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Sid Green Hidden

Hidden History in Acts of the Apostles (2003)

Sid Green


Background and Sources

“The Acts of the Apostles” is often said to be a work of early Christian history, and although it is poor history, it does reveal vital historical information. We can deduce that Acts was written close to the beginning of the second century, but it was very little known for another century or so.[20] This early obscurity has served us well, because had the book been better known, its revealing information might well have attracted more interest from Christian editors.

Acts is a sequel to the synoptic story, beginning where the Gospels end, so the Gospels are necessarily a primary source. Some would say that the author did not see any Pauline epistles–he certainly mentions none of them–but it is possible that he saw some and certain that he did not see them all. But there is more to Acts than is derived from those two sources. There is invention of course, such as the story of Eutychus plagiarised from Homer in Acts 20,[1] but there is also information that is unique among Christian writings, certainly very early, and perhaps the earliest records we have.

The Lord whom we read of in the epistles appears to be a real figure from history, seemingly resurrected as the story begins, and seen by many at that time. Those who saw him c. 35 CE, as reported by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, were expecting action as implied by their eschatological beliefs. The Lord, as Messiah, would lead mankind through the last days, but his mission either failed or was indefinitely postponed, and Paul was the last to see him. The story had no end and the sightings petered out. The believers waited eagerly, but died disappointed, with Paul anxious to reassure those who feared they would die before the Lord manifested himself to all (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:13-17).

The Gospel account, on the other hand, has the Lord resurrected–not at the beginning of the story–but at the end of a prefacing drama inserted before the sightings occurred, giving an account of an earthly life. The drama ends with death and then Resurrection, now presented as a glorious fulfilment of his mission. The story that had no ending now becomes the ending itself, but of another story. The subsequent eternal waiting was forgotten at first, but later reentered Christian doctrine as a required vigil rather than a disappointment, with the faithful awaiting a parousia at some unspecified future date.

Although the Resurrection is a common feature between the two categories of writing, skeptical observers have long agreed that the dichotomy between the epistles and the Gospels is close to absolute. The epistles were written closest to the time of the supposed events of the Gospels, yet they know nothing of them. When the Gospel story appeared a half-century later, almost all of the graphic detail, (biographical, historical and anecdotal), was new, unmentioned by any earlier writer. Later Gospels, although dependent upon the work of the first evangelist for their story lines, do not become increasingly vague as time and mortality diminishes the inventory of human recollection, but rather they add even larger volumes of detailed information, a hallmark of legendary development.[2]

The Palestinian apocalyptic believers in the risen Lord, known to the early writers, disappeared with the first Jewish revolt in 66-70 CE, but their expectations had been carried into the Diaspora by refugees from the persecution of the fourth decade. Perhaps half a century after the sightings, time, distance, and the bloody aftermath of the war stood between a new generation of Greek-speaking Diaspora believers and those original visions of the Lord. Orphaned sectarians, with no recourse to authoritative religious guidance, were the authors of the first Gospel. The well-accepted concept of Markan priority means that we need neither Matthew nor Luke to see how the story arose, such later elaboration serving only to confuse what we see of Mark’s original understanding.

The Markan author composed his work along the lines of a Homeric epic,[3] so creating an all-time best seller. It hardly needs restating here that the details of his story, the Gospel story, were for the most part completely unknown to the writers of anything earlier, whether canonical or otherwise. In his biography of Paul, Fr. Jerome Murphy O’Connor lists everything that Paul wrote concerning the earthly life of Jesus. He writes:

Yet when we come to tabulate the references to the historical Jesus in the Pauline letters all we learn is that he was a Jew (Romans 9:4-5) of the line of David (Romans 1:3), who had a mother (Galatians 4:4), who was betrayed (1 Corinthians 11:23) and crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 and passim), as a result of which he died and was buried (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).[4]

O’Connor complicates the issue, since anyone of the line of David is necessarily Jewish, with a mother and father, but still, what he identifies is little enough. There is no indication from Paul of when this earthly life occurred, but the setting chosen by the Markan author is precisely in Pontius Pilate’s prefecture, when we can also infer that the sightings of the risen Lord occurred. Acts gives a description of the fervour that followed those sightings.

