Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 2

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from part 1…..

Expanding the Foundation Story

Notice how the author of Luke-Acts prepares for his second volume (Acts) from the outset of his new gospel:

  • Luke extends the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam and God themselves. Jesus no longer (as in Matthew) is contextualized within the Abrahamic family but comes with more universal credentials.

In the gospel Jesus is clearly the authority figure but our author manoeuvres the narrative to replace Jesus with the Holy Spirit as the new authority in Acts. To do so, Luke actually contrives a new concept of the Holy Spirit, at least one that is different from the spirit we read about in Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John. (That’s another topic of its own that I may write about soon, examining two works cited by Müller, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit by Engberg-Pedersen, 2010 and “It is the Spirit That Gives Life”: A Stoic Understanding of Pneuma in John’s Gospel by Buch-Hansen, 2010.)

The Holy Spirit to Jesus Becomes the Holy Spirit to the Church

Notice next how the author repeats the motif of the Holy Spirit with which he began Jesus’ work in Acts to begin the Church’s work.

As Jesus at his baptism became endowed with the Holy Spirit (Luke 3.21-22), thus the church is also first established at the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. (p. 106)

To extrapolate from Müller’s work, I wonder if we have here an explanation for why in the Gospel of Luke the account of Jesus’ baptism is so incidentally presented (as an afterthought). The focus of Luke’s narrative is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus through prayer. In Luke 3:21-22

When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

Luke’s image is repeated so it appears like two columns side by side: as prayer and the descent of the Holy Spirit opened Jesus’ ministry and gave him the authority, so prayer and the Holy Spirit opened and authorized the ministry of the Church in Acts.

This is but one of several demonstrations of how Acts is being built out of material in the gospel.

We saw in the previous post that other evangelists shoehorned subsequent church situations (the law, gentiles) into the story of Jesus. Luke-Acts delays the completion of the foundation story, however. The foundation story is not complete until “the new Israel” is established as the church is withdrawn from “Judaism”. A series of historical steps in the life of the church replace the sayings of the earthly Jesus (as in Mark and Matthew) as the explanation for the church’s final stance on the Mosaic Law.

The Holy Spirit remains the new authority throughout Acts.

As Passover was set as the time for the covenant made by Jesus in the gospel so Pentecost was introduced as the time of the covenant with the church in Acts, Pentecost being in the Judean religion a feast of covenant renewal. With the Holy Spirit come all the fulfillments of  Scripture: new hearts, obedience, and proofs of the resurrection as promised in the Scripture, and proofs that the Scripture had been fulfilled with the messiah son of David reigning on God’s throne.

Luke’s gospel concluded with Jesus pointing to all the scriptures that had been “fulfilled” in his life, death and resurrection and Acts opens with all the scriptures being fulfilled now with the coming of the Holy Spirit to the church.

The Twelve to Israel first

Matthew portrays Jesus sending out the Twelve to Israel but also indicating that a time would come when they would go the gentiles, too. Luke-Acts extends the foundation story by teasing out what is conflated in the other gospels: the Twelve preach to Israel and Paul preaches to the gentiles. True, Peter opens the gates of permission for Paul to preach to the gentiles, but once he does that he is removed from the scene.

The same pattern is picked up in Acts when Paul regularly preaches in synagogues before going to the gentiles.

Thus the author seems to interpret Paul’s “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1.16) through his relating how Paul on his missional journeys always began in the Synagogue; then, when he was rejected by the Jews, he would turn to the nations. (p. 108)

The gospels have Jesus quote Isaiah 6.9-10 about the deafness of Jesus’ hearers and their closed minds. Acts take the same quotation and transfers it to Paul’s lips at the end of Acts when he speaks his departing words to the Jews.

Distant origins

The author of Luke-Acts is far removed from the time of origins that he is narrating. Though he renews the Twelve at the beginning of Acts it is not too long before he sets them aside as no longer a force. When one of their number, James, is killed, the author does not replace him as he felt a need to replace Judas. The mission of the Twelve is over.

That same apostolic age was a “golden age”, a utopian society of “all things in common”. It is presented as a golden age that is beyond emulation.

Paul is the last of the apostles, though not strictly an apostle in the same sense as the Twelve. Yet in 1 Corinthians 9.1 he wrote that he, too, had seen the Lord, so the narrator of Acts can use him as a go-between linking the apostolic age to the present age.

“The Great Omission”: Demolishing distinctions and going to gentiles

The “great omission” refers to Mark 6.45 to 8.26 that are missing from Luke’s gospel. Yet Müller does observe that the details are simply excised from Luke-Acts: their themes, messages, details do emerge in different guises in Acts.

Mark 7 contains the famous passage of Jesus abolishing the distinction between clean and unclean. You recall the passage: Jesus is confronting the Pharisees over unwashed hands; defilement comes from within, etc. Luke bypasses that section though he follows Mark elsewhere, and instead creates a narrative for the later work in Acts to dramatize the same message: Acts 10 and Peter and his vision of clean and unclean animals.

