Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus - Acts

The Jesus of Acts is: "Lower than the Christ of Paul or John but higher than the Synoptics."

Acts introduces the title Servant (Acts 3:13; 3:26; 3:27), a Biblical title bestowed on Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets, locating him in the Jewish tradition, as does "The Righteous One" (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). The titles Son of Man (in John) and Son of God (in the Gospels and Paul) hardly figure. Lord is most often used, sometimes honorifically but more often reverentially, recognising his Resurrection (Acts 2:31; 4:31), as an object of religious faith, possessing the gift of the Spirit and being the source of salvation (Acts 11:17; 17:31; 20:21). This Lordship derives from his being proclaimed Christ by God (Acts 2:32-6).

The two-part construction depicts: a man from Nazareth who performs mighty works; and the risen and exalted Christ who will come again. He is a non-Royal and non-triumphal Messiah.  Preaching a murdered and glorified Christ presented a problem to Messianic Jews (Acts 3:18; 17:3; 26:23), not made easier by Jesus' silence on the matter.

Apart from Paul's (garbled) speech in Athens (Acts 17:22-31), Jesus is proclaimed simply as The Christ in Palestine (Acts 5:42; 8:5; 4:2; Acts 8:12), extending  later to include other features (Acts 10:36-43): The Son of God or The Christ in Damascus & Corinth (Acts 9:20; 18:5); The Word of God or The Word of The Lord in Cyprus and Antioch (Acts 13:5; 15:35); and Paul taught of the Kingdom of God in Ephesus, Miletus and Rome (Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23; 28:30).

The message to Jews is that Jesus fulfils the Scriptures. The argument is exemplified in Peter's Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:22-38). The Apostles employ the contemporary exegetic fashion for matching contemporary and historical figures. This is most pressing in respect of the Resurrection (Acts 2:30, referring to Psalm 16:8-11; 118:22) and the death of Jesus (Isaiah 53:8-8; Psalm 22). The best summary is not Stephen's (clumsy) speech (Chapter 7) but Paul's sermon in Asia Minor (Acts 13:16-37). This Pesher preaching was more successful amongst Gentiles than sceptical or puzzled Jews.

A strong clue to the position of Jesus in Acts is the fact that the Jerusalem temple was still central to all the followers of Jesus and they prayed to God (Acts 4:24; 16:25) and not to Jesus as God; they preached in the temple (Acts 5:42; 5:20-21; 5:25; 2:47); and they worshipped there (Acts 3:1; 21:46; 24:18). Gradually there came to be a distinctive community, barely noticed by Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39); but by the time of Paul's trial it was a sect (Acts 24:5). Christians used the term "The way" (as did the Essenes of Qumran) but this probably referred to God (Acts 9:2; 19:9, &c) and although the Jewish word Congregation was translated into the Greek Ekklesia this had no special significance.

The expectation of God's Kingdom is central to Acts as it is to the Synoptics and Paul (Acts 1:3; 1:6; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23; 28:31). Foreshortened eschatological time is less present in Acts than Paul but then it was written some 30 years later when expectation of the Parousia was waning. Following the Synoptics, it was deeply charismatic: Palestine miracles (Acts 5:16; 3:2-10; Lydda (Acts 9:31-34); Joppa (Acts 9:36-41). Even Paul, who eschews such behaviour (1 Corinthians 14:18-19) is given a charismatic career, beginning with his own conversion (Chapter 9) and restored sight (Acts 9:17) and performed miracles (Acts 13:11; 14:8-10; 16:16-18; 20:9-12 &c). Christ, acting through his followers, was behind all these miracles (Acts 3:6; 4:30; 8:5; 9:34) and signs (Acts 2:43; 4:16; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6-7; 8:13 &c). They experienced visits from angels (Acts 5:19; 10:3; 12:7; 16:9; 27:23), saw visions of Jesus (Acts 7:56; 9:4-5) and experienced trances and prophesies. The most spectacular incident was the Glossolalia on Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11).

Before Paul, the Jesus Movement was a Jewish revivalist sect where baptism took place after a cursory declaration (Acts 8:36-8; 22:16). The disproportionately lengthy conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10; 11:1-18), politically favourable to Peter, changed all that; it was initially greeted by the Jerusalem church with horror but the "Holy Spirit" (Acts 10:47) could not be denied.

Acts is a journey from Jesus, bent upon establishing The Kingdom in the Jewish world into new and uncharted territory but nowhere does Acts characterise Jesus as divine. Peter first announces Jesus as a Jewish prophet (Acts 2:22) and that never changes.

Partly taken from

Vermes, Geza: The Changing Faces of Jesus, Allen Lane, 2000, ISBN 0 713 99193 3

KC iv/08

Related Study Sheets…