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Seevers, Boyd. Warfare in the Old Testament: The Organization, Weapons and Tactics of Ancient Near Eastern Armies. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2013. Hb. $34.95   Link to Kregel

While there are a few books on warfare in the ancient world, there are few that attempt to cover how the military functioned in the biblical period for the major people groups of the Bible. Boyd Seevers offers a historical survey of warfare in Israel, Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon and Persia. Because of the wide range both historically and culturally, the book is necessarily brief on details. It does, however, provide a basis for understanding biblical descriptions of warfare, which is likely the interest of most readers of the book.

Seevers, WarfareEach section begins with a fictional story of a battle, told from the perspective of a soldier. For example, in chapter one Seever creates the narrative of Judah ben-Eliezer, a soldier about to participate in the attack on Jericho. In chapter 5 the story of Dagarat the Philistine introduces the reader to the Philistines as they engage King Saul. In chapter 9, we read about Chrysantes, a commander in the Median cavalry. These short stories are engaging and offer an insight into the content of the chapter. They are not the sort of thing one expects in a scholarly book, but Seevers intends them as a creative way to draw his readers into the topic at hand.

After setting the stage with a short story, Seevers offers a short “background” section explaining how a particular people connect with the story of the Bible. This means that the section is far from a comprehensive history of the nation, but only that narrow period of contact with Israel. After this background, Seevers describes the military structure and weaponry of the people. The chapters are divided into sections (infantry, navy, role of the gods, types of weapons, etc.) marked by marginal comments. Seevers does a good job describing the psychological warfare and cruelty of the Assyrians, something that can illuminate many prophetic texts (Jonah and Nahum, for example).

One special problem of warfare texts that Seevers treats is the meaning of the Hebrew word ‘eleph, traditionally translated as “thousand” (p. 53-55). As is well known, the word may refer to a military unit rather than a literal 1000. This means that instead of approximately 600,000 soldiers at the time of the Exodus, Israel had something like 5,500 units. This solves the problem of the extreme numbers in the Pentateuch. When Israel entered the Land in Joshua, they are portrayed as a small people compared to the Canaanites, but with an army of more than a half million they would have overwhelmed the Canaanite city states! In addition, when the city of Ai kills 36 men out of 3,000, Joshua sees this as a terrible defeat. If it is 36 men out of three military units, then perhaps a third or more of the soldiers were killed.

There are many line-art illustrations drawn from Ancient monuments or other illustrations.  Rather than reproduce a photograph of the siege of Lachish, for example, the author’s brother Josh Seevers faithfully reproduced parts of that wall relief to illustrate elements of the text. This is the same style as Othmar Keel’s Symbolism in the Biblical World. This means that the Assyrian image of the Siege of Lachish appears many times in the text. I would have liked a section that collected photographs of the original as well as the line art, but the illustrations work well in the text.

At the end of the book, Seevers includes a “further readings” section for each unit of the book. These brief reading lists point the reader to more detailed studies of the military in the Ancient Near East. The book uses endnotes placed at the end of each chapter. I prefer footnotes, but the use of endnotes does make for smooth reading.  When Hebrew appears in the text it is transliterated so the reader without Hebrew can follow the text without difficulty.

Missing in this book is any discussion of a theology of warfare in the Hebrew Bible. In addition, the problem of Holy War, sometimes called the Canaanite Genocide is not discussed. Almost nothing is said on the topic and there is no reference to placing a city “under the ban” (herem) as was Jericho (Joshua 1-6) and the Amalikites in 1 Sam 15. In addition, in 1 Sam 22 Saul puts the village of Nob “under the ban” when he orders the priests who helped David destroyed. While this book is historical in orientation and interested mainly in the material evidence of how Israel fought, a section on this extremely difficult problem would have been a valuable inclusion. On the other hand, the problem of war in the Old Testament is worthy of a monograph, perhaps a few pages would not be enough to do justice to the topic.

Conclusion. This book is a good introduction for the layman to the way the military functioned in the Ancient Near East. While the text does use some technical terminology, it is written for the non-professional. Most students of the Bible will benefit from reading this book alongside Joshua, Judges Samuel and Kings.

