World Upside Down: Part 2, When the Christians Show Up a Riot Breaks Out

We continue on with Part 2 of 3 in our review of C. Kavin Rowe's book World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age.

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.
[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.
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 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 16.19-21
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.”
Another 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:
Acts 19.17-20
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. 
That'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.

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 19.23-29
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.
In 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.

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.

Part 3

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6 thoughts on “World Upside Down: Part 2, When the Christians Show Up a Riot Breaks Out”

  1. The puzzle is that there is none. While the ground level impact of Jesus followers coming to town is upheaval, the authorities cannot prosecute because they commit no crimes. They don't steal or cheat. And they are not raiding from secluded enclaves. They are hiding in the open. They are also invoking, in their arguments, a theological truth. One which the powers and principalities are woe to confront lest they are dragged into confronting all the gods. Its a virus they cannot attack directly because it doesn't present itself directly. Its not seditious. No Molotov cocktails are thrown and yet it turns the world upside down. No doubt the rulers and opponents of the day prayed that the followers would use violence so that force could be met with force.

  2. I agree with Narcissus that the supposed "pendulum swing" really is a contrived reading (my words, not Narcissus', in case Narcissus disagrees with my rendering). The kingdom Jesus inaugurated was not itself governmental, as if the kingdom of God needed a boost from institutionalized culture to exercise its power. God's kingdom was always designed to draw its strength and vitality from the ordinary people of the day acting within the contexts of their ordinary, quotidien lives, including their business interests, in the power provided by God's spirit, not that provided by governmental authority. qb

  3. From your keyboard to the eyes of those who think government can bring about the kingdom of God.

    (On BOTH sides of the aisle.)

  4. I don't necessarily think that the pendulum swing is a "contrived reading," as per qb, because the text is clearly dealing with the topic of political obedience/disobedience and it is perfectly reasonable to try to make sense of the text's position on this topic. But I'd like to say something similar to qb's claim, if a little softer and a little more specific: the seeming ambivalence is a result of the fact that the Acts author's focus is on a different axis entirely. I don't know what the focus is, mind you. But normally (in my experience as an English scholar) when a text seems terribly inconsistent on the topic we're reading for, it's because the text is extraordinarily dedicated to another axis (say, personal ethics or community development or a history of salvation) that doesn't correlate strongly with the one we're studying (in this case, the threat to political order).

  5. In trying to bring the episode of Acts 19.23-29 to our own society and context;
    in trying to answer the question of 'What is our idolatrous religion today?', I'm sorry if I'll seem a little bit extreme, but I cannot help to think about capitalism (in terms of Benjamin's capitalism as a religion).
    I'm sure that in some way we lack a Christian polemic against this Empire and, also,
    I'm afraid of the possibility of such a polemic.

    I kinda think that Peter Rollins' Idolatry of God is somehow connected to that I'm saying.

    What's the point of this comment? No point. Just a thought I wanted to share.

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