"Transmissions of Prophecy in the Acts of the Apostles"

Willie Young
Endicott College

In the Acts of the Apostles, Pentecost is a turning point in the narrative, marking the transition from Jesus' ministry to the disciples' accession to leadership. Simultaneously, it marks a defining moment in God's story, in which God demonstrates faithfulness to Israel and moves to gather in the Gentiles. The transmission of prophecy, in Pentecost, is thus a definitive moment for the life of the nascent Christian community and its understanding of God.

For scriptural reasoning, there are several issues in this text that are particularly significant. First, there is the issue of how prophecy is understood. In his speech, Peter interprets the event of Pentecost in light of prophetic texts, (apparently) reading them through a promise-fulfillment scheme central to much of Luke's theology. In his speech, and in Lukan scriptures more broadly, we see the seeds of an emphasis on prophecy as anticipation of the future - which often becomes the most central aspect of Christian understandings of prophecy. While issues of repentance, justice, and reconciliation with God are present in these texts, they often are treated as secondary, receding before the rhetorical force of the fulfillment of promises. While, as I will discuss below, the relation between this text and the promise-fulfillment scheme is ambiguous, this understanding of prophecy has undoubtedly been central for much of Christian interpretation.

A topic for discussion, then, is how the understanding of prophecy—both in what it means, and how it is misheard—set forth in this text relates to those found in the Jewish and Muslim scriptures under discussion. As a way into this issue, I will read the text in light of an interpretation of prophecy set forth by Emmanuel Levinas: that prophecy is when the other speaks in me—it is a mode of being where the other occupies and possesses oneself, unsettling the temporality that simply looks toward a definite future.1 How does Peter's reading let others speak, opening to an infinite past and future? Which others are able to speak, and does the text make space for other voices, even if they are not directly located in Luke's own writing?

A second issue is how this pouring out of the Spirit relates to other scriptural passages and practices—in other words, does Peter appropriately appropriate prophecy, in his reading of Joel? Luke's use of figural interpretation is very close to Paul, and Luke Timothy Johnson has recently argued that it also bears strong affinities to midrash.2 Exploring how Luke reads Joel and the Psalms, as an example of early figural reading that is both close to and different from midrash, may help to unpack how figural reading relates to scriptural reasoning. The interpretation of prophecy can illuminate interpretive practices and presuppositions, and perhaps thereby open a conversation on the hermeneutics by which our communities understand prophecy.

Since this is the participatory session, I will try to incorporate different practices of scriptural reasoning in what follows. This involves several procedures: reading the texts in community with others (in my case, as part of the SR Theory Group); considering lexical and exegetical issues (these points will be prominent in the references, in large part because I am not a text scholar); reading the texts in light of traditions of commentary upon them; and finally, considering how these texts, and our readings of them, relate to the other texts and readings under discussion here. I will say that while in scriptural reasoning, we often treat traditional commentaries as sites for retrieval, to help inform our readings, at least for the commentaries I'm working with this is not quite the case: in either their unitary meaning and reliance on the promise-fulfillment scheme, or their exclusionary or supersessionist interpretation, I did not find the commentaries particularly helpful. Still, at each stage, there is room for discussion and reflection, and all that follows is to get this started.

I. Hearing Voices

In Acts 2, Pentecost is an event of the Spirit. All of those in the early community—numbering approximately 120—receive the spirit, and begin to speak in other languages. The description is as brief as it is bewildering:

4     All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5     Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
6     And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
7     Amazed, they asked, "Are not all those who are speaking Galileans?
8     And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

The text is remarkable for its integration of universal inclusion and particular address; all members of the community are "filled with the Holy Spirit," and able to address those who speak other languages. The Spirit makes prophecy hospitable; whereas Greek prophets (such as the Oracle at Delphi) spoke in glossolalia, which could not be understood and required translation, here the speaking in tongues enables comprehension, by devout Jews from all nations. The "divided tongues"(2:2) of the Spirit unite the divided tongues of humanity (a symbolic reversal of Babel), but in a way that protects the concreteness, diversity, and particularity of those who hear them. Simultaneously, the Spirit gives each member of the community a voice—all 120 become prophets, not merely the twelve.

A preliminary reading of the text, then, suggests several conditions of prophecy: 1)its universalizability; 2)its addressing the hearers in their own language, relating to them on their level; 3)that in hearing prophecy, one hears the stranger, outcast, or foreigner whose voice would otherwise be unintelligible; and 4)that prophecy is spoken by any (and, in its fullness, by all) members of the community. The pouring forth of the Spirit is radically democratic—perhaps this will provide a point of convergence with our other panel's discussions.

