From Jerusalem To Rome: Transition

The Lessons of the Transitional Chapter

My dear friends, you probably expect me to move to Acts 15, to Jerusalem council – and of course, we will be there soon. However, I would like to say a few more words on chapter 13; after all, this is a crucial chapter, the transitional chapter,  opening the second – “to the ends of the earth” – part of the book.  Luke is an amazing master of transitions, and those following my blog for a while may well remember this title “The Lessons of the Transitional Chapter”: it was how I titled our discussion of the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The last chapter of Luke’s Gospel – Luke 24 – is a transitional chapter from the first to the second volume of his writing, and it indeed provides an excellent transition from the Gospel to the Acts—from Messiah visible, but hidden, to Messiah revealed, but invisible. In my articles, I tried to show that Luke wanted us to read both volumes in the light shed from this chapter[1].

In the same way, the beginning of chapter 13 serves as a very meaningful transition from the first part of the book of Acts to the second. We remember that the first part, chapters 1–12, describes the events that take place in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Beginning from chapter 13, the focus of Luke’s narrative shifts to Paul and his mission to the Gentiles. Once again, Luke packs these transitional verses with the very important messages – so please bear with me while we unpack these crucial messages, in order to read the second part in the light of these lessons.

Laying Hands

The first take-home message of this chapter comes from the last post, when we realized that of the five prophets and teachers in Antioch listed here by Luke, four were definitely Jewish believers in Jesus, and the last one may have been Jewish as well. Even more important is the second lesson that we also started to discuss last time. From Luke’s description, we understand that with all the profound differences that faith in Jesus made, outwardly the gathering and fellowship of the early church was no different from a synagogue. The activity of the prophets, the fasting, the reading of the Scriptures, all these details undoubtedly connect us to the Torah. However, there is another important allusion to the Torah in Luke’s description of Antioch’s community that we haven’t discussed yet – and this is the laying of hands.

The laying on of hands is called smicha in Hebrew, the same word used for laying hands on the sacrifices. In Tanach, the priests practiced smicha, laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. This hand-laying was an essential part of Temple sacrifices, but at some point, it became an essential part of separation and authorization for religious duty as well. “The laying on of hands as authorization for religious duties may echo Numbers 8:11–12, where the motif of separation for the work of the Lord is also present.”[2]

By the 1st century CE, smicha was an acknowledged ritual of transmission of authority. The laying on of hands is a very meaningful ceremony in Jewish tradition even today. Jewish fathers bless their children by placing their hands on the child’s head. When  The idea goes back to Deuteronomy where we read of Joshua being filled with the Spirit because Moses laid hands on him: “Now Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him.[3] It is believed that through smicha,God’s presence may appear”. Why? In Leviticus, Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear.”[4] However, the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses had in mind, so some Jewish commentators explain, “It is the laying on of hands.” Therefore, when the believers in Antioch laid their hands upon Paul and Barnabas, they asked God to manifest His presence, to fill them with His spirit, and to transmit authority in the way that was a familiar and acknowledged ceremony.

This is another take-home message that Luke wants us to remember while reading through the second part of the book: early believers in Jesus were part of God’s people, part of Israel, – and they lived in a context defined by current Jewish piety and Jewish Scriptures!

Crooked and Straight

It will take our next example to realize how much God’s ways and Israel’s ways seemed almost synonymous to the early believers. After Paul and Barnabas are sent away from Antioch, they travel to the city of Paphos in Cyprus, where the Roman Proconsul is willing to hear them. However, somebody by the name Elymas, described as a false prophet and a sorcerer, opposes them, “doing his best to turn the governor away from the faith. Then Sha’ul, also known as Paul, filled with the Ruach HaKodesh, stared straight at him and said, “You son of Satan, full of fraud and evil! You enemy of everything good! Won’t you ever stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”[5]

I have chosen to use this translation here (Complete Jewish Bible), since it renders the Greek text with exactly the same words that we need in order to unpack Luke’s message. Paul could have said a thousand different things to Elymas: Won’t you ever stop doing your evil deeds? Won’t you ever stop opposing God? Won’t you ever stop resisting true faith? – so,  why did he use this peculiar phrase about crooked and straight?

In order to answer this question and see the message hidden by Luke in this story, I would like to remind you that the biblical name for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is Israel: they are children of Jacob, who was named Israel after he had wrestled with the mysterious man at Penuel. “The man”  who fought with Jacob, blessed him, and in blessing him he changed his name to Israel. He said:  “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”[6]  Therefore, it is widely believed that the word “Israel” comes from the Hebrew word שרית , which in biblical Hebrew means “to struggle,” “to exercise influence,” “to prevail”.

There is an additional way to interpret this name, however, and I believe that the speech of Paul in Acts 13 is a clear allusion to this way. In Hebrew, the name Israel might be read as Yashar-El (ישר-אל). Hebrew word Yashar (יָשָׁר) means straight, honest, honorable, law-abiding; in biblical usage, it also means a “righteous, God-fearing person”. The root עָקֹב֙, on the other hand (the root of the name Ya’akov) might also mean “crooked,” as in the verse: the crooked (הֶֽעָקֹב֙) shall be made straight.[7] This is exactly what this transition from Jacob to Israel means: God made the crooked straight!

We can now understand Paul’s choice of words. “Your behavior is the opposite of the very definition of Israel”, is in fact, the essence of what Paul says to Elimas. This is our third take-home lesson for the rest of Acts: to do something against God, to oppose faith, means … to go against the meaning of the word “Israel”.

[1] You can read more about this transitional chapter – Luke 24 – in my book about Hidden Messiah, As Though Hiding His Face.

[2] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (p. 582). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Deut.34:9

[4] Lev.9:6

[5] Acts 13:8,9

[6] Gen.32:28

[7] Is. 40:4

I would like to remind you, dear friendsthat we offer 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.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Gladys Fox

    Thank you Dear Julia .!
    I have your book ” As Though Hiding His Face” and I am reading it again. I highly recommend all your books to all your readers.
    May God Bless you and help us to see the true face of Jesus

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, dear Gladys! Your words always warm my heart! Blessings!

  2. Rev. Stephen Funck

    I would love to see an article on the changes and parallels from the Synagog Sabbath service to the early Christian Sunday liturgy.

    1. Gladys Fox

      Please tell me why did the “Church ” change the Sabbath to Sunday ? Was it to please God or the Romans .? I understand that Sunday was when the Romans worshipped the sun god is that true ?

    2. Julia Blum

      Hi Stephen, I would also be interested to see such an article. I promise to send you a link if I find one.

      1. Svend Buchvaldt

        Perhaps You already know this web side, but http://www.marquette.edu, Margareth Barker has an article: The Temple Roots af the Liturgy