ACTS IS BUILT AROUND A SERIES OF APOLOGETIC SCENARIOS

The language of apologia, of charge and counter-charge, is a prominent feature of the textual surface of Acts. This one book contains six out of ten occurrences in the NT of the verb apologeomai (two others being in Luke’s Gospel), two out of eight NT occurrences of apologia, and a high proportion of the NT usages of forensic terms like kategoreo. The more philosophical language of debate and discussion (e.g. dialegomai) is also prominent (e.g. Acts 18: 4; 19: 9). And the reason for this is simple: like the Greek novelists, Luke uses narrative to create a whole series of dramatic situations which call for apologetic speech. Public assemblies and trial scenes are significant features of the narrative, and this dramatic presentation allows the author to present his characters in interaction with a succession of audiences and to elaborate various kinds of self-defence (apologia) against a variety of charges. In this way, in fact, all the imaginary situations presupposed in the various apologetic readings outlined above are actually embedded in the text as dramatic scenes. Generically speaking, this means that it is the characters, not the narrator, who make these apologetic speeches, and that the narrator never intervenes in his own person to drive home the point to the text’s inscribed audience. But this is one reason why the proposed apologetic scenarios all carry some degree of conviction. They are all represented dramatically within the narrative; and this is the obvious place to begin to explore its apologetic agenda.

Inner-church debate (Type I apologetic) takes up a relatively small proportion of the narrative as a whole. Luke’s brief allusions to ecclesiastical disagreement are on the whole merely tantalizing, giving little hint of the impassioned debates which lie behind Paul’s letters. The dispute between ‘Hebrews’ and ‘Hellenists’ is depicted only briefly in 6: 1 as a background to the election of Stephen. Traces of conflict with a Christian group identified as ‘those of the circumcision’ (11: 2) emerge at intervals during the later narrative, especially at 21: 18—22, where they play a crucial role (here carefully distinguished from that of James) in Paul’s fateful decision to visit the Temple. But on the whole Luke is at pains to stress the internal unity of the church rather than its dissensions, and there is relatively little direct speech that could be classified as belonging to this apologetic type.

There are, however, two paired formal scenes in the Jerusalem church which create an apologetic scenario right at the center of the narrative. The ‘apostolic decree’ of 13: 23—9 is intentionally presented as a formal document, using the well-known language of civic deliberation, issued by a curial body within the church and defining the religious obligations of Gentile converts. This scene forms a closure to one of the pivotal episodes in the book, Peter’s encounter with the God-fearing centurion Cornelius (10: 1—48) and his subsequent interrogation by the Jerusalem apostles (II: 1— 18). Here we have a charge (eating with Gentiles), a defence speech, and a verdict (v. 18): ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.’ It is interesting (and a testimony to Luke’s eirenic purpose) that it is Peter, not Paul, who delivers this key defence of the Pauline position that Gentiles who have received the Spirit are thereby placed on the same footing as Jewish believers. But the substance of Peter’s defence is a thousand miles away from the elaborate display of exegetical argument which occupies so much space in the Pauline letters which deal with this issue, Galatians and Romans. Peter’s speech in Acts is simply a reiteration of key points from the narrative: first, the divinely inspired vision which sent him to Caesarea (already told twice in great detail), then the meeting with Cornelius and the visitation of the Holy Spirit. The speech, in other words, provides essentially an intensification and a more focused theological interpretation of what the narrative has already told us, sharpened by a quotation from ‘the word of the Lord’ (that is, Jesus: 11: 16) and by Peter’s explicit theological conclusion: ‘Who was I that I could withstand God?’ (11: 17). And the essential force of the argument, revealingly, is the conviction produced in the characters by the supernatural events which the narrative describes. Paul, by contrast, though he does give great weight to his own visionary experience as the foundation for his mission (Gal. 1: 10—17), spends far more time in Galatians and Romans developing a theological and exegetical rationale for his procedures in an extended argument which could with some justice be labelled (in the classical sense) ‘apologetic’.

Disputes with the Jewish community (Type II apologetic) take up a much larger proportion of the Acts narrative, with a number of formal trial scenes providing opportunity for apologetic speeches of this type. Chapters 4 and 5 find Peter and John on trial before the Sanhedrin, where they are able to demonstrate their own parrhesia (‘right to free speech’) and the powerlessness of the authorities to intimidate them. Here the judicial framework is much more elaborate. The first hearing is represented as a judicial inquiry into the apostles’ religious credentials: ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ (4: 7). This is not an accusation but a question, and it invites not so much a defence as a theologically charged assertion of the supernatural status of Jesus (4: 8—12), which illustrates how hard it is in practice to maintain a hard and fast distinction between apologia and religious propaganda, and between speech and narrative. The claim that Jesus is now an exalted heavenly figure is both a precise answer to the council’s question and an essential part of Peter’s message. But an indispensable subtext to this assertion is the supernatural event which triggers the whole episode, the miraculous healing of the lame man (4: 9), and it is this event, rather than any skill in speech, which in the end silences the opposition (4: 14, 21—2).