As with many Lukan texts, there is a lacuna: other than saying they speak of the power of God, Luke does not give us an account of what was said. Inversely, while the hearers seem to understand what has been said, they remain baffled by the event itself.3 To borrow from Ricoeur, they could explain what was said, and grasp the words themselves—but, how the event has come to pass, and what the event means, remains unsettled. It could be dismissed—the speakers could simply be drunk. Peter, however, offers an alternative interpretation of the event, through the interpretation of scripture, and here we see Luke move toward a form of scriptural reasoning.4

II. Pentecost as Fulfillment

When Peter steps forward, his speech resonates with scriptural references, both explicitly and in its form. First, Pentecost is the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to the disciples, that they will receive the Father's Spirit (Acts 1:8). By refuting the charge of intoxication, Peter turns the perceived wine into the baptismal water of the Spirit. There is also a hint of resonance with Paul; the speaking in tongues, followed by scriptural interpretation and preaching, is close to Paul's discussion of the different gifts to the church, and the relation between them (speaking in tongues for outsiders, preaching for the community; cf. I. Cor. 14). Spirit-infused speech, for outsiders, is simply intoxicated babble; for insiders, it is comprehensible teaching. There are also resonances between Joel and the narrative of Jesus' crucifixion; for instance, in Luke 19 the sun darkens, much as in Joel there is darkness and the moon turning to blood. However, to fully grasp the resonances, it is important to look more closely at how Peter interprets Joel 3 and the two Psalms.

The text from Joel that Paul cites is an eschatological text, speaking of God's restoration of Israel after a period of punishment and suffering. It thus speaks of God's enduring fidelity to Israel, in the covenant. Peter identifies the experience of Pentecost as the beginning of a period of blessedness, the inbreaking of God's reign. There are, however, notable changes in the text, as he cites it. Specifically, there is an additional "and they will prophesy" in Acts 2:18, along with changing "wonders in the heaven and on earth below" to "wonders in heaven above and signs on earth below" (2:19). As Johnson describes, this means that Luke "considered himself to have the freedom to amend the biblical text in such fashion. However great the authority of the LXX, it appears, the exousia (freedom/authority) given by the Spirit is even greater."5 The changes, moreover, intensify the prophetic dimension of the event, while also enabling a stronger textual link to Christ—the "signs on earth below" being the signs that Jesus gave (see 2:22-3).6 What is significant, on Johnson's reading, is that this practice of changing the text breaks with standard midrashic practice. While various interpretations are possible, to change the text outright goes beyond the bounds of midrash, as practiced in Luke's period (and thereafter). This raises the question as to what guides Luke's interpretation, and legitimates this move. The Spirit may blow where it will—but, as he changes the text, where is it going?

The direction of Luke's interpretation becomes clearer when we consider the next two texts, Psalm 16:8-11 and Psalm 110.1. Both are texts spoken in the voice of David, as a prophet. Peter's argument is as simple as it is provocative: since David died, when he spoke of being raised from Sheol, he could not have been speaking of himself. He therefore was speaking of "This Jesus God raised up," and it is Jesus who pours forth the spirit. In effect, Luke ascribes these texts to Jesus, reading them in light of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. He understands the texts, and thus the events they have witnessed, in light of Christ's identity. By doing so, we see the first practice of what is only vaguely indicated in Luke 24: Jesus teaching the disciples how to read the scriptures as applying to him. Luke's reading of scripture, in the figure of Peter, witnesses to the reading Jesus taught on the road to Emmaus. Pentecost is not only the pouring of the Spirit, but also the inception of figural reading as a communal practice.7

Peter's reading of the Psalms serves two textual functions. First, his ascription of these texts to Jesus identifies Jesus with David, and presents him as the Davidic messiah.8 As such, he is thus the one who can bring the eschatological event of which Joel spoke: "Having received the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear."(2:33) For Luke, this identification is central to the whole rhythm of Luke-Acts: Pentecost definitively confirms God's faithfulness to the promise to Israel, and the outpouring of the Spirit will also extend God's blessing to the Gentiles.

From this narrative and intertextual explication, what interpretation should be drawn? Here, much of what I say will draw on prior small group study of this and other texts. In particular, in our group, the transition from an event in which many are prophesying, to one in which Peter speaks on behalf of a united community, is jarring, and this became a central issue of our group discussion. Peter's interpretation, on behalf of others, raises the question of whether he hears or mishears Joel's prophecy, and how this relates to Christian readings of prophecy. I will therefore begin by laying out several ways Peter and Luke could be said to mishear Joel, and then construct an alternative interpretation, suggesting how they may hear Joel properly.

