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Kerygma in Acts
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: July 27, 2003
So far, we have considered major meta-gospel statements: Luke's prologue, John's eyewitness claim, Matthew's editorial aside, and Paul's descriptions of Jesus' deity and resurrection. The next set of statements are not direct meta-gospel statements, but something else.
In Acts we see a story about the apostles and the spread of the gospel. Of course, in the MG view, Acts (the second part of the work by the author of Luke) is every bit as metaphorical as the gospels. The writer did not intend to convey these as stories of what actually happened. Remember, on the MG view:
- Jesus fulfilled no prophecies; rather, the authors created stories based on Old Testament passages (in Spong, 'midrash'; in Crossan 'prophecy historicized')
- Jesus' resurrection was not a physical one
And so, if the MG Theory is true, how would Luke portray the preaching of the gospel (the 'kerygma', or proclamation) in Acts? It seems logical that he would, at the very least, show the apostles preaching a spiritual gospel. He might invent fabulous tales of miracles accompanying the message, but the preaching would not be the 'literalistic gospel.'
In reading Acts, let's assume for argument's sake, with the MG scholars, that Luke freely invented stories about the disciples and their preaching of the gospel. These disciples are often pictured as presenting the gospel to the public, and Luke has presumably put words in the mouths of his characters for some reason. This is a perfect place to give us an indication that the gospel events are to be construed symbolically, not literally, if that is what Luke has in mind.
Appeal to Personal Eyewitness
First, I will point out the fact that the disciples repeatedly appeal to their own personal eyewitness experience of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. Luke has them claiming that these things are true in the plain sense.
"You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this." (Acts 3.14)
And this eyewitness information is so important, in Luke's story, that they are even willing to lay down their lives for it. When Peter and John were arrested, they were told to keep quiet. They replied:
"Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." (Acts 4:18-20)
The first prominent speech in Acts is by Peter, at Pentecost.
"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.
David said about him: 'I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also with live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; and will fill me with joy in your presence.' (Psalm 16:8-11)
Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on this throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact." (Acts 2:22-32)
What is this? Peter clearly is claiming the bodily resurrection of Jesus. He specifically addresses the decay of the body in the grave. Nothing could be plainer than that. He appeals to a prophecy in the Psalms and says that his hearers should believe him precisely because Jesus has (really) fulfilled this prophecy.
In fact, every time Peter presents the gospel he appeals to the claim that Jesus' sufferings and resurrection were real, that Peter and his companions knew this from personal experience, and that they had been predicted. When explaining the good news to Cornelius, Peter says:
"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen - by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (Acts 10:39-43)
The commentaries agree that this is indeed presented as an argument from prophecy:
Peter's argument from prophecy shows that the 'promise' of the Father has truly been fulfilled. (Jerome 173)
Notice that they "ate and drank with him" after the resurrection (again, a bodily resurrection). What can Luke be thinking? A pattern quickly develops, as you move through Acts. Virtually everybody who presents the gospel in Acts uses a similar argument.
Peter after healing blind man:
"You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. . . But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. . . Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days." (Acts 3:14-24)
When Paul is on trial for this life (a trial he eventually lost), his primary defense at each hearing was "I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead." And he appeals to fulfilled prophecy:
"I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen - that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles." At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane."
"I am not insane, most excellent Festus", Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do."
The commentaries agree with the plain sense of the passage (even Jerome, see below):
true and reasonable
"Paul's retort is in kind and appeals to precisely what Festus values: 'What I am saying' is true and reasonable.' ... Hardly insane, what he says is sophrosune, a word that denotes intellectual sobriety." (Oxford 341)
Pharisees and resurrection
"Paul's discourse before King Agrippa. In Luke's story, this--Paul's last defense--is the culmination of his career. ... The whole is dominated once again by a concern to present Paul's belief and ministry as the logical consequence of Pharisaism and the fulfillment of Scripture. ... Paul implies: The true Pharisee must logically become a Christian." (Jerome 210)
As a Jew, aware of the Pharisaic belief in the resurrection of the dead and probably also of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, he is one to whom Paul can legitimately appeal. (Jerome 211)
Note also that Jesus is the first to rise. This is no spiritual journey to heaven that happens to everyone. This is a genuine resurrection he's claiming.
Again, Paul recapitulates the same argument employed by Peter. The Jewish leaders killed Jesus, he rose bodily, and this was predicted (referring to the same prophecy was Peter):
"The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all the was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. . .
The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words: "I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David." (Is 55:3) So it is stated elsewhere: "You will not let your Holy One see decay." (Ps 16:10)
For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay. (Acts 13:26-37)
Method of Evangelism to the Jews
Systematic Appeal to Prophecy
In Acts, one of Paul's major strategies in the story is to go to a synagogue and prove to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah by appealing to fulfilled prophecy. Now, even if you think he uses special pleading in interpreting the O.T. passages, this method could only have convincing force to the hearers if Jesus had actually done the things prophesied. What kind of apologetic would it be if Paul were to say "Here are a bunch of Old Testament passages, and we've invented stories just as if Jesus had done these things, ... but he didn't"? If Paul used metaphorical stories about Jesus, he couldn't possibly use these stories as evidence of fulfilled prophecy. It would be absurd. Yet this is exactly how he is portrayed.
Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 9:22)
As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. . . .
Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:2, 11)
The commentaries agree that Paul is presented as arguing from Old Testament prophecy. The argument is, quite obviously, that prophets of old predicted certain sets of events, and that these events occurred.
Luke means that Saul constructed arguments from OT passages to bolster his preaching. (Jerome 187)
17.1-4. This feature [Bible teaching] of Paul's mission is nicely captured by this text, where he is said to perform a sequence of tasks apropos of a trained exegete of Scripture: 'from the scriptures', he 'argued', 'explained', and 'proved'. The first task should not be viewed as argumentative but as that of the scholar who carefully sifts textual evidence is mounting a persuasive case. (New, 238)
17.10-12. The new word introduced here, 'examine', is a legal term used nowhere else in the NT for the study of Scripture. Luke uses it here for Paul's appeal to Israel's Scriptures as a legal 'witness' to warrant his gospel's claims about Jesus. That is, his claims about Jesus are not the by-product of an imaginative reading of Scripture. Rather, they are judicious and give competent testimony by which a fair verdict may be rendered by his auditors; indeed, 'many of them therefore believe'. (Oxford, 239)
Apollos followed suit:
"On arriving, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ." Acts 18:27
And Paul continued this through his ministry.
From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets." (Acts 28:23)
What could Paul possibly be trying to convey by the argument that Jesus' fulfillment of prophecy is proof that he is the Messiah? How is it that someone could be portrayed as spending his time arguing that "Jesus" satisfied O.T. predictions when it is commonly known that the man Jesus did not do these things?
How can an appeal to imaginative reconstruction impress anyone enough to be called "reasoning with the Jews from the Scriptures"?
Objections and Answers
Let's look at it from the MG point of view. Now, even if none of these events really happened and Luke invented these dialogues out of whole cloth, why would Luke put these kinds of words in the mouths of his characters?
1. A Made-up Story
I have not found any clear answers from the commentaries. I'm not even sure that proponents of the MG Theory have even considered this issue. The Jerome commentary comes the closest to a 'liberal' view that I saw. First, it denies the historicity of Paul's speech on Mars Hill.
17.22-34. Paul's discourse at the Areopagus. ... It is actually a Lucan composition, another example of the inserted discourse. It mirrors the reaction of a Christian missionary confronted with pagan culture ... (Jerome 199)
But Jerome gives us no insight about the question before us. The commentary contents itself with criticizing the fairness of O.T. citation.
But once again Luke's reference to the OT is vague; the reader is supposed to believe that in the OT Christianity is in some way foretold. But specific references to OT passages as support for the following summary of Christian belief are strikingly lacking; they reveal Luke's cavalier manner of handling the OT. ... Not only does he conflate the two figures (Messiah with Suffering Servant) - a conflation that is still unattested in pre-Christian times - he even asserts that the OT implies the resurrection of this conflated figure; yet no references are given to OT passages. (Jerome 211; emphasis mine)
Answer. However, note that even in this view, it is assumed that the reader is expected to construe the Old Testament passages as genuinely predicting Jesus' resurrection. And so, even if the entire books of Acts is a complete fabrication, the intent is to portray the real resurrection - as fulfillment of prophecy - as a reality.
2. Stylistic Verbiage
Perhaps someone could say, "The accepted metaphors about Jesus have to do with his miracles, deity, prophecy, resurrection. These are powerful themes. The writer of Acts was simply tapping in to these images when he constructed these stories." I haven't seen this argument, but it is logically possible.
Answer. First, I don't know how this argument would be defended. It's the kind of thing which might be simply asserted.
Second, Why go out of his way to emphasize the bodily resurrection ("decay"), "argued from the scriptures", and personal eyewitness, when there is a wealth of gospel imagery available to draw from?
Third, These passages were not written 'in a corner' - they present (a) the kerygma, the essence of the gospel message, and (b) the method of evangelizing the Jews.
Here again are the points that are repeatedly reinforced in the Kerygma and method of Jewish evangelism:
- Their message is rooted in their own experience of Jesus' teaching, and especially his resurrection
- Jesus' resurrection was a bodily one - he did not experience decay, nor was he abandoned to the grave
- This resurrection, among other things, was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Those who are Jews should accept him because he was the foretold Messiah.
- Jesus' role as Messiah, as Christ, is founded on these things.
These points simply make no sense if you assume a MG Theory view. The burden of proof is on the MG proponents to show the point of these stories, when seen through the MG lens.