Thursday, January 19, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: Poor Ignorant Fishermen?

A myth of sorts has grown up around the idea that Jesus chose poor, uneducated fishermen to be his apostles. This idea is partly derived from Acts 4:13;

“Observing the boldness of Peter and John and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men, they were amazed, and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus.”

These men were not generally aristocrats or trained scribes, but disciples of Jesus. The Greek agrammatoi can literally mean “without letters” or illiterate. In a religious context it probably has a more limited meaning of ‘not trained in the law’ (cf. John 7:15). In other words one not formally trained as a scribe. The Greek idiƍtai literally means a private person, or an ordinary person as opposed to an expert.

In the ancient world eloquence or boldness of speech was associated with education or training in rhetoric. Since Peter and John are clearly untrained in these fields the boldness of their speech astonishes the Temple leaders.  The Jewish leaders, “were amazed, and they recognized them as companions of Jesus” (Acts 2:13).

The ‘ordinary’ nature of these Apostles must not be exaggerated. M. Wilkins believes that "James and John" were from a family of some wealth and influence, based on the information we have about their fishing business (cf. Mk 1:19).[1] Peter ran a fishing business with his brother Andrew and their partners, James and John (Mk 1:16-20; Luke 5:10)[2] He seems also to have owned a house with his brother Andrew (Mk 1:29). Mark’s text suggest that the house was not far from the synagogue in Capernaum (compare Mk 1:21 with 1:29).

Luke’s comment in Acts 4:13 likely means that Peter, Andrew, James and John were merchants and not theologians by trade and of course they had no credentials as Scribes or Pharisees. Acts 4:13 could also have betrayed a prejudice against their Galilean accents or even against their very social class as "the newly wealthy" as opposed to the older aristocracy of the Sadducees. There is no indication here of them being poorly educated in general, semi-illiterate, or just plain dull. This does not fit their occupation or background, or the biblical record of their probable use of Greek.[3]

Carsten Thiede comments, “an active knowledge of Greek would have been obligatory for people like Peter and his co-workers, Andrew, James and John (Mk 1:16; Lk 5:10), who were involved in the fishing industry and trade. They would have heard Peter speaking Greek from childhood days, and refined their linguistic abilities soon as they had chosen their trade. The Hellenistic element in their immediate surroundings is obvious even from their names.”[4] Peter Davids notes that there was a growing group of wealthy merchants in first-century Palestine who had not yet joined the land owning aristocracy, and who did not have priestly or Herodian political connections. This group constituted as new addition to the wealth upper class. There was also "a small middle class of skilled artisans and land-owning medium sized farmers and merchants."[5]




[1] Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKight, I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1992) p. 179. If we identify the Apostle John as the beloved disciple (John 18:15) then we read the beloved disciple was "well known to the High Priest" signifying some upper class connections.

[2]Ibid. p. 179. Are we to understand that James and John are also originally from Bethesda (cf. Mk 1:20)?

[3] Speaking to the Syrian Phoenician woman (Mk 7:26), a conversation with Pilate without an interpreter (Mk 15:2-5), the presence of Greek speaking Jews among the disciples (Acts 6:1), the meeting with Cornelius the Centurion (Acts 10:25-27).

[4] Carsten P. Thiede, Simon Peter: From Galilee to Rome (Academie Books, 1988) p. 20-21.

[5] Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. p. 702.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: Peter and John in Jerusalem

catechismThe description of the ideal community in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42-47) forms a bridge to the next section of Acts which narrates the ministry of Peter and John. In Acts 2:42 we read, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” The four topics mentioned match with the four major sections of the Catechism. The “teaching of the apostles” compares to the Creed section of the Catechism; “communal life” to the Our Life in Christ section, the “breaking of bread” to the Liturgy and Sacraments section, and “prayers” to the final section of the Catechism on Prayer. From the beginning the Church has presented its faith as an organic unity. The truths of the faith like a living organism cannot be divided up and offered like items on a cafeteria menu.

Luke introduces a new narrative with the words; “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o’clock hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1). Although there are several people named ‘John’ in Acts it seems obvious that Luke has in mind the Apostle John mentioned already in 1:13. One can see that initially the disciples continued to live as observant Jews.

