Thursday, January 22, 2015



This is the ninth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles.

The first entry covered some of the major critical, technical and background issues that will concern us as we read through and comment on the Acts. The second post, found here, considered the prologue to the Acts of the Apostles. In the third column, we began to examine the founding of the Jerusalem Church. In the fourth blog post, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the beginning of Peter’s speech was discussed. In the fifth post, the bulk of Peter’s speech was examined. In the sixth entry, Peter’s speech concludes with a successful response according to Acts. The seventh blog post deals with the formation of the apostles and other disciples into a community and the practices of the earliest community.

 In the eighth column Peter and John heal a man who was lame. In this, the ninth entry, Peter explains how the lame man was healed and what this means about Jesus and his salvific power.

3. Contents:
C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42): II) Peter Explains How the Lame Man was Healed (3:11-26):
11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's Portico, utterly astonished. 12 When Peter saw it, he addressed the people, "You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14 But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. 17 "And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21 who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. 22 Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. 23 And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.' 24 And all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days. 25 You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, "And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' 26 When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways." (NRSV)

What we find here in response to Peter’s healing of the lame man is something often lacking in the Gospels: an extended story of what happened after a miracle. We are given a sense of what the lame man does and what the crowd does in Acts 3:11-26. So, “while he {the lame man who was healed} clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's Portico, utterly astonished” (Acts 3:11). But this verse is only to set the scene for what follows. Peter will now explain to the gathering crowd on the Temple Mount how and what just took place. 

Peter speaks directly to the crowd in a lengthy speech. As discussed previously (see 2)A in Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (1) and Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (5), footnote 1) these speeches are likely not direct reports from Peter, but accounts passed onto Luke most likely from the oral tradition and then reworked by Luke from his sources into the text we have. This does not mean that the accounts are not accurate in terms of the basic content and form of the speeches, only that Luke’s role must be acknowledged: the speeches are likely indirect reports sourced by Luke who shaped them in the form of the earliest Christian kerygma, while acknowledging of course that Peter is one of the major shapers of the very kerygma Luke is passing on. 

Peter’s speech begins by addressing the crowd as Israelites and at the same time aligning himself with his fellow people by mentioning “our ancestors”:

You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. (Acts 3:12-13)
First, Peter states that it was not human power or his piety (eusebeia) which made the lame man walk, positioning himself as simply an ordinary man who follows Jesus. Peter attributes the power which worked through him as deriving from God through Jesus. And Luke has Peter speak in the first person plural, though the healing and the speech are both performed by Peter alone. Luke’s point is probably not so much to include John the apostle, but to indicate that this power rests with God and not one individual, which makes it accessible to the whole Church.

Second, though the translation speaks of God glorifying “his servant Jesus” (ton paida autou), the phrase ton paida autou is more literally “his child,” with paida the accusative singular form of pais. It is the case that pais was used as a diminutive and derogative term for slaves and that it often translates the Hebrew ‘ebed (servant, slave) in the Septuagint, but “child” (and even “son” in this particular case) might be the best translation. Jesus was God’s child. Whether this changes the meaning of this particular passage is not apparent, although it could indicate that an Aramaic word used here is talya, which has the sense of child and servant. It also has the meaning of lamb, but we can put that aside for the time being.

Third, in a not so subtle way, though Peter identifies with his countrymen and countrywomen, he also lets Pilate off the hook and blames the Jewish people as a whole when he says, “whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate.” Unless the crowd is composed entirely of Jewish authorities, Peter blames all of the Jewish people for Jesus’ death. 

Certainly, as we look back at this claim with historical hindsight, and forward in this passage, we can see that the goal of this speech as composed in Acts is to create a sense of spiritual conviction and to encourage a positive response, a conversion of heart and mind, with respect to Jesus.  To the extent that such passages have created or contributed to anti-Semitism, that must be rejected. As Nostra Aetate 4 says, “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” Peter’s speech should not today be accepted as a blanket condemnation of the Jewish people, but a rhetorical device used to impact the Jewish crowds.
The following verses continue this theme.

