Individual Responsibility in The Acts of the Apostles

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Throughout our various Bible readings, I was excited with the agency I now have to question this text in class. With an academic reading that examines political meaning, historical accounts, and women’s absence, I can say things I found problematic or toxic without my faith being called out for daring to ask such questions. In our discussion, we considered the miracles of Peter and Paul (far more impressive than those of Jesus), the notion of an “anti-miracle”, Pentecost as a fantasy of pure community, the stoning of Stephen, speeches given by Peter and others, and the rituals of circumcision and baptism. There is a much bigger theme that I see in the Acts of the Apostles which is individual responsibility for being saved and living in accordance with God. This idea takes our talking points to a different level. The “anti-miracle” (as coined in class) is a good example of an individual needing to take responsibility for what they have done. While the transgression committed seemed small, the person punished (first the husband, then his wife) hasn’t wronged the people, but God specifically. Although both the husband and wife collapse and die in a bizarre way, I do not follow the analysis that they died to protect the utopian world that Pentecost brings to light in Acts of the Apostles. I think their sudden death represents the demand of responsibility for actions in a way that is unique to the New Testament.

The stoning of Stephen also was puzzling, because I don’t thinking talking against the world they are creating warrants death. I am also not a ruthless Roman tyrant, and I believe God should decide who lives and dies. It is murder otherwise. But, I digress. Stephen needed to take responsibility for his words. His speech, while historical is also mocking the approach of spreading Christianity. That is why he must be stoned. These three deaths are different from accounts of the Old Testament because you are not a people that can be saved because you are a part of a clan created by God himself. You are not Moses’ people or descendants of Abraham. You now have a unique responsibility to want God in your heart, not just go through the motions. In my reading, this notion of personal responsibility has been reflected in The Iliad and Aeneid but the lines of individual responsibility cannot be there because the men in those texts are in this war for the greater good of the people, rather than the individual. We have the battle for land and glory compared to the battle for Christianity, and in Acts a single person is commonly singled out to prove a point. The motive is also different between these texts. Bloody war for the glory or spreading the word of Christian life are such different concepts but it is what impact they have on the individual that I am concerned with. In contrast to the epics of Homer and Virgil, you are not (if you are truly with God) behaving in good faith for the sake of your people. It is your sole responsibility to seek salvation for yourself. (You should also show others the way to God like Peter and Paul did although to what extent I am not clear.)

The rituals of circumcision and baptism are actions for the individual to be cleansed and be more able to walk with God. Baptism, although often done in massive groups, is still about an individual cleansing of the soul. The imagery of the baptism seems hectic in Acts, but it is effective to bring one closer to God. The Holy Spirit entering someone and cleansing them in that way, without baptism, is also on a one-to-one basis. These two occurrences are for the benefit of who experiences them, not for the masses. In the Old Testament, we had many examples of things affecting one person and in turn having a ripple effect on the rest of humanity. Eve, eating from the forbidden tree, is the first example of an individual act impacting everyone that came afterwards. Circumcision and the “circumcised believers” are a huge issue for the individuality theory I have put forth, because it speaks to only half the individuals out there – men. Men are the great leaders and heroes of all of the big stories in Acts, and The Bible in general. In class, we spoke about this perpetual patriarchal problem, and we decided women had to have been there for things to take place the way they did. Women had to agree to go with the men as the journey unfolded. In Luke, there are more vivid accounts of women, as individuals that are important to understand. One that sticks out to me is the woman weeping all over Jesus’ feet as she washes them. For showing Jesus kindness, she is absolved of her sins.

I would even argue that the comparison between Acts and a united Athens in Thucydides is the same general idea, with one being alliance to the state and one being alliance to God. The question about following god vs. following the law is prevalent throughout Acts and it’s sort of funny to me that the apostles are happy to be persecuted the same way that Perpetua is thrilled for her death. This strange wish for death or compliance in imprisonment illustrates a personal level of accountability they willingly take. This is special because these people believe they are in the right and are willing to handle the consequences of staying with their faith. While odd and somewhat disturbing, both are walking well with God because they accept death and imprisonment as a part of maintaining faith. This is because God has changed since the Old Testament. God is no longer giving us a king to follow, or is angry and wants to commit a genocide that Moses has to advise him against doing in the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament is working through Jesus and his disciples, and it is as if he is handing off the reins to each person to be responsible to finding and keeping the faith.

There remains one (maybe more) large problem in the theory I have put forth. If the individual’s responsibility for their own salvation holds true, why was Jesus, an individual responsible for saving humanity? Why did we need Jesus to die, if individuals are responsible for their faith? Are we then back to the Old Testament but instead of people of Abraham we are now people of Christ? If individuals are responsible for their faith, why did Jesus have to die for us to maintain it? Maybe we are now able to be individuals because of Christ’s sacrifice. Now that he has died for our sins, we can begin to be responsible for ourselves.

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