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‘Public Theology’ in Luke-Acts: The Witness of the Gospel to Powers and Authorities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 February 2016

James R. Edwards*
Whitworth University, 300 W. Hawthorne Road, Spokane, WA 99251, USA. Email:


This study surveys the numerous and diverse powers and authorities to which the gospel is addressed in Luke-Acts, including major Jewish institutions and officials, Herodian rulers, Roman military officers, Greco-Roman officials, diverse officials, and pagan cults and supernatural powers. Well over half the references to authorities in Luke-Acts occur nowhere else in the New Testament. The frequent and diverse references to powers defend Christianity in a preliminary and obvious way from charges of political sedition. In a broader and more important way, however, they redefine power itself according to the standard of the gospel.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2016 

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1 Mart. Pol. 21 bears a stylistic resemblance to Luke 3.1–2, both of which date events by providing names and titles of rulers, followed by the greater authority of divine providence. Mart. Pol. narrates Polycarp's martyrdom by means of allusions, reminiscences and parallels to Jesus' passion, and its author characterises his role as narrator similar to the way Luke characterises his role as evangelist.

2 See E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 3 vols. (rev. and ed. G. Vermes, F. Millar, M. Black; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973–87) ii.199–226.

3 G. Bornkamm, πρέσβυς κτλ, TWNT vi.654.

4 1 Macc 12.6; 13.36; 14.20, 28; 2 Macc 1.10; 4.44; 11.27; Jdt 4.8; 11.14; 15.8. For a discussion of γερουσία (including references in Josephus), see Schürer, History of the Jewish People, ii.202–4.

5 Synagogues are not mentioned in either mission of the disciples, but both missions occur in Palestinian regions, and the admonition in both for disciples to shake the dust from their feet in protest against villages that reject their witness (Luke 9.5; 10.11) – i.e. treat them as Gentile outsiders – makes sense only if the villages are Jewish.

6 Of the 160 occurrences of πόλις, ‘city’, in the NT, half occur in Luke-Acts. On the role of cities in Luke-Acts, see Conn, H. M., ‘Lucan Perspectives on the City’, Missiology 13.4 (1984) 409–28Google Scholar.

7 It is unclear whether Luke intends five synagogues (apparently Schürer, History of the Jewish People, ii.76), or, on the basis of the replication of the article, two synagogues (G. Schille, Die Apostelgeschichte (THKNT 5; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1989) 174–75), or one multi-ethnic synagogue (H. Conzelmann, Die Apostelgeschichte (HNT 7; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1963) 45; F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 156). The reference to ‘various people arising from the synagogue’ (τινες τῶν ἐκ τῆς συναγωγῆς) may favour one synagogue.

8 Jesus alludes to δωδεκάϕυλος paraphrastically in the Passion Narrative, however: ‘You shall sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes (τὰς δώδεκα ϕυλάς) of Israel’ (Luke 22.30).

9 Luke 4.33; 8.41.

10 Luke 4.16; 6.6; 11.43; 12.11; 13.10; 20.46; 21.12; Acts 6.9; 9.20; 13.14, 43; 14.1; 17.1, 10; 18.4, 7; 19.8. The remaining references to synagogues (roughly one third of the total) contain no reference to the gospel (Luke 4.15, 44; 7.5; Acts 13.5; 15.21; 17.17; 18.19, 26; 24.12).

11 See R. L. Brawley, Luke-Acts and the Jews: Conflict, Apology, and Conciliation (SBLMS 33; Atlanta: Scholars, 1987), 155–60.

12 High priests: Acts 4.1, 6, 23; 5.17, 21, 24, 27; 7.1. Elders: Acts 4.5, 8, 23; 6.12. Scribes: Acts 4.5; 6.12. Rulers: Acts 3.17; 4.5, 8, 26.

13 Even Paul's quotation of Exod 22.27, ‘You shall not speak evil of the ruler of your people’, appears in a context in which the high priest opposes Christianity.