But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. (Acts 3:14-15)

It is possible that the phrase “Holy and Righteous One” is being used as a Messianic title (see Isaiah 53:11, and 43:3), but it is also used as a sharp contrast to a murderer who was preferred over the righteous one. Another phrase on which it is necessary to focus theological attention is “the author of life” (archêgon tês zôês). What is intended by this? The key word is archêgos, which has a wide range of possible meanings, such as “first entrant,” “pioneer,” “founder,” “source,” “author,” and even in some older translations “prince” or “leader.”  T.E. Page writes that in classical Greek archêgos is used to denote the founder of a race (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 60) or city (Plato, Timaeus, 21e) or even a general (Aeschylus, Agamemnon, 259; Thucydides, I.132) (Acts of the Apostles, 100). 

The meaning here seems to me, in light of the fact that Peter will stress that God raised Jesus from the dead, to focus on Jesus’ resurrection and not divinity. Peter is not describing Jesus as the founder of all life, but as the “leader” or “source” of life through his resurrection. In this sense, we can compare the phrase to Paul’s description of Jesus the resurrected one as the “first fruits” of all those who will be raised (1 Corinthians 15:23).  Jesus is the first, the founder, the source of all those to be resurrected. The fact that Peter adds, “to this we are witnesses,” cements this reading, for the first task of the apostles was to be witnesses to the resurrection (see Acts 1:22 and Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (3)). 

What is necessary to participate in the new life offered by the “author of life,” such as witnessed in the healing of the lame man? “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (Acts 3:16). It was faith in Jesus’ name (as seen in Acts of the Apostles Commentary (5), Acts of the Apostles Commentary (6), and Acts of the Apostles Online Commentary (8) as well) that healed the man, “his name itself has made this man strong.”

It is at this point that Peter’s rhetorical purpose in “blaming” the crowd comes to the fore. Peter interprets the previous accusation in two different ways:  they acted out of ignorance; and they acted to fulfill God’s plans. First, “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). The Jews, leaders or ordinary people, did not kill Jesus out of malice but out of ignorance. Second, even more, “In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer” (Acts 3:18).  In their ignorance, according to Peter, Jesus has fulfilled God’s plan. It is not mentioned which prophecy Peter has in mind, but one suspects it must be Isaiah 52:11-53:12. There is a clear tension here between the necessity for Christ to suffer and die and the responsibility laid on the Jewish crowd. Nevertheless, Peter’s rhetorical purpose has reached its crescendo.

Given the fact that Jesus’ name has power, that God raised him, the author of life, to new life, the path forward is clear: “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21). Repentance is necessary to conquer sins, but what has changed is the centrality of Jesus, the Messiah in the religious schema.
It seems that the repentance of the people will lead to “times (kairoi) of refreshing” in the presence of God – this speaks to the establishment of God’s kingdom in its fullness – and it is linked to the return of Jesus “who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced through his holy prophets.” Peter seems to understand the repentance of the people as the key to the return of Jesus to establish the eternal kingdom.

Peter then cites Moses as evidence or proof of God’s announcement of this time of universal restoration through the prophets from Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19 in Acts 3:22-23: 

Moses said, "The Lord your God will raise up for you from your own people a prophet like me. You must listen to whatever he tells you. And it will be that everyone who does not listen to that prophet will be utterly rooted out of the people.'
Jesus is the prophet of whom Moses spoke and so the proper response to him is necessary for all of the Jewish people. Peter, that is, has drawn a new criterion to remain in the people of God, or rather, has put a specific name to the criterion: if you do not want to be “utterly rooted out of the people,” follow Jesus. Peter also states that it is not just Moses, but “all the prophets, as many as have spoken, from Samuel and those after him, also predicted these days” (Acts 3:24). This is not something new, or something Peter has concocted; he sees this as a matter of all prophetic teaching. 

Since the Jewish people “are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors” (Acts 3:25a), says Peter, “when God raised up his servant {paida: see above}, he sent him first to you, to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). This is a matter, for Peter of order: to the Jew first, then to the rest of humanity. How do we know it is for the rest of humanity? From Genesis 22:18, Peter cites God speaking to Abraham, “And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Acts 3:25b).

Next entry, Peter and John get into trouble at the Temple.

John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word