You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Observations on Acts’ category.
This is some exciting news: My book is now available through Amazon and the Wipf & Stock website. The book retails for $33, but Amazon and Wipf & Stock have it discounted. The Kindle version is only $9.99 and claims to have real page numbers. I have not seen a Kindle version yet. If you live in the Grand Rapids area, I have a few copies in my office if you want to get one directly from me. If you do get the book, leave a nice review on Amazon, I would appreciate that.
The full title of the book is Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels. The book is an edited version of my dissertation. As I was working on my dissertation, people would ask what I was writing on. I usually said “an intertextual study on messianic banquet imagery in the Synoptic Gospels.” After a moment of awkward silence, I clarified: “Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Wedding Banquet – what’s up with that?”
The book attempts to study the marriage metaphor / motif in the teaching of Jesus. There are a few places in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a Wedding Banquet, Matt 22:1-14 and 25:1-13 are the most obvious texts. But there are a few places where Jesus describes himself as a bridegroom, and a marriage metaphor appears in a number of other places. My proposal is that Jesus combined the metaphor of an eschatological banquet with the common Old Testament marriage metaphor and described his ministry as an ongoing wedding banquet to which all Israel is now invited. The long period in the wilderness is over and it is time for Israel to return to her Bridegroom.
In order to make this case, I apply what might be called an intertextual method to traditions or set of metaphors. The “text” in this intertextual study is the Hebrew Bible, but that text was heard by Jesus’ original listeners rather than read. They knew the metaphors because they heard them taught in their homes and synagogues. Jesus used these metaphors because they were current, but by combining them to describe himself, he created a new image of the eschatological age as a wedding banquet.
I first examine the eschatological “victory banquet” motif in the Hebrew Bible, starting with Isa 25:6-8 (ch. 3), the use of the Wilderness Tradition in Isaiah 40-55 (ch. 4), and the Marriage Metaphor in Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah (ch. 5). I trace the development of these three themes through the Second Temple Period in chapter 6, and finally apply that database to the sayings of Jesus in chapter 7.
There are a few things that you will not find in this book. First, I did not cover John’s gospel, although there is much there that can be described as “wedding motif.” My reason for this omission are simple-the dissertation was already too long to include another major section on John’s Gospel! Second, there is nothing in this book on the application of the Bridegroom metaphor to the church. I wanted a study of Jesus’ use of the metaphor, not the (much) later theological development of that metaphor. Again, the reason for this is simply that I was writing a New Testament dissertation, doing “biblical theology” rather than “systematic theology.” I wanted to focus on the teaching of Jesus and the origin of the wedding banquet metaphor.
Obviously I would love for you to buy a copy, but that is not always possible. Here’s how you can help get the word out for me:
- Request that the book be added to your college, university, or seminary library.
- Request to review the book for a Journal such as Review of Biblical Literature, JETS, Themelios, JESOT, etc.
- Request the book be reviewed on a book review site (Englewood Review of Books, Marginalia).
- Leave a review on Amazon.com.
Of course, I would really like to hear feedback from anyone who reads the book – feel free to send me an email to continue the discussion. Thanks!
James Dunn titled his chapter on Peter in his book on the apostolic period “The Voiceless Peter” (Beginning at Jerusalem, chapter, 35). His point is that the book of Acts has little to say about Peter after chapter 12 and that there is very little (if any) historically reliable data which allows us to know much at all about Peter. Dunn does not accept 1 Peter as coming from a historical Peter, although he discusses the locations from 1 Peter 1:1 as possible locations for Peter to have ministered and he uses the reference to Babylon in 5:13 as a int that Peter was in fact in Rome in the early 60′s.
Any “quest” for the historical Peter will be complicated by the fact that so much tradition surrounds Peter. It is difficult know when a later generation was recalling a real event or creating an event in order to give Peter more weight as the leader of the Church. One example is the elevation of Peter in Matthew 16:13-20. “Upon this rock I will build my church” seems to be a clear statement that Peter is the foundation for the church. For many scholars, this text suspicious since it is only found in Matthew and sounds a bit too much like Matthew was reflecting the current state of the church at the time he was writing rather than something that Jesus actually said. For example, Dunn thinks that Matthew did in fact give Peter a great of significance, but this may be rooted in the memory of Peter functioning as a foundational figure in the church.
