Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Acts: a Book Report (part 1)

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

The book of The Acts of the Apostles is like a sequel to the gospel of Luke.  Scholars generally believe it was written by the same anonymous person (or persons), who was traditionally believed to be a guy named Luke (who was not himself a disciple or eyewitness to Jesus, as Luke admits at the beginning of his gospel).  While Luke tells the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Acts tells the story of what happened afterward.  Acts gives an account of how Christianity went from a splinter Jewish sect in Israel to a major world religion that spread throughout the Roman empire.  The main “heroes” of Acts are Peter and Paul, but mostly Paul.  It is Paul who tirelessly travels around the ancient Mediterranean, preaching about Jesus, establishing churches, and encountering fierce opposition, mostly from “the Jews.”

Which brings me to a central, inescapable problem of the book of Acts.  In this book, “the Jews” who don’t believe Jesus was the Messiah (for totally understandable reasons like the fact that he’d been killed and then disappeared) are definitely the villains.  It is “the Jews” in various cities (but especially Jerusalem) who oppose Paul and actually seek to kill him.  If one were to read this book with no historical context, or as literal history, one could easily develop some rather anti-semitic, intolerant religious views.  Unfortunately, this is indeed what has happened, historically.  The greatest persecutions of Jewish people throughout history have come from Christians, and the source of this historic anti-semitism is the New Testament itself (or, rather, a literal, uncritical reading of the New Testament).  To avoid adopting an anti-semitic attitude, one must read the New Testament carefully, critically, and with unflinching acknowledgment of the horrible persecutions these writings have inspired over the past two millennia.

This is why, for my book report on Acts, and the rest of the New Testament, I’m using a brand new study Bible called The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  This new publication by Oxford University Press has the text of the New Testament, accompanied by annotations and essays by Jewish scholars and historians.  It’s fantastic and enlightening.


Acts begins with the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples.  They are all a bit rattled and confused, after having seen him brutally beaten and murdered just a few days prior.  The disciples believed Jesus to be the Messiah (or, “anointed one”) who according to Jewish tradition, would re-establish the Kingdom of Israel, as in the days of the great king David.  This is evident because the first thing the disciples ask Jesus is, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?”  Jesus says, basically, “I’m not going to tell you.”  Instead, Jesus tells them that they must spread his message throughout the world.  He doesn’t specify what that message is.  And then he flies back up to heaven.

"Jesus Ascending to Heaven" by John Singleton Copley (1775)

The disciples watch this with further confusion.  What are they supposed to tell people?  What are they supposed to do?  A couple angels appear and try to clear things up.  The angels say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  Then the angels leave.

If I were a disciple, I would be like, “So, just so I’m clear on the meaning of all this.  Jesus was the Messiah (king of Israel), but instead of actually establishing the Kingdom of Israel, he went back to heaven, and he’s going to come again, later, a second time, at an unspecified time, to establish the kingdom?  But that doesn’t make sense!  If he really was the Messiah, why didn’t he just do his Messiah thing on his first trip to earth?  Why the two trips?  That’s very inefficient.”  

Some of the disciples had nick-names—James the Just, Doubting Thomas, Peter the Rock.  If I was a disciple, I would probably be called Jesse the Confused.  I mean, if Jesus really wanted people to believe in and follow him, why did he go back to heaven?  Why didn’t he just stay here and be a divine king, and keep doing miracles, so people wouldn’t have to just, like, believe with no proof in an invisible man-god-king up in heaven?  If I was a disciple, I would have said to Jesus before he ascended, “Wait!  This is bad PR, man.  If you want people to believe in you, STAY HERE and tell them yourself.  Why are you leaving us, who will probably be mocked, persecuted, and killed for your message!?

But I was not a disciple, so I didn’t get to ask these questions.  It was probably easier for the disciples to believe because they lived in a pre-modern ancient world where people believed in all manner of divine, miraculous things.  They didn’t understand gravity, or electricity, or cells, or germs, or atoms, or how the solar system works, or the fact that the earth is only a tiny speck in an unfathomably vast ocean of stars and planets.  They had to rely on gods to help them make sense of these things.  Thankfully, we don’t.

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