Unique and surprising narrative twists in the Book of ActsWritten by Subby Szterszky
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In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3).
Together with the Gospel of Luke, the Book of Acts forms a two-volume history of the life of Jesus and the birth of the Church. Luke and Acts are the only books of Scripture written by a non-Jew, but they make up over a quarter of the New Testament, more than the work of any other single author.
Luke, who wrote both volumes, was an educated gentile physician as well as the Apostle Paul’s friend and travelling companion. Like his earlier Gospel, Acts is written in polished Greek, built on careful research and attention to detail. It’s also marked by Luke’s deep concern for outsiders, foreigners and women.
As a gifted historian inspired by the Holy Spirit, Luke included a wealth of narrative twists that would’ve surprised his original readers, grabbing their attention and subverting their expectations. His aim was to create a compelling storyline that traced the spread of the Gospel through unlikely people into corners of the world one would least expect.
The natural wonder of the Ascension
Luke uses the Ascension as a bridge that connects the end of his Gospel with the start of the Book of Acts. His descriptions of the event in the two books are complementary, focusing on different details for different narrative purposes. Taken together, they form a complete picture that highlights both the humanity and the divinity of the departing Jesus.
At the end of his Gospel, Luke keeps his focus intimate and earthbound. Jesus leads his disciples out to the small village of Bethany where they’d spent much time together, before blessing them and parting from them. But at the start of Acts, Luke turns his narrative gaze upward to the skies, following Jesus as he is lifted up off the earth and gradually disappears into the clouds. While his friends keep staring up as Jesus recedes from view, two men in white appear next to them on the ground, assuring them the Lord would return the same way they just saw him leave.
Skeptics dismiss the Ascension as myth, and even believers can be prone to think of it as a near-mythic “religious” event, barely connected to the real world. But Luke presents it here as a natural wonder in the truest sense, a miracle occurring within the framework of physical reality. The details of the clouds and Jesus’ trajectory through them sound modern, observational, the way a reporter or meteorologist might describe them. There’s awe and wonder at the otherworldly majesty of the risen Christ, but also concrete realism about an event that happened in the actual physical world, to which Jesus has forever bound himself via his Incarnation.
Shifting the focus to Hellenistic Jews
Along with the Ascension, Luke begins Acts with Jesus’ final words to his disciples before leaving them. With Jerusalem as the epicentre, they were to start spreading the Gospel outward, first to Judea, then to Samaria, and to the farthest corners of the world. In light of this, one might expect the rest of Acts to be a heroic cycle of stories about the twelve, each of them taking the Gospel to various faraway lands.
That’s not the story Luke tells, of course. Just as the disciples had been slow to understand (and believe) Jesus while he was with them, it appears the trend continued for some time after he departed. Despite the spectacular birth and growth of the early church by the power of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were content to stay put in Jerusalem and its Judean environs. At least at the outset, they interpreted Jesus’ command to teach all nations as applying only to the Hellenistic Jews scattered among those nations.
Hellenistic Jews were from outside Judea, had Greek names, spoke Greek as a first language, and had adopted elements of the surrounding Greek culture. They also became the vanguard of Gospel outreach after the first few years of the church, and a major focus of Luke’s history. Their cosmopolitan background made it easier than for Judean Jews to break from traditional prejudices, to connect with gentiles in their own cultural terms, and to welcome non-Jews as brothers and sisters in Christ. Except for the apostles and leaders in Jerusalem, almost all the notable Jewish Christians in the Book of Acts are Hellenistic Jews.
At first, they were also victims of discrimination in the Jerusalem church, their widows neglected in favour of the Judean or Hebrew widows, as Luke calls them. This led to the appointment of the original seven deacons, all of them Hellenistic Jews with Greek names, to ensure fair practice within the church. Luke uses two of them, Stephen and Philip, as transitional figures between Peter and Paul, between the Jewish church centred on Jerusalem and the multi-ethnic church spreading around the Mediterranean.
Stephen’s strange sermon
Luke records several sermons at length in the Book of Acts, none of them longer or stranger than Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin. It would’ve puzzled at least some of Luke’s initial gentile audience, and it can be downright perplexing to modern readers.
The bulk of the address is a painstaking review of Old Testament history, delivered by Stephen to a Jewish ruling council who were already quite familiar with it. Stephen then abruptly turns on the council, accusing them of being like their ancestors, resisting God, rejecting his messengers, and finally betraying and murdering the Messiah he had sent them. The rulers respond by shouting him down, plugging their ears, dragging Stephen outside Jerusalem and killing him with rocks.