It is however clear that Peter was a follower of Jesus from the beginning. Jesus chose him as a leader of the twelve because he understood who Jesus was most fully. Peter is at the head of every list of the disciples and there is no question that the gospels see him as the chief of the apostles. The only exception to this might be John, which features the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” probably John himself.
The center of the three synoptic gospels is the confession of Peter, his statement that Jesus is in fact God’s messiah, God’s son. In each gospel this is the climax of the first half of the book, as Jesus teaches the crowds who he is, after the confession of Peter there is far more training of the disciples personally, and several predictions that Jesus will suffer at the hands of the elders and priests and be crucified. After Jesus announces that he will suffer and die, Peter rebukes Jesus and tells him that he will not die – often this is described as a failure on Peter’s part.
But Peter is not “succumbing to the flesh” (as John MacArthur says in Twelve Ordinary Men, 37), but he is making a thoughtful statement about who Jesus is (and he gets it correct), but misunderstands what Jesus will do in Jerusalem. MacArthur is better later in the text (page 45) when he contrasts Peter’s confession with his rebuke, the harshest endured by any person in the gospels (Get thee behind me, Satan!) But he is not rejected as the leader of the disciples, nor does the rebuke seem to change the relationship of Peter and Jesus. Peter’s lack of understanding is an opportunity for Satan to tempt Jesus.
The confession and rebuke therefore stand out as an example of Peter’s boldness and initiative – he is the one who must stand up for the rest and speak on their behalf because that is the place to which God has called him.
Obviously his denial is a spectacular failure, but at least he is in the position to make that kind of failure.
When I was in Seminary I took a class in Ecclesiology and at some point in the class I shared my thought that James was the “leader of the Jerusalem Church.” The professor looked at me rather strangely and dismissed my comment with “well, you have James all figured out, don’t you.” MA students are apparently not allowed to have those sorts radical of opinions, those sorts of thoughts are reserved for PhD students only.
Since that rather kind slap-down, I have had an interest in Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem in general, and James in particular. Part of this interest is the belief that my comment in that particular class was on target, although it was probably came across arrogant (I was like that back then). I am always pleased when I read things that more or less state that James was the leader in Jerusalem, such as James Dunn in Beginning in Jerusalem, especially chapter 36, although he says things like this throughout the book. As we have seen in our survey of Acts, the Twelve fade from the scene pretty quickly – James the Apostle is killed in Acts 12 and not replaced; Luke introduces James as a significant player in that same chapter. Peter sends a message to James the “goes elsewhere.” Peter drops out of site at that point in the narrative, except for a brief report at the Jerusalem council.
What is remarkable to me is that James appears as a leader at the level of Peter and Paul as early as 1 Corinthians. In 1 Cor 15:7 Paul passes along the tradition that he received concerning the resurrection. Only three names of individuals are included, Peter, James and Paul. These are the three men to whom the Lord appeared, and at least in Peter and Paul’s case, they are commissioned to a particular ministry.
James appears as a leader in Jerusalem quite early, a point that is often missed. Gal 1:19 describes Paul’s visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. He met with no one except Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. It is possible that James the apostle and James the Lord’s brother are confused in the later traditions, but there seems to be strong evidence that the family of Jesus did not believe he was the Messiah before the resurrection. Gal 1:19 therefore can be understood as saying that within three to four years after the resurrection James not only became a believer in Jesus as Messiah, but he had already risen to some sort of leadership position in Jerusalem.
What happened to James after Acts? According to Josephus, in A.D. 62 James was charged with breaking the Law. He was tried by the Sanhedrin and stoned to death. After Festus died, Albinus was appointed procurator. Ananus was High Priest at the time, and he arrested James after Festus’ death but before Abinus arrived in Caesarea. As a result, Agrippa deposed Ananus after only three months as High Priest. (Antiq. 20.197-203).