In the gospels, in the section introduced by Mark in Mark 7 (the “great omission” material) Jesus appears to underline his message about washed and unwashed hands by going to gentile territory and healing the gentile woman’s daughter.

Similarly Acts follows the gospel structure and reinforces Peter’s vision by having him go to the gentile Cornelius. I’d like to do a study to see what, if any, specific details in the two stories might coincide. Müller mentions some: both Jesus and Peter remind their listener that it is not lawful or good for a Jew to feed with the gentiles; both Jesus and Peter relent and do serve the gentiles.

Paul versus Peter, other re-writings

We know the tension Paul had with Peter from Gal 2.1-10. Luke, Müller suggests (as have others), has rewritten these tensions at Antioch so that Peter and Paul work together and in harmony. Both are honoured and neither loses face. I have discussed Luke’s rewriting of Galatians in other posts on the past so won’t repeat any further details here.

We likewise saw the narrative re-writing of OT scriptures, such as Joel 3.1-5 being rewritten as the Pentecost experience. Another scripture, Isaiah 53.7-8, became the author’s frame around which to build his story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Appearing for many days before the Ascension

Luke-Acts does strange things with the resurrection and ascension episodes. Unlike the other gospels it is the ascension he emphasizes over the resurrection at the end. Luke concludes with the ascension, making it appear as if it happened only a day after the resurrection, and then Acts begins at that same point, with the ascension:

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen (Acts 1.1-2)

At the same time the author does flashback to stories of Jesus and his post resurrection appearances — “during forty days”!

to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Acts 1.3)

How to explain this unanticipated addition? One possibility, Müller notes, is that it is drawing upon, in part, John 21 and the appearances of Jesus beside the Sea of Galilee to his disciples. But he adds,

and partly — and maybe more credibly — 1 Cor 15.5-7 where Paul’s enumeration of resurrection witnesses seems to presuppose a certain period.

Acts also dramatizes, as we well know, the resurrection appearances to Paul (that Paul mentions in Gal 1.15), three times in fact: 9.1-30; 22.3-21; 26.9-20.

Müller at this point discusses details of the possibility that Acts 1.4-8 is adapted from the Last Supper discussion of Luke 24.41-43 and cites studies addressing numerous parallels.

For the author of Luke-Acts it appears that the resurrection and ascension do not mark very separate significances but should be seen as together indicating the one event. (For Luke resurrection means Jesus has entered his glory, but this involves another detailed discussion.) The ascension side of the event enables the author to find a way to extend the resurrection appearances over a longer span of time than they other gospels do. As in the Gospel of John, the resurrection appearances in Luke-Acts come about by Jesus appearing and disappearing at various times and places.

Further at the beginning of Acts Jesus is asked for the time of his coming. If in other gospels Jesus said not even he know the day and hour, in Acts he turns it around and tells his disciples it is not for them to know the times.

Summaries of the Jesus story in Acts

The story of Jesus is repeated throughout Acts in summary form in the speeches, mostly those of Peter and Paul. Sometimes we see additional re-writes of the gospel narrative as with Stephen’s martyrdom in which Stephen is accused of saying Jesus would destroy the temple; in the gospels this accusation is attributed to false witnesses.

The witness motif becomes a central feature of Acts (1.8, 22; 2.32; 3.15; 5.32; 10.39, 41; 13.31; 22.15, 20; 26.16.) The intention appears to be to establish the veracity and legitimacy of the narrative that purports to set out a new foundation story for the author’s readers. Their church situation, a motley lot as they may appear to be, really does come from Jesus and the apostolic age. The same story sets the Jews apart as being responsible for the death of Jesus but also ultimately for his glory and their salvation.

But at the time of the composition of Acts the threats to the church were not from the synagogue but from within. Acts concludes with the foundation story for that situation, too, when Paul warns the elders of Ephesus at Miletus that wolves would arise from among their ranks.

That same warning of devouring wolves comes from Matthew 7.15. Again we have an instance of Luke picking and choosing from his sources (assuming Matthew was one of his sources, as Müller does) to make appropriate use of material in Acts and not in the matching place in his gospel as a saying of Jesus.

Müller further casts a glance at scholars who have suggested that the concern in Acts with deviant doctrine indicates a situation of some established institutional authority and even “early Catholicism”. (To my mind, another indicator of a date well into the second century.)

The continuities addressed by Müller (and severely truncated in these blog posts) tend to be too easily hidden with the canonical separation of Luke and Acts by the Gospel of John.

I’ve posted the above in some ways as a “stub” for further thought and development, or as a hook for future reference when thinking through related questions.

Müller, M. 2016. “Acts as Biblical Rewriting of the Gospels and Paul’s Letters” In Luke’s Literary Creativity, edited by Jesper Tang Nielsen and Mogens Müller, 96-117. London; Bloomsbury T&T Clark.



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Neil Godfrey

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