Needless to say, Luke doesn’t include this as a model sermon to emulate, then or now. It occupies a specific niche in the history of the church and in Luke’s account. Stephen’s martyrdom became the catalyst for open persecution by Jews against Jewish Christians, forcing them to scatter and bring the Gospel to other lands. And as the Gospel spread to cities outside Judea, a pattern emerged. It would be offered first to Jews in the synagogues, then to gentiles once the Jews rejected it. Stephen’s sermon is thus a defining event in Acts, a watershed moment when the Jewish authorities violently renounce the Gospel, after which Luke turns his narrative focus toward the gentiles.
Philip’s adventurous travels
The persecution sparked by Stephen’s death nudged the church to begin pursuing the Great Commission in earnest. At the forefront of this new multinational outreach was Philip the Evangelist, who had been one of Stephen’s fellow deacons in the Jerusalem church. Philip was among the first to bring the Gospel to Samaria – as Jesus had commanded – even though the Samaritans were a despised foreign people group of mixed Jewish and gentile heritage. Some 20 years later, Luke catches up with Philip, now living in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, with four young unmarried daughters who were prophetesses. It’s one of the few family portraits in Acts, and an intriguing one at that.
Between those two episodes, Luke recounts Philip’s famous encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch on the desert road to Gath. The eunuch was a high-ranking official in the court of Candace, the Ethiopian queen. He was also a proselyte who’d gone to Jerusalem to worship, and was wealthy or prominent enough to have bought or been given his own copy of the scroll of Isaiah. Philip joins him on his chariot ride home, explains Isaiah’s great Messianic prophecy to him and leads him to faith in Jesus. According to early church historians, the eunuch in turn led Candace to faith, and from there the Gospel spread throughout her kingdom and across east Africa and southern Arabia as well.
Ethiopia in Luke’s day was a rich trading empire centred in what is now Sudan. Also known as Cush or Nubia in ancient times, it flourished for over a millennium, from about 750 BC to 350 AD. For good stretches of that history, it was ruled by a succession of queens, almost unheard of in the ancient world. Candace (or kandake in Luke’s Greek) wasn’t a personal name but a hereditary title, like pharaoh or Caesar, meaning “royal woman” or “great woman.” Ethiopia remained independent of Rome, its culture owing more to Egyptian than Greek influences. And like the eunuch, a fair portion of its populace had embraced elements of Judaism, possibly via trade contact with the earlier Judean monarchy.
Philip’s adventurous travels would’ve taken many of Luke’s Greco-Roman readers by surprise. The Great Commission didn’t end at the political or cultural boundaries of the Roman Empire. From mixed-race Samaritans to Afro-Egyptian matriarchies that blurred the line between Jew and gentile, the Gospel was to reach the farthest and most culturally diverse corners of the wider world.
Paul quotes pagan philosophers
As the apostle to the gentiles, Paul’s strategy was to be all things to all people, and nowhere is this more on display than during his visit to Athens. While Rome was the imperial capital, Athens was the intellectual centre of culture and learning in classical antiquity. It was where ideas came from – the home of poets, artists, philosophers and other cultural leaders.
After debating some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in the marketplace, Paul was invited to address the Aeropagus, a court of ideas where new teachings were presented, discussed and adjudicated. Notably Paul never quotes Scripture in this setting, demonstrating his cultural awareness as well as his plain common sense. The Athenians had little knowledge or interest in Judaism or its sacred writings, and quoting fulfilled prophecies would’ve meant nothing to them.
Instead, Paul shares universal truths in terms the Athenians can relate to. He challenges the pantheism of the Stoics with a transcendent God who is separate from his creation and sovereign over it. And he answers the deism of the Epicureans with an immanent God who is not far from every individual and desires that they seek him.
To support his argument, Paul quotes two pagan philosopher poets: Epimenides of Crete (“In him we live and move and have our being”) and Aratus of Cilicia (“For we are indeed his offspring”). In their original context, both quotes refer to Zeus, the chief deity of the Greek pantheon, but Paul isn’t being intellectually dishonest here. His audience is familiar with the quotes and their sources, and has no problem with the way Paul uses them. They only get upset when he mentions the Resurrection, some of them scoffing, others wanting further debate, still others coming to faith and joining Paul.
The Areopagus sermon, with its lack of scriptural quotes and appeals to pagan authors, has been furrowing brows since Luke’s time right up to the present. But Luke includes it at length to underscore the point that all truth is God’s truth. The Gospel can be shared in one’s own words, using illustrations from nature and culture, and without quoting chapter and verse. This is a vital principle in a post-Christian society, which like the Athenians has little knowledge or interest in Christianity or the Scriptures.
