Monday, April 23, 2012

The Most Misused Scripture in the World


Acts 4:12 is one of those texts that divides people of faith. The NRSV translation is this: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
On the one hand, this verse seems to be a clear statement declaring Jesus Christ to be the sole path to salvation. It is frequently cited as the proof text of that claim and becomes a test of whether one is willing to follow the plain teachings of the Scriptures or not.

On the other hand, this verse seems to bring out the worst of Christian triumphalism and intolerance. It has been used to deny the legitimacy of any other form of faith or religious insight, even those religions which would have been unknown to Peter when he made this claim. That is why I think of it as the most misused Scripture in the world.

I want to offer a close reading of Acts 4:5-12, with particular attention to the larger context of the story, which begins in c.3 with the healing of the lame man as the Beautiful Gate. Below are my exegesis and rough translation, including some word studies, followed by my own interpretation of this entire text, but especially 4:12. I welcome your reactions and comments.

5 Ἐγένετο δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν αὔριον συναχθῆναι αὐτῶν τοὺς ἄρχοντας καὶ τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους καὶ τοὺς γραμματεῖς ἐν Ἰερουσαλήμ
Yet it happened on the next day their rulers and the elders and the scribes were gathered in Jerusalem. 
Ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen
συναχθῆναι: APInf, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather  1a) to draw together, collect
I’m never sure quite how to translate εγένετο. This is the term that the KJV would often translate as “It came to pass …” By using “it happened,” I do not mean to imply that this is merely a coincidence that the leaders gathered the next day. My feeling is that the Gospel writers use this term as a way of moving the story along, not as a way of ascribing causality. So, here it would not mean that the council “just happened” to meet. They seem to be meeting to deal with the problem of the disciples. 

6 {καὶ Αννας ὁ ἀρχιερεὺς καὶ Καϊάφας καὶ Ἰωάννης καὶ Ἀλέξανδρος καὶ ὅσοι ἦσαν ἐκ γένους ἀρχιερατικοῦ}
{and Annas the High Priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander and those who were out of the lineage of the high priest.} 
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present

7 καὶ στήσαντες αὐτοὺς ἐν τῷ μέσῳ ἐπυνθάνοντο, Ἐν ποίᾳ δυνάμει ἢ ἐν ποίῳ ὀνόματι ἐποιήσατε τοῦτο ὑμεῖς;
And placing them in the midst they were inquiring, “In what power or in what name did you do this thing?” 
στήσαντες: AAPart npm, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set  1a) to bid to stand by, [set up]  1a1) in the presence of others, in the midst, before judges,  before members of the Sanhedrin;
ἐπυνθάνοντο: IMI 3p, πυνθάνομαι, 1) to enquire, ask  2) to ascertain, by enquiry
ἐποιήσατε: AAI 2p, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.  1b) to be the authors of, the cause
This is the question that sets up the provocative answer that Peter gives in v.12. In what power or in what name did you do this thing, i.e. the healing of the man who was lame. 

8 τότε Πέτρος πλησθεὶς πνεύματος ἁγίου εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς, Ἄρχοντες τοῦ λαοῦ καὶ πρεσβύτεροι,
Then Peter, full [of] a spirit of holiness, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders,  
πλησθεὶς: APPart nsm,
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain

9 εἰ ἡμεῖς σήμερον ἀνακρινόμεθα ἐπὶ εὐεργεσίᾳ ἀνθρώπου ἀσθενοῦς, ἐν τίνι οὗτος σέσωται,
if we today are being examined because of a good deed to an infirmed man, in this one who has been healed, 
ἀνακρινόμεθα: PPI 1p, ἀνακρίνω, 1) examine or judge  1a) to investigate, examine, enquire into, scrutinise, sift, question
σέσωται: PerfPI 3s, σῴζω 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction  1a) one (from injury or peril)  1a1) to save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one  suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health  1b1) to preserve one who is in danger of destruction,  to save or rescue  1b) to save in the technical biblical sense
The key term at work here is σῴζω. It is sometimes translated as “to save,” but its primary meaning is “to rescue from danger” and a secondary definition is to “heal.” The context determines the best translation. 

