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Rethinking Luke’s Purpose: The Effect of First-Century Social Conflict*

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This article addresses the issue of Luke’s authorial purpose for the composition of the Luke-Acts literature. Observing that existing theories are inadequate in that they fail to provide a comprehensive cohesive program for the literature’s content and are anachronistically complex, the article suggests an authorial purpose paradigm natural to the early Jesus movement’s status as a newly emerging society. Through application of Berger and Luckmann’s sociology of knowledge models, this article argues that reading Luke-Acts as the author’s legitimation of the Jesus movement’s social world is a valid, even preferred reading of the literature. By tracing key elements in the development of Luke’s legitimation conceptual machinery, the social conflict background is established–further indicating that it is the social conflicts that motivated the document’s writing and organized its content. This article lays a foundation for Luke’s legitimating strategy, which was in response to a purity conflict theme. It is argued that this was Luke’s primary purpose for writing Luke-Acts.

1. fn68* This article is derived from a doctoral dissertation presented by the author at the University of South Africa in the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Studies.
2. fn1** Randy J. Hedlun (DTh, University of South Africa) is Vice Provost and Professor of Bible and Theology at Global University in Springfield, MO, USA.
3. fn21 Lucian of Samasota, ‘Works of Lucian, Volume II: The Way to Write History’, Internet Sacred Text Archive, 114 [Cited 4 November 2008]. Online: Lucian criticizes the classification of eulogy as history, as well as what he deems the inappropriate identification of ‘the agreeable’ as a subcategory of history: ‘History has only one concern and aim, and that is the useful; which again has one single source, and that is truth’.
4. fn32 Lucian, ‘Works’, p. 114.
5. fn43 Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1966).
6. fn54 Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967).
7. fn65 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 96.
8. fn76 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, pp. 61-62; Berger, Sacred Canopy, pp. 31–32, 35–47.
9. fn87 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 33.
10. fn98 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, pp. 95-96. ‘All the sectors of the institutional order are integrated in an all-embracing frame of reference, which now constitutes a universe in the literal sense of the word, because all human experience can now be conceived of as taking place within it’.
11. fn109 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 105.
12. fn1110 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 35. ‘All legitimation serves to maintain reality—reality, that is, as defined in a particular human collectivity’.
13. fn1211 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 62.
14. fn1312 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 107.
15. fn1413 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 108.
16. fn1514 Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles. A Sociological Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Robert L. Brawley, Luke-Acts and the Jews: Conflict, Apology, and Conciliation (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987).
17. fn1615 Watson, Paul, Judaism, p. 40.
18. fn1716 Brawly, Luke-Acts and the Jews, p. 55.
19. fn1817 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 108.
20. fn1918 Jerome H. Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts: “They Turn the World Upside Down”’, in J. Neyrey (ed.), The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), pp. 271-304.
21. fn2019 Iutisone Salevao, Legitimation in the Letter to the Hebrews: The Construction and Maintenance of a Symbolic Universe (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002). Salevao provides an excellent review and summary of much of the discussion about Christianity’s emergence within and separation from Judaism.
22. fn2120 Pieter F. Craffert, ‘The Pauline Movement and First-Century Judaism: A Framework for Transforming the Issues’, Neotestamentica 27 (1993), pp. 233-62. An increasing volume of scholarship demonstrates that a monolithic and normative Judaism simply did not exist during the first century CE. Instead of speaking of ‘Judaism’ as defining an Israelite religion, we should speak of ‘Judaisms’ to represent the numerous groups and movements that comprised Yahweh worship.
23. fn2221 Brawly, Luke-Acts and the Jews, pp. 5, 127-30; Nicholas H Taylor, ‘Jerusalem and the Temple in Early Christian Life and Teaching’, Neotestamentica 33.2 (1999), p. 454; Philip F. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 150.
