Wednesday, November 25, 2020

MARK: Story of the Messiah in Action

 

MARK:   Story of the Messiah in Action 

As users of the Revised Common Lectionary know, Year B (2018, 2021, etc.) is the year of Mark’s Gospel.  From Advent 2020 to Advent 2021 there will be 30 Sundays with Gospel readings from Mark, and in other years, with different dates for Easter, there can be as many as 37 readings from Mark.  Thus, a little introduction to this Gospel as we enter Year B may be in place.

As indicated below, compared to the other Gospels, Mark emphasizes Jesus’ actions more than Jesus’ teachings.  However, many of the actions that tend to reveal who Jesus is he tries to keep secret.  Thus, the reputation of Mark’s Gospel is that it presents Jesus as the Secret Messiah in Action.  

Contents of this Essay:  

About Mark
Hearing Mark (Contents)
The Meaning of Mark 

About Mark

Basic Data about the Gospel According to Mark

1.  Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. 

Matthew                          1,070 verses.

Mark                                  678 verses.
Luke                                1,151 verses.
John                                  878 verses. 

2.  Mark is more about the Action of Jesus than the Teaching of Jesus.

Jesus speech in Matthew                            647 verses.           60%     

Jesus speech in Mark                                  288 verses.           42%
Jesus speech in Luke                                  591 verses.           51% 
Jesus speech in John                                   429 verses.           49% 

3.  Mark is a “synoptic” Gospel. 

·        The first three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share a basic story line, though with major variations in the two larger Gospels.  (Older tradition, from the second century on, viewed Matthew as the earliest Gospel, the others supplementing or abbreviating it.) 

·        West European scholars, beginning in the eighteenth century, became interested in the “history” of these works, how and why they have common materials but are still quite different (eventually called “the Synoptic Problem”). 

·        To advance this study, they created the Synopsis (meaning “view together”), which printed the three Gospels in parallel columns, with the similar (sometimes identical) passages side-by-side. 

·        The Synopsis showed that some passages (with small variations) appear in all three Gospels; some passages appear in only two Gospels (mostly Matthew and Luke), and some passages appear in only one Gospel (many in Matthew or Luke; very few in Mark only). 

·        Close study of the Synopsis gradually convinced scholars that Mark was the earliest Gospel, not Matthew.  The details of the parallel passages make most sense if Matthew and Luke took over material from Mark, rather than the reverse. 

4.  Mark has no Author.

All of the Gospels in the New Testament are anonymous.  (The title "According to Mark" was added in the second century when the four Gospel scrolls began to be copied into a single codex, "book.")  None of the Gospels says who the speaker or writer is.  The speaker in Luke does come out on stage to tell what he is about, speaking to his sponsor, but he does not tell us who HE is (Luke 1:1-4). 

It is clear that in the first Christian century, people did not care about “authorship” of Gospels.  Gospels began to be written only after the first generation of disciples had died off.  They are second generation works.  Each Gospel speaks to and for a considerable body of believers in its metropolitan region, presenting the accumulated tradition about the Messiah who brought them deliverance from the coming judgment of God. 

5.  Later Christians thought the Gospel was written by (John) Mark in Rome.

In the second century, Christians decided they had four and only four real Gospels.   Only “apostolic” writings were authoritative, and each Gospel was assigned an origin that was apostolic, in their view.  Matthew was from the apostle Levi; John was from the aged "beloved disciple" in Ephesus.  Luke was not an apostle, but he had been a long-term companion of Paul (Acts 16-28) and his Gospel was Paul’s.  An early tradition reported that a man named “Mark” had been the interpreter/assistant of Peter in Rome, and the Gospel according to Mark was in fact Peter’s Gospel. 

Luke’s work, Acts of the Apostles, mentioned a "John whose other name was Mark."  The mother of this John/Mark had a well-to-do house church in Jerusalem where Peter was prominent (Acts 12).  This Mark was a cousin of Barnabas, sponsor of and co-worker with Paul.  Mark accompanied them in their work, and when Barnabas and Paul separated he went with Barnabas (Acts 15:36-39).  Paul occasionally mentioned the valuable help of a “Mark” in his later letters (Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:10), which could be a reference to the same man. 

The letter of I Peter, probably not by the “true” Peter, has the comment, “Your sister church in Babylon [Rome]…sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark.”  This locates “Mark” in Rome and definitely associates him with Peter, whenever this was written. 

About 180 of the Christian Era, the churchman Ireneas wrote:  “So Matthew among the Hebrews issued a Writing of the gospel in their own tongue, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel at Rome and founding the Church.  After their decease Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also handed down to us in writing what Peter had preached.”  (Against Heresies, III, 1, trans. Edward Rochie Hardy, in Early Christian Writers, vol. 1, Westminster, 1953, p. 370.) 

That remained the view of the origin of the Gospel According to Mark until the nineteenth century. 

6.      My Conclusion. 

The Gospel was dictated by an experienced reciter of the oral lore to a (professional) scribe in Rome, sometime after the death of Peter (64 to 70 CE).  It was an essentially Galilean-oriented presentation, though it had come to Rome (as had both Paul and Peter in the early 60’s) and become authoritative there, with perhaps a few adaptations to the new setting.  It circulated early, on written scrolls, to other Christian centers, where Matthew (Syria) and Luke (Greece) knew it.  It was probably preserved after the other Gospels became more popular, and held its place as one of the four, precisely because it was the Gospel of Rome.

 Hearing Mark (Contents)

A recent commentator on Mark begins his work this way: 

The Gospel of Mark is a written text to be read aloud, all at once… Before proceeding, the reader is advised to cease and desist from reading all secondary literature (including this commentary) and to read the Markan narrative itself as a whole—or better yet, to listen as the story is read aloud by someone else.  (M. Eugene Boring, Mark. A Commentary, “The New Testament Library,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, page 1.) 

Hearing rather then reading.  This recommendation comes from the recognition – finally – that the Biblical world was an ORAL world.  Throughout the 20th century, study of the Gospels was mostly caught in the “Guttenberg Galaxy,” the mass of unconscious assumptions imprinted on Western scholars by constant exposure to the printed page.  Scholars talked constantly – and only – about "writing," “authors,” and “books.”  (If they were going to be historically accurate they would have spoken of reciters rather than writers and they would have banned the word “book” and spoken only of scrolls.) 