Acts was written later than the synoptic Gospels, of course, reinforcing the Gospel story by portraying preparations for the End of the Age by those who thought the Messiah had just arrived as though they thought he had just departed. Yet the earlier belief can still be detected in its pages, along with early terminology and probably unique historical reporting, even if this is misrepresented in order to support the Gospel story. From where did the author, a gentile in the late first century, obtain unique information about a Jewish sectarian belief half a century earlier? I suggest that he relied partly on written Nazorean sources that have not survived. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that what Acts tells us about the so-called Jerusalem Church, which it calls “Nazoreans” or “the Way,” occurs nowhere else in Christian records, canonical or otherwise.

That point must be underlined: only Acts 24:5 gives us the startling fact that the Greek word “Nazoraioi” is a proper name for a religious sect, with no attempt made to connect the word with “Nazareth.” Although Christian apologists will suggest that the word “Nazoraios” comes from the Hebrew netser, meaning sprout or shoot, (Isaiah 11:1), they accept without question that it means “from Nazareth.” This is patently inconsistent, since no lexicon offers a confident explanation for the origin of the name “Nazareth,” most of them saying “origin unknown.” In any case the etymology of Nazoraios is Aramaic, not Hebrew, being a Graecised form of the word natsarraya meaning custodians or keepers (of the Law). The equally sectarian Samarians, with their own brand of non-Temple Judaism, named themselves in the same manner, using the Hebrew word “Shomerim” which has the same meaning.[5]

Only Acts, in half a dozen clear examples (e.g., 9:2 and 24:14), tells us that these “Nazoraioi” referred to their own belief as “The Way,” exactly as the sectarians of the Scrolls described themselves. In the entire inventory of Christian writings, only Acts, endorsed by the historical records of Josephus and Philo, describes the collective of believers that existed after the Resurrection, telling how they were enjoined to sell their belongings and to give the proceeds towards the support of the community. The almost identical description by Josephus and Philo of such a sect,[6] known to them as “Essenes,” leaves little doubt that these are two accounts of a single phenomenon. Certainly some scholars, such as Robert Eisenman make little or no distinction between the sectarians and the so-called Jerusalem Church. Fr. Joseph Fitzmyer, a Jesuit priest, admits somewhat coyly that “Essene tenets . . . shed important light on the early chapters of Acts.”[7] Nor is identification of Essenism with “Early Christianity” restricted to modern scholarship, or to alleged crackpots. At the end of the fourth century, Eusebius of Caesaraea declared quite uncompromisingly, but incorrectly, that the first century report by Philo of the Egyptian Therapeut Essenes was undoubtedly a description of Christians. As he put it:

But that Philo, when he wrote these things, had in view the first heralds of the Gospel and the customs handed down from the beginning by the apostles, is clear to every one.[8]

Josephus called the members of the commune “Essenes,” and in Acts they were “Nazoreans,” so based on Acts 24:5 we can equate Nazoreans with Essenism in the era when the commune was formed. Further nomenclature, as noted by Alvar Ellegård for example, of more obviously self-descriptive terms shared between the early works of the NT and the writings of the Essenes,[9] include “The Church of God,” “The Perfect,” “Saints,” “The Poor,” and “Sons of Light.” Paul in particular uses these terms to refer to the so-called Jerusalem apostles (e.g., Rom 15:26, 1 Cor 16:1-3).

While the dates of the Scrolls extend into the Herodian era, they give no hint that Essenism had recognised the arrival of either the Messiah or his precursor, who was foretold as coming to teach righteousness in preparation for the Messiah.[10] The Nazorean phase of Essenism would have begun when the sightings occurred, but there is no written record of its history, unless I am correct and a bowdlerised secondhand form exists hidden within the pages of Acts. At the end of the first century the author of Acts represents the Nazorean apocalyptic experience as consequential upon the Gospel story he already knows, but this morsel of real history does not sit well with the Gospels. The original Markan Gospel had a resurrected Jesus who went nowhere, presumably remaining on earth to claim his throne. The believers described in Acts are preparing actively for his imminent enthronement in an earthly realm, not lamenting his departure to sit at God’s right hand in the heavenly kingdom.

Gnostic Confusion

The earliest type of Christian belief was a generic Gnostic form that we now call “Adoptionist.” Specifically it involved the Lord being adopted, or appointed by God as His Son at the time of the Resurrection, exactly as we see expressed by Paul, Romans 1:1-4. We would not expect to find this undeveloped Gnostic form in a late work, such as Acts, yet we do.

