This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Does Acts gloss over conflicts in the church?

I am amazed at how confidently people assert that the author of Acts suppresses conflicts within the church. This is often stated without evidence, as if it were established fact. An example is Michael Goulder's "Silas in Thessalonica":
We cannot but admire the subtlety with which kindly Luke, the great reconciler, has covered his tracks.
With this slight of hand, Goulder attempts to deflect attention away from the fact that Acts contradicts his theory that there was an ideological rift between Paul and the Jerusalem church leaders. The very common assumption that Luke had a tendency to down-play conflicts in the church is, I think, a piece of special pleading designed to permit the common understanding of Gal 1-2 that sees Paul in conflict with the Jerusalem church leaders. Here's why.

Acts is full of conflict. For example, there are conflicts between Paul and other Jews, and between Paul and pagans, and even between Paul and the civil authorities (though Luke had to tread carefully there). Luke was therefore no "kindly reconciler". It is arbitrary to suppose that Luke would down-play the supposed conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church, but not down-play the conflicts between Paul and his other co-religionists, for example.

Acts also contains plenty of conflict among the followers of Jesus. Luke tells us that:
1) Peter confronted Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10)
2) the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews over the distribution of food (Acts 6:1)
3) Peter and John opposed Simon in Samaria (Acts 8:18-24)
4) the disciples in Jerusalem were suspicious of Paul (Acts 9:26)
5) believers in Jerusalem criticized Peter for eating with Gentiles (Acts 11:2-3)
6) Paul clashed with Bar-Jesus, a believer.
7) men from Judea clashed with Paul and Barnabas over the need for circumcision (Acts 15:1-2)
8) other believers in Jerusalem also opposed the views of Paul and Barnabas on circumcision (Acts 15:5)
9) Paul rejected John-Mark (Acts 15:37-38)
10) Paul and Barnabas had a sharp dispute and parted company (Acts 15:39-40)
11) seven "sons of Sceva" believed in the power of name of Jesus over evil spirits, but are humiliated
12) many believers who were zealous for the law were suspicious of Paul (Acts 21:20-21)

This list shows that Luke was not shy about recording conflicts in the church. In most cases Luke takes sides, and it is clear that he considers Simon Magus, Bar-Jesus, and the sons of Sceva to be beyond the pale. If the Jerusalem church leaders had opposed Paul on the issue of Gentile inclusion Luke would have recorded it and he probably would have taken sides. Luke does, after all, record similar conflicts (see 5, 7, 8, 10 & 12 above).

It is true that Luke does not mention the agitators in Galatia, or the opponents in Corinth, but this is merely because the focus of Acts is on the initial spread of the gospel around the mediterranean, not on the subsequent history of those churches.

In a future post I will (finally) explain why I think Galatians demonstrates that Paul and the Jerusalem church were in complete agreement on the issue of Gentile inclusion.

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