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Horsley, Richard, and Tom Thatcher. John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 201 pp. Pb; $20.00.  Link

Richard Horsley is well-known to New Testament scholars for his studies of Jesus that set Jesus in the social and historical world of the first century. Tom Thatcher has already contributed several excellent monographs on the Gospel of John (Greater than Caesar: Christology and Empire in the Fourth Gospel, Fortress, 2009). Both scholars are often associated with using the insights of economic and social sciences for understanding the world of Jesus as well as so-called “anti-imperial” research.

Jesus, JohnThis new book intends to treat John’s gospel as a “coherent narrative” that comes from a formative community” (p.4). As such, the authors are not interested in the so-called high-Christology that occupies most studies of John’s Gospel in the last two centuries. While there may theology gleaned from John, Horsley and Thatcher are interested in reading Jesus against the background of the first century both religiously and politically. The authors indicate in their introduction that this book is only a “provisional sketch” of what might be a much larger project. Indeed, and under 200 pages of text with limited interaction with other scholarship, this book is clearly introductory.

While John’s gospel is not a source of theological reflection on the life of Jesus, it is also not a source for “tidbits” of historical information gleaned from a comparison with the Synoptic Gospels. While there is an interest in the historical Jesus, Horsley and Thatcher do not engage in the tedious application of criteria of authenticity. Rather, they have a general acceptance of John’s gospel as having the ring of truth. The Gospel as a “verisimilitude,” even if that cannot be verified via historical methods. In fact, the details of Jesus’ life in the Gospel are simply treated as real events set in a particular time and place. Since the goal of the book is a study of John’s presentation of Jesus as a social and political figure, what the “real historical Jesus” may have said or did is less important. The book includes a brief epilogue dealing with historical issues, but the bottom line is the general story of John is historical, although examination of every detail must wait for a more technical book (p. 178).

The book is also not interested in any sort of theory of composition of John. These theories can be complex and often distract attention from the text of John in favor of a critic’s theory. Whether there was a complex history of composition or not is not an issue for Horsley and Thatcher since they intend to read the whole gospel as a narrative.

Three reasons make a short book like this possible. First, the rise of narrative criticism over the last thirty years has shifted scholarly attention away from source and form criticism. More recent studies of John are willing to hear the whole story of the Gospel rather than fret over potential sources and redactions. Second, there are a host of recent studies on how an oral culture remembers and preforms traditions. Combined with a narrative approach to John’s Gospel, Horsley and Thatcher will argue that John presents the memory of Jesus’ mission as a “historical story.”

Third, there has been an increase in the study of the world of Roman Palestine in the first century. This study is historical, but the insights of other social sciences have been used to place the story of Jesus in an economic and political context. Richard Horsley has been at the forefront of this movement in the study of the Gospels, especially his Jesus and Spiral of Violence (Fortress, 1993); Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (T&T Clark, 1999); and Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster, 2001). John, Jesus and the Renewal of Israel owes much to those earlier works.

The first two chapters of the book develop the first step of a suggested method for studying John (or any New Testament text, presumably). The historical and cultural context must be properly understood if the reader is going to understand John’s story of Jesus.  In order to do this, chapter 1 surveys the history of Roman Palestine. Much of this material is condensed from Horsley’s earlier work, but there is enough detail to show that the area in which Jesus did ministry was divided culturally, politically, and economically. This divide is evident in several popular revolts and social disruptions threatening the elite in Jerusalem as well as Rome. Chapter 2 develops these  themes further by sketching the hope for restoration found in some streams of Second Temple Judaism, from the Hasmoneans to the Sicarii.

The second stage of the study is to examine the literary aspects of a gospel. In order to do this, chapter 3 focuses on oral communication and how oral cultures communicated “historical stories. Chapter 4 begins with Mark’s gospel and Q as a sayings source in order to demonstrate how to “hear the whole story” (the title of Horsley’s 2001 monograph). Horsley and Thatcher argue that modern readers of John ought to “take the gospel stories as a whole” and “to focus on their overall portrayal of Jesus’ mission” (p. 63). This means careful study of Jesus’ interactions with his followers as well as the leaders of the people in Roman Palestine.

The third stage of the study is to bring the insights of the first to stages to bear on the actual story John tells. Chapter 5 is a brief overview of the content of the Gospel with an emphasis on setting, characters and plot. Chapter 6 then argues that the Gospel “fits the historical situation in which it was set” as far as can be determined.  The story is grounded in an accurate picture of the economic and political world of first century Roman Palestine.