The ancient world was ORAL; few could read; most people listened – and many were good listeners!  The scrolls, besides being rare, required practiced readers who could turn unvocalized (Hebrew) and unpunctuated (Greek) texts into intelligible oral performances. That’s how the Scriptures lived for early Christians.  (Among many resent writings on this topic, see especially Antoinette Clark Wire, The Case for Mark Composed in [Oral] Performance (Cascade Books, Wipf & Stock, 2011). 

Contents.  The above is a preface to hearing Mark, but we still need to address the question, what do we find when we look into and listen to this Gospel?  

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, teacher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, published Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide (Trinity Press International, 2002).  She describes a project she did with community churches (Protestant and Catholic), which concluded with a “performance” of Mark.  There were four sessions, each devoted to listening to a large hunk of Mark:  Kingdom (Mark 1-4:34), Community (Mark 4:35-8:26), Discipleship (Mark 8:22-10:52), and Suffering (Mark 11:1-16:8). 

That is one way of identifying major themes in the successive sections of the Gospel. 

While scholars divide Mark in many ways, most recognize that, whatever else is true, Mark has two major sections, following a theme-setting introduction. 

  1. Mark 1:1-13 is a succinct introduction.  John the Baptist is introduced, baptizes Jesus, who is empowered by God’s spirit and certified by the heavenly voice as God’s son.  Jesus is then tempted, setting up the cosmic struggle between God’s Spirit and Satan that is the real drama behind what follows. 
  2. Mark 1:14-8:30 presents Jesus active in Galilee.  He proclaims that God’s kingdom is at hand, and acts accordingly.  He recruits disciples, exorcises unclean spirits, forgives sins, and in general exercises divine authority in ways people have not seen before.  They flock to him, hear his parables, and receive his healing, feeding, and compassion.  In all this, the demons know he is really the Son of God who will destroy them, and the scribes and Pharisees criticize and oppose him.  Jesus urges people to keep his divine powers secret; he is a Messiah, but a secret one.  This section concludes when Jesus elicits from the disciples their recognition that he is indeed the Messiah (8:27-30). 
    • Mark 1:14-5:43 is a cycle of disciples, healings, controversies, and teaching around Galilee.  Jesus calms a storm to save the disciples' boat.  
    • Mark 6:1-8:30 has Jesus rejected in Nazareth, then sending out disciples, and a wider cycle of healings, controversies, and teaching -- this time with marvelous feeding of the multitudes.  Jesus walks on the stormy lake to reach the disciples' boat.  By the end the inner circle knows Jesus is the Messiah.  
  3. Mark 8:31-16:8 presents Jesus going to Jerusalem to die as the Suffering Servant.  Jesus tells the disciples three times that he will suffer and die but also rise on the third day.  In one key statement Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45).  The disciples do not (cannot ?) hear this – either the death or the rising again.  The cost of following Jesus is heavily emphasized.  One who gives up one’s life for Jesus will in fact save it.  Jesus makes a royal show entering Jerusalem, holds public debates with the authorities who oppose him, blesses his little group with a final supper, and is betrayed to the powers, both Judean and Roman, finally confessing to the high priest that he is indeed the Messiah and Son of Man.  They crucify him, thereby carrying out God’s will, as Jesus recognized in his prayer in the Garden.  The Gospel ends with an empty tomb; the women who find it tell no one, but a heavenly messenger informs them that everything goes back to Galilee (Mark 16:7).  
    • Mark 8:31-10:52 has Jesus say the Messiah must die, but three disciples get a glimpse of the glory beyond the passion -- a forecast of the risen Jesus.  On the way to Jerusalem there are controversies, now about marriage, children, wealth, and leadership (in the coming church).  Jesus gives sight to a man who calls him "son of David."  
    • Mark 11:1-13:37 has Jesus come to Jerusalem as king, clear the temple of merchants, condemn the current leaders of Israel, and deliver a long discourse about the coming end of the world.  
    • Mark 14:1-15:41 presents in powerful detail the death of the Suffering Servant.  Jesus is anointed, betrayed, and abandoned -- but not before he has given his followers a solemn meal to keep his presence with them.  A Judean court finds a way to condemn him and a Roman governor, against his better judgment, has him crucified.  The crucifixion is remembered more for the mocking by the onlookers than for any intense suffering.  However, the cosmos is darkened in recognition of who has died, and an awe-struck Roman officer says, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (15:39, NRSV).  
    • Mark 15:42-16:8 introduces a previously unknown follower, with wealth and status.  This Joseph of Arimathea gets Jesus buried in an upper-class tomb, with a stone closing it in.  Two days later, however, three women find no body in the tomb but are told by a heavenly messenger that Jesus is risen from the dead, and will continue his mission with them back in Galilee.  The women are terrified and tell no one.  

The Meaning of Mark

Here are the things I conclude are most important about this Gospel.  

1. The supernatural status of Jesus is essential to Mark’s presentation of the gospel.  In Mark’s terms, Jesus’ baptism and temptation open a cosmic-level conflict between the Spirit and Satan which is then carried on on the human level in Jesus’ exorcisms, healings, and disputes with authorities. 

2. Mark presents the apocalyptic Jesus.  Jesus told people the judgment of God is at hand, is actually beginning in his work.  Good news for some, bad news for others.  He said the final reckoning would come in his generation.  

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15, NRSV margin).  

“And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’” (9:1).  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:30).

These last two sayings are not convincing as creations of the early church (as many have argued) rather than as coming from Jesus.  Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist and shared his message that the reign of God was about to overwhelm the current world.  Jesus insisted, even through his own death, that the Kingdom of God (Reign of God) had its preliminary start in his presence and person.  The longest discourse in Mark is about the coming -- and not coming -- of the Son of Man in power (chapter 13).  The post-Markan churches gradually found ways around the embarrassment of the unfulfilled prophecies.  (Luke evolved the Kingdom into the Church by writing Acts – but without giving up the expectation that the Son of Man would indeed soon come in power.) 

However, these hard sayings were not simply eliminated from the tradition or the Gospels.  They were accommodated to the faith that a new life option had appeared as an alternative to the worldly ways of the “present age” that is passing.