This first hearing issues in a warning injunction ‘not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus’ (4: 18), and it is this injunction— and the apostles’ refusal to obey it—which forms the basis for subsequent judicial proceedings (3: 28). Such an affront to free speech provides a classic locus for the display of apostolic parrhesia before a council pushed neatly into playing the role of tyrant. In refusing to obey the Sanhedrin, Peter implicitly questions its moral authority and lays claim, as so many philosophers had done from Socrates onward, to a higher allegiance: ‘We must obey God rather than men’ (3: 29, cf. 4: 19—20). But it is characteristic of Luke’s work that, despite its philosophic resonances, the framework of this scene remains resolutely theological, its roots most obviously in the late and post-biblical tradition of bold prophets or martyrs encountering wicked tyrants. Theological commentary on the scene is given, in a nicely ironic touch, to the figure of Gamaliel, who warns the council (in an unusual in camera addendum to the more public drama of the trial) that it could be dangerous to interfere with a movement which just might prove to have God on its side (3: 33—9): ‘You might even be found to be opposing God!’

These early chapters also illustrate an important subsidiary theme in the apostolic apologia, the counter-charge that the tribunal which is examining the apostles was responsible for Jesus’ death (4: 10; 3: 28). As in Luke’s Gospel, this charge is directed primarily at specific holders of authority in Jerusalem, not at ‘the Jews’ as an ethnic group. The responsible group is identified particularly with the Temple hierarchy and the high-priestly family, and is implicitly distinguished from ‘the people’ (laos), which is represented as broadly sympathetic (4: 21). Even for the hierarchy, this is not a final condemnation: the Jerusalem crowd has already been challenged with its own responsibility in the events of the previous few weeks (3: 13—13), and has been offered the chance of repentance and blessing (3: 19, 26). Both rulers and people acted ‘in ignorance’ (3: 17), and the whole event was also part of a greater divine plan. Once again, it is difficult to draw clear distinctions here between apologia and religious propaganda: the offensive charge of responsibility for Jesus’ death is in fact the obverse of the apostles’ defensive response to a challenge to their own religious authority, and the trial narrative effectively dramatizes two irreconcilable theological interpretations of the same key event.

Stephen’s encounter with the Sanhedrin (6: 8—7: 60) produces the longest defence speech in the book and the movement’s first martyr. This scene is set up to echo the trial of Jesus, with a trial before the religious council and ‘false witnesses’ who bring a charge of speaking ‘blasphemous words against Moses and God’ and ‘words against this holy place and the law’ (6: II, 13). Stephen’s speech in reply (ch. 7) adds another familiar dimension to the apologetic of Acts, the ransacking of biblical history for archetypes and precedents to add weight to the apostolic interpretation of current events. For Stephen, it is the prophets of the biblical tradition who provide the most striking template for the persecuted church (7: 32), and a judicious quotation from Deuteronomy allows him to enrol Moses among their number (7: 37). Paul, when we find him a few chapters later presenting a similar rereading of biblical history in the synagogue at Antioch-in-Pisidia, focuses more on the figure of David (13: 16—40). Significantly, it is not easy in practice to maintain a firm distinction in terms of apologetic content between Stephen’s formal defence speech and Paul’s synagogue sermon, though the dramatic scenario in the latter case is evangelistic rather than judicial.

The presentation of the Christian case to a ‘Greek’ audience (Type III apologetic) is much less prominent in the narrative. Despite Acts’ interest in the Gentile mission, only two of Paul’s reported sermons are addressed to a non-Jewish audience: the short exhortation at Lystra to a Lycaonian-speaking crowd who want to treat Paul and Barnabas as gods (14: II—18) and the more famous speech on the Areopagus in Athens (17: 16—34). There is a hint of the judicial in this last case, with the Areopagus setting which (whatever the actual legal situation in the first century) was popularly associated with the trials of philosophers: it is surely no accident that the Epicureans and Stoics who bring Paul to the Areopagus echo the Socratic accusation of being ‘a preacher of strange divinities’ (17: 18). But Paul’s defence, as much propaganda as apologia, is a fine example of philosophical rather than judicial argument, showing continuity both with the Hellenistic-Jewish tradition of philosophical debate with paganism and with the later Christian apologists. Far from introducing ‘foreign’ deities, Paul is speaking about a God already worshipped in the city, though hidden under the ascription ‘To an unknown God’ (17: 23). This conciliatory opening might be dismissed as a preacher’s play on words; but the whole tone of the sermon, though uncompromising in its condemnation of the practice of ‘idolatry’ (17: 29), tends towards the recognition that the Zeus of the Greek poets and philosophers is the same as the creator whom Paul proclaims (17: 24—8). The negative side of this debate surfaces in Ephesus, where the town clerk cheerfully defends Paul and his friends against the charge of being ‘sacrilegious and blasphemers of our goddess’ (19: 37), despite Paul’s reputation as a scourge of idolatry (19: 26).

