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Acts 15

August 15, 2010

Paul and Barnabas are at Syrian Antioch [1]. Some men come down [2] from Judea and start telling Gentile members of the church that they have to be circumcised. Paul and Barnabas contradict them and are sent to Jerusalem to get the apostles and elders[3] to resolve the question. When they pass through Phoenicia [4] and Samaria [5], they tell those congregations about the conversion of the Gentiles.

In Jerusalem, the assembly is awed to silence by word of the miracles that Paul and Barnabas wrought, though it’s not entirely clear which miracles are being referred to: in Acts 14, Paul healed a man who had been crippled in his feet, and in Acts 13, Paul foretold the blindness of Bar-Jesus/Elymas. But Pharisee Christians, less impressed, say that the Gentiles must become Jews, including in circumcision. Peter (who James later calls “Simon”)[6] tells the church of Jerusalem that purification is through faith and salvation is through grace, and that following Jewish law is something that the Jews have never been able to attain. James then says that Peter has set aside a portion of the Gentiles, and quotes Amos 9:11-12 to assert that this has been prophesied [7]. Whether James’ reliance on Amos is accurate or not, his argument wins the day, and he proposes that they only require that the Gentiles “abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” The council decides to send Judas/Barsabbas [8] and Silas [9] as delegates to not only Antioch, but all of Syria and Cilicia [10] to disown the teachings of the men from Judea and to impose the restrictions suggested by James.

This fissure in the Antioch church having been healed, Paul and Barnabas open another by arguing over whether John/Mark [11] should be brought along in a return visit to the churches they have previously passed through, since John/Mark deserted them in Pamphylia. So Barnabas takes John/Mark to Cyprus [12], while Paul and Silas head to Syria and Cilicia.

The main point of interest in this chapter appears to be the question of John/Mark who, in Acts 14, left Pamphylia to go to Jerusalem. No explanation is given. Paul evidently believed that this made John/Mark unfit to be a missionary, but John/Mark’s cousin Barnabas was less harsh in judgment. However, Paul is given the more prestigious and presumably more satisfying task of returning to Syria and Cilicia with senior church leadership to affirm that he had indeed been right in including the Gentiles, while Barnabas went to Cyprus. Interpreters suggest that John/Mark was opposed to the evangelizing of the Gentiles or that he became fearful. Matthew Henry points out that Cyprus was Barnabas’ native land, and Cilicia was Paul’s.

1. Antioch, according to Strong’s, means “driven against.”
2. The use of the phrase “coming down” is literally true, since Antakya (Syrian Antioch) is at 87 meters above sea level, while Jerusalem is 630 meters. However, there seems to be an implication that the men from Judea have special authority because they come from above.
3. Acts is the only book of the New Testament that mentions both apostles and elders in one sentence, and all but one of those mentions is in Chapter 15. Outside of Acts, the elders (sans apostles) are mentioned only five times in the epistles. So, the inclusion of both implies that this is both an inspired and an institutional decision.
4. Phoenicia was a coastal, seafaring empire stretching from Dor in Israel through Tyre and Tripolis in Lebanon to north of Arwad in Syria. The Greek word “phoinix” (phoiniken in the present text) refers to purple, though Strong’s says it means “land of palm trees.”
5. According to Strong’s, Samaria in Hebrew means “watch mountain”.
6. Peter/Simon. Simon means hearing (Who’s Who in the the Bible), so Simon Peter is the “hearing rock”.
7. This is a dubious use of Amos 9. Amos 8 sets the stage for this prophecy, saying that His vengeance will arise because the needy have been neglected, the use of dishonest scales has become rampant, and that the nation has become obsessed with mercantilism. He says that “The whole land will rise like the Nile;it will be stirred up and then sink like the river of Egypt,” and that there will be a famine. Then in Amos 9, He promises to kill them all except for a remnant, and reiterates that “the whole land rises like the Nile, then sinks like the river of Egypt.” The NIV translation of Amos is not consistent with James’ quotation:
Amos: so that they [David’s descendants] may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name [my name may seek the Lord]
James: that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name ,
where the bracketed material is the variant that appears in the Septuagint.
So, not only has Amos predicted dire events before the restoration of the Temple, events that have not happened at the time of the council in Jerusalem, but it’s not clear that the version of Amos that James is citing says exactly what he quotes it as saying.
8. Judas/Barsabbas. Judas means “praised”. “Barsabbas” means “son of the Sabbath” or “born on the Sabbath” (Who’s Who in the the Bible)
9. Silas means “asks of God” (Who’s Who in the the Bible)
10. Cilicia. Cilicia is on the southeast coast of Turkey. According to Strong’s, Cilicia means “land of Celix”. Paul was born in the capital, Tarsus. No unimpeachable sources describing the meaning of “Celix” were found. According to the Kabalarians, a group that believes that language shapes mind (among other, more exotic beliefs), Celix connotes “a very aggressive and independent nature, one with big ambitions, giving you original, progressive, large-scale ideas, salesmanship and promotional ability as well as the excellent business judgment”
11. John/Mark. “John” means “God has been gracious.” “Mark” comes from “large hammer” (Who’s Who in the the Bible)
12. Cyprus means “love: a blossom” according to Strong’s in the Blue Letter Bible. However, it could also mean “cypress” or “copper.”