Peter’s healing of a man crippled from birth in the Temple astounds the crowds and becomes the means for another speech by Peter in Solomon’s Portico. A man crippled from birth would not have been allowed to fully participate in Temple worship (Leviticus 21:17-20; 2 Samuel 5:8). The sight of the man born crippled now heal and clinging to Peter and John causes ‘amazement and astonishment’ (Acts 13:10) in the Temple area. Peter’s sermon draws the connection between the faith of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the sufferings of his ‘servant’ Jesus. Peter’s use of the use of the title ‘servant’ in Acts 3:13; 26 echoes the motif of the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah 52:13-14 in Greek. “See, my servant shall understand, and he shall be exalted and glorified exceedingly. Just as many shall be astonished at you—“ (NETS)[i] These passages of Isaiah were used by the early Christians to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah. Peter then connects this to an understanding of Jesus as the fulfillment of Moses’ promise that God would raise up a “prophet” like Moses in these last days (Acts 3:22, Deuteronomy 18:15) who would fulfill the promise to Abraham that through him “all the nations of the Earth would be blessed” (Acts 3:25) because God raised up his servant and sent him “to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways” (Acts 3:26).

Although Peter says that his fellow Jews “denied the Holy and Righteous One” and put to death the “author of life,” in no way does Peter hold his fellow Jews responsible either individually or collectively for the death of Jesus. Both the Second Vatican Council (NA 4) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 597) affirms that we cannot hold the Jewish people responsible for Jesus’ passion and death. In fact all sinners have denied our Lord and are in that sense the authors of Christ’s passion (CCC 589). Peter affirms in his speech that the people “acted out of ignorance” (Acts 3:17) and that God allowed the Messiah to suffer to bring to fulfillment what he had “announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets” (Acts 3:18). Later in Paul’s speech before the Athenians, it is affirmed that, “God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now demands that all people everywhere repent.” (Acts 17:30). Our common solidarity as sinners allows us to hear Peter’s words, “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away . . .” (Acts 3:19).

While Peter and John were teaching the priests and Sadducees had the two apostles arrested (Acts 4:1) In spite of the arrest and resistance from the Temple authorities, Luke tells us the Peter’s sermon was very successful and the number of believers grew to about five thousand men (Acts 4:4). The next day Peter and John are brought before the Temple leadership and questioned about the miracle and “the name” through which the healing was performed. They affirm that it was in the name of Jesus that the healing took place. They reply, “There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12). While the Church affirms that those who through “no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church” may still have the hope of salvation (AG 7; CCC 846-848), these graces are still provided by Christ’s one sacrifice and do not lessen the Church’s missionary imperative (CCC 848). The gift of the Spirit received at Pentecost gave Peter and John a “boldness” that amazed the Temple leaders since the Apostles were uneducated and ordinary men (Acts 4:13).

[i] Pietersma, Albert; Benjamin G. Wright; Wright, Benjamin G. (2007-10-31). A New English Translation of the Septuagint (p. 865). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition. (Italics added)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: Pentecost





In the Preface for Pentecost Sunday the priest prays;

. . . For, bringing your Paschal Mystery to completion,

You bestowed the Holy Spirit today

on those you made your adopted children

by uniting them to your Only Begotten Son.

This same Sprit, as the Church came to birth,

opened all peoples to the knowledge of God . . .

The desire of Moses in Numbers 11:29 that God would pour out his Spirit on all peoples came to be treated as a prophecy at the time of Jesus. With the coming of the Messiah there was an expectation that the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ would be poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28-32; Jeremiah 31:34; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3; Ezekiel 39:29). This lavish out pouring of the Spirit would be brought about through a prophetic liberator (Deuteronomy 18:15) or Messiah King (Isaiah 11:1-9; 61). Joel 2:28-32 is the passage Peter uses to interpret the fulfillment of these events at Pentecost in Acts 2:16-21.

The Jewish celebration of Pentecost was a one-day festival which originally celebrated the harvest or first fruits. In some Jewish traditions prior to time of Jesus, the feast of Pentecost may also have celebrated the giving of the Law at Sinai. It may be that the Christian event of Pentecost is a typological giving of a New Law by Jesus as a New Moses and a reversal of the confusion of languages at the Tower of Babel.

The Pentecost narrative can be divided into three parts: The Act of empowerment (2:1-13); Peter’s Pentecost Sermon (2:14-41); and the summary description of the ideal Christian community (2:42-47).

The out pouring of the Spirit in Acts 2:1-13 is described by way of analogy. While the disciples are gathered together in the upper room the Spirit manifested with a sound like a mighty wind, and they see tongues like fire divided and came to rest on each of them. All of them were “filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak in different tongues.” The sound causes a crowd of pious Jews to take notice and the Sprit inspired proclamation astounded them because “each one heard them speaking in their own language” (2:6). Luke cites a very geographically diverse list of pilgrims in Jerusalem who are each able to hear the disciples each in his own language and dialect.