The first evangelist introduces his Jesus at the time of the adoption or divine appointment, which coincided with baptism, not resurrection. In Gospel chronology, the appointment has moved backwards about one year, yet in both stories it occurs at the time of the Lord’s arrival. In the earlier belief he arrived by resurrection, but in the first Gospel he appeared a year earlier, on the banks of the Jordan, to be baptised, perhaps having come from Galilee,[11] while the date of the Resurrection remained fixed.

The first Gospel killed off the resurrectionist form of Adoptionism, because the Lord had to be divine for the duration of his time on earth. Later evangelists caused further apparent shifts, by adding prefacing birth stories, so the adoption again moved backward to the start of whatever period on earth was being claimed. This has been noted even by Christian observers such as Fr. Raymond Brown, in several scholarly works.[12] No one who accepted the Gospel stories could accept also that Jesus was less than divine during his mission on earth, before the (Gospel) Resurrection, yet Acts 2:31-36 does indeed represent Peter as expressing this belief. The author half-adjusts it to Gospel standards, however, by saying that there was no bodily corruption before resurrection, implying the brief period of death described in the Gospel account. While partially consistent with the earliest writings, such as Romans, this hybrid notion cannot live alongside later ideas of Jesus’ divinity, yet here it is, even later than all three synoptics.

The author of Acts is allowed an opinion, even if he asserts an archaic and superseded belief expressed as the words of Peter, but can he hold two opposing views about the divine appointment? Because at 10:37-38 he gives the opinion, again through Peter, that baptism, not resurrection, was the defining moment. And if the author is also the author of the Lukan Gospel, as he claims, then he has not two but three conflicting opinions, because the Lukan Gospel (1:35) assures us that Jesus was God’s Son at birth. Acts simply fails to perceive the conflict here, the orthodox author seeming not to understand the Gnostic dogma behind the words in his sources.

Christian orthodoxy arose from retrogression of the divine appointment, from baptism, through birth, conception, until finally, as we see in the fourth Gospel, Jesus is deified, his divinity now arising at the dawn of time. The first evangelist was responsible for the initial shift. He understood the Lord to be living an earthly existence when the apostles, Peter, James, and Paul met him, and life precedes death, and resurrection must follow death. He therefore brought the adoption back to the beginning of his story to ensure divinity throughout the Lord’s mission. He had not understood the Palestinian Nazorean belief in the Resurrection as the very means by which the Messiah had returned to earth from an earlier age, and that his person, seen by Cephas and other apostles was already a resurrected body.

Reconciling the Two Beliefs

As portrayed by Acts, Paul was one of the principals of the Nazorean movement. He was, I believe, trained by the Nazoreans to conduct his ministry, (see below) but by denying the Jewish Law he became apostate, escaping death by fleeing the wrath of his teachers. He later negotiated a truce, agreeing to take the good news of the resurrected Lord to the gentiles, leaving Jews to the ‘Jerusalem apostles.’

The antilegal Pauline belief may have been rather unimportant in its day, but by the end of the first century those who are seen today as “followers of the synoptic tradition” were seeking to detach their new belief entirely from Judaism–which for them meant Nazoreanism. Paul’s legacy was a number of communities hostile to the Jewish Law, who now seemed attractive bedfellows. This imposed a consequential need not only to integrate Paul into a sanitised history, but also to reconcile Pauline doctrine with the story line of the Gospels–by that time the essence of what Christians actually believed. In doing this, not always very successfully, we see with benefit of hindsight that Acts gives us more information than strictly necessary.

In the Diaspora, the ideas leading towards Christian orthodoxy were in the ascendant, and the task for the author of Acts was retrospectively and anachronistically, to rehabilitate Paul as a leader in the orthodox hierarchy. He realised that while Nazoreanism in Palestine was a casualty of the recent war, it was still remembered, so he identifies the Nazoreans openly, but portrays them implicitly as Christians. He presents Paul not as an apostate renegade but as a Nazorean leading light, equal to or better than any other apostle. Paul is the hero, with Peter alongside as the foil that sets him off.

When it became clear that the Nazorean movement in Palestine was essentially extinct, any remnant had split into apocalyptic sects such as Ebionites, who were easily dismissed as heretics. With Judaea in ruins, the Greek Christian movement in the Diaspora had no difficulty in seeing the apocalyptic Nazoreans, in retrospect, as the ‘Jerusalem Church,’ and the time had come to delete Nazoreanism from the Christian record.