Acts 14

May 1, 2010

After a long sojourn teaching in Iconium [1], Paul and Barnabas [2] are forced to flee because some Jews stirred up dissension. They go to the Lycaonian [3] cities of Lystra [4]and Derbe [5]. In Lystra, Paul healed a man who had never walked because of some defect in his feet. The crowd who witnesses the miracle is overcome and calls Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes “because he was the chief speaker.” The local Zeus priest brings bulls and wreaths so that the people can sacrifice to their new gods. Paul and Barnabas are shocked and tear their clothes to emphasize to the crowd their message that they are not gods. Jews from Antioch and Iconium come and persuade the crowd that instead of being worshiped, Paul and Barnabas should be stoned. Paul is stoned and left for dead.

Reviving, Paul returns briefly to Lystra and he and Barnabas proceed to Derbe. After a less-lethal and more successful mission there, they return to Lystra (!), Iconium, and Syrian Antioch. They explain to the disciples that hardships are necessary to enter the Kingdom of God [6], and appoint elders for the churches [7]. They then travel through Pisidia [8] to Pamphylian [9] Perga [10], and then to Attalia[11] and back to Grecian Antioch [15]. There they reported and rested.

If we substitute in the meanings of the names used, the story would read as follows: Small (formerly Desired) and Son of Encouragement flee from Little Image to Ransoming in mountainous, wild Wolf Land, where Small performs a miracle and is almost killed as thanks. So they go to Tanner, then back to Ransoming, Little Image, through Pitchy to Earthy in All-Tribes, and back to Driven Against. There are a few interesting points here: Paul rescues (ransoms) the cripple from disability, and his own life is ransomed from death. By going to the Tanner in Wolf Land, they appear to be protected from further attack when Paul returns to the city (Ransoming) that almost killed him.


1. Iconium. According to Strong’s, it means “little image.” It was on the border of Lycaonia and Phrygia, about 150 miles south of Ankara where Konya is now.
2. Barnabas means “son of encouragement”
3. Lycaonia, according to the Bible Atlas, “consists of a level plain, waterless and treeless, rising at its southern fringe for some distance into the foothills of Taurus, and broken on its eastern side by the volcanic mass of Kara-Dagh and by many smaller hills.” Strong’s says Lycaonia means “wolf land”
4. Lystra about 15 miles southwest of Iconium was ” in the time of Paul, a center of education and enlightenment. ” Strong’s says “Lystra” means “ransoming”
5. Derbe about 40 miles southeast of Iconium had “considerable importance and prosperity as well as strong pro-Roman feeling” due to its position as a customs post along the Antioch-Iconium-Tarsus road. Strong’s says Derbe means “tanner of/coverer with skin”
6. This is a very important theological point. We have very little guidance on the path to enter the Kingdom of God. We are told that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to “the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3) and to “those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matt. 5:10), that practicing the commandments makes one great in the Kingdom and breaking them makes one small (Matt. 5:19), that one must be more righteous than the Pharisees to enter the Kingdom (Matt. 5:20), that doing the will of the Father is a requirement for entering the Kingdom (Matt. 7:21), that the Kingdom is near (Matt. 10:7) and that we must become like little children (Matt. 18:3). We are told that it is “like a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matt. 13:24), “like a mustard seed” (Matt. 13:31), “like yeast” (Matt. 13:33), “like treasure hidden in a field” (Matt. 13:44), “like a merchant looking for fine pearls” (Matt 13:45), “like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish” (Matt. 13:47), “like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants” (Matt. 18:23), “like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard” (Matt. 20:1), “like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son” (Matt. 22:1), and “like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom” (Matt. 25:1).
Luke and John refer to the Kingdom of God. Luke’s usage seems to be similar to Matthew’s, and John famously says, that to enter the Kingdom of God, we must be “born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5). The epistles say the Kingdom of God is of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17), “is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20), is barred to the wicked (1 Cor 6:9-10, Gal. 5:21), and that “that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). So the admonition that we must suffer to enter the Kingdom is a critical element of our understanding of the path.
7. Elders. The importance of elders in a church is not fully appreciated. The epistles are vague in distinguishing elders (presbyteros, mentioned dozens of times in the epistles), pastors/shepherds (poimano, mentioned 8 times in the epistles), and overseers (episkopos, which is mentioned 7 times). Many commentators see these as being used interchangeably. However, I would propose that the early church only recognized three categories of people: apostles, elders, and deacons. The apostles had direct experience of Jesus. Although many churches claim apostolic succession, human frailties over the ages make this improbable. Elders were church leaders, trained by the apostles, but lacking their direct experience. Deacons were, as described in Acts 6, chosen to wait tables to permit. Nowhere is an administrative structure of church hierarchies described. It seems more likely that the system the apostles envisaged was of a church being led by a council of elders, each taking the function which suited him best.
8. Pisidia is a mountainous region north of Pamphylia, about 150 miles southwest of Ankara and 75 miles northwest of Konya. Strong’s says Pisidia means “pitchy.”
9. Pamphylia, which lies along the southern coast of Turkey, was “never an independent kingdom; it was subject successively to Lydia, Persia, Macedonia, Pergamos and Rome.” Strong’s says Pamphylia means “of every tribe.”
10. Perga means “earthy, according to Strong’s. It is near the modern city of Antalya along the southern coast of Turkey
11. Attalia served as “the chief port for ships from Syria and Egypt” Strong’s says Attalia means “Jah’s [Yahweh’s] due season”
12. Antioch, according to Strong’s, means “driven against.”