24. fn2322 Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe’, p. 277. Compare to Brawly, Luke-Acts and the Jews, p. 130: ‘The belief in a specific location for contact between heaven and earth so pervades antiquity, that it provides the vantage point for understanding the place of the temple and Jerusalem in Luke-Acts. Jerusalem stands at the center of salvation-history because it also stands at the central point of the contact between heaven and earth. Almost any of Luke’s contemporaries would have seen beneath the symbolism of Jerusalem the presupposition that it marked the axis mundi’.
25. fn2423 Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction, p. 109.
26. fn2524 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 33.
27. fn2625 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 34.
28. fn2726 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge, 1970), p. 158.
29. fn2827 Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 132. Esler states: ‘The striking prominence of the Temple in Luke-Acts is, without a shadow of a doubt, a phenomenon which must be taken into account in attempting to understand Luke’s purpose and strategy. Yet this fact has not been entirely obvious to many scholars who have considered the matter’.
30. fn2928 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 37.
31. fn3029 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 37.
32. fn3130 Philip L. Schuler ‘The Rhetorical Character of Luke 1–2’, in Richard P. Thompson and Thomas E. Phillips (eds.), Literary Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays in Honor of Joseph B. Tyson (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998), pp. 177-79. Shuler demonstrates Luke’s employment in the first two Gospel chapters of the encomium rhetorical rules in pointing the reader to the superiority of Jesus over John as figures in the narrative. Although Jesus’ legitimacy relative to the Baptist’s is peripheral to this discussion, it shows Luke’s interest in legitimation as a literary purpose.
33. fn3231 Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe’, pp. 271-304. Neyrey presents an excellent analysis of Luke’s perspective on Jesus’ purity remapping, defining Jesus and his followers as intent on redrawing purity boundaries, not demolishing them. Jesus’ influence as a reformer drew strong reaction from observant Jews motivated to defend the existing purity map. Neyrey’s contention is that conflicts over purity boundaries ‘account for most of the conflictual dynamics in Luke-Acts’. In other words, it is Jesus’ attempts to reform the Israelite symbolic universe and the temple authorities’ resistance to this reform that provides Neyrey’s interpretive model for conflict passages in Luke-Acts.
34. fn3332 James M. Dawsey, ‘Confrontation in the Temple: Luke 19:45-47’, Perspectives in Religious Studies 11 (1984), pp. 153-65. Dawsey rightly notes that an official representation of the Sanhedrin is indicated here, and their intent was to invalidate Jesus’ teaching. That the challenge fails and actually results in Jesus’ parabolic defense of his authority to the people signals Luke’s legitimation strategy—the legitimacy of Jesus’ authority as an intermediary of God is demonstrated, and that over against the authority (and legitimacy) of the temple system.
35. fn3433 G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), pp. 190-91. Whether the inner or outer veil is indicated is irrelevant to this discussion. See Beale for a concise but adequate discussion of this issue. The significant issue to this study regarding the veil is its symbolic role as a boundary between God’s presence and humanity and the symbolism resulting from its destruction.
36. fn3534 Philip F. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 150.
37. fn3635 The Gospel narrative closes with the statement that Jesus’ followers were ‘continually in the temple praising God’ (Lk. 24.53). This statement, together with the Jesus’ group’s temple activities (such as temple prayer) in the first chapters of Acts, clearly indicates that Luke is not suggesting that the temple has been rejected by the Jesus group. This article argues that Luke’s legitimation purpose is only demonstrating that the temple is no longer exclusive in its cosmological status as axis mundi. The issues germane to replacement theology are beyond the scope of this study. There is an abundance of literature addressing the Jesus group’s attitude toward the temple and whether the Jesus community is to be understood as a new temple, replacing the Jerusalem temple.
38. fn3736 Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 150; Joel B. Green, ‘The Demise of the Temple as Culture Center in Luke-Acts: An Exploration of the Rending of the Temple Veil (Luke 23:44-49)’, Revue Biblique 101 (1994), pp. 495-515. Green’s words are helpful here: ‘The torn veil works symbolically to neutralize the dominance of the temple as a sacred symbol of socio-religious power predetermining insider and outsider’ and ‘Luke portrays the rending of the temple veil as symbolic of the destruction of the symbolic world surrounding and emanating from the temple, and not as symbolic of the destruction of the temple itself’. Contra J. Bradley Chance, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the New Age in Luke-Acts (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988), p. 122. Chance sees the rent veil as representing for Luke the destruction of the temple.
