Tag: Acts

New Testament 102: What’s going on at the Areopagus (part two)

So Paul’s speech at the Areopagus is an opportunity to introduce a new Gdo to Athens. The God. And it’s not an opportunity he lets slip. He grasps wit with both hands and uses it as a chance to preach the gospel, and in doing so he demonstrates more than a passing familiarity with the philosophy and practices of those he engages with. Bruce says he did this because he had found common ground between inconsistencies in Stoic and Epicurean thought and practice, and similarities between their doctrines and the Old Testament.

“He [Paul] was not borrowing his theology from the philosophical schools for pragmatic purposes.”

Bruce sees his speech before the Areopagus (as do I, as a pretty masterful piece of apologetics, for an article to that effect rather than my notes on his lecture on apologetics see Introducing Athens to God: Paul’s failed apologetic in Acts 17? (PDF), J.D Charles agrees in this article Engaging the (Neo)Pagan Mind: Paul’s Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (PDF)). Other scholars think it’s an apologetic model Paul tried and gave up, feeling a bit disillusioned (this view was made popular by a guy named Ramsay in St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895)), or that Paul was actually on criminal trial to determine if his teaching was subversive (see this Google Books reference from Stanley Porter). I think Bruce’s reading actually makes the most sense, only Porter’s criminal trial theory explains the presence in the narrative of Acts, the idea that Paul gave up this sort of apologetic falls over a bit when you observe Paul’s continued engagement with Greek philosophy (see his quote from Epimendes in Acts 17:28 and his other Cretans quote in Titus and the Epimenedes Paradox), and Roman law and culture in his subsequent trials. Plus the narrative of Acts 17 reports converts (so it’s hardly a failure). Some suggest Paul’s resolving to know nothing but Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2) was Paul’s general approach to apologetics and not one particular to Corinth in the light of their issues with idolising gospel preachers as though they were first century orators.

Paul’s Apologetic Method (and the introduction of new Gods)

Paul opens with observations about the culture, and at the same time, points out that the God he is talking about is not a new God, but an Old God…

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

Then he addresses specific questions the Areopagus sought to answer regarding new gods

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.

He begins to look at what divine honours might be appropriate or required for such a God (what do you give the God who has everything?).

26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Then he demonstrates his familiarity with their culture and thinking

28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

This verse actually contains a quote from Epimendes and another from a Aratus, a Stoic philosopher.

Then he again turns to the question of temples and statues

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.

And finally, he turns back to the question of what God requires from converts and the proof of God’s epiphany (in this case Jesus and the Resurrection, the gospel he had been preaching)

30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

Bruce suggests Paul makes five affirmations about the knowable God – that he made the world, determined the boundaries of the nations, that he can be sought through general revelation, that idols don’t represent him since we are his offspring, and that all people are called to turn to him or face judgment.

The Stoics, in De Natura Deorum had a sequence to be met in the presentation of new gods: first: prove God exists, second: explain their nature, third: show that the world is governed by them, fourth: show that they care for mankind.

Bruce says:

“The summary in Acts 17 assumes their belief in God‘s existences and His role as the creator of the world who is Lord of heaven and earth, (v. 24a). It affirms He gives life and all things to all his creation, (v. 25b). His providential care is intrinsically bound up with the needs of all mankind, (v. 26). Paul developed his theme on the nature of the known God thus.”

Paul also tackles issues of divine providence, from Bruce:

…in the Athenian speech there are important resonances with the Stoic view of providence. This may well have been Paul‘s most important bridge with that segment of his audience. Balbus sets out what he sees as the Stoic thesis that the world is ruled by divine providence…of the gods‘, only familiarity blinds us to nature‘s marvels.‘ For him providential government of the world can be inferred firstly, from divine wisdom and power,  secondly, from the nature of the world, thirdly from a detailed review of the wonders of nature,  and fourthly from the care of man.

Also, Bruce points out that Paul’s use of the singular “God” rather than “gods” was right down the alley of the Stoics and Epicureans – and elements of his speech to the Areopagus directly attack their understanding of theology.

The Stoics and Epicureans would have had no difficulty with the use of the singular ‘god’, for in one sentence they used the singular and plural interchangeably. For example, Diogenes Laertius speaks of ‘worshippers of god’ as those who ‘have acquaintance with the rites of the gods’ and who know ‘how to serve the gods’.

Much of Paul’s argument also plays on tensions between Stoic and Epicurean thought, in the same way that his argument before the Pharisees and the Sadducees played on tensions between those two groups.

Epicureans believed that God was living, immortal, and blessed – terminology Paul often uses to describe God in his letters. The Epicureans would have found common ground on that point, and further on the point that God could be discovered (and that an unknown God could be made known) because they believed God was knowable and clear to all. They also, importantly, dismissed the idea of God(s) living in temples – they didn’t like anything that looked like superstition, and both agreed that God had no need for human resources.

But the notion of an afterlife was completely foreign to Epicurus (the founder of the Epicureans) who said:

“Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling and that which has no feelings is nothing to us”

Which is probably why the crowd reacted like they did when Paul mentioned the resurrection (in much the same way that the Sadducees reacted in his audience with the Jews).

Bruce thinks Paul was actually calling the Stoics and Epicureans out on social compromise on their philosophies – and offering a better way.

“The Stoic self-contradiction, as Plutarch pointed out, was that they  attend the mysteries in the temples, go up to the Acropolis, do reverence to statues, and place wreaths upon the shrines, though these were the works of builders and mechanics”

Epicurus himself had believed that popular piety was not correct—‘For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions,‘

Some final thoughts from Bruce:

“Stoicism and Epicureanism in the imperial period had to endorse religious pluralism if they were to maintain their following, given participation in the imperial cult as one of the ways of affirming their loyalty to the empire.”

“No dialogue can be called  Christian‘ that does not possess the five elements expressed in Acts 17. So Paul‘s sermon in Athens was highly pleasing to Almighty God and these essential elements are to be repeated if we are to win the hearts and the minds of our contemporaries who need to believe the gospel.”