Acts 13

November 15, 2009

After commissioning at [Syrian] Antioch [1], Saul and Barnabas are sent with John [2], by the Holy Spirit via Seleucia [3] to Cyprus [4]. This left Simeon/Niger [5] and Menaen [6] in Antioch. They traveled from Salamis[7] to Paphos [8], where they met Bar-Jesus/Elymas [9], a servant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus [10]. The proconsul wanted to hear the word of God, but Elymas opposed Saul and Barnabas. The Holy Spirit moves Saul (who we are reminded is Paul) to rebuke Elymas and announce that he will be blind. This persuades the proconsul of the truth of Paul’s teaching, though we are told alternately that this belief was stimulated by what he saw and by the teaching of the Lord. Saul, now called Paul, sails with Barnabas and John to Perga in Pamphylia [11]. John then went to Jerusalem.

Traveling from Perga to Pisidian Antioch [12], Paul and Barnabus go to the synagogue. They are invited to speak encouragement to the people, both Jews and God-fearing Gentiles. So Paul gives a disquisition beginning from the choosing of the Jewish fathers, proceeding through the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the rise of the prophets, and the choosing of Samuel and Saul. He then connects King David to Jesus. He presents the following evidence that Jesus is the one for which Israel has been waiting:
* John the Baptist said that he was not the one
* By condemning Jesus, the rulers and people of Israel fulfilled “the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath” [13]
* Jesus’s death, including the lack of reason for a death sentence and the execution by Pilate, helped fulfill what was written of Him [14]
* God prevented Jesus’s body from decaying, raising Him from the dead
Therefore, Paul says, through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and everyone who believes is justified [made just] [15] as Mosaic Law was unable to do. Paul warns the people not to scoff.

The people of the congregation liked Paul’s talk well enough to ask them back and many Jews and devout converts followed Paul and Barnabas to chat. The next Sabbath, the whole city gathered to hear Paul’s preaching, which made the Jews jealous. They spoke against Paul in abusive terms. So, Paul dismissed the Jews as considering themselves unworthy of eternal life. The Gentiles, however, are glad and honored the word of the Lord. The word of the Lord spread throughout the region. But the Jews appealed to the God-fearing women and the leading men of the nobility, stirred up persecution, and had Paul and Barnabas expelled. Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium” [16].

1. The name Antioch means “driven against,” according to Strong’s. In the gospels, the laying on of hands (cheir, the same root as in “chiropractor”) is associated with healing. Although the first instance of the laying on of hands could be said to be Isaac touching Jacob to be sure that he is who he claims to be, the first clear usage of the laying on of hands in commissioning is in Jacob’s blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48). For this, two separate words are used (yaminh and semowl, for right and left). The first clearly comparable example of commissioning by the laying on of hands is in Acts 6, in which the deacons are commissioned. For that commissioning, there is prayer but no fasting.
2. “John” means “God has been gracious,” “Barnabas” means “son of encouragement,” and “Saul” means “asked of God.”
3. Seleucia means “white light.”
4. Cyprus means “love: a blossom” according to Strong’s in the Blue Letter Bible. However, it could also mean “cypress” or “copper.”
5. Simeon/Niger. Simeon means “harkening” and Niger means “black.”
6. Menaen means “comforter.”
7. Salamis means “salt”
8. Paphos means “boiling” or “hot”
9. Bar-Jesus/Elymas means “son of God is salvation”/”wise man”
10. Sergius Paulus means “earth born: born a wonder” “small”
11. Perga in Pamphylia: “perga” means “earthy” and Pamphylia means “of every tribe”
12. Pisidian Antioch: “pisidian” means “pitchy” It is roughly 200 mile north and west of Syrian Antioch.
13. It’s unclear what words of the prophets were read every Sabbath and were fulfilled in Jesus’s death.
14. It’s unclear how the lack of a death sentence and Pilate’s role were a fulfillment of what was written.
15. Justified comes from “dikaio” and means is is made righteous or declared just. Without justice there is no righteousness.
16. Iconium means “little image.”

