Today I am starting something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. For a very long time, I have wanted to go through the Book of Acts together with my readers. Too often, this particular book is perceived as a demarcation line, as a declaration of separation from anything Jewish. Something has to be changed in how we read this book. Even though the entire New Testament has largely been misread and misunderstood, the Book of Acts is especially crucial for understanding this parting of the ways.
At first glance, even the structure of this book proclaims this big separation: the narrative starts in Jerusalem, and ends in Rome! The book of Acts is very clear indeed, the message of Jesus has to go to the Gentiles as well; it has to spread from Jerusalem to Rome – and in this sense, the itinerary is set. However, we all know that any navigator (GPS) can take us to the same destination by very different routes. Moreover, if we miss a turn or take a wrong turn, our navigator recalculates in order to get us back to the right way (some even say, “Recalculating”). Maybe, some wrong turn was taken on this road from Jerusalem to Rome? It looks like some recalculating may need to be done here, in order to get us back on the right track.
My goal is to demonstrate the Jewishness of the book of Acts by demonstrating its first century Jewish historical and cultural context. Let us read this book together, and I will try to show you the details that pertain to the Jewish context which are not obvious to the Christian reader. Maybe, you have already seen some of them, whilst I imagine some will be new for you. But before we begin reading Acts, let us say a few words regarding the writer of this book.
An Orderly Account
We all know that Acts is the second part of a two-volume work written by the author of the third Gospel, traditionally identified as Luke. Most scholars agree that the two works (Luke-Acts) have a common literary style, narrative parallels, and thematic similarities. In this sense, some lessons from the Gospel might prove very helpful to us in our research of Acts.
What do I mean? It is very important to pay close attention to the structure of Luke’s writings. Luke likes to write things in sequence. Right from the beginning, in the preface to his Gospel, he promises Theophilus “to write … an orderly account”. Let us note these words, and if we remember that in the Gospel of Luke, the main opening event – the birth of Jesus – happens only in the second chapter, we can ask: what then would be in the first chapter? What was so important in Luke’s eyes, that he actually turned it into number one in the events he described?
The answer is obvious once the right question is asked. We all know that Luke’s Gospel has a very long first chapter that provides a lot of Jewish details. In fact, all that we read and learn in this chapter pertains to the Jewish tradition. And if the Jewish setting, the Jewish background, and all these Jewish details, make up Chapter One of Luke’s orderly account, should we not pay attention to these things that were so important to him as to precede the birth of Jesus?
What are these things? First, we find ourselves in the Temple where Zacharias the priest went to perform his Temple duty, “according to the custom of the priesthood”. Something of extraordinary significance happened that day in the Temple. Zacharias experienced an angelic visitation and heard the annunciation of the miraculous birth of his son, and all of this happened in the Temple “while he was performing his priestly service before God”. Have you ever contemplated this simple, but very powerful fact? Almighty God could have sent His angel to Zacharias at any place – in his house, his garden, on the street – yet He chose to announce the birth of John the Baptist in the Temple. Thus, the whole story of Jesus begins in the Jewish Temple, and if we remember, once again, that Luke’s intention is to write things in sequence, we understand that this fact constitutes number one in his account!
The next thing that was clearly very important for Luke to tell us, concerns Mary (Miriam), Jesus’ mother. While most people recognize the Jewishness of Jesus today, his mother Miriam still seems to be fully divorced from her Jewish background. She is still better known by the titles, Blessed Virgin or Our Lady. However, here in Luke’s Gospel, this Galilean girl from Nazareth is depicted as clearly belonging to her people.
For example, one has to know the Jewish wedding customs of the time in order to understand pregnant Miriam’s predicament and her decision to go to Elisheva (Elizabeth). There were two stages of marriage in Jesus’ time: the betrothal and the marriage, and there might be one year or more between them. One of the main reasons for a betrothal period was to assure that the bride was not pregnant. To become pregnant during this time of betrothal was a grave sin and a great humiliation. And yet, it was precisely during this time, when Miriam was already betrothed to Joseph and was awaiting the concluding stage of marriage, that the miraculous conception took place.
Miriam knew she was in a very difficult situation—but she entrusted herself completely to the Lord, seeking support and encouragement in Him and from Him alone. One has to know that Elisheva lived in the small village of Ein Karem, outside of Jerusalem, in order to guess that on her way there, Miriam could have entered Jerusalem to pray and to pour out her soul before the Lord. It looks like God comforted Miriam through the story of biblical Hannah, her suffering and humiliation, her miraculous birth and her praise: “My heart rejoices in the Lord…I rejoice in Your salvation” – because when Miriam greets Elisheva, she is full of joy and gratitude and praises the Lord with almost the same words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
Finally, we find another interesting detail here, in the first chapter of Luke’s orderly account. Zacharias and Elisheva, overwhelmed with joy on the occasion of the birth of their long-awaited and miraculously given child, on the eighth day are “going to name” their son. A reader might wonder: On the eighth day? Didn’t they have nine months to think of the name? Why did John’s parents tarry?
The answer comes both from the Torah and from the Jewish tradition. In Genesis 17, God gives to Abraham the commandment of circumcision. From that moment on, the circumcision of a Jewish boy always takes place on the eighth day after birth. The Gospel of Luke records the strict observance of this rite, both in case of John the Baptist and Jesus. However, in Jewish tradition, it is not circumcision only that happens on the eighth day.
In the modern Jewish world, a newborn boy’s name is always announced at his circumcision ceremony. This tradition is based on the idea that a boy has to be named immediately after entering into the covenant of Abraham. This tradition has been around for many centuries – but surprisingly, it is here, in Luke’s Gospel, that we see the first evidence of a Jewish boy being named at his brit-milah – circumcision. Abraham himself received a new name when he was circumcised. Luke showing the naming of John during circumcision may be seen as emphasizing the connection between Abraham, John and Jesus.
Back to the Acts—as I already mentioned, most scholars agree that the two volumes (Luke-Acts) have a lot in common. If the Jewish settings and Jewish background are so important in Luke’s eyes that they make up the first chapter of his orderly account in the Gospel – we might expect to see the same structure in the Book of Acts. Indeed, we find a remarkable resemblance: in both volumes, the main “opening” event happens in the second chapter: the birth of Jesus in the Gospel; the birth of the Church in Acts. (Many Christian readers don’t even pay much attention to the first chapter of Acts, they see “the real beginning” of the book in Chapter Two). And what do we find in Chapter One, then? Once again: what was so important in Luke’s eyes, that he actually turned it into number one in the events he described? And we find out that in the same very way, as he did in the Gospel, Luke opens his account there with a very Jewish setting! In both volumes, the first chapters set a very important background: this background forms the foundation and constitutes ‘number one’ in Luke’s orderly account – and it is Luke’s intention that both volumes should be read against this background! You might be thinking that the ‘Jewishness’ of Acts 1 is less obvious than the ‘Jewishness’ of Luke 1 – in that case, you might be surprised next time, when we will read this chapter together! Our goal is to restore the message that Luke conveys to us in this book.
 Luke 1:3
 1 Sam. 2:1
 Lk. 1:46,47
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