14 The reference to the priest (ἱερεύς) of Zeus in Acts 14.13 is discussed below in 6.5, ‘Pagan Deities’.

15 א* reads ‘crowd of Jews (τῶν Ἰουδαίων)’, but its weaker textual attestation and the more difficult reading ‘crowd of priests (τῶν ἱερέων)’ ( 74 A B C D) favours the latter reading. See B. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 19942) 296.

16 The only non-Jewish use of γραμματεύς in Luke-Acts, the CEO of the city government of Ephesus (Acts 19.35), is discussed below in 4.4, ‘Diverse Political Offices’.

17 On scribes, see G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era (New York: Schocken, 1971) 37–47; E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 bc–66 ad (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992) 170–89; G. Baumbach, γραμματεύς, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (3 vols., Eng. trans.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990) i.259–60; J. Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 233–45; Schürer, History of the Jewish People, ii.322–30, who describes scribes as ‘the undisputed spiritual leaders of the people’ (p. 324).

18 Joseph is not called a ‘scribe’, but βουλευτής distinguishes him as a member of the Sanhedrin, and thus necessarily a scribe.

19 ἄρχοντες, Luke 23.13, 35; 24.20; Acts 3.17; 4.5, 8, 26; 13.27; 23.5; πρεσβύτεροι, Luke 9.22; 20.1; 22.52; Acts 4.5, 8, 23; 6.12; 23.14; 24.1; 25.15; πρῶτοι, Luke 19.47; Acts 25.2.

20 Josephus, J. W. 1.562–3; Ant. 17.19–22. Luke does not refer to Antipas and Agrippa I by those names, however, but only as ‘Herod’.

21 On Agrippa's unbridled indulgence coupled with religious devotion, see Schürer, History of the Jewish People, i.442–54. On the possibility that Agrippa's iron hand against Christians was part of a larger reaction to the chaotic aftermath of Caligula's reign in 41 ce, see C. A. Evans, From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014) 103–5.

22 Does Agrippa patronise Paul, ‘With this meagre testimony will you persuade me to become a Christian’, or does he concede, ‘A little more of this and you'll persuade me to become a Christian’?

23 So R. F. O'Toole, S.J., ‘Luke's Position on Politics and Society in Luke-Acts’, Political Issues in Luke-Acts (ed. R. J. Cassidy and P. J. Scharper; Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1983) 5.

24 A final reference to ‘tribunes’ in the entourage of Agrippa II and Bernice (Acts 25.23) is apparently the only reference to the office in Acts that does not include Claudius Lysias.

25 See E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 355–63.

26 Assuming the occurrence of ἑκατοντάρχης in Acts 28.16 to be a later textual addition.

27 Most positively, A. Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries (trans. J. Moffatt; New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1961) 260: ‘the Roman empire … is the new sphere marked out for the new religion’. More measured, O'Toole, ‘Luke's Position on Politics and Society’, 6–8: ‘According to Luke, the Christians have quite amicable relations with the Romans’; and W. A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 20032) 189: ‘There is no hint anywhere that Roman imperialism is a cause of the evil state of the present age.’

28 The Roman Senate crowned Octavian ‘August Caesar’ in 27 bce (W. Foerster, Σεβαστός, TWNT vii.174).

29 On the evolution of the imperial cult, especially in the West, see R. MacMullen and E. N. Lane, Paganism and Christianity, 100–425 ce: A Sourcebook (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992) 74–6. Despite Luke's lofty acknowledgement of Caesar's temporal authority, a categorical difference remains between him and Jesus Christ, for, as Peter confesses to Cornelius, ‘This [Jesus] is Lord of all’ (Acts 10.36). See Rowe, C. K., ‘Luke-Acts and the Imperial Cult: A Way Through the Conundrum?’, JSNT 27.3 (2005) 279300 Google Scholar.

