Jacob Jervell’s work Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts has transformed studies of first century christianity and early jewish-christian relations. It informs and is informed by the new perspective on Paul as we continue trying to read the New Testament in the original context, not in a post-Constantine, post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment, post-Modern context.
Before explaining Jervell’s view on the missions to the Jews and to the Gentiles in Acts it is important to understand the prevailing view for most of the Christian period. The dominant view has been that because the Jews rejected the gospel the evangelists then, disappointed, turn towards the Gentiles. The evangelists dust off their feet at this rejection and move on to a more receptive audience because the rejection of the Messiah by the jews justifies them in doing so. This view is present in early Christian thought as well as Catholic tradition. Catholic tradition then developed upon this idea of a “spiritual Israel” a role that the church supplanted the physical nation of Israel in. Jervell maintains that this is not the case and cannot be supported by the text of Acts.
Taking Acts chapter 1 verse 81 as a thesis statement for the book and tracing it through to the end he comes to a quite different conclusion.
First Jervell dismisses the idea that Jews rejected the gospel wholesale. Throughout Luke’s Acts masses of Jews accept the gospel and therefore Christ. From Peter’s pentecostal sermon through to the end2 Luke has interspersed accounts of Jews accepting Christ in increasing number3. Jervell concludes that there were tens of thousands of Jewish Christians around Jerusalem by the end of the Acts account. This corresponds with other estimates I have seen putting the Church of Jerusalem at about fifty-thousand by the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Luke is always at pains to recognize that it is the most faithful, the most law-abiding, the most jewish Jews that accept the good news. The devout from across the world at Pentecost, many of the priests, and the converts continuing in the synagogues and faithfulness in great devotion to the scriptures4.
Second Jervell writes the gentile mission is not tacked on as an afterthought. The gospel must be preached to the Jews first because it is through Israel, which Jervell takes to be the plural nation and not the singular Christ, that the Gentiles will be saved. Even before Peter’s vision of the clean and the unclean leading to the conversion of Cornelius5 Peter speaks about the gentile mission. Luke records the gentiles coming to Christ through their connections to Judaism and in much smaller numbers than the mass acceptance of the Jews. When the gospel is taken out into the gentile world it is always first to the Jews in the synagogues and then to God-fearing Gentiles before being taken into the pagan agora.
Third Jervell dismisses the idea that the, gentile, church is the new Israel. Luke always uses Israel to refer to Jews who have accepted Christ, never more broadly to include gentile converts and never in a figurative sense. As he was at pains to show that it is the most jewish Jews who accept the gospel he is demonstrating that those Jews who accept Christ are the proper inheritors of the covenant and to defend against any questioning of why the Jewish establishment has not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Those who reject Jesus are cut off from the inheritance and are no longer properly part of Israel. Also now faith in Christ allows Gentiles to be grafted into that inheritance. In this same vein Jervell notes that no evangelist uses brothers to refer to Gentiles but only to those who were sons of Abraham, greetings are always seperated, “brothers, and …”.
Finally, but tied to the previous point, Jervell provides a new conception of jewish conversion. Jews don’t convert to Christianity. Properly speaking Christianity is the continuation of Judaism and its fulfillment. Judaism has been anticipating the messiah and, in a reversal of common understanding, for a Jew to reject Christ is to be cut off from the covenant. Jews accept (and continue) or reject (and leave). Jervell claims that Luke paints a picture not of Jews rejecting Christ but being divided into the penitent faithful and the obdurate unfaithful. The confusing accounts of Jewish mass acceptance of Christ and vicious persecution of Christians, often in subsequent verses, is thus reconciled.