J.D Charles agrees (though he spends his time pondering the philosophical nature of Athens):

“Summing up Paul’s rhetorical strategy in Athens, we may note that the Apostle was knowledgeable, dialectical, well-read, relevant, and rhetorically skillful. What particularly strikes the reader is his ability to accommodate himself to the knowledge-base of most Athenians. Viewing Paul’s encounter with Athenian culture as such, we may conclude that his ministry was not a “failure.” Nor is it necessary to assume that his not-too-distant reflections about the power of the cross, recorded in 1 Corinthians 1–2, were penned with a wrong apologetic model (i.e., Athens) in mind.
To the contrary, a more accurate assessment of Paul’s ministry in Athens may be summed up by his own testimony to the Corinthians: “I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more. To the Jews I became a Jew … ; to those without the law, I became like those without the law … I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:19–22).”

New Testament 102: What’s going on at the Areopagus (Part One)

There are some moments when you sit in a lecture with our principal Bruce Winter and you just go “aha.” For me, one of these moments came when he was talking about Acts 17, Paul’s speech at the Areopagus. The New Testament is clearly a product of its time and culture. Reading a little bit of Greek philosophy (which for some reason I was last week – actually, it was for a Church History essay) you see how the ideas of Christianity interacted with the ideas of the surrounding culture (and not just in church fathers like Augustine and Clement, but also in the New Testament). Paul is clearly conversant with Greek philosophy – he interacts with, and cites, Stoic and Epicurean ideas while he’s in the marketplace, and later while standing in front of the Areopagus on, or beneath, Mars Hill.

Paul in the Marketplace (Agora)

Garland’s Introducing New Gods suggests that Athens was of vital importance for the introduction of new gods into Greek culture. Gods introduced in Athens would become trendy throughout the region. He suggests the marketplace was the best place to introduce new gods to Athens, because it was the public square. It was the Facebook of the first century. Luke makes a similar statement in Acts 17.

16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was(AA) provoked within him as he saw that the city was(AB) full of idols. 17So(AC) he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said,(AD) “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities“—because(AE) he was preaching(AF) Jesus and the resurrection. 19And they took him and brought him to(AG) the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this(AH) new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some(AI) strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Paul’s presence in the marketplace piques the interest of the Areopagus – a gathering of the city’s political leaders. Aristotle said the Areopagus was a place for serious discussions (and nothing silly). Athenian politics seems to have been split between the Council of 600, the Areopagus, and the Boule (a representative council of the Demos (citizens)). Each had different roles to play in governing and different responsibilities in the social, economic, religious, and political spheres. The marketplace was the heart of the city. The Bouleterion (the place where the Boule met) was in the middle of the marketplace, and Bruce argues that it is likely the Areopagus actually met there rather than on the rather uncomfortable rocky outcrop Mars Hill (for my reflections from Mars Hill see this post). Garland suggests anybody looking to bring a new God onto the Greek scene could start in no better place than the Agora:

“A convenient forum in which to advertise the benefits of a new god and hence to drum up popular support would have been a public meeting place such as the Agora, the civic, administrative and commercial heart of the city and a popular venue for all those who wished to exchange ideas.”

In his article On Introducing Gods to Athens: An Alternative Reading of Acts 17:18-20 (PDF), Bruce adopts Garland’s research into how new gods were introduced into Athenian culture, and texts about the role of the Areopagus in consecrating and introducing the Imperial Gods into Athens (he follows a guy named Geagan who wrote a book called The Athenian Constitution After Sulla) to conclude that one of the responsibilities of the Areopagus (alongside the Demos and the Council of 600 (it seems, as I’m trying to cobble together a few views, that the Areopagus set the agenda for the Demos and functioned as Athen’s Boule)) was to introduce new gods into the Greek Pantheon (a view supported by ancient literature – including Aeschylus’ Eumenides (see this work by Kauppi), and that Paul was invited before the Areopagus so they could consider adopting his God, and that such an introduction needed to cover certain areas of concern.

Bruce, following Garland (and to an extent the work of a guy named Barnes who established the role of the Areopagus) says these criterion were:

  1. Had there really been an epiphany of the divinity?
  2. Was official recognition to be given?
  3. What divine honours and statues would be appropriate?
  4. When would the annual official feast day be?

Bruce, following Garland, suggests those introducing a god also had to buy consecrated land to build a temple, build an altar for sacrifices and host an annual feast day, he argues that Paul’s presentation before the Areopagus specifically addresses these points. He shows that the Lukan account is laced with terminology to suggest this reading, for example, when the Athenians suggest Paul is a “herald of foreign divinities” the Greek word is the same used for one who introduces new Gods into the Pantheon (it’s also the word used for the priests of the Imperial Cult).

New Testament 102: All about Gallio

Bruce has a real soft spot for Gallio. I reckon if he played that speculative game “who would I invite to dinner,” Gallio would make the list. Gallio is a popular boy in Corinth too. His appearance in Corinth at the Bema (Justice Seat) in Acts 18 marks the one exact spot we know Paul stood in Greece. The Orthodox Church in Corinth made the scene with Gallio the mural on the back wall of their brand new conference room…

Here’s Robyn standing in front of the Bema.

All this is only vaguely related to the potential essay question. But I’m setting the scene.

Here’s the passage from the Extra Spiritual Version (ESV), complete with whatever footnotes Bible Gateway thinks are relevant:

12But when Gallio was(W) proconsul of Achaia,(X) the Jews made a united attack on Paul and(Y)brought him before the tribunal, 13saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to(Z) the law.” 14But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious(AA) crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint.15But(AB) since it is a matter of questions about words and names and(AC) your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16And he drove them from the tribunal. 17And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.