Essenism was very strongly dualist, tending towards the Gnosticism that thrived among the Diaspora post-Nazorean proto-Christians, spawning dozens of variations. Although these led eventually to orthodoxy, each step along the way left behind a sect of diehards reluctant to move on. When these Gnostic sects came under fire from emerging orthodoxy, their Nazorean progenitor was also doomed to be written out of history. Orthodoxy set about showing that its form of Christianity was the original, that it had always been as it now appeared, and that any and all Gnostic forms were heretical aberrations. This is essentially the stance taken by the Church today, which has Acts to thank for helping to create this misleading impression.

Jesus the Nazorean, or “Iesous Nazoraios” of the Gospels, however, was already the focal point of the new movement, so that the name itself had to be eradicated–a task obviously impossible to accomplish by editing manuscripts. The problem was solved not by changing the name but by giving it a new meaning. That objective, achieved by making the Greek word Nazoraios mean “from Nazareth,” was ultimately effective, but it has never been satisfactorily explained from a Christian standpoint whose defence of it comprises some of the most limp and naive argumentation in the entire inventory of Christian apologetics. This deception cannot be laid at the door of Acts, of course, which received its fair share of the interpolations to reinforce the contrivance seen in Matthew 2:23, which was the lynchpin of this global forgery. The fourth Gospel, I suspect, included the “Nazareth” fiction ab initio, having been written after the deception was implemented in Acts and in the synoptics.

It is easily seen that Acts fails to achieve a complete reconciliation. Some early material is only halfway adjusted to Gospel standards, some not at all. Stephen accuses the Jews, in Acts 7:52, of persecuting those who predicted the coming of the “Righteous One”–but there is no record from elsewhere of persecution simply because of Messianic expectation. Only Nazoreans were being persecuted for saying “He has already been seen–he is coming.” Here the text has been partly adjusted to imply Gospel knowledge, but the underlying history, still visible, betrays a Nazorean agenda, proclaiming the “Righteous One” as Lord.

Apostles and Disciples

The poorly implemented reconciliation process left behind other loose ends.

In Gnostic Christianity, the task of the Gospel Messiah was to pass on the secret knowledge to his twelve followers, (see Mark 4:10f.) who in turn would spread this gnosis to receptive people throughout the world. In post-Gospel terms they would propagate the kerygma. In the terminology of the first evangelist these followers were “disciples,” but this is a word that early writers never use in any book of the New Testament. To Paul, and the early writers, the dissemination of the salvific knowledge was to be by “apostles.” These were effectively missionaries, and by no means limited to twelve, as Paul called himself an apostle but not one of the twelve. This called for a way of reconciling the two terms.

The council of Essene elders were twelve in number, and because Paul needed authoritative direction he dealt with the leadership. We may be sure that Cephas, James, and John were members of the council, referred to as “the twelve” by Paul. In Acts 6:2 we see that the “twelve” called together “all the disciples,” so now Acts has an unlimited number of disciples, a number of apostles unspecified, but suggesting strongly that they are the twelve. That would accord with the Lukan Gospel, 6:13, which refers to the twelve apostles as being a subset of a larger number of disciples, but is in disagreement with Paul and others. I suspect that the author of Acts was here attempting a reconciliation of differences in terminology but simply failed to square the circle. Whatever definitions are preferred today, conflicting usage in the NT is not hard to find. Nonetheless, Acts 1:13-14 now introduces a list of eleven post-Resurrection apostles, and Matthias is chosen to replace Judas Iscariot.

The word “apostle” in the list of disciples given in both Mark 3:14 and in Matthew 10:2 is usually said to be because the list was borrowed from Acts and dropped into the Gospels as a harmonisation, notwithstanding the fact that they convert Judas the son of James into Thaddaeus. This is probably an early scribal adjustment to avoid confusion with Judas Iscariot, as neither the other Judas nor Thaddaeus, like most of the others named here, has any further role to play in any Gospel. Neither is the word “apostle” seen again except for one further example in Mark. Given this, it is odd that Mark 6:30 suddenly introduces the term “apostles,” and never repeats it. It follows immediately after the story of the execution of John the Baptist, the last verse of which contains the word “disciples” referring to followers of John. It seems beyond doubt that a scribe changed “disciple” to “apostle,” to avoid confusion with the disciples of John mentioned in the previous verse. There is thus a black-and-white division of terminology between the early writings and the Gospels, but Acts has an evenhanded thirty or so examples of either word, and still fails to reconcile the two terms convincingly.

