Death and Resurrection in the Book of Acts: A Foundational Motif for Discipleship
The theological focus in Luke-Acts has long been a focal point for debate. Do the texts reflect a triumphal theology of glory or a theology of suffering, or perhaps some combination of the two? By examining Acts through motif analysis, an intertwined theology of suffering and renewal becomes evident. This double-edged, yet single, motif creates the core pattern and theological basis for those who become disciples of the crucified-and-risen Messiah.
Dennis J. Horton
Associate Professor of Religion
When examining biblical texts about the death and resurrection of Jesus, scholars have long debated the proper placement of the theological accent. Were the biblical writers emphasizing Jesus' suffering and death or his resurrection? In the past, many scholars have downplayed the role of Jesus' suffering and death in Luke-Acts, attributing greater importance to the resurrection event. When compared to Paul's writings, both C. H. Dodd and J. M. Creed found that the speeches in Acts present a theologically barren view of the cross. For this reason, they concluded that Luke's writings, in contrast to the Pauline interpretation of Jesus' death, lack a developed "theology of the cross"—theologia crucis.2 Instead, Luke was understood to attribute greatest value to the elements of Jesus' glory through his resurrection and ascension. Ernst Käsemann provides the apex of this school of thought in 1964 when he proclaims that in Acts, "a theologia gloriae is now in process of replacing the theologia crucis."3 Though not stated as dramatically, I. Howard Marshall affirms the position that, in Acts, Jesus' resurrection supersedes the importance of his death.4 Joseph Tyson, in his thorough study of Jesus' death in Luke-Acts, continues to accent a Lukan theology of glory especially in terms of soteriological significance. He concludes, "The benefits of forgiveness of sins and the Spirit are more closely connected with the resurrection [of Jesus] than the death."5 Similarly, Joel B. Green attributes greater significance to Jesus' resurrection, judging it to be the "central affirmation of the Christian message in the Acts of the Apostles."6 As such, the resurrection of Jesus is the key event for Lukan Christology and soteriology, being both the "means and nature of salvation."7
An emphasis on the Lukan theology of glory persists through the present. One of the most comprehensive recent works is Kevin L. Anderson's treatise on Jesus' resurrection in Luke-Acts, "But God Raised Him from the Dead." Anderson contends that the resurrection is the pivotal event in Luke's narrative in all respects: theologically, Christologically, ecclesiologically, and eschatologically.8 All of these different aspects of resurrection relate to the Lukan message of salvation.9 Although Anderson acknowledges the importance of other events in Luke-Acts such as Jesus' ministry, death, and outpouring of the Spirit, he clearly locates the "focus" of soteriology within the resurrection event.10 Jesus' suffering and death do not convey forgiveness of sins; rather, only the resurrection, God's reversal of that death, "has a lasting salvific effect."11
Some biblical scholarship, however, has countered this perceived dominance of a Lukan theology of glory by positing a strong emphasis on Jesus' suffering and death in Luke-Acts. Georg Braumann in 1963 became one of the first dissenting voices, arguing that the theology of Luke is primarily a theologia crucis.12 More recently, David Moessner has revealed many of the shortcomings inherent with the triumphal approach to understanding Luke-Acts. Moreover, his appreciation for the effects of Jesus' rejection and death significantly expands the theological role of suffering in Luke's writings.13 As a result, Moessner's well-argued thesis has attracted scholarly support and prompted further studies on the topic. Both Robert Tannehill and John Polhill, for example, reflect an indebtedness to Moessner's position.14 Paul R. House identifies suffering as the most essential element of Acts.15 Charles Estridge likewise emphasizes the importance of suffering by highlighting its centrality to the speeches in Acts.16 More recently, Scott Cunningham has expounded on the theology of persecution as a theme in Luke-Acts, highlighting its importance and functions.17 Others such as Martin Mittelstadt have followed Cunningham's lead with special emphasis in Acts on suffering and its implications for the community of believers.18
Even as a number of biblical scholars are embracing a theologia crucis as the most appropriate lens for envisioning Lukan soteriology and ecclesiology, the positive focus on redemptive suffering has its detractors. Many contextual theologians (feminists, womanists, and those representing racially oppressed groups) express strong reservations about attributing greatest value to Jesus' passion, especially when his suffering is viewed in isolation from his life and the vindication of his death through resurrection.19 They reason that a strong emphasis on crucifixion theology sanctions violence and fosters victimization.20 Admittedly, contextual theologians often read against the grain of individual biblical texts, making many of their claims beyond the purview of the present study.21 Nevertheless, a more balanced approach which values both Jesus' suffering and resurrection as a unified concept does serve to ameliorate some of the suspected problems associated with a disproportionate emphasis on crucifixion theology.
