May 11, 2011

Paul, the Law, and Acts: Part 2

In part 1, I noted that there was considerable evidence in Acts to suggest that Paul was pro-Law. Now we will evaluate that evidence. It is my contention that although Paul was likely pro-Law, the presentation in Acts may not be as clear-cut as it first appears. For example, we noted that Paul often began his ministry in the synagogue, observed the Sabbath, and taught from the Law and the Prophets. But it is important to note that each of these points were part of Paul’s missionary strategy in taking the Gospel to the Greco-Roman, going first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles. The fact that Paul’s ministry involves the synagogue may have less to do with his allegiance to the institution than it has to do with how he could most effectively reach Jewish communities with the gospel. Similarly, Paul’s circumcision of Timothy (16:3) appears to have more to do with having an effective ministry among the Jews than with any a priori commitment to circumcision. Paul’s vow (18:18) could certainly be a Nazarite vow and thus illustrate Paul’s commitment to the Mosaic Law, but a number of interpreters are uncertain that Paul’s vow is best identified as a Nazarite vow. In fact, a Nazarite vow is only one of at least four possibilities. [1] According to Acts 20:16, Paul wanted to reach Jerusalem by the Day of Pentecost, but we are not told why. He certainly, and maybe even probably, could have been motivated by a desire to observe the Feast, but there are other reasonable explanations. Peterson suggests that Paul may have been motivated by his desire to deliver the collection from Gentile churches during Pentecost. [2] Just as ambiguous are Paul’s statements before the Sanhedrin, Felix, and Festus. For example, in Acts 22:3 Paul affirms his training in the Law. But this affirmation is pre-conversion, making it difficult to determine whether or not Paul is merely stating a personal fact or whether he is affirming a present allegiance to the Law. Paul does confess to “believe everything according to the Law and that is written in the Prophets” in 24:14, but 24:15 makes it clear that he has in mind the Law and the Prophets as they testify to the eschatological hope and not the Law as it relates to regulatory practice.

In summary, what appears at first glance to suggest that the Paul of Acts is characterized as clearly Law-observant is open to question. Did Paul keep the Law? There is some indication that he did. Did Law-keeping define Paul’s ministry? Perhaps, but the answer to this question is still open to debate. In my next post on this topic, I want to address perhaps the strongest evidence in Acts that Paul was a Torah-observant, namely, Acts 21:17–26.

[1] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, ECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 585–86. Bock concludes that Paul’s vow was probably a private vow and not a Nazarite vow (Bock, Acts, 586). In any case, even if one concludes that it was a Nazarite vow, it does not appear to strictly follow the procedure stipulated in Numbers 6.
[2] David G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 562.

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