Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jewish Christianity in Acts: In Search of a Sitz im Leben

In Acts, Luke responds to the charge that Paul teaches “all people everywhere against our people, the law and this place [the Jerusalem temple]” (Acts 21:28) with an emphatic, multi-chapter denial:
  • In Acts 22, Paul identifies himself as a Jew who is accurately instructed in the ancestral law, and who is as much a “zealot for God” as his audience in the Jerusalem temple (22:3).
  • In Acts 23, Paul claims to have always conducted himself with a “good conscience” (23:1).
  • On trial before Agrippa and Festus, he denies that he “sinned against the law … or the temple” (25:8).
  • And before the assembled Jewish elders in Rome, he insists that he did nothing “against the people or the ancestral customs” (28:17).
C.K. Barrett, finding Luke’s portrayal of Paul at odds with the Paul of the epistles, concludes that Luke was honestly mistaken: He knew Paul was a Jew, he knew that Jewish Christians in his own day in the late 1st century observed the law, and he assumed that Paul did too, not realizing that “[w]hen Paul expected Jews to eat with Gentiles he was asking them to give up some of their Jewishness” or that the way in which Paul could claim “to be a conscientious Jew" (cf. Acts 23:2) “would have destroyed Judaism as currently understood”*:
“Luke writes in a situation in which it is accepted that Jewish Christians may and do observe the Law, and it is part of his conviction that Paul was both a good Jew (this will be frequently repeated in the ensuing chapters) and a good Christian. Paul was in fact a Jewish Christian of a kind that could hardly continue to exist after the first generation--a fact that was not clearly seen by Luke. The story presupposes that Jewish Christians in Palestine, in Luke's day and before it, continued to observe the provisions of the Law.”*

Wolfgang Stegemann** agrees with Barrett that the charges against Paul reflect actual Jewish opposition to early Christianity, but he transposes the conflict to the late first century. When Acts was written during the reign of Domitian, Luke’s community was located uncomfortably between the synagogue and Roman authority. The Romans suspected Gentile Christians of adopting Jewish ways because they followed a Jewish Messiah, but after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christian acceptance of Gentiles without circumcision, indifference to the temple, and lax attitudes toward the law could only be regarded as apostasy by Luke’s Jewish neighbours. In addition to theological differences, conflict in Gentile cities caused by Christians tended to affect their Jewish neighbours. As a result, Jews distanced themselves from Christians. For non-Christ-believing Jews, the period after the destruction of the Second Temple corresponded to the period after the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, and their Christians neighbours were like the Hellenizers of the Jewish reform after 175 BCE—people who abandoned the Jewish law and made a covenant with the Gentiles. After 70 CE, the Christian community could be conceived only as an “anti-Israel movement.”

According to Stegemann, actual practice in Luke’s Christian community justifies the conclusions of Jewish outsiders: Although Luke depicts Jewish Christians in Paul’s day as remaining faithful to the law, he shows no real interest in the details of the law, which shows that Torah observance was no longer a live issue in Luke’s own much later church context. Since Luke cannot deny the charges in his own time, he responds to contemporary conflict by projecting it onto the past when observant Jewish Christians still existed in the church and before the decisive break with the synagogue. The effect, I take it, is to blame non-Christ-believing Jews for the parting of the ways, and to attribute long-standing hostility to Jews.

Of interest to me is that these two proposals are almost precisely inverted:
  • For Stegemann, Jewish Christianity is no longer a viable option in Luke’s late 1st-century context, and present conflict (between a Gentile-dominated church and non-Christian Jews) has been retrojected onto the past.
  • For Barrett, Jewish Christianity is still alive and well. Luke lives in a time of harmony between Jewish and Gentile Christians in a church that has lost sight of Paul’s radical views about the law (and the conflict that accompanied them), and he has retrojected the absence of conflict between Gentile and Jewish Christians onto the past.

If you have read along this far in the hope that you will find out what I think, I am sorry to disappoint. The setting and purpose of Acts--in particular, a setting that makes sense of Acts 21-28--is a great puzzle to me. I don’t have it all worked out.


*Quotations of Barrett are from C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 2; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998), pp. 1013-1014, 1058.

**Wolfgang Stegemann, Zwischen Synagoge und Obrigkeit: zur historischen Situation der lukanischen Christen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1991), cf. esp. pp. 178-9, 186.

Much of the substance of Stegemann’s argument appears in English in chapter 11 of Ekkehard W. Stegemann and Wolfgang Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Seth Schwartz on the value of learning Arabic

"Special benefits will accrue to those willing to learn languages outside the comfort zones traditional to the field, in particular Jewish Aramaic, for Christian scholars, Christian Aramaic for Jewish scholars, and Arabic for everyone." - Seth Schwartz
So reads the final sentence in Seth Schwartz latest excellent book, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad (Cambridge: CUP, 2014).