Cool story. I love how the crowd turn on the agitator at the end. They were there to give a beating – so they’re going to give a beating. All right. This judgment may well, if some first century historical reconstruction type people, have made Christianity a legal presence in at least the Achaian province of the empire. Gallio was the proconsul of the province. He was like Chuck Norris in Walker Texas Ranger. If you messed with him you got round house kicked to the face. Gallio’s brother was Seneca. So was his father. Seneca the Older paid to have his kids brought up real good in Roman society. Gallio was even adopted by a rich benefactor (and so changed his name from Novatus to Gallio) His kids were movers and shakers. Seneca the Younger (he’s on wikipedia) was a philosopher who was also Nero’s (the crazy emperor) tutor and adviser. He eventually killed himself (because he had to) after failing to topple Nero in a backstabbing conspiracy (the guy was a nutter – Nero that is). Gallio suffered a similar fate – Nero ordered him put to death, but he may have beaten him to it. Dodging a bullet by taking a bullet (well, a sword or an arrow).

The crux of it

Some people suggest he was basically a pimple on the backside of Roman history who made no real contribution to Rome or humanity. Others think Gallio was a bit blasé about the whole trial of Paul thing. Wikipedia does anyway.

“His behaviour on this occasion shows the impartial attitude of the Roman officials towards Christianity in its early days.”

Lets treat that as a summary of the consensus view on the matter and then we’ll disagree with it. And show that Gallio’s snap judgment (and he was famous as a juror) was a legal decision with consequences that spread through his province and made Christianity a legal subset of Judaism under his rule. While this didn’t set an empire wide precedent (Gallio wasn’t the emperor) – it certainly says something about the legal situation of Christians in first century Rome.

The esteemed B.W Winter wrote an article for the Tyndale Bulletin called Redeeming Gallio and His Judgment in Acts 18 (PDF), there’s another one called Gallio’s Ruling on the Legal Status of Early Christianity (.doc) You should definitely read them if you want to pass this exam.

Here’s the summary of the first one:

“By first-century Graeco-Roman standards, a recent assessment of Gallio – a Roman senator, proconsul and consul of Rome – would have been seen as something of a damnatio that resulted in the dismissal of his achievements and the formal disfiguring of his name from the imperial inscription that bears it in Delphi. However, a re-examination
of the evidence of ancient witnesses comes to a somewhat different conclusion about this important Roman senator. Such testimonies would confirm Luke’s presentation of this legally competent proconsul who made a landmark judgement under Roman law on the status of the early Christian movement.”

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (and what would he know – he’s only an “expert on Paul” according to Wikipedia) reckons Gallio was a hypochondriac wuss who ran away from his post when the going got tough. But Bruce says the Emperor Claudius reckons Gallio was alright, and if he was alright by Claudius, he’s alright by us too. Gallio’s name wasn’t removed from the Delphi inscription because he wasn’t disgraced. And he went on to be a consul of Rome. Basically Murphy-O’Connor is the bad scholar in this answer. And Bruce is fighting the good fight for Gallio. Murphy-O’Connor says the only good thing about Gallio is that he helps us date Paul’s time in Corinth (because Gallio himself was only in Corinth for a year (51-52 A.D).

Gallio did his year of regional service, and then got sick (he wasn’t a hypochondriac, as the bad guys have suggested). Here’s a paragraph from Bruce about a paragraph from a primary source about Gallio:

“In a discussion titled ‘On the Medicinal use of seawater’, Pliny the Elder (AD c.23/4-79) recorded ‘there being many other uses, the chief however being a sea voyage for those attacked by consumption, as I have said, and for haemoptysis, such as quite recently within our memory was taken by Annaeus Gallio after his consulship (post consulatum)’ According to Pliny it was after he completed the one-year term set for a senatorial consulship.”

Gallio the Juror
Gallio was a nice guy. According to his brother.

“Seneca reminded Lucilius that his brother was not inept in his rela­tionships with others. He had a great ability to get along with other people and his unaffectedly pleasant personality charms even those it pays no attention to … No other human being is so charming to just one person as he is to all people.’ In Corinth, Gallio politely addressed them as Ό Jews’, and explained that he simply could not proceed be cause there was no case to answer under Roman law. Luke records that he added, ‘If it were a matter of wrong-doing or vicious crime, then I would have reason to allow the legal proceedings’ (18:14).”

Bruce makes the point that Gallio has more integrity, and was less swayed by Jewish political pressures, than Felix or Pontius Pilate before them – he recognises the trial is a farce. And he calls them on it.

“The impression gained from Seneca is that Gallio was an astute judge of situations, and would have been aware of the hubris and the troubling nature of the litigation that had driven the Jews to pursue this case, and the duplicity that stood behind their charges. In fact Luke recorded that he ‘drove’ (άττήλασεν) the plaintiffs from the tribunal.”

Bruce further suggests the decision was thoroughly grounded in Roman law – and a right exercise of due process. He thinks the Jews were suggesting that Paul was operating outside the law because he’d left Judaism but had not taken up the Roman Imperial Religion (which was his legal obligation – from which Jews were exempt). Gallio decides that it is a Jewish matter, that Christianity is still “Jewish” in essence, and that Roman law doesn’t apply. He says the only law that is relevant to the case is “your law” – meaning Jewish law. He made the judgment before Paul had even had a chance to start his defense because he was such a top-notch juror. Like Judge Judy.

On the Beating of Sosthenes

“What was the reason for this fracas in the Corinthian forum? There are a number of possibilities. It is known that leading Roman citizens followed by their clients attended in the forum, and they operated as loyal supporters of their patrons in the realm of politela. Those standing around saw the dismissal of Jews’ case in the Roman criminal court as an opportunity to demonstrate their support for the emperor’s recent anti-Jewish decree recorded by Luke in Acts 18:2 – ‘because
Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome”

“It is more likely that Luke’s final comment [But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.] is to be interpreted as referring to how Gallio had operated in this case. He drove the accusers from the judgement seat because their case was groundless in Roman law, carefully following the correct legal protocol within whose paramètres he alone operated. He was rightly not concerned with matters outside the formal court hearing, for what happened was not within his remit unless Sosthenes subsequently brought another private prosecution, for assault. As Luke rightly noted ‘and none of these things (18:15, 17) concerned Gallio’, but had Paul been guilty of those in 18:14 he would certainly have proceeded with the case.”