Acts 12

July 11, 2009

Where the Jewish leaders dared not tread, the political rulers had no qualms. Herod Agrippa I [1], the grandson of Herod the Great who ordered the slaying of the infants in Nazareth, inaugurated the persecution of the Church by the execution of James [2], brother of John [3], and the arrest of others, including Peter [4]. Peter was put under exceptionally heavy guard by sixteen men, two of whom were chained to him, apparently inside the Antonia Fortress. An angel appears, wakes Peter by slapping him in the side [5], striking off the chains, and leading him through the iron gate leading to the city and one block farther before departing.
The Antonia Fortess

A model of the Antonia Fortress produced by Ariely and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons; copyright by Creative Commons

The rest of the chapter follows two arms of sequelae from the escape. Herod cross-examined the guards and executed them. He left Judea to go to Caesarea. Tyre and Sidon [6], which had annoyed [7] Herod, sued for peace through Blastus in order to gain access to the food supply. Herod gave a royal speech. The crowd shouted that this was the voice of a god. Because Herod failed to praise God, an angel struck him (or slew him) and he was eaten by maggots [8].

Peter’s branch of the story is happier. He knocks at the door of Mary, mother of John/Mark. The servant girl Rhoda [9] is so happy that she forgot to open the door, simply running back in and telling everyone that Peter is at the door. After debating whether this is Peter’s angel, they at last let him in. He orders them to be silent, tells them the story of his escape, orders them to tell James [10] and the brothers about the events and leaves for another place [11].

The chapter closes with the return of Saul and Barnabas from Jerusalem, taking Mark and spreading the Word.


1. Herod means “sprung from a hero” (Who’s Who in the Bible). The text says literally that he “stretched out his hands to oppress” (epiballo cheir kakoo), a kind of inverse healing. The word for king is basileus, related to the basilisk which is reputed to bring death with a glance. Note that this Herod is not Herod the Great, but Agrippa I, his grandson (per Who’s Who in the Bible; Cornay & Brownrigg).
2. James is “Jacobus” in Greek, and means “supplanter.” This is James bar Zebedee who, with his brother, was also called Boanerges (“sons of thunder”).
3. John means “God has been gracious.”
4. While other strikes against the church had been against the peripheral members of its leadership, these arrests and the murder of James were aimed at the heart of the church. James and Peter had both been with Jesus at the Transfiguration. Since Herod did these terrible deeds during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, it was plain that he was acting completely outside of Jewish law. There is a metaphoric resonance with the final plague associated with escape from Egyptian exile, with James being the lamb used to blood the lintel and the doorways, and Herod as the Angel of Death. The fact that “the Jews” (presumably, key Jewish leaders) were pleased with the arrests and execution suggests the religious establishment had become politicized.
5. Side is “pleura,” the same word for the piercing of Jesus.
6. Tyre means rock, Sidon means fishery, and Blastus means “sprout” according to Who’s Who in the Bible. According to that source, Josephus corroborates the general outline of the account in Acts, adding the detail that Herod was clothed in a silver robe and that he died of some kind of intestinal problem.
7. The Greek is thymomacheo, a compound word formed from thymos meaning “angry” or “boiling” or “breathing violently” and a second meaning “hand to hand combat” or its verbal equivalent.
8. The same word, skolex, is used by Jesus in Mark 9 to decribe Hell, where “the worm does not die.”
9. Rhoda means “rose.”
10. The order to notify James seems puzzling, given that James brother of John has just been executed. This may have been James son of Alphaeus, who was among the original 12. In any case, it gives a sense that if one James is stricken down, another will arise.

Acts 11

June 13, 2009

This chapter recapitulates Peter’s encounter with Cornelius, but with some notable variations. In Acts 11, Peter says that included among the animals in the sheet were wild beasts. In Acts 11, Peter intensifies his claim in Acts 10 that he has never eaten anything impure or unclean to a claim that nothing impure or unclean has entered his mouth [1]. In Acts 11, the number of Joppa brothers who accompany Peter on the trip to Caesarea is specified from “some” to “six.” In Acts 11, Peter explains why he felt that baptism could not be held back, quoting his thought as “I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'” Acts 10 mentions speaking in tongues, while Acts 11 does not.

The chapter separately describes what happened to the church diaspora, saying that those who were scattered transmitted the message to Jews in Phoenicia [2], Cyprus [3], and Antioch [4]. Those from Cyprus and Cyrene [5], however, preached to the Greeks of Antioch. Barnabas [6] was sent to encourage the Antioch congregation, and he brought Saul from Tarsus. A prophet from Jerusalem, Agabus [7] came to Antioch to predict a famine during the time of Emperor Claudius [9]. The converts sent contributions to the elders in Jerusalem, in effect treating the Church as the new Temple. Since the contributions were sent via Saul and Barnabas, these must have traveled to Jerusalem.