The chapter’s title is instructive: “Verisimilitude vs. Verification.” While it is ultimately impossible to verify every detail of the Gospel, the story reflects real historical realities in a way that does not raise suspicions. I do not think that this conclusion will please everyone, since more conservative readers will want to hear that John’s Gospel is absolutely historical, and less conservative readers will want to hear that the Gospel is full of anachronisms.  Like the theology of the book, Horsley and Thatcher choose not to get bogged down in that kind of a study and simply state that the book is a fair representation of the mission of Jesus as it was recalled by the author of the John.

In the last stage of the study, Horsley and Thatcher describe what they see as John’s presentation of Jesus’ mission in Roman Palestine. Chapter 8 draws several inferences from Jesus; demonstration in the Temple to argue that Jesus is presenting his ministry (or, himself) as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem. They argue this from two angles. First, they examine the Temple action itself in the Johannine context (early in Jesus’ ministry as opposed to late). This means that the John intended Jesus’ mission to be understood through the lens of the Temple action.  Second, there are a number of texts in John that present Jesus as having the same function as the Temple. It is well-known in Johannine studies that John 5-10 associate Jesus with the major feasts in Jerusalem, but in each case Jesus is a kind of alternative to those feasts. Third, the triumphal entry is described by Horsely and Thatcher as a “messianic demonstration.” Jesus proclaimed himself to be the messiah in this action and attempted to take a leadership role in a renewal of Israel. This is ultimately the reason for the execution of Jesus: Rome did not tolerate popular resistance movements.

Conclusion. This book is frustrating in its brevity. Horsely and Thatcher only sketch their method with a few examples, leaving the reader wondering about the details. But this is not a problem because the goal of the authors was simply to give an outline of a method that can serve as a template for further study. I was bewildered at times by the sections of the book devoted to Mark and Q, since the book is expressly about the Gospel of John. These sections are foundational, of course, and are drawn from Horsely’s prior work in Mark. It is rare that one reads a book on the Gospel of John as history, especially one that makes serious comparisons between Mark and John. As such, this short book might serve well as an auxiliary textbook for a college or seminary Gospels or Historical Jesus course where John’s Gospel usually receives less time than it deserves.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. David Remembered: Kingship and National Identity in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2013. 219 pp. Pb; $26.00.  Link

In 2009 Blenkinsopp wrote a short introduction to what he called “early Judiasm” in which he argued that origins of Judaism are to be found in Ezra and Nehemiah. This short book described the return from exile as the real beginning of the Judaism we encounter in the New Testament even if that origin stands on a foundation of earlier stories about pre-exilic Israel.  In his earlier work, Blenkinsopp mainly focused on the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, supplemented by 1 Esdras and Josephus.

Blenkinsopp David RememberedBlenkinsopp’s new book studies the same period, but he focuses solely on how the earliest writers of the Second Temple period “remembered David.”  He does not really enter into the discussion of a historical David” nor is he concerned with biblical archaeology for the early monarchy. His task in this book is to trace how the failed dynasty of David was transformed by the post-exilic prophets into a hope for an eschatological restoration of a kingdom to Jews.

After an introductory chapter in which he traces the fall of Judah and the end of David’s dynasty according to 2 Kings and Jeremiah, Blenkinsopp traces the remnants of that line in the early exile (ch. 2-3). In these chapters he argues that while it is possible that the demise of the Davidic line led to interest in a revived Benjamin-Saul dynasty in the early years of the exile, there is very little evidence to support the assertion. The pro-Jeremiah family of Shaphan seems to have had some influence, even to the point as serving as governor until Gedeliah was assassinated, but they fell short of reviving a Davidic kingdom.

Turning to the prophets, Blenkinsopp discusses Deutero-Isaiah’s view of David (ch. 4). There is only one reference to David in Isaiah 40-66, at the conclusion of chapters 40-55 the prophet refers to “tokens of love showed to David.” There are some translation issues with this line, but Blenkinsopp takes this as an allusion to the perpetual covenant offered to the Davidic line in 2 Sam 7. Since the line has come to an effective end, there was a need for re-thinking this “perpetual covenant” in the early post exilic period.  Cyrus, rather than David, will be God’s anointed one.

