Maccabean Characterization and Reverse Polemic in Acts

That Paul’s trial narrative forms part of a larger polemical contrast between Christ-believers and their Jewish opponents is widely recognized, but scholars tend to overlook the elaborate way in which Luke draws on the Maccabean revolt to enhance it. In this paper, I will argue that Luke links both Paul and his opponents to the Maccabean revolt, and that tracing Luke’s use of Maccabean characterization sheds light on the function of the trial narrative in Acts 21-26 and the setting of Acts. The parallels between Acts and 1-2 Maccabees fall into two contrasting patterns. (1) On the one hand, Jewish opponents of the Gentile mission appeal to the Maccabean revolt to paint the practices of Jewish Christ-believers as a threat to Jewish identity, paralleling the “renegades” during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. According to 1 Maccabees 1, for example, Antiochus and the “renegades” profaned the temple and prohibited the law in order to absorb the Ioudaioi into one new people. According to Acts 21:28, the Jews from Asia claim that Paul not only “teaches everyone everywhere against … the law and this place,” he also teaches “against the people” (21:28). In both instances, Torah, temple and group identity go together. Luke’s surprising willingness to concede the rhetorical high ground and allow characters in his narrative who oppose the Gentile mission to associate themselves with the heroes of the Maccabean revolt indicates that he takes the charges against Paul seriously. (2) On the other hand, Luke is not content merely to deny the charges against Paul. I will argue that he also reverses the Maccabean polemic by asserting that it is actually the Jewish leadership in Judaea, as well as other hostile Jews, who most resemble Antiochus and the “renegades.” Jewish Christ-believers, by contrast, correspond to the faithful Israelites who endured Antiochus’s persecution. Thus, instead of triumphantly moving beyond Judaism and the law in his narrative, Luke employs “reverse polemic” to show that the messianic claims of Jesus and the Gentile mission championed in Acts do not undermine the law or threaten the Jewish identity of Jesus’ Jewish followers. Although other scholars have noted some of these parallels (see especially W. Stegemann 1991), connections in Acts to the initial events leading up to the Maccabean revolt are more extensive than is generally acknowledged, and the larger Maccabean pattern of reverse polemic has not been recognized. Identifying the links that Luke fashions between Jewish resistance to Antiochus’s reform in 1-2 Maccabees, and Jewish resistance to Paul in Acts brings the latter into focus and makes it comprehensible: the charges against Paul, in particular, fit together and culminate in a perceived threat to Jewish identity. There are also implications for the identity of Luke’s audience, who will have been expected to hear echoes of the Maccabean revolt and to view favorably the characterization of Jewish Jesus-followers as champions of the law and the covenant.