On the Legal Status of Judaism (not from Bruce’s article)

If you’re a student preparing an exam answer you’ll already have done the subject The Cross and the Clash of Cultures, which apart from having an alliterative title, prompted me to do some research on the legal status of Judaism under the empire. Here’s a quote from one of my footnotes that may or may not be of use:

The actual nature of  Judaism’s status, whether or not it was a “religio licita” is in some dispute. The term religio licita seems to be a later development than this question – but the freedoms and exemptions for the Jews certainly existed. Caesar provided some freedom for Jews to practice their religion within the empire – but this may not have had the effect of freeing them for all time. cf Rajak, T, ‘Was there a Roman Charter for the Jews?’, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol 74 (1984) pp 107-123 (I think it’s on EBSCO), which suggests that the phrase “religio licita” to describe Judaism was first recorded by Tertullian, that they only required “public backing, with muscle behind it” rather than a charter to establish these rights, and that it was not the nature of the polis to exclude citizens from the practice of customary activities. See also – Pucci Ben Zeev, M, ‘Jewish Rights in the Roman World – The Greek and Roman Documents quoted by Josephus Flavius’, 1998, Mohr Siebek, pg 412 –the treatment of Jews throughout the empire after Caesar’s death suggests this declaration was not all encompassing precedent, while Rutgers, L.V, ‘Roman Policy Towards Jews’, Judaism and Christianity in First Century Rome edited by Donfried, K.P and Richardson, P, pp 93-116 suggests that Jewish status under Roman law varied greatly from Emperor to Emperor – and that there was no charter or official policy regarding the Jews.

The Romans placed huge value on time honoured traditions – it was part of their shtick, they called it the Mos Maiorum and this was the recognition of tradition that protected the Jews from participating in the Imperial Cult.

On the Imperial Cult and Gallio’s Exemption

Here’s what Bruce says in the second article linked (up the top):

“Christianity was a sect within Judaism and therefore a religio licita, part of the mos maiorum. This was how Christianity was judged in the eyes of the Roman governor with expertise as a jurist. What Gallio ruled ‘when Paul was about to open his mouth’ (18:14a) had implications for this early Messianic movement. Whether Jewish Christians or Gentile Christians, Roman citizens, or provincials, they were all seen as ‘a party’ operating under the Jewish umbrella. Therefore being a Christian in the province of Achaea was not a criminal offence, according to Gallio.

Attention has been briefly drawn to the legal immunity the Jews enjoyed with respect to the veneration of the emperor because of the mos maiorum. While New Testament scholars have underestimated the importance of this cult during the Julio-Claudian emperors, evidence showed that it grew more spectacularly throughout the empire during the first century than even the early Christian movement did…

Paul used the same defense again in front of Felix, and then again in Rome in front of Festus and before Agrippa II – and Bruce argues that the verdict was the same on all counts – and the word “unhindered” at the end of Acts is incredibly important.

In the final hearing before Festus in the presence of Agrippa II, Paul again mounted his defence along the same lines—‘I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said should happen’ (26:22). Festus confirmed Gallio’s ruling that the case concerned ‘certain questions of their superstition’ and the alleged resurrection of Jesus (25:19).

While awaiting the hearing of his appeal, Paul was still allowed to engage in his ministry ‘with all boldness’. After that comment, Luke added the highly significant word, ‘unhindered’ (28:31). This term was used to indicate that there was no legal impediment to what a person was doing.

Addendum: On Murphy-O’Connor

Don’t be too nasty in your answer to the bad cop – Bruce has this to say in his final footnote:

“My point of departure with J. Murphy-O’Conner on the assessment of Gallio should not detract in any way from my appreciation of his important service to New Testament Corinthian studies with what is now the third edition of his excellent collection of primary literary sources and some of the important inscriptions.”

Aristotle on the Areopagus

I’m finding all sorts of fun quotes playing around with primary sources. Here’s a quote from Aristotle’s Rhetoric about use of emotion in court proceedings – with a mention of the Areopagus, the council Paul appeared before in Athens in Acts 17:

“The arousing of prejudice, pity, anger, and similar emotions has nothing to do with the essential facts, but is merely a personal appeal to the man who is judging the case. Consequently if the rules for trials which are now laid down some states — especially in well-governed states — were applied everywhere, such people would have nothing to say. All men, no doubt, think that the laws should prescribe such rules, but some, as in the court of Areopagus, give practical effect to their thoughts and forbid talk about non-essentials. This is sound law and custom. It is not right to pervert the judge by moving him to anger or envy or pity — one might as well warp a carpenter’s rule before using it.”

Here’s a picture of Mars Hill.

Image Credit: Me, from our trip to Greece

Now the ever reputable Professor B. Winter tells us (that is, his students) that the Areopagus:

a) did not actually meet on top of Mars Hill (speculative – based largely on its current shape and size (who knows how big it was 2,000 years ago), and the number of people in the Areopagus.
and b) had a function to perform as the gatekeepers for the gods of Greece, the Areopagus basically had a set of rules to govern what gods could and couldn’t be accepted into Greece, and Paul’s presentation in Acts 17 is said to meet those parameters…

It’s interesting that they had a reputation for only talking about essentials, from hundreds of years before Paul, and yet the members of the Areopagus invited him to speak.

“19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this(AH) new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”

It’s also funny how Luke’s view of the Athenians, and possibly, by context and extension, the Areopagus, differs from Aristotle’s:

21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”

If I eat a chicken, and a duck in Turkey is it a turducken?

I thought about going with a “Turkish Delight” heading for this post, but that pun is too hackneyed even for me. Turkey is amazing, though we have reliable and constant internet access in our hotel, I’ve discovered that hotels are much better for sleeping in than for blogging.

