Thursday, December 23, 2010

Paul die at end of Acts?

The argument for Paul’s death at the end of Acts is two-fold. First, it is very likely that Luke-Acts was written after Paul’s death and, thus, that the author of Luke-Acts knew the outcome of Paul’s trial before Nero. For example, the overwhelming majority of experts on the gospels would say that the Gospel of Luke used some form of the Gospel of Mark as a primary source. Since they also date Mark to the late 60s or early 70s of the first century, Luke would have to be written later, which places it several years after Paul’s death.

However, the real clincher for a post-70AD date for Luke-Acts is in the way Luke 21:20 clarifies Jesus’ prophecy in Mark 13:14. Both Mark 13:14 and Matthew 24:15 have the ambiguous prediction of an “abomination that causes desolation” standing where it should not be standing, namely “in the holy place,” the temple (Matt. 24:15). Accordingly, we are a little surprised when we find Luke 21:20 speak of “Jerusalem surrounded by armies” and its desolation. Given where this statement comes in the prophecy and the fact that Luke is using Mark as a source, we can tell that this is Luke’s interpretation of the prophecy. After all, if Jesus said it this way instead of the way it is in Mark, why are Matthew and Mark so ambiguous? They almost seem to be saying different things!

By far the most likely explanation is that Luke has clarified the meaning of the Jesus prophecy because he already knows what the prophecy was referring to, because he is writing after it has happened. He has “translated” the prophecy dynamically, like The Message paraphrases the Bible in conversational English. Jewish translations we have from the time—including the New Testament itself—show that translators regularly rendered the Bible with this sort of freedom to paraphrase. And so it is overwhelmingly likely that Luke was written after Jerusalem’s destruction in AD70, and thus several years after Paul’s death.

So, secondly, if the author of Acts knows how Paul died, we have to take very seriously the way he foreshadows doom for Paul in the last chapters of the book.  Particularly striking are some of Paul’s final words to the Ephesians in Acts 20:25: “Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again” (NIV). If this statement is true—and surely the author of Acts would not have included it if it was not—then the popular evangelical reconstruction of a fourth missionary journey cannot be correct. For example, Paul would not have revisited Ephesus again to account for him leaving Timothy there as in 1 Timothy 1:3. Nor would it be likely that he had gone on from there to visit Colossae.

This sense of foreboding continues when Paul lands in Palestine. The prophet Agabas comes to Paul, ties his hands up with Paul’s belt, and predicts that “In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles” (Acts 21:11). Then the people there plead with Paul not to go to Jerusalem. They weep and break Paul’s heart, and Paul signals his willingness to die in Jerusalem (21:13). This build-up seems overly melodramatic if it is only foreshadowing imprisonment, when Paul has been imprisoned before. Acts thus seems once again to foreshadow Paul’s destiny when Herod Agrippa II tells the Roman governor Festus in effect that it is a pity Paul appealed to Caesar: “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (26:32). The possibility of death is again mentioned explicitly (26:31).

So if the author of Acts knew the outcome of Paul’s trial and implies it was negative, then it seems very likely that the outcome of Paul’s trial was negative. The question we then might hear is why Acts does not then tell us. The assumption is that if the author had known the outcome of the trial, he would have told us. But of course Acts was not written for us, and it is quite likely that the original audience did know the outcome of Paul’s trail. It was thus not necessary for Acts to say. Perhaps the author thought it would end Acts on a negative note, particularly when a consistent theme in Acts is to show that Christians had fairly smooth relationships with Roman officials.


Anonymous said...

"it is quite likely that the original audience did know the outcome of Paul’s trail"

It is also quite likely that the original audience of Luke knew that Jerusalem had been destroyed but Luke felt it necessary to clarify Mark's "prophesy." In fact, his readers may have been ore familiar with Jerusalem's fate given it's closer proximity in time and it's significance over the details of the death of a single Christian at the hands of Nero. Besides Luke was ever known to shy away from a trial scene!

On the other hand, I just finished The Case Against Q which reminds us that our assumptions about the literary motivations of Luke must remain somewhat of a mystery.

Have a great Christmas

Richard Fellows said...

Very well said, Ken.
If Luke had written about Paul's execution he would have provided ammunition to enemies of the church, who could have used the text to argue that the Christians were trouble makers. I have argued elsewhere that Luke's silence about Paul's (illegal?) preaching in Arabia is similarly explained by his need to avoid drawing attention to conflicts between the Christians and the civil authorities.

Ken Schenck said...

Richard, did I remember to have my publisher send you a copy of my first Paul book?

Richard Fellows said...

Hi Ken. I haven't received the book yet.

By the way, I particularly like your points about the sense of foreboding in Acts that anticipates Paul's execution. This sense of foreboding works well if the intended audience knew that Paul had been executed, but it makes Luke's silence about the execution all the more surprising. The anti-climax is all the more surprising, given the build-up. While Luke avoided direct reference to Paul's execution, he alluded to it for those readers who already knew about it. I think this shows that Luke had two audiences in mind: his intended audience of believers who knew that Paul had been executed, and his unintended audience of opponents who might have used his text against the Christians if it had referred to Paul's conviction and other rulings against the Christians. While some assume that Luke's pro-Roman silences were a result of a desire to convert Romans, I think your observations support the view that his silences are protective. He was censoring himself to avoid getting the church into more trouble than it was already in. If Luke had wanted to convert loyal Romans he would have deleted the sense of foreboding as well as the execution itself.