3.  Community and Discipleship are an alternative life option.  (Elizabeth Malbon’s emphases were correct.) 

After Jesus was rejected by his own people at Nazareth, he began shaping his disciples into an alternative community.  A new wider circuit of activity (chapters 6-8) was initiated by the sending out of the disciples, and new topics appeared with the feedings of the multitudes (intimating communal living in the care of the disciples).  And after Jesus heads toward Jerusalem, topics of communal life are the focus:  marriage, children, wealth, and true greatness (chapter 10). 

Mark’s Gospel prepares people for a new manner of communal life in Jesus’s name. 

After Jesus announces clearly that he must go to Jerusalem to die, the requirements of following Jesus (Discipleship) are stated in stark terms.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (8:34-35, ESV translation).  As Mark presents them, the disciples are not usually up to expectations, but their limitations are pretty clearly designed to show how relatively ordinary people can in fact become Jesus’ true followers and disciples!  

4. The Passion Narrative is the fundamental core of this Gospel.  (The subscript, deepest-level message, of this narrative is that, “God suffers!”  See the discussion of the Passion Narrative in the Good Friday Lectionary readings for 2021.) 

The divine necessity of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death is announced in unmistakable terms.  “ ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering... and be killed, and after three days rise again.’  He said all this quite plainly…. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him” (8:31-32 and 9:32).  The narrative from Palm Sunday to the Empty Tomb (chapters 11-16) is about one-third of the Gospel, and the earlier parts of the Gospel serve as preface and explanation of the passion. 

The earlier parts make sure we understand who it is that suffers, dies, and is exalted to heavenly power. 

5. The Structure of the Gospel shapes the message.

(1) The Spirit-empowered mighty acts of the Galilean period (chapters 1-8:30) culminate in the disciples recognition of Jesus as the Messiah (finally catching on to what the demoniacs—and the hearers of the Gospel—knew from the beginning).  

(2) The Jerusalem-oriented period of divinely-ordained rejection, suffering, and death of Jesus (8:31-16:8) is the real message about the Messiah ("Christ" = Messiah).  The relatively amazing episode of the Transfiguration on a mountain in Galilee (9:2-10) is Mark’s (only) presentation of the Risen Jesus.  There is no appearance in Jerusalem.  There Jesus’ followers know only the death of the Messiah and an empty tomb.  The sequel will take them back to Galilee (16:7).  (This is an outcome radically rejected by Luke and John, who were deeply invested in a Jerusalem-based Christianity.)

6. The narrative detail in Mark is compelling.  Compared to Matthew’s and Luke’s treatments of the same narratives Mark has more color and vigor (for example, the Gerasene Demoniac, Mark 5:1-20, and the epileptic boy in Mark 9:14-27).  One should read the passages found in all three Gospels in a Synopsis -- for example, Gospel Parallels, Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr (Nelson, 1979 and 1992).  It is hard to avoid the view that Mark is closest to a real human Jesus (as classic commentators like A.B. Bruce and Henry Swete, 1898, believed).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For eighteen hundred years Mark was the neglected one among the four Gospels.  In modern times, the last has become first!  Mark has been recognized as the earliest of the written Gospels, and perhaps the most original testimony to the activity of the Messiah.   The special message of Mark is that the impending Reign of God leads to – and beyond – the cross in Jerusalem. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Exodus Story and the Passover

                              The Exodus Story and the Passover

                                                      (Originally written in 2008 as a Special Note for Biblical Words; 
                                                                             moderately revised for this posting.)

The Revised Common Lectionary Readings for this part of Year A omit eight chapters from the Exodus story (Exodus 4-11).  These chapters include everything from the call of Moses to Passover night.  They include the central part of the struggle for the deliverance of the “Hebrew” slaves.  Dropping eight chapters of narrative from, say, the book of Numbers may be an acceptable choice to accommodate limits of the Lectionary cycles.  But dropping eight chapters from the very heart of the most critical narrative of Israel’s sacred story seems embarrassing. 

The reasons for this omission are likely two: 

(1) Because of its length, the Plague Narrative (chapters 7-11) could not be included in its entirety, and selecting only one or two plague episodes would give a fragmentary and ragged impression.  Besides, the Passover passage (the Lectionary reading for the 14th Sunday) does include a brief report of the tenth plague. 

(2) The Plague Narrative, in its most straightforward sense, is not edifying.  It does not present God in a favorable light.  It shows the Mighty One inflicting deliberate suffering on a people caught at the mercy of its dull-witted and stubborn potentate.  It even shows that Mighty One holding up the sagging Pharaoh with his left hand while he pops him again with his right.  Undignified, if not downright immoral!  Best leave it out of the Lectionary entirely! 

Well, here, outside the proper confines of the Lectionary, some points about this historically colossal narrative may be made.  This discussion may seem like presenting the Scrooge view of the Exodus, for though the Exodus is a liberation story, when read closely it does not fit liberation theologies of our time very comfortably. 

This is for two reasons:  (1) The Exodus is only part of a larger story, the completion of which is the conquest of a promised land by a triumphant chosen people.  Everywhere through the story, there are clear signs that that promised-land conclusion is the overarching meaning of the liberation from slavery in Egypt. 

(2) The Exodus narrative itself makes clear that the defeat of the enslaving power is exclusively God’s doing.  Human initiative (read “political action”) utterly fails to achieve liberation; that is what Exodus 5 demonstrates in the structure of the Exodus action.  The population who will be redeemed by God’s action is passive during the whole thing.  The contest is exclusively a power struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  This is certainly a major theological statement of the Israelite tradition.  The Exodus was God’s doing, an astonishing winning of the prize for which God and Pharaoh were competing. 

And the Plague Narrative makes indelibly clear that this is only a power struggle.  There is nothing about justice, rights, or morality in the struggle between Yahweh and Pharaoh.  They share no common framework – no covenant – within which rights or justice could be appealed to.  The one and only issue is power.  Who is stronger?  Who can force the other to give up possession of the Hebrews. 

Issues of right and wrong cannot enter the sacred story until Israel has been to Sinai.  In Egypt, Israel is only being born, being forced with birth pangs from the womb that used to nourish it but now has become constricting and oppressive.  At Sinai Israel will experience his Bar Mitzvah, will become responsible for keeping the Law.  From then on matters of justice and morality will be of great importance.  The Exodus is a contest of power, not of justice.  The character of the narrative makes that clear. 

The Structure of the Plague Narrative.

First a couple of preliminaries about the larger narrative that includes the plague sequence. 

