Study Guide

Jewish Leaders in Acts of the Apostles

Jewish Leaders

Every story needs a villain and Acts is no different. Like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Star Wars, this story also features a group of baddies who keep bringing the evil even in the sequel.

Back In Jerusalem

After the Gospel of Luke, we meet up with the Jewish leaders again in Jerusalem. Remember, when the story starts it's only been forty days since they turned Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified. These are the same bad guys who stirred up a blood-thirsty mob and convinced the Roman governor to have an innocent man killed. They're stone cold.

The apostles are not about to forget it either. The dust has hardly settled and they're back in town reminding the Jewish leaders that they "rejected the Holy and Righteous One [and] killed the Author of life" (3:14). That is not gonna give your enemies the warm fuzzies.

Oddly enough, the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem seem to have lost their chutzpah. It was only a couple of months ago that they had Jesus killed and suddenly they're at a loss for what to do with the apostles:

They said, "What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name." (4:16-17)

Um, yeah, that'll work.

Later on, they beef up their resistance and have the apostles arrested (5:18) and flogged (5:40) and even plot to kill Paul (23:12). Whew! For a minute there we were starting to question their evil credentials.

Jews Around The World

Other Jews in the diaspora don't have such a hard time figuring out what to do with the other disciples:

  • In Damascus, they plot to kill Paul and he has to be smuggled out of the city in a basket. (9:22)
  • In Iconium, they try to stone Paul and Barnabas. (14:2)
  • In Antioch in Pisidia, they drive them out of town by spreading rumors. (13:30)
  • Thessalonian Jews follow Paul to Beroea to stir up trouble for him there. (17:5)
  • "Jews from Asia" see Paul in the temple in Jerusalem and have him arrested. (21:27)

So yeah—these guys are just as enraged as their brothers in Jerusalem. The apostles still manage to win Jewish converts outside of Judea, but not everyone is thrilled to have them speaking in the synagogue.

Their Side Of The Story

The Jewish leaders are mean, nasty, and no good, right? Sure, but what if we look at things from their point of view? Just hear us out.

These guys are all sitting around minding their own business when suddenly this Jesus guy and his followers come along. Not only are they saying that a poor, uneducated, crucified criminal from Galilee is God, but they're saying that anyone who doesn't believe in him is going to die. From their point of view, the apostles are twisting scripture to fit with the events of Jesus's life and that's not good.

Even though Luke thinks they're just stirring up trouble when they say that the disciples are breaking Jewish law, that's not quite true. The apostles do agree that not all laws are as important—just look at the whole circumcision debate (15:5). Peter even breaks Jewish law when he agrees to meet with a Gentile (10:28). And Paul says, "Everyone who believes is set free from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses" (13:39). Ouch.

Clearly the Jewish leaders aren't totally wrong to see the disciples as a threat to Judaism. Did they have to try to kill them though? Probably not.

A Friendly Reminder

Shmoop would also like to add that even though Acts portrays some Jewish people as enemies of the disciples, that certainly doesn't mean that the disciples considered Jewish folks as a whole to be against them. Anyone who thinks otherwise is kind of forgetting that Jesus and his disciples were Jewish. That would mean they were hating on themselves. For more on this topic see our discussion in the "Perspectives From Faith Communities" section.