Some scholars do support the concept that both the death and resurrection of Jesus receive equal emphasis in Luke-Acts. While C. K. Barrett acknowledges Luke's portrayal of an unhindered gospel, he also notes that the followers of Jesus who carry this gospel travel by the "way of the cross."22 Nevertheless, Barrett does not perceive a fully developed theology of either stripe in the Lukan writings.
It would perhaps be wrong to describe him [Luke] as either a theologus gloriae or a theologus crucis: he is not sufficiently interested in theology (beyond basic Christian convictions) to be called a theologus of any colour. But he knows that to be a Christian is to take up a cross daily, and what this meant in the first century he has described in vivid narrative. This strictly practical theologia crucis is not contradicted by the fact that his pilgrims can "shout as they travel the wilderness through." 23
Beverly Roberts Gaventa, attributing greater theological depth to Luke-Acts, appropriately perceives a balanced and vital role for both theological perspectives: "Both of these threads, the triumph of God who will not allow the gospel to be overcome and [her emphasis] the rejection of the gospel and the persecution of its apostles, belong to the narrative Luke develops. To eliminate either of them is to miss something essential to the Lukan story."24 Additionally, Morna Hooker finds soteriological value associated with both events in Luke's writings: "forgiveness of sins . . . is now available for all—through his death and resurrection [her emphasis]."25
Consideration of the evidence utilizing motif analysis confirms equal importance of these two connected events in the Acts narrative. Through the combination of speeches (inclusive of the narrator's comments) and actions of the characters, Luke forges the elements of death and resurrection into a solitary motif. Cunningham acknowledges the equal value of both elements, but he mistakenly separates the two.26 The Book of Acts reveals a double-edged, yet single, literary motif formed by diegetic references to Jesus' death and resurrection (i.e., the telling or recounting of these events). Many of the characters in Acts then reinforce this motif through their own experiences as portrayed through several different mimetic scenes (i.e., showing the motif). Finally, the juxtaposition of a contrasting motif of death and decay heightens the effects of the primary motif.
The presence and effectiveness of the motif provide a solid framework for its function, but the specific details of its function will vary according to the message being communicated and its context. A motif of circularity may, for instance, show the futility of life, as in Sister Carrie,27 or simply offer the assurance that all creatures play an important role in the "circle of life," as in Disney's The Lion King. The death-and-resurrection motif in Acts not only enhances the aesthetic quality of the narrative, but it also—and more importantly—reveals the theological implications of this double-sided message for those who choose to become followers of Jesus.
The motif creates theological balance between suffering and renewed life. Both the diegetic and mimetic parts of the motif bind the two elements closely together. Acts does not picture a painless, triumphal view of Christianity. Nor does the narrative isolate suffering as an end in itself. Even when Paul emphasizes his tribulations at Lystra, he is only able to do so because he "rose up" from his death-like state (14:20). Thus, human rejection of Jesus and his followers is always accompanied by divine acceptance and reassurance through the bestowal of renewed life either in the present earthly existence or in a future resurrected existence with God (as in the case of Stephen in Acts 7:54–60).