10 γνωστὸν ἔστω πᾶσιν ὑμῖν καὶ παντὶ τῷ λαῷ Ἰσραὴλ ὅτι ἐν τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ τοῦ Ναζωραίου, ὃν ὑμεῖς ἐσταυρώσατε, ὃν ὁ θεὸς ἤγειρεν ἐκ νεκρῶν, ἐν τούτῳ οὗτος παρέστηκεν ἐνώπιον ὑμῶν ὑγιής.
“Let it be known to each of you and to all of the people of Israel that in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, whom you crucified, whom God raised out of death, in him this man has stood before you well.
ἔστω: PAImpv 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐσταυρώσατε: AAI 2p, σταυρόω, 1) to stake, drive down stakes  2) to fortify with driven stakes, to palisade  3) to crucify
ἤγειρεν: AAI 3s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  1b) to arouse from the sleep of death, to recall the dead to life
παρέστηκεν: PerfAI 3s, παρίστημι, 1) to place beside or near  1a) to set at hand  1a1) to present  1a2) to proffer  1a3) to provide  1a4) to place a person or thing at one's disposal  1a5) to present a person for another to see and question
There is a lot going on in this verse, but the principle of healing seems to be at stake here. They crucified Jesus, God raise Jesus from the dead. This man was infirmed (ἀσθενοῦς), in the name of Jesus he is well (ὑγιής). Because Jesus is the one who was raised out of crucifixion, Jesus’ name is now a power that can make one well out of infirmity. 

11οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ λίθος ὁ ἐξουθενηθεὶς ὑφ' ὑμῶν τῶν οἰκοδόμων, ὁ γενόμενος εἰς κεφαλὴν γωνίας.
He is the stone which was rejected by you the builders, who has become a head of a corner. 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s,
ἐξουθενηθεὶς: APPart nsm, ἐξουθενέω, 1) to make of no account, despise utterly
γενόμενος: AMPart nsm, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen
The opposing participles, “was rejected” (ἐξουθενηθεὶς) and “has become” (γενόμενος) continue to contrasts between the crucified/raised and infirmed/well. This may be the most powerful means of understanding that versatile word σῴζω: That which was not has become that which is. The song “Amazing Grace” picks up nicely on this contrast, using “saved” and “wretch”; “lost” and “found”; “blind” and “see.”

12καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν ἄλλῳ οὐδενὶ ἡ σωτηρία, οὐδὲ γὰρ ὄνομά ἐστιν ἕτερον ὑπὸ τὸν οὐρανὸν τὸ δεδομένον ἐν ἀνθρώποις ἐν ᾧ δεῖ σωθῆναι ἡμᾶς.
And healing is not in not another, for no name is other under the heaven which has been given in humanity in which it is necessary for us to be healed.
ἔστιν (2x): PAI 3s,
δεδομένον: PerfPPart nmn, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone  2a) of one's own accord to give one something, to his advantage  2a1) to bestow a gift  2b) to grant, give to one asking, let have
δεῖ: PAI 3s, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten  1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains  1b) metaph.
σωθῆναι: APInf, σῴζω 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction  1a) one (from injury or peril)  1a1) to save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one  suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health  1b1) to preserve one who is in danger of destruction,  to save or rescue  1b) to save in the technical biblical sense
The word δεῖ is often used to denote destiny, that which must happen. Sometimes it is simply translated as “must.” The definition shows that the word is derived from something that is “bound.” See particularly, Luke 17:25, 24:7 and 24:44. 

It seems to me that this text often misinterpreted. The problem lies with translation as well as with interpretation (activities which are often intertwined.) Below are three arguments that I offer for why Acts 4:12 should not be used as an argument that Christianity is the only path to God.