Chapter 5 focuses on Zerubbabel as the “new David” in the early post-exilic world.  In order to do this, he collects all of the prophetic texts which refer to Zerubbabel in Haggai and Zechariah.  There are quite a few texts that seem to imply that Zerubbabel was seen by these prophets as a kind of “heir to the throne” who was used by the Persians to keep Judea loyal during a particularly stormy period in Persian history.  In fact, it is possible that Zech 6:9-15 is a reference to a secret coronation of Zerubbabel as a new King of Judah.

Beginning in chapter 6, Blenkinsopp connects the post-exilic dream of a restored kingdom to the original stories of David. Beginning as far back as Amos, Blenkinsopp shows that prophetic texts read and reread the story of David in new contexts, finding in David the model for what would become the Messianism of the second half of Zechariah. Whether that represents one or two later prophets is not particularly meaningful to Blenkinsopp’s argument since they both would be among the latest texts in the Hebrew Bible.

In chapter 7, He points out that even the canonical shape of the twelve minor prophets can be seen as implicitly eschatological, looking forward to a reunification of the twelve tribes of Israel. By ending the collection with Malachi’s prediction of the return of Elijah to turn the children back to the fathers, the twelve-book collection anticipates a turning of Israel back to the land and to their first king.

Chapter 8 finishes the post-exilic survey by examining the later Zechariah traditions (Zechariah 10-14). These rather complex chapters are among the latest material in the prophets and consequently have the most detailed messianic hope in the Hebrew Bible. This chapter was the most stimulating for me since Blenkinsopp is doing something of an “intertextual study.” He uses this language several times (p. 154, especially), although there is no effort to define what he means by the term. Essentially, Zechariah finds earlier texts (or traditions) and reuses them in a new context. For this study, these intertextual connections take older texts like the Exodus and Jeremiah and apply them to the current political and religious situation of Judea in the Second Temple period. Since this is a brief study rather than a detailed commentary, Blenkinsopp does not always clearly signal what his intertextual connections are, and when he does, there is no explanation of why he thinks Zechariah used a particular text. For the most part, he may omit this detailed methodological step because of the nature of the book, or because the links are “obvious.”

Blenkinsopp’s final chapter brings his story of David Remembered into the Judaism of the first century as a “resistance movement” to imperial power. When reading the chapter title, I expected to find to sorts of anti-imperial observations that one finds in studies on Revelation or Paul, but that is not the case. He sticks to the texts and avoids the sort of sociological or political agenda that usually plagues anti-imperial studies.

He this chapter begins with a very brief survey of various Second Temple documents, including the Qumran literature and Psalms of Solomon. While there is some allusion to a revival of the Davidic dynasty, it is not as prominent as might be expected and in Qumran it the coming king messiah is subjugated to the coming priestly messiah. After simply observing this as a fact, Blenkinsopp does not every ask why this is the case. Why did most strands of Judaism in the second temple avoid the language of a Davidic messiah or a revived Davidic kingdom?

The second section of the chapter surveys the presentation of the Maccabean revolt and the various messianic pretenders in Josephus.  While there is nothing new in the material, Blenkinsopp does observe that it is remarkable that there is no Davidic monarchy at all in the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmonean dynasty or any of the messianic pretenders. In fact, it is only in the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus that there a revival of David’s kingdom is particularly prominent. Again I am left wondered why Jewish Christianity developed a Davidic messiah while other forms of early Judaism did not.

Conclusions. I found Blenkinsopp’s book fascinating, especially since I have an interest in how later writers use and reuse earlier traditions.  I think the survey might have been improved with more attention to Davidic Messianism in the Psalms. While there is a short section on David’s relationship with the worship of the Second Temple, it seems to me that the final form of the Psalter provides another line of evidence for the development of the idea of the return of the Davidic kingdom.  I also notice that there is little in this book on Joel, arguably the last of the prophets.  I suspect this has to do with the lack of specific mention of David in that prophet, but as a late prophetic voice, I expected to see more from that prophet. Most New Testament readers will find his few pages on Jesus disappointing – the book feels like it building up to a grand conclusion in Jesus the son of David, but the gospels are dispatched in a few pages.

Nevertheless, David Remembered provides a good survey of the development of the Davidic Messiah from the exile to the first century. It is good to see a kind of thematic biblical theology that extends into inter-canonical literature. While the book focuses more on the earliest days of the Second Temple period than the first century, it provides an excellent introduction to the Messianism of the Second Temple period.

Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Acts 6-8 describe the activities of two non-apostles, Stephen and Philip. Both are Hellenistic Jews, and neither is numbered among the 12.  Yet Stephen is the first martyr and his speech summarizing some important theological points in the transition between Peter’s ministry in Jerusalem and Paul’s mission in Acts 13.  Philip is the evangelist who brings the Gospel to Samaria and to an Ethiopian, perhaps fulfilling the commission in Acts 1 to go to Samaria and the “ends of the earth.”

Acts 6:1 says that there was a problem between “Hebraic” and “Hellenistic” Jews. This needs to be explained carefully, since the word “Jew” does not appear in the text (although English translations regularly include it). Obviously these are all Jews, but there seems to be problem between the Jews who are in Jerusalem from “outside” and those Jews who remained on “the inside.” Chapters 6-8 concern the activities of two Hellenistic Jews and their ministry outside of the circle of the apostles in Jerusalem. I would suggest here that Luke has intentionally arranged several stories concerning Peter and John in chapters 2-4, and several stories concerning Stephen and Philip in chapters 6-8.

08-04-05/46This is not necessarily a geographical division, although doubtless it often was. To be a “Hellenist” was to adopt the language and culture of the Greeks, while to be a “Hebrew” was to adopt a more tradition Jewish language and lifestyle. For Ben Witherington, language is the main issue (see Acts 240-247, for an excellent excursus on the Hellenists). Bock, on the other hand, agrees more with my sketch of the Hellenists (Acts, 258-9). Language is an important issue, but it is not the only issue separating the Greek from Judean Jew.

We cannot make a general judgment like “all Jews from the Diaspora were more liberal” or that “all Jews from Jerusalem were more conservative.”  These categories are derived from modern, western ways of dividing an issue into opposing, black and white categories and highlighting the contrasts.  It is entirely possible a Jew living in a Roman city was very conservative on some aspects of the Law even though he lived and worked along side Gentiles.

Paul is the best example of this since he was a Jew from Tarsus, fluent in Greek but also able to call himself a “Hebrew of the Hebrews” in Philippians 3. He was certainly quite conservative with respect to keeping the law and traditions of the people.  Yet he was a Roman citizen and seems to have had little problem functioning in the Greco-Roman world.  On the other hand, The High Priest, the Sadducees and Herodians appear to have been more relaxed  concerning some aspects of the Law and had no real problem ruling alongside of the Romans. But they were still concerned with keeping the Law and maintaining the Temple.  It was therefore possible to be “extremely zealous” in the Diaspora and extremely lax while worshiping in the Temple regularly.

Some in the Jerusalem community in Acts 6 are more committed to a Jewish Christianity and are finding differences with the Jews who are more Hellenistic in attitude. This leads to the appointment of the deacons, but does not solve the ultimate problem. By Acts 11 Jews living in Antioch are willing to not only accept Gentiles as converts Christianity, by Acts 13 Paul is preaching the gospel to Gentiles who are not even a part of a synagogue!

Since these Hellenistic Jews are more open to Gentiles in the fellowship, the more conservative Jews in Jerusalem begin to persecute the apostolic community even more harshly, leading to the death of Stephen and the dispersion of the Hellenistic Jews.

The text in Acts 6 does not imply that the problem was theological – it was entirely social (Witherington, Acts, 250). Some of the Hellenists felt slighted because their poor were not supported at the same level as the non-Hellenists. The word Luke uses (παραθεωρέω) in Acts 6:1 means that one “overlooks something due to insufficient attention” (BDAG).  The neglect may not be intentional, but it was a very real problem which the Apostles needed to deal with quickly.

As we read Acts 6, how deep is the divide between these two groups?  Looking ahead at what happens in Antioch, in Galatia, and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), does this “Hebrew” vs. “Hellenist” divide foreshadow bigger problems?

After their first arrest, the  the followers of Jesus respond with both  praise and prayer. This runs counter to what the council intended – they ought to have been filled with remorse for having been shown to be teaching blasphemy, they ought to have humbly submitted to their elders and ceased their preaching of Jesus as the resurrected messiah. Luke repeats this scene again in Acts 5:41-42.

On the contrary, they rejoice that they have been counted worthy to suffer persecution in a similar way to what Jesus faced – opposition to Jesus’ teaching began with the Pharisees and Sadducees; he too was told that he was not doing miracles by the power of God; he too was subjected to traps to get him to state a false teaching publicly.

In short, this resistance to the apostolic teaching is exactly the same think Jesus faced. The rejection of the teaching is far more grace, however, since the people acted in ignorance when they killed Jesus. Ignorance is no longer an excuse – rejection of the Holy Spirit will result in a most dire judgment.

Peter BoldlyThe disciples see this persecution as the fulfillment of scripture, specifically Psalm 2. This Psalm is cited as proof that the apostolic mission is having the intended effect. The “nations” in the original Psalm are the gentiles, or generically the “enemies of God.” The gentiles did plot against Jesus and did put him to death, but now Peter is applying that same thinking to the actions of the High Priest. Peter is calling the High Priest and his inner circle “gentiles.” The Jewish resistance to the Holy Spirit is therefore interpreted here as the same thing as Gentile resistance to the people of God in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps most significant is that this resistance will be just as futile.

As they prayed, the meeting was shaken and they once again are filled with the Holy Spirit and they all spoke the word of God boldly (4:31) and in 5:41-42 they continue their boldness. Just as Peter was filled with the Spirit and spoke boldly before the High Priest, the community now speaks boldly. The council commanded silence, but the community reacts with further witnessing concerning the truth that God is about to begin the new age.

This is the first example of an arrest turning into a great revival for the Jesus community. In Acts, nothing that the world does can hinder the spreading power of the Holy Spirit!

Gamaliel is a well known figure in the first century. He was likely the grandson of the famous Hillel and is mentioned in the Mishnah. He was active after A.D. 25 and was reputed to have been a great teacher of the Law. The man had such a great reputation that the Mishnah says “When Rabban Gamaliel the elder died, the glory of the law ceased and purity and abstinence died” (m.Sota 9.15).  (I posted a few comments about his relationship with Paul here.)

Rabbi GamalielGamaliel urges careful deliberation before acting. It may be that they are worthy of death, but one must think about what the ramifications of another execution of a messianic pretender. He refers to two other “messianic pretenders” which gathered some following but eventually came to nothing. Each of these men are known from Josephus as rebels against Rome who had humble origins, developed a bit of a following, and were eventually killed.

Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled.  For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic  and unreliable, despite the fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904).

This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Theudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Theudas, he died and his followers dispersed.

Gamaliel’s  point here is to argue that recent history shows that if God was really behind any of these messianic movements, then their leaders would not have been executed. Perhaps there is a also a warning to Peter and his followers as well: If your leader is really dead, maybe you ought to stop this preaching.  Christians tend to read this warning as directed at the Sadducees in the Sanhedrin: if you are wrong about this, you will be fighting God! To a certain extent, Gamaliel’s advice is “shrewd popular politics” which endorses neither side’s view of who Jesus was (Dunn, Beginning in Jerusalem, 174, n. 14).

Gamaliel’s conclusion is that a messianic movement which is from human origin is doomed to fail; but if it is of divine origin it is destined to succeed. It would be better to let the disciples of Jesus do as they please rather than to “fight against God.” The examples given came to nothing, in both cases the leader was dead. If Jesus is dead, then his followers will disappear as well – but only if they are no longer persecuted. If the Sanhedrin continues to persecute and these men turn out to be from God, then they will be fighting against God.

Why does Gamiliel give this advice to the Council? Is this, as Dunn says, simply “shrewd politics”? Or is there more to this story?

350px-Lipsanoteca_di_Brescia_(retro)In an earlier post I wondered about the sort of community Luke describes at the end of Acts 4.  It is critically important to understand here that the selling of property in Acts 2 and 4 is completely voluntary and in response to the need the early community has to care for growing numbers of people staying in Jerusalem. Luke uses verbs to describe this giving as on-going in the early community. People often sold property and gave it to the apostles to distribute.

Craig Keener provides a wealth of material on sharing wealth in the ancient world (Acts, 1:1012-28). He cites Pythagoras famous saying, “friends share everything in common” as a possible motivation for the common life of the Jerusalem community, but concludes that this Hellenistic ideal is not enough to explain what is going on in Acts. There is nothing here that suggests any reciprocal arrangement. No one was expecting anything in return for their provision for the needy in the community.