Schwartz does not say whether or not the promised benefits include a tenure track job.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A "Same God" Miscellany

I felt sort of lonely back in December when I voiced my agreement with former Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins's claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God (see this post). Since then many others have stepped forward to defend the same position. Here is a sampling:

(1) For starters, Peter Walhout, a chemistry professor at Wheaton College, observed:
"[M]many Christian missionaries to Muslims have the working assumption that the Allah of Islam is, to some degree, the Jewish and Christian God of Abraham. ... Obviously any Christian is going to affirm the Trinitarian nature of God and the divinity of Jesus, contra Islam, but that does not mean the missionaries are necessarily wrong in making the assertion that the Muslim Allah still refers in some limited sense to the Christian God .... It also clearly does not mean that these Christian missionaries think Islam is an equally valid path to God and salvation–why on earth would they be risking their lives as missionaries to Muslims if they thought that?" (italics added; read the rest of Peter's excellent post here)
(2) In his post, Walhout links to another blog essay by Edward Feser, who makes the philosophical case much better and more thoroughly than I did. An excerpt:
"Similarly, it is perfectly coherent to say that Muslims are “importantly” and “crucially” wrong precisely because they are referring to the very same thing Christians are when they use the word “God,” and that they go on to make erroneous claims about this referent. That the errors are “important” or “crucial” is not by itself sufficient to prevent successful reference. And since Muslims worship the referent in question, it follows that it also is not by itself sufficient to prevent them from worshipping the same God as Christians."
If you still have questions on this issue, take a look at Feser's (very long) post here.

(3) Robert J. Priest, Professor of Mission and Anthropology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, comments:
"[F]or most evangelicals in America, our encounter with people who are Muslim is relatively recent, relatively superficial, and all-too-often inflected by American culture-war impulses. The one category of American evangelical that has long nurtured close relationships with people who are Muslim is missionaries and mission professors .... However, these individuals, who represent the heart of evangelical gospel concern, and who represent a unique mix of professional expertise and accumulated wisdom acquired over decades of study and ministry experience, do not appear to have been adequately consulted (if consulted at all).
"I've also been struck by the idea that many American evangelical missionaries and missiologists, and perhaps the Apostle Paul himself, would be in danger of dismissal if they taught at Wheaton College, since many of us arguably have been guilty of the very thing Wheaton College is sanctioning.
 "I fear that evangelicals who wish lovingly, creatively, and entrepreneurially to establish relationships of positive witness with Muslims and others will be overly inhibited and held back by fear of fellow Christians and how they might react. ... I fear that Muslims will learn the idea that faith in Jesus requires a repudiation of Allah as evil, and that this will pose an enormous barrier to consideration of the truth and goodness of the Gospel. Many missionaries with extensive first-hand experience guiding Muslims to faith in Jesus testify that this is a missiologically problematic message to send, counter-productive to gospel witness. ..." (Quotations from pp. 1, 2-3, 31 of this pdf; HT: CT)

As for Wheaton College where this all began, the conflict with Larycia Hawkins has ended with an apparent apology by the provost who placed her under investigation, an internal acknowledgement by a faculty committee that racial discrimination may have influenced the way her case was handled, and a "mutual place of resolution" that culminated in Hawkins's departure from the school.

The Wheaton College provost, I should note, appears to hold to a position on the controversy similar to my own:
"Ontologically all monotheists affirm that there can only be one divine being, and it seems logical to me that there must be some referential overlap or similarity in the divine being that each is referring to in each of the monotheistic religions." - Stanton Jones
So what was all the fuss about?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Faculty Job Openings at Briercrest College and Seminary

Briercrest College and Seminary is looking to fill faculty positions in Old Testament, Music/Worship Arts, TESOL/Modern Languages, and Psychology.

The Old Testament position was announced on January 29 and closes on March 1, so applicants will need to act quickly. Here is the job description:
Briercrest College and Seminary invites applications for a full-time faculty position (rank open, commensurate with qualifications) in Old Testament and Hebrew, beginning 15 August 2016 with primary appointment in Briercrest Seminary. The successful candidate’s teaching will support ministerial and academic degrees in the seminary along with occasional undergraduate teaching. Candidates should demonstrate a commitment to the Gospel, possess a PhD (or equivalent), and show potential for excellence in teaching, in service to the Church, and in research supporting ministerial education. Prior ministry and teaching experience will be highly regarded.
More information is available on the Briercrest website here.

And here are links to the other faculty position profiles--no less important, but probably of less interest to my readers:

Worship Arts
TESOL/Modern Languages