Thursday, August 11, 2016



This is the thirty-fifth entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. In this entry James, brother of John, and Peter face the wrath of the authorities.

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): John, son of Zebedee, is killed and Peter is arrested (12:1-11):


1About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The very night before Herod was going to bring him out, Peter, bound with two chains, was sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his wrists. The angel said to him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.” He did so. Then he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. 11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” (NRSV)

Most scholars divide this section into two parts, 12:1-17 and 12:18-23, with 12:24-25 transition and summary verses. I am dividing the section somewhat differently for the purposes of the online commentary, primarily to create two sections of even length, but also because I do think that  there is a natural break that occurs after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison. The next entry will bring us to the end of chapter 12 and the end of section E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25) of this commentary. In fact, if length of commentary was not a concern, the whole section coheres as one unit. For Richard Pervo “the two stories {1-17 and 18-23} share a principal character: ‘King Herod.’ These observations invite the critic to view the entire unit as an integrated whole. Acts 12:1-23 is, in fact, a well-crafted novella containing different forms drawn from several sources. Questions of source, form, editing, and historical tradition are not insignificant, but they ought not detract from recognition of the overall literary achievement. The complexity of the tradition indicates the presence of an authorial hand” (Pervo, Acts, 301).

While Luke’s authorial hand is present, it is difficult to determine the number of sources which Luke is drawing on. Fitzmyer just posits a Palestinian source (Fitzmyer, Acts, 486), but Pervo sees separate traditions behind vv. 1-2 and the two episodes regarding Peter (vv. 7-10 and 12-17), with Pervo treating 12:12-17 as a Lucan composition (Pervo, Acts, 301). Whether the account with Rhoda and Peter is Luke’s composition, the miraculous escape narrative plays into broader Lucan themes in Acts.

Peter’s escape from prison is one of “three prison-escape stories in Acts (5:17-26; 16:19-40),” all of which “occur at important points in the narrative and appear, in retrospect, to presage important changes” (Pervo, Acts, 301). Pervo notes that after the first escape in Acts 5 comes the account of the Hellenists; the escape in Acts 16 comes after the Apostolic Council and highlights “the beginning of Paul’s labors in the Aegean region” (Pervo, Acts, 301); while Peter’s escape that we are examining here marks the end of the centrality of his mission in Acts. “The liberation stories are, in a general sense, associated with breakthroughs of the message” (Pervo, Acts, 301). This is an important insight regarding Luke’s purposes in Acts.

Pervo believes that one possibility for a source for the escape narrative is the ancient Jewish historian Artapanus, whose work is found in Eusebius, Praep. Ev. 9.27.23-25 in fragmentary form; in Artapanus’ text Pharaoh imprisons Moses, just as Peter is imprisoned by Agrippa. At night, the prison door opens automatically for Moses and the prison guards “either die or sleep” as Moses exits the prison. Moses then goes from the prison to the palace where he wakes the Pharaoh and tells him the name of God, which leads the Pharaoh to faint, but not die. Moses revives the Pharaoh, an outcome happier than that which will end Acts 12 (Pervo, Acts, 301).

Our passage opens with “King Herod” laying “violent hands upon some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1).  As Gary Gilbert says, “only Acts refers to Agrippa by the name ‘Herod,’ possibly to build continuity with Herod Antipas, who was involved in the deaths of John the Baptist (Lk 3:18-20; 9:7-9) and Jesus (Lk 13:31; 23:6-12; Acts 4:27), and with his grandfather, Herod the Great (37-4BCE) (Lk 1:5; 3:1). In Jewish tradition, Agrippa is remembered as a fair, generous, and religiously observant Jewish ruler (Ant. 19.330)” (Gilbert, JANT, 222). That Luke wants to draw these connections is the likely case since the peace of 9:31 has been “shattered” (Pervo, Acts, 302). Agrippa becomes a “folkloristic wicked tyrant, “who even though he was not known as “Herod,” becomes as “type” of bad King Herod (Pervo, Acts, 302-3).


