The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting

By Strauss, Mark | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 1999 | Go to article overview

The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting


Strauss, Mark, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting. By Irina Levinskaya. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996, xii + 284 pp., $38.00.

This work is the fifth volume in the acclaimed Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting series edited by Bruce Winter, warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. Levinskaya is a senior researcher in ancient history at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a lecturer in early Christian history at St. Petersburg University.

The first half of the book concerns Jewish identity in the first-century diaspora and evidence related to proselytes and God-fearers. The second half discusses what is known concerning the nature of first-century Jewish communities in Antioch, Asia minor, Macedonia and Achaia, and Rome.

In chap. 1 Levinskaya argues against the recent proposal of M. Goodman that until the end of the first century, Jews were unconcerned about whether sympathetic Gentiles were considered to be Jews or outsiders. She seeks to show distinct Jewish identity both on religious and ethnic grounds. The former is demonstrated by Domitian's imposition of the temple tax-a requirement only of full Jews-on high government officials suspected of converting to Judaism. The latter is confirmed through Luke's account of the circumcision of Timothy, which suggests that the matrilineal principle of Jewish ethnic identity emerged in the diaspora by the mid-first century.

Chapters 2 and 3 concern the question of whether Judaism was a missionary religion. Levinskaya shows that while Gentiles were often attracted to Judaism, there is little evidence of aggressive proselytizing by the Jews. She agrees with Goodman that the "proselytes" of Matt 23:15 are Jewish converts to Pharisaism, rather than Gentile converts to Judaism.

Chapters 4-7 concern the issue of God-fearers. While the paucity of epigraphic evidence has in the past raised doubts about the historicity of the prominent role they play in Acts, the evidence from the Aphrodisias inscription, which appears to list Gentile God-fearers (theosebeis) as patrons of the synagogue separate from Jews and proselytes, has provided strong support for Luke's account (chap. 4). In chap. 5 Levinskaya argues that the epithet hupsistos, "Most High," which appears in numerous inscriptions throughout the Mediterranean, was not a title for a wide range of deities. Nor is it evidence of syncretism of Jewish and pagan beliefs. Rather, adherents to the cult of the Most High God were Judaizing Gentiles (God-fearers). Some of these remained close to the synagogue while others developed institutions of their own. In a case study (chap. 6), Levinskaya seeks to show that in some parts of the Bosporan kingdom, Jewish influence and the general tendency toward monotheism made the cult of the Most High extraordinarily popular. In chap. 7 the literary evidence for God-fearers is examined. Luke's portrait reveals that God-fearers were among the first Gentiles to accept Christianity, that this created a serious problem for the Jews who depended on the patronage of these God-fearers, and that, as a result, the Jews intensified their relations with Gentile sympathizers. Luke therefore shows great insight in portraying God-fearers as either the backbone of the Christian communities, or-when they remain in support of the Jewish community-a serious impediment to the spread of the Christian mission.

The remainder of the book, chaps. 8-11, discusses all known evidence related to the Jews of the first century in Antioch, Asia Minor, Macedonia and Achaia, and Rome. Three appendixes follow, concerning the nature of religious syncretism in the first century, the meaning of the term proseuche and inscriptions from the Bosporan kingdom.

Levinskaya is a meticulous scholar, weighing and evaluating evidence judiciously and carefully. Throughout the book she defends the veracity of Luke's portrait of the Portraits of Paul: An Archaeology of Ancient Personality. By Bruce J. Malina and Jerome H. …

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