Hans-Josef Klauck, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003. 136 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8006-3635-X. $15.00.
Klauck has provided a small, impressive, 'refresher' course on the book of Acts. While not a full commentary, his contribution enables us to pause in order to assess the state of the question vis-à-vis the Acts of the Apostles. Since the release of the six-volume set by Eerdmans (The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting), a spate of monographs and commentaries on Acts have been produced. We note the commentary by C. K. Barrett (disappointing, in my opinion), and the works of Howard Clark Kee (To Every Nation Under Heaven: The Acts of the Apostles), Ben Witherington (The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary), Loveday Alexander (due at the end of this year), Stephen Spencer (Acts), W. H. Shepherd (The Narrative Function of the Holy Spirit as a Character in Luke-Acts), Daniel Marguerat (The First Christian Historian: Writing the 'Acts of the Apostles')all of which deserve attention. But the superb studies of Justin Taylor require special mention: "St. Paul and the Roman Empire: Acts of the Apostles 13-14." Aufstieg und Niedergang der Romischen Welt (ANRW) 26/2 (1995): 1190-1231; "The Roman Empire in the Acts of the Apostles." ANRW 26/3 (1996): 2436-2500. His "Acts," in William R. Farmer, ed., The International Bible Commentary (pp. 1506-45) is surprisingly inadequate theologically and narratologically.
The upshot of this scholarship is a fresh appreciation for the historicity of Luke, especially in his Graeco-Roman context. This is a refreshing change from older form critical and history of religions treatments, i.e., Acts as an example of "Lukan invention," not history. Even the work of Martin Dibelius and his disciples (which dominated 20th century studies on Acts) is being displaced by this newer scholarship. With a tip of the hat to conservative scholars F. F. Bruce and C. J. Hemer (The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History), we may smile slightly at the rehabilitation of Acts as an historical document. The ghost of Sir William Ramsay must be smiling from ear to ear.
As salient and insightful as these new studies are, they remain indebted, in part, to the critical agendacomplete historicity and factual accuracy may not be granted to Luke (or to any biblical writer, for that matter, by the critical fundamentalist guild). An added point of significance in these newer studies is the interest in narrative methodologies, including narrative theology (especially noteworthy are R. C. Tannehill's, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, 2 vols.; and C. H. Talbert's Reading Acts). The narrative approaches have the advantage of further breaking up the critical fundamentalist logjama logjam that makes it impossible for the text of Scripture to be heard in itself (or to interpret itself, sui ipsius interpres). When combined with a biblical-theological orientation, the narrative studies and refurbished historicity of Acts bode well for appreciating Acts as divine revelation (surely its own claim!). While most of these newer studies do not proceed on that presupposition, this reviewer stands back of the precise factual historicity of Luke's narrative, his structural/narrative skill and his redemptive-historical intrusion and unfolding of God's (especially the Holy Spirit's) acts on believing Jewish and Gentile Christian converts. Reformed biblical theologians may be wonderfully encouraged by the insights generated by these studies upon a heretofore 'weak sister' book of the New Testament.
Justin Taylor's work is remarkable. His hero is Sir William Ramsay whom he follows, though not slavishly (he often corrects or modifies Ramsay's conclusions based on more recent data). The two ANRW studies (above) deal, respectively, with Paul's first and second missionary journeys. In each case, Taylor elaborates upon location (city, geographical site, etc.) with detailed discussion of background relevant to Luke and Paul's first century context. He ransacks inscriptions, ancient texts, etc. in an attempt to mine as much detail as possible to help the reader of the inspired text. While narrative and/or structural patterns are not his major concern (nor is the theological or biblical-theological dimension of the text), his elaboration of historico-cultural context opens up the sense of drama and identification with the original author, communities and readers of Luke-Acts. This is particularly helpful as contemporary western civilization moves towards paganization. The modern church is catapulted into a socio-political context that brings an increasing identification with our first century Christian brothers and sisters. Acts becomes instructiveperhaps more so than ever before for the modern contemporary Christian. Allow me to add that the central theme of Acts, i.e., union with the risen Christ through life in his Spirit, becomes even more poignant and exciting as we live and travel with the church of Acts. Luke fortifies us for our own context.
