Self-Designations and Group Identity— Part Six

In the next chapter of Trebilco’s monograph the focus is on a phrase only found in Acts, and then only eight times— ‘the Way’ (not to be confused with the modern sectarian movement which used the same identifier). The term in fact is only used after the first eight chapters of Acts– 9.2;18.25-26;19.9,23; 24.22 are general uses, and Paul uses the term in 22.4 and 24.14. In Acts 9 and 22 it is clear that Luke uses it of Christians before Paul’s conversion, thus associating the term with the earliest period of early Christianity. Furthermore, as Trebilco points out (p. 248) Luke uses the term rather oddly– only in connection with Jerusalem, the general vicinity of the Holy Land more widely including Caesarea and Damascus, and for some reason Ephesus.

One of the things that is most interesting about this phrase is that it could be used by insiders, by insiders speaking to outsiders, and even by outsiders. Most of the terms and phrases Trebilco is examining are not so multi-purpose in nature. But where in the world did this terminology come from? One thing is for sure, Trebilco doesn’t think it comes from Jesus for he doesn’t even discuss the Johannine Jesus’ famous ‘I am the way…’ saying at all when he talks about origins of the phrase. This is a significant oversight, to say the least.

Isaiah 40.3 (LXX) is without question important to Luke, and before that apparently to John the Baptiser, and in general to the Evangelists when they talk about John. He is the preparer of the way of the Lord in the wilderness that Isaiah spoke of, according to the Evangelists (and perhaps for Jesus as well). Trebilco rightly dismisses the famous Jewish two (ethical) ways or paths tradition as a source of the phrase ‘the Way’ and instead focuses on the influence of Isaiah, which is wise. On p. 254 Trebilco also, in my judgment, rightly refutes the attempt to trace the use of the phrase in Acts to the influence of the use of ‘the way’ and ‘the way of the Lord’ language by the Essenes at Qumran and in Jerusalem. As Trebilco stresses the use at Qumran is much broader than the use in the NT.

Trebilco notes that in Acts 18.25-6 we have the expanded phrase way of God and way of the Lord, which seems to refer to instruction in baptism in this case, but does that have anything to do with the use of the short phrase ‘the Way’. It is not clear. Interestingly, though the phrase is only really found in Acts, Trebilco does not think Luke is the originator of the phrase, he thinks it has earlier historical roots. He thinks it has something to do with the motif in the Gospels about ‘following Jesus on the way’ (Bartimaeus) and other similar notions, including the journey motif in Luke– going the way up to Jerusalem, the way of the cross. The story in Acts 24 suggests that early Christianity was known to the procurator as a sect called ‘the Way’.

There is some logic to the suggestion (p. 266) that if John the Baptizer was seen as one who prepared the way of the Lord, that when the Lord arrived, so did ‘the Way’, in this case, the way of salvation for humankind. Trebilco stresses the strong influence of Isaiah 40 (through 55) on early Christian thinking about who they were, and the salvation that was available in Christ. He is right about this (see for example the work of Ross Wagner on Isaiah in Paul). I agree with him as well that the phrase surely did not get created in a Greco-Roman setting where it would be too innocuous– meaning simply the street or the path, when taken outside of its Jewish theological context. The point is that Christians worship an old God but in a new way, and it is a new way of salvation in Jesus they want to talk about. Trebilco is right however that this phrase was not clear or specific enough to be used in an ongoing way as a designator for outsiders to understand something about early Christianity. There is however a sense in which this phrase suggests that a new religion is starting– a new way of being saved (see p. 269). Notice in Acts 24.1-4 that while Jesus followers were happy to call themselves ‘the Way’ other Jews called them a sect or even a heresy (hereseos). The disavowal of the sectarian label implies that Christians saw themselves as the true people of God and of God’s way, not an abberant Jewish sect.

  • Matthew G. Zatkalik

    Dr Witherington,

    Oops. This is Part 7. Thanks for your generous commitment of time and energy to provide us with insights into our faith and the word of God. I hope this Thanksgiving finds you – and your family – in good health and able to enjoy some time together that blesses y’all.

    Matt

  • Matthew G. Zatkalik

    Dr. Witherington, I too quickly perused the article: ‘The disavowal of the sectarian label implies that Christians saw themselves as the true people of God and of God’s way, not an abberant Jewish sect.


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