1. The exegesis:
The word σῴζω in vv. 9 and 12 is key here. As I have noted above, it is technically possible to translate/interpret σῴζω as “saved.” But, it can also mean “rescue,” “heal,” etc. and the context is typically what determines the interpretative translation. In this story, the context is clearly a healing, not salvation. The question, then, is “Why do most translations interpret this word as “saved” in Acts 4:12?”
It is a difficult question and one cannot read the minds of the translators to answer it. If I were pressed, I would suggest that it reflects an air of Christian triumphalism, but I am hesitant to ascribe such motives to biblical translators, because it is such an arduous and careful task.
John Calvin argues that Peter is moving from the specific to the general, the species [healing] to the genus [salvation]. Why Calvin decided that Peter is making this shift is left unexplained and, in my opinion, baseless from the text. It is a theological insertion, not an exegetical observation.
My issue with translators regarding this text is that by simply putting “saved/salvation” in v.12 as their translation of σῴζω, they give the impression that Peter has changed topics without any textual reason for that judgment.

2. The dynamics of power:
The confrontation here has some interesting power dynamics. On the one side, Luke names the offices of those who are conducting the inquiry: Rulers, Elders and Scribes. He gives proper names: Annas, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and those who were from the priestly lineage. We’ve seen these people before. In Luke 9:22, Jesus says, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised." In Luke 20:1-19, the chief priests, elders and scribes come to Jesus and ask by what authority he is doing what he is doing. It is here that Jesus cites Psalm 118:22 about the stone which the builders reject, which has returned to become the cornerstone (Lk.20:17-18). And they perceive that Jesus has spoken this parable about them.

On the other side, there are Peter and John. Verse 14 sets the tone for the power dynamics over this whole chapter: “The perceived that they are unlettered and ignorant men.” The phrase in Greek is suggestive, ἀγράμματοί καὶ ἰδιῶται. These are plural nouns, which if we transliterated them into English adjectives would be “a-grammatical and idiotic.”

This whole inquiry is rooted in the assumption that the ruling judges are looking down at powerless idiots. The irony is that the powerless idiots have something that the ruling judges don’t: The name of Jesus, whom these judges had rejected, but who has now returned with power. And the undeniable evidence against the judges is simply a man, who was once lame and is not walking. William Willimon does a nice job of picking up on this power dynamic in his Interpretation commentary on Acts. He completely ignores v.12, but he picks up on the power dynamics rather well. Walter Wink explains the power dynamics very well in an article entitled “Those Obstreperous Idiots” in The Christian Century (1994).

The power dynamics, however, are important for how one employs v.12 today. The church is no longer this powerless gaggle of unlearned folk. While it may be true that the church has lost a lot of its power and reputation over the years (for details, see virtually every Christian blogger in the world), we still live on this side of history, where the Roman Emperor became the “Holy Roman Emperor”; where the crusades and inquisition were sanctioned in the name of Christ; where churches sanctioned kings and kings sanctioned churches. It seems to me that those of us living on this side of history cannot simply parrot Acts 4:12 as if we are one with Peter and John. The church, too often, has been the ruling institution on the wrong side of the judgment bench. It seems like the worst form of irresponsible ignoring of history for someone today to simply repeat Acts 4:12 without any regard for how far away we have moved from the position that Peter and John were in. [Of course, people will always employ that supposedly impervious defense, “The Word of God says …,” forgetting that even the Devil can quote scripture.]

3. The Point:
The point of this text is not to provide Christian triumphalism with a slogan, but to proclaim that the grand reversal of the resurrection – the rejected stone has become the cornerstone – is precisely the power of making broken lives whole. “The name of Jesus” is neither a magical incantation nor a slogan for intolerance regarding other religious paths. It is the way. The way is the way of humility and self-giving, it is the way of eschewing coercive power. It is the way of laying down one’s life for others, of taking up the cross, of being a follower of Jesus. It is either awful irony or utter blasphemy to take this verse – extolling the healing power of the name of Jesus – and using it as a bludgeoning weapon of Christian dominion. Rant over.

Okay, rant not quite over … the saddest part of the misuse of Acts 4:12 is that it has spoiled a lovely verse. People of good will often recoil from this verse entirely. But, if we hear it rightly, it is a way of saying that when Jesus, the rejected stone, was resurrected to become the chief cornerstone, his path of rejection-to-restoration has promise to all who are broken and in need of being made whole. I think we can redeem this text (so to speak) by staying with the word “heal” or “made whole” for σῴζω, keeping with the story of the healed man at the heart of it.