1. According to the Blue Letter Bible, the Greek word “stoma” can also mean a double-edged sword.
2. Phoenicia was a coastal, seafaring empire stretching from Dor in Israel through Tyre and Tripolis in Lebanon to north of Arwad in Syria. The Greek word “phoinix” (phoinike in the present text) refers to purple, though Strong’s says it means “land of palm trees.”
3. Cyprus is 100 miles west of the Syrian coast and 50 miles south of Turkey. The word Cyprus means “copper,” though the Blue Letter Bible says it means “love: a blossom” and it apparently is also a unit of measure.
4. Antioch means “universal,” although the Blue Letter Bible says it means “driven against.” The Antioch referred to here is in Syria, but there is also an Antioch in Pisidia (Central Turkey) which is mentioned later in Acts.
5. Cyrene was a Greek colony in Libya. Simon the Cyrene bore the cross in Mat. 27, Mark 15, and Luke 23. Cyrenians disputed with Stephen in Acts 6. Lucius of Cyrene is listed among the teachers and prophets of Antioch in Acts 13.
6. Barnabus means “son of encouragement.”
7. According to the Blue Letter Bible, Agabus means “locust.” Agabus appears again in Acts 21 to warn Paul that he will be hogtied by the Jews and turned over to the Gentiles (presumably the Romans)
8. Tarsus means “flat basket.” It is a commercial center, presently in Turkey, though then in Cilicia, to the east of Pamphylia.
9. The reign of Claudius was AD 41-54.

Acts 10

May 9, 2009

This chapter initiates a full reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles, and clearly separates the Christians from the Jews. God appears to Peter, while he is in a trance, in Joppa, and repeals Jewish dietary law, even declaring reptiles to be clean. Simultaneously, an angel appears to a righteous Roman centurion named Cornelius in Caesarea. Cornelius sends for Peter, and Peter brings some (in the next chapter, he says six) of the Christian congregation of Joppa with him. Peter notes that it is contrary to Jewish law to associate with Gentiles. But Peter extends the vision having to do with dietary law to relationship, declaring Cornelius to be pure. At Caesarea, the Holy Spirit descends upon Cornelius and his family and friends and on Peter and his brothers from Joppa. The Gentiles speak in tongues to praise God. Peter baptizes Cornelius and his family.

There are many clues and cues in this chapter. Note the frequent appearance of the number three.
* Cornelius [1] is of the Italian [2] regiment, living in Caesarea [3]. He and his family are devout and God-fearing, giving to the poor and praying regularly.
* Having fasted, Cornelius is praying at 3 in the afternoon [4] when an angel distinctly appears. Cornelius apparently recognizes the angel because of his shining clothes [5].
* Cornelius sends three people (two servants and a soldier) to fetch Peter in Joppa [6].
* Joppa to Caesarea was roughly 40 kilometers, or 25 miles. Since the contingent from Caesarea arrives on the outskirts of Joppa at around noon, they must have traveled either by horse or at night.
* Peter is staying at a tanner’s house [7] in Joppa.
* Peter was praying on the roof at noon [8].
* Peter sees three times a vision of creatures which were forbidden to Jews [9] by dietary laws and hears a voice that commands him to kill and eat.
* The Spirit commands Peter to go with the contingent from Cornelius.
* Peter, being a good host, asks his guests to stay with him, overnight and perhaps through a full day or more.
* The round trip apparently requires four days (it could be three, depending on how Cornelius counts)
* Peter arrives at about three in the afternoon.
* Peter asserts that Cornelius knows about Jesus, specifically that Jesus is Lord, that He is the means by which we obtain peace, that God empowered Him by anointing with the Spirit and with power, and that He healed. Then Peter seems to shift to things which Cornelius may not know: that Jesus was crucified, that He rose on the third day, that He appeared to witnesses, and instructed the witnesses to testify that Jesus will judge the living and the dead. Finally, Peter tells Cornelius that the Prophets testify about Jesus and that all who believe in Jesus receive forgiveness through the Name of Jesus.
* There is a new outpouring of the Spirit on Jews and Gentiles alike, and the Gentiles speak in tongues.
* Peter associates the appearance of the Holy Spirit with the baptism of water, whereas in Acts 2, it is associated with a baptism of fire.
* Cornelius, being as good a host as Peter, asks the contingent from Joppa to stay a few days.

1. “Cornelius” means “horn” or “antler.” Nowadays, the immediate association is with the devil, but in the Old Testament and in Revelation, the horn is associated with power.
2. Cornelius, as a member of the Italian regiment is truly a citizen of Rome and not a mercenary or a conscript.
3. Living in a city dedicated to Augustus Caesar intensifies the connection to Rome
4. Three in the afternoon, the ninth hour (Luke 23:44ff), is the time that Jesus died.
5. This is how the angels appeared at the tomb (Luke 24).
6. Joppa is the town from which Jonah departed to Tarshish, to flee from the Lord.
7. The occupation of tanner was disfavored, though not because of concerns related to Jewish Law. According to Hershey Friedman’s Ideal Occupations: the Talmudic Perspective, the Babylonia Talmud says “woe to him whose occupation is that of a tanner.” The noxious odors and undignified nature of the work (because it involved selling to women) made it one to avoid.
8. Noon was the time in the crucifixion when darkness came over the land (Luke 23:44ff)
9. Since the vision involved all kinds of four-footed animals, it included pigs.