The story of James’ martyrdom appears in Heggesippus, although with considerable expansions. Because of his great reputation as a righteous man, James is given an opportunity to address the crowds at Passover in order to address the problem of Jesus as messiah. James is lead to the top of the temple stairs and proceeds to preach the gospel and convince many. The Sadducees and Pharisees realize their mistake, and shove him down the stairs, although he is not killed. People in the crowd therefore take a fuller’s brush and beat him to death. A final version of the story appears in the Psuedo-Clementine literature. There James is assaulted by an enemy and thrown down the stairs. The enemy, as it turns out, is Paul. In this literature Paul is an enemy of real Christianity, as represented by James. He is in fact often described in terms of Simon Magus.
Out of this data it is certain that James died in 62 at the hands of the Sanhedrin. What is remarkable is that he was accused of being in breach of the Law. While it is clear from the New Testament and James that he was clearly in favor of the Law, it is possible that his belief in Jesus as the Messiah and his occasional contact with Hellenistic Jews (like Paul) was interpreted as radical, given the volatile context of the mid-60′s, leading up to the Jewish War.
My students are currently reading Eckhard Schnabel’s Paul the Missionary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2008). I have assigned a final essay for the class which asks the students to describe Paul’s missionary methodology and draw out some implications for contemporary ministry.
The problem I want them to think about is two-fold. First, can what does Paul does in Acts be fairly described as a “mission strategy”? For example, did he have something like a modern “mission statement” which guided all his choices? If so, what was that “mission statement”? Second, and more troubling for students, is that Pauline Mission Strategy something that can be used for doing mission today? And even if it can be used for modern ministry, should it be used? Paul’s mission was embedded in a culture and time far distant from our own, so perhaps we ought to find more relevant method that might work better in a modern context.
Part of the problem students have with this assignment is the word “mission.” Mission, for most American Christians, implies a missionary going a very long way away to “save the heathen.” Students typically describe Paul as a sort of Hudson Taylor meets Jim Elliot with a dash of Indiana Jones adventurer tossed in for spice, heading off to the Black Hole of Calcutta to be tortured regularly for preaching the gospel. I honestly do not think being beaten and ship-wrecked was a part of Paul’s ministry strategy. Certainly those were things he endured for the Gospel, but I am not convinced he tried to get beaten as often as possible in order to be a successful missionary!
Schnabel said that “Paul understood both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures. He was at least bilingual, probably trilingual. He was evidently able to function comfortably, without consciously ‘crossing over’ into one or the other culture, both in Jewish and in Greco-Roman culture.” (Schnabel, Paul the Missionary, 329). This is a bit of a surprise to most readers, since we tend to think of Paul crossing all kinds of social and cultural barriers to present the gospel to the Greek and Roman world. But as it turns out, Paul went to places where he would be most effective, where he spoke the language, where he could earn a decent living, where he would be sure to meet people with whom he was already familiar.
Paul most certainly did not cross into another culture in the sense that missionaries do today. If he had, he would have went to north into Germany and preached to the barbarian hordes. In fact, why did Paul not go east? My guess is that God lead him west since that is where he would encounter the least cultural differences. Hellenism was less pervasive the further east one traveled. If he had moved east as far as Babylon, he would have found the remnants of an empire which was reverting back to its original culture. In fact, if I am allowed to speculate just a bit, if Paul had gone to the east or the border regions to the north, he would not have been successful at all that the church as we know it today would look a great deal different.
By going to the West, Paul could settle down in Corinth and Ephesus and reach people with whom he had the most in common – Hellenistic Jews who were already reading the Scripture. He would have met Gentiles frustrated with the “theology” and ethics of the Greco-Roman world and were already dabbling in the mystery cults. In short, people whom God had already prepared for Paul’s arrival as the “light to the Gentiles.”
If this is on track, how do we apply Paul’s missionary strategy? I am not against a foreign mission program, but perhaps we ought to revisit the idea of reaching one’s culture first.
