The SNTS conference in Perth is now over. I attended a few bits of it, around teaching commitments. One of the papers I attended was by James McLaren on ‘The Account in Acts of Jewish Actions Against the Followers of Jesus Within the Context of Roman Rule.’ This is part of a bigger research project by McLaren, in which he is asking ‘Why Jesus Died’ – from the perspective of a Roman historian.
In this paper he had three main parts:
1) Review of the role of attacks on Christians in Acts: He pointed out that these attacks by Jewish opponents are an important feature of the book of Acts, and serve to illustrate the conviction that Christians did not pose a threat to Roman order.
2) Current trends in scholarship, which highlight the Jewish context: McLaren pointed out that recent studies have seen such Jewish persecution as understandable in the Jewish context, and therefore as historically likely.
3) The imperial Roman Empire context: Whereas within Acts the Jewish persecutors are viewed as able to take action against offenders without seeking Roman approval, whether in their homeland or outside of it, confident that the Romans would take little interest, outside of Acts the picture is different: Josephus indicates that Rome had strict control over the temple and high priestly vestments, and that Jews were in a precarious situation, being regarded as outsiders and foreigners in the diaspora.
The conclusion was that Acts presents an ideologically driven picture of early Christian experience, which must be seriously questioned, e.g.: How could Paul possibly have persecuted Christians simply by getting permission from the high priests? He could not have pursued legal persecution without Roman permission, so where is Rome in all of this? It is conspicuously, and suspiciously, absent from the text.
There were a number of responses from the floor. I have a couple of thoughts myself:
a) Of course it’s incontestable that Acts only provides part of the story. This is inevitable, and a normal part of storytelling. The general point that we should be aware that there are Roman issues beyond what we see in the text is quite appropriate.
b) Why would we think that Paul was acting legally? I cannot fathom why Paul would want to seek Roman approval in order to pursue the correction and cleansing of a minor Jewish sub-community in Damascus. Similarly, although that Jewish sub-community in Damascus could “legally” have appealed to Rome, it would not be in their interests to do so, as it would represent defiance against their own temple.