Rethinking Luke’s Purpose: The Effect of First-Century Social Conflict

in Journal of Pentecostal Theology

This article addresses the issue of Luke’s authorial purpose for the composition of the Luke-Acts literature. Observing that existing theories are inadequate in that they fail to provide a comprehensive cohesive program for the literature’s content and are anachronistically complex, the article suggests an authorial purpose paradigm natural to the early Jesus movement’s status as a newly emerging society. Through application of Berger and Luckmann’s sociology of knowledge models, this article argues that reading Luke-Acts as the author’s legitimation of the Jesus movement’s social world is a valid, even preferred reading of the literature. By tracing key elements in the development of Luke’s legitimation conceptual machinery, the social conflict background is established–further indicating that it is the social conflicts that motivated the document’s writing and organized its content. This article lays a foundation for Luke’s legitimating strategy, which was in response to a purity conflict theme. It is argued that this was Luke’s primary purpose for writing Luke-Acts.

  • 2

    Lucian, ‘Works’, p. 114.

  • 4

    Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).

  • 5

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 96.

  • 6

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, pp. 61-62; Berger, Sacred Canopy, pp. 31–32, 35–47.

  • 7

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 33.

  • 8

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, pp. 95-96. ‘All the sectors of the institutional order are integrated in an all-embracing frame of reference, which now constitutes a universe in the literal sense of the word, because all human experience can now be conceived of as taking place within it’.

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  • 9

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 105.

  • 10

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 35. ‘All legitimation serves to maintain reality—reality, that is, as defined in a particular human collectivity’.

  • 11

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 62.

  • 12

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 107.

  • 13

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 108.

  • 14

    Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles. A Sociological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Robert L. Brawley, Luke-Acts and the Jews: Conflict, Apology, and Conciliation (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987).

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  • 15

    Watson, Paul, Judaism, p. 40.

  • 16

    Brawly, Luke-Acts and the Jews, p. 55.

  • 17

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 108.

  • 19

    Iutisone Salevao, Legitimation in the Letter to the Hebrews: The Construction and Maintenance of a Symbolic Universe (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002). Salevao provides an excellent review and summary of much of the discussion about Christianity’s emergence within and separation from Judaism.

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  • 20

    Pieter F. Craffert, ‘The Pauline Movement and First-Century Judaism: A Framework for Transforming the Issues’, Neotestamentica 27 (1993), pp. 233-62. An increasing volume of scholarship demonstrates that a monolithic and normative Judaism simply did not exist during the first century CE. Instead of speaking of ‘Judaism’ as defining an Israelite religion, we should speak of ‘Judaisms’ to represent the numerous groups and movements that comprised Yahweh worship.

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  • 21

    Brawly, Luke-Acts and the Jews, pp. 5, 127-30; Nicholas H Taylor, ‘Jerusalem and the Temple in Early Christian Life and Teaching’, Neotestamentica 33.2 (1999), p. 454; Philip F. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 150.

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  • 22

    Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe’, p. 277. Compare to Brawly, Luke-Acts and the Jews, p. 130: ‘The belief in a specific location for contact between heaven and earth so pervades antiquity, that it provides the vantage point for understanding the place of the temple and Jerusalem in Luke-Acts. Jerusalem stands at the center of salvation-history because it also stands at the central point of the contact between heaven and earth. Almost any of Luke’s contemporaries would have seen beneath the symbolism of Jerusalem the presupposition that it marked the axis mundi’.

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  • 23

    Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 109.

  • 24

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 33.

  • 25

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 34.

  • 26

    Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge, 1970), p. 158.

  • 27

    Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 132. Esler states: ‘The striking prominence of the Temple in Luke-Acts is, without a shadow of a doubt, a phenomenon which must be taken into account in attempting to understand Luke’s purpose and strategy. Yet this fact has not been entirely obvious to many scholars who have considered the matter’.

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  • 28

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 37.

  • 29

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 37.

  • 31

    Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe’, pp. 271-304. Neyrey presents an excellent analysis of Luke’s perspective on Jesus’ purity remapping, defining Jesus and his followers as intent on redrawing purity boundaries, not demolishing them. Jesus’ influence as a reformer drew strong reaction from observant Jews motivated to defend the existing purity map. Neyrey’s contention is that conflicts over purity boundaries ‘account for most of the conflictual dynamics in Luke-Acts’. In other words, it is Jesus’ attempts to reform the Israelite symbolic universe and the temple authorities’ resistance to this reform that provides Neyrey’s interpretive model for conflict passages in Luke-Acts.

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  • 32

    James M. Dawsey, ‘Confrontation in the Temple: Luke 19:45-47’, Perspectives in Religious Studies 11 (1984), pp. 153-65. Dawsey rightly notes that an official representation of the Sanhedrin is indicated here, and their intent was to invalidate Jesus’ teaching. That the challenge fails and actually results in Jesus’ parabolic defense of his authority to the people signals Luke’s legitimation strategy—the legitimacy of Jesus’ authority as an intermediary of God is demonstrated, and that over against the authority (and legitimacy) of the temple system.

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  • 33

    G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), pp. 190-91. Whether the inner or outer veil is indicated is irrelevant to this discussion. See Beale for a concise but adequate discussion of this issue. The significant issue to this study regarding the veil is its symbolic role as a boundary between God’s presence and humanity and the symbolism resulting from its destruction.