The final unity.  Exodus 1-13:16 is a composite narrative, an extended re-telling that interweaves earlier narrative strands.  Though the narrative is composite, the focus here is on the final composition.  We are listening to what the narrative has been made into, rather than what it was made out of.  We are looking at the structure of the final story, not its sources.  (At the end, there are also a few non-narrative passages, instructions for every Israelite to observe the Passover, keep the Unleavened Bread festival, and devote or redeem the firstborn of livestock and family – all the standard spring festival actions, 12:43-49; 13:3-16). 

Not the Red Sea.  The Masoretes, who gave us the present form of the Hebrew Bible, made a major break in the text at Exodus 13:16.  The departure from Egypt has been narrated, including the Israelites receiving the Egyptians’ jewelry, taking along their own livestock, and accompanied by a “mixed multitude” (12:33-39).  Their long stay in Egypt is then summarized: 

The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years.  At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.  That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt.  That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations (Exodus 12:40-42, NRSV). 

This summary was before Israel had even started to the Red Sea. 

On the other hand, the Masoretes put no break at all after the Red Sea incident.  Exodus 15:22 simply follows Miriam’s song about the Sea, carrying on the wilderness story without heading or break.  The Red Sea episode is not the end of the Exodus; it is the beginning of the Wilderness.  At Exodus 13:17 a new set of circumstances begins, and topics and themes that will recur from there to Deuteronomy appear.  First, the way through the wilderness is introduced (13:17-18, the Israelites “prepared for battle”).  The pillar of fire and cloud leading the way is introduced (13:21-22).  Unlike the context in Exodus 7-12, the language and strategy here is of battle; here Yahweh will win a battle, not a court contest!  Finally, most characteristic of the Wilderness stories is Israel’s complaint about the exodus:  “Was it because there were not graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (14:11).  This complaint (“murmuring”) will appear again and again in the wilderness, all the way to Numbers 21. 

The Red Sea episode is NOT a part of the Exodus Narrative; it is the beginning of the Wilderness theme, balanced at the end of the wilderness by the crossing of the Jordan River in Joshua 3-4.  (See Psalm 114:3-4! and Micah 6:4-5.)  (In post-Biblical times, of course, the Passover Seders could not resist including the “victory” of the Red Sea in the Passover story sung about at the Seder!) 

The Larger Narrative.  After Israel sank into deep oppression through slave labor and genocide (chapters 1-2), God in heaven made a first movement in response to Israelite laments (2:23-25).  That movement led to the call of Moses and Aaron with declaration of Yahweh’s overall plan and instructions for their particular roles (chapters 3-4).  They hasten to Egypt and let both the Israelite leaders and Pharaoh know what Yahweh demands.  That leads not to an exodus but a worsening of the oppression and reduces everyone, including Moses, to resignation and despair (chapter 5).  At that point, Moses complains, “O Lord, …since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:22-23, NRSV).  (So much for direct political action.)

This signals yet another Divine Turn.  A divine speech declares who Yahweh is (in the P strand the name Yahweh is first introduced here) and what he is going to do – take Israel from Egypt and give it the promised land (6:2-9).  Then there is a pause in the flow of action while the narrator recites some genealogical lore about the Levites, and Moses and Aaron in particular (6:14-27, which carries the Levite genealogy two generations past Moses, to Phinehas, a priest of destiny in Numbers 25:6-13). 

Finally we are ready for the court contest to begin. 

The action of the Plague Narrative is very formalized.  It is a courtly duel in which too powerful lords declare themselves and then demonstrate their prowess.  Typically Yahweh sends Moses (and Aaron) to negotiate with Pharaoh, announcing a “blow” if the Hebrews are not released.  The coming of the “blow” shows that Yahweh’s power is greater – that Pharaoh cannot prevent it.  Pharaoh tries a number of evasions, the details of which contribute to the steady crescendo in the plague sequence.  A subordinate theme is the efforts of the Egyptian magicians to keep pace with the miracles done by Moses and Aaron, and their increasing discomfiture is a touch of comic relief in the narrative progression. 

There are ten plagues in the final narrative.  The number of plagues, and the terminology for each one, could vary from recitation to recitation, as is seen in Psalm 78:42-52 (probably six plagues, varying terminology) and Psalm 105:27-36 (seven plagues, pretty much Exodus terminology but different order). 

The plague episodes are not uniform.  Three of them have no audience with Pharaoh at the beginning, but simply launch into instructions to Moses and Aaron to bring on the plagues:  these are the third, sixth, and ninth plagues.  It seems likely that the base of the present narrative was originally a seven-plague sequence, made up of what are now the first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and tenth plagues. 

Except in Psalm 105, the first plague always is turning the water of the Nile into blood (7:14-24).  There follow a number of nuisance plagues (frogs, gnats, flies, and belatedly, in the sixth plague, boils).  After that Yahweh begins direct assaults on the Egyptian economy:  the fifth plague kills livestock (9:1-7), then hail kills both livestock and crops (9:13-35), and then locusts finish off the crops (10:1-20). 

Standing in a unique role is the ninth plague, the plague of darkness.  This is no ordinary absence of sunlight; it is “a darkness that can be felt” (10:21).  First, this plague implies that the contest has gone cosmic, involving the heavenly powers, not just local conditions (though the Israelites somehow still had light that was lacking to the Egyptians, 10:23).  Secondly, this plague may be symbolic, since the chief god of Egyptian royalty was Ra, the sun god, giver of light. 

Finally, the last plague is always the death of the first-born.  This is the first direct assault on human life in the plague sequence.  While the Israelites are sheltered in their homes, protected from “the Destroyer” by the sacrificial blood on the doorposts, the first-born of all the Egyptians – and especially of Pharaoh – are killed by the numinous power passing through the land, house by house! The death of the crown prince and of the heir apparent in every family is the ultimate defeat of the enemies of Yahweh’s people.  This plague is the climactic event of Israel’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. 

In later Israelite religious practice, this sequence of events (which began on the tenth day of the month, Exodus 12:3) was the occasion of (1) the Passover observance, (2) the offerings of the first-born animals and sons by Israelites, and (3) the observance of the Unleavened Bread festival (the release of the new grain crop for human consumption).  All of these things were aspects of the spring festival in historic times, running over a nearly two-week period in March and April. 

Its Setting in Israelite Life.  

