This is the eleventh 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 the ninth entry, Peter explains how the lame man was healed and what this means about Jesus and his salvific power. The tenth blog post explored Peter and John before the Council in Jerusalem. In this, the eleventh chapter, their impromptu trial on the Temple concludes.
C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42): II) Peter and John before the Council (4:16-22):
16 They said, "What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. 17 But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name." 18 So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; 20 for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard." 21 After threatening them again, they let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old. (NRSV)
The deliberations of the Council as presented in Acts have an element of political calculation, as any religious group with political standing and responsibilities will necessarily have to weigh. There is for the Council a solid piece of evidence which they are weighing and which they cannot dismiss on the basis of their wishes. The Council asks, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it” (Acts 4:16).
The evidence is the “notable sign” (gnôston sêmeion). The accent, it seems, should fall on “notable,” but do they also believe it is a “sign”? If so, from whom is this sign? Generally, in the ancient world signs were from God (or from the gods in polytheistic cultures) and it is possible that the Council accepts the divine source of the sign. If they do, however, they do not approve of the sign, at least not enough to follow Peter and John, and so the concern must be for them that it is “notable,” namely, that people know of it and so they cannot dismiss the fact of the lame man’s healing.
The Council’s concern, in fact, is to keep belief in the “notable sign” “from spreading further among the people,” so they decide to “warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name” (Acts 4:17). Whether they believe the sign has a divine origin, the concern as presented by Luke is that Jesus’ name not be spread “among the people.” Here their concern might be the Roman political or military response to the spread of Jesus’ message or his disciples, but we are not given any other information about the source of their worries.
Though we must acknowledge that we have here an early Christian account of these deliberations, which would offer these proceedings filtered through its own interpretative lens, as Luke shapes these deliberations, they do not present the Council as opposed entirely to the work of Peter and John, but concerned for the “people.” This might be a genuine political or theological concern on the Council’s part, even if Luke’s desire is to show them as opposed to God’s work through the apostles. Whatever the reasoning, the result is that the Council “called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18).
Peter and John are not presented as rejecting entirely the authority of the Council, but they are presented as minimizing that authority in light of the higher authority of God which they see naturally behind Jesus’ resurrection and the power given to them by the Holy Spirit. They answer,
Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19-20)
This appeal to God’s power will be made later in Acts 5;29 by Gamaliel, but the need to heed the divine authority above all others is found throughout antiquity, such as in Plato, Apology 29d, 1 Maccabees 2:19-22, 2 Maccabees 7:2, 4 Maccabees 5:16-21, and Josephus, Antiquities 17.158-59, 18.268. As Gary Gilbert writes “listen” in this context has the sense of “and obey” as found in the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) (JANT, 206). Listening to and obeying God takes precedence often in Judaism and in the Greek philosophical tradition.
The Council “after threatening them again…let them go, finding no way to punish them because of the people, for all of them praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing had been performed was more than forty years old” (Acts 4:21-22). The important point here is not the man’s age, except that he is old enough to testify for himself and to be known by all to have been lame prior to his healing, but that for whatever reason the Council wished the apostles to remain quiet and not to create a commotion, their authority has been rendered impotent not by God but “because of the people.” The Council had their own concerns for the people, as seen earlier, but the people themselves are presented on the side of the apostles. The authorities oppose them, the people praise them.
Next entry, the disciples of Jesus are emboldened and strengthened by recent events.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The Good Word