The implications of this filling of the Spirit have generated a great deal of debate among scholars. It seems clear that it involved an empowerment for mission, but the further implications of the event are seen in its interpretation by Peter in his Pentecost Sermon (2:14-41) which follows.

The event generates both interest and scorn from the crowd of pious Jewish pilgrims and this facilitates Peter’s ability to preach to a large crowd. Peter connects this event to the expectation or ‘promise’ of the prophet Joel (3:1-5) that God would someday pour out his Spirit on all flesh. The Jewish expectations of a coming of the Spirit of prophecy are also related to Jesus and the resurrection of the Messiah.

Upon hearing this message a large number of pilgrims are “cut to the heart” and ask Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do?” Peter’s response is a programmatic summary of conversion-initiation in Acts. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38). As the Catechism reminds us the essential elements of Christian initiation are; “proclamation of the Word, acceptance of the Gospel entailing conversion, profession of faith, Baptism itself, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and admission to Eucharistic communion” (CCC 1229). In Acts 2:28 Peter specifically links Baptism to the forgiveness of sins, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins . . .” Almost identical words are used by Jesus at the Last Supper stating that his blood of the New Covenant will be shed “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). No one would deny that Jesus’ blood was shed on Calvary “for the forgiveness of sins” but some are reluctant to admit that Baptism is a means of receiving this grace of forgiveness. While the Holy Spirit is clearly active in all stages of conversion there is a definitive and complete reception of the person of Holy Spirit in Baptism.

Later while recounting his conversion, Paul recalls the words of Ananias, “Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away, calling upon his name” (Acts 22:16b). In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses typology to say that the Israel was baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-2). Peter later uses the example of Noah to say that just as eight people were “saved through water” so this ‘prefigures’ baptism, “which saves you now” (1 Peter 3:20-21).

Baptism gives us the grace of forgiveness of all our prior sins; it makes us a new creature and adopted son of God (2 Corinthians 5:17; 2 Peter 1:4); it incorporates us into the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:25) and creates a sacramental bond of unity leaving an indelible mark on our souls. (CCC 1262-1274).

baptism of neophytesFollowing Peter’s Pentecost Sermon, 3000 people accepted his message and were baptized, received the gift of the Holy Spirit (2:41) and were admitted to Eucharistic communion (2:42). This sequence of actions points to the Sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation, and reception of first Holy Eucharist. The Holy Spirit is at work transforming us, empowering us and nourishing us.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: Jewish Background on the ‘Spirit of Prophecy’

Although Judaism at the time of Jesus had no unified or centralized system of belief, there was an understanding of the Spirit which influenced popular expectations. Hebrew had become a specialized literary language which was replaced in common usage by Aramaic and Greek translations of the Scripture. The Aramaic translations were called Targums. In the century before the time of Jesus, both in early Targums and other Jewish writings we see the emergence of an expectation of a phenomena called the “Spirit of prophecy.”

Scholars have pointed out that this term referred to the Spirit acting on a person as the organ of communication between that person and God in a manner that is broader than usually though of by the term ‘prophecy.’ Max Turner (Holy Spirit, 6-12) has pointed out four distinct activities of the Spirit that were attributed to the coming of the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ in Jewish expectation. The first is the reception of charismatic revelation and guidance in the form of supernatural knowledge about someone or something without the added dimension of the reception of inspired speech or ‘prophesying.’ The second is the reception of charismatic wisdom following the archetypical example of Bezalel who crafted the Temple furnishings through a special infilling of the Spirit in Exodus 31:3. This gift can also relate to the charismatic wisdom afforded to understand God’s Word (Sirach 39:6). Less commonly the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ can mean Spirit inspired prophetic speech in what we more typically think of as prophesying.

The classic example would be the inspired speech of Balaam in Numbers 23-24. Balaam was supposed to utter a prophetic curse against Israel on behalf of Balak, King of Moab, but under the inspiration of the Spirit he utters prophetic words of blessing instead. The Jewish historian Josephus comments on this passage that Balaam was possessed by the Spirit of God and that the Spirit “gives utterance to such language and words as it will, and of which are unconscious” (Josephus, Antiquities, 4.119). Finally, Turner points to the ‘Spirit of prophecy’ as “invasively inspired charismatic praise or worship.” This might be analogous to the experiences of the bands of prophets in 1 Samuel 10, and 19. The Aramaic Targum to 1 Samuel 10:6 reads; “And the spirit of prophecy from before the Lord will reside upon you, and you will sing praise with them, and you will be changed into another man. Later rabbinic tradition linked this type of inspiration to the inspired Song of Moses in Exodus 14-15.

