Wednesday, July 27, 2016

This is the thirty-fourth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. In this entry the narrative turns to the origin and development of the Church at Antioch.

For previous entries, please now go to the Complete Acts of the Apostle Commentary, where you can find links to each of the entries updated after each new blog post.

3. Contents:
E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25): The Church in Antioch (11:19-30):

19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20 But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
27 At that time prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 One of them named Agabus stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius. 29 The disciples determined that according to their ability, each would send relief to the believers living in Judea; 30 this they did, sending it to the elders by Barnabas and Saul. (NRSV)

The opening verse of this section states that the disciples of Jesus began to spread throughout the Mediterranean world (Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch) due to “the persecution that took place over Stephen,” but that the message of Jesus was spoken to “no one except Jews” (11:19). It is an important point for Luke to stress that the Gentile mission just described in Acts 10 with Peter and Cornelius is the beginning of the missionary outreach to Gentiles, by pointing out that the scattered missionary outreach of the persecuted Christians went only to diaspora Jews. That they would speak the message only to Jews seems odd, though, coming as it does on the heels of the message being brought by Peter to the Gentile Cornelius and his household, but it is also odd in the context of this passage.

Craig Keener notes that the material in 11:19-30 most likely reflects historical data that the Gentile mission “stemmed from many dispersed Hellenists (8:4) rather than his {Luke’s} heroes Peter or even Paul” (Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume 2, 1831). Richard Pervo agrees that this section restarts a source broken off previously at 8:4 – “now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.”  (Pervo, Acts, 290).

The next verse tells us that those who were scattered and preaching included “men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord” (11:20-21). Elsewhere in Acts we learn that two leaders in the Antioch church are from Cyprus (Barnabas - 4:36; 13:1) and from Cyrene (Lucius - 13:1), but Luke needs to have Barnabas come from Jerusalem for his narrative, which he does in 11:22.  Pervo believes that Barnabas is a founder of the church in Antioch or the founder, but he (and Lucius) remain anonymous in 11:20 “because the narrator chose to have Barnabas sent from Jerusalem. The source probably assumed these persons sought gentile converts from the beginning” (Pervo, Acts, 290-91).

That the scattered disciples sought gentile converts initially seems most likely. In Acts 6, I argued that Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews who followed Jesus. But it is a strange use of Hellenists here if that is the case, since people of Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, including Jews, would all have been Greek speakers. How would “Hellenists,” noted by name in 11:20, be different from any other Jews in Antioch? It is possible it means they were native Greek speakers, as opposed to Jews from Judea, but it seems more likely that Gentiles are intended here. T.E. Page’s note on this problem is that even though “Hellenists” (Greek-speaking Jews) is found here the preferred word ought to be “Hellēnas” (Greeks) (Page, Acts, 152-53).  He, like Keener and Pervo, think that the issue is Luke’s desire to have the Gentile mission start with Peter, not these other disciples, but says, “although the case of Cornelius was first in importance (as Luke clearly indicates by the position and length of his narrative) it is not necessary to assume that it was first in point of time” (Page, Acts, 153). This seems correct.

Richard Pervo goes farther, arguing that “few doubt that gentile converts are in view” in this section of Acts, but the passage does not explain the process in Antioch among the disciples of Jesus, “leaving readers to wonder why the policy changed in Antioch and how Saul accepted this momentous shift without objection. Nothing is said about Torah – whether male converts had to be circumcised and all had to observe kashrut. The historical Barnabas was a, if not the, founder of the Antiochene community, but he was not an official envoy from Jerusalem, nor is it likely that he hit upon the idea of recruiting Paul and made a personal journey to do so. What this account does is relieve Paul from responsibility for innovation” (Acts, 290).  Pervo might impute too much to this source, and to the attempt to relieve Paul “from responsibility for innovation,” since the accounts of Peter with Cornelius already have done that, but it would be nice to know how the church in Antioch came to their decision to accept Gentiles as disciples. This is, in fact, data that we can only glean in general from Paul’s own letters at this early stage in the church, but he never speaks specifically about the situation in Antioch.

Certainly, Luke sees God active in this mission since the phrase “hand of the Lord” (11:21) is found in the Septuagint (LXX) - 1 Sam 5:3, 6, 9; 2 Sam 3:12 - as Luke Timothy Johnson notes, and it is a phrase indicating “the presence of divine power that validates their testimony” (Johnson, Acts, 203). A more interesting question is who is meant by the “Lord” (kyrios) here in 11:21? Or in 11:23? 11:24? Pervo thinks the first refers to Jesus, the second to the Lord God, and that the third usage is uncertain, but it is a difficult question to resolve with certainty (as I think that the third instance in 11:24 might refer to Jesus) (Acts, 293). 

The way in which the missionary activity in Antioch receives support from the Jerusalem church is to have “news” filter up to Jerusalem and then have Barnabas sent to Antioch from Jerusalem, though many scholars, as noted above, believe he might indeed have been there from the start (11:22).  Barnabas, when he arrives, “saw the grace of God” and subsequently “he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion” (11:23). One would expect apostles here, as in chapter 10 and earlier in chapter 11, to verify the work of the Holy Spirit, but Barnabas is their substitute. In 11:24, we are told “he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.” His qualifications are his faith and evidence of the Holy Spirit. His mission is a great success since “a great many people were brought to the Lord.”
It is at this point that “Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch.” (11:25-26). Saul had been sent back to his home town in 9:20, but is now brought back into the picture, once again by Barnabas (though Pervo believes that Saul too was probably already active in Antioch when Barnabas arrived or, more likely, with Barnabas already in Antioch). Saul will now be central to the development of the narrative in Acts. Joseph Fitzmyer dates all of these events around 44 CE (Fitzmyer, Acts, 477).

The two of them met with the church in Antioch for a whole year “and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’” (11:26). The success of the mission in Antioch must have been great for them to earn this “Greek word of Latin form and Semitic background” (Pervo, Acts, 295). This title seems to have been applied to them from outside of the disciples (Pervo, Acts, 295)[1] and is a means to distinguish them from other Jews, or perhaps from everyone else. The whole question of when we may begin to think about the “Christians” as separate from other Jews, even when the disciples of Jesus start to draw Gentiles into their communities, is a complicated one. The “parting of the ways” is by no means accomplished at this early point. The "Christians" represent a particular Jewish position regarding the identity of the Messiah and the entry of Gentiles into the Jewish community, but this does not mean they are no longer consider themselves or that others no longer consider them Jews. They are Jews who believe the Messiah has come among them and that the Messiah Jesus has shown the way for Gentiles to be invited into the messianic community.

The second unit of this section reflects prophets coming to Antioch from Jerusalem (11:27). The prophet Agabus “predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine over all the world; and this took place during the reign of Claudius” (11:28).  Claudius reigned from 41-54 CE, so this certainly fits in this general time frame.  Johnson says that “there were widespread famines during the reign of Claudius, and there was a particularly severe one in roughly the same period in Palestine” (Johnson, Acts, 208). Though Luke has a “worldwide” famine it most likely indicates the Roman Empire, since Luke would know little of the world beyond that of the Roman Empire. Pervo suggests that “one possible source for the account of the famine relief is Josephus, Ant. 20.51-53, 101, which praises Queen Helena of Adiabene for her efforts to provide famine relief during the reign of Claudius” (Pervo, Acts, 295). On the other hand, it is possible that Agabus is giving an end of the world prophecy (famine which strikes the whole world), which would certainly fit with the apocalyptic tenor of the early church, but is impossible to determine from the limited data.

Whatever sort of famine Agabus predicted, the Antiochenes turn to help Jerusalem practically instead of themselves – an oddity which Pervo thinks is solved by tracing this narrative tradition to Paul’s collections from his Gentile churches for the Jerusalem church which we know of from his letters (Pervo, Acts, 290, 295). This is compelling, since the text itself says that the disciples in Antioch sent their relief “to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (11:29-30). Pervo believes the story of the prophet Agabus comes from a separate “collection source” utilized here in this second unit (11:27-30) of 11:19-30 (Pervo, Acts, 295-8). Apart from here and in 21:10-11 Agabus is otherwise unattested in the NT, as is his personal name anywhere else (Pervo, Acts, 295). What we can say, though, is that both this second unit and the first indicate strong connections between Antioch and Jerusalem, in terms of people, prophetic inspiration, and charitable activity (Pervo, Acts, 295), even if some of the details have been shaped in light of Luke’s grander narrative schemes.

Next entry, James, brother of John, and Peter face the wrath of the authorities.

John W. Martens

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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine - The Good Word

[1] Pervo, however, thinks that it did not emerge in Antioch in the 30s or 40s, but in the 90s, probably in Rome Acts, 295.