Luke has been following Paul’s judicial proceedings for many chapters, often with tremendous detail. Why do we just end with Paul in house arrest for two years in Rome awaiting trial? We need more closure than that. Was Paul exonerated? Did Jews show up from Jerusalem to plead their side of the case and did it go south for Paul? Was Paul released and freed to go to Spain to preach the gospel as he so desired? Was Paul killed in Rome for some charge brought against him successfully? We are simply left to wonder.
Scholars have taken up the question and posited many a theory. Here are a few:
- Acts was intended by Luke to be a legal defense for Paul before the Roman court, thus it had to be completed without these answers.
- Things did not turn out well for Paul and it didn’t fit the kind of ending Luke wanted to have so he left these details out.
- Luke was forced by sickness, jail, or traveling to finish his account abruptly. Maybe a protegé of Luke finalized the letter quickly after Luke’s unexpected death.
- Acts starts with the word “first” (1:1), so maybe Acts was the first volume of two or more intended books about the gospel and the early apostles, but we do not have the later volume(s) or it/they were never written.
- The favorite theory amongst conservative scholars (and the one I like) is that Acts does end in the most appropriate way theologically, even if not historically. Paul is not the focus of Luke’s book, the gospel is. Luke starts in 1:8 with a charge from Jesus to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the “very ends of the earth,” a place like Rome. Thus, Acts ends with the gospel being preached in Rome with great freedom and acceptance, especially amongst the Gentiles. Luke would have felt like this was a very fitting ending, so the argument goes.
This is now the second book in a row where we come to an abrupt, seemingly incomplete ending. We saw the same thing at the end of Mark. We saw there that Mark seemed to be leaving the reader with the question, “What will you do with Jesus?” Let’s take that same approach here in Acts, just to experiment again.
Maybe Luke wants to leave us with these questions: “What will you do with Paul? What will you do with a gospel that is open to all? What will you do with a church that includes Jews but also Gentiles who are much more receptive to the Gospel?”
Back then, some would have said Paul is a heretic who has hijacked this restored Judaism and perverted into an ecumenical, watered-down movement of grace and acceptance to all. Some would have said Paul has got it exactly right; come join a “new Israel,” no longer defined by race. Some would be quick to write off the Jews because they had their chance. Some would like to muzzle Paul or even kill him.
Interestingly, people say the same things about Paul and other more modern religious thinkers today who say similar things, don’t they? Give me Jesus, but you can keep your Paul.
The question for us, though, as we end this great book of Acts is the same question Caesar will have to answer: “What should I do with Paul?”