Prominent women propel the Gospel
In his Gospel, Luke drew attention to a group of prominent, affluent women who travelled with Jesus and his disciples, supporting them out of their means. He continues and expands this theme in the Book of Acts, despite the fact than most of his readers came from cultures that treated women as second-class citizens. As one commentator observed, except for Mary the mother of Jesus and Rhoda the servant girl, almost all the women in Acts are socially connected and well-to-do. In the cities that Paul visits, Luke takes special note of numerous leading Greek women of high standing who were persuaded by the Apostle’s message and came to faith in Christ.
This narrative theme finds its apex in a pair of women prominent enough for Luke to mention by name. The first of the two, Lydia of Thyatira, ran a lucrative fabric and dye business in Philippi that produced the expensive purple cloth reserved for emperors and high-ranking state officials. She catered to the rich and powerful of the Roman Empire, and upon conversion, placed her home and considerable resources at the disposal of Paul’s ministry team, providing them a bridgehead into Greece and beyond.
The second woman, Damaris, was present during Paul’s Areopagus speech and brought to faith by it. This is a remarkable detail in Luke’s account, considering that women weren’t allowed to participate in the Areopagus meetings. The only exceptions were for visiting foreign dignitaries, and more often for hetaerae, educated courtesans who provided physical and intellectual companionship for important men. It’s more than likely Damaris was such a hetaera before her conversion, holding her own among the cultural elites of Athens.
Lydia and Damaris are the epitome of Luke’s prominent women, first-century equivalents of a Fortune 500 CEO and a Harvard-educated socialite. As high-profile believers, they would’ve been able to move in circles of privilege and power, speaking Gospel truth to individuals who were otherwise outside the reach of the church.
Priscilla and Aquila as equal partners
Luke introduces Priscilla and Aquila right on the heels of the Areopagus episode. Unlike most of the Hellenistic Jews in the Book of Acts, these two stand out for having Latin rather than Greek names. Aquila was a Jew from Pontus on the southeast coast of the Black Sea, one of the remotest provinces of the Roman Empire. Priscilla was likely neither Jewish nor from Pontus, but a Roman woman from Italy, possibly Rome itself. It’s not clear how they met or when they had come to faith – Luke doesn’t say they were converted by Paul – but they’d left Italy when the Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews, around 50 AD. They’d moved to Corinth and set up their small tent-making business when they met Paul.
The couple quickly became close friends with Luke and Paul, and key members of the Apostle’s ministry team. They were also among the most-travelled, moving several times over the years between the major centres of Corinth, Ephesus and Rome (once the exile had been lifted), hosting home churches in the latter two cities. They had leading roles in Paul’s apostolic mission, helping and strengthening various churches during their travels. At one point, they’d saved Paul’s life at great personal risk, and the Apostle wrote that all the churches of the gentiles owed them gratitude.
Unusual for the time, Priscilla and Aquila are always mentioned together by both Luke and Paul, suggesting the couple were equal partners in life, business and ministry. Even more unusual, Priscilla is almost always mentioned first, suggesting she was either of higher social standing as a Roman woman, or more likely that she was more visibly gifted and had a higher profile in the church than her husband.
Luke picks up their story in Ephesus, where they meet Apollos, an educated Hellenistic Jew from Alexandria. Apollos is an eloquent speaker but knows only about John the Baptist, so Priscilla and Aquila take him aside and explain the Gospel of Jesus to him more accurately. This has sent many commentators scrambling over the years, some arguing that “to explain” is not the same as “to teach,” others imagining Priscilla making lunch while the men chatted, or something to that effect. There was even an attempt – reflected in some later manuscript copies – to switch the order of their names and put Aquila first. But the text won’t allow for any of that, and Luke meant what he wrote: Priscilla and Aquila together corrected Apollos’ theology, equipping him to become a powerful advocate for the Gospel.
As a mixed Jewish-gentile couple working together in ministry, Priscilla and Aquila serve as a microcosm of Luke’s entire narrative in Acts. Their presence catches the attention and subverts cultural assumptions, in the first century as it does now. Together with Luke’s other narrative surprises, it underscores the fact that all people – women and men, gentiles and Jews – are made in God’s image and subject to his grace. By the power of the Holy Spirit, these twists are part of a compelling storyline that traces the spread of the Gospel through people and into places one would least expect – which is once again just as Luke intended.
This is the second of two articles examining some of the unique and surprising narrative features found in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. The first article is available here.
Sources and further reading
Darrell L. Bock, Acts, (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Baker Academic, 2007.
F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, (New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1988.
R. Kent Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire, (Preaching the Word), Crossway, 2014.
I. Howard Marshall, Acts, (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), IVP Academic, 1980.
Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, (Socio-Rhetorical Commentary), Eerdmans, 1997.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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