We have seen how important the Spirit is within the orderly account that Luke provides, telling the story of Jesus and the movement he began.
Yet the Spirit is explicitly absent from the narrative after Paul is arrested in Jerusalem (21:22–28:31), apart from a brief note at 28:25. This is quite unlike the earlier concentrations of references to the Spirit, both in the Gospel and in earlier sections of Acts.
One obvious way to explain this is to refer to the pattern of occurrences of the Spirit in the Gospel: a concentration of activity by the Spirit in the opening chapters, some further references to the Spirit in the next half dozen chapters, but then silence until the scene where the dying Jesus hands over his spirit to the Father. The pattern in the Gospel, it would seems, is to establish that the life of Jesus as a whole is Spirit-led, and then leave that as assumed in the ongoing narrative.
Could that pattern then be followed in Acts? The early concentration of activity by the Spirit in Jerusalem establishes that the life of discipleship is similarly Spirit-led in what is told in the ensuing chapters.
This may be an attractive explanation; but it doesn’t deal with the observation we have made, that there are many explicit references to the activity of the Spirit, not just in the first few chapters, but right through the first three sections of Acts (into chapter 21). If Pentecost was to inform all that followed, why do these references to the Spirit still occur in the narrative?
A second explanation might be drawn from the fact that the story after chapter 21 moves explicitly and entirely into a hellenistic context.
Paul’s earlier activity had seen him regularly engaging with Jews in their synagogues: in Antioch (13:14–15, 43, 44), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonians (17:1–3), Beroea (17:10–11), Athens (17:16–17), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and again in 19:8–10). The “place of prayer” by the river in Philippi (16:13) was, most likely, also a place of gathering for Jews. This section of Acts culminates with Paul visiting the Jerusalem Temple and taking part in a purification ceremony there (21:17–36, when he is arrested).
From this point onwards, as Paul is under Roman arrest, he is arraigned before various local authorities: first before Claudius Lysias, the tribune in Jerusalem (21:31–3, 22:23–29), then the High Priest Ananias, his lawyer, Tertullus, and Governor Felix, in Caesarea (23:31–23), then Felix and his wife Drusilla (23:24–26), then two years later before Governor Festus (25:1–12), and finally, still in Caesarea, before King Agrippa, his consort, Bernice, and the Roman Governor, Festus (25:13–26:32).
Eventually, he is sent to Rome, because of his claim to be a Roman citizen (22:25–29; this was already signalled earlier in the narrative, in Philippi, at 16:35–39). The preponderance of Roman officials and scenes where Paul’s case is being considered by these authorities may militate against references to the Holy Spirit in these scenes. Paul is a prisoner, under Roman authority, being scrutinised as to his ultimate fate. The Spirit is absent from this process. The scenes are secular, it might be claimed, not related to the mission of preaching the good news.
However, it should be noted that the context of chapters 13–21 was not exclusively Jewish. Paul engages with Gentiles in various locations: early on, with Gentiles in Antioch (13:48), “a great number of both Jews and Greeks” in Iconium (14:2), a priest of Zeus in Lystra (14:13), and “the Gentiles” throughout the regions traversed in chapters 13–14 (14:27: 15:3); on a later journey, with “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women” in Thessaloniki (17:4) and “not a few Greek women and men of high standing” in Beroea (17:12).
In two cities (Athens and Ephesus), Paul’s primary interaction is with Gentiles: with Epicureans and Stoics in Athens (17:18–21), with Demetrius the silversmith and others of that trade in Ephesus (19:24–27), with a large crowd of Artemis worshippers (19:28–34), and eventually with the town clerk of Ephesus (19:35–41).
It is true that, in both cities, Paul also visits the synagogue (17:17; 19:8). However, no Jew living in the Diaspora could escape the ubiquitous influence of hellenistic culture and customs. As the tribune in Jerusalem poses the question to Paul, when he addresses him, presumably in Greek: “Do you know Greek?” (21:37). Of course Paul did—as did countless thousands of other educated Jews!
The Jews in the synagogues in Athens and Ephesus—and, indeed, in every synagogue which Paul and his companions visited in chapters 13 to 20—were Diaspora Jews, living in ways that had been markedly influenced by the dominant hellenistic culture of the past three centuries. These were not “Jews of the homeland” (and even there, hellenistic influences were evident); they were Jews who had accommodated and acculturated to life in the Greco-Roman Diaspora.
So proposing a clear cut dichotomy to differentiate between Jews and Gentiles, between Jewish contexts and Hellenised contexts, does not hold water. Applying such an analysis to Acts fails to explain the absence of the Spirit in chapters 21–28.
How else might this be explained? See the next blog post …