Luke’s List of Nations, Acts 2:9-13
Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine.'" (9–13)
This list is fascinating. Technically, it is not a list of languages but political regions. If you play "dot to dot" with them on a map of the Middle East, you will draw a meandering line that generally flows from North to South and then East to West. It begins with the Parthians in the Far East, and three kingdoms under their control—Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia. In the first century b.c. Parthia captured the Roman military standards, declaring itself Rome's rival in the East. There was hardly another nation that posed more difficulties for Roman domination. Placing Parthia first in this lists, therefore, established a shrill tone for the text. Our list ends with Rome, preceded by nine regions under their control. It would be a neat chiasm were it not for this anomaly: Why does Luke place Judea between Mesopotamia and Cappadocia and not mention Syria, the actual political center of the region?
One would expect a first-century list of this region to include Syria and perhaps even skip Judea since it was under Syrian provenance (Josephus, Wars 2.12.1 §226; Philo, Flacc 29). This state of affairs, of course, galled the Jews. According to the them, the greater part of Syria was promised to them by God: "On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates,'" (Gen 15:18; cf. Exod 23:31; Deut 11:24; Josh 1:4). Much of it had been, in fact, controlled under David and Solomon. Hence, it is not surprising that some Messianic expectations predicted the control of Syria according to the ancient promise of God: "In that day people will come to you from Assyria and the cities of Egypt, even from Egypt to the Euphrates and from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain" (Micah 7:12; cf. Zech 9:10; Sir 44:21). Moreover, the Messiah would bring back the dispersed tribes into the original boundaries of the Promised Land:
In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the remnant that is left of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush, from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the sea. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth. (Isa 11:11–12)
The return of the exiles was the single most important Messianic function in the OT (Isa 14:2; 43:57; 49:818; Jer 30:3; 31:825; Exe 11:1621; 28:2426; 37:114; Hosea 1:1011), intertestamental literature (Tobit 13:15; 2 Esd 13:39–47; 1 En. 90:33; Bar 4:36–37; 5:5–9; Philo, Praem. 28.164;), and rabbinic literature (b. Ber 12b; b. Pesaḥ 88a; b. Sanh 110b; Esth. Rab 1:8). Luke's claim here that all these diaspora Jews were dwelling (katoikeō, see ftn 11) in Jerusalem would hardly go unnoticed. The Messianic age had dawned through the coming of the Spirit and the promises of God were reaching their fulfillment. Tertullian (c. 200 a.d.) took it this way:
For upon whom else have the universal nations believed, but upon the Christ who is already come? For whom have the nations believed—Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and they who inhabit Mesopotamia, Armedain, Phrygia, Cappadocia, and they who dwell in Putus and Asia and Pamphylia, tarriers in Egypt, and the inhabitants of the regions of Africa which is beyond Cyrene, Romans and proselytes, an, in Jerusalem, Jews, and all other nations. (Adv. Jud. 7 [ANF])
Taking this list as a Messianic claim would explain three anomalies of this passages: (v. 1) "When the day of Pentecost came" (sumpleroō, lit. 'was fulfilled') indicates a fullness of time, not merely a point on the calendar. (v. 5) These pilgrims are described as "residing" in Jerusalem as an allusion to the return from diaspora. And (v. 9) Judea is listed rather than Syria as one would expect during the reign of the Messiah over Israel. The odd element that would strike Luke's readers is that rather than undoing the diaspora to spread the Kingdom of God, the Messiah used the diaspora as the very element which effected the spread of God's Kingdom. It is not the collection of saints in a geo-political body that expands the Kingdom. It is the subversive leavening influence of believers, seeded in the kingdoms of this world that undermines the dominating powers of Rome and spreads the fame of Yahweh. This list from Luke is anti-Roman political propaganda which advocates kenotic politics at its finest.