39. fn3837 Dennis D. Sylva, ‘The Meaning and Function of Acts 7:46-50’, Journal of Biblical Literature 106.2 (1987), p. 249, n. 25. See also Klaus Balzer, ‘The Meaning of the Temple in Lukan Writings’, Harvard Theological Review 58 (1965), pp. 263-77. Baltzer argues that God did withdraw his presence from the temple and Jerusalem and bases this conclusion on Luke 13.35. Compare to Nicholas H. Taylor, ‘Jerusalem and the Temple in Early Christian Life and Teaching’, Neotestamentica 33.2 (1999), pp. 453-54.
40. fn3938 Green, ‘The Demise of the Temple’, pp. 496, 511. For a concise treatment of the Antiquity’s symbolic association of the Jerusalem temple with the cosmos, see G.K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God. New Studies in Biblical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), pp. 45-50. It is of no doubt that Luke’s account of the veil’s destruction signaled cosmic implications.
41. fn4039 Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, p. 189. For a discussion of recognition found in early literature of the cosmic portents surrounding the crucifixion, see Marinus deJonge, ‘Two Interesting Interpretations of the Rending of the Temple-Veil in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs’, Bijdragen 46 (1985), pp. 350-62.
42. fn4140 It may not have been lost on Luke’s readers that the veil itself was adorned with a graphic depiction of the cosmos—sun, moon and stars.
43. fn4241 See Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission, pp. 205-208; Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (SP, 6: Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), pp. 45-47.
44. fn4342 ‘Luke wants to make clear that this coming of the Spirit was a divine act. He does this through the language and phenomena of a theophany in [Acts] 2:2. The noise comes from heaven, i.e., from God, and both the wind and fire are the accompaniments of a theophany. Wind is mentioned in 2 Samuel 22:11, 16; Job 37:9, 10; Ezekiel 13:13. Fire is a common feature in theophanies and is an integral element of the theophany at Sinai—Exodus 19:18. Though the Exodus account does not mention wind as well at Sinai, other versions do, such as Josephus, Ant. 3.80. Philo, De Decal. 33 mentions the noise created by God’s pneuma, breath or wind. Luke understandably uses the term pnoē for wind, instead of pneuma, which he uses for the Spirit himself, and in the only other place he uses pnoē (Acts 17:25) it means the creative breath of God. … it is clearly miraculous, direct, unmediated, divine’. A.T. Lincoln, ‘Theology and History in the Interpretation of Luke’s Pentecost’, The Expository Times 96 (1985), pp. 204-209 (205).
45. fn4443 Fire functioned in both Israelite and non-Israelite sacrifices as a purifying and consuming energy force (TDNT, 6; pp. 931-47). The significance of the fire resting on individuals would not have been lost on Luke’s readers, Jews and Gentiles, as purification for the imminent contact with holiness.
46. fn4544 Pieter W. Van der Horst, ‘Hellenistic Parallels to the Acts of the Apostles 2:1-47’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 25 (1985), pp. 49-60.
47. fn4645 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostle (AB, 30; New York: Doubleday, 1998), pp. 432-33; Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 48. Fitzmyer and Johnson make this argument well.
48. fn4746 Watson, Paul, Judaism and the Gentiles, p. 40. Watson, in articulating models for the analysis of reform movements and their transformation into sects, states that reinterpretation of a movement’s traditions is vital to an emerging sect’s ‘ideology legitimating its separation from a society’ and ‘the traditions must therefore be reinterpreted to apply exclusively to the sect’. This is not to suggest Luke is legitimating the Jesus group’s separation from the greater Israelite society, but to reinforce Luke’s inclusion of Stephen’s speech as a common, even necessary, legitimating element within his conceptual machinery.
49. fn4847 Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 196.
