Reading Acts using different grids:
The relationship between Luke and Acts has lately become a matter of dispute among some interpreters who emphasise the unique contributions of both narratives. On the whole the unity of the two is still regarded as one of the main ‘grids’ to read Acts and the study of the different themes dealing with the identity of the faith community in Acts should take that into account.
Secondary studies (i.e. not necessarily exegetical, also from different disciplines) and the different readings within diverse groupings are important. One of the aims of this conference is the closer cooperation and recognition of the different interest groups of church and academy – seeing the respective contributions as complimentary rather than conflicting; impacting one another instead of ostracising and alienating each other.
This naturally raises the question of “biodiversity” in theology – whether it should be deemed a positive outcome or something to be avoided. To my mind it is necessary to try to reach a balanced consensus on this issue within the study group.
The subject matter for the study:
One might start off with the words referring to the aspects of identity as identified in the sub-heading above; i.e. their reference, meaning and function in different contexts (literary and non-literary) and move from there to the construction of more complex structures.
The historical development of such complex structures or themes can be traced between and even within the writings New Testament, e.g. the broadening of the inclusiveness of the faith community between Luke and Acts and within Acts itself. Moreover, the tradition of interpretation continues to develop.
The following is a very brief overview of some themes that I am convinced need to be addressed in the course of our study:
2. The issue of identity
Identity is often formed in comparison to other identities – the similarities and differences supplying the necessary definition – and named accordingly. The differences between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish synagogue, the Jews and Gentiles, and the church and Gentiles, become clear in the course of the narrative of Acts. This is also true for the church’s identity throughout history (not only in Acts).
2.1 Reader activity in reconstructing characters from the related actions in the narrative (Thompson 2006)
This implies at least two things, namely the possibility of reconstructing the character of the faith community vis-á-vis opposing groups from the narrated material found in Acts, and the recognition that the reader (then and now) is intimately involved with this process.
2.2 The importance of liminality for the extension of the church across cultural boundaries
I am convinced that real inclusiveness is part of the essence of being church of Jesus, but it is often easier said than done. It involves a process as becomes clear through the exegesis of Peter’s vision and its implications in Acts 10, as well as his justification of his actions in Acts 11 and the aftermath of the events in Acts 15… In other words, to become missional the church itself had to go through a conversion process. The function of ‘bridging characters’ in both the narratives of Luke and Acts (cf. Dollar 1996) also comes into play.
2.3 Fragility as a model for the identity of the church
At least three themes arise from this: The speeches in Acts serve as one of the main vehicles to spread the gospel and a significant number of these occur in contexts of persecution. Secondly one can add the non-permanence of the activity of several main characters in the story, e.g. Peter who becomes absent from Acts 15, Stephen who dies as a martyr (ch. 7) and even Barnabas who exits in Acts 16. And thirdly the well-developed notion of Paul’s suffering (a-la Jesus in the gospel narrative) under the specific guidance of the Holy Spirit.
2.4 An identity that has to cope with changes in the perception and functioning of authority
The changes in the way that society in general perceives and reacts to authority are well-documented. The shifting of the power balance in the faith community, from being a Jewish splinter group to the gentile communities becoming the main exponents, can be traced in the Acts narrative. It follows the along the line of Peter’s decline and Paul’s rising and is accompanied by a simultaneous decline of the financial position of Jerusalem (cf. the collection for Jerusalem by Paul).
3. Unpacking the different facets of identity in Acts
The study of the following aspects of identity can start by dealing with the applicable Greek words or terms used for it in Acts.
3.1 Conversion / transformation (Repentance from? Repentance to?)
i. It has already been noted above that Acts also relates the process of the faith community’s own ‘conversion’ for it to become really inclusive and cross-cultural.
ii. Marshall in Holiness and ecclesiology (2007):114 ff. focuses his study on the word group αγιος in Acts (he also includes the different notions of δικαιος).
iii. Prescriptions and taboos for table fellowship in early Mediterranean cultures and in Palestine serve as a model in the study of Thompson (Holiness and ecclesiology (2007):76ff.) on holiness in Luke. These rules can either be implemented to empower people (i.e. inclusively as by Jesus Himself) or to purify the community (i.e. exclusively as by Jesus’ opponents). This model of table fellowship is continued in Acts (cf. Finger, 2007).
iv. Matson (1996) studied the οικος concept that Jesus utilised in his own ministry according to Luke and its continuous implementation in Acts. This is done to discern a pattern for “household conversions” as the main strategy to spread the gospel according to Acts.
v. A study of the redactional notes (often in the form of short summaries) frequently inserted by the author of Acts into the narrative, can reveal the general reception of and reaction to the gospel in the early faith communities.
i) The immediate context of healing comes to mind and coupled with this the notion of “magic” in the cultural context of the first readers/hearers (cf. the paper of prof. Van der Merwe later today).
ii) The saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection in terms of atonement is currently the theme of a lively debate: e.g. Rego (Suffering and salvation (2006)) discusses the sacrifice metaphor extensively and Heim (Saved from sacrifice (2006)) suggests an alternative to the well-known sacrificial theology of Anselm.
iii) The process of the restoration of relationships as reconciliation between previously opposing groups and individuals is also part of the dynamics of salvation in Acts. This however does not mean that all conflicts are resolved instantly (cf. the quarrel between Barnabas and Paul in 15:39-41). The theory and practice of reconciliation is discussed by Brümmer in Atonement, Christology and the Trinity (2005).
iv. Another ‘hot topic’ (also in SA) revolves around the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection and its expansion to facilitate a general resurrection of the dead. This is a recurrent theme in the speeches in Acts, e.g. Paul’s defence on the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17).
Al the above mentioned themes are intimately woven into the cultural backgrounds of the different reader populations in the history of reading of the book of Acts…
i. A study in the semantics of language: the different translations for the word group πιστευω/πιστις/πιστος (Afr: “getrou” vis-á-vis “gelowig”).
ii. A study of the speeches in Acts reveal relatively fixed formulations of the faith contents and the imperative is used to indicate the hearers’ responsibility to associate themselves with the gospel.
3.5 Holy communion
i) Baptism and Holy Communion can be studied from a sociological perspective as rites creating/initiating and maintaining group identity respectively.
ii) In Acts baptism and communal meals function as binding rituals between very diverse and widespread faith communities, as well as within the respective congregations.
iii) The way in which communal meals served as an inclusion and empowering mechanism, both in Luke and in Acts, have been extensively studied.
4. A selected bibliography
4.1. Brower, K.A. & Johnson, A. 2007. Holiness and ecclesiology in the NT.
4.2. Brümmer, V. 2005. Atonement, Christology and the Trinity.
4.3. Dollar, H. 1996. St. Luke’s missiology. A cross-cultural challenge.
4.4. Finger, R. Halteman 2007. Of widows and meals. Communal meals in the book of Acts.
4.5. Gaventa, B. 2003. The Acts of the apostles.
4.6. Heim, M. 2006. Saved from sacrifice.
4.7. Matson, D.L. 1996. Household conversion narratives in Acts. Pattern and interpretation.
4.8. McKnight, S. 2007. A community called atonement (living theology).
4.9. Rego, A. 2006. Suffering and salvation.
4.10. Thompson, R.P. 2006. Keeping the church in its place.