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Famine-Relief from Antioch

22 Oct

Just before the reign of Claudius Caesar, probably in the fall of 40 CE or early spring of 41 CE, a Jewish prophet, Agabus, foretold through the Spirit that a great shortage of food would occur throughout the Empire. According to the prophecy this shortage would be particularly severe for the poor in Judea (Acts 11:28-20).[1]

Luke doesn’t record much about the prophecy, except to say its fulfillment occurred during Claudius’ reign, and the gentile churches began setting aside grain in store and funds that would be used to buy such grain to store later or buy the needed food for the poor in Judea at famine prices, while the dearth was occurring. Luke also shows that their offering would be sent to Jerusalem under the supervision of Paul and Barnabas, and implies that this mission was completed sometime after the death of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:24-25).

How long after Herod’s death that the shortage of food occurred, Luke doesn’t say. However, Josephus mentions that many poor Jews were starving in Jerusalem during the time of the Passover when Queen Helena from Adiabene came there to worship at the time of the Passover. She immediately sent to Egypt for grain and Cyprus for figs and oversaw their distribution to the poor at Jerusalem (Antiquities 20.50-51). Josephus also claims that this dearth occurred during the governorship of the procurators, Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Alexander, cir. 44-48 CE. Eusebius in the third century CE wrote of a famine in Greece in the 8th or 9th year of Claudius (48-49 CE), and Tacitus (Annals 12.23) and Orosius (Orosius 7.6.17) tell of a shortage of food at Rome between the 9th and 11th years of Claudius’ reign.

Josephus’ famine cannot be dated earlier than 47 CE, because he has Queen Helena coming to Jerusalem after Herod of Chalcis petitioned Caesar to permit him and Herod’s descendents to appoint the Jewish high priests instead of the Roman procurators. Claudius agreed and wrote a letter commanding this to be done, and Josephus records the whole letter. It was written in the month of July during or immediately after Claudius’ forth term as Consul. This office was held for only one year. Claudius’ fourth time in this office occurred in 47 CE.

Understanding this, we may conclude that Josephus, Eusebius, Tacitus and Orosius could be writing of the same dearth as it affected different parts of the Empire. It may or may not have affected Rome and Greece in the same year as it affected Judea, but a bad season or two in the main food producing countries of the Empire could very well set off a domino effect that would affect several parts of the Empire that were caught unprepared.

Judea would be especially affected, because the sabbatical year of 48-49 (fall to fall) in which no seed was planted or field harvested could have had disastrous results during adverse weather conditions in years when the fields didn’t yield enough to set aside in store for the sabbatical year.

This is what Agabus had foretold and for which the gentile churches prepared. Barnabas and Paul were chosen to oversee its distribution, bringing it to the elders in Jerusalem who would know who the needy of Judea were (Acts 11:28-30; 12:24-25).

If this is true, that Agabus’ famine didn’t occur until 48-49 CE, then this puts Paul’s service to the poor in Jerusalem at the same time as the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. It seems logical that the “men from James” came to alert the saints in Antioch of the great need at Jerusalem. It was at this time that they overstepped their authority in saying the gentile believers need to be circumcised in order to be saved. Perhaps similar envoys were sent to Cilicia, Cyprus and even to Galatia, because the letter from James, containing the official oracles of the Jerusalem church, were brought to all of these communities, because all were affected similarly over the doctrine of circumcision. The letter denied that James had empowered these envoys with authority to trouble the gentiles over the question of circumcision, but it doesn’t deny that he sent them at all. Therefore, they really were “men from James” but their authority, if one could call it that, extended only to alert the gentile churches of the needed grain and funds to support the poor in Judea during the famine.

Luke uses the word diakonia (G1248) in Acts 12:25, which implies that Paul and Barnabas and those who came with them acted as administrators of the famine-relief offering given by the gentile churches. What this means is they didn’t simply bring their offering and leave, but they stayed, daily serving the hungry (cp. Acts 6:1 – same word). This became a great opportunity for the gentile brethren to encourage and comfort those who were so distressed over the want of the bare necessities of life. This “famine-relief” doubled as a means of unifying the gentile and Jewish brethren at a time when Paul and Barnabas were hashing out the theology with the party of the circumcision and the leaders of the Jerusalem church. So, while the theory was debated behind closed doors, the practicality was achieved as the gentile administrators of the famine-relief broke bread brought from the far away gentile churches with the needy Jewish brethren in Jerusalem. Thus, the brotherhood between Jew and gentile was demonstrated on the streets while the theology/theory was being acknowledged by the church leaders behind closed doors.

If the solution of the problem of circumcision were to occur in a more than theological manner, it was necessary for Paul and Barnabas and company to stay at Jerusalem from the beginning of this crisis until its end, showing each needy Jewish disciple that their gentile brethren were one with them in their time of trouble.


[1] It is difficult to place this blog in its proper chapter of Acts. I speak of the prophecy of Agabus (Acts 11), and Paul and Barnabas returning from Jerusalem (end of Acts 12), and the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). No matter where I place it, it would be out of place in some regard. So I place it at the beginning in Acts 11 as a kind of ‘overview’ for what would come ahead, rather than at the end to remind us what was done. Preparing the way, may give us a mindset of how to read what comes next.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2012 in circumcision, famine

 

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