a field purchased as a cemetery by the priests, to whom Judas has returned his 30 silver-piece “blood money.”
This amounts, for Ehrman, to two independent traditions about the death of Judas (and it serves to bring an historical Jesus into those two independent traditions). But this is to ignore two considerations.
One is that hardly a single critical scholar today thinks that Judas is anything but a fictional character created by Mark; even his name is a stereotype for the hated Jew who failed to accept the Christian Jesus. He surfaces nowhere outside the Gospels in early Christian literature. Ehrman fails to mention this to his readers.
Second, if Acts is increasingly seen as a second century product, it follows in the tradition of the Gospels, and once Mark’s Judas gained exposure, he was bound to attract some attention. That writers and preachers would portray him as undergoing a gruesome death as a consequence of his betrayal of Jesus would be a foregone conclusion. Papias is reported to have said (fr. 18) that Judas did not die from his hanging, but went about for a time swollen to a size bigger than a wagon. Is this, too, an independent tradition, another witness to Jesus? Or is it all simply creativity on the part of writers and preachers based on the Gospel story, much of it quite bizarre?
Ehrman himself suggests that the “field of blood” motif common to Matthew and Acts could have been based on a “potter’s field” (mentioned by Matthew) which had a red cast from the red clay used by potters, and that such a place became associated “with the death of Jesus’ betrayer.” He has simply provided more evidence that the human imagination works in wondrous ways, and that once the Gospel story was let loose in the world, it generated all sorts of associations and creative expansions.
More early Aramaic evidence
Not surprisingly, Ehrman uses the presence of the Aramaic word “Akeldama” in Acts to claim that this tradition must be early. This eliminates any ambiguity one might allow to Ehrman on the question of whether he is maintaining that Judas existed, and in essentially the role allotted to him in the Gospels. Here he clearly is, since this ‘early tradition’ must predate Mark. And it is an Aramaic word which could have had no other context in tradition than its Gospel one. (Where the author of Acts derived it is unknown; it is not included by Matthew, who refers to the place in Greek.)
Ehrman has dealt with these ‘Judas traditions’ on a level no higher than the most unabashed and undiscriminating apologist.
Putting Jesus’ words into Paul’s mouth
Ehrman follows with this statement:
Moreover, that Luke has access to sayings of the historical Jesus not recorded otherwise, even in his Gospel, is clear from a passage such as Acts 20:35, where the apostle Paul is recorded as saying, “I have shown you that it is necessary by hard work to help the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (DJE? p. 108)
When the Gospels have been judged to be full of sayings accorded to Jesus which only the most conservative scholars regard as authentic, Ehrman can confidently state that the author of Acts is giving clear evidence of access to genuine sayings of the historical Jesus? This couldn’t possibly be a case of the author putting words in Paul’s mouth which put words in Jesus mouth? Especially since those words served the author’s purpose in his context. It couldn’t possibly be a case of drawing on a saying attributed to Jesus at some time after the Gospels were written?
If we had that saying — quite a memorable one — witnessed to anywhere else as the product of Jesus, Ehrman might have been on more solid ground (though still with no guarantees). As it is, we have no more logical reason to judge authenticity here than for, say, any of the “Sayings of the Lord” by Papias. A second century attribution tells us nothing. (Of course, Ehrman slots it into the first century, datable to shortly after Jesus’ death, on account of Paul allegedly being familiar with it and its single-word Aramaic content.)
The Speeches in Acts
Ehrman now turns his attention to the speeches made by Peter and Paul in Acts. He admits that these speeches, as was the practice in the ancient world, are the product of the author. But he also maintains that they incorporate ideas which go back to earliest views of the historical Jesus, long before the Gospels were written. Those ideas also predate Paul, and what he and others like him made of the human man. In other words, Acts allegedly preserves views of Jesus which did not originally involve the idea of pre-existence or any of the other cosmic features — such as being creator and sustainer of the universe — given to the human Jesus by thinkers like Paul.
(We need to inject here that the epistles are totally lacking any indication that such cosmic features were in fact bestowed upon a human man known to those thinkers. That is simply assumed. It’s called importing the Gospels into the epistles. Scholars prefer to call it the “interpretation” of a human man, though that man is never mentioned, let alone designated as being so interpreted.)
Did God adopt a human man?
As an example of the pre-Pauline type of view preserved in Acts, Ehrman refers to the doctrine of “adoptionism,” that Jesus was regarded as a man, born in a normal way, but adopted by God as his “son” — which did not mean a divine emanation of him — on the day of his baptism. Ehrman argues that when he was baptized by John,
. . . the heavens opened up, the Spirit of God descended upon him (meaning he didn’t have the Spirit before this), and the voice from heaven declared, ‘You are my son. Today I have begotten you.’ One should not underplay the significance of the word today in this quotation from Psalm 2. It was on the day of his baptism that Jesus became God’s son. (DJE? p. 111)
While Ehrman cautions us not to underplay the “today,” it is possible that he is overplaying it. After all, the word is in the Psalm and would hardly have been dropped, let alone changed. Moreover, Ehrman himself needs cautioning on another point. This “adoption” of a human man by God first appears in the record in the Gospel of Mark, not before. He is thus without warrant in simply telling his readers that the Markan presentation is based on traditions going back to views and ‘story-telling’ by earlier Christians that God had so pronounced at Jesus’ baptism and adopted him as a son. Not only do the Gospels regularly get read back into the epistles, Ehrman is now reading them back into the pre-epistle period, ensconcing them in an alleged oral tradition.