Acts 2 could be a mishearing of Joel's prophecy in the following distinct but related, ways:

  • As already mentioned, Luke changes the wording of Joel, breaking with common midrashic practice. This could be construed as a lack of concern for the body of the text, or a preference for the spirit at the expense of the letter. Such a rereading, in privileging meaning over textuality, could be seen as foreclosing debate and polyvalence. If Luke spiritualizes the text in this way, then there is the possibility that his reading violates the integrity of Jewish practice and tradition, even as he claims their fulfillment.
  • While Peter cites Joel with respect to slaves and women prophesying, in the text their voices are absent. His emphasis on Pentecost's fulfillment of the scriptures with regard to Jesus's messianic status pushes these other voices to the side, even as the eschaton is to be the time in which their voices are heard.9 In place of hearing them, instead we have Peter's claim to authority, with the Spirit centralizing authority in him and the twelve.
  • The third mishearing would be in hearing prophecy as requiring an actualized fulfillment, and thus as anticipating a definite, limited future. One can see this view, most clearly, in Peter's reading of the Psalms: David was not speaking of himself, but of another, and this one must have been Jesus.10 The problem is that such a view would see historical events as necessarily following others, reading prophecies as clear and distinct signs that could be immediately and definitively fulfilled. Losing sight of the ambiguity and vagueness of prophetic texts and psalms, they become univocal signs that point to and legitimate an established order, rather than questioning it and highlighting its contingency before God. The promise/fulfillment scheme, in its power to interpret history, would render history transparent and give certain knowledge of its outcome - constraining, rather than opening, any future possibilities and imagination. With such certain knowledge would come power; the pattern set forth here would be the "Christian pattern" Ricoeur finds so troubling elsewhere, as an ossification of narrative, into which one then forces all shapes of events. An example of this scheme, and its implications, are found in the commentary of Alfred Loisy, an early 20th-century Catholic historical critic, who sees Peter's speech as setting forth a low Christology, precisely so as to present the "accomplishment of Jewish prophecy in Christianity."11

In all three cases, then, there would be a similar mishearing: Peter would be speaking in the name of others (human or divine), rather than letting others speak through him. The structure of prophetic speech that Levinas analyzed has become inverted. Pentecost, as a sign of the eschaton when all prophesy, would instead foreclose interpretation and rigidify community. As David Tiede has written:

His [Luke's] affirmation of divine providence has been used to construct a theology of history to confirm oppressive dogmas of manifest destiny, racial superiority, and class struggle, as well as a host of personalistic schemes of "God's plan for your life." .The prophetic critique has become constitutive or self-justifying and the assurance of continuity of divine promises to the elect has been turned into a doctrine of Christian progress with the replacement of old Israel.12

III. Re-reading Peter's Speech

Still, one may wonder if there are resources for retrieving Peter's reading, such that his reading of the prophets would let other voices resonate and speak, rather than assimilate them. And, these various interpretive moves, all varieties of a hermeneutics of suspicion, bear resonances with questions that were raised in our group readings of this text. While I see the readings given above as important, and raising necessary questions about this text, on occasion our work in sr also asks us to care for the texts—to not let suspicion have the last word, but rather to seek to hear the texts anew.

In my view, the key to a reparative reading emerged from discussions that placed Pentecost and Peter's claim to authority in the context of other texts on authority that we were reading.13 From these texts, there were a couple of central ideas on authority that emerged, which will guide my reading below. First, one receives the authority to prophecy (and interpret prophecy) when one passes on the power of speech to others. Second, one hears prophecy properly with a humble heart, in the recognition that one's own claims and readings can be contested. Both of these, in the Ephesians text, were inflected by the author's call for emulation of Christ's example of humility, in dealings with one another—including, I would think, the reading of scripture. In short, the model of authority set forth in other texts—where one exercises authority in a way that extends authority to others—may provide a pattern for reading Peter's performance.