Modern Turkey, at least in the cruise friendly port town of Kusadasi, is very civilised. Except for the countrywide ban on YouTube.

The streets are filled with bazaars in which bargains can be had if you possess a little bargaining nous. I bought some stuff. Cheap stuff.

Ancient Turkey is pretty amazing. Ephesus leaves Corinth in its dust. Corinth might be a Roman colony, laid out in gridlike Roman efficiency (the grid pattern, called centuriation, was designed to reflect the order of creation), but Ephesus is something else. It’s massive. It was once a port, but the landscape has shifted so now there is low lying ground at the entry to the main street. A column laced street that heads directly into town.

The whole way along the road you are confronted by the incredibly well preserved theatre – the theatre that hosted a riot in Acts 19, when Paul’s preaching of a monotheistic God threatened to turn the tables on an idol trade that still thrives in the bazaars and souvenir shops.

Here’s the story.

23About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way. 24For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis,(AM) brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25(AN) These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people,(AO) saying that(AP) gods made with hands are not gods. 27And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the(AQ) great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

28When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out,(AR) “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and(AS) Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s(AT) companions in travel. 30But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. 31And even some of the Asiarchs,[e] who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. 32(AU) Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. 33Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander,(AV) motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. 34But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice,(AW) “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

The theatre would comfortably seat 24,000 people. Having sat through a couple of Wallabies tests and a State of Origin at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, which is twice the size, you can get some idea of the noise that 24,000 people engaging in sustained and repetitive chanting would have made.

Evidence suggests the governor’s house was on the hill behind the stadium, which provides an interesting insight into this part of the Acts recount.

35And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from(AX) the sky?[f] 36Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. 37For you have brought(AY) these men here who are neither(AZ) sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. 38If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are(BA) proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. 39But if you seek anything further,[g] it shall be settled in the regular assembly. 40For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” 41And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.

Artemis, or Diana (depending on your translation), was a god of many hats, most famous for her role in fertility – a role represented by her physical depiction as a woman with many testicles. That is, apparently, what the bulbs in this picture represent.

Her temple, now rubble, was of a grand scale, though a few kilometres out of the heart of the Ephesian CBD. A solitary pillar survives, there were apparently 127 of them. It would no doubt have been an impressive site decked out and paved in marble.

Everything in these cities is marble. They would have been quite incredible. The facade of a magnificent Ephesian library still adorns the city. It is still impressive now, it basically had a ducted air system to preserve the books.

There are other impressive facades and well preserved buildings throughout the city.

Our time in the houses of Ephesus was well worthwhile – both to see the size and scale of the homes of the first century churches – churches Paul was said to have ministered to during his time in the city – and to see the jigsaw like reproduction project going on on-site. These men are gluing hundreds of thousands of pieces of fractured marble together bit by bit. Matching them by colour and shape.

The houses are decorated with mosaics and painted frescos, they too were largely marble structures until a couple of earthquakes caused a change in production values.

One of my favourite bits of the day was spotting this chameleon.

We spent today in Aphrodisias, which isn’t biblically significant but provided some insight into Roman culture and the prevalence in the daily realities of citizens of the Roman imperial cult. But that’s a story for another day. Normal service should resume on Wednesday.

Liveblog: Ben Witherington III on Acts

Ben Witherington III, blogger, biblical scholar and widely published New Testament author, is guest lecturing at QTC today on the book of Acts.

I’ll be updating it as the three hours of lectures go on – check back in this arvo for the final version. What follows are bits and pieces from his lectures:

One of the things I would want to stress to you is that what we’re dealing with in Acts is a form of ancient historiography. Luke is writing in the traditions of Hellenistic and Jewish history writing that had their own conventions which are not identical with the conventions of modern historiography.

One of the great problems with interpretation of the text is anachronism – reading our concerns, our modern concerns, back into the text. Acts is one of the main areas where this happens.

For example: Acts 2 is about a miracle. The miracle of speaking in tongues. But it’s ultimately about empowering the church for mission, not about a particular kind of post-conversion spiritual experience that we will all receive.

All of us are guilty of anachronism – we all read the Book of Acts with modern eyes.

Hermeneutically speaking we need to have some rules about how we read Acts.

  1. If we find a repeated pattern we can assume this is normative.
  2. If we find a special event not repeated it might be an unusual historical occurrence and not a principle on which we should hang out shingle.
  3. Does the author of Acts affirm the pattern? Positive repeated patterns are a good interpretive rubric (the telling of Saul’s conversion as a very important event is told three times – clearly it’s important). Does the author of Acts condemn the pattern. Some texts are “go and do likewise” others are “go and do otherwise.”
  4. We can’t just deduce doctrines from the reporting of history unless we have other methodologies – Acts reports what happens, not always what ought to have happened.

Chapter 6 begins “so the word of God spread…” one of the things about the structure of the book is what we have in the book of Acts is an arrangment of panels of material with little linking summary statements – like this one in Acts. Acts is not presented in strict chronological order – there’s a broadly chronological order, but sometimes Luke wants to give background flashbacks to help follow through a theme in the narrative. There’s finess in what Luke is doing. He is operating like Roman historians who tell the chronological sequential narratives about different regions in different literary units. We have some of that in the book of Acts.

Luke is wanting to talk about the geographical spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. This is historiography, not biography. It’s not just about Peter or Paul – in fact, after Acts 15 we don’t hear about Peter again. It’s not a biography of Paul and it ends on an unfinished note. There’s no story about the death, or martyrdom, of Paul. This is not bios but a historical monograph.

Luke isn’t interested in the Acts of the Apostles but the Acts of the Holy Spirit – how the work of the gospel is fulfilled throughout the world.

There’s lots we’d like to know that Luke is not telling us. Don’t eisegete. We need to be comfortable with the limitations of the text. We can’t bring our own interests into the text. We have to let Luke be Luke. Ancient historiographers were not as hung up about chronology as we are. They didn’t measure time like we do. They were less concerned about precise chronology and happier with general accounts, we can’t impose our precision on their accounts. Ultimately the text as received is what God has decided to give us. It’s important that we leave dogma at the door.

