This study is part of a series that will examine the Jewishness of the original followers of Jesus. Did their belief in Jesus the Messiah and his death and resurrection lead to a subsequent abandoning of various Jewish practices? The approach taken will be to go through each book of Acts, examining relevant texts for insights into this question.
Acts 14:1-2 NASB “In Iconium they entered the synagogue of the Jews together, and spoke in such a manner that a large number of people believed, both of Jews and of Greeks. But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren.”
This entire account took place within the Jewish community— not apart from it. Paul and
Barnabas would not have been given a hearing in the synagogue if they had abandoned visible marks of Judaism such as the tzitzit tassels or were known to be in any way breaking from Torah observance. Paul and Barnabas did not practice deception— they did not pretend to be Jews in order to gain access to the synagogue, they were Jews.
The “Greeks” mentioned in the story were already in the synagogue when they first encountered the message about Jesus. They were already participants to some degree in the practices of the Jewish community; this undoubtedly included synagogue attendance on Sabbath and festival days— otherwise they would not have been there in the first place to hear Paul speak.
The “large number of people” who believed this message— a Jewish message about a Jewish Messiah, the “King of the Jews”— was significantly composed of Jews and the remaining number were of people who habitually associated with Jews in the synagogue. The dispute that followed was between Jews who believed the message and “Jews who disbelieved”— it was a dispute within the Jewish community between two different groups of Jews.
Acts 14:4 ESV “But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles.”
The Jews mentioned here, opposed to the apostles, are from among the “Jews who disbelieved” — all of the people who sided with the apostles were also Jews or were people who had heard the message while attending the synagogue. It was not all Jews who opposed the apostles, but some Jews who did no believe his message. Of those who sided with the apostles, all were Jews or were already connected with the Jewish community before hearing the message.
Acts 14:19 NRSV “But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium and won over the crowds. Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead.”
The Jews mentioned are are from among those who disbelieved— all of those who believed were also Jews or connected to the Jewish community, and indeed, Paul himself was a Jew. Later in Acts, it is recorded twice that Paul declared “I am a Jew” (Acts 21:39; 22:3). It is not clear who it was who did the stoning— was it the unbelieving Jews from out of town or the local people? Either way, it seems that it would require the cooperation of “the crowds” mentioned here who not long before had been acclaiming Paul and Barnabas as gods (verse 12).
Stoning was not exclusively a Jewish form of punishment. From Wikipedia— “Stoning is an ancient form of capital punishment. There are historical reports of stoning from Ancient Greece — Herodotus reports the case of Lycidas in his Histories, Book IX. Stoning is also mentioned in Ancient Greek mythology — Oedipus asks to be stoned to death when he learns that he killed his father.”
It is possible that Paul was not stoned by Jews, rather he may have been stoned as a Jew by idolaters. Paul was speaking a very Jewish message just before this— (verse 15, ESV) “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” Paul urges them to “turn from these vain things”— idolatry— and turn to the “living God”, the God of Israel. He then quotes from the Sabbath commandment, “who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Exodus 20:11). Paul was here presenting a Jewish message in a pagan community.
The Greek word translated as “won over” in the NRSV is translated as “persuaded” in some other translations. The lexicons also have “incited” as one of the range of meanings for this word; this is consistent with wording chosen in the Aramaic Peshitta where it is expressed with a words meaning “stir up” or “excite” against.
This leads to some key questions in analyzing this story. There is no mention of a native Jewish population in this town— there is no mention of a synagogue. Is this Paul’s first incursion into completely pagan territory? What was it that the Jews from Antioch and Iconium said that incited these pagan people to violence? Did these Jews intend to incite violence as the translation “won over” suggests, or were the people “stirred up” as an unintended side-effect of their interactions? Paul’s experience in Iconium, described in verse 2, provides helpful context: “But the Jews who disbelieved stirred up the minds of the Gentiles and embittered them against the brethren.” (NASB). These pagan people were accustomed to believing in a pantheon of gods. One more god would not agitate them, but a message of mono-theism could. A message of Jewish nationalism— a “chosen people” with exclusive access to God— could have been a flash point. If we look back at 13:44-45 we see that the conflict in Antioch surfaced when a large number of Gentiles gathered to hear Paul. Is this story a lead-in to the subject of chapter 15— circumcision and Jewish-Gentile relations? Is the issue that Paul is contending with whether Jesus is the Messiah or whether Gentiles can be heirs to the covenants?
If Paul was an apostate Jew— having abandoned Torah observance— then what would have been the concern of the Jews from Antioch and Iconium? Undoubtedly there were some Jews who abandoned Judaism and assimilated into the wider, local community. If this was how they saw Paul, then it is unlikely they would have been agitated about it and certainly the pagan people of the area would not have been disturbed by Paul's supposed abandonment of the Torah. The Jews would only take issue with Paul as a fellow Jew and over an issue relevant to them as a Jewish community. Paul as a Torah rejecting apostate outside of the Jewish community would not have concerned them.