Bearing this model in mind, the three concerns raised above can be addressed briefly.

a) In his speech, Peter does adopt a haggadic form of reading, in that he depends upon word associations between the texts, drawing on the Septuagint. In so doing, his reading bears a resemblance to midrash, and does attend on one level to the material form of the text itself. But what is especially significant, here, is that such verbal associations remain polyvalent, and irreducible to a unitary meaning, because such verbal associations remain irreducibly contingent. Such connections can be challenged, and other readings always remain possible. Thus, while Luke's Peter breaks with midrash on one level, by changing the text, on other levels his reading demonstrates a fidelity to the scriptures and their reading, improvising within the form of the Jewish tradition.14

What is significant, in my view, about such a reading is that it shifts emphasis away from any sort of deductive "proof from prophecy"—that because x was written, y had to come to pass. Instead, with the emphasis on the contingent textual connections, Peter's speech models the freedom of reading that midrashic interpretation provides, while also allowing space for recognizing God's freedom to act. If one reads Peter as giving an interpretation of a divine performance,15 rather than proclaiming the end of history, then there is room for openness and plurality within the reading he gives.

b) Given what follows in Acts, it is difficult to see how Peter's reading would let the voices of men and women slaves be heard. Nowhere in Luke's text do we actually hear these voices, at least not in a way that suggests they are moved by the spirit. However, one can see the narrative shape of Luke-Acts as creating a space in which such voices could be heard, and the fact that his changes to the Joel passage emphasize such prophecy gives warrant for such a reading. I would suggest that this is possible, again, if one considers the christoform pattern of reading set forth: Jesus reads for the disciples, shows them how to read, and then recedes from view—opening the space in which they, and Peter, will perform readings to build the church. By receding (or, ascending), Jesus thus gives space to other voices. Over the course of Acts, Peter recedes from view, with Paul becoming more central, and thus one could see Peter as modeling a repeatable practice of reading, and that his receding from Luke's narrative could give these voices the space to come to the fore. In short, Luke would set forth a model of interpretive authority in which, so as to read the scriptures faithfully, authority is exercised so that others may be brought to voice.

c) Finally, how the prophecy is fulfilled can be reconsidered. Rather than seeing it merely as a predicted event that has come to pass, the prophecy fulfills God's faithfulness to God's people. It is an active fulfillment, in the sense that Jesus' life, death, and resurrection shows God's freedom to act, unsettling the established order, seeking reconciliation and thereby giving life to new forms of reading and sociality. Joel is fulfilled, in the future that the Spirit brings, in which all may speak. What is important, though, is that such fulfillment could only come through immersion in history, rather than through freedom from it. Peter is called to speak publicly, to engage in conversation and dialogue with others (as the disciples do, through the rest of Acts). On this reading of Joel, the early church is left behind, to be in and for the world. Such a prophetic vocation would, as well, be modeled on Jesus' prophetic actions, integrating outcast and estranged voices into community.

What is particularly significant about this rereading, I think, is that it would be a more strongly Christological reading—not so much in the sense of focus on Christ, but a reading patterned after him. Recent text scholars (e.g., Brawley and Litwak) emphasize that the event of Pentecost follows Jesus' ascension, and thus it is an ecclesiological event. In short, as mentioned above, Jesus' withdrawal gives space in which others may act and speak. Similarly, in After the Spirit, Gene Rogers argues that Pentecost is the Spirit's acting in unison with Son's resurrection and ascension.16 In Pentecost, the Spirit becomes flesh, as the Word returns to the Father, bringing embodied humanity into the divine economy. Thus, reading Peter's speech as opening a way of reading, and as creating space for further voices, would understand his reading as more closely conforming to a Trinitarian dynamic in these texts, than a unitary or authoritarian reading would.

To close, in light of the above, I would like to consider an issue that is central to Isra's essay: what leads to the mishearing or rejection of a prophetic voice? From this text, a couple of points follow that could lead to discussion. First, to hear prophecy as restricted to a promise-fulfillment scheme would seem to be closely connected with a desire for certainty, or a desire to legitimate one's position.17 Thus, if one takes the suspicious reading of Peter's speech, his appropriation of the prophetic text, and speech on behalf of others, would effectively break off communication with those outside his circle (or, Luke's community). To be sure, Luke's text is suffused with Jewish and Hellenic influences—but, to what extent does his text manifest an openness to hearing the Spirit speak through others' readings? When we read Luke's text outside this scheme (as, for instance, in my second reading), what other possibilities emerge? Furthermore, to the extent that the promise-fulfillment understanding of prophecy is apologetic, one might ask: how can one read this text in ways that highlight other dimensions of prophecy—beginning, perhaps, with the focus on repentance and fellowship that follow Peter's speech? My tentative conclusion, then, would be that the mishearing of prophecy, as it relates to this text, has frequently been precisely in the failure to hear the voices of others—within the text, and in readings of it. For example, if one reads prophetic texts as a)directed toward the repair of community, and b)as consolations, then one's reading could be enriched or strengthened by listening to those outside one's own community. Somewhat paradoxically, a reading directed within the community (as opposed to an apologetic one) may be more able and willing to engage with outsiders, than one that propounds a reading to them.

