New Testament Gospel Doctrine Lesson 30: Acts 10-15

Since I am posting this and the last lesson two nights apart, I’m going to repeat my housekeeping remarks.

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Third, I posted the midterm and final I gave when I taught the 2nd half of New Testament at BYU in 2006. (Handouts and answers are down in the comments of that post.) Although we’re just getting into the material covered there,  it may be useful for study/question ideas.

Fourth, we are starting to run out of story and narrative, Paul is approaching fast. If you haven’t already gotten one, in Paul’s letters it becomes critical to supplement the KJV with a modern translation of the Bible to grasp what he’s saying. As C.S. Lewis said, ” I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given [Paul] so many gifts, withheld from him… that of lucidity and orderly exposition.” My Bible recommendations and reasons are here. Please check them out.

On to the text!


10- Cornelius and Gentiles The visions leading to the full conversion of Cornelius mark the beginning of a major shift, which will prove to be both a source of strength and conflict in the early Christian Church. There were far more non-Jews than Jews in the Mediterranean, and many of those non-Jews would become Christians. That rapid growth would create challenges, and as well as the cultural confliect between the Judaic base and Gentilic influx of convert, which Paul must address multiple times in his letters, as those of the different backgrounds clash. Cornelius, as v. 22 explains is both a Roman centurion (a man of rank and importance) in the Italian Regiment (“Italian Band” per the KJV always conjures up visions of accordions and such) as well as a “God-fearer.”

The latter term refers to non-Jews who did not convert completely (circumcision?), but played a role in the life of the synagogue, became quasi-monotheistic, and kept  some Jewish laws. The God-fearers were apparently numerous in the ancient mediterranean, though just how much has been the subject of debate. They show up several times in Acts, e.g. 13:16, where Paul addresses synagogue attendees in Antioch. He addresses them this way- “You Israelites, and others who fear God, listen. (NRSV). In 1987, a long inscription from a synagogue was published, which listed some of the God-fearers of that synagogue. See this post elsewhere.

10:10 Peter falls into a “trance” – The Greek word has broad meaning, variety, but in here refers to “a state of being in which consciousness is wholly or partially suspended, freq. associated with divine action, trance, ecstasy.”- BDAG The Greek word, in fact, is  ekstasis, and English “ecstasy” is a cognate. Elsewhere, ekstasis means something closer to our modern ecstasy, “a state of consternation or profound emotional experience to the point of being beside oneself” as in Mark 5:42.

10:15– What is divinely commanded is sometimes counter-intuitive. Peter’s response is one of instinctive rejection. From the time he was a small child, he has been taught the divine commands of the Torah, which designate some animals as “profane” or “unclean.” (The latter word is not terribly helpful, as a dirty animal could be “clean” or legal to eat, and a clean animal could be illegal to eat.) Peter has to be shown this three times, and even then he is “greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision” (v17). At this point, Cornelius the Gentile appears, and this coordinated revelation helps make clear to Peter what is to be done, at least initially. However, it does not clearly resolve questions about how non-Jews are to be integrated into this salvation that was taught by a Jew, made possible by a Jew, and prophesied by Jewish tradition and scripture. Shouldn’t they still have to become, well, Jewish, with everything that entails? This and related questions will prove a trial to the early Christians, and we’ll see it addressed repeatedly.

Later on in v. 45, Peter is preaching to Cornelius and the group of Gentiles he has assembled at his house.

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.- (Act 10:44-48 NRSV)

Now, I want to suggest something without being dogmatic about it. We tend to take “the gift of the holy ghost” as a technical term for something that only happens after baptism, and by the laying-on of hands. Whatever is going on here, the Apostles are clearly surprised, but view it as a divine sign. Are they in fact receiving the “gift of the holy ghost” as we understand it? I would suggest that it’s possible. Note the view of Joseph Fielding Smith.

“the Lord gave the commandment to Joseph Smith that those who are baptized for the remission of sins shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, and this is the practice in the Church. This does not prove, however, that the gift of the Holy Ghost may not be received without the laying on of the hands, although we assume that this was the general custom of the Church in ancient days….We discover in the reading of the scriptures that the Lord conferred authority on some of his chosen servants and gave them exceptional powers without the laying on of hands, but merely by his spoken edict. In this manner Elijah obtained the keys of power in the priesthood to raise the dead, heal the sick, close the heavens that it did not rain only by his word, and for more than three years there was no rain, and moreover he had the power to call down fire from heaven to destroy the enemies of the Church….We may correctly believe that the Lord may bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost by other means than by the laying on of hands if occasion requires it. While it is the practice to lay on hands, there are many incidents recorded in the scriptures where divine authority has been bestowed by the divine edict to the prophets.” – Answers to Gospel Questions, 4:93

In Chapter 11, Peter’s actions are immediately controversial to “the circumcised believers” (Act 11:2 NRSV), since he seems to be abandoning the Jewish nature of salvation. Peter explains, convincingly, that although surprising, this seems to be God’s plan and intent. The reaction in v. 18 is

“When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Act 11:18 NRS)

Clearly, that God would extend salvation outside Judaism was a surprise. God acts in surprising, sometimes counter-cultural, and unpredictable ways. There is tension between holding fast to what has been revealed through God’s prophets, while also anticipating new revelation pointing in new directions.

Now, something similar happens in Antioch, and Barnabas brings Saul/Paul there to preach. The stay for a year, to great success. Notably, it is in Antioch that “the disciples were first called Christians.” (Act 11:26 NRSV) Well, what else would they have been called? As it turns out, the following of Jesus was called “the Way” sometimes “the Way of God” or “the Way of the Lord.” This is obscured in the KJV, but appears in several passages. Back in Acts 9:2, for example, Paul had asked “for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (NRSV)


 

Then some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.” (Act 19:13 NRS)

Jesus’s name has been found in the so-called “Greek magical papyri,” being invoked among many other names as a name of power used to drive out or conjure spirits. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that some had seen Jesus as a “magician” and a powerful one at that. I put the word in quotes, because there is no good definition of “magic” vs. “religion” really, except that “magic” is someone else’s illegitimate religion. (Not really a good definition.) The suggestion that some of Jesus’ contemporaries viewed him as a “magician” was put forth by a controversial scholar (Morton Smith), and has been widely criticized. John Welch of BYU has reexamined it, however, in an interesting paper which  can be downloaded hereI’ll post, if I can get permission. It was presented at SBL, later published here, and spoken of positively by the editor, James Charlesworth.


 

11:27-28 and 13:1 Note that there are explicitly prophets after Jesus; contrary to some Christian views, Jesus did not mark the end of revelation or prophesy (which is usually an interpretation of Hebrews 1:2). LDS on the other hand, tend to misunderstand prophesy and “prophet” as if it were a priesthood office, instead of a gift of the Spirit.

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