Assuming this overview of the Exodus narrative, we may speculate on its place and power in historic Israelite life.  When would reciting just this kind of narrative have been most cogent to the condition and needs of early Israelites? 

We assume that the Passover went back to pre-monarchic times as an Israelite custom.  In the later monarchic period, it was remembered as an observance of the age of the judges, an observance that had fallen into neglect in the time of the kings.  “No such passover had been kept since the days of the judges who judged Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel or of the kings of Judah” (II Kings 23:22).  (The passover was not congenial to kings!)

The instructions for the Passover in Exodus 12 require permanent houses, with doorposts and lintels, houses that were the numinous boundaries of danger during the critical night.  The next morning the Israelites went out of their houses to celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread, the eating of the new grain crop.  (On this see Joshua 5:10-12.) 

The setting is unquestionably well-settled agricultural-pastoral communities.  This setting corresponds to what we now know of the Iron Age I settlements of hill-country Israel (around 1200 to 1050 BCE).  (See, for example, Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, The Quest for the Historical Israel, ed. Brian B. Schmidt [Society of Biblical Literature, 2007], Part 3, “The Historical Origins of Collective Israel,” pp. 67-98.) This is the social-economic world in which the Passover narrative would have been important and in which its development and progressive elaboration would have had its early stages. 

We may recall that Egypt had been a major power over the Canaanite city-states periodically for more than three centuries before 1200 BCE.  Pharaoh had long been a mighty figure off to the south, either threatening or supporting the tranquility of every Canaanite community.  Around that date, Pharaoh Merneptah made a substantial raid into Canaan, destroying (he claimed) several cities as well as the people called “Israel” (his victory stele contains the first mention of “Israel” in history).  However, the pharaohs were beginning to lose their power in Canaan, and within fifty years after Merneptah they were only a memory, good or bad according to each local community’s past experience. 

Now we may project that for Israelites in this period and in this setting, the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative is every petty Canaanite city-state king writ large In such a context we can see the power that that narrative could have for a lesser developed people living out of the reach of city-state kingdoms that were mainly in the valleys and plains.  The Plague Narrative is a long, intricate enjoyment of the increasing embarrassment of the local city king who has pretended to power over the Israelite peasant settlements. 

The Passover observance was required of every Israelite head of household (see Exodus 10:8-11; 12:43-49, and Numbers 9:13).  The full instructions for the observance are given in Exodus 12:1-28. 

Section from "Blood of the Paschal Lamb Applied to Doorpost," Mosaic, 
Saint Mary Magdalene Catholic Church, Columbus, OH.  Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

At the first new moon in the spring (Nisan in the later calendar), each family began to prepare for the observance.  Ten days after the new moon, they selected a year-old lamb or kid for each house, and on the fourteenth day after the new moon (at full moon), sacrificed the animal, using its blood to protect the doorway of their house, and eating that animal in an atmosphere of danger and haste.  The bread eaten with that meal must be the first produce of the new grain crop, not yet mixed with the leavened dough of the past year’s crops.  At morning, they went out of the house (no doubt rejoicing), and began the ceremonies of the seven-day Unleavened Bread festival. 

Keeping this observance was every Israelite’s commitment to Yahweh, the mighty Lord who could keep them safe from the local city-king who coveted their servitude! 

The compelling power and purpose of the Exodus narrative, as we hear it, was to cement Israelite allegiance to the Lord of the tribal coalition that resisted the city-state kings surrounding  their highland regions.  On this understanding, the Exodus narrative, pretty literally, created and continually re-created Israel as a covenant people of Yahweh! 

 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

ACTS: The Jesus Movement as Divine Destiny

Or —  How the Holy Spirit Led Peter and Paul
to Conquer the Eastern Roman Empire for Christ.

The Revised Common Lectionary calls the churches to read Acts instead of the Old Testament during Easter season of each year.  This is the season of the Witnesses to the Resurrection.  
Thus the First Readings for seven consecutive Sundays (as well as on Ascension Day) are from Acts 1-2, 7, 10, and 17 (and other chapters in other years).  (Acts has 28 chapters.)  These are only little samplers and do not give us the full sweep of this amazing and unique composition of the early Christian movement.  Thus I offer this overview of the complete work called in our Bibles, The Acts of the Apostles.  


The World of Acts.  Major cities with episodes in Acts are underlined in Red.
Beginning from the lower right:  Jerusalem, Caesarea, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth (Greece), Philippi (Macedonia), and Rome


Contents of Acts. 

There are different ways to analyze the scroll.  
For starters, there is a division of Acts into two.  
  • Part One, chapters 1-12, is about Peter and the spread of the Movement from Jerusalem to Antioch.  (This part does include the conversion of Paul, and Peter’s baptism of the first non-Judean congregation, both of which anticipate the main themes of the second part.) 
  • Part Two, chapters 13-28, is about Paul and the spread of the Movement from Antioch to Rome, bringing in mainly non-Judean peoples of the Greek and Roman world.  (Peter, and the Jerusalem church, are still present here, chapter 15, wrapping up topics from Part One.) 
One can also divide the scroll into four parts:  
  • Chapters 1-5 are about the beginnings in Jerusalem, with Peter interpreting the Movement in several speeches, starting at Pentecost.  
  • Chapters 6-12 are about the Movement's inclusion of "hellenists" (6:1), its first martyrdom, and its spread to Samaria (the Evangelist Philip), to non-Judean Roman citizens (Peter at Caesarea), and to Antioch in Syria (Barnabas). 
  • Chapters 13-20 are about Paul's missionary work, establishing mostly non-Judean assemblies ("churches") in cities throughout Galatia, Macedonia, Greece, and Asia (Roman provinces). 
  • Chapters 21-28 are about Paul's testimonies (many speeches) in Jerusalem, in Caesarea (capital of the Roman province of Judea), and finally in Rome, where he resided for two years, speaking "about the Lord Jesus with boldness and without hindrance" (Acts 28:31).  
There is also a widely used division of Acts into six “panels.”  Here is this approach in a hand-out I used to use in classes on Acts, slightly revised here. 

Overview of Acts – Summary Statements 

(NRSV translation)  

(Reference:  B.M. Newman and E.A. Nida, A Handbook on The Acts of the Apostles, United Bible Societies, 1972, pp. 2-3.  The original source, widely used in the 20th century, was C.H. Turner, “Acts,” in Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, Scribner’s, 1900, Vol. I. )  

Key to this approach:  There is a series of summary statements throughout the book that mark the conclusion of each of six stages in the spread of the Word from Jerusalem to Rome.  [Section titles are from Newman and Nida, occasionally modified by JW.] 