It is at this point that scriptural reasoning may be a particularly significant practice. It provides a space within which such diverse readings contest, displace, and sometimes confirm one another. As a practice, this may help us to hear prophecy differently, via taking others' voices and texts into our hearts, and wrestling with them in our own readings. This is not without consequences; while the promise/fulfillment scheme may be comforting to established communities, the unsettling commitment to the multiplicity of readings in scriptural reasoning may encounter scorn and resistance, both in the broader culture and within our religious houses. Perhaps, however, it is precisely in holding to such reading—and accepting the possibility of its rejection—that scriptural reasoning finds its distinctive prophetic vocation.


1 Levinas, "The Truth of Disclosure and the Truth of Testimony," in Basic Philosophical Writings, ed. Peperzak, Critchley, and Bernasconi (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp.105-6 .

2 L.T. Johnson, Septuagintal Midrash in the Speeches of Acts (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2004).

3 What is significant, here, is that Luke's reticence creates a space of possibility and imagination for the reader—an instance of referential opacity, which can draw the reader in, as Ricoeur describes it ("Interpretive Narative," in Figuring the Sacred, ed. Wallace (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).

4 For the purpose of simplicity, and because of how closely Peter's speech fits with the theological and literary integrity of Luke's writings, I will assume that Peter's speech is constructed by Luke, and not a straightforward report of what Peter said. The speech is very much in character—and, as I will address below, provides an important narrative link between the Gospel and Acts, in terms of the transmission of interpretive practices.

5 Johnson, Septuagintal Midrash, 23. See also 20-21 for more on the specific changes.

6 While my tendency, here, is to read the passage as having a Christological referent, recent authors have argued it may also have an ecclesiological one (referring, in this case, to signs and miracles by the apostles). See, in particular, Brawley, Text to Text Pours Forth Speech: Voices of Scripture in Luke-Acts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), and Kenneth Litwak, Echoes of Scripture in Luke-Acts: Telling the History of God's People Intertextually (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 26-28. I am persuaded by this argument, to the extent that I think both dimensions of reference are important—together, they give both definition and openness to how one reads the passage. Brawley and Litwak also provide strong grounds for contesting the promise-fulfillment interpretation of Luke.

On occasion, this ecclesiological dimension appears in traditional commentaries as well. For instance, Bede's commentary—one of the earliest, if not the first, in Western Christianity—takes these signs as referring both to Christ and to the acts of the apostles. See The Venerable Bede Commentary on the Acts of the apostles, translated by Lawrence T. Martin (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989). However, in the cases I have been able to study, the focus of the reading is still largely Christological and Trinitarian, in terms of taking the texts as pointing toward these doctrines, rather than opening alternative approaches to reading.

7 For more on ascription—following Frei, in treating it as central to Christian reading—see my "The Identity of the Literal Sense: Midrash in the Work of Hans Frei," Journal of Religion 85:4 (October 2005).

8 See Mark L. Strauss, The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts: The Promise and Its Fulfillment in Lukan Christology (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), pp. 130-47.

9 See, for example, Beverly Gaventa, "What Ever Happened to Those Prophesying Daughters?" in A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Amy-Jill Levine (London: T&T Clark, 2004), pp. 49-60.

10 The text could be read either as:

  1. David died, therefore was necessarily not speaking of himself, and may have been speaking of Jesus, or
  2. David died, therefore he was not speaking of himself, and was necessarily speaking of Jesus.

While, in ascribing the psalm to Christ, the text seems to indicate the second option, the first makes more sense to me, in terms of what is logically possible.

11 Alfred Loisy, Les Actes des Apotres (Paris: Emile Nourry, 1920), p. 203.

12 David Tiede, Prophecy and History in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 128.

13 From Hebrew Scriptures: Numbers 11: 1-25; Exodus 18: 13-27; Exodus 24: 1-18; from the New Testament: Matthew 9:35-10:15, Ephesians 4: 1-16; from the Qu'ran 2: 252-258; 3: 144-150; 11:25-35; 17: 85-96

14 One could say that this is a form of "interleaved" reading, to borrow Mike Higton's term from last year's session. See JSR 5.3, forthcoming.

15 In suggesting this, I am thinking of the sort of future-oriented reading described by David Dawson in Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity.

16 Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., After the Spirit: A Constructive Pneumatology from Resources Outside the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's, 2005), pp. 200-7.

17 Though, in saying this, I have to wonder to what extent this depends on the social status and power dynamics of the reading.