13 comments:

  1. I think we have our next topic for Inglorious Pastors--I am going to a Christian-Muslim dialogue on Sunday at Creighton, and it should be interesting. It is an a roundtable format with various clergy, scholars, and laity talking about issues that unite and divide Christians and Muslims. As always, you teach me more than I can ever hope to repay. Peace Brother.

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  2. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, provocative insights and exegetical "rants". In this passage/verse, I myself have read/interpreted "salvation" as not unlike "shalom" encompassing healing, wholeness and well-being in the meaning. And similarly, my understanding resonates with your point toward the end regarding "the name of Jesus":

    "The way is the way of humility and self-giving, it is the way of eschewing coercive power. It is the way of laying down one’s life for others, of taking up the cross, of being a follower of Jesus."

    Amen!

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  3. Thanks Scott and Rex. Glad to have the two of you as conversation partners.

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  4. Mark, thank you for your sensitive and intelligent (and very helpful) commentary. I sincerely hope that you will deal with John 14:6 sometime here (if you have not done so already)

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  5. Thanks Gregg. I've been sticking to the lectionary's gospel texts most weeks, but may take a close look at John 14 at some point. I remember studying it in the past and really gaining new awe over it. Now, I can't remember why!

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  6. Part of the problem is surely the Christian obsession with a "pie in the sky" soteriology (e.g. heaven after you die and face judgment) and a lack of appreciation for the salvation that is here and now (e.g. former lame person now walking). Great work. This was helpful.

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  7. was doing a bit of study on this passage and found your treatment VERY helpful. wanted to say a big "thank you" for this. i appreciate your desire to deal with the salvation/healing translation with a commitment to the context rather than the theological need to turn this into some kind of "Jesus rules" slogan. your "rant" is beautiful and inspiring. at least to me. thank you.

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  8. Jesse and Gregory,
    Thanks for your comments. Look forward to continue our study of texts together.
    Mark

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  9. Also remember the story about Zaccheus the tax collector. When Zaccheus promised to repay everyone he had defrauded, and more, Jesus proclaimed, "Today salvation (healing) has come to this house." Salvation/healing happens every day in countless ways, not only in the sweet bye and bye.

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  10. I agree that the word-play is far more subtle than usually interpreted. But I think Calvin's comment does bear some reflection. As I read it, the Greek refers to he soteria, a substantive noun, not, for instance the gerund, healing. In the context of the time, there were two other explicit sources of soteria, namely the gods (e.g. Zeus, Artemis--Pauls' nemesis) and the Roman emperor. Might not Peter be saying to the Jewish assembly (and, by extension, our author Luke to his Roman-ruled Greek audience) that they are healing not in the name of a heathen god or earthly ruler but in the name of their own God, the God of Moses and the Psalms, in this case.
    But I totally agree that to extend this to say there are no other ways to God is not warranted by the text.

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  11. Thanks for this. I'm the last minute preacher because of a death in the family of one of our pastors. Taking the approach of leaving the campsite the same or better than when I arrived in this case! I especially appreciated your comments on "sohdzoh" and the emphasis on healing. There's also a cultural connection to "shalom" as used prophetically in the Hebrew scriptures.

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  12. Thanks for this. I'm the last minute preacher because of a death in the family of one of our pastors. Taking the approach of leaving the campsite the same or better than when I arrived in this case! I especially appreciated your comments on "sohdzoh" and the emphasis on healing. There's also a cultural connection to "shalom" as used prophetically in the Hebrew scriptures.

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  13. Dafydd, your comments were very helpful to me. A friend of mine did some extensive word searches regarding the various words that Luke uses to describe the lame man's healing, and it is certainly more than meets the eye.
    I found myself thinking that, exegetically, I would prefer to keep soteria as 'healing' within the context of the story. But, hermeneutically, it certainly points beyond physical healing to a more wholistic sort of rescue. In my sermon, I opened with the sideview mirror that reads, "Objects are larger than they appear" to say that the words in this story are larger than they appear. Even the explicit 'healing' words point to someone whose life was renewed, not just the mending of bones and muscles.
    Thanks again for your comments.

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