The Word preached by Peter in Jerusalem, 1:1-6:7 
Acts 6:7  “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” 

The Word preached by Greek Judeans in Judea, Samaria, and Damascus, 6:8-9:31
Acts 9:31  “Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up.  Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” 

The Word preached to the Nations (Gentiles) from Caesarea to Antioch, 9:32-12:24
Acts 12:24  But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.”  

The Word, rejected by Judeans, is accepted by the Nations, confirmed by Jerusalem leaders, 13:1-16:5 
Acts 16:5  “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”  

The Word is preached through the cities of Macedonia, Greece, and Asia, 16:6-19:20
Acts 19:20  “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”  

Paul, rejected by Judeans, witnesses in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome, 19:21-28:31
Acts 28:30-31  “He lived there [in Rome] two whole years …31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”  

The Origin and Character of Acts. 

1.  “Author.”  
Like the other canonical Gospels, Luke, as well as Acts, is anonymous.  Though the reciter comes out on stage to speak to his sponsor, Theophilus, the reciter does not tell us his name, Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2.  
The ancients called this person “Luke”; modern scholars have no other name for him, so we also will call him “Luke.”  While later times (often many centuries later) report legendary things about Luke, what we really know about him is learned from his two-scroll work itself, which scholars call Luke-Acts.  
NOTE.  I do not speak of “authors,” “writing,” and “books”; I speak of “reciters” and “scrolls.”  It was an ORAL world; people did not read and write; they spoke – and listened.  
The codex (“book”) was not in common use until the second century of the Christian Era.  Reciters in different metropolitan centers had eventually dictated their full repertoires to (professional) scribes who produced the four separate scrolls (Gospels).  As the codex, essentially a Christian innovation, was further developed, it could hold much more text in a convenient form than the scroll, which got very cumbersome when it reached the size of Luke or Acts.  Sometime around the middle of the second century, those scrolls were combined by Christians into a single codex, which was named “the Gospel.”  The four scrolls needed to be distinguished from each other and the scrolls within a single codex were labeled  “according to Matthew,” “according to Mark,” etc.   
2.  Time-frame.  
Luke-Acts is a second generation work of the Jesus Movement.  The mere fact that Acts carries the story to approximately 62 CE demonstrates that.  (Jesus died around the year 30 CE.)  
Luke’s Gospel preserves (from Mark) the apocalyptic orientation of the original Jesus Movement, but much of Jesus’ teaching in Luke tells the followers how to live and act during the “Meantime,” the time between the Ascension and Jesus’ Return on the cloud (see Acts 1:9-11 and Luke 21:27).  That’s the Gospel.  
Acts demonstrates how that life in the “Meantime” unfolded for those followers, once the Holy Spirit had taken Jesus’ place.  During that Meantime the Jesus communities followed his directions on how to live apocalyptically (as in Luke 12, preparing for Acts 2:43-45 and 4:32-37). What emerged by the second generation (when the original apostles were gone and kids had grown up and become leaders in the communities) were the chains of charismatic churches, that were now spread from Jerusalem to Rome.  
3.  Style.  
Luke-Acts is a homogenous literary work.  While a multitude of topics is covered within the Gospel and Acts, and the reciter often speaks with appropriate local coloring, scholars have demonstrated again and again that the language, style, and general perspective of the whole two-scroll work is unified and consistent.  (See especially, Henry J. Cadbury, The Making of Luke-Acts, Macmillan, 1927, and Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts:  A Literary Interpretation, 2 vols., Fortress, 1986 [Luke] and 1990 [Acts].)  
Luke-Acts is good Greek.  Scholars are clear that the reciter knew very well the Israelite scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint, LXX), which often influenced his diction and style.  Septuagint style is detected especially in the infancy stories of Luke 1-2 and perhaps in the early church of Acts 1-5.  
Early in the twentieth century a few scholars thought Acts showed signs of having been translated from an Aramaic original – in chapters 1-15.  We now have many Aramaic documents from Qumran, almost contemporary with Acts, and they do not support the old arguments for translation Aramaic in Acts.  
4.  “We” passages.  
6 They went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia9 During the night Paul had a vision:  there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”  10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.  (Acts 16:6, 9-10, NRSV.)  
This passage shows two things:  (1) how the spread of the gospel to Europe was a divine action – the Holy Spirit limiting their movements and visions giving them their assignments; and (2) how the narrator shifts from the third person, which has been maintained up to this point, and begins to speak in the first person plural.  “We” immediately tried to cross over… 
There are several stretches of Acts in which this first-person narration appears, the “we passages”:  (1) 16:10-17; (2) 20:5-15; (3) 21:1-18; and (4) 27:1-28:16.  
In the first two passages the ”we” is connected with Philippi, the Roman colony in Macedonia.  In all cases the “we” is connected with sea travel, with precise details about seaports, distances, weather.  The “we” passages accompany Paul to Jerusalem, giving details of places and people he visited and stayed with.  After Paul is arrested in Jerusalem the “we” passages cease, until Paul is to travel again (27:1), this time on the hazardous journey, narrated at length, which takes Paul to be tried by Caesar in Rome.  
The obvious face-value reading of these passages is that the reciter modestly and unobtrusively says, “I was present for these things.”  
However, many modern scholars have been unwilling to accept this obvious conclusion.  They have sought (desperately) to deny that we can be dealing with an actual eyewitness presentation.  They propose theories about an early written “itinerary,” used by later “authors” with no particular relation to the main point of Acts.  Or the “we” passages are viewed as deliberate imitations of Greek adventure novels, to add excitement to the last part of the scroll.  
These theories are mostly just scholarly busy-work.  Hans Conzelmann (one of the more “critical” scholars), having reviewed such theories, concludes his discussion this way:  “thus the riddle of the ‘we’ passages remains unsolved.  The only certainty is that by using ‘we’ the author attempts to convey the impression of an eyewitness account” (Acts of the Apostles, Fortress Press, 1987 [German 2nd ed., 1972], p. xl).  