He can even detect such a period within the epistles themselves. This one can be located, he says, even further back than the idea of adoption at baptism. Since Paul, within a handful of years after Jesus’ death, was converted to a “church” which he says preaches the same thing he does (1 Cor. 15:11), a lot of evolution through successive phases must have been zipped through in a very short time!
Ehrman’s ‘earliest phase’ saw Jesus as becoming God’s son only at his resurrection. As he puts it:
It was then that God showered special favor on the man Jesus, exalting him to heaven, and calling him his son, the messiah, the Lord. (DJE? p. 111)
Creeds and hymns about an adoption?
This is derived from a couple of passages in Paul regarded as pre-Pauline creeds or Christological hymns. The one Ehrman points to here is Romans 1:4,
. . . and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness at his resurrection from the dead.
But this does not specify that it was at this point that Christ became the son of God. What happened after the resurrection is that Christ was given power. This “creed” alludes only to verse 8 of Psalm 2:
Ask of me, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, and the ends of the earth as your possession.
Regardless of what verse 7 has said (the original “You are my son, today I have begotten you”), here the focus is on the “power” aspect of being the Son of God. If this creed was meant to reflect adoptionism, there should be no question that it would have worked verse 7 into its content.
In fact, we can support this by looking at the other passage on which Ehrman’s contention is based (though he does not present it here): the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11. Here, too, the consequence of the hymn’s figure undergoing death and being exalted to heaven is not being adopted as God’s son, but being given the name at which every knee in the universe will bow and every tongue confess him as Lord. In other words, the conferring of power, just as in Romans 1:4.
That “name,” by the way, is “Jesus” — something which verse 10 unequivocally states—indicating that this figure was not previously a Jesus known by that name who had begun his existence as a human man on earth. In fact, the very first line of the hymn declares this figure, now to be known as Jesus, to have shared in God’s very form and nature. This is pre-existence, God’s emanation, leaving no room for any subsequent transformation of a human being to an adopted “son of God.” (The longstanding desperate measure of interpreting the “name” here conferred on this divine entity as being the title “Lord” continues to be indulged in by scholarship.)
In verses 7 and 8 of the hymn, we encounter the image of the Son taking on a state of inferiority, the nature of a servant, along with two further statements of a motif recurring throughout the epistles: that he assumed only a “likeness” to humans. Not only does this not speak of actual human incarnation, it repeats the idea three times, apparently to fill in needed lines in the hymn’s chiastic structure. Why, then, was that available space not taken up with some reference to a life on earth, to his original human activity as a prelude to the adoptionist understanding which Ehrman and others claim the hymn entails?
In any case, this ‘phase’ Ehrman has discovered in the epistles is unlike the one in the Gospels. In the latter, a human Jesus on earth is clearly in view. In the epistles it is anything but.
Flipping the sequence
We can clearly see what Ehrman is about.
The epistolary record precedes the record surrounding the Gospels and Acts. In the former only the cosmic Christ is in view. Somehow, the features of the latter have to be relocated to a time preceding the former.
This is accomplished by declaring those features to go back, through an oral tradition process of which there is no sign in the former, to a postulated earliest response to an historical Jesus. Signs of that response are to be located in the speeches and other elements of Acts. This requires an early dating for that document, as well as a dismissal of any possibility that it is a product of the second century having its own agenda based on the Gospels, Gospels which have only recently begun to show up in the wider record.
Ehrman quotes from three of the speeches in Acts. That they
. . . contain very ancient material, much earlier than the Gospels, is significant as well because these speeches are completely unambiguous that Jesus was a mortal who lived on earth and was crucified under Pontius Pilate at Jewish insistence. (DJE? p. 112)
Unambiguous, yes. But in what way is this “very ancient material, much earlier than the Gospels”? His quotes from the speeches Ehrman calls “primitive traditions,” but there is nothing in them that is not found in the Gospels. Not a single phrase in them can support Ehrman’s contention that they are “independent of the Gospels.”
In fact, there are a couple of items which can only be regarded as derived from the Gospels, such as the choosing of Barabbas over Jesus (which no critical scholar regards as a remotely possible event, let alone one instigated by Pilate). These speeches sound like nothing so much as a crude distillation of the basic Gospel story, point by point. Certainly there is nothing in style or content to suggest they represent a throw-back through oral transmission to circulating pre-Gospel traditions.
And in the “ancient material” we do have earlier than the Gospels, there is not a hint of these alleged traditions to be found.
The enigma of Acts
Acts has always been something of an enigma to scholars. Despite Ehrman’s direct pipeline to early oral traditions, they have always lamented that specific sources for Acts cannot be identified. Everything sounds like the voice of “Luke.” No ‘seams’ can be perceived on the edges of any pre-existing ingredients.