The phrase “The Word of God” refers to the oral proclamation – not some document, in a culture where less than 20% of people could read the primary method of receiving the good news was through oral proclamation of the good news. That’s what the phrase must mean throughout the book of Acts (not the Hebrew bible, not any written documents).

We live in a culture of texts as “literate” people. They weren’t. Most ancient people preferred the oral word to the written word. Consulting with living voices and eyewitnesses was culturally preferential to reading written accounts. Written documents had very limited functions in antiquity. They were not for everybody.

This is a massive work by ancient standards – Luke contains the limit in letter count that you could get on one piece of papyrus. Luke was pushing the envelope in terms of content, Acts makes use of the space on a papyrus in a similar way. Ben thinks Theophilus was Luke’s patron. A real person, not a general title for “lovers of God”…

On the Stoning of Stephen…

Stephen is a Greek speaking Jew, speaking in the synagogue of the freedmen. Stephen is meant to be a deacon, looking after the practical needs of the church, and here he is preaching.

There are a lot of parallels between how Luke tells the story of the death of Jesus and how he tells the story of the death of Stephen. In essence Stephen models Christ’s death. Luke is using a historiographical tool to use history to teach morality. He’s encouraging Christians to follow the model of Isaiah’s suffering servant – and providing a biblical framework for Christian martyrdom – “father forgive them”…

The “Acts of the Apostles” is a misnomer – it’s not anthropological or biographical but theological – and this informs its approach to history. We hardly see any of the apostles except for Peter and Paul.

Luke sees himself as writing in the tradition of Jewish historiographers – like the Maccabees and OT writers.

There’s false witness in both accounts, born out in the Sanhedrin. Jesus should have been stoned (if not for the passover festival). Because there were probably 400,000 people in the city at the time the Jews wanted to make sure that it was the Romans who killed Jesus so that no Jews could say that the problem was of Jewish origin. In the case of Stephen it’s the Jews who carry out the killing. Romans reserved the right of capital punishment in their own hands. The Jews had no legal right to engage in vigilante justice. Their only recourse to capital punishment (legally) was the violation of the Holy of Holies in the temple.

The Romans would never execute a Jew on the charge of Jewish blasphemy. Jesus was executed on a charge of treason, claiming to be a king. Stephen was stoned for blasphemy.

The account of the stoning of Stephen is the longest narrative in Acts and contains the longest speech – it was obviously important to Luke. Luke is dealing with an explanation of how Christianity and Judaism have split. He’s explaining the origins of this split. The ending of the life of a pious Jew, Stephen, and the emergence of Saul/Paul as a force for the gentile mission is a pivotal moment in this movement.

One of the repeated themes of Acts is “father forgive them because they are ignorant”… this comes up in Peter’s sermon “you crucified Jesus because you were ignorant”… Luke doesn’t want to write off Jews, he wants to show that they are not forsaken but that they are in a position where they have rejected Jesus.

In the speech of Stephen we see a retelling of sacred history – from Abraham on, recounting the sad story of the unfaithfulness of the Jews to the work, word, and messengers of God. It’s a repeated pattern in Israelite history, all the way down to Jesus. The Sanhedrin aren’t thrilled with this reinterpretation of their history – in their mind they are good evangelical, bible believing, Jews. This was the ultimate insult. And it resulted in the death of Stephen.

The end of Stephen’s speech is not recorded – the speech (like many times in Acts, eg Paul in Athens) goes on until it is interrupted – and at that point the speech cuts off and is replaced by narrative. This is what happens here. Stephen is in full swing, condemning the Sanhedrin – who become teeth gnashingly furious. It’s when Stephen calls Jesus the “Son of Man” (the only use of the title in Acts) that they rush him and kill him (which is where he cries out “do not hold this sin against them”).

Paul’s “persecution of the church unto death” is the sin he constantly dwells on when describing his pre-Christian life. In Philippians he calls himself “blameless under the law” – nobody could accuse Saul/Paul of being a lawbreaker. But he kept the letter of the law while missing the spirit of the law. He makes this point and then acknowledges that he is the “least of the apostles because he persecuted the church unto death.”

This is how Luke introduces the story of Saul/Paul.

On Paul
Iconography – icons were not intended to be photos but representations of the character of the person. Big heads were not symbols of knowing lots, but of being wise. Descriptions in ancient texts functioned in the same way – they’re not so much about what the people looked like (which was not an issue for ancient writers) but descriptions linked with character.

Who is Paul: he’s responsible for over a third of the New Testament.

Paul the teacher (Acts 11:26)
Paul the prophet (Acts 13:9-11)
Paul the apostle (Acts 14:4, 14, Galatians 1:1, 2 Corinthians 8:23)

Ben reiterates that “The Acts of the Apostles” is a silly name for the book that Luke would have been bemused by. The inspired part of Acts begins with verse one, not with the late addition of the title.

On Barnabas (Paul’s missionary buddy)

Originally Joseph, Barnabas, the name, means “son of prayer” or “son of encouragement”… he’s a Levite convert from Cyprus, part of the 70 select disciples of Jesus, he sold his land to help the poor, held to have been stoned in 60AD.

On Paul again
If we met Paul today, quite a lot of us would probably find him difficult to get on with.

Paul’s Roman citizenship is a trump card that he trots out to save his life. He doesn’t mention, directly, in his letters that he was a citizen. It’s Luke who mentions that.

Paul was probably amazingly fit – his missionary journeys required long treks through harsh terrain. Some of the geography he had to cross in short periods of time were pretty incredibly hostile. To walk from Perga to Pisidian Antioch (like Paul did) requires 600 miles of walking over some pretty massive hills.

When you start seeing the proportions of what’s going on you see that being called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” is like being told you’re the apostle to the whole world except Israel.