If the narrative is taken at face value, the reciter was a companion of Paul in the late stages of Paul’s work.  He accompanied Paul on his last trip to Jerusalem and was in the neighborhood while Paul was under house arrest for two years in Caesarea and similarly for two years in Rome (chapters 21 and 28).  (In recent scholars’ “new Paul” reading of his authentic letters, all of them were written before the period covered in Acts 21-28.)  
Critical scholars, especially in Germany, have denied that this was possible, mainly because  the Luke who describes Paul in Acts does not understand Paul’s main theological positions as seen in Paul’s letters.  It is true that from Acts you would learn little or nothing about Justification by Faith or Paul’s dire view of Sin.  However, this hyper-critical view does not do justice to the clear and uncomplicated way in which Acts pursues its limited and controlled purpose:  to get the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome by means of those chosen servants.  
Luke is presenting the movement of the “gospel” from Jerusalem to Rome.  That gospel is the same, whether preached by Peter, Stephen, Barnabas, or Paul.  Their several speeches in Acts reflect that common gospel.  The preaching differs with different audiences (Judean or non-Judean),  but Luke’s point is that it is the same basic gospel that is sweeping across the Roman empire.  Whether Luke knew more about Paul's preaching and distinctive theology is simply unknown.  
A difference from Paul.  One of the topics on which Acts and the Paul of the letters differ is table fellowship of believers.  Acts assumes that Peter (and later Paul and Barnabas) convinced the Jerusalem leadership that circumcision was not required of non-Judean believers.  However, Paul also fought to eliminate such Judean food laws as prevented common meals with believers, both Judean and non-Judean.  Eventually, Paul broke over this issue with Barnabas as well as Peter and the Antiochian church.  (Galatians 2:10-14; Paul doesn't say so, but he clearly lost this argument in Antioch, though he applied his view in the churches he subsequently founded in Macedonia, Greece. and Asia.)  
The Paul of Romans 14 held that observance of food laws was optional -- personal preferences by "strong" or "weak."  In Acts 15, however, the Jerusalem council issued a Decree, quoted in Acts, stating the minimal requirements of non-Judean believers:  "that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication" (Acts 15:29, NRSV).  The "blood" and "strangled" restrictions here would require non-Judean believers to get their meat from Judean butchers only.  That's the only way they could be sure the restrictions would be met.  Thus there must be restrictions on food at the common tables.  
Luke probably knew this Decree as a document in the Pauline churches of his own time.  It embodied a compromise arranged later to ease conflicts in Pauline churches.  He must have known that not all of this was true of Paul's time, but it was what was working now in Paul's churches.   
5.  Date.  
Until recently there were two main possibilities for the date of the composition of Acts, an early date (around 62 CE) and a late date (around 85 CE).  (A third, very late date, 115 CE, has also been revived recently from the 19th century.) 
The main decision depends on how one takes the ending of Acts.  Acts ends with Paul under loose house arrest in Rome, waiting for the Emperor’s judgment of his case.  Did Luke know how that case turned out?  If Luke knew what happened to Paul, would he not have told this to complete his story of Paul’s service to his Lord?  If Luke did not know how the case came out, he must have finished dictating his second scroll before the verdict was known (that is, before 62 CE)!  
Critical scholars mostly take the late-date alternative, arguing that Luke-Acts was composed around 85 to 95 CE.  In their view, Luke knew many things, including Nero’s persecution of the Christians in 64 CE, Paul’s and Peter’s deaths in Rome around that time, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE – things he did not include in his work because that work had its own scope and purpose, and Luke was a disciplined and far-sighted narrator.  
By far the strongest argument in favor of this later date of Luke-Acts is that Luke’s Gospel uses the Gospel of Mark as its basic framework, with lots of verbatim quotations.  Tradition, as well as critical scholarship on “the Synoptic Problem,” understands that Mark was written after Peter’s death.  Furthermore, Mark’s Gospel had been around a while before it was used, in verbatim quotes, by both Matthew and Luke.  Thus, neither Matthew nor Luke can have been composed before about 75 CE.  This was the consensus view of critical scholarship throughout the 20th century.  Thus Luke-Acts was finished around 85 CE, give or take ten years.  
The other view, the early dating of Luke-Acts, is preferred by Evangelical scholars and conservative Protestants in general, who like to keep the Gospel tradition as close to the time of Jesus as possible.  
The early date has had defenders among critical scholars, however.  The renowned German scholar Adolph von Harnack worked for a couple of decades on the common assumption that Luke wrote in the 80’s.  Then between 1906 and 1911 he wrote four monographs about Luke and Acts.  In the first three works he stayed with the late date of Acts.  However, in the fourth monograph, The Date of Acts, he changed his mind.  Harnack finally could not escape the conclusion that Luke did not know how Paul’s trial had come out!  Therefore, Acts was finished before Paul’s death, before 62 CE.  In that last monograph Harnack argued for that early date and tried to work out the consequences for the related dating of the Gospel of Luke and of Mark as well.  Critical scholars have not followed Harnack in this.  The development of early Christian literature and thought does not allow for such an early date as 62 for Luke-Acts.  
Recently a third alternative for the date of Acts has been advanced (or retrieved from the 19th century).  Richard Pervo (Dating Acts, Polebridge Press, 2006; Acts, Hermeneia, Fortress Press, 2009) argues that Acts was a separate work from the Gospel of Luke, written around 115 CE in Ephesus, by an early apologist for the (now) Christian religion.  Pervo supports his views by modern literary theories that distinguish between the “implied author” and the “actual author,” a distinction he applies to Acts.  The Implied Author is the speaker in the scroll – the companion of Paul.  The Actual Author was an apologist working in Ephesus two full generations after Paul’s time.  Pervo thus unleashed an opportunity for much new scholarly publication – but probably not much actual history about the scroll of Acts.  
6.  The Hearers (Readers).  
The Reciter (“Luke”) addresses both scrolls of his anonymous work to an important person (“most excellent,” Luke 1:3) named Theophilus.  Theophilus was certainly not his whole intended audience.  He was probably Luke’s sponsor, who would pay for multiple copies of the work to be produced for distribution to churches.  
Without laboring the point, I think the hearers Luke mainly had in mind were the churches founded by Paul, according to Acts.  Acts is the foundation story for those churches, telling them where, in the big picture, they came from.  This part of Acts is the most detailed, and most reliable historically.  If Luke’s own base was Philippi, where he appears in the “we” passages, he would have been best acquainted with the churches and peoples of the Roman provinces of Macedonia, Achaia (Greece), and the western coast of Asia.  Two or three decades after Paul’s death, Luke featured those early churches in his second scroll.   
