Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Great Books: The Acts of the Apostles (Part Two)

The first portion of this essay can be read here.

After the account of Peter and John’s first interrogation by the temple, the Acts of the Apostles offers a second glimpse into the early organizational structure of the early church. Luke, by this point, has already alluded once to the communal nature of the church, with members selling all of their worldly possessions and placing the proceeds into a pool to meet the needs of all who proclaimed the faith. If that point was already made, however, the urgency by which that arrangement was kept is clearly illustrated in the contrasting stories of Joseph and Ananias and Sapphira.

Joseph, a Cypriot from the tribe of Levi, is offered as an example of one who “sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” [4:37] and received, in return, the full support of the community and a fancy new nickname proclaiming his dedication. The fifth chapter of Acts, however, presents a darker side of this arrangement as, we are told, a believer named Ananias sold a piece of property and lied about the selling price in order to keep some of the money for himself. Peter was not amused.

Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. [5:1-5]

A few hours later, his wife, Sapphira is called in (not yet knowing her husband was already dead), repeats the lie and is similarly killed on the spot by God for her complicity. Luke does not shy away from the horror of the story as he describes Peter telling her, “Hark, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” [5:9] in the moment before she dies. Read even within a confined context of just the book of the Acts, this represents a serious departure from nearly every miracle performed by Jesus, the Apostles or, in fact, any disciple in the remainder of the New Testament. It seems to imply that Peter, in addition to the power of healing, offering the forgiveness of sin, and facilitating the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (all in Jesus’s name) now possesses the ability to kill someone instantly, though, notably it is not Jesus but God and the Holy Spirit who are evoked in the act. Whatever Luke’s purpose for including this story in his Acts of the Apostles (be it even the fact that it happened exactly the way he describes), he can not be far from the truth when he writes at the end of the story that “great fear came upon the church and upon all who heard of these things” [5:12].

Peter and John continued their public ministry, gathering in Solomon’s Portico near the entrance of the temple and performing conspicuous miracles so, we are told, people began lining the sick up along the path so “that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them” [5:15]. Their fame among the people became too great for the temple authorities to ignore and so they were seized and thrown into prison. It is notable that Luke identifies in this passage (for the second time in the Acts of the Apostles), the Sadducees as responsible for the church’s persecution whereas the Pharisees had played the role of antagonist against Jesus. Their plans to frighten Peter and John with a stint in the pokey goes sour when “an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out” [5:19], proclaiming that they should go into the temple and teach. This indignation set off a second informal trial against Peter and John wherein they were accused of intending “to bring this man’s blood upon us” [5:28] through their teaching. Peter and John are portrayed as resolutely refusing to discontinue their ministry as they “must obey God rather than men” which infuriated the council. Luke writes that a Pharisee named Gamaliel, however, urged caution to the council in dealing with them and, in so doing, inadvertently reveals something important about the historical context in which the Nazarene sect existed.

And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men. For before these days, Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” [5:35-39]

While the relative merits of Jesus’s ministry on earth may be debated in contrast to that of Theudas or Judas of Galilee, what makes the early Christian movement unique, at least in Luke’s eyes, is its staying power beyond the removal (whether by death or by ascension) of its prime mover. In that sense, Jesus was indisputably (if metaphorically) resurrected as his message continued to harangue the temple authorities long after his disappearance from the city and, indeed, the Earth. Gamaliel’s argument for leniency also suggests to us that Jesus’s ministry of healing the sick and casting out demons was not created in a vacuum but was considered, at least by his critics, as belonging to a tradition of unregulated prophets who had always existed in the Jewish culture as a counterbalance to the legitimized corridors of religious and political authority. Swayed by Gamaliel’s warning, the council sufficed itself with giving the dynamic duo a vigorous beating and then released them again with the same warning to desist preaching and healing in Jesus’s name.

After this second visit to the council, the church underwent something of a transformation as the Twelve created a new hierarchy of disciples elected from the body of followers who had been converted since Jesus’s ascension. On the surface, this decision appears to have been motivated by sheer necessity as the Apostles complain that it “is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” but what happens immediately after suggests that the church was drawing more attention (and thus more persecution) from the temple authorities and its leaders knew that they would have to abandon Jerusalem as the epicenter for their movement if they were to continue growing at the rate they had enjoyed thus far.

Among these elected “deacons” was Stephen, a man described in the Acts as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” who, in time began to work “great wonders and signs among the people” [6:5,8]. In response to Stephen’s growing fame, a number of the church’s detractors began a whisper campaign against Stephen until he was brought before the council for teaching that “Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place [the temple], and will change the customs which Moses delivered us” [6:14]. Stephen’s self-defense was radically different from Jesus’s as he delivers a short synopsis of the history of the Jewish people from the time of Abraham up through Solomon. Though renounced by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, this passage lays the groundwork for a theological idea known as progressive revelation wherein it is suggested that God revealed his plan for humanity in stages; stages of which orthodox Judaism (as practiced in the 1st century) was nothing but a vestigial hold-over and Christianity, the most recent and presumably final iteration. Through most of his defense, Stephen embedded this idea into a conversation about the physical temple and its evolution from a tent in the wildness to the architectural wonder produced during Solomon’s reign, noting at the end that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made of hands” [7:48]. Then, he ditched the metaphor and went, instead, for the jugular.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your father’s persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. [7:51-53]

As the council members seethed at the implication of his defense, Stephen took that moment to look upward and announce that he could see, at that moment, Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That, by Luke’s account, was all the abuse they could stand and “they cast him out of the city and stoned him” [7:58]. Considering what a big deal the council had made about not having the authority to sentence Jesus to death, we might assume that this stoning was implemented by extra-legal means by a mob not directly traceable back to the temple. One can also consider the possibility that executing a lesser-known man like Stephen may have presented less of a threat to their reputation among the people of the Jerusalem than silencing a recognized prophet and miracle worker.

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