And yet, it is perhaps understandable that when scholarship has compared the content of Acts with the content of the earlier epistles, it has seemed to make sense that its material must in some way represent the Christian movement prior to Paul. It begs to be seen as a more “primitive” state of the movement, representing the first part of a logical sequence of development from man to God.
The problem is, this is not what the actual state of the record shows. Not without the kind of contortion and wishful invention Ehrman is imposing on it. Where is all this oral tradition prior to and contemporary with the epistles, which go right up to and beyond the end of the first century, with Paul himself going back with his cosmic Christ to less than a decade after Jesus’ reputed death? If the earliest movement — squeezed into a handful of years — did not recognize Jesus as part of God, what led Paul and countless others to elevate him almost immediately to such a status while jettisoning all interest in the human man and his life?
Indeed, the impossibility of conceiving such a process has led some modern scholars to reject the traditional interpretation of the epistles and declare that those early apostles and writers did not view Jesus as a part of God, thereby bringing them into some kind of feasible line with the assumed view of the Gospels and Acts. (To do this requires an extreme reinterpretation of the texts.) Others ask: would the Gospels and Acts have adopted such a reduced conception of Jesus, coming down so far from the lofty cosmic Christ of Paul as the emanation of God and creator of the universe, if it did not in fact represent an earlier response?
Comparing Jewish-Christian sects
Before answering that question, I would point to a similar dilemma often perceived in regard to Jewish-Christian sects like the Ebionites. It is pointed out that such groups did not regard Jesus as a divine figure, but only a human prophet-Messiah. But those views are witnessed only for the later second and third centuries; it is difficult to trace a sect like the Ebionites back into the first century, let alone to the Jerusalem group around Peter and James. In other words, the insistence on a merely human Jesus by Jewish-Christians comes only after his humanity on earth has been created by the Gospels. And in fact, fragments from Epiphanius suggest that the Ebionites originally did indeed possess a heavenly Son (“They say that he was not begotten of God the Father, but was created as one of the archangels”).
Such a response to the Gospels by Jewish-Christian sects reveals how impossible it would have been for Jews to make out of an historical man the cosmic divine figure we find in the epistles. But that they could believe in an emanation of God as a separate divinity in heaven (under the influence of Greek philosophy and their own personified Wisdom) is another matter, though even for that the Jewish authorities seem to have persecuted them.
Not a sequence but a parallel merging
The answer to the enigma requires us to step outside the traditional box. Neither the Pauline type of heavenly Christ nor the preaching tradition embodied in Q preceded the other, and did not represent a sequence in either direction. They were independent expressions on the first century scene.
The movement epitomized in Paul, whose faith had nothing to do with an historical man, went on its merry way into the early second century.
Meanwhile, the sect preaching the coming Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, covering Galilee and parts of Syria, evolved during that period into envisioning a founding individual who had first spoken its teachings, performed its miracles and engaged in its controversies with the establishment. (See Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, chapters 22 to 27.) Such a view became embodied in the Q document, though it is difficult to be sure to what extent its Jesus figure was seen as historical or as only symbolic of the sect itself.
Mark, as part of this sect, created a narrative ‘biography’ of this imagined founder (it also served to impart lessons to the community through a representative figure, as allegories usually do), with a setting based on oral Q-type traditions (Mark did not possess the document itself) and using scriptural precedents to craft its structure and details. His innovative dimension (it was not part of the Q ethos) of a sacrificial death for the founder figure, now both Messiah and Son of Man, seems to point to some sort of syncretism with the cultic Christ movement, an allegorization of the spiritual Christ’s sacrifice in heaven. But the extent of this syncretism cannot be certain; little else of the Pauline type of thinking can be found in the Gospels. And the death and atonement idea in Mark could have had some derivation from strictly Jewish precedents.
But if, as seems likely, there was some syncretization between Paul’s Christ and the Galilean Jesus, Mark’s Gospel was nevertheless derived mainly from the latter, and it is this figure’s character that predominated. Thus,
- the reduced divinity in comparison with the heavenly Christ,
- adoptionism instead of pre-existence,
- the lack of development in the mystical directions characteristic of Paul,
- the greater simplicity of soteriological theory.
The Synoptics never much rise above their Galilean roots, and as Acts followed in their footsteps, it reflected that more primitive character.
So yes, the Gospels have early roots despite being later than the epistles, but those roots were entirely independent from the world of the epistles.
Whatever ‘primitive’ ideas reside in Acts, they simply go back to the creation of a crucified Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, and even further back, for its ministry dimension (without a death and resurrection), to the kingdom preaching community reflected in Q.
Paul and his Christ cult were not a part of this sequence until some time into the second century when that movement’s exposure to the Gospels (as in Ignatius) began to make an association between the two, and Paul and Jerusalem became linked with Galilee. In response to the Gnostic use of Paul, it seems that the church writer who edited Luke some time after 140 was also the one who created the Acts of the Apostles to seal the unification of the two movements, anchoring Paul and his heavenly Christ to the Gospel story.
. . . to be continued
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