The Poor

I mentioned above that the Essenes referred to themselves as ‘The Poor,’ which is ‘Ebionim’ in the Hebrew. It is difficult to see how the term preserved its status as a proper noun among Greek-speaking believers in the Diaspora. Acts, like Josephus’ account of the Essenes, describes how committed believers were obliged to sell all their goods and give the proceeds to the community, the community that we now know to be the Ebionim. Compare this with Mark 10:21 or Matthew 19:21. From across the divide of time and war, the evangelists and less well-informed Diaspora-believers saw the word not as a sobriquet for their spiritual antecedents but as a literal reference to the impoverished. It is represented in the Gospels by the word ptochos, implying destitution, but Paul’s training as a Nazorean would make him familiar with the specialised vocabulary of that movement, so when he wrote of the “poor,” as a noun, he might mean the Ebionim. The author of Acts would also quickly appreciate, from his early source, that Ebionim were not destitute beggars but the Nazorean movement.

Paul was enjoined by the “pillars” (Cephas, John, and James) not simply to remember the poor, but to continue to do so, when they authorised him to deliver the message to the gentiles (Galatians 2:10). Here Paul obviously refers to the Ebionim of whom the “pillars” were leaders, because to take “the poor” literally we would need evidence from the epistles that Paul’s mission was focused on such charitable works. The Gospel Jesus does show concern for such downtrodden folk, but that is because the character he was given reflected what was understood by the first evangelist, who was a gentile from Rome or Antioch.

In the epistles some references to “the poor” are indeed recognisable as references to the Jerusalem Nazoreans, obvious examples being Romans 15:26 and Galatians 2:10. Both examples employ the word ptochos, as in the Gospels. James’s epistle also includes a handful of ptochos examples, but if ptochos has in fact replaced another word in the two Pauline passages, the implication of the Ebionim is still apparent from context. In the Gospels, we can agree that the evangelists really intended to mean literal poverty, using ptochos throughout for “the poor,” and it is therefore possible that the Pauline epistles were edited to conform to this Gospel standard, to disguise Nazorean terminology. The possibility is strengthened by 2 Corinthians 9:9 where we find the word penes, a synonym for ptochos according to Thayer, yet it is not precisely so, as it means one who has to work hard in order to exist, while ptochos means destitute, reduced to begging. Paul and James never use penes, except for this one occurrence, when Psalm 112 is quoted, and this simply must be penes because it is a direct quotation from the Septuagint. Such an ideal word from the scriptures would have served Paul well, but it is never seen again where it would be appropriate, the Gospel word ptochos being employed exclusively. The story of the poor widow in the Lukan Gospel, 21:2-3, uses the word “poor” twice in close proximity, so Luke uses penichros in one of the two instances as a matter of style, showing that alternatives were available, but the epistles apply ptochos systematically.

The author of Acts would find similar allusions to the Ebionim in his early sources, and he too might have opted for the Gospel word ptochos in such cases, yet he uses a completely different approach. As we see in Acts 24:17, Paul had to travel to Jerusalem to bring his gifts to the poor, leading to the remarkable conclusion that he was obliged to undertake an arduous expedition simply to find poor people. Where we see such possible references to the Ebionim, Acts never uses the word “poor” as such, avoiding it by speaking of “almsgiving” or in Greek eleemosune, thus implying beggarly recipients of charity, in four instances seen in 9:36; 10:4; 10:31; and 24:17. Some NT translations offer “gifts to the poor” for eleemosune, but in those that translate more literally, a word for “poor” is not to be found even in English translation.

An interesting example is the case of Cornelius, described in Acts 10, which is the source of the declaration of divine appointment at baptism, as discussed above. This possibly historical anecdote was included for its implicit refutation of the legalistic proscription of Jews visiting gentile homes. Cornelius is said to have given generously, 10:2, to “those in need,” (Greek deomai) thereby again carefully avoiding the use of a word for “poor.” Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is a believer, and his almsgiving as Acts would have it, in 10:4 and 10:31, is remarkable enough to warrant a visit to his home by Cephas. Such charitable donations would have to be both extremely large and made with unseemly publicity to warrant such attention. It is far more likely that his donations were to the Ebionim, and that Cephas, as senior apostle, was suitably grateful.

When we see “poor” probably referring to the Ebionim in the epistles, ptochos, as used by the evangelists for literal destitution, has perhaps been introduced later as a disguise, when penes, for Ebionim, is both more suitable and is known to Paul and already employed by him in quotation. More certainly, in the early historical aspects of Acts, the use of any word meaning “poor” is studiously avoided.

