The Bible in and as History: Acts

 

liberacion_de_san_pedro_murillo_1667

Peter the Apostle is delivered from prison

With the Gospels behind me, I move away from the life and times of Jesus, and into that of the early church which preached in his name.

 

Acts, or more properly the Acts of the Apostles, is generally thought to have been written by the same author as Luke.  Some scholars contend the two were originally a single composed text.  Both open with reference to Theophilus, a figure about whom there are many theories;  Some believe him to be a particular person to whom the works were addressed: a convert, a Roman official or something else.  Others believe it was an honourary religious title.  Regardless, this and other elements, such as the similarity in the structure of the written work in its earliest sources, makes Luke and Acts part of a greater whole.

Where Luke ends with the resurrection, Acts picks up immediately after and follows the tribulations of an earthly Church now bereft of its saviour.  Like Luke, however, the intent is not a recording of historical events, but rather to recount events as they pertain to a particular theological vision.  Events as prophecy or fulfilment therein, events as showing the path for the Faithful.

There are two different textual ‘traditions’ for Luke-Acts, the Western Text-type and the Alexandrian.  These vary in several ways and for Acts, the Western is longer and has more blame for the Jews and intercessions of the Holy Spirit.  The existing manuscripts date from the 6th and 4th centuries respectively, though we have referent works going back to the 3rd century.  This suggests an ongoing process of revision well after the initial writing, which most place around 80-90 CE, decades after Pauls imprisonment in Rome in 63 CE, which is the final event recorded in the work.  Others place the books authorship significantly later.  What is important is to remember that the Bible is not a static thing existing apart from time.

The King James version which I follow goes like this; After the resurrection, the Apostles elect Matthias to replace Judas.  The Holy spirit infuses them and they go out to perform miracles and good works in Christ’s name.  There are many conversions as they show the power of the Holy Spirit.  However, Jewish authorities begin to persecute the Christians, eventually leading to the execution of Stephen, a deacon of this early Church.

Stephen is accused of Blasphemy, gives a speech deriding and accusing the Jewish authorities of various improprieties and is then found guilty and executed by stoning.  In some considerations, he is the first Christian Martyr.

This is taken as a rejection of the Holy message by the Jews, and the message is then taken to the Samaritans and the Gentiles.  Saul of Tarsus, who would become Paul the Apostle,  is a Jew who persecutes Christians until he has a religious experience and converts.  A central figure of early Christianity, we’ll be talking plenty about him in coming posts.

The Apostle Peter converts a Gentile Centurian, and the Holy Ghost descends to show that there is Divine approval for this new mission of bringing the message to the Gentiles.  The new Church of ‘Christians’ is firmly established.

Paul starts travelling around establishing new Churches.  While in Jerusalem he is set upon by a Jewish mob, and after some trials and tribulations gets Sent to Rome as he asserts his rights as a Roman Citizen.  We don’t know what happens after he is imprisoned in Rome because the work just kind of ends.

Interesting to me is this portrayal of the early church, or perhaps ‘a’ early church.  We know that early Christianity was one of many Jewish sects emerging from the period of Roman rule, leading up through the destruction of the Second temple.  Christianity itself seems to have broken into various sects almost immediately, with conflict between those who saw Jesus message as being a strictly Jewish affair and those who spread it to Gentiles.  Luke and Acts both paint negative pictures of the Jewish community, and they would be used later to justify various kinds of Anti-semitism.

Acts thus served as a textual way to explain the early history of the Church and to theologically justify it.  It also bears our first image of Paul the Apostle, who would be a central figure in Christianity as the religious would become.

Indeed after Acts, we start into the ‘Pauline Epistles’, the letters of Paul.

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