The Book of the Acts of the Apostles is Luke’s second volume of his work on the ministry of Jesus and the impact of that ministry on the Mediterranean world of the first century. As a window on the earliest missionary work of the emergent Christian church, the book is invaluable, however non-historical much of it certainly is. Luke’s Gospels, like the other three, are historical fictions, as I argued a few weeks ago in another essay, not primarily designed to offer to us a newspaper account of events, but rather to provide editorial commentary on the growing movement, portraits of the preaching and teaching of Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, Barnabus, Silas, and other lesser known travelers who shared their understanding of the faith in Jesus Messiah to any in the vast Roman empire who would listen.
Most disturbing in these accounts is the overt and covert anti-Semitism to be found, where the Jews are too often caricatured and vilified in appalling and terrible ways. Of course, these wretchedly negative pictures of Judaism are found in profusion in the Gospels, headlined by Matthew’s infamous “blood curse” when the Jews regale Pontius Pilate in the presence of Jesus with that disgusting phrase, “May his blood be on us and on our children” (Mt. 27:25). Peter’s justly famous Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 is likewise filled with similar hatred for the Jews whom he names as murderers of their own Messiah, among other scurrilous claims (Acts 2:23,32). One need not know much history to imagine where these anti-Jewish comments eventually led: from Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe, to the expulsion of Jews from nearly every country, to the inquisition against the Jews in Spain and elsewhere, to the abomination of the Shoah, conjured from the bowels of Hell by the Nazis and their numerous minions. Such words from our very Scriptures have held fierce and shocking implications for our Jewish brothers and sisters that resound in our own 21st century. Anti-Semitism remains alive and all too well in our time with the desecration of synagogues and the targeting of Jews by the alt-right and their friends a growing problem around the world. Even in Germany and Austria, of all places, the birthplace of Hitler and his monstrous movement, such anti-Jewish sentiment and actions have grown dismayingly in our current century. The fact that not until 1965 did the Roman Catholic Church officially expunge from its doctrinal beliefs that the Jews were “Christ killers,” and that not until the papacy of John Paul II did any pope ever even enter a synagogue in Rome, is clear evidence that these words of the Bible have resonated among Christians and Jews for all the centuries since their composition.
Acts 17, and its depiction of Paul’s founding of the church at Thessalonica, continues this troubling assault against the Jews by suggesting that though Paul argues with them in the synagogue, using their own Hebrew Bible, attempting to demonstrate that Jesus is assuredly the Messiah of the Hebrews, their violent rejection of his ministry contrasts vividly with the open and ready acceptance of his words by well-born Gentiles, both in Thessalonica and also in Beroea, some 60 miles south. This throws a dark light on the Jews, Paul’s own people, to whom he is desperate to bring the word of Jesus.
In sharp contrast to the response of the Thessalonian Jews, Luke tells us that when Paul preaches his gospel, “a large crowd of devout Greeks as well as more than a few of the important women” of the town” are convinced by his words and “commit themselves to Paul and Silas” (Acts 17:4). But when it comes to the Jewish response, they “became jealous” and “recruited some wicked fellows from the rabble” in order to incite a riot against these Christian preachers. The Jews and the rabble go to the house of a certain Jason and drag him and a few other believers before some of the Roman leaders of the city. They proceed to charge Paul and Silas with political sedition by accusing them of setting up a king against the only king there can be in the empire, namely Caesar. “These people (they do not sully their lips with their names, but revert only to the nasty demonstrative pronoun “these”) are all acting contrary to Caesar’s decrees by saying there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). Just as in the Gospel of Luke, the Jews are again the heavies, snarling and snapping their accusations against Jesus and his witnesses.
Then, after Paul and Silas are smuggled out of the dangerous confines of Thessalonica, and are taken to Beroea, he went again to the synagogue there. But instead of another rejection by that synagogue and its congregants, “they received the message with complete eagerness” (Acts 17:11). The reason is made plain; “these people were more refined than those in Thessalonica” (Acts 17:11). In other words, the Beroean Jews were literally “well born,” in contradistinction to the “rabble” of Thessalonica. This is an important contrast to note. It seems now that high-born Jews are wiser and more receptive than the riff-raff Jews that tend to deny Paul’s claims that Jesus is anything more than a rebel against Rome, who on the cross got what he deserved. We might conclude that perhaps Luke is not quite the anti-Semite I have made him out to be.However, it is well known that Paul’s primary ministry was to the Gentiles, and not to the Jews. Still, Luke notes again and again that when Paul seeks to found a church community he first goes to the synagogue (Paul himself says this in his letters), looking for any of his own Jewish people who can be persuaded that the resurrected Jesus really is the Messiah of Israel. Obviously, then, a great number of early converts to Paul’s way of thinking were in fact Jews, although many Jews simply refused to accept what it was that Paul was teaching. This window into the early church’s struggles for a toehold in the Roman world may well be a clarifying one; some Jews did become devotees of Messiah Jesus, along with many Gentiles. At the same time, the Jews who would not join the movement were seen as especially dangerous and deserving of anathema from the first Christians.
As the first century moved towards its end, the division between synagogues and churches became ever more pronounced, with a final separation occurring perhaps late in the century. And from that time, as the Christians began to worship on Sundays as opposed to the Jewish Sabbath on Saturdays, the trouble and rancor between the two groups increased until division boiled over into rage so that when the Roman world became Christian in the fourth century the Jews were cast as utter villains, worthy only of reprobation and death. Hence, the horrible history noted above.
Though Luke may offer a more nuanced view of those who first heard the good news of Jesus in the Mediterranean basin, including well-born Jews and Gentiles, not to mention many women, themselves persons of societal high standing, yet it cannot be denied that he aided mightily the adversarial understanding of Judaism, an understanding that had fateful consequences for the world.
In the midst of our COVID-19 lock-down, it is far too easy to seek someone or some group to blame for the wide disruptions, sickness, and deaths brought on by this silent menace. Our own president Trump, to his undying shame, continues to name the Chinese, or more specifically the province of Wuhan, as the ultimate culprit. In a recent G-7 economic summit, a joint statement of support for efforts to slow the spread of the virus foundered on Trump’s unwillingness to let go of the language “Wuhan virus,” in the apparent attempt to vilify the Chinese. The other six nations would not agree, suggesting COVID-19 as the proper way to describe it.
As we have just seen in the book of the Acts, and in the New Testament in more than a few places, words have consequences. Language is a crucial tool for human communication, as well as for human unity or division. Blaming the Jews as murderers of Jesus was a monstrous claim that led to even more unspeakbale acts of inhumanity. President Trump should be far more careful not to sow the seeds of Chinese enmity, because we are one world now, no matter how nationalistic any one nation attempts to be, and we need partners and friends as we navigate the huge issues we all face. Even after COVID-19 passes into an ignominious history, and it will, there is still the monster of climate change to face, and we must face it united as a world; that monster will determine the fate of every person on the planet for good or ill. The decisions of any one nation will never be enough to solve the range of issues thrown up by a warming planet.
Luke then offers ambiguous help as we seek for a unity among all peoples. Trump offers no valuable language to bridge the gaps of our world, and as such, provides little hope for long term unified solutions to a whole range of enormous demons that all face. We would do well to take this Lukan ambiguity seriously as we move into the uncertain future together. There is no time any more for blame or caricature in a world that demands unity of purpose and care for all the planet’s people, animals, and plants.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)