Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Paul's Bad Reputation (Acts)

Christians aren’t troublemakers. I believe that is one of the points that Luke wanted to get across to Theophilus and anyone else who might read his two volume history of Jesus and the earliest Christians. Why did it matter? It mattered because Christians had the reputation of being troublemakers in the Roman Empire.

When Rome burned, around the year AD64, the people of Rome blamed Nero for it. Believe it or not, Roman historians today do not actually think Nero had anything to do with the fire. He was not in town when it happened, and he certainly did not play the fiddle during the burning. But because Nero benefited from the fire—he was able to build all sorts of fun, selfish things where the houses had been—the rumor began to circulate that he had ordered the fire.

So Nero decided to find a scapegoat, to find some other group on which to blame the fire. Perhaps he remembered that Paul guy, the one who had appeared before him a couple years previous. What group did he belong to again? Christians?

So Nero blamed Christians for the fire of Rome, the Roman historian Tacitus tells us.1 He was very creative in the ways he killed them. Tacitus tells us that Nero was so obviously indulging his own cruelty that the Romans felt sorry for the Christians, even though people thought they deserved punishment for their abominations. So Acts in part was presumably written to redress the bad reputation that Christians had.

The apostle Paul himself almost certainly had the reputation of being a troublemaker, not just among Romans but among Jews and many Christians too. We see this fact clearly in Acts 21 when Paul gets to Jerusalem. "You see, brother," James tells Paul, the multitudes of Jewish believers in Jerusalem, "have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs" (21:21).

At the time, this was a bad reputation indeed. Jerusalem had become a place of zeal for the law, not only in general, but even among Christian Jews (21:20). The year is perhaps AD58. A decade later, Jerusalem would be at war with Rome. Judea was becoming a tinderbox of revolutionary activity, and Paul was on the wrong side of zeal. A group called the Zealots would soon rise, if they had not risen already.

James, Jesus’ brother, seems to be in charge of the church in Jerusalem. He himself would die at the instigation of the high priest around the year 62 in between Roman procurators (after Festus). The high priest seems to have had him stoned. Did the high priest see James as stirring up revolution? After all, one of the disciples was even remembered as Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).

Christian Jews in Jerusalem apparently were quite insistent that Jewish Christians needed to keep the Jewish Law in all its respects, despite concessions to Gentiles. The rumor is that Paul is teaching Jews to ignore the Law.  If we look at Galatians 2, that’s true--at least as far as table fellowship and purity rules. Paul is teaching Jews not to follow Jerusalem’s understanding of purity laws if it interferes with Christian fellowship and unity between Jew and Gentile believer.

Either James knows this and is nudging Paul toward keeping the Law or he is trying to smooth things over between Jerusalem and Paul.  "We want Jerusalem to know you keep the Law, Paul.  Right, Paul? You do keep the Law, right?"  Again, one of Luke's goals in writing Acts is probably to help Paul's reputation. Acts consistently shows the law-keeping and authority-submitting side of Paul.

Part of keeping the Law was participating in temple sacrifices.  Perhaps Paul takes the money from the offering for Jerusalem and uses it to pay for the sacrifices of some devout Jews in Jerusalem who have taken a vow. This might seem a little puzzling to us today. Really?  Christians were still offering sacrifices? Didn’t Jesus’ death take care of that?

We have to remember how much more we know than many Christians did at this time. In my opinion, the book of Hebrews had not been written yet. Many Christian Jews at the time probably believed that Jesus’ death had atoned for the sins of Israel at that time. It probably hadn’t dawned on many of them that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world for all time.

The Jews in Jerusalem probably made a connection between keeping the Law and the messiah coming--or for Christian Jews at the time, Jesus returning. Like Paul before his conversion, they believed God would reward Israel and give them back their land if they were devout enough in their law-keeping. Paul, meanwhile, was moving in the opposite direction. He had come to the conclusion that keeping the Law wasn't what God was looking for at all. God was looking for faith in Jesus.


Susan Moore said...

But wasn't Jesus a troublemaker?

Pastor Bob said...

Paul like his Lord, shared truth, neither Paul nor Jesus were troublemakers. When the bright light of truth drives away darkness the ruler of darkness fights back, thereby being revealing the troublemaker, Satan.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

IMO, Obama "wooed" the evagelicals and the Catholics, during his first campaign in 2008, to change his mind (or was it intentional deception? Did he have in mind what he wanted from the beginning?).
Now, the Catholic Church and the evangelical have to fight it out in the courts to get a hearing about religious liberty. Is that troublemaking? Perhaps, in some minds, it is. Our nation was a nation that allowed for dissent.
Should Christians allow "Nero" the right to blame-shift? Are Christians to loose their right to defend their "faith" commitments? If so, aren't Christian asking to be persecuted, either by an intolerant Islam, or State?
People will always judge those that have a difference of opinion or values as "bad", "evil", "corrupt", etc. But that is a pre-rogative in free society, isn't it? Otherwise, we have "thought police"! And that is when propaganda (as to thoughts) or lack of privacy (as to personal property) is promoted for the "greater good"!

Susan Moore said...

Dr. Schenck,
I was reading IWU's Triangle that came in the mail today.
What is the MS in Practical Theology all about? And when does it start? An MS, not an MA?

Ken Schenck said...

If you mean the MPTh (Master of Practical Theology), it's for students who already have an MA or at least 30 hours of grad work) who want to get to "MDiv equivalent" so that they can get into a DMin program. So it's designed to be a second master's degree.

I hope that helps...

Susan Moore said...

Yes, thank you.
Is there a way within the Wesleyan University system to incorporate Biblical Languages into one's graduate degree; either Masters or Doctorate?

Ken Schenck said...

Right now the seminary only has as electives Greek and Hebrew for ministry. Anything else would have to be independent study.

It is possible that the School of Theology and Ministry over on the residential campus will offer an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies in the near future.