Finally, Luke’s narrative presents numerous opportunities for self-defence before Roman magistrates (Type IV apologetic). These scenes show a well-honed awareness of the complexities of civic life in the Greek East, and especially of the potential advantages (for all concerned) of playing off one set of opponents against another. At Philippi, Paul is accused before the colony’s magistrates (16: 19) both of being Jewish and of propagating ‘customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to receive or to observe’ (16: 20—1). At Thessalonica, it is ‘the Jews’ and the urban rabble (17: 5) who lay charges before the city authorities (17: 6) that the apostles are ‘turning the world upside-down’ and ‘acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus’ (17: 6—7). Corinth sees Paul formally indicted before the tribunal of Gallio (18: 12) on a charge of ‘persuading men to worship God contrary to the law’ (18: 13). Precisely whose law is being flouted is not stated: Gallio chooses to believe that it is Jewish law, not Roman law, and dismisses the case. The riot at Ephesus is successfully defused by the town clerk (19: 33) without direct recourse to Roman authority, but the potential presence of that authority is felt in his speech both as judicial safety-valve and as threat (19: 38, 40). And it is the Roman judicial system which in the book’s dramatic final scenes hears Paul’s case in Caesarea (chs. 24—6), allows his appeal to Caesar (23: 11), and dispatches him to Rome for trial (23: 12; 26: 32; 27—8), though in the end we never get to hear whether the case did come before the emperor and what the issue was.

For most readers, this is the most prominent apologetic scenario in the book, and the one which has most claim to determine its overall purpose. Here there is a clear intention to stress the political innocence of the story’s protagonists, with Paul finally dispatched to Rome for his own protection, but publicly judged by the Roman authorities to be ‘doing nothing to deserve death or imprisonment’ (26: 31). Yet, as we have seen, there is a distinct ambivalence in Acts’ presentation of the Christian case before a Roman tribunal. Paul, certainly, is presented as innocent of the particular charge on which he was tried in Caesarea (which was in fact an offence against Jewish law). But he and his associates have incurred a number of other charges along the way which have never in so many words—that is, in the explicit terms we would expect of apologetic speech—been refuted. Mud has a disturbing tendency to stick, and it is a dangerous strategy for an apologetic writer to bring accusations to the reader’s attention without taking the trouble to refute them. At Philippi, for example, the charge is: ‘These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practise’ (16: 20—I). There is no defence speech: Paul is beaten and imprisoned by the colony’s magistrates, and saved only by the (implicitly supernatural) intervention of an earthquake. Paul’s tardy claim to be a Roman citizen (16: 37) serves only to embarrass the magistrates, and their plea that he should leave the city immediately (16: 39) tacitly implies that at least the first part of the charge is true. Despite a minor act of defiance in visiting Lydia before leaving (16: 40), there is to be no more missionary activity in Philippi. Thessalonica produces further accusations (17: 6—7), this time involving the Christian group in the serious charge of ‘acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king, Jesus’. Again, there is no defence and no verdict: the charge of trouble making is implicitly admitted, and the missionaries are asked to leave. Neither Paul’s irresponsible use of his own citizenship, nor the riots which inevitably accompany his activities, are calculated to impress the reader that the new movement offers potential enhancement of civic life. On the contrary, the overall effect of the whole narrative section from chapter 13 to chapter 19 is to leave the damaging impression that Paul’s mission causes trouble wherever he goes (17: 6): prudent magistrates might well conclude that any well-regulated city would be better off without it.

The other noticeable fact about these forensic or semi-forensic encounters on Paul’s missionary journeys is that Paul himself gets very little opportunity to speak in his own defence: even when the apologetic opportunity is there, the narrator does not give Paul any apologetic speeches. If there is an apologetic agenda here, then, its strategies are those of dramatic narrative rather than of rhetorical speech. At Philippi and Thessalonica, there is no defence at all. In Ephesus, Paul tries to address the crowd, but his friends beg him not to (19: 30—i). The closest he gets to making his own apologia in this section of the narrative is in Corinth, where Gallio interrupts the proceedings just as Paul is ‘about to open his mouth’ (18: 14). Significantly, however, the proconsul’s intervention makes it clear that the real issue is one not of Roman law, but of ‘questions about words and names and your own [that is, Jewish] law’ (18: 13).