7.  Credibility. 
How gullible was “Luke”?  (Here we will speak only of things in Acts.) 
Fabulous events.  He recites many episodes that are pretty fabulous.  For starters, Jesus’ ascension on a cloud (1:9-11); then the mass hysteria of Pentecost (2:2-4); and later the Evangelist Philip is whisked to a distant city by the Spirit (8:39-40).  He tells about Peter curing the disabled (3:1-8) – and raising the dead (9:36-42).  Both Peter and Paul are delivered from prisons by divine actions (12:6-11 and 16:25-34).  When he is himself an eyewitness he says Paul was unaffected by a viper bite (28:3-6).  
In the “we passages,” however, there are no real miracles; just pretty ordinary events.  
It is certain that Luke believed that (other) people had visions.  Stephan had a dying vision of the heavenly Lord (7:55-56); Paul had a life-changing vision on the Damascus road (9:3-9); Peter had a long and detailed vision in which God abolished the Judean food laws (10:9-16); and Paul had a vision that sent their mission to Macedonia (16:9).  These are narrated in the same matter-of-fact manner as the rest of the story.  
It is equally certain that Luke believed that (other) people had charismatic experiences – that they went into seizures of ecstasy from the holy spirit.  He relates such experiences not only at Pentecost but at the conversion of Cornelius’ household (10:44-46), and when Paul (re-)baptized the former disciples of John the Baptist (19:1-7).  Here also no such experiences are reported in the “we passages.”  
It seems pretty clear that Luke reports what people believed had happened to them.  If it was an important story to the people of Joppa, Luke retold their story in his language, even if it was about raising the dead (Acts 9:36-42).  They believed it; he re-told it.  
Informants.  This leads to the question of “sources,” or more properly of “informants.”  From whom did Luke get his stories?  
There have been theories of written sources Luke used, especially in chapters 1-5, or even in 1-15.  However, these are speculations by scholars who learned from their European culture to look for written sources.  The letter to the churches in chapter 15 was undoubtedly a written source, perhaps also the Roman commander’s letter in chapter 23, but beyond that there is not much.  The “we passages” were not a written source.  
[Later addition, Sept. 2020:  In the mid-to-late twentieth century, the French Roman Catholic scholars, Pierre Benoit and M.-E. Boismard and A. Lamouille produced massive studies of supposed "sources" of Acts.  These are discussed and to some extent followed by Joseph Fitzmyer in The Acts of the Apostles, (Anchor-Yale Bible, 1998) pp. 80-89.  Fitzmyer lists every passage in Acts, giving its origin as Luke's composition or some other "source," pp.85-88.  All this after opening his discussion of "sources" in Acts by saying, "Nowhere in Acts does the author say or even hint at sources that he might have used...", p. 80.]  
Informants is another matter.  If we follow the “we passages,” Luke was around Paul’s churches in Macedonia for some years, probably after Paul’s death as well as earlier.  He would have gathered names and incidents from people in those other churches which he used in his narratives.  
Luke was also with Paul for two years in Caesarea in Judea (when Paul was under house arrest in the Judean capital city).  During those two years in Caesarea they were acquainted with Philip the Evangelist, who had four daughters who were “prophetesses,” that is, who had charismatic gifts (21:8-9).  
Many scholars have recognized that the people in Caesarea were probably main informants for Luke’s work, not only in Acts but also for the Gospel.  (One may think of Philip’s daughters as informants about the virgin Mary and the infancy of Jesus, as these stories were retailed in Caesarea.)  Caesarea was probably Luke’s main source of stories about the beginnings in Jerusalem.  (The dominant language in Caesarea was Greek; in Jerusalem it was Aramaic.)  
(Acts is NOT an accurate story of Jerusalem.  James the brother of Jesus had brought the family to Jerusalem and had become the authoritative head of the Jerusalem assembly.  Luke ignores the James-the-Brother story, which would have been Jerusalem’s main story after about 44 CE.  Luke follows the Caesarean story, in which Peter is the major figure, delivering the main speeches, escaping miraculously from prison, and receiving direct instructions from God (for Caesarea!) to cross the boundary between Judean and non-Judean people accepted by God.)  
8.  Historicity.  (This is a silly term, but it is short-hand for “Is the history true?” ) 
Modern commentators labor this issue, in general and in individual episodes, endlessly.  Conservative Christians believe most of it is defensible; critical scholars know a lot of it is legend and retails what early believers wanted to believe.  Acts is unique, in a class by itself, unlike the Gospels.  Mostly the only criteria for “true or false” are internal consistency, consistency with other New Testament writings, and what modern persons believe is possible or probable.  
I have been reading critical scholars about Acts since my senior year in college (1955) and have labored over pretty much every approach to the writing.  Again, without laboring the point, I long ago came to the following general view:  
Chapters 1-5 are fiction (from Caesarean piety about the Jerusalem church).   
Chapters 6-12 are legend (real people, fabulous activities). 
Chapters 13-15 are tradition (mainly Antioch’s story, Barnabas and Paul). 
Chapters 16-28 are historical writing (ancient style; Paul as Luke knew him).  
9.  Conclusion about Luke.  
I think Luke was a significant but modest figure in the Paul churches in the two decades or so after Paul’s death in Rome (probably 64 CE).  Over the years he became a recognized source (a Reciter) for the Jesus story and continued conversant with the churches of Macedonia, Greece, and the western coast of Asia Minor.  As the second generation of the Movement advanced and written Gospels began to appear, he included what was circulating from other locales (Mark and Q) in his recitations among the churches, added to it lots of Jesus lore he had collected from informants, and produced a really amazing composition, the Gospel according to Luke.  
By that time – well after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Roman war of 66-73 CE – informed observers could see that (1) the return of Jesus in power would not happen until the Movement had incorporated, by God’s command, many non-Judean people, and (2) the Movement was taking on a significance of its own across many provinces of the Roman empire.  A very work of God in the world, after Jesus, was going on.  
With the sponsorship of a well-to-do and sympathetic figure (Theophilus) Luke proceeded to relate with great skill and generosity all the local lore and personal history he knew about that Movement – and gave us (and Theophilus) the Acts of the Apostles.