Nor does Keener find the descriptions of the Essenes in Philo to be adequate to explain the Jerusalem’s communal living. While the Qumran group practiced a kind of voluntary poverty and simplicity of life, the fact that the Apostolic community was based in an urban environment and Qumran was a separate, almost monastic community makes the two practices rather distinct. As Keener points out, Christians voluntarily sold property to respond to community needs, Qumran required the sale of all property when a convert joins the group (Acts, 1:1021).

The motivation for this giving is sometimes explained as an indication that the apostolic community thought that Jesus was returning very soon and there was no need for personal property in the coming kingdom. Better to sell what you have now and give it to the poor! While it is certain they believed the Lord was returning soon, this is not given as the motivation in Acts.

The chief motivation was to care for the needy, in response to the command of Jesus to care for the “least of these brothers of mine.” A Jewish person in the first century would have found nothing particularly radical about Jesus teaching that the righteous man ought to care for the poor – alms giving was a critically important part of the religion of the first century.

Jesus does say and do several things which are a bit more radical than most of contemporary Judaism. First, he commanded at least one man to give up all his possessions (the rich young ruler), and second, he and his disciples lived out a life of poverty. While Jesus and the disciples were not all that much different than most common people in Galilee, there is model of “common living” even in the ministry of Jesus. On the other hand, Jesus did appear to have had wealthy followers who helped him at key times in his life (the owner of the Garden of Gethsemane and Joseph of Arimethea, for example).

Jesus also teaches that when you care for the poor (“the least of these brothers of mine”), you are in fact caring for the Lord Jesus himself. Acts of righteousness such as alms are now interpreted as acts of worship of Jesus himself.  While this does not demand that the whole community live in a state of poverty, their ought to be no poverty among the followers of Jesus.

Returning to the question of present church practice, how should we use these descriptions of the earliest community? Does Luke intend us to read these descriptions as models for “how to do church” in other contexts? If that is not the case (and most churches I know do not practice this lifestyle), what was the point of living communally?

In Acts 5:17 the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” and arrested the apostles. Like points out that these men were Sadducees and would immediately oppose the preaching of resurrection on doctrinal grounds. Since they do not believe in the resurrection, any teaching that said that the resurrection anticipated in the prophets was beginning would be considered wrong.

But there is more to this than a doctrinal difference – these are the men that killed Jesus in the first place. To claim that a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) has been raised form the dead by God is to declare that the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God.” Gamaliel will make this connection later in the passage.

Zeal Burns

Most English translations describe the High priest as “jealous,” a negative characteristic. But this word is often translated “zeal,” a positive characteristic. Paul uses the same word to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6; Polhill, Acts, 165). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he as willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law.

“Zeal” is one of those words that Christians have turned into a commitment for the Lord.  (Or, sadly, a diet Christian product!)  To be “zealous” means one is serving God wholeheartedly. This is certainly part of the meaning of the first century, but the High Priest to be“zealous” packs a bit more punch than that.

A jew inthe Second Temple period to say he was “a zealous keeper of the Law,” the Jewish listener in the first century may have thought of Judas Maccabees, the forefather of the Pharisees himself, and his zealous defense of things Jewish in the Revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

1 Maccabees 2:24-29 When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar.  At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.  Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. 29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there.

Zeal in the first century was, in the words of N. T. Wright, something that you did with a knife (What Saint Paul Really Said, 27). Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.

The High Priest in Acts 5:17 is not jealous that the Apostles are gaining followers; he is not envious of the Apostles. He believes that the preaching of the Apostles is a dangerous idea which could destabilize the core institutions of Judaism in the first century. While no one is talking about dispensing with the Law (yet), the High Priest strongly objects to the idea of a suffering Messiah who dies and is raised from the dead. He is therefore willing to physically punish those who are preaching the Resurrection.

How does this understanding of “zeal” anticipate what happens in Acts 6-7?  Does this help understand Rabbi Saul’s passion in Acts 9?

Luke gives an ideal example of a member of the early Christian community in Jerusalem: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36). Barnabas is a significant figure in the book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. The introduction of Barnabas at this point in the book is a typical Lukan literary style. He often introduces a character who will become significant later in the story (Saul in 8:1, John Mark and James, Jesus’ brother in chapter 12).

