Bible study: Acts 1 – the beginning

Some thoughts from my personal Bible study, mainly asking questions of the text and pondering some potential answers.

“In the first book, Theophilus…” Wait, who is Theophilus, and why wasn’t he mentioned in the previous book?

This is clearly part two of Luke’s writings, but it’s only now that we have any indication of who he is writing to. Why wait until the second installment to mention the recipient? And, for that matter, why mention him by name at all?

We’re not given any further detail here, so we must assume that there isn’t an intrinsic importance in Theophilus’s identity, certainly not more than the content of the letter itself. Perhaps there was a gap in time between the two writings, and therefore a literary need to link them somehow. Either way, perhaps a lesson in not getting sidetracked on details that aren’t actually important!

“From the beginning” of what?

Is Luke referring to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry? Or is he being more poetic and referring to the beginning of time itself? It’s ambiguous even in the original Greek. Looking at the beginning of the first book, Luke’s gospel, the writer uses a similarly ambiguous word for ‘beginning’. Maybe this is an intentional ambiguity.

We also see that Luke begins his gospel before Jesus even arrives on the scene, starting with Zechariah and Elizabeth. This is the beginning of John the Baptist, not Jesus. Perhaps the implication here is that a person’s story does not begin with themselves, but the situation they are placed in. So when Luke talks about “all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning”, he’s including John’s contribution. It’s an essentially timeless story, which seems appropriate for someone who created time itself.

Is there a significance in 40 days?

There is some suggestion that the number 40 is used as a recurring theme when talking about a time of trial or testing. There is a lovely symmetry in Jesus’s ministry, since he begins it with 40 days in the desert being tempted by the Devil. Which begs the question – are we talking about a literal 40 days here, or is it more symbolic?

I suppose it could be either. Jesus certainly fulfilled a lot of prophecy, so it makes sense that there is a similar use of dates, showing God’s plan at work. I’d be wary of reading too much into the number itself though; reusing a number to make a mental link is one thing, using the number because it has some mystical importance is quite another. For example, Lent is celebrated with 40 days of fasting (excluding Sundays), but the fast wouldn’t somehow be ruined if it was a day or two more or less – it’s a reminder of something similar, not a thing in itself.

Did the apostles have wives?

“Certain women” are mentioned, here and elsewhere in the gospels. Since there was a strong tradition of men marrying women in those days, it seems likely that most of the apostles would have been married. Even as teenagers they may well have been betrothed. So it’s quite possible that these other women following Jesus around, and then hanging around with the apostles, might have been related to them.

Or, it might have been some of the many women Jesus directly came into contact with, and who voluntarily left everything to follow him. In any case, thr simple fact of their inclusion in the text hints at their significance. Jesus wasn’t biased, so neither should we be.

Verse 13 refers to an upper room, whereas verse 15 mentions 120 people. Different locations?

Almost certainly. This sounds like two different occasions, even if it’s not spelled out as such. “In those days” is therefore an indication that it happened some time after they went back to the upper room. I can’t imagine many houses having an attic equivalent to a conference room.

So why go to the trouble of writing about an upper room if you’re not going to develop that further? Sounds like sloppy writing to me. Except, of course, an upper room features in the next chapter. Luke is showing us that that’s the same upper room they went to in the first place. They didn’t move around, they did as they were told – “wait there”. Looks like the apostles took Jesus quite literally in this instance!

Importance of 12 apostles? What was Judas’s ministry beforehand?

Like the number 40, 12 appears elsewhere in the Bible too. Jacob started it all off by having 12 sons, each of whom ended up having their own tribe (more or less). From then on, people used the number 12 to indicate tradition and history. Rabbis generally took 12 disciples to follow them around (it wasn’t a peculiarity of Jesus), drawing on the historic connection to give more weight to their contributions.

So it seems right for the Eleven to want to complete the circle, and return to the strong Twelve that they were before. They probably felt quite keenly the absence of Judas. He was, after all, a friend, a fellow minister, their treasurer, and their betrayer. They had relied on him before, and yet they also needed to move on. Replacing him not only benefitted the strength of the group, but also distracted them from the painful loss of their friend and colleague.

Also, since we’re talking about numbers, 12 can be divided by 6, 4, 3 and 2, making it organisationally one of the most flexible numbers you can get.

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