Exegetical Exercise

Image fresco mission of the apostles

The mission of the apostles precedes
the acts of the apostles.
[Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The “book of the month” this month: Acts. The “text of the week:” Acts 4:23-31.

Background: The text is from early in the book of Acts, extension of the gospel of Luke, 80-90 CE; a few things we know about Luke-Acts: Luke “passes the Bechdel test” – but Acts doesn’t! The whole work emphasizes the Holy Spirit; it seems to have been written to a Gentile audience, in highly literate Greek, and is attentive to Gentile concerns; Gentiles figure prominently, and that becomes even more true of the book of Acts – the Gentiles emerge as important figures early in the book, and become the exclusive object of Paul’s gospel proclamation by the end of the book.

Context: Jesus’ ascension, Pentecost, and early conversions; Peter and John have healed a crippled beggar at the Beautiful Gate, preached in Solomon’s portico, been detained by the authorities, especially for preaching resurrection, appeared before a council of authorities including the High Priest and others, done some more preaching, and been warned “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (4:18), to which they respond, you’ll have to decide whether it’s right for us to listen you or to God. So … a conflict of public speech.

Noteworthy things in the text: There is a lot of speaking, both explicitly and implicitly, in the text, and the conceptual reverberations or connections are intense. “They” Peter and John, go, report [what the elders et al. have said]; “their friends” or “their own” raise their voices together, say – a two-part report: what God has done, what people have done – and then make a request of God. Something happens immediately.

The two-part report starts with a citation of Psalms: Psalm 146:6 and the first part of Psalm 2, ending with “against his Messiah (“anointed”); including the reminder that God said “by the Holy Spirit through our father David, your servant/child (not enough context to tell which meaning of the underlying Greek paidos, which could mean either, is dominant); then continues in v. 27 with a little chiasm – both Herod (a1) and Pontius Pilate (b1) and the Gentiles (b2) and people of Israel (a2) gathered together (echoes back to v. 26 but also to the “together” in v. 24) against your paidos (same problem as with paidos David) Jesus “whom you anointed” – echoes back to v. 26, which is the citation of Psalm 2, so echoes back to the past. That little chiasm, maybe, formally embodies the “gathering together” they did – neat. (Maybe a little more ominously … it’s a cooperative enterprise between Gentile and Jews, but for the “wrong” purpose from the standpoint of the believers.)

The request is that God look at the threats, grant “your doulai (slaves, servants)” to speak “your word with complete freedom”, and simultaneously “stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name (echoes v. 25) of your paidos Jesus” – so, the people involved don’t elevate themselves to the status of people through whom God would speak directly, but ask to speak through “the name of” Jesus.

(Still not enough context to determine which meaning of paidos dominates! Does this imply “we’re not children, we’re just servants/slaves,” or does it mean something like “we’re the servants of servants”? Or, “we’re servants of your child”? Or, “we’re the descendants of your servant” – David being their “father”? Or maybe, some feeling of all of the above?)

Also note: the incorporation of the image of Moses stretching out his staff over the Red Sea and God doing signs and wonders through Moses. So, while it sounds like they’re not trying to claim too much, at the same time, they’re suggesting a lot. Also … don’t forget that one of Moses’ concerns way back in Exodus 3 is that he is “slow of speech” and there’s a long passage (Ex 3:10-17) completely focused on Moses’ not wanting to speak and God talking about speaking and finally agreeing to send Aaron to do the actual speaking which finishes up with the announcement that Moses with his staff will perform God’s signs and wonders. Also don’t forget that earlier in the same conversation Moses has asked for God’s name so that when people ask him about the “God of their ancestors” (echoes of v. 25??) – “what’s his name?” – he will be able to tell them and they will listen … (Suppose all of this is coincidence? Maybe not.)

Prayer finished, the place is shaken, they were “all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with complete freedom.” (echoes of v. 25 & v. 30, suggests the connection between anointing and the Holy Spirit, is an immediate affirmative response to the request, is a direct contrast with v. 18 – “don’t speak” – and a direct answer to v. 19 – “whether it is right for us to listen …”)

The use of “listen” in v. 19 may draw in their future audiences by implication (whether it will be right for those audiences to listen to the apostles, or to the council). So: a conflict about public speech, and about proper or legitimate response. (Back to the little chiasm: an audience listening to these people might involve a gathering together of peoples of Israel and of Gentiles, but for the “right” purpose from the standpoint of the believers … might.)

This is all completely ignoring the use of the verb “fore-ordained” in v. 28, which is the transition from the report to the request. God had this all planned out, according to them.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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