Acts 9

April 4, 2009

Acts 9 has two segments. In the first, Saul [1] is stricken with blindness as he tries to hunt down Jesus’s followers, is taken to Damascus [2], is healed by a follower of Jesus by the laying on of hands, and immediately turns around and preaches the gospel as passionately as he persecuted it. In the second segment, Peter heals a paralytic and raises a woman from the dead.

This chapter provides us with an exposition on religious experience and some guidance on what it means to be a member of the body of Christ. Saul initially is “breathing out murderous threats” but appears to be acting under the authority of the high priest to arrest followers of the Way. Jesus appears to him as a blinding light and Saul falls to the ground. In attacking Jesus’ disciples, Saul has attacked Jesus Himself [3]. His companions hear “the sound,” presumably of Jesus speaking, but they see nothing. In Damascus, Saul sat in blindness in the house of Judas on Straight Street [4] for three days, until Jesus directed Ananias [5] to lay hands on Saul. God says that He will show Saul how much he has to suffer. Ananias tells Saul that not only will he heal him but that Saul will be filled with the Spirit. Something like scales fall from Paul’s eyes, he is baptized, and begins preaching in favor of Jesus. The Damascus Jews conspire to kill Saul, but he is lowered in a basket outside the walls, and goes to Jerusalem. Barnabas takes him to the apostles and tells them Saul’s story [6]. Saul starts preaching to the Grecian Jews, who try to kill him, so the apostles dispatch Saul to Tarsus via the port of Caesarea [7]. The church had peace and grew stronger in all of Israel.

In the second part of the chapter, Peter goes to Lydda and performs a miracle much like Jesus’ . He tells a bedridden Aeneas to pick up his mat and walk, that Jesus has healed him. This miracle converted both Lydda and Sharon. In Joppa[8], Peter also raises a dead Tabitha/Dorcas [9] from the dead. Before he does so, the widows show Peter all the clothes that Tabitha/Dorcas made, presumably for them as a good work. Joppa was converted. Peter stayed with a tanner named Simon.

1. Saul means “desired.” The name occurs in Genesis 36 as an Edomite king, but more centrally was the name of the first king of Israel, a king the Lord rejected.
2. Damascus occurs many times in the Old Testament. It generally symbolizes foreign, pagan power. In Genesis 14, Abram pursues the four kings as far as Damascus. In 2 Samuel 8, David conquers as far as Damascus. In 2 Kings 8, Elisha goes to Damascus to encourage rebellion against the king.
3. Followers are as cells in Jesus’s body.
4. “Straight” (euthys) can mean “level,” “immediate” (straight away), or “upright,” “true,” or “sincere.” In the Gospels, it generally means “level” or “immediate”
5. Ananias means “whom Jehovah has graciously given.” In Acts, it has an ominous overtone, since Ananias and Sapphira were slain by the Lord for lying to the Holy Spirit. Ananias is also the high priest of Acts 24 who denounces Paul.
6. Barnabas means “Son of Consolation” or “Son of Exhortation”. It’s unclear why Barnabas tells Saul’s story. Perhaps the church elders would be disinclined to believe Saul.
7. Caesarea was built by Herod for Caesar Augustus. It was a town always associated with paganism, having begun as a Phoenician port.
8. Joppa is the port from which the prophet Jonah’s hoped to flee to Tarshish. In Mathew 12, Matthew 16, and Luke 11, Jesus says that this generation will not get a miraculous sign, but only “the sign of Jonah,” presumably the miracle of seeing the dead rise. And through Peter, Joppa receives the sign of Jonah.
[9] Tabitha/Dorcas means “gazelle,” the first in Hebrew, the second in Greek. Peter calls her “Tabitha.” The widows call her “Dorcas.” Presumably this means that the widows she had been tending were Greek, but that she was a Jew.

Acts 8

January 21, 2009

This chapter recapitulates Saul’s passive participation in the stoning of Stephen and describes his transition to an active destroyer of the church, imprisoning the faithful and forcing all except the apostles to flee [1]. But rather than diminishing the church, persecution spread its teachings. This chapter focuses on the evangelism of Philip, who exorcised spirits, baptized, and healed in an unnamed city in Samaria. An acclaimed sorcerer [2] who had been called the Great Power, Simon was one of many who were baptized. Peter and John came and transmitted the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands[3]. Simon tried to buy knowledge of the power from them. Peter cursed Simon [4] and told him to repent and pray for having had such a thought. Simon asks Peter to pray for him [5].

