By Dr. Samuel M. Frost
‘Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven… Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians’ (Acts 2.5-10).
This is quite an array of peoples. Their “languages” range from Greek, Coptic, Egyptian, Latin (Rome), Parthian, and Aramaic, not to mention the various dialects within each of these. Taking three books from my library, I figured a little study on Luke’s list here is in order. We will take them as they come, and first on the list are the Parthians.
Parthians, of course, were from Parthia, which is modern day Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, men and about half of Iraq, bordering the Euphrates River and Eastward to the Indus, and the southern regions of the Caspian Sea all the way to the Indian Ocean. Parthians were in much trade with the Far East. Rome did not conquer this area, or these “people” until 114 CE when it took Armenia under Trajan. This happened while there was another major Jewish Revolt in 114-117 CE, known as the Kitos War (tumultus Iudaicus, in Latin, or mered ha-tfutzot in Aramaic, the ‘war of the diaspora’). Jews living in Cyrenaica, Egypt, and Cyprus put up a good fight, but eventually were crushed. Rome never conquered the greater area of Parthia (OT Persia).
The Medes, always associated with the Persians in the Bible, lived in Parthia. Acts 2.10 is their last mention in Scripture. There is quite a bit of debate about who modern descendants of the Medes are. Some suggest that they are Kurds, but this has largely been rejected. The idea of a Median ‘empire,’ too, has come under question. Nonetheless, they occupied what is now Iran. That Luke places them together, but separates them, too, is due to the “language” difference.
Elamites hovered over the northern west tip of the modern Persian Gulf (Persia!). Again, these folks were never under Roman rule, and are found quite frequently in the ancient world of the Bible. It is, again, situated in modern day Iran.
‘Residents of Mesopotamia’ forms, again, the Parthian area, with some of the western areas coming under Roman control. It is regarded as a broad swath covering the Tigris and Euphrates regions. We may pause here and reflect that Luke is not singling out ‘Jews’ only. These are also Gentile ‘God-fearers,’ and ‘proselytes’ to Judaism, a process of evangelism within Judaism that had gone on for centuries. Second, the hundreds of thousands that would have been in the City of Jerusalem at this time are only a representative portion; to what degree we have no idea, but based on several accounts, there would have been well over a million Jews and Gentile ‘God-fearers’ living in these regions well beyond Rome’s control. The major festival of Pentecost (a modern day Mecca if you need imagination) would have been a huge undertaking, and many of the hundreds of thousands that observed Passover, just fifty days before, would have stayed. Much of this crowd were present when Jesus entered into the City, chanting his name, singing Psalm 118, ‘blessed is he who comes in ha-sham adonai!’
Luke, then, first records the non-Roman occupied areas before moving into the occupied lands. Judea, of course, needs no explanation. Cappadocia and Pontus, located south of the Black Sea, are now in modern, central Turkey. Peter addresses his letter to those in ‘Cappadocia and Pontus’ (1 Peter 1.1, here and Acts are the only mentions), which would have included Gentile proselytes as well (Jewish theology incorporated Gentiles as being apart of God’s covenant people, provided they maintained the laws and customs of the Jews).
Asia (Asia-Minor), or modern day Turkey, would include Phrygia and Pamphylia, as well. Luke then moves to Africa, notably Egypt, and Libya, where Cyrene was located. This is not an exhaustive list (he does not mention Ethiopia, for example, south of Egypt). He does mention Arabia, which we should not confuse with Saudi Arabia, but with Arabia Petrea (same region). The Nabatean Kingdom, as it was known then, was not under Roman control. It, too, had its own Semitic language. Crete is the island in the Mediterranean Sea, largely Greek, though occupied by Rome.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews – A
devout men – B
from every nation under heaven – C
Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome – C’
Jews (A’) and proselytes (B’), Cretans and Arabians – C’
We can see here, in a round about way, that for Luke, ‘every nation under heaven’ does not literally include every known nation, for Luke mentions other nations in Acts not included here. In other words, this is not an exhaustive list, but is meant to include Roman and non-Roman nations, and languages. Peter addresses the crowd as ‘men of Judea, and all you staying in Jerusalem’ (Acts 2.14). He is not singling out ‘just the Jews’ here. Rather, quoting Joel, ‘all flesh’ is the target audience, and all flesh was represented there, Jews and Gentiles.
At the end of Joel’s words, we read, ‘whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2.21; Joel 2.32). This verse is quoted later by Paul in Romans 10.12-13, ‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”’ It is quite obvious, then, that Peter’s message was to the Jews, and the Greeks, and this is what Luke wishes to disclose.
We can infer the same when Peter goes on to address the crowd as ‘men of Israel,’ again, not singling out ‘Jews’ only. Proselytes were ‘of Israel,’ and we must not think that Jews ‘only’ were in Jerusalem during Passover Week. The proselytes, too, who were there would have been calling out for Jesus’ blood just fifty some days ago! Continuing, Peter says, ‘Let all the House of Israel know…’ (Acts 2.36), of which includes Cretans, Arabians, and Parthians who were not Jewish, but Gentile ‘God-fearers.’ ‘And when they heard this, they said…’ (Acts 2.37). Are we to separate out of the plural pronoun, ‘they,’ Jews only? Hardly. There is no demand in the context to do so. To make this plain, Peter says, ‘For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ Echoing Joel again, and the way Paul uses this very verse, makes it plain that those there present in Jerusalem, and those not there, but still in the far away lands (Gentile lands) are to receive the Spirit, who is poured out on all flesh. Even though it remains a theological thorn as to how Gentiles are to act in light of receiving the Spirit – an issue Peter is torn about himself – it becomes very clear that Gentiles are receiving the Spirit, even though they continue to act as God-fearers, celebrating here the Feast of Pentecost as Moses’ custom declared. The break from these customs because of what receiving the Spirit meant in terms of application of the Law of Moses for Gentiles (and Jews, for that matter) wouldn’t become crystal clear until Paul.
Luke goes on to record: ‘Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day’ (Acts 2.41). Those within the crowd, described above, received the Spirit; Jews and Gentile ‘God-fearers.’
Acts 6.5 tells us that one ‘Nicolas’ was a ‘proselyte’ (a non-Jew), and was appointed as a Deacon. In chapter eight we have the story of Philip who goes into Samaria. Remember, Samaritans are not Jews. Yet, following Jesus’ command (Acts 1.6) to go into Samaria, Philip preaches there and they received the Spirit and were baptized (Acts 8.12). Luke does mention Ethiopia, when a eunuch from there comes to meet him (8.26-ff.). Luke’s progressive message is that the Gentiles are receiving the Spirit and being baptized. When we come to Peter, who presents the message to the Gentile, Cornelius (this is before Paul, mind you), his message is plain: ‘through his name every one that believeth on him shall receive remission of sins,’ and, ‘the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles also’ (Acts 10.43-45). We can see the ‘echoes’ of Joel here. Peter’s message to the Gentile household of Cornelius is the same as Paul’s in Acts 17, to the Greeks. Peter states that Jesus died, and God raised him from the dead, and they ate and drank with the Risen Savior (Acts 10.41); that Jesus is ‘appointed Judge of the living and the dead’ (10.42). Now, if Jesus is the one ‘risen from the dead’ (and dead here means those who have literally died), and verifies his resurrection by adding that he ate and drank with Jesus, then Jesus being appointed as the Judge of the ‘living and the dead’ can only mean one thing: ‘he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17.31). The ‘world’ is made up of the ