My dear readers, finally, we can go back to the series that was paused because of the holidays – to comments on the book of Acts. I would like to remind you why I have chosen this particular book to discuss. More often than not, the book of Acts is perceived as a demarcation line, as a declaration of separation from anything Jewish. 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. And at first glance, even the very structure of this book proclaims this big separation: the narrative starts in Jerusalem, and ends in Rome! The book 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.
We all know, however, that any navigator 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. We have already begun to read this book together, we have looked at the first two chapters so far, and today will continue from Chapter Three. As a reminder, my intention is to point out only those details that pertain to the Jewish context and are not obvious to a Christian reader.
In Acts 3, we read about the great miracle that Peter and John performed: they healed a lame man in the Temple. People around were amazed, seeing this man healed, and Peter responded to them with a speech, preaching once again, salvation in Jesus: ”Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this?… The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified His Servant Jesus… And His name, through faith in His name, has made this man strong, whom you see and know”.
“Now as they spoke to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 being greatly disturbed that they taught the people and preached in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they laid hands on them, and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 However, many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand”.
What happens the next day? We read that many Jewish leaders, “rulers and elders and scribes,” gathered together against Peter and John. The leaders began to inquire by what power, or by what credentials, Peter and John had healed the lame man. Peter answered them with a great speech, and the leaders were truly amazed by his boldness since they perceived the Apostles as “uneducated and untrained men”. Why did they perceive them as “uneducated” and what did that actually mean?
Luke’s mentioning of “rulers and elders and scribes” probably means a convening of the Sanhedrin. Representatives of these three groups composed the so-called “Great Court”. At this time, in spite of Roman occupation, the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was still the highest judicial, political and administrative authority in the Land. The apostles presumably were standing in the center of the court, the interrogating members of Sanhedrin sitting around them.
The Greek expression for “uneducated and untrained men” here refers to the Hebrew term “am ha-aretz”, literally, “people of the Land”. This term was applied to uneducated Jews, who didn’t receive systematic training in the Bible or the traditions of Pharisees or Sadducees. They were considered ignorant in the Torah and negligent in their observance of the commandments. The members of Sanhedrin could easily see that these Galileans were “am ha-aretz” because of their accent and vocabulary.
Jewish people have always had high regard for education, and education usually meant primarily education in religious matters. Little would be expected of the untrained am-haaretz – least of all, religious speeches. No wonder the leaders “marveled” and “could say nothing”. We have to be aware of the Jewish ideas of the time, in order to recognize the radical novelty of the New Testament.
The next person we meet in Acts is Stephen. Stephen is first mentioned in Acts, 6 as one of seven deacons appointed by the Apostles to distribute food to poor members of the community. There is an interesting detail here: since another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, is specifically called “a proselyte”, it’s assumed that Stephen was Jewish. Was he indeed? Can we gather some hints from his famous speech in Acts 7?
Stephen was accused of having spoken blasphemy by declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and change the customs of Moses. He was taken to the Sanhedrin, and when asked by the high priest, he made a long speech in reply, reviewing Jewish history from the time of Abraham. Some details in his speech, however, are remarkably different from the traditional biblical text. Why? Didn’t Stephen know his Bible?
Based on the peculiarities of Stephen’s speech, some scholars believe that Stephen was a Samaritan. For instance, Stephen says that Abraham went to Canaan “when his father was dead”. According to Torah, Terah was 70 when Abraham was born and 205 when he died: he died at 205; therefore, he was alive and well when Abraham, at the age of 75, obeyed God’s call. However, in the Samaritan Pentateuch Terah dies at 145, not 205 – maybe this was the text that Stephen used!
Tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans were particularly high in the first half of 1 AD. You probably remember the famous Parable of the Good Samaritan, where the very appearance of the Samaritan was absolutely striking for Jesus’ listeners, and the fact that this Samaritan proves to be a neighbor, while the priest and the Levite fail, directly challenged the contemporary Jewish interpretation of the word “neighbor”. If Stephen was indeed a Samaritan, it would have been an amazing testimony of the uniting power of Jesus’ message.
 Acts 3:12-14
 Acts 4:1-4
 Acts 4:13,14
I would like to remind you, dear friends, that eTeacher offers a wonderful course, Jewish Background of the New Testament. . As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information! Also, if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here.