Next, an angel of the Lord sends Philip to the Jerusalem-Gaza road, which is called a desert road. There Philip meets a eunuch who is the treasurer of the Ethiopian queen Candace, riding in a chariot on his return and reading scripture. The Holy Spirit directs Philip to approach the chariot and stay near it [6]. Philip asks the eunuch if he understands the scripture he is reading. The eunuch confesses that he does not, and asks Philip to explain a passage in Isaiah describing the suffering servant. The eunuch asks to be baptized and orders the chariot to be stopped. They both went into the water, but when they emerge, the Holy Spirit transported Philip to Azotus. From there, he traveled around preaching until he reached Caesarea [7].

1. Matthew Henry says that Saul assented with delight to the murder of Stephen and he notes that there was no respecting of gender in the persecution. He also points out that in Acts 26, Saul confesses to having forced followers of Jesus to blaspheme and even urged that they be condemned to death. Notably, the apostles were not dispersed, unlike the rest of the church.
2. The word for practicing the arts of sorcerery is mageuo and occurs only in this instance in the New Testament. However, in Acts 13, the magos bar-Jesus/Elymas appears. The concept of sorcery is also infrequent in the scriptures. The most memorable example occurs in the plagues of Exodus. The Egyptian sorcerers (Hebrew kashaph) and magicians (Hebew chartome) are consulted in Exodus 7. Kashaph occurs six times and chartome occurs ten times, mostly in Exodus. The terms used when Saul consults the “witch” of Endor are ‘owb (medium) and yidd@oniy (spiritist). The latter are strongly censured in Mosaic law. Kashaph (who apparently invoked their magic through prayer) also come in for censure, but chartome (apparently scribes) appear to be unsanctioned.
3. Again there is an emphasis that baptism is purely for repentance and that the acceptance of the Holy Spirit is a separate act
4. Peter says that bitterness has induced Simon to try to pay for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and made him captive to sin.
5. This echoes Saul and Samuel in 1 Sam. 15
6. We can infer from this that the chariot is moving. Later, the eunuch orders the chariot to be stopped.
7. Azotus, which is modern-day Ashdod, was one of the principal cities of the Philistines, as was Gaza. Caesarea was a former Phoenician port, which Herod dedicated to Augustus, and was the site at which the Jewish rebellion against the Romans began.

Acts 7

December 7, 2008

In this chapter of Acts, Stephen is tried by the Sanhedrin [1]. In answer to the charges laid by members of the Synagogue of Freedmen [2], he re-tells the story of the Jewish people, then presents the accusation to the Jewish leaders that they are prideful and irreligious [3], resistant to the urgings of the Spirit of God, murderous of the prophets, murderers of Jesus, and ultimately lawless. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen sees Jesus, the glory of God, and God Himself. When he tells the crowd what he sees, they become enraged, cover their ears and yell, rush at him, drag him out of the city and stone him [4]. Stephen, however, is no longer at their mercy. He asks Jesus not to hold the crowd responsible for his murder, commends his soul into the hands of Jesus, and “falls asleep[5].” 

In this chapter, we also meet Saul.  We are told that the witnesses against Stephen lay their clothes at Saul’s feet as the crowd is stoning Stephen and that Saul gives his approval to the stoning of Stephen.

So, there are three central issues. How does Stephen’s telling of the story of the Jewish people compare and contrast with scripture as we have it?  What is Stephen’s experience of God? And what is Saul’s role in Stephen’s death? 

As to the first, consider Stephen’s version of Jewish history. It begins with the departure of Abraham from Mesopotamia (Iraq) to live in Haran in Chaldea (Syria) and then to Canaan. In Canaan, God foretells Abraham of the future enslavement in Egypt and teaches him the rite of circumcision. Abraham circumcises Isaac, Isaac fathers Jacob, and Jacob becomes the progenitor of the twelve tribes. He calls the children of Jacob “the twelve patriarchs,” and says that “the patriarchs” sold Joseph into slavery. This is an odd locution that implies that Joseph was not a patriarch. Stephen tells of Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt, the famine, the arrival of 75 of Jacob’s family in Egypt (Gen. 24 says 70; Ex. 1 says 75), and the burial of Jacob and his sons in a cave in the land (Stephen calls it a tomb) that in Schechem Abraham purchased from Hamor (Genesis says it was Ephron the Hittite).

Stephen turns to the story of the genocide ordered by the new Pharoah in which the Hebrews are told “to throw out their newborn babies.”  Exodus says they are instructed to throw the babies into the Nile. The adoption of Moses, his training, his slaying of the Egyptian, and his flight from Egypt follows the account in Genesis closely. It specifies that Moses thought that the Hebrews would recognize that God had chosen him, but Exodus does not claim this. Fleeing to Midian, Moses waits 40 years for God to speak to him through the burning bush. Stephen says that Moses led the Israelites for 40 years, though it was longer. He calls the visitation on Mt. Sinai that of an angel, though Exodus is clear that this is God Himself. Stephen recounts the Golden Calf, but then says that God turned against the Israelites by turning them over to the worship of heavenly bodies, a point that is not found in Exodus. Stephen quotes from Amos, but the quote is loose. The first line matches, but the second line mentioning Molech and Rephan is found only in the Septuagint, and in the third line Stephen says the exile is “beyond Babylon,” while Amos says it is “beyond Damascus.”  Stephen then finishes the account by focusing on the Ark of the Covenant, Solomon’s building of the Temple, and a repudiation of the Temple as the dwelling place of God based on Isaiah 66:1-2.