On Paul’s Conversion
There are three accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts (ch 9, 22, 26) – they are widely separate. The first is in the third person, told about Paul. The second and third are in the first person. Paul himself is reporting the story. In both cases he tells the story in a rhetorically effective way depending on his audience. Paul is speaking to the crowd in the temple precinct (ch 22) and King Agrippa and Roman officials (ch 26).

The first account is Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion. Luke wasn’t there. So where did he get it from? Luke 1:1-4 – he consulted with the eyewitnesses. In this case he must have received it from Paul, his companion from the second and third missionary journeys recorded in Acts.

Acts 9 is straightforward narrative. One of the things Ben wants to dispel is that Paul’s name doesn’t occur as a result of the conversion but when he runs into Sergius Paulus (who has an inscription in Galatia) that he changes his name.

The Greek form of the name Saul, σαυλος meant “to walk like a prostitute” in Greek. Which isn’t likely to work in the work of his missionary context. παυλος in Greek just meant “a short person.” The name change comes because of his missionary work in the gentile world, not because of his conversion. That’s a myth.

Luke, in composing Acts, knows, when he writes what he writes, that he doesn’t have to tell the story on the first go – because he’s going to come around to it again later in the piece. The provision of more detail is a rhetorically effective account – not a contradiction. It’s an elaboration to keep the narrative retelling fresh on the second and third iterations. The mechanism of the encounter – the voice of Jesus speaking to Saul – is the same in each account. Verbatim.

Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus makes it clear that when you persecute the church you are persecuting Jesus, and that his salvation was not through keeping the law – but through grace.

What is the change that happens in Paul’s life? What is the process that we’re talking about? Does he go from being a Jew to being a Gentile? No. Does he go from a person who believes in the Hebrew scriptures to one who doesn’t? No. What happens is that he goes from being an opponent to a proponent of Jesus as a messianic fulfillment. This is not a new religion. But the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise of blessing to the nations. We can not forget that we have been grafted in to Israel through the work of faithful Jewish missionaries.

Paul doesn’t ever call us Christians – but talks about us being “in Christ” – has that ever struck you as odd as a description of the people of God? This is not a mere metaphor. We are being told that Christ is present everywhere at once. He is the atmosphere in which we live. When Paul wanted to describe who we are, he said we are “Jew and Gentile” in Christ. In Romans 9-11 he goes on a rampage rebuking the Christians for thinking they had supplanted the Jews.

He says: “I would be willing to be cut off from Christ permanently if my people could be reconciled and brought back in” – which one of you would willingly give up your salvation to save others…

and then (paraphrasing)…

“You Gentiles are the wild olive branches that have been grafted in” so you have no basis for being arrogant.

The truth then, and the truth now, is that many Jews don’t believe in Jesus because of the church. Not because of Jesus.

This conversion story has a call that comes with a commission. Paul was not just called to be a follower of Jesus but commissioned to be part of the ministry of the body of Christ. This is true for everybody. Paul and Peter’s missions were not geographically exclusive. It wasn’t a turf war. Paul, Peter, and Apollos were all part of the same team ministering in the same cities.

There’s not always a crisis point that leads to conversion. Sometimes it’s a process that takes time. Your conversion does not need to replicate what happened to Saul. It’s like labour – some are short, some are long, some are painful – in the end a new creature is born. There are a variety of patterns of conversion in Acts. It’s a mistake to schematise what our God personalises.

The eyes have it: sight as the thorn in Paul’s flesh

Galatians (Paul’s earliest work) 4:12-15: “I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. 13As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. 14Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. 15What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

What is this about? Ben thinks Paul had ongoing eye problems. When you have a vision you’re supposed to report what you saw, and Paul, on the Damascus “heard” the Lord Jesus. “See with what large letters I write my name” why did Paul write in large letters and need a scribe? What was the stake in his flesh? A physical problem that was chronic but did not effect his ministry. In the ancient world the eyes were seen as the windows to the soul – bad eyes meant a bad soul. Ancient peoples didn’t believe that the eyes were a receptacle of light but the things through which the soul projected…

Paul says, when I came to you you did not condemn me, and did not spit (which was the appropriate cultural response to the “evil eye”… the Galatians didn’t judge Paul on that basis.

Why did Paul need a personal physician on his missionary journeys? Because he had a condition that was not fatal but needed treatment all the time.

Why did the Corinthians say his letters were powerful but his presence weak? He had an ethos problem – his eyes. They weren’t impressed with his appearance. But his words were powerful.

The Roman soldier who was first up the wall was given incredible honour – when Paul escapes persecution via the basket lowered down a wall he claims to have been “first down the wall” an inverted version of Roman honour.

The early letters of Paul are not the early thoughts of Paul – they’re letters from the experienced Paul. Years after his conversion. It seems that Paul laboured in the vineyard for many years before seeing any results.

Ben draws a parallel between Jacob and his post wrestle itch (from Genesis) and the purpose it served as a reminder – and Paul’s continued malady. This doesn’t mesh with prosperity/health gospels – and many prominent and influential Christian ministers and thinkers have died of diseases or suffered chronic ill health. We can’t link prosperity and faith.

Closing points (of sorts)

Luke’s lithmus test for salvation is the Spirit – there is no Christian without the Holy Spirit – we can only tell if someone has the Spirit or not by their words and conduct. Water baptism does not save (or do anything).

Tongues (angelic language) are a legitimate and biblical gift (not found in Acts 2 – but mentioned later).

The Holy Spirit’s job is to convict, convince, convert. It will always point people towards Jesus.

Our gifts are for the benefits of others. The fruit of the Spirit is for the nourishing of the body. There is one fruit of the Spirit – not many. In the Greek. These fruits are meant to be present in all Christians. The fruit of the spirit is about character renovation, the gifts are about ministry. There’s not a necessary link between gifts and maturity. Gifts should be exercised by the mature. If you can’t speak the truth in love you need to stop speaking it. Your character is more important than your gifting. Christianity is more often caught than taught.

