In Part 1 we discussed how the consensus view in NT scholarship regarding Acts is that Luke penned the narrative to show that the Jesus movement was politically inoffensive to the Roman Empire. Luke accomplishes this, it is argued, by having Paul appear before various officials of Imperial Rome and having each vindicate Paul and the movement he represents. The take away appears to be that King Jesus is no political threat to Caesar.
Such a take on Acts is bothersome for those wanting to read the NT as an anti-Empire polemic. But is the consensus reading of Acts correct?
As Rowe points out in World Upside Down, the political story told in Acts is a bit more complex. While it is true that Paul is vindicated by Imperial Roman officials, it's also true that wherever the gospel spreads in the book of Acts there is violent social upheaval, much of it centered on economics. In these texts the gospel isn't politically neutral but observed to be highly disruptive, something that, well, something that turns the world upside down.
To illustrate this upheaval, Rowe works through a series of collisions in the book of Acts, locations where the gospel crashes into the pagan culture. In each case we see a conflict between the Jesus movement and the culture of pagan idol worship. But before we go on, a clarification is in order regarding idolatry.
The issue here isn't just about religious observance. Idolatry was an entire way of life. It was a cultural worldview that sat at the foundation of social life--morally, socially, politically, and economically. Leaving idol worship wasn't just a matter of changing where and how you worshiped. It wasn't just about a change of church addresses, going to the house meeting of the Way rather than to the Temple of Zeus. In turning from pagan idolatry an entire way of life would be upended, with drastic social, economic and political consequences. As Rowe states:
The turning away [from idols]...was not simply an epistemological act--"knowing better," as it were. Rather, the removal from pagan religious practices, so Luke tells, was a public act with economic and political consequence.Rowe tracks the collision between these "comprehensive patterns of life" through the narrative of Acts, with particular attention to the events in Lystra, Phillipi, Athens, Thessalonica and Ephesus. The events that transpire in Philippi and Ephesus nicely illustrate of the conflation of religion/idolatry and economics.
[In the story of Acts] to follow the Way is to inhabit the world in a manner fundamentally disruptive to the practices inherent to the present religious order. That such a disruption unfolds economically is but a necessary consequence of the inseparability of ancient religion from economics, or, to put it more along Luke's lines, the primacy of the identity of God for a comprehensive pattern of life.
In Acts 16.16-24 Paul performs an exorcism on a slave girl who is a soothsayer. Upon learning of the exorcism, the owners of the slave girl are thrown into a rage. Why?
Acts 16.19-21Another example comes from the riot that breaks out in Ephesus in Acts 19. Magic was big business in Ephesus. Spells, charms, amulets, statues, totems and magic scrolls were used for almost everything--from blessing a business venture to healing disease. But as the Way established itself in the city the following happened:
When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
Acts 19.17-20That's 50,000 silver coins worth of magic stuff going up in smoke. A drachma was about a day's wage. Some historians (per Wikipedia) place the value of a drachma (in 2009 USD currency) at $41. If that's right then over two-million dollars worth of magic paraphernalia was burned in Ephesus.
When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
A two-million dollar bonfire was bound to panic the markets, as they say. Soon after, the economic anxiety spills over into violence as a riot breaks out:
Acts 19.23-29In reviewing episodes like these in Acts, Rowe points out in World Upside Down that Luke seems keen to describe the social, political and economic disruption caused by the Way. Time after time in the book of Acts, when the Christians show up a riot breaks out.
About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way.
A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said:
“You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”
When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together.
Those who are eager to point out the disruptive and interruptive political implications of the Kingdom just love these stories in Acts. But it presents us with a puzzle in light of the material in Acts reviewed in Part 1.
In short, is the Kingdom socially, politically and economically disruptive or not? Acts seems to be telling two different stories. Rowe describes the seeming paradox of the narrative as a pendulum where, depending upon the story you want to tell, you can grab material in Acts to support either view. Do you want a politically tame and accommodating Christianity? Grab the material from Part 1. Do you want a politically disruptive Christianity? Grab the material from his post. Rowe summarizing this pendulum swing:
What is remarkable about the exegetical basis for these diametrically opposed interpretations of Acts is that all the different texts to which appeal is made are part of the same narrative...[This creates] something of a pendulum effect, in which the reader of the scholarly literature swings to and fro between passages of putative political innocuousness and purported social disruption.Is the Jesus movement politically innocuous or disruptive? Acts seems to argue for both. So what is going on?
I'll summarize Rowe's answer in the next and final post. But feel free to offer your own solution to the puzzle in the comments section.