50. fn4948 Brawley, Luke-Acts and the Jews, p. 281. Brawley challenges Shepherd’s characterization of the Holy Spirit in Luke’s narrative. Shepherd argues that the Holy Spirit is the on-stage presence representing the off-stage God. Brawley’s contention is that Luke uses the Holy Spirit as the on-stage God, participating in the narrative.
51. fn5049 David DeSilva, Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 250-53.
52. fn5150 Reinterpreting Israel’s history as uniquely applying to the Jesus movement was clearly part of Luke’s formula, but not so overtly that his non-Israelite readers would be disenfranchised from his legitimating arguments.
53. fn5251 Neyrey, ‘The Symbolic Universe of Luke-Acts’, p. 293.
54. fn5352 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 33.
55. fn5453 Berger, Sacred Canopy, p. 36.
56. fn5554 Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, pp. 54-55. Johnson, while not promoting the legitimation value of Peter’s speech, reviews Luke’s sophisticated rhetorical construction in this speech, effectively reinterpreting Israel’s Scriptures as uniquely applying to the recipients of Pentecost’s cosmic convulsions.
57. fn5655 ‘The complexities of moral judgments that typify a complex society are resolved into a series of binary oppositions: poor-rich, good-evil, pious-hypocrite, elect-damned’. J.G. Gager, Kingdom and Community: The Social World of Early Christianity (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1975), p. 25.
58. fn5756 This opinion that Stephen’s speech is Luke’s narrative capstone to the legitimating purpose of the first major section of Acts is furthered by the absence of any Gospel kerygma as is evident in Peter’s previous speeches. In other words, Luke is using Stephen’s speech for a purpose other than to articulate the teachings of Jesus (the gospel) or as an apology for his messiahship. See James D.G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism and their Significance for the Character of Christianity (London: SCM Press, 1991), p. 64.
59. fn5857 Edvin Larsson, ‘Temple-Criticism and the Jewish Heritage: Some Reflections on Acts 6–7’, New Testament Studies 39 (1993), pp. 379-95. Larsson senses the legitimating purpose of Stephen’s speech in his statement that Stephen’s speech is ‘Luke’s way of depicting the fundamental difference between (unbelieving) Judaism and Christianity. In this sense it could be seen as an apology … for the church’.
60. fn5958 T.L. Donaldson, ‘Moses Typology and the Sectarian Nature of Early Christian Anti-Judaism: A Study of Acts 7’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 12 (1981), pp. 27-52.
61. fn6059 Donaldson, ‘Moses Typology’, p. 33. Donaldson, in characterizing Stephen’s speech within a discussion considering its possible Samaritan source, states that Stephen’s speech is in ‘opposition to any form of localized center of worship’.
62. fn6160 Francis D. Weinert, ‘Luke, Stephen, and the Temple in Luke-Acts’, Biblical Theology Bulletin 17 (1987), pp. 88-90.
63. fn6261 Bruce Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), p. 60. On resorting to violence as an admission of defeat in public challenge-riposte, see also Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), pp. 191-92.
64. fn6362 Andy Reimer, Miracle and Magic: A Study in the Acts of the Apostles and the Life of Apollonius of Tyana (JSNTSup; London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 90, 94.
65. fn6463 Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion (trans. Ephraim Fischoff; Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 46-47. Weber describes the sociological characteristics related to performing miracles (by individuals proclaiming a religious doctrine or divine commandment) thus: ‘the bearers of new doctrine practically always needed such validation’.
66. fn6564 Douglas, Purity and Danger, pp. 63-67.
67. fn6665 Derrett, Ananias, Sapphira, pp. 229-30.
68. fn6766 I am convinced Zechariah’s muteness was punitive. When he asked the angel how he would know this could happen, the angel’s response states that Gabriel’s presence alone should have convinced Zechariah (Lk. 1.18, 19). Luke 1.20 clearly states that the muteness was inflicted because of Zechariah’s failure to believe. In the very place where Zechariah should have anticipated the manifest presence of holiness, he failed to believe–thus violating that sacred place and his sacred vocational trust.

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