“The most important ministry you can have is not the songs (etc) that come from your mouth but the fruits that come from your life.”

The Spirit in the Book of Acts, above all other things, is the spirit of mission and evangelism. All the other achievements of the Spirit (eg healing) are peripheral to that mission.

On preaching about Eutychus

I preached for the first time as an employee of a church yesterday. It was so big a milestone that my gran and my mum and my wife came to watch. My wife would have been there anyway I guess.

We’re doing a series on Acts at church at the moment and when Andrew asked what I wanted to preach on I naturally said “Acts 20”. Because I wanted to talk about Eutychus. Acts 20 isn’t really about Eutychus, he’s a peripheral figure. And I actually ended up preaching a mammoth passage from Acts 18:18 to the end of Acts 20 – Paul’s whole mission to Ephesus.

I would much prefer preaching a mammoth passage to preaching a mouse sized passage – it’s far better to have to leave stuff out than it is to have to make stuff up.

Here’s what I said about Eutychus. For the record…

And in verse 7 we have possibly my favourite story in the Bible. If you’re going to go down in history for something it may as well be being bored to death by the world’s most famous evangelist. And Eutychus has that honour.

Because in chapter 20 of Acts Paul preaches what could still be a world record for the longest sermon. From dusk until dawn Paul is preaching his passion – the Ephesians might have been able to fervently chant for two hours [in Acts 19] – but chanting six words over and over again has nothing on being able to preach ALL NIGHT teaching.

Paul could have spent hours talking about tent making – and you can bet there would’ve been more fatalities – he could have spoken at length about his travels. If you’ve ever watched a friend’s holiday slide show you’d be aware just how excited some people can be about where they’ve been and what they’ve seen… but that’s not what Paul is excited about. He just wants to talk about Jesus.

Scots Presbyterian in Clayfield enjoys a visit from the boarders from the local Presbyterian Girls’ school about once in a blue moon – and yesterday happened to be it. So between the morning service and the night service I removed the flesh from the skeleton of my talk and reshaped it into something almost purely evangelistic. This is surprisingly easy to do when you’ve put some hours into exegeting the text and figuring out the ways to point people to the gospel – so Gary Millar’s advice was invaluable.

Eutychus played a more prominent role in this talk… just thinking about his story made me aim to not bore my audience of teenage girls. I was glad there were no open windows because I’m not sure how many of them would have tottered out.

My sermons still suffer from slightly trite application (as trite as urging people to live for, and preach, the gospel can be) and I’m always left wishing I’d dug the knife in a bit deeper to cut some real change into people… hopefully that’s something I can work on. Memorable application is important. I feel a tension between creating a memorable understanding of the text and a memorable application of the text – though I’m not actually sure the two should be separate.

One of the bits of preaching I find most memorable was a refrain from an NTE talk on Ezekiel from many years ago where I think Donny Kwan spoke and kept saying “God will be God, and you will know it” is the big idea of Ezekiel. A mantra like that is helpful – but it hasn’t really been profoundly life altering.

So, preachers who read this blog, how do I move my application from the general “live like Jesus” to the specific “live like Jesus by…”, any tips? My guess is that I need to understand the people I’m preaching to and what they’re struggling with so I can metaphorically push their buttons. But even that seems a bit apply by the numbers.

Theological leanings and Acts 15

After a week of studying theology and one team meeting bandying about a bit of (in my opinion) a speculative theological interpretation of Acts 15 (see Andrew’s blog for details) I’ve been wondering about how to balance the excitement I feel at new “special knowledge” interpretations of old passages.

On the one hand I think there’s lots to learn from better understanding the original culture and context of passages and grappling with different nuances of the original languages – and on the other I have a high view of God’s sovereignty and the perspicuity of scripture (the idea that God teaches truths clearly through his word).

So I wonder what place new theological ideas grounded in particular and special knowledge (as opposed to general knowledge and a plain understanding of the text understood in the context of the Bible rather than in the context of history) has when it comes to application.

Because I’m now all about nuance and balance I have come up with this fence sitting position where you can own both the perspicuous reading of a passage and the more historically and theologically nuanced position at the same time – unless they are in direct conflict with one another.

The example I’m thinking most about is the Acts 15 passage that Andrew wrote about. Acts 15 is a little story where the church leaders are called on to decide how Gentile converts to what is essentially the continuation of the Messianic Jewish faith should conduct themselves. Some Jews want Gentiles to circumcise themselves and obey the law – but the church leaders decide this is unnecessary because salvation is through grace, not the law.

But they do give the Gentiles some ground rules – rules that have been traditionally understood as relating to how Gentile and Jewish Christians could share “table fellowship” – ie eat together as brothers – while not causing one another offense.

Kutz’s position (based on someone else’s position) on Acts 15 is slightly more exciting. The Gentile Christians are given a list of four things they are not to do as Christians. They can’t eat food sacrificed to idols, food strangled, food with the blood still in it, and they can’t engage in sexual immorality. These requirements tie in to the Levitical law (and in Leviticus also apply to gentiles sojourning amongst believers). The exciting new bit is that this may well have been shorthand for not participating in first century idol temple worship. All of the prohibitions address elements of that practice.

I would argue that the everyday Christian believer throughout the last two thousand years would understand this passage on the basis of table fellowship – I don’t think the new argument is convincing enough to do away with this perspicuous understanding – it is enough to nuance it though. We can better understand that these actions were synonymous with the worship of idols, but that doesn’t negate the understanding that Gentiles should be avoiding that conduct in order to stay in fellowship with Jewish believers.

In conclusion, I think it’s a case of “both” not “either”. And I wonder how this is going to work out as we continue to grapple with new and exciting ideas. I think the temptation can be to throw out the old understanding when we come up with something better, rather than improving our understanding of the old. And I don’t know what that does to two thousand years of church history which if you’re a trinitarian and Calvinist is Holy Spirit inspired and God ordained.