The coming of the Spirit at the Christian Pentecost in Acts 2 would be understood against these popular Jewish expectations. This would especially be connected with a future expectation that God would pour out the Spirit of prophecy on all of a restored Israel (Joel 2:28-32, cf. Ezekiel 36:27) the very passage quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:17-21).

Further Reading:

Gonzalo Haya-Prats, Empowered Believers: The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011)

Max Turner, Power form on High: The Spirit in Israel’s Restoration and Witness in Luke-Acts, (Sheffield: SAP, 1996).

Max Turner, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, (Paternoster Press, 1996/Hendrickson, 1998).

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Acts of the Apostles: Introduction


Moses, in the book of Numbers, expresses a desire for all God’s people, “If only all the people of the LORD were prophets! If only the LORD would bestow his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29)

In the Gospels we see the fulfillment of the desire of the Old Testament prophets to know God. Jesus reveals the very face of God to us and fulfills the promises of God’s divine plan for a Messiah and the establishment of a new covenant between God and his people. Even after Jesus death and resurrection, we to continue to see the reflection of the face of Jesus in the lives of his followers. Jesus own intimate relationship to the Father as Son become the model of our own spiritual relationship with God as his children. Luke gives us an account of this ongoing work of God’s Spirit in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.

Although they do not occur side by side in our modern Bibles, Luke is the author of a two volume work: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Following the art of ancient history writing, Luke repeats in Acts the account of the Ascension (Luke 24:36-53) which was the final event of his Gospel. It was customary in ancient works to summarize briefly the content of the first narrative before moving on to the second. In the book of Acts, Luke begins again with the day Jesus was “taken up.” The word used here parallels the “taking up” of the Prophet Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind          (2 Kings 2:1). The Ascension is the hinge that links the two volumes.

Luke reminds his readers of “all that Jesus did and taught” in the Gospel, of his commissioning of the apostles, of Jesus’ suffering death and of the “many proofs” of his resurrection. Jesus speaks to them about the kingdom of God, and of the empowerment of the gift of the Holy Spirit which will soon be received in Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel prologue (Luke 1:1-4) and the prologue to Acts are clearly linked and Luke uses special language to alert his reader to the historical nature of the material. We must remember as modern readers that it was not possible to easily scan or preview the material in a scroll, so ancient authors would add a short summary that functioned like a table of contents in a modern book.

The promises of Jesus narrated earlier in the Gospel prompt a question from the apostles here in Acts, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (1:6). Jesus reply to this question forms an outline of what will follow in Acts. “But you will receive power when the holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the power of the Holy Spirit the Apostles will be witnesses first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria and finally to the “ends of the earth”. The first eight chapters of Acts focus on the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem and primarily to the Jews. This ministry expands geographically to Judea and Samaria and begins to include the Gentile peoples. Finally after the conversion of Paul we see the ministry of the Church reach out to the ends of the earth. Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles. The narrative ends with Paul’s journey to Rome to be tried by Caesar.

Yet in order for the new people of God to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to the kingdom of Israel, there must first be a restoration of the Twelve Apostles who mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. Since Judas has betrayed our Lord and died a tragic death, they must replace him. Peter sees the following Scriptures as fulfilled in Judas, ‘Let his encampment become desolate, and may no one dwell in it.’ And: ‘May another take his office’ (Acts 1:20).

The Greek word underlying the word “office” in this verse can accurately be translated “office of bishop”. Later in Paul's letters to Timothy we find the same Greek word “whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). A connection is seen here between the authority of the Apostles and the later authority of the bishops who are ordained by the Apostles as their successors (cf. 2 Tim 2:2). Matthias is chosen to replace Judas so that the initial mission of the Twelve Apostles is fulfilled. It is the apostolic nature of the Church rooted in Jesus’ own discipleship that sets the stage for the witness of the Spirit that will follow at Pentecost.

Recently Cardinal George commented, “The Church at worship is the context for interpreting the text of Scripture. It is the living community of faith that gives the texts their proper understanding by relating them to the realities of faith through the tradition that binds us to Christ.” The call to witness in the power of the Spirit must be integrally connected to the apostolic Church.

Holy Mary, Queen of Apostles. Pray for us.