Paul’s surprising silence in the journey section is more than compensated, however, by a flood of direct speech on his final visit to Jerusalem, which culminates in his removal to Caesarea and the two court appearances before Felix and Festus (chs. 21—6). This is the section of the narrative which most clearly depicts the apostle on trial before a Roman tribunal, culminating with the famous ‘appeal to Caesar’ and the journey to Rome (chs. 27—8). This is the most obviously ‘apologetic’ section of the book: five of Acts’ six occurrences of the verb apologeomai and both its occurrences of the noun apologia appear in these chapters. Paul is given three substantial speeches (22: 3—21; 24: 10—21; 26: 2—23) and a short but trenchant declaration of his own innocence (25: 8), as well as significant amounts of dialogue with assorted Roman officials. The trial takes place before two named and identifiable Roman magistrates, Felix and his successor Festus, and we even have a formal speech from a rhetor hired to present the case for the prosecution (24: I—8).

It is easy to forget, however, that although Paul’s final speech is made before a Roman tribunal, the bulk of the defence is addressed to a Jewish audience and answers charges which are specifically stated to be concerned with matters of Jewish rather than Roman law. Paul is allotted four defence speeches in these last chapters, all except the second explicitly identified (by noun or verb) as apologia (22: 1; 24: 10; 25: 16; 26: 1—2, 24). The first is not made in a formal trial scene at all, but to the hostile crowd in the Temple (22: 1—21), and the second is before the Sanhedrin (23: 1—10). The formal defence before Felix in Caesarea is clearly presented as an answer to the charges brought by the high priest and his party (24: 1): Felix has been brought in as arbitrator, not as prosecutor. And Paul’s final defence before Festus (26: 1—32) is actually addressed to Agrippa, who has expressed an interest in hearing Paul, and is hailed by Paul as one who is ‘especially familiar with all customs and controversies of the Jews’ (26: 3). The charge is originally described as the serious one of bringing Gentiles into the Temple beyond the permitted limits (21: 28), which would, if proved, have merited the death penalty; the narrator, unusually, makes sure that the readers know that this accusation was unfounded (21: 29). But it is the more general charge of ‘speaking everywhere against the people and the law and this place’ (21: 28, cf. 21: 21) which sets the tone for the subsequent series of hearings: Paul’s defence speeches make no kind of answer to specific charges, but present an extended narrative reprise of his whole career, and especially of the divine inspiration for the Gentile mission (22: 3—21; 26: 2—23). The Sanhedrin hearing is deliberately hijacked by Paul into a theological debate on the resurrection (23: 6—8). Only in passing, and without allowing his subject the luxury of an extended speech, does the narrator mention that Paul also thought it necessary to defend himself against Roman charges: ‘Neither against the law of the Jews, nor against the temple, nor against Caesar have I offended at all’ (23: 8).

In the light of all this, it becomes rather hard to maintain the traditional view that it is the Roman tribunal which is the definitive one in determining the rhetorical thrust of the apologetic in Acts. Only one of the final defence speeches is explicitly addressed to a Roman, and in all of them the serious work of apologia addresses Jewish, not Roman, issues. Paul’s last substantial speech, in chapter 26 (like Peter’s in ch. II) repeats material which the readers have already heard twice, once in the narrative (ch. 9) and once in an earlier speech (ch. 22): again, Luke uses apologetic speech both to break down the generic barriers between speech and narrative and to sharpen the theological focus of the debate. The crucial point at issue in Paul’s trial, as it emerges from the speech, is not legal but theological:

And now I stand here on trial for hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead? (26: 6—8) If this is apologia, it has quickly lost any sense of limitation to legal issues, and has become the defence of a religious belief system in the most general possible terms: its arguments rest as much on the supernatural sanction supplied by Paul’s vision (26: 12—19) as on the more general testimony of the subject’s character (26: 4—2). Apologia, in fact, has become testimony based on a personal religious vision backed up by the assertion that its roots lie in the common tradition: ‘To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying (marturoumenos) both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass’ (26: 22). The speech closes with an emotional appeal to Agrippa: it is hardly surprising that Festus’ intervention is politely dismissed as an irrelevance. The closing interchange is a revealing one (26: 24—9):

FESTOS. Paul, you are mad; your great learning is turning you mad.

PAUL. I am not mad, most noble Festus, but I am speaking the sober truth. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak freely (parrhesiazomenos); for I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe. agrippa. In a short time [or: almost] you think to make me a Christian! PAUL. Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.

This is an appeal addressed specifically and very directly to a leading, highly placed patron of Diaspora Judaism, and its object is not to exonerate Paul but to bring the hearer—any hearer—to share his religious world-view. It is perhaps not too fanciful to suggest that this may be the point at which the dramatic audience of the speech approaches most closely to the real-life audience of the book.

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