Now we are in the season of Easter, we have weekly sections of the book of Acts in our readings. The passage in this Sunday’s lectionary contains a portion of the scene when Peter and John were brought to trial before the Jewish Council in Jerusalem (Acts 5:27-32). In that trial, Peter and John offer their defence of the Gospel they are preaching.
Peter sets out the good news at the heart of the movement: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:30-31) He asserts that, despite the warnings given by the Jewish authorities, they will not cease from proclaiming this message. They are driven by a compelling necessity, Peter argues, stating that “we must obey God rather than humans”, 5:29).
That’s an interesting comment. It inspires me to reflect on the nature of the movement in which Peter and John were exercising a leadership role. “We must obey God rather than humans” was actually well known, already, in the Hellenistic society of the time. This was a popular proverb which can be found in various Greek writings over the centuries.
How intriguing that this allegedly “uneducated and ordinary” Jewish man (Acts 4:13) was able to quote a common Greek proverb! (Of course, we have only the report that Luke provides of this speech—and Luke himself is certainly no “uneducated and ordinary man”, so the role of the reporter-author is certainly one that has influenced this report.)
Other well–known ancient Greek proverbs appear at a number of points in Acts. One proverb is utilized by the narrator himself, when he describes the community of believers in Jerusalem as being “of one heart and soul” (4:32). This saying can be found as a proverb in works from the time of Plato onwards.
The educated orator, Paul, also quotes a well-known Greek proverb when he is on trial before the aromas authorities. Referring to the deeds of Jesus and his followers, he asserts that “this was not done in a corner” (26:26). This was a known saying that related to the way that a philosopher operated in the public arena; it is used in Acts as an explanatory defence for his own way of operating.
Indeed, Paul even claims that the deity himself, at the Damascus Road epiphany, spoke yet another Greek proverb (“it hurts to kick against the goads”, 26:14). This proverb can be found in the Bacchae, a play by Euripides, which had first been produced over 4 centuries before the time of Paul.
The clearest example of how the early followers of Jesus engaged with the Hellenistic culture is in Acts 17, where Luke reports how Paul interacted with philosophers as he preached the Gospel. In his speech, when Paul declares of God, “in him we live and move and exist” he is quoting from Cretica by Epimenides (whom he refers to simply as “one of your own poets”).
That is followed immediately by a line found in the Phaenomena by Aratus (“we are also his offspring”). Paul also alludes to Stoic views about the world and its relationship to the divinity. The whole scene depicts the interplay between followers of Jesus and Hellenistic philosophy.
These Greek sayings and proverbs found in the midst of this story of the early movement initiated by Jesus, reflect the way that this movement spread across cultures: it began as a Jewish story but came to be increasingly significant in the hellenised society of the Roman Empire.
(There’s a body of technical work behind this post … some of it in the research I undertook in my PhD studies, where I explored the resonances with Hellenistic history and philosophy in the two-volume work by Luke, which was published in “The plan of God in Luke-Acts”, Cambridge University Press, 1993.)
It is my view that two volumes of Luke–Acts can be considered as an account of the cross–cultural transitions that are inherent in moving from the earlier, predominantly Jewish context, into the wider hellenised world of the Roman Empire. Luke splices in many indications of this Hellenistic world, embedded into his story of the Jewish man Jesus and his Jewish followers.
Indeed, the distinctive structure of Luke’s narrative—beginning in Jerusalem, ending in Rome—points firmly to the nature of the enterprise undertaken by the earliest members of “The Way”.
As they bear witness to what God has done in Jesus—in the northern Jewish region of Galilee, and then in the southern capital, Jerusalem—the followers of Jesus engage people from many towns and cities scattered around the eastern Mediterranean region. These towns and cities were strongly hellenised—that is, they were dominated by the Greek language, culture, and political organization imposed centuries earlier in the military occupation of the Greek–speaking troops of Alexander the Great.
Luke’s account of the teachings of Jesus and the later travels of the Jewish leaders of “The Way” indicates the extent of the cultural transition that this entailed.
In Luke’s Gospel, the ethical teachings of Jesus are shaped in such a way that they resonate with the primary ethos of this dominant culture. Jesus was renowned for reclining at table (5:30; 15:2) where, in the style of a Greek philosophical teacher, he discusses ethical issues with his pupils at length over a meal (Luke 5:29–39; 7:36–50; 11:37–52; 14:1–24; 22:14–38; cf. 24:30, 41–43).
In Luke’s eyes, Paul exemplifies this cross–cultural transition most vigorously. Early in his travels, he betters the priests of Zeus (14:8–18). Later, he wins an intense debate with philosophical teachers at the pinnacle of learning, in Athens (17:16–34). Paul is able to engage with religious leaders (and best them) across the Empire.
In the final chapters of Acts, the prisoner Paul engages in ethical and philosophical debates with his Gentile captors. First in Caesarea, and then as he travels west towards Rome, Paul is brought before the authorities of the Roman world. He speaks with the typical rhetorical flourishes with which they would have been familiar (24:10–16; 24:24–25; 25:8–11; 26:2–8, 24–29; 27:21–26, 33– 38). Luke shows that Paul is familiar with this world; he is ‘at ease’ as he speaks in Greek to Roman officials, even though he is a prisoner of the Roman Empire.
The Lukan Paul demonstrates that, despite his chains, “The Way” is able to hold its head high in the face of sophisticated Greco–Roman ideologies. The Jewish sect from far–away Galilee is ready to take its place in the marketplace of ideas in Athens and at the heart of empire in Rome. The story which began in Jerusalem has ended in Rome.
All of this provides a solid foundation, within the biblical witness, for the way in which believers today ought to go about commending and advocating for their faith. Missional engagement require contextual immersion. Preaching the good news and living the Christian faith involves cross-cultural interaction and reshaping the message so that it is immediately relevant to, and comprehensible within, the culture of the day.
Our biblical texts offer us encouragement to engage across cultures, in our own time, in the places where we encounter people.