30 The haste with which Paul passes through Perge (Acts 13.13), a more prominent city than Pisidian Antioch, may support this conjecture. On the influence of Sergius Paulus in determining Paul's itinerary, see S. Mitchell and M. Waelkens, Pisidian Antioch: The Site and its Monuments (London: Duckworth/Classical Press of Wales, 1998) 12; Wilson, M., ‘The Route of Paul's First Journey to Pisidian Antioch’, NTS 55 (2009) 482CrossRefGoogle Scholar; M. Wilson, Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor (Istanbul: Ege Yayinlari, 2010) 116.

31 Schürer, History of the Jewish People, i.466.

32 A. Weiser, κράτιστος, EDNT ii.315.

33 BDAG, 206.

34 BDAG, 14–15: ‘the courts are in session’.

35 W. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 190810) 134, 281.

36 EDNT i.172; BDAG, 142.

37 In 2007 I discovered an inscription on the east pillar of the theatre of Miletus dedicated to ‘Μ. ΑΝΤΩΝΙΟΝ ΑΠΟΛΛΟΔΩΡΟΝ ΤΟΝ ΑΣΙΑΡΧΗΝ’, and in 2014 a second dedication to an ‘Asiarch’ in a monumental inscription on the decumanus of Perge, far removed from Roman Asia.

38 EDNT iii.130; BDAG, 845.

39 BDAG, 947–8.

40 A point often noted by older scholars. Thus, F. C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament (New York: Scribner, 1962) 26: ‘Luke-Acts is an apologia for Christianity … designed to show that Christianity was not inimical to public law and order.’ More recently, O'Toole, ‘Luke's Position on Politics and Society’, 8: ‘The activity of the Christians and the tenets of their religion create no difficulty for a sensible, reasonable system of government. Only an irrational government or people, led by religious prejudice and/or hatred, could find fault with Christianity. In any nation ruled by reason, Christians make good citizens.’ Note my remarks in the conclusion of this article, however, that Luke's purpose is not simply to define the relationship of Christianity to Roman political power, but to redefine all power and authority in relation to the gospel.

41 H. M. Martin, Jr, ‘Areopagus’, ABD i.371. ‘Areopagus’ can refer either to the summit of Mars Hill or to the council that met there. Luke's reference to Paul's ‘going out from among them’ (Acts 17.33) apparently signifies the latter.

42 Suetonius's spiritual inventory of Caesar Augustus in Lives of the Caesars, Aug. 94, describes these and other practices in detail.

43 See the full discussion of the term by W. Foerster, πύθων, TWNT vi.917–20.

44 This is also true of the verb form (ἐξορκίζειν), which in its four occurrences (Gen 24.3; Judg 17.2; 1 Kings 22.16; Matt 26.63) is employed in the sense of ‘swear allegiance’ rather than ‘exorcise or expel’.

45 See P. S. Alexander, ‘Incantations and Books of Magic’, in Schürer, History of the Jewish People, iii/1.342–79.

46 For discussions of the origin and meaning of the term, see J. R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Luke (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 342; Gaston, L., ‘Beelzebul’, TZ 18 (1962) 247–55Google Scholar; MacLaurin, E., ‘Beelzeboul’, NovT 20 (1978) 156–60Google Scholar; M. Wolter, Das Lukasevangelium (HNT 5; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 416.

47 On public tearing of clothes as a sign of revulsion, see Str-B., i.1007–8.

48 On the relation of the Artemis cult and the Magna Mater cult, see Edwards, J. R., ‘Galatians 5:12: Circumcision, the Mother Goddess, and the Scandal of the Cross’, NovT 53 (2011) 324–30Google Scholar.