The Tree

The Cornelius pericope has another interesting aspect. Peter, having spoken out against the dietary laws and other restrictive Jewish practices, is made to say to Cornelius that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, by hanging him from a tree. This is generally taken by Christians to mean, of course, that it was the Romans who killed Jesus by crucifying him. Apologists usually explain the contradiction by accusing the author of anti-Semitism.

In another early work, 1 Peter, 2:24, we see a further mention of hanging from a tree as the fate suffered by the Lord. I strongly suspect that in the Paulines, the Greek word stauroo has been systematically inserted by Christian editors to replace “hung from a tree” of which but one instance remains, where Paul, in Galatians 3:13, quotes Deuteronomy 21:22,23. Exactly as with penes (see above), to change this example would have invalidated the scriptural quotation, which would therefore unavoidably escape a systematic substitution process.

Scholars often dismiss “hanging from a tree” as a mere circumlocution for “crucify,”[13] but this is not so. Properly, the Jewish process was the display of the dead body of a criminal or a defeated enemy suspended on a stake or a tree. Unlike the Roman punishment, the body had to be taken down by nightfall for purity reasons, and the Gospel stories do indeed preserve this unusual detail of Jesus’ execution. Transposing the account of an execution from a Jewish to a Roman context therefore would require a different reason for premature removal from the cross, and this too we see in the Gospels of course. The result is a much curtailed period of suffering for the Gospel Jesus, as Roman crucifixion victims would be expected to last for two or three days, or even longer, before dying of exhaustion, shock and thirst.

In the Gospels, the Lord’s execution was of necessity carried out by the Romans, since the Jews allegedly had no mandate to inflict such punishment in that era. Hanging from a tree while the victim lived was introduced by the Hasmonean priest-kings, and used by Alexander Jannaeus on those who opposed his Sadducean practices. It is probable that the Teacher of Righteousness was killed in such a manner, or killed otherwise and his body then exhibited as a warning by his archenemy, nicknamed “The Wicked Priest” in the Scrolls. Vermes has shown that this character can only be a Jewish High Priest.[14]

There are two half-adjusted references to “crucifixion” in Acts, both spoken by Peter, specifically identifying the Jews as the perpetrators, (Acts 2:36; 4:10). Curiously, we also see three unadjusted references to “hanging from a tree.” In Acts 5:30 and 10:39 it is again made clear, with words spoken by Peter, that such punishment was inflicted by Jews, rather than Romans. At Acts 13:29 Paul, not Peter, blames the Jews but says that they asked Pilate to have the execution carried out, as in the Gospel account.

The possibility deserves consideration that here we have, from the early source that I posit, a number of recollections of the Teacher of Righteousness being hung from a tree by a Hasmonean High Priest. The implication for the Gospels is that the first evangelist, ignorant of history and isolated from informed sources, thought the Teacher to have been living a normal earthly life when Cephas and others saw him. This would necessarily lead him to misidentify the unpopular Caiaphas as the ‘Wicked Priest’ responsible for the death of the Teacher of Righteousness. Caiaphas would certainly have needed Roman authority to give effect to the thousands of expulsions of Nazoreans in the persecution of the fourth decade.[15] The successors of those refugees were those who produced the first Gospel. They would have no difficulty in seeing Caiaphas, the tormentor of their forebears, as a “Wicked Priest,” using the Romans as his instrument against the followers of the Teacher, and they would have supposed, by extension, against the Teacher himself.

The New Testament of Damascus

We can see that the author of Acts had some knowledge of Paul’s adventures, and some similarities suggest that he saw something at least of the Pauline letters. Where Pauline information overlaps with that of Acts therefore, any differences are potentially important.

The Damascus Document (CD)–the first sectarian Essenic writing to be discovered (1896)–suggests, perhaps ambiguously, that the Teacher of Righteousness will return in the End Times.[16] It also tells us, without ambiguity, that the Teacher made a “New Covenant,” or “New Testament,” for the community, in “the land of Damascus”–hence the name of the document. Some scholars opine that Damascus is Qumran, others propose a more general area near the Dead Sea, the home of the Essenes according to Pliny, while yet others propose the whole of Transjordan. There is scarcely a scholar to be found, however, who would suggest that the Damascus here is anything but a code name, or is in any way connected with the Syrian city.

