Proclamation in Acts

Acts may be action-packed, but it’s also full of oratory. From Peter’s address to the large crowd at Pentecost to Stephen’s defense to Paul’s speech to the Athenians, the apostles’ words offer insight into the earliest expressions of the gospel. The public addresses have also become the center of much scholarly debate about the authenticity of Acts and interpretation of the gospel message.

The Greek word often associated with these speeches is kergyma, meaning “proclamation.” Luke chose a word rich with meaning in secular culture, both historical and literary. It’s derived from the same root as keryx, a word Homer used to describe owe adsfa herald who would go into town ahead of the king to proclaim the king’s approach. The keryx had no authority of his own, but could only speak the king’s message.  Thus the king would select a trusted court official whose relationship was more of friend than servant. [1]

Kergyma in the New Testament also denotes proclamation, or preaching. Distinct from didasko, or teaching, it’s also far more common, for all believers are messengers sent out from our King to proclaim His good news with His authority.[2] We too are his friends: “No longer do I call you servants…you are my friends,” Jesus said (John 15:15). And we are all heralds. ”The Lord gave the word; Great is the company of those who proclaimed it” (Psalm 68:11).

In the last sixty years kergyma has adopted a technical meaning that is important to grasping the proclamations of Acts. As some scholars noted, the kergyma evolves throughout Acts. The content of Peter’s speech at Pentecost is not identical to Stephen’s defense or Paul’s address to the Athenians. But does this mean the gospel changed? If so, are these speeches even historically accurate or meant to be taken literally?

Bultmann, a 1950s theologian, questioned the historical reliability of Acts, declaring “a historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable!”[3] Bultmann and other liberals attributed the development in the gospel proclamation to Acts being written much later than the first century.  They said the early proclamations reflected later writers trying to understand why Jesus didn’t return right away, and included historical details invented to inspire people to imitate Christ. The speeches themselves never occurred, they claim, but were fabricated by Luke. Liberal scholar Dibelius wrote “These speeches, without doubt, are as they stand inventions of the author.”[4]  

Rudolf Bultmann

Despite Bultmann’s doubt in the historicity of Acts, he was not ready to disregard the book altogether. Instead, he believed in “demythologizing” the kergyma, or getting rid of any supernatural and seemingly historical elements in the narrative and instead focusing on the spiritual meaning. He believed the New Testament could not be understood unless it was stripped of its supposed myths: “The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the truth they enshrine.” Thus the resurrection became “an event of faith in the hearts of the early disciples” and the crucifixion merely a state for believers to identify with.[5] But 1 Cor. 15:14 says “if Christ has not been raised, our preaching (kergyma) is in vain, and your faith also is in vain.”

While Bultmann’s attempt to demythologize the kergyma was founded on false assumptions, his attention to the proclamation helped strip away church traditions in search of the simple gospel message. His theory also sparked more interest in these important glimpses into early Christian belief, and not all scholars agreed with his conclusions. For example, F.J. Foakes Jackson wrote, “Luke seems to have been able to give us an extraordinarily accurate picture of the undeveloped theology of the earliest Christians, and to enable us to determine the character of the most primitive presentation of the gospel.”[6] These original presentations are worth studying because we can become used to explaining the gospel in a particular formulation or catch-phrases, which easily lose their meaning, especially for the unchurched.

Acts 13 and 14 record the kergymatic ministry of Paul and Barnabas’s  first missionary journey. They “proclaim the word of God” (13:5), “speak boldly with reliance on the Lord” (14:2), “preach the gospel” (14:7 and 15), and “speak the word” (Acts 14:25) to a variety of audiences. Listen to their proclamation in the Pisidian Antioch synagogue to hear the early kergyma:

 When they had carried out all that was written concerning Him, they took Him down from thecross and laid Him in a tomb. 30 But God raised Him from the dead. Therefore let it be known to     you, brethren, that through Him forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and through Himeveryone who believes is freed from all things, from which you could not be freed through theLaw of Moses” (Acts 13:29-30a, 38-39).

Across presentations of the kergyma, common themes emerge: the death of resurrection of Jesus and the offer of forgiveness for those who believe. With these essential but polarizing truths at its core, it’s no wonder liberal theologians have attempted to explain away the early message by “demythologizing” it. However, many scholars found that analyzing the proclamations supported early dating of Acts.

For example, C.H. Dodd traced the proclamation in Mark, Acts, and Paul’s letters and found “this coincidence between the apostolic preaching as attested by the speeches in Acts, and as attested by Paul, enables us to carry back its essential elements to a date far earlier than a critical analysis of Acts by itself could justify; for, as we have seen, Paul must have received the tradition very soon after the death of Jesus” (emphasis added). He also found the language to show a “strong Aramaic colouring,” concluding “in these passages we are in fairly direct touch with the primitive tradition of the Jesus of history.”[7] Regarding the speeches’ accuracy, Collin Brown noted “the Greek of the speeches in Acts seems hardly designed to show off the writer’s style; if anything, it is inferior to the rest of Luke’s writings,” suggesting authenticity rather than invention.[8] F.F. Bruce also pointed to marked differences between Luke’s narration and the speeches he attributes to others, such as literary and prophetic allusions.[9]

In reality the development of the kergyma throughout Acts is not the result of second century writers inventing history or the gospel itself changing. Rather, the proclamation of the gospel evolves as the church moves out from Jerusalem to reach new cultural groups and its implications are understood more fully by the apostles. F.F. Bruce described the proclamations of Acts as “valuable and independent sources for the history and theology of the primitive Church.”[10] When studying Acts, pay attention to how the gospel is proclaimed to remember the simple message of God’s grace and its far-reaching implications.

[1] Brown, Colin. “Proclamation, Preach, Kerygma.Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bultmann, Rudolf, and Five Critics. Kerygma and Myth. London: S.P.C.K., 1953.

[4] Dibelius, Martin. A Fresh Approach to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature. New York: Scribner’s, 1936.

[5] Bultmann, Rudolf, and Five Critics. Kerygma and Myth. London: S.P.C.K., 1953.

[6] Jackson, F.J. Foakes. “The Acts of the Apostles.” Moffat New Testament Commentary. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932.

[7] Dodd, C.H. History and the Gospel. New York: Scribner’s, 1938.

[8] Brown, Colin. “Proclamation, Preach, Kerygma.Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.

[9] Bruce, F.F. “The Speeches in the Acts of the Apostles.” London: The Tyndale Press, 1942.

[10] Ibid.

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