Undoubtedly, one of the more specific functions of the motif is to encourage Christians to endure suffering as part of their life in Christ. This encouragement comes in different ways. First, the motif assures those who experience persecution or some other form of suffering that pain is often a component of the Christian life. Just as Jesus suffered on the cross, his followers endure various hardships. As such the Book of Acts makes no room for a simplistic "health, wealth, and prosperity" gospel. According to Lukan theology, salvation is effected, at least in part, through the suffering of Jesus. True disciples are initially formed and then transformed through their unification with this crucified-and-risen Messiah. According to the Acts narrative, salvation and discipleship find their source in both the suffering and resurrection of Jesus. Those who love God and become his followers form solidarity with him, reflecting in their lives the messianic pattern of suffering and renewed life.
Such a radical form of discipleship described in Acts presupposes the historical existence of Jesus: his life, death, and resurrection. Stephen and the other followers who face persecution and death do so willingly because they have confidence that they, following the pattern of Jesus, will be raised from the dead. When Peter and the other apostles suffer imprisonment and face an imminent threat of death for preaching about Jesus, they justify their irrational behavior on the need to be obedient to God even if that means disobeying human authorities (Acts 5:29). Their confidence derives from the statement that immediately follows: that is, "God raised Jesus from the dead" (Acts 5:30). Thus the threat of death is countered by the promise of resurrection. Paul likewise faces persecution for his preaching about the crucified-and-risen Messiah. He clearly explains that he is willing to suffer persecution and even death because of his hope in the resurrection of which Jesus is the first of all the others who are to follow (1 Cor. 15:20, 30–32). If Jesus has not been resurrected from the dead, Christians are to be pitied above all others (1 Cor. 15:19).
Legitimate concerns, however, have surfaced about the credibility of Jesus' resurrection due to the inconsistencies among the biblical records that testify to the event. The four Gospels each contain slightly different information about how many and which women went to the tomb (Matt. 28:1; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 20:1). They also report different numbers and/or types of beings encountered at the empty tomb (Matt. 28:2; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:1). Other differences occur in the reporting about the ones to whom the risen Jesus appears (Matt. 28:16–18; Luke 24:13–49; John 20:19–29; 1 Cor. 15:5–8). In addition to these and other inconsistencies between the accounts written by different authors, Luke and Acts—widely believed to be written by the same author—contain different elements when reporting about the departure of Jesus (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:1–12).
Many have therefore doubted the credibility of these biblical narratives especially when they speak about supernatural events like the resurrection of Jesus. Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768) was among the first to identify these differences as "contradictions" which are so egregious that they invalidate the Gospels as reliable sources. Any of their claims therefore about the resurrection of Jesus should be dismissed as inadmissible testimony in any reasonable court of public opinion.28 Contemporary counterparts have echoed Reimarus' perspective about the presence of contradictions within the biblical narratives which thereby invalidate them as reliable sources for belief in the resurrection of Jesus; rather, such resurrection claims are "Gospel fictions."29
The Gospel witnesses face an unenviable predicament. If their stories agreed perfectly with one another, they would be condemned as having colluded in order to deceive potential converts with a false testimony that had been rehearsed to eliminate any inconsistencies. Because there are differences among the four accounts, they are condemned as contradictory witnesses. Moreover, Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliot argue that these accounts can only be read in one of two ways: synthesizing the accounts or prioritizing one account over the others.30 Synthesis proves problematic due to the differences in the accounts. Prioritizing one over the others is difficult, if not impossible, to do. Such prioritization also implies that one account is truthful while the others are false. Once again, the Gospels become deeply flawed witnesses. Is it possible for the biblical accounts to be read in such a way that they may be viewed as reliable historical sources—inconsistencies and all—when commenting on the empty tomb, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus?