Paul was on the road to Damascus, we will recall, armed with the writ of the High Priest to arrest members of The Way, when he was converted following his own vision of the resurrected Lord. Either or both of the accounts of his subsequent adventures (2 Corinthians 11 and Acts 9) have been corrupted by Christian hands, in my opinion, in order to avoid revealing the significance of the place-name “Damascus.”

When Pompey annexed Judaea in 63 BCE, the High Priesthood lost its temporal powers. Hyrcanus II and the High Priests who followed him had very limited authority, except for his nephew and immediate successor, the usurper Antigonus, who briefly defied Roman authority and paid with his life. The notion that a first-century High Priest could authorise a gang of thugs to go freely into Syria–a major Roman province far more important than Judaea–to kill, kidnap, or arrest people because of religious disagreement, is too absurd to warrant discussion. Even the most-conservative Christian commentators reluctantly admit that this is an insuperable objection to the account given in Acts. If a High Priest were to attempt such a flagrant flouting of Roman authority, he would hardly equip his agents with incriminating letters of authorisation, and if brought to account for it, he himself would face almost certain execution. From Acts 9:1-2 and 26:12, however, we can only infer that he did indeed authorise such an act of foolhardy rebellion, unless of course Damascus is in Judaea.

According to 2 Corinthians 11:32, Damascus was certainly in Syria, because there we see that Damascus was ruled by the Nabataeans under King Aretas.[17] This verse is surely a Christian interpolation, using historical knowledge of the political map of the first century to relocate Damascus instead of having to edit out or modify every reference to it in all Christian scriptures. This is exactly the same technique used in Matthew 2:23 to obviate the need to remove every reference to “Nazoraios.” The pudding is over-egged however, as forgeries often are, by making Paul swear that he is not lying–why should we think he was doing so?–and by saying “under King Aretas” to underline the point too precisely and too forcefully.[18]

This interpolation was not made before the author of Acts saw the text or heard the story, as the Damascus of Acts could only have been within Judaea, where the authority of the High Priest had validity. It throws the gravest doubt on the 2 Corinthians account, as it appears today, and not only because it confirms the authorisation of the abductions by the High Priest. In Acts, it is not Nabataeans pursuing Paul and forcing him to flee for his life from Damascus, but Jews. This is the likely truth, since arrogation of powers of life and death by Jews in the Syrian city would hardly have been tolerated by the authorities, whoever they were. These Jews were unopposed, obliging Paul to flee at night in a daring escape (9:23-25).

I do not intend to suggest by this that Acts is necessarily more accurate or reliable than Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians. The Pauline epistles were only assembled into compendia early in the second century, previous to which they were not widely known other than to the recipients of the letters. The epistle in question may have suffered interpolation, as I suspect, at the time of the collection into volumes, a unique opportunity to do so before being widely circulated, but 2 Corinthians is still basically Paul’s letter, as claimed. Acts, on the other hand, is a selection of information taken from various sources, assembled as required to present a picture that conformed to the requirements of the developing orthodoxy. Acts does nothing to conceal the location of the Damascus camp because the author saw no such need, believing that everyone knew what he knew. He did not wish to show Paul as a trainee Nazorean however, but as a super-apostle and a Nazorean leader, so he rather dishonestly builds up Paul’s role as an apostle on a par with Cephas, John, and James. He did not know that within a few years the Pauline epistles would be widely seen, and might challenge what he wrote.

We see that Paul returned to Jerusalem from Damascus immediately in Acts 9:26, to hobnob with the apostles, not unnaturally arousing fears in those who knew him as their persecutor. Yet in the first chapter of Galatians, long before Acts was written, Paul states clearly that he did not return to Jerusalem after going to Damascus, and did not see any apostles, but went into Arabia for an unspecified time. He then returned to Damascus, where he stayed for three years before going to Jerusalem to meet Peter (Cephas) and James. His return to Damascus suggests that he was not in fear of his life at the time, and that the attempt on his life was at the end of the three years, not immediately after his conversion experience.

Why, years after Paul wrote Galatians, would this three-year sojourn at Damascus be excluded from the story? The probable answer is suggested by Josephus and supported by the Scrolls. The Essene community had rigid entrance requirements. A novitiate program required an initial year of observation, followed by two further years of progressive examination and induction before full membership. Paul’s conversion to the belief would necessarily lead to his enrolment as a novice, which would be for a period of three years.[19] But Josephus tells us that the Essenes applied capital punishment to those who denied the Law, and Paul’s life was indeed threatened at Damascus, and his attitude toward the Law needs no restating here.