The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?
First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!
Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”
Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.
Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.
Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:
- Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
- Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
- Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.
As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.
Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But the idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books.
Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.
If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”
Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?
The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.
To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue tot give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).
But the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.
“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).
If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry.
- Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, leaving him for dead!
- While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.
- We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.
The book ends by telling us that there is nothing restraining the gospel, Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment, and there is nothing Rome (or Jerusalem) can do to stop the gospel from going out to the ends of the earth.
Chronologically, the book of Romans provides the earliest glimpse at the character of the churches in the city of Rome before Paul arrived. Christianity came to Rome through the synagogues. It seems likely that Jews who heard the gospel while in Jerusalem at Pentecost returned to Rome and continued to fellowship in synagogues until at least A.D. 49, when Claudius “expelled the Jews.” Paul wrote Romans in the second half of the 50′s to already existing congregations which have separated from the synagogues or were formed outside of the synagogues of Rome.
Evidence for the church developing out of the synagogue is found in Romans 16. Aquila and Priscilla are Jewish, as well as Andronicus, Junian and Herodion who are identified as Jewish (7, 11), the names Mary and Aristobolus may also indicate a Jewish origin.
According to Acts 18:2 and Seutonius, Claudius 25.4, Jews were expelled from Rome in A.D. 49 (although Dio Cassius dates the edict of Claudius to A.D. 41, Acts and Seutonius both agree with the early date). Just who was expelled is debated, it is hardly possible to have the whole population expelled given a Jewish population of 30,000 at the time. It is possible just the ringleaders were expelled, people such as Aquila and Priscilla.
Perhaps only a single synagogue engaged in the rioting over Chrestus and was completely expelled. The bottom line is that by 49 there were lively debates among Jews over who Jesus was and these debates were violent enough to attract the attention of the authorities. Romans implies that some Jews returned by the mid-50′s, specifically Aquila and Priscilla. By the time Paul writes Romans, there are Jewish Christian congregations, perhaps mixed Jew and Gentile congregations, and maybe a purely Gentile Christian congregation.
How many congregations of Christians existed in the mid-50′s can be determined from Romans 16, Peter Lampe argues for at least five different Christian “islands,” but probably as many as eight, based on the following data:
- The phrase “those with them” plus a proper name is used five times in Romans 16 (5, 10, 11, 14, 15). This may indicate Paul knows of five separate house churches in Rome.
- There are other Christian names listed who probably did not belong to the same congregation (or they would be listed with the others), so at least two more could be implied.
- Paul lived in Rome in a rented house, likely constituting an eighth congregation.
- There is no central meeting place for these congregations. Paul hosts at least one in his house, perhaps others met with him at other times for instruction and debate. It is not too much of a stretch to imagine Paul engaged in the sort of ministry he had in Ephesus, teaching and debating the scriptures in an informal “school” at times when people could visit – afternoons and evenings.
- In addition, there is nothing which requires a “church” to meet only on Saturday or Sunday, in ten different locations at general the same time. It is possible that ten congregations meet at various times and in various places during the week, and even some individuals attending multiple churches.
The congregation size of a house church would vary depending on the home in which the church met. I would suggest that the churches initially met on the analogy of a Synagogue, where ten men coming together to study the scripture constituted a synagogue. If this is the case, by the time Paul arrives in Rome in the early 60′s, there could have been only a few hundred Christian in a city of millions.
Yet in only a few years Christianity has grown to the point that Nero can use the “strange superstition” as a scapegoat for his fires. By the 90′s Christianity has spread to even the imperial family, forcing Domitian to persecute Christians in Rome.
Bibliography: Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem. As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus. Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.
It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost. We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.
Ben Witherington suggests that Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785 ). This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus. It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.
The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community. To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem? What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome? (Or anywhere, for that matter. In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!) There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received? Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him? If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year. Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.
This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul. Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.” He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.
