Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Reading the Book of Acts Intertextually

I’ve been on vacation, so to speak, for the last six weeks or so, recovering from my last full semester of graduate coursework. I hope to post on a weekly basis now, probably on Sundays or Mondays.

For this post, I’ve been thinking about intertextuality and interpretation again. While I’m skeptical about using intertextuality to determine how ancient readers were interpreting and connecting their texts, I find it satisfying as a reader to make connections between various texts, even if I can’t prove that the ancient writer intended those connections or that the ancient reader would have made the same connections. Intertextuality is really about the reader making those connections, not about the scholar identifying allusions that may (or may not) have been intended by the ancient writer targeting another ancient reader.

I especially enjoy reading the New Testament because new connections with the Hebrew Bible almost always occur to me. Some of these connections legitimately belong in the background of the New Testament. Directly or indirectly, they make up the conceptual worldview of a Jew from the first century CE. Some of them would certainly have informed the thinking of the early Christians. I can only suggest a connection, however. I can’t really prove that the NT writer was thinking of the connection or that an early NT reader would have made the connection. Intentional textual dependence and deliberate use seem to me to be impossible to prove without direct quotation or citation when we are dealing with a culture as religiously literate and text-focused as ancient Judaism or early Christianity.

I was recently reading in the Book of Acts where a new connection presented itself. There’s no specific textual marker connecting the passages, but there is a thematic connection. Acts 11 depicts the Apostle Peter commanded to spread the Christian message of salvation to the Gentiles (non-Jews). He reports back to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem in vv. 15-18.

Acts 11:15-18 (ESV)

As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, 'John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God's way?" 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life."

The Jewish Christians listen to Peter and acknowledge that God wants the Gentiles to believe and be saved as well as the Jews. When I read this, I wondered why they seemed surprised that God was widening the scope of salvation. It reminded me of Isaiah 42 where the Servant figure will “bring forth justice to the nations” (v. 1) and is given as a “covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (v. 6). In fact, several other places in Isaiah depict this concern for the nations, sometimes with the image of the nations worshiping Israel’s God (i.e., Isa. 2, 9, and 11). With the word for “nations,” we do have a minor verbal connection between the passages. The Hebrew goyim is translated in the Septuagint with a form of ethnos which is the same Greek word used for “Gentiles” in Acts. 11:18. It’s not the kind of marker that jumps off the page as a true allusion, though, because it is such a common word and the correspondence between the Greek and Hebrew for this word is typical.

It seemed to me that the early Christians should have been familiar with the imagery of Isa. 42:1-7 because the imagery seems to be clearly in the background of Isa. 61:1, especially when we look at the Septuagint Greek of Isa. 61:1 and the quoted text from Luke 4:18. In Luke, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1 and applies it to himself.

Luke 4:17-21 (ESV)

17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Isaiah 42:6-7 (ESV)

6 "I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness; I will take you by the hand and keep you; I will give you as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Isaiah 61:1 (ESV)

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

Isaiah 61:1 (translated from the Septuagint)

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; he has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to heal the broken in heart, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind;

It should be apparent that Isa. 42 & 61 are dealing with similar subject matter. We also have the same textual difficulties that I’ve mentioned before when looking at Hebrew Bible quotes in the New Testament. The quoted version doesn’t exactly match the Septuagint or the Masoretic Text. The Septuagint and the New Testament both contain a phrase about the blind, missing from the MT but possibly a variant arising from the influence of Isa. 42:7. The Septuagint and the MT both have a phrase about the broken-hearted, missing from the NT quote. Finally, Luke’s quote ends with the freeing of prisoners, following the MT but with a phrase not in the Septuagint version.

It might appear that I’m going off track but remember where we’ve been. Acts 11:18 reminded me of Isaiah 42:1-7 which reminded me of Isaiah 61:1 which reminded me of Luke 4:18 that quotes it. So pondering the potential religious thought behind Acts 11:18 has led me to a number of inter-related passages. The Jewish Christians in Acts should have been familiar with Isaiah 42 because the Servant imagery is central to their interpretation of Jesus’ role and ministry. As proof that it should have been familiar, I offer Isaiah 61:1 which is explicitly quoted in the NT where Jesus explicitly takes on the anointed Servant role described by Isaiah. A closer look at the quote in Luke 4:18 has led me to a completely separate issue of textual criticism. The text critical issue is irrelevant for the question of intertextuality. For me it seems clear that the Servant imagery is appropriated by the NT in numerous places and that Acts 11 should be read with a consideration of the influence of passages like Isa. 42:1-7.

I can’t prove that any of this would have occurred to an ancient reader or that the writer of Acts was aware of these inter-connections, but it is satisfying as a reader to make those connections and point them out because it enriches the reading experience and allows for teaching opportunities to enrich the experience of others as they read the biblical text. Even if the first century audience didn’t make these exact connections, it seems likely that they made connections of this sort frequently. Therefore, learning to read intertextually helps you read the Bible a little more like the early Jewish Christians did.

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