Commentary on Acts 5:27-32
The story of the apostles’ trial before the Sanhedrin comes on the heels of their miraculous escape from the prison. This motif of escape from prison is a familiar theme in the book of Acts, including in chapter 12 where an angel assists Peter’s jailbreak. Later in chapter 15, Paul and Silas break free from a prison at Philippi.
The literary context of this story highlights the significance of the apostles’ actions—teaching and healing ministry—that led to their imprisonment. Peter and John were warned twice by the elders and the high priest not to continue their teaching ministry (4:17-18). They are at it again, this time in the temple court, having just escaped from the prison. From the perspectives of the authorities, Peter and the apostles have become repeat offenders. But what exactly was their offense?
What got Peter and other apostles in trouble were their healing miracles and their insistence that Jesus was the only name by which humankind could be saved (4:10, 12). Peter refers to Jesus again in this pericope as the ruler (archeyon) and savior (soter). From a Roman perspective, Augustus Caesar was the sole savior of the world and the healer. The authorities who were deeply invested in depicting the emperor as the only savior likely saw Peter’s words as a challenge to, and a mockery of, royal titles. Jesus, from their perspective, was an imposter whose name should not be associated with the titles the emperor had rightfully earned.
Peter’s suggestion in this story that God exalted the crucified Jesus is reminiscent of Paul’s Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5-11, where Jesus was exalted as a result of his sacrifice on the cross. Whereas the Roman emperor would have exercised absolute power in order to maintain his status, Jesus sacrificed his power and status in the process of bringing salvation to everyone. Unlike the Roman emperor’s abuse of power and violence that allowed him to claim the title of savior, it was Jesus’ crucifixion, an act of solidarity with the marginalized, that made him the savior. The emperor might have undeservedly claimed the title of savior for himself but, in truth, it was Jesus who lived up to that title. This makes the emperor, not Jesus, an imposter.
Within the literary context of this story, it was also their healing ministry and the practice of sharing possessions among members that enhanced the apostles’ popularity and landed them in trouble. Whereas the empire turned a blind eye to the needs of the disadvantaged, the apostles brought them healing. Whereas the Roman empire fostered an ethos of hoarding and acquiring wealth at the expense of the poorest, the Jesus movement was promoting an alternative worldview—an ethos of sharing possessions.
Peter’s insistence that they will obey divine authority rather than humans (5:29) is reminiscent of 4:19 where he and John defied officials by forcefully articulating their obligation to preach what they had witnessed. And their escape from the prison suggests that the new movement will not be curtailed or limited by human institutions or structures.1 God’s word transcends the power of human authorities. This story of Peter, just like the one in the previous chapter, speaks to the resilience and indomitable spirit of the Jesus movement. That’s the good news in the text, but the story also poses some interpretive challenges.
When the leaders of the Sanhedrin rebuke Peter and the apostles for blaming them for the death of Jesus (Acts 5:27-32), Peter employs disturbing imagery to accuse them yet again of killing Jesus. This text, specifically the notion that the religious officials were responsible for the death of Jesus, has been interpreted by many Christians in ways that have perpetuated anti-Semitism. Similarly, celebrating the resilience of the Jesus movement in Acts often takes the form of holding first century Judaism responsible for the persecution of Peter and other apostles.
Peter’s scathing criticism of the officials is a reflection of the conflict between the apostles and the elite in Jerusalem. Furthermore, the suggestion in 5:26 that the captain and his officers did not use force against Peter and the apostles because they feared the people—who were likely sympathetic to the apostles—also highlights a conflict within the community. Finally, the apostles are bailed out of their predicament by Gamaliel, a member of the Pharisaic community.
Still, Luke’s placement of blame for Jesus’ death at the feet of temple officials is puzzling. Crucifixion was a Roman form of death and, just as Peter and other apostles were imprisoned for challenging imperial titles, ethos, and practices, Jesus was killed for undermining the economic and political interests of the Roman empire, not for violating any Jewish religious traditions. The chief priests may have collaborated with the Roman empire in targeting, but ultimately crucifixion was the Roman form of death carried out by imperial agents in order to preserve political and economic interests of the empire. Luke holds the elite in Jerusalem responsible for the death of Jesus but does not call attention to the fact that Rome would have been primarily responsible for what happened to Jesus.
Luke likely shifted the blame toward temple officials (5:28), perhaps in an attempt to make peace with the Roman empire. Such a harsh tone toward the priestly community would have been especially problematic at the time of Luke’s writing when the Sadducees were increasingly less powerful in the aftermath of the destruction of the temple. This was a case of two colonized groups turning against each other and, in the process, deflecting attention from the empire’s role in perpetuating violence against its subjects. This was likely also the result of two oppressed groups convincing themselves that they can only survive at the expense of the other.
Luke’s attempt to highlight the tenacity and resilience of the apostles in the midst of adversity is commendable, but Luke’s suggestion that the religious leaders were primarily responsible for what happened to Jesus has engendered deeply problematic interpretations and violence against our Jewish siblings.
Luke’s proclivity to shift the blame for Jesus’ death primarily toward the temple officials suggests that even a community like Luke’s that practiced anti-imperial ethos can fall into the trap of allowing itself to be pitted against another marginalized community and, in the process, serving the interests of the empire. Even as we celebrate the way Luke highlights the resilience of the Jesus movement, we need to juxtapose it with Luke’s failure to hold the empire accountable for its violence and death-dealing practices against those at the margins.
- F. Scott Spencer, Journeying Through Acts: A Literary-cultural Reading (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 70.