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  • 34

    Philip F. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 150.

  • 36

    Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 150; Joel B. Green, ‘The Demise of the Temple as Culture Center in Luke-Acts: An Exploration of the Rending of the Temple Veil (Luke 23:44-49)’, Revue Biblique 101 (1994), pp. 495-515. Green’s words are helpful here: ‘The torn veil works symbolically to neutralize the dominance of the temple as a sacred symbol of socio-religious power predetermining insider and outsider’ and ‘Luke portrays the rending of the temple veil as symbolic of the destruction of the symbolic world surrounding and emanating from the temple, and not as symbolic of the destruction of the temple itself’. Contra J. Bradley Chance, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the New Age in Luke-Acts (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), p. 122. Chance sees the rent veil as representing for Luke the destruction of the temple.

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  • 37

    Dennis D. Sylva, ‘The Meaning and Function of Acts 7:46-50’, Journal of Biblical Literature 106.2 (1987), p. 249, n. 25. See also Klaus Balzer, ‘The Meaning of the Temple in Lukan Writings’, Harvard Theological Review 58 (1965), pp. 263-77. Baltzer argues that God did withdraw his presence from the temple and Jerusalem and bases this conclusion on Luke 13.35. Compare to Nicholas H. Taylor, ‘Jerusalem and the Temple in Early Christian Life and Teaching’, Neotestamentica 33.2 (1999), pp. 453-54.

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  • 38

    Green, ‘The Demise of the Temple’, pp. 496, 511. For a concise treatment of the Antiquity’s symbolic association of the Jerusalem temple with the cosmos, see G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), pp. 45-50. It is of no doubt that Luke’s account of the veil’s destruction signaled cosmic implications.

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  • 39

    Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, p. 189. For a discussion of recognition found in early literature of the cosmic portents surrounding the crucifixion, see Marinus deJonge, ‘Two Interesting Interpretations of the Rending of the Temple-Veil in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs’, Bijdragen 46 (1985), pp. 350-62.

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  • 41

     See Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, pp. 205-208; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (SP, 6: Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), pp. 45-47.

  • 44

    Pieter W. Van der Horst, ‘Hellenistic Parallels to the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-47’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25 (1985), pp. 49-60.

  • 45

    Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostle (AB, 30; New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 432-33; Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 48. Fitzmyer and Johnson make this argument well.

  • 46

    Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, p. 40. Watson, in articulating models for the analysis of reform movements and their transformation into sects, states that reinterpretation of a movement’s traditions is vital to an emerging sect’s ‘ideology legitimating its separation from a society’ and ‘the traditions must therefore be reinterpreted to apply exclusively to the sect’. This is not to suggest Luke is legitimating the Jesus group’s separation from the greater Israelite society, but to reinforce Luke’s inclusion of Stephen’s speech as a common, even necessary, legitimating element within his conceptual machinery.

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  • 47

    Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 196.

  • 48

    Brawley, Luke-Acts and the Jews, p. 281. Brawley challenges Shepherd’s characterization of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s narrative. Shepherd argues that the Holy Spirit is the on-stage presence representing the off-stage God. Brawley’s contention is that Luke uses the Holy Spirit as the on-stage God, participating in the narrative.

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  • 49

    David DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 250-53.

  • 51

    Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts’, p. 293.

  • 52

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 33.

  • 53

    Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 36.

  • 54

    Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 54-55. Johnson, while not promoting the legitimation value of Peter’s speech, reviews Luke’s sophisticated rhetorical construction in this speech, effectively reinterpreting Israel’s Scriptures as uniquely applying to the recipients of Pentecost’s cosmic convulsions.

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  • 57

    Edvin Larsson, ‘Temple-Criticism and the Jewish Heritage: Some Reflections on Acts 6–7’, New Testament Studies 39 (1993), pp. 379-95. Larsson senses the legitimating purpose of Stephen’s speech in his statement that Stephen’s speech is ‘Luke’s way of depicting the fundamental difference between (unbelieving) Judaism and Christianity. In this sense it could be seen as an apology … for the church’.

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  • 58

    T.L. Donaldson, ‘Moses Typology and the Sectarian Nature of Early Christian Anti-Judaism: A Study of Acts 7’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 12 (1981), pp. 27-52.

  • 59

    Donaldson, ‘Moses Typology’, p. 33. Donaldson, in characterizing Stephen’s speech within a discussion considering its possible Samaritan source, states that Stephen’s speech is in ‘opposition to any form of localized center of worship’.

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  • 60

    Francis D. Weinert, ‘Luke, Stephen, and the Temple in Luke-Acts’, Biblical Theology Bulletin 17 (1987), pp. 88-90.

  • 61

    Bruce Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 60. On resorting to violence as an admission of defeat in public challenge-riposte, see also Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 191-92.

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  • 62

    Andy Reimer, Miracle and Magic: A Study in the Acts of the Apostles and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana (JSNTSup; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 90, 94.

  • 63

    Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (trans. Ephraim Fischoff; Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 46-47. Weber describes the sociological characteristics related to performing miracles (by individuals proclaiming a religious doctrine or divine commandment) thus: ‘the bearers of new doctrine practically always needed such validation’.

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  • 64

    Douglas, Purity and Danger, pp. 63-67.

  • 65

    Derrett, Ananias, Sapphira, pp. 229-30.

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