As biblical scholars have studied ancient literary forms and genres, such a perspective does seem plausible. Rather than forcing the biblical narratives into modern literary categories of fact or fiction and demanding that they surpass the highest bar of Enlightenment rationalism, the Gospels and Acts are best read in accordance with the expectations requisite to their ancient genres. Many biblical scholars understand the Gospels to be within the genre of ancient biography.31 As Craig S. Keener posits, such a classification would indicate that the Gospels "deal in historical information rather than the fanciful creation of events."32 While ancient biographers enjoyed greater chronological liberties as well as opportunities to provide lessons in morality (and theology), historical concerns were still taken seriously.33 After thorough analysis of the biblical accounts, N. T. Wright similarly concludes that the Gospel Easter stories "were early, that they were not assimilated either to each other or to the developed New Testament theology, and that the inconsistencies between them should not be allowed to stand in the way of taking them seriously as historical sources."34
Literary and theological concerns may provide some explanation for the inconsistencies between the various accounts. In Luke and Acts, Mikeal C. Parsons identifies seven variations between the departure scenes.35 He argues that these variations are purposeful, bringing closure to one book and a narrative beginning to the other.36 For example, the author's use of the symbolically rich "forty days" in Acts performs several functions including the clear presentation of the disciples as "educationally, spiritually, and organizationally prepared to undertake the task of worldwide missions to which they have been assigned."37 Rather than being a flawed witness, the author is being strategic by using the narrative devices of redundancy and variation to serve both literary and theological concerns while preserving core historical elements.
Ultimately, belief in Jesus' resurrection is still a matter of faith. An empty tomb and an appearance of the risen Messiah do not force one to accept the resurrection as historical fact (cf. Matt. 28:17). Nevertheless, differences within and between the biblical narratives should not serve as evidence precluding the possibility of Jesus' resurrection. In Keener's words, "Whatever one does with the more controversial question of divine causation, the best evidence suggests that the first witnesses believed that they had seen Jesus alive from the dead."38 The two-sided death-and-resurrection motif in Acts illustrates this point, telling and showing how the disciples of Jesus willingly suffer in solidarity with him, having the firm belief that they will also experience renewed life in their present existence and/or resurrected life with God in the future.
1 Any excerpts from the book in this essay are used with permission from Pickwick Publications.
2 C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1936), 25; Creed, J. M., Gospel According to St. Luke (London: MacMillan, 1930), lxxii.
3 Ernst Käsemann, Essays on New Testament Themes, trans. by W. J. Montague (London: SCM, 1964), 92.
4 I. Howard Marshall, "The Resurrection in the Acts of the Apostles," in Apostolic History and the Gospel, ed. by W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 92–107.
5 Joseph B. Tyson, The Death of Jesus in Luke-Acts (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986), 170.
6 Joel B. Green, "'Witnesses of His Resurrection': Resurrection, Salvation, Discipleship, and Mission," in Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament, ed. by Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 227.
7 Ibid. 237.
8 Kevin L. Anderson, "But God Raised Him from the Dead": The Theology of Jesus' Resurrection in Luke-Acts (Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster, 2006), 13.
10 Ibid., 31.
11 Ibid., 41. Anderson further clarifies: "Each of these events is crucial to salvation history, but the resurrection of Jesus stands as the focal point in the salvation message" (41).
12 Georg Braumann, "Das Mittel der Zeit: Erwägungen zur Theologie des Lukasevangeliums," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 54 (1963): 121. See also F. Schütz who develops Braumann's thesis in the 1969 publication of his Der leidende Christus (Stuttgart: Kohhammer), explaining the theological significance of the close connection between Jesus' suffering and that of his followers.
13 Moessner has written several pieces about this topic, but two of special interest include his "'The Christ Must Suffer': New Light on the Jesus-Peter, Stephen, Paul Parallels in Luke-Acts," in Novem Testamentum 28 (1986): 220–56 and his essay, "'The Christ Must Suffer,' The Church Must Suffer: Rethinking the Theology of the Cross in Luke-Acts," in SBLSP (Atlanta: Scholars, 1990), 165–95.