Reluctant to display Paul as a novice or junior in a world of Nazorean seniors, the author of Acts omits the subject of Paul’s novitiate and patches around the time discrepancy that was thereby exposed. Again, the limited exposure enjoyed by Acts meant that Paul’s conflicting account of the events following his conversion was not seen by those who edited the epistles for circulation.[20]


In view of the purpose of his undertaking, it is no surprise that the author of Acts uses a number of sources for the various aspects of what he relates. He seems to have seen something of the Pauline correspondence, as well as the Gospels. No source has been identified, however, for the story of the great persecution and expulsions in which Paul participated (Acts 8:1). Yet such a source must have existed, and its nature can be inferred from the Acts account even though it represents the characters in that persecution as early followers of the Gospel Jesus.

Although Gospel information is absent from the early writings, most notably from the Pauline epistles, it has been successfully retrojected into the Christian perception of the world of the epistle writers, for which Acts must take much of the credit. Acts is the only book of the NT that is not completely either pre-Gospel or post-Gospel in character, allowing us to see something of the Nazoreans, if only in order to present them to us as implicitly “Jewish Christians.”

The presence of so many tantalising clues scattered about in Acts can be attributed in large measure to its obscurity before the third century. Thus Acts 24:5, the most valuable of its clues, intended to show that Paul was a Nazorean leader on a par with Cephas, was left undisturbed so that today we can appreciate its true significance. Even the most cursory comparison with Matthew 2:23 shows the definition of “Nazoraios” in Acts to be infinitely more feasible than the obscure and contrived distortion of Judges 13, misrepresented by Matthew as a messianic prophecy.

Through the many clues left in Acts itself, and with our knowledge of Josephus’ testimony as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Damascus Document, we have enough evidence to prise open the received understanding of Christian origins and allow some new light to fall on the subject.

Notes and References

[1] Dennis R. MacDonald, The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark, Yale UP, 2000, p. 10ff.

[2] G.A. Wells, Religious Postures, Open Court, 1988, p. 57ff.

[3] Dennis R. MacDonald, 2000.

[4] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor O.P., Paul: A Critical Life. Clarendon Press, 1996, p. 92.

[5] Matthew Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origin, Scholars Press, 1983, p. 69.

[6] Josephus, Bellum Judaicum II.viii. (3)

[7] Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., The Semitic Background of the NT, Eerdmans/Dove, 1997, p. 301.

[8] Eusebius, Church History, 2, Chapter 17.

[9] Alvar Ellegård, Jesus: 100 Years Before Christ, Century, 1999.

[10] Damascus Document 6:3-10.

[11] In my opinion, part or all of “came up from Nazareth in Galilee” in the Markan Gospel is one of many interpolations made to introduce Nazareth into the synoptics and Acts.

[12] Fr. Raymond Brown, a Catholic priest, explains the discrete changes of doctrine and the shifts in the timing of the divine appointment as a gradual revelation that Christ was eternally divine. See his useful pamphlet publication An Adult Christ at Christmas, Liturgical Press, 1978, and elsewhere.

[13] So Joseph Fitzmyer, so Geza Vermes, in various scholarly works.

[14] Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in Perspective, Fortress Press, 1981, p. 150.

[15] Thousands of these refugees fled into Mesopotamia at this time (37 CE), forming the Mandaean sect that still survives. They called themselves Nazoreans, were Gnostic, but not Christian. Matthew Black, 1983, p. 68.

[16] While the passage in the CD is obscure and capable of more than one interpretation today, why should we think that first century believers would find the deliberately cryptic Hebrew wording less confusing than do modern scholars?

[17] If the Syrian city were under Nabataean rule at this time, it would have been a concession granted by the Romans, but Damascus was an important city of the Decapolis, a federation of Hellenised peoples set up precisely to defend against predatory Nabataeans and their like. Either way, the Romans would be the ultimate authority.

[18] Paul writing to contemporaries of a contemporary condition would not need to say ‘under King Aretas’ but years later an editor might need to establish the era in this way. (In the same way General MacArthur would not need to say that Japanese forces he confronted in the Philippines were ‘under Hirohito’ but a future historian might find it a helpful qualification).

[19] Josephus, Bellum Judaicum, II, viii,(7), also DSS, 1QS VI:13-23.

[20] G.A. Wells, Acts of the Apostles: A Historical Record, South Place Ethical Society, 2000. Wells notes that even in the early fifth century Chrysostom could say that many people were not even aware of the existence of the book of Acts.

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