March 15, 2010

Chronology of Acts 1-9

Last November, I posted on Chronology of the Gospels (28 to 33 AD) and also on Pauline Chronology (34 to 64 AD). What I did not point out (and nobody asked) at the time, is that this gives us less than a year for the events of Acts 1-9. Here's how that works out, as best as we can probably say:

Paul's Damascus experience must have been some weeks before Passover of 34 AD, and the Church's explosion at Pentecost took place on Sunday May 24 in 33 AD. (The Sadducees always held Pentecost on a Sunday, and if the lunar observers were accurate that year, the Pharisees' preferred date would have also fallen on Sunday, that year.) Together, that gives us about eight months into which we must squeeze about nine chapters of Acts.

Next, we consider logistics. After Stephen gets stoned, we need (1) time for believers to scatter as far as Damascus, (2) time for the Damascene Jews to get good and seriously bothered by those relocated Christians, (3) time for those Damascene Jews to complain to Jerusalem, or at least for word to come back to Jerusalem, (4) time for the Sanhedrin to discuss things and make the not-light decision to authorize (in writing!) an unsanctioned extradition across regional boundary lines, and (5) time for Paul to actually embark on the journey and get to somewhere north of Galilee.

Item (4) could have been very quick, despite the risk involved, and item (5) would have been just a few days. The first three items, however, could have easily taken two or three months. Given that range, the Chanukah festival seems like the most logical time for the news from Damascus to come to the Sanhedrin's ears. In 33 AD, that's the 2nd week of December. Back up one or two months from that, and we can suppose the latest possible scattering might belong in October/November.

This is the most we can say from strict chronological data & estimating.


Although I firmly believe that strictly theological or prophetic interpretations should not be relied upon in determining chronology - in this case, we may have a unique opportunity.

If Stephen was stoned on the Day of Atonement (as I have just suggested) then the subsequent events would stand clearly as (one) typological fulfillment of the scapegoat (the scattered church, sent into the wilderness, bearing the guilt of the Jerusalemites on their heads) and the Sukkot (God putting up temporary dwellings for himself, in various places, spiritual houses made up of believers, meaning God's Tabernacle with Man (and Testimony on Earth) had become mobile again). If we can accept that as a clear parallel to the other typological fulfillment(s) of the year 33 AD (the lambs and sheaf at Passover; the loaf and 'firstfruits' at Pentecost), then we might confirm a strong suspicion, at least, that the scattering occurred in late September.

In 33 AD, Yom Kippur fell on (or near) September 23rd. That would make Yom Kippur the 123rd day of the early church, counting Pentecost Sunday as day 1. Four months is a very short period of time into which we must squeeze Acts 2-6, but the events of those chapters offer no resistance at all to this apparently necessary task. There is minimal activity, maximum hostility, and the animosity against Stephen makes all the more sense in this context.

Put Acts 7 at the end of one long, hot summer during which Christianity began, swelled and surged on the [true] *rumors* that Jesus, whom the Sanhedrin got Pilate to crucify, was actually alive. Imagine the political gambit of Gamaliel failing to maintain it's effectiveness for more than a few weeks. Imagine the Council growing more and more furious as reports of healings, miraculous prison escapes, people dropping dead, and the apostles' continued trips - daily - into Solomon's Porch.

In such a case, Stephen and the scattered believers really were a scapegoat. Somewhere, deep down, Annas & Caiaphas must have been working to stifle a creeping suspicion that they had actually been fighting against God. That they'd truly connived a way of murdering God's Messiah. But admitting that conclusion for certain would involve too much guilt. They had to appease themselves of that guilt. That had to put it on someone else's head.

In this context, the crescendo of Stephen's speech was merely a trigger. The Sanhedrin's leaders were about ready to blow anyway. They just couldn't take it anymore.

One last detail - if the Ethiopian Eunuch was traveling home after coming up for the High Holy Days, then Philip may have evangelized Samaria immediately after the scattering, and departed from there within less than two weeks. The autumn festivals were the most popular in those days, and they are the most likely occasion for the Eunuch's trip. That he would have stayed at Jerusalem also means this trip should have taken place in this year, 33 AD, when Christianity was the number one story around town. Thus, the most likely occasion for the Eunuch's departure is not just evidence for Philip's timeline. This also adds weight to the conclusion that Stephen was stoned on the day of the Fast.

And now - because people keep asking - why does any of this matter?

There are many potential, and potentially very significant, applications of all this. For today, I'll merely ask questions: How might accepting this incredibly brief timeline affect our interpretation of Acts 1-6? Of God's relative pleasure with the Petrine leadership of that phase in the church? Of ecclesiology that prefers giving more weight to early Jerusalem that it does to a more Pauline model? Of the perennially sensational predictions that Jesus must be coming back each September/October? Such questions must remain open for now.

As for me, I love this Story not because of what implications I find therein, but because I find it to be convincing, delightful, consistent with all the known facts, dramatic, challenging, and - most of all - incredibly glorifying of God's Purpose. I love this part of the NT Story for that reason, above all else.

For the record - this post comprises the linchpin of my own contribution in New Testament Chronology. It was the last piece of the puzzle I worked out, in 2005/2006. It is the last piece I have waited until now to blog about. Most of whatever I have left to blog about will aim to deepen, challenge, support, enhance, question, revisit, and work through again - more rigorously each year, I hope - all these conclusions I've posted about previously.

As always, I greatly covet your feedback in all of these areas.

Thanks for reading. This is still NOT EVEN CLOSE to the end...

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