Klauck and Taylor reinforce one another, especially in historical background and context. Thus the student/reader is doubly confirmed with respect to Luke's accuracy. Klauck's volume is focused on the antithesis between Christianity and pagan magic. Therefore, he isolates the passages in Acts that treat Simon Magus (chapter 8), Bar-Jesus (chapter 13), the Pythoness (chapter 16), the Ephesian silversmiths (chapter 19) and the superstitious Maltese islanders (chapter 28). (He also provides a chapter on the Areopagus address on Mars Hill.) His goal is to compare the supremacy of Christ's on-going miraculous and non-miraculous work to the world bound and trapped in superstition by the powers of darkness. The light of the freedom of the grace of Christ Jesus transforms persons, communities, social distinctions and barriers. Such barriers disappear in the transcendent bonds of unity in Jesus Christ.
That transformation for Paul's disciple, Luke, is centered in the transformation of the ages. The beloved physician's (Col. 4:14) companion had been himself translated from this present evil/pagan age to the age to come. That translation came by way of death and resurrection: on the Damascus Road, Saul died and Paul was raised from the dead. Klauck does not orient the radical difference in the drama and characters in Acts to this central eventi.e., union with the dying and rising Christ. The contrast with paganism is there; the contrast with pagan magic is there, but for Klauck the chief purpose of Acts is the "relationship to Judaism" (p. 119).
If this is the heart of Luke's "acts of the apostles", why the focus on the apostle to the Gentiles? Klauck appears to admit that his profound insights into first century pagan Graeco-Roman culture are irrelevant. In fact, the relevance of Acts is its transcultural focusnot superstition and magic (either Jewish or Gentile), not personality cults (either Roman or Greek or Jewish), not power structures of the Graeco-Roman/Jewish world: rather the new creation in the risen Christ brought near by the Holy Spirit. This eschatological antithesis is at the heart of Luke's record of the work of the risen Christ's Spirit in history.
As an illustration of my previous point, notice Klauck's treatment of Acts 13:4-12 (pp. 47-55). Bar-Jesus, whom Klauck rightly identifies with Elymas (v. 8), is a cameo of Jewish superstition (an "astrologer," p. 48) in league with Graeco-Roman paganism (court of Sergius Paulus). But while Klauck hints (p. 53) at the reversal in the blindness visited on Bar-Jesus/Elymas (v. 11), he does not perceive the biblical-theological reversal that powerfully opposes Paul's arena to the coalition of Judaism and paganism. Paul is characterized in the pericope as the antithesis of his antagonist. Paul has two names (Saul and Paul); his antagonist has two names (Bar-Jesus and Elymas). The Jew (Bar-Jesus) become a magician is a false prophet; the Jew (Saul) become a Christian is a true prophet (Acts 13:1). The antagonist is "full" of deceit (v. 10); the protagonist is "filled" with the Holy Spirit (v. 9). Elymas/Bar-Jesus is shrouded in darkness (v. 11); Paul/Saul is the ambassador of light (v. 47). Ironically, the one with the name son of Jesus/Joshua'son of salvation'is, in truth, son of the adversary/son of the devil (v. 10); while the one who is, in truth, son of Jesus/Joshua'son of salvation'is the adversary of the son of the devil.
The encounter between Paul and Elymas is a contrast between the one with the pseudo-supernatural (truly, no more than the naturally occult) power of the kingdom of Satan. The magician is a fraud, a charlatan, a con artist. Real miraculous/supernatural power confronts him, confounds him, overpowers himtrumps him. And this genuine supernatural power? it is the obverse of the encounter that transformed Saul into Paul (Acts 9:1-19; cf. 22:3-16; 26:9-18). Notice that Bar-Jesus goes into the darkness, shut out of the light of the sun. Saul had been brought out of darkness by being shut up in the light brighter than the sun. Bar-Jesus/Elymas becomes the reverse of what Saul/Paul now is! There is Luke's biblical-theological/redemptive-historical contrast. Bar-Jesus goes from light to darkness as he opposes the one who went from darkness to light. This narrative is the (on-going) demonstration of two antithetical arenas: Paul's arena of eschatological life and light and salvation; Bar-Jesus' arena of eschatological death and darkness and damnation. The gospel Paul and Barnabas bring to Cyprus confronts, confounds, curses the culture dominated by the principalities and powers of this present evil age. Resurrection power, heaven's power, is superior to magic, astrology, pseudo-prophecy, Judaism. Paul's Lordthe risen Christ Jesusreleases from bondage. Magic is bondage. Astrology is bondage. Contrived prophecies are bondage. Heaven's glorified Christ and his arena are freedom!
Klauck has given us a helpful bookan important bookeven a provocative book in places. But he has not given us a biblical-theological/redemptive-historical book. For that, we must look elsewhere. But meanwhile, Klauck prods us on.
James T. Dennison, Jr.