2011 Book of Acts

Session 1

Rebecca Dean (University of Oxford)

Prophet or threat? The ambiguous encounter with the slave‐girl in Acts 16:16‐18

The story of the slave‐girl in Acts 16:16‐18 has been interpreted as a demonstration of the triumph of Christianity over polytheistic religion. This paper will suggest that the account may more aptly be characterised as a tense and uncertain negotiation of the boundaries of the emerging Christian movement.

The slave‐girl is an ambiguous figure with uncertain intentions. On one level she is the doubly exploited victim of both her human owners and the pythian spirit that possesses her. However, although she is ultimately dismissed, her status as a slave and her ‘prophetic’ activity represent a potential fulfilment of the programmatic citation of Joel in Acts 2:17‐21. While her low social status as a young female slave cannot be denied, her charismatic abilities furnish her with a loud, persistent, and truthful voice. These abilities pose a potential threat to Paul and his companions, and the riskiness of this encounter is further emphasised by their subsequent imprisonment.

It will be argued that Paul’s delayed response to the activities of the slave‐girl underlines the difficulty in identifying what she represents. While Paul and his companions successfully manage the situation with which they are faced, this is not an account of Christianity’s easy triumph over inferior polytheism, but rather an illustration of the challenges of distinguishing between true and false prophetic fulfilment within the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts 10:9-16: New approaches to a problem passage for Lukan ecclesiology

The command to eat unclean animals in Peter’s rooftop vision is widely taken as commending Torah abolition. Although perhaps endorsed by some pre-Sanders readings of Paul, this is not in-line with more recent readings of the NT, nor the initially uncontested continuity of Jewish Christianity. More importantly, ‘naïve’ abolitionism is rejected by Luke himself elsewhere in Acts, as noted by Jervell. One standard explanation is that Luke tried to adapt an originally abolitionist manifesto by adding a metaphorical link from food to people, but in leaving traces of the original, undermined the view he was trying to promote. Others see Luke’s positive approach to Jewish Christianity as a historical or conciliatory gesture, making the vision a discreet although perhaps slightly cruel pointer to inevitable obsolescence.

This study suggests that both of these reconstructions are inadequate and that raising the spectre of abolition whilst actually opposing the idea could be understandable if some alternative approach were taken were taken to the vision. Although featuring imagery from Jewish law, Peter’s vision is not really like other Biblical examples, and may owe something to the transgressive, enigmatic anxiety dreams known in contemporary Graeco-Roman biography. This would allow a reading that avoided taking the imagery as literal commendation of a course of action, whilst at the same time not needing to resort to simple metaphorical transfer. With examples drawn from various Graeco-Roman authors, Luke’s possible use of this novel idiom will be illustrated and brief conclusions drawn for his apologetic agendas.

Session 2

Dr Jane McLarty (University of Cambridge)

The character of Paul in Acts

Recent scholarship (Averil Cameron, Judith Lieu, Isabella Sanderson) has stressed the importance of the written text in the formation of Christian identity: gospels, epistles, Acts (both canonical and extra-canonical), extended visionary narratives such as the Shepherd of Hermas, all offer a window into the striving for self-definition taking place amongst Christian communities in the first and second centuries, which seeks to answer the question, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’

Those texts featuring individuated characters particularly demand study as they present a literary ‘version’ of figures in the early Church. Paul was not the only evangelist working in the eastern Mediterranean in the first century, but as an influential missionary, one who knew the ‘pillars’, those disciples who had contact with the Jesus, and as one commissioned by a particular vision of Christ, he attracts a special interest: he becomes a primary focus of over half of the narrative structure of the canonical Acts, and further adventures are woven around him in the extra-canonical Acts of Paul.

Paul’s particular role in the construction of a mature, masculine Christian identity is clear if we consider his portrayal in the Acts of Paul, which demonstrably appropriates the gendered models of contemporary romantic and philosophical literature. A prominent theme is the Stoic notion of self-mastery: but this interest in Pauline ‘character’ (difficult as this term is in the ancient world) is already discernible in the canonical Acts, which counterbalances the passive, feminine associations of his suffering with a stress on his masculine powers of self-control. The ‘open’ ending of Acts, where Paul’s fate is not explicitly narrated (although plenty of narrative clues have been planted along the way), echoes that of the gospel of Mark, and the later examples of lack of closure at various points within the Acts of Paul. Narrative form is controlled by Christian ideology, which rejects the satisfactions of a neat ending in favour of something more uneasy, and more challenging.

Justin Mihoc (Durham University)

The reception and interpretation of the Lucan ascension of Christ in the pre-Nicene period

In this paper I aim to analyse the references to the departure of Christ and to draw some general lines of interpretation of the Ascension in the patristic writings of the second and third centuries. Making use of the Wirkungsgeschichte model of analysis I intend to show how this finale of Christ’s earthly life was received by the early Church and if its image was drawn from the narratives in Luke-Acts. Special emphasis will be put on early Ascension traditions and their impact on the biblical text and its interpretation. Furthermore, I shall explore the use of Old Testament imagery, such as Ps 68, Ps 110, and Dan 7, in the early patristic interpretation of Jesus’ exaltation.

There are few references to the Ascension in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, often implied rather than explicitly formulated. Their purpose was not to interpret the apostolic tradition but to affirm it. Subsequently, it is difficult to establish the reception of Luke-Acts in the second century, but it does not mean that the second-century authors did not use the Lucan writings. Beginning with the third century, though, the Ascension starts to be seen as a central event of the History of Redemption (along with the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit) within the early Christian church.

The treatment of the Ascension by the pre-Nicene Christian writers is almost always connected with the session ad dexteram Dei and used with apologetic purposes. However, three writers are of special interest in the discussion of interpretation: Novatian associates the Ascension of Christ with the doctrine of incarnation, Irenaeus incorporates it into his theory of recapitulation, and Origen, making extensive use of the allegorical method, emphasises that too literal an interpretation of the Lucan narratives of the Ascension could lead to a false understanding of the event per se.

Session 3

Prof Mikeal Parsons (Baylor University)

A brief reception history of the Pentecost narrative (Acts 2): Its use and influence

A brief history of reception of the Pentecost scene in Acts 2, noting especially the ways this text has entered into ecclesial, christological, and pneumatological debates across the history of the church. Special attention will be given to the reception in the visual tradition.