There are eleven or twelve accounts of Paul traveling by sea in the book of Acts, about 3000 miles in all. Yet this chapter gives bay far the most detail of a journey by sea in the Bible, and even in the rest of ancient literature. Given the fact that Luke has carefully designed the rest of this two volume history, we should probably pause to wonder why he includes such a great amount of detail to the journey to Rome. It is not just that it is an exciting story (his readers were getting bored?) or that he was trying to fill out a scroll. There is a literary and theological reason for Luke’s inclusion of this lengthy story.
That Luke is traveling with Paul may account for the detail. Often ancient historians would write up to the time in which they are living and include themselves in the story in order to build credibility. Consider Josephus, who summarized all of Jewish history up to the time of the Jewish revolt. So too Thucydidies, who wrote his history of the Peloponesian War and included his own participation at various points. This shipwreck functions to give Luke credibility – he witnessed the events himself and was a participant in the history he tells. A Greco-Roman reader would expect this sort of thing if the book of Acts was to be seen as credible.
But there is more going on here than Luke’s interest in travel. If someone (say, Theophilus) has been reading through Luke and Acts, he would notice some similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both are arrested by the Jews and handed over to the Romans, both are tried by a secular authority (Pilate and Herod; Felix/Festus and Agrippa) and both are the victims of a miscarriage of justice motivated by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Will Paul suffer the same fate as Jesus? Will he be executed by the Romans as a political undesirable, or will he receive justice from Rome?
Beyond these parallels, we need to remember Luke’s theme for the whole book: “beginning in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.” Luke knows that Paul will go to Rome to testify before the Emperor, but the reader may think that Paul will be killed along the way. As James Dunn has observed, Luke is trying to show that “come what may, God will fulfill his purpose by having Paul preach the good news in the very heart of the empire” (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 968).
Some have questioned the historicity of this story based on parallels with other ancient literature, including Homer’s Odyssey. Often a guilty man will try to escape justice (or fate), head out to the seas to avoid capture, but ultimately he will suffer and die anyway. Paul is escaping from the Jews, yet is shipwrecked and eventually nearly killed by a snake, some scholars argue that Luke is patterning this story after an archetypal Greco-Roman novel plot-line.
There is something to the parallels, and it may be that Luke tells this story in such detail because shipwrecks were popular in literature at the time. But this does not necessarily negate the historicity of the story. Paul had to go to Rome and the best way to do that is by ship, it is entirely plausible that Festus would send him off in this way. Shipwrecks were in fact common, so much so that Paul has already suffered shipwrecks twice in his travels (2 Cor 11:25)! While Luke has written this story along the lines of a story expected by a Greco-Roman reader, there is nothing implausible about the whole adventure.
In Acts 26 Paul re-tells his story to Festus, the new Roman governor. While there are a few differences, the story of Paul’s conversion is fairly consistent. He had persecuted followers of the Way until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, whey he was commissioned to be the “light to the Gentiles.”
Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” (v. 24) The Greek verb (μαίνομαι) has the sense of going too far with something, or even speech which appears crazy to an outsider (such as the reaction of outsiders to tongues in 1 Cor 14:23). It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.
Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational words” (v. 25) This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy. The noun Paul chooses refers to the “exercise of care and intelligence appropriate to circumstances” (BDAG). The noun Paul uses (σωφροσύνη) has the sense of a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence, as opposed to someone who has crazy visions which he over-interprets to mean far more than it does. Paul is not dreaming up some fairy tale, his conclusions are based on some rational thought and some very real evidence.
Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel. What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate. This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).
To me, this is one of the most applicable sections of Acts – Paul’s faith is described by a Roman as “crazy” for believing what he does, but Paul says that he is “rational.” I am deeply troubled by many Christians who reject reasonable thought based on evidence as a basis for Christian faith. Too many prefer to call emphasize a “relationship with Jesus” rather than rational claims of truth about the nature of reality. Christianity, as Paul is describing it here in Acts 26, is rational and reasonable. Christianity, as presented in the media, or as practiced by many Americans, is irrational. Paul would be ashamed of most of what passes for Christianity in contemporary evangelicalism.
I think that it is time to remember that God gave us minds and equipped us to think. If we did that, what would change?