Commentary on Acts 2:1-21
The less closely one reads this pericope, the easier it is to preach!
The Spirit descends upon the apostles who are gathered in prayer and miraculously communicates God’s Word to a radically diverse assembly, resulting in the conversion of thousands. However, through closer scrutiny such simple conclusions are frustrated.
Richard I. Pervo, in his commentary on the Book of Acts, rightly observes that Pentecost is the most titillating and least comprehensible episode in Acts, noting, “The story collapses at the slightest breeze.”1 Pervo is correct on exegetical, even logical, grounds, and the history of interpretation on these verses reveals various attempts at bolstering the shaky foundation on which the Pentecost narrative rests.
For instance, scholars are at a loss to make sense of Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem — a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome! The list seems to come undone; it unravels even as Luke stiches together this devout assembly of nations (ethnoi). Some have tried to hold the list together spatially, as a geographical configuration from East to West (Fitzmyer) or according to compass points with Jerusalem at the center (Gaventa). Others read these verses as a Lukan gloss on an existing list (Barrett), or as a political situation of an earlier time (Conzelmann). And for others still, these verses are described as “odd” (Marshall) or “problematic” (Pervo). The fairest approach might be simply that “hypotheses abound, but none can be proven” (Johnson).
What is clear is that the way in which commentators construe verses 5-13 — labeled the “table of nations” by scholars — tips each writer’s hand as to his or her interpretative approach to Acts. Scholars with a narrative slant account for these verses literarily. Luke Timothy Johnson, for example, argues that the Pentecost narrative is a Lukan narrative device directed more to the readers than the Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem.2 Critical approaches engage the scribal tradition to account for interpolation and redaction that might account for Luke’s peculiar list. All of these approaches have their merits and as preachers it is incumbent upon us to learn all we can from these methods of interpretation. But for me, these approaches don’t preach, as we like to say.
I find the absurdity of the list theologically significant. In fact, Pervo’s statement about breezes is particularly apropos, for indeed it is the rushing wind of the Spirit being poured out upon the gathered faithful at Jerusalem that collapses — I prefer the word, deconstructs — a certain “story” and thereby allows a new story to shine through. I am not arguing this on historical-critical grounds (à la Pervo); rather, through an ethno-theological reading, the profundity of Luke’s deconstruction may be felt and a sermonic approach conceived.
What if Luke’s intention in today’s lection is to break apart a theology that is wrapped up in ethnic identity? What if he has crafted this “table of nations” to weaken the prevailing ethnic infrastructure so that a new foundation might burst forth according to Luke’s theological vision, a vision that transcends facile ethnic divisions without forsaking the importance of ethnic identity? What if we are catching a glimpse of God’s bigger vision for God’s people?
Returning to the list of nations represented among the Pentecost observers, the construction is most tenuous. Consider, the inclusion of the archaic duo of the Medes and Elamites. The Elamites were nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E. and were eventually absorbed into the Parthinian Empire. The Median Empire entered into a political alliance with Babylon and was later absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire by Cyrus II. As a distinct ethnic group, the Medes had been extinct for over five-hundred years!
F. F. Bruce notes that the Parthenian, Medic, and Elamite regions housed descendants of the ten tribes of Israel and members of the two tribes who did not return from exile.3 Other examples could be drawn from the list of nations, but this example sufficiently highlights Luke’s theological intention. I believe that Luke’s list is a theological response to the apostles’ question in 1:6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Recall that Jesus’ response was oblique: they were not to know the times, but they would receive power when the Holy Spirit would come upon them. Now the Holy Spirit has indeed come and the apostles’ hopes for a renewed Israel are expanded beyond the apostles’ limited scope of vision.
The outpouring of the Spirit is far greater than any had expected. As Peter’s sermon proclaims, God’s Spirit shall be poured out upon all flesh and everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. Luke is casting particular ethno-religious concerns in a universal vision for the restoration of all people. We, with the apostles and gathered believers, now understand the significance of Jesus’ instructions that they wait in Jerusalem. The fullness of time coincided with the day of Pentecost, when the Jews of the (eschatological) diaspora were gathered together in one place to disseminate the miraculous events to the entire world.
What we have in the Pentecost narrative is an ethno-eschatological unveiling (apokalupsis) that deconstructs a theology of ethnic exclusionism toward a broader theological vision. As such, it foreshadows Peter’s vision in the Cornelius narrative (10:9-23) in which Luke makes a more profound “subversion of [a] facile ethnic divide,” as Eric D. Barreto so convincingly argues.4
By my reading, the Pentecost narrative is a reframed ethno-theological answer to the apostles’ ethno-political question in 1:6. Luke shows us that written into the very structure of the “kingdom of Israel” is a certain diffusion that simultaneously structures the possibility of Israel and the impossibility of “restoring the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). Hence Jesus’ oblique response. The others ethnoi at once supplement and restore the kingdom to Israel, presenting to Luke’s Jewish readers, and us as well, a richer ethno-theological vision for God’s people.
1Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermenia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 59.
2Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., Sacra Pagina 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 14.
3F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (London: The Tyndale Press, 1951), 84.
4Eric D. Barreto, Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16, WUNT II 294 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 91.