We are now in the season of Easter. It stretches for fifty days, from Easter Sunday up to Pentecost Sunday. Throughout this season, in place of a reading from Hebrew Scriptures, we follow passages from the book of Acts, the second volume in the orderly account which, by tradition, is attributed to Luke.
The passage set for this Sunday (the second Sunday in the season of Easter) places Peter in the public square, making a speech to the crowd which had gathered in Jerusalem on the Festival of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). This is but the first of many such speeches, delivered by Peter and other followers of Jesus, in public locations. It is also a striking example of “public theology”, articulating the Gospel in the public arena.
Peter: orator and prophet
There are many speeches reported in Acts. This speech, attributed to Peter, sets a pattern for those ensuing speeches. In form, it follows hellenistic rhetorical conventions, even though Peter was a Jew and is later described as being “uneducated and ordinary” (4:13). This speech, like all others in Acts, was undoubtedly written by Luke; it is not a verbatim report of what Peter said.
Luke wasn’t present for this speech, or the others he has included in Acts. He operated in the style of hellenistic historians, who crafted words appropriate for the speaker and the occasion (Thucydides, Hist. 1.22.1). Even though Peter was a mere Jewish fisherman, it is important for Luke to present him as a polished Hellenistic orator.
Peter’s speech is the first in a sequence of speeches in Acts in which, as a whole, the larger story of Jesus and Israel is linked with the events that are taking place. This is how Luke conveys the way the apostles preached—emphasising things that were of importance to him. What they actually said, we cannot know.
Luke has Peter speak as one with the authority of a prophet; the word translated simply as addressed (NRSV) is an unusual term (apephtheggxato, 2:4) which is best translated as declaimed, to convey the seriousness of the occasion (see also 26:25). Peter is portrayed as a prophet—he utters inspired intelligent utterance, as the prophets did.
Within the speech itself, Peter states that he speaks with frankness (2:29), a quality reminscent of the prophets, but also used to describe a valued way of speaking amongst philosophers (see, for instance, Dio Chrysostom, Oration 32.11 and 77/78.37; Diogenes Laertius, Lives 2.122-123 [on Simon the cobbler] and 6.69 [on Diogenes the Cynic]). Such frank speech is to be understood as coming from God. It is noted again after Pentecost, when in response to the community’s prayer to God, the ground shakes and community members are “filled with the spirit” and speak with “frankness” (4:31).
The same frankness is also noted in the preaching of Peter and John (4:13), the teaching of Apollos (18:26) and the proclamation of Paul (9:27-28; 19:8; 28:31; with Barnabas, 13:46 and 14:3). Divinely-bestowed frankness of speech thus typifies the leaders of the messianic communities.
Peter is giving this speech in a public place: the Temple in Jerusalem, most likely in an outer court, where many pilgrims had gathered because of the Festival of Pentecost. His public proclamation of the story of a Jesus is important for Luke, as he recounts the ways that the early community of believers lived and bore witness to their faith.
Towards the end of the second volume of the orderly account, the book of Acts, that other great public orator, Paul, makes a striking declaration about his activities: these things were not done in a corner, he asserts, as he makes his defence before King Agrippa, his consort Queen Berenice, and the Roman Governor, Porcius Festus (26:26). Interestingly, the same unusual verb we noted to describe Peter as he spoke at Pentecost, is used of Paul at this point; in speaking before the authorities, he “declaims” (apophtheggomai, 26:25).
The words attributed to Paul, these things were not done in a corner, were actually well-known in the Hellenistic world, as a Greek proverb. (It is cited by Plato, Gorgias 485CE, Aulius Gellius, Attic Nights 10.16-18, and Epictetus, Diss. 1.29.54-57.) In the mind of the author of the two volumes of this orderly account, this is a key feature of the activity undertaken by Peter, Paul, and all who were leaders within those early communities. It was a faith that was consistently and unashamedly proclaimed in public.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter’s prophetic role had placed him in a position of leadership within the community, as well as propelling him to public prominence. His speech provides a foundational model for this kind of public prophetic leadership. In this speech, Peter interprets the phenomena of the day, articulates the significance of Jesus, and describes the nature of the community. This Sunday’s reading focusses on the middle item of these three features. The other elements are taken up on subsequent Sundays during Easter.
For a further blog post on Peter’s testimony to Jesus in this speech, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/16/what-god-did-through-him-peters-testimony-to-jesus-acts-2/
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003).