Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting, by Irina Levinskaya

Irina Levinskaya.  The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, Volume 5: The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting.  Grand Rapids, William B.Eerdmans/Carlisle: The Paternoster Press, 1996.

This book is the fifth volume of a series about the historical context of the Book of Acts.  Russian scholar Irina Levinskaya is the author of this particular volume.  Levinskaya narrates in her preface that she had an interest in the New Testament as a student of the classics at St. Petersburg University, but one of her professors discouraged her from that particular field of study.  Levinskaya speculates that this was because the professor “had spent ten years of his life in one of Stalin’s camps and ten years in exile”, and thus he was “especially careful” in what he recommended to his students, out of concern for their well-being (page vii).  In the course of her studies, Levinskaya came across the cult of the Most High God in the ancient Bosporan Kingdom in Crimea and the Taman peninsula.  Because that cult was considered pagan, she felt free to study it under Communist auspices, which had no problem with paganism.  She concluded, however, that this cult was influenced by Judaism and appeared similar to the phenomenon of the God-fearers in the Book of Acts: the God-fearers were Gentiles who did not fully convert to Judaism yet worshiped the God of Israel.  Her interest in the Book of Acts was kindled!

Levinskaya participates in scholarly discussions about ancient Jewish proselytism and the God-fearers.  On the issue of Jewish proselytism, she sides with Martin Goodman’s view that the Jews in the first century C.E. welcomed converts but lacked an active missionary program, which would explain why the Book of Acts does not mention it.  What about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:15 that the scribes and Pharisees travel by sea and land in search of converts?  Does that not demonstrate that Jews had an active missionary program in the first century C.E.?  According to Levinskaya, it does not.  She believes that Matthew 23:15 was saying that the Pharisees were trying to convert other Jews to Pharisaism, not Gentiles to Judaism.  Levinskaya argues that the Greek term proselutos can have a broader meaning than a Gentile convert to Judaism and can mean someone coming to something from something else (since proselutos is from the Greek word proserchomai, to come to).  Christians used the term to refer to converts to Christianity, and Acts 13:43 contains the odd statement that God-fearing proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas.  The reason that this statement in Acts 13:43 is odd is that God-fearers and proselytes are supposed to be different: God-fearers worship God without circumcision or a formal conversion to Judaism, whereas proselytes are Gentiles who have converted to Judaism.  How can one be a God-fearer and a proselyte at the same time, in the Book of Acts?  According to Levinskaya, the proselytes in Acts 13:43 are not Gentile converts to Judaism, but rather they are Gentile God-fearers who are interested in coming to Christianity.

On the issue of the God-fearers, there is scholarly debate about whether there were such people in antiquity.  Some maintain that they were a literary device in Acts designed to set the stage for the Gentiles coming to Christianity.  There are inscriptions that use labels that several scholars believe pertain to God-fearers, but detractors argue that these labels may refer to especially pious Jews, not Gentiles who worship the God of Israel.  Levinskaya sides with the view that God-fearers actually existed in antiquity.  On page 81, she notes a second century C.E. altar in Pamphylia, which contains the inscription “For the truthful and not-handmade god (in fulfillment of) a vow” (in whatever translation Levinskaya is using).  She does not believe that the altar is Jewish or Christian because it is an altar: her point here may be that Jews and Christians ordinarily did not set up altars.  And she does not believe that the altar is pagan because its vocabulary is not what Gentiles ordinarily used.  Her belief is that this altar to the “not-handmade god” is that of God-fearers, Gentiles who worshiped the God of Israel.  Overall, she argues that the cult of the Most High God in antiquity was a God-fearing phenomenon.  While Zeus was called most high, the cult that she is discussing does not mention Zeus, plus it differs from the Zeus cult.

Levinskaya discusses other issues as well, such as the question of whether synagogues were independent of each other or part of a single group.  She seems to side with the former.

This is an informative book.  Personally, I do not rule out that Jews may have had an active missionary enterprise in the first century C.E., on account of various pieces of ancient evidence (i.e., Josephus).  I am also not entirely convinced by Levinskaya’s argument that proselutos in Matthew 23:15 meant converts to Pharisaism, for it so often has the technical meaning of conversion to Judaism, and I believe that the Christians later adopted that term to refer to converts to their own sect.  On the topic of the God-fearers, I am open to their historical existence, and I find Levinskaya’s discussion of altars and cults to the Most High God to be interesting and important.

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