BarnabasJoseph is a common name in the first century, so his second name might be a nickname. Luke tells us the name means “son of encouragement” although this derivation is not particular obvious. The phrase “son of ” can mean “characterized by, such as calling James and John “sons of thunder.” The name may be related to Bar-nabi, which would mean “son of a prophet.”

While this seems the most likely explanation for the name, it is not exactly what Luke says the name means. The role of the prophet is not limited to future-telling or condemnation of sin. For example, the second half of Isaiah has been rightly described as a “book of comfort” or “consolation.” Perhaps Barnabas had a personality which could speak the truth with strength and clarity, but in such a way as to bring comfort and encouragement to people as well.

Barnabas was from Cyprus. We know a community of Jews was present on Cyprus as early as 330 B.C., but they were expelled in A.D. 117. It is possible that Barnabas was in Jerusalem to serve his time in the Temple, or he may have been living in the city more or less full time. If he was wealthy, then he may have owned property in Jerusalem and Cyprus.

Luke calls him a Levite. Not all Levites were priests, but typically they were wealthy and well educated regardless of their role in the Temple. Levites could be anything from priests to doorkeepers in the Temple, but they also might be scribes or teachers of the Law. We are not told that Barnabas actually functioned as a Levite in the Temple, he may have simply been from a Levitical family. On the other hand, it is possible that he had worked in the Temple and was quite “traditional” within the spectrum of Second Temple Period Judaism. What matters here is that Barnabas was from the Diaspora, but had deep roots in Jerusalem and perhaps the Temple.

Barnabas sells some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth. We are not told what the property is, although he may have owned some property around Jerusalem which was a source of income for his family while he worked in the Temple.

I think that it is important to observe here that Jews living living outside of Judea are not automatically “more liberal” on matters of Law. In fact, it seems to me that the violent resistance to the preaching of the Gospel in Acts comes first from Diaspora Jews, not the Aramaic-speaking Jews. That Barnabas has two Hebrew names, hast the title of Levite, and had some property in Jerusalem implies that he was less Hellenized and more traditional with respect to his religion.

E. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 1:788-790 for detailed information on Barnabas.

When he is giving testimony in Acts 4, Peter asks if the healing of a lame man is a good deed or not. If this is an act of kindness, then it must come from God. The obvious answer seems to be yes, it is a good deed from God. If they agree it is a good deed from God, then they have a problem: Peter states the man was healed by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the one put to death by this very council only two months before!

The problem for the High Priest is obvious.  If Peter healed the man “in the name of Jesus” that means that Jesus was, at the very least, an innocent man and God is now doing miracles “in the name of Jesus.”  If Jesus was innocent, then the High Priest is guilty of killing an innocent man. If he was Messiah and actually raised to the right hand of God, then the messianic age has begun and the High Prist finds himself  “on the outside.”

The last line of Peter’s defense is a classic statement of the gospel: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  This is a strong statement of total dedication to Jesus Christ. There is no possibility of religious pluralism, Jesus is in fact the only way, truth and life. If humans (these people before Peter or any human) expect to be right with God, they can only do it through the name of Jesus. This is really an outgrowth of the belief that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him on his right hand (Marshall, Acts, 100). The name of Jesus is now the highest authority possible, so that Paul can say in Phil 2 that at the name of Jesus every knew will bow.

There is a remarkable boldness in this statement, but from the modern perspective of religious pluralism. The boldness is that Peter is saying this to a group of highly religious Jews who thought that they were the ones who held the right way to salvation. If you wanted to be right with God, you had to come to them and hear their interpretation of the Law and participate in worship only in the Temple, which they control.

Jesus Tattoo

Peter is saying that salvation now comes through Jesus, not the Temple. Little wonder why these men were shocked at Peter’s boldness!

I think this is what bothers me about popular Christianity and the rather flippant use of the “Name of Jesus.”  We have turned praying in the “name of Jesus” into code words for “I am done praying now, look up.”  People claim all sorts of goofy things in the “name of Jesus” without giving much thought at all to what that means.  It does not help to write “Jesus” out in Hebrew and tattoo it on your ankle.  This sort of thing diminishes what the name meant when Peter said, “there is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved.”

Jesus is not a magic word we use to invoke divine power, it represents the power of God for salvation.

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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