49 The false prophet, according to Herm. Mand. 11.13, ‘prophesies in a corner’.

50 R. Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989) 430.

51 Four terms occur in Luke and nowhere else in the NT: ἡγεμονία, θυσιαστήριον τοῦ θυμιάματος, νομικός and τετρααρχέω; and the remaining forty occur in both Luke-Acts or Acts alone : ἀγοραῖος, Ἀγρίππας I, Ἀγρίππας II, Αἰθίοψ εὐνοῦχος, ἀνθύπατος, Ἄρειος πάγος, Ἄρτεμις, ἀρχιερατικός, Ἀσιάρχης, Βερνίκη, Γαμαλιήλ, γερουσία, γραμματεύς (as city clerk), δεσμοϕύλαξ, Διονύσις ὁ Ἀρεοπαγίτης, δωδεκάϕυλον, Ἐλύμας, ἐξορκιστής, ἐξοχή, Ἐπικούριος, ἐπιτροπή, ἡγεμονεύω, ἱερεὺς τοῦ Διός, Κλαύδιος, κράτιστος, κυβερνήτης, Λυδία, Λυσίας, ναύκληρος, Πόπλιος, πύθων, ῾ραβδοῦχος, στρατηγός, Στωικός, πολιτάρχης, ῥήτωρ, Σεβαστός, Σίμων (Μάγος), Φῆλιξ, Φῆστος.

52 The thirty terms that Luke-Acts share in common with the NT are: ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα, ἀρχιερεύς, ἀρχισυνάγωγος, ἀγορά, ἄρχων, γραμματεύς, δαιμόνιον, διάβολος, ἑκατοντάρχης, ἐπίτροπος, ἡγεμών, Ἡρῴδης, Ἡρῴδης Ἀντίπας, ἱερεύς, ἱερόν, καῖσαρ, Μωϋσῆς καὶ Ἠλίας, Πόντιος Πιλάτος, πρεσβύτερος, πρῶτος, Σαδδουκαῖος, σατανᾶς, στρατιώτης, συναγωγή, συνέδριον, τελώνης, ὑπηρέτης, Φαρισαῖος, χιλίαρχος.

53 Βουλευτής, δεσμωτήριον, νομοδιδάσκαλος, πρεσβυτέριον, τετραάρχης.

54 M. Hengel, ‘Problems of a History of Earliest Christianity’, Studien zum Urchristentum: Kleine Schriften vi (WUNT 234; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 308–9.

55 Bruce, F. F., ‘Paul's Apologetic and the Purpose of Acts’, BJRL 69.2 (1987) 390Google Scholar.

56 In addition to the turmoil at the trial of Jesus (Luke 23.13–25), Luke includes opposition against Paul in Damascus (Acts 9.23–5), expulsion of Paul and Barnabas from Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13.50), mob actions in Iconium (Acts 14.5) and Lystra, where Paul is nearly killed (Acts 14.19), public beating of Paul and Silas in Philippi (Acts 16.22–3), Paul's escape from persecution in Thessalonica (Acts 17.10) and his flight from Berea (Acts 17.14), and riots against Paul in Ephesus (Acts 19.23) and Jerusalem (Acts 21.28), including in the Sanhedrin (Acts 23.10).

57 Apologists will need to defend Christianity against charges of sedition throughout the second and third centuries, e.g. Tertullian, Apol. 10, sacrilegii et maiestatis rei convenimur, summa haec causa, immo tota est (‘We are accused of sacrilege and treason; that is the chief charge, nay, the sum total of our offences’).

58 Barnes, T. D., ‘Legislation Against the Christians’, JRS 58 (1968) 33Google Scholar; similarly, and more recently, Keener, C. S., ‘Paul and Sedition: Pauline Apologetic in Acts’, BBR 22.2 (2012) 201–24Google Scholar.

59 Nowhere in Luke-Acts do we see the blanket endorsement of Roman political power as we do, for example, in the encomium of Melito of Sardis to Roman emperors (with the exception of Nero and Domitian), as recorded in Eusebius, HE 4.26.7–11.

60 For a discussion of these polarities, see C. K. Rowe, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Greco-Roman Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) chs. 2–3.

61 On the significance of Acts 10.36 for the Lukan programme of mission and evangelism, see especially Rowe, World Upside Down, 112–14.

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