Clearly there are major differences between the Jewish scriptures that Stephen knew and the scriptures that are accepted today. Some of the differences are due to the currency of the Septuagint Bible, which is widely regarded as flawed and which has been replaced by more modern translations. But some variations could be due to oral traditions.

As for Stephen’s experience of God, it is more direct than any other character in the Bible, except perhaps Moses. He is not only filled with the Holy Spirit, but he actually sees God (and Jesus) in Heaven. He is so intoxicated with the experience of the divine that he does not feel pain, fear, or anger from being stoned. Instead, he is able to forgive his enemies even as they are killing him. And he does not die, but rather falls asleep. 

Saul’s role in the stoning of Stephen is presented as relatively benign. We are not told that he casts a stone or orders any stone to be cast. But what does it mean that those who are stoning Stephen lay their clothes at his feet? And was he a member of the Sanhedrin?  It seems unlikely that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, since they were elders, some perhaps drawn from the high priest’s clan and they would have been expected to be men of learning, probably not associated with a trade of questionable purity like tentmaking. As for the laying of clothes at Saul’s feet, it certainly meant that he was trustworthy and of too high a station to participate in the stoning directly.

1. The nature of the Sanhedrin is described in the Catholic Encyclopedia
2. Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia
3. Acts 7: 51 “Uncircumcised in heart and ears” echoes Jeremiah 4:4
4. No judgment is issued by the religious court, so stoning cannot be an acceptable punishment. 
5. This is the first instance of dying being termed “falling asleep” (other instances occur in 1 Cor, 1 Th, and 2 Peter).  This portrayal of death is not typical of other Jewish scripture.  In the gospels, falling asleep is associated with inattention or sloth, as when the disciples fall asleep at Gethsemane.
6. The irony of Stephen, an ordinary man, lecturing the religious leaders of Jerusalem on theology is very rich. If there is any point to God’s expenditure of one of His early workers on scolding the Sanhedrin, it may be in illustrating that Truth is freely available through the Holy Spirit. The licensure of holiness through the Temple and the religious bureaucracy is completely void of meaning.

Acts 6

October 11, 2008

The first real division among the followers of Jesus occurs between the Greeks and the Hebrews and it occurs over the feeding of widows. The disciples delegate to seven men the task of caring for the widows (Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas [1]), laying hands [2] on them in their commissioning. The proximate effect of the delegation is that the disciples multiply and “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”  The former reminds one of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, in which division leads to multiplication. The latter suggests that the more who are willing to serve, the more leaders appear.   

The delegation to the seven represents a division of preaching from service to the poor, with preaching given a higher status than deaconship. However, despite his status as a lowly server of widows, Stephen also “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia [3] called the Synagogue of the Libertines (Freedmen) tried to debate Stephen but “they could not stand up against his wisdom [4] or the Spirit by whom he spoke,” so they accused Stephen of blaspheming Moses [5] and God, and produced false witnesses to testify that he said that Jesus will destroy “this place”[6] and change the customs handed down from Moses [7]. The Sanhedrin saw that Stephen’s face looked like that of an angel.

1. The names Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas are Greek. Since the complaint was that Greeks were being neglected, this suggests that Greeks were given control of the distribution of food as a means of guaranteeing that this complaint would be resolved. Stephen is was martyred in Acts 7, and Philip evangelized the eunuch in Acts 8. Of the others, we know little. The names have these meanings:
Stephen: crowned (since Stephen suffers the fate of Jesus, he is in a sense the king of the deacons)
Philip: lover of horses (notice that he approaches the eunuch in a chariot in Acts 8 )
Procurus: leader of the chorus
Nicanor: conqueror
Timon: honorable; this is also the name of a Skeptic philosopher
Parmenas: constant
Nicolas: conqueror of the people
2. The laying on of hands carries many meanings. It is most commonly associated with healing. However, in the Old Testament, it is the means by which the priest transfers the nation’s sins to a sacrificial animal as well as the means by which a father’s blessing is passed to his sons. 
3. Stephen’s opponents are Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia, from the Synagogue of Freedmen (or, in the KJV, Libertines). These would have been foreigners and outsiders. However, the Blue Letter Bible proposes that “Libertines” carries the sense of being blessed.  It notes that there are many interpretations of who may have freed these people. 
4. Notice that it is not only the Spirit that gives Stephen’s arguments force, but also his own wisdom.
5. This is an interesting charge. Blasphemy in the present day is generally understood to be a denunciation of God, not of a man.
6. Presumably the Temple.
7. It’s unclear why changing customs would be a religious issue. The Greek word for “customs” is “ethos”