14 Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), 114, 182, and 348; John B. Polhill, Acts, New American Commentary, vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 70 and 319.
15 Paul R. House, "Suffering and the Purpose of Acts," in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 33 (1990): 317–30. House states emphatically: "In short, Acts has no purpose, no plot, no structure, and no history without suffering" (321).
16 Charles A.Estridge, "Suffering in Contexts of the Speeches of Acts," Ph.D. dissertation (Baylor University, 1991).
17 Scott Cunningham, "Through Many Tribulations": The Theology of Persecution in Luke-Acts, JSNTSup 142 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997). Cunningham's exhaustive treatment of Jesus' suffering and death serves as a fitting counterpoint to Anderson's comprehensive study on Jesus' resurrection. Their well-supported, but opposing, emphases provide added impetus for serious consideration of a single motif inclusive of both Jesus' death and resurrection.
18 Martin W. Mittelstadt, Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts (London: T. & T. Clark, 2004), see especially 12–20.
19 Stephen J. Patterson, Beyond the Passion: Rethinking the Death and Life of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 3–4. Patterson understands that nearly all of the biblical statements about Jesus' death were "calculated to resurrect the significance of Jesus' life for those who loved him, and would come to love him in the years ahead. They spoke of the movement he began as 'the way'—his way of life" (4).
20 See Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker's Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon, 2001), J. Denny Weaver's The Nonviolent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), and Joanne Marie Terrell's Power in the Blood? The Cross in the African American Experience (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005). Although negative ramifications may be associated with a soteriology restricted to crucifixion theology, other scholars provide considered responses that retain the salvific value of the cross without sanctioning violence (cf. Deanna A. Thompson's Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004] and Charles H. Talbert's discussion of the topic in his commentary on Romans [Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005], 140–44).
21 The present study treats the text as primary for developing a biblical theology whereas contextual theologians have various means of developing their theological tenets, often using the biblical texts as secondary support or to establish general principles that can be applied in different contexts.
22 C. K. Barrett, "Theologia Crucis—in Acts?" in Theologia Crucis—Signum Crucis, ed. by C. Andresen and G. Klein (Tübingen: Mohr, 1979), 79.
23 Ibid., 84.
24 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, "Toward a Theology of Acts," Interpretation 42 (1988): 157.
25 Morna D. Hooker, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: New Testament Interpretations of the Death of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 91.
26 Cunningham, "Through," 324. Cunningham states, "In fact, the theology of glory and the theology of the cross are both equally affirmed by the narrative." His study, however, focuses exclusively on the suffering/persecution perspective. As a result, he fails to integrate the two elements as they are within the Luke-Acts narrative. Nevertheless, his work does provide a thorough explication of Luke's theology of the cross in Acts and its implications to those who become followers of Jesus.
27 William Freedman, "A Look at Dreiser as Artist: The Motif of Circularity in Sister Carrie." Modern Fiction Studies 8 (1962): 386.
28 Charles H. Talbert, ed., Reimarus: Fragments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 174–200. Reimarus' work on the subject was published posthumously by G. E. Lessing as part of the Wolfenbüttel Fragments, 1774–1778.
29 Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), 129–149. Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott similarly point to the "numerous errors and contradictions in the resurrection stories that are unacceptable in any historical inquiry" ("Talpiot Dethroned" http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/talpiot357921.shtml).
30 Kilty and Elliot, "Talpiot Dethroned," http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/talpiot357921.shtml
31 Craig S. Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 78.
32 Ibid., 84.
33 Ibid., 81–83.
34 N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 612–13.
35 Mikeal C. Parsons, The Departure of Jesus in Luke-Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987), 193–94.
36 Ibid., 198.
37 Ibid., 195.
38 Keener, Historical, 348.