Agrippa I was the son of Berenice I and Aristobulus IV and brother of Herodias (Mark 6:15-28) and grandson of Herod the Great and Mariamne, who was born in 10 BC and reigned from 37 AD until his death in 44 AD (Fitzmyer, Acts, 486; see Josephus, Antiquities, 18. 250-256; 19.6.1-4, 292-316 for an overview of his whole reign, which Gilbert noted above).

Agrippa is a persecutor in this case as “he had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword” (Acts 12:2). The account is puzzling in that no motive is offered for this action (Fitzmyer, Acts, 487), but it does end a “short period of tranquility” (Johnson, Acts, 210). Both Pervo and Joseph Fitzmyer also see James’ death as pointing to the “end of the apostolic age,”  leading to James, the brother of the Lord, to succeed Peter in charge of the church in Jerusalem (Pervo, Acts, 302; Fitzmyer, Acts, 485). For Fitzmyer, the death of James, son of Zebedee, “explains the transition from Peter’s importance in the Jerusalem community to that of James {brother of the Lord}, who eventually takes over for him as the chief authority in that community” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 485).

Fitzmyer also finds it remarkable that the apostles do not try and reconstitute the twelve after James’ death as they did after Judas’s death (Fitzmyer, Acts, 486). He writes, “Nor is there in the history of the church any continuation of the titles ‘apostle’ or ‘the Twelve.’ Bishops are said to be successors to the apostles, but they do not bear either of those two titles” (Fitzmyer, Acts, 486). I think it is easy enough to understand why the title “the Twelve” came to an end and it is probably linked to the same reason “apostle” stops being used at some point in the early church. Judas is the outlier for Luke, I think, because of how he left his position and so filling his position as an apostle and one of the Twelve is essential to reconstitute the original Twelve, but it serves no purpose beyond that since we never hear of Mattathias again. For the other apostles, who die faithful to Jesus, there is no reason to replace them among the Twelve.

Agrippa finds that killing James “pleased the Jews,” so “he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread)” (Acts 12:3). It is clear that Agrippa’s intention is to kill Peter, since James’ death was so well received, but he waits because of the festival, which draws an intended parallel to Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion (Pervo, Acts, 303).

Why does James’ death please the Jews? Luke Timothy Johnson speculates that a clue might rest with the means of death, beheading, which is fit for an apostate (as outlined in Mishnah Sanhedrin 9.1, 10.4 {inhabitants of an apostate city have no share in the world to come}, and Deut. 13:15 {a call for the extermination of idol worshippers}).  Since Agrippa I supports the Pharisees (Josephus, Antiquities, 19. 292-316), Johnson argues, this death is a means to satisfy their demands (Johnson, Acts, 211). This seems a bit of a stretch on both the apostasy claim – in what way are the early disciples of Jesus apostates? – and the direct connection of the Pharisees to the Mishnah.

More likely is Gilbert’s explanation that “Jews as a whole, not just individuals such as the high priest or groups such as the Sadducees, frequently appear in Acts as persecutors of Christians (13:45; 14:2, 19; 17:5; 18:12; 20:3; 21:27; 22:30; 23:12; 24:9; 25:2, 7; 26:2, 21)” (Gilbert, JANT, 222). This is a great number of passages and “since the death of Stephen, it has been assumed that ‘the Jews’ hated followers of Jesus - and the ruler decided to continue his course” (Pervo, Acts, 303). All of the Jews, naturally, did not desire the death of all of the Christians, but Luke has presented this “split,” as Pervo says, starting with Stephen in Acts 6.
Peter was arrested, therefore, and Agrippa “put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover” (Acts 12:4). The number of soldiers has the result of telling us that escape is impossible!  Gilbert defines “squad, Gk ‘stratiōtos,’ a small group of soldiers probably consisting of about ten men; the number (forty or so, altogether) emphasizes the impossibility of escape (as do the chains, v. 6)” (Gilbert, JANT, 222; on the four squads see also Philo, In Flaccum, 13.111).

Surrounded by soldiers in prison, “the church prayed fervently to God for him” (Acts 12:5). Petitionary prayer is a significant Lucan theme (Fitzmyer, Acts, 487) and “the community’s prayer compensates for Peter’s powerlessness and prepares for his miraculous escape” (Johnson, Acts, 211). Not only was Peter surrounded by soldiers, but he was also on the “night before Herod was going to bring him out… bound with two chains…sleeping between two soldiers, while guards in front of the door were keeping watch over the prison” (Acts 12:6). Seneca (Epistle 5.7) also knows of this method of chaining a prisoner to two guards, which indicates a desire to keep a prisoner from even the thought of escape (Fitzmyer, Acts, 488). “Security is especially tight” (Pervo, Acts, 303), which is intended to make Peter’s escape all the more miraculous (Johnson, Acts, 211). This extra precaution was due to Agrippa’s desire to “bring him out,” which probably means Peter was going to have a public trial of some sort, unlike James but like Jesus (Fitzmyer, Acts, 487).

The implausibility of an escape is established, but “suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. As Pervo says, “no ruler has ever been able to design an angel-proof jail” (Pervo, Acts, 303). The angel tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists” (Acts 12:7). Johnson notes that the verb patassō, translated in the NRSV as “tapped,” is odd because it usually means “smite” (Exod 2:12; Ps 3:7; see more biblical passages at Johnson, Acts, 212). It seems that the angel has a job waking up Peter!

Even more remarkable is that even though the angel had to “tap” Peter, who is chained to two guards, and that “the light shone” no one else woke up. This might be intended to indicate God keeping the guards from seeing, just as at Paul’s own revelatory experience only he had the full divine knowledge. In this case, no one else experiences any of the revelation of the angel.

As Pervo states, “Readers know what to expect: the angel will escort Peter out of prison and give him instructions” (Pervo, Acts, 304) and indeed “the angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ (Acts 12:8).  Pervo finds this “a maddening dialogue…as the angel supervises every detail of Peter’s toilet (v.8). Worried readers will not understand why these niceties cannot wait. When his wardrobe finally meets the standards of this celestial valet, Peter is told to follow…the human characters are puppets maneuvered from on high” (Pervo, Acts, 304). This is surely the issue, though, that God is directing events and keeping Peter alive (and soon to end Agrippa’s life). Even more the physicality of the instructions is intended to tell the reader: this is not a dream! Peter is getting dressed with real clothes, a belt and sandals.  

In Acts 12:9 Peter, having done what he was told, “went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision.”  Peter might wonder if he is having a dream, but the reader knows better. So, after Peter and the angel “had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him” (Acts 12:10). There are accounts of gates opening of their own accord in other ancient literature, including Ovid, Metamorphoses, 3.699-700 (“of their own accord the doors opened wide”) (Fitzmyer, Acts, 488), but what is odd about this story is that the angel suddenly leaves him without further direction or telling him the next step of the plan, which “is not a common feature of escape stories or any other kind of legend” (Pervo, Acts, 305).

At this point, “Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting’” (Acts 12:11).  It is only when the angel leaves that Peter comes to his senses and realizes that God has helped him escape. Peter is rescued from Agrippa, indeed, but what were the Jewish people expecting? A public trial? His death, however it would be carried out? According to Richard Dillon, “all that the Jewish people were expecting” is a statement which, “carrying the author’s assessment of the miracle, documents the further development of the process that began at the stoning of Stephen: the defection of ‘the people’ who once welcomed the apostolic ministry (2:47; 5:13) into unbelieving Jewry and, therewith, ‘the true Israel’s’ outreach to the Gentiles” (Dillon, NJBC, 747-48). As Pervo said, cited above, each of these escape narratives carries with it a transition to a new stage in the development of the Gospel mission. God is on Peter’s side, but, according to Luke, the people no longer are on the side of the disciples.

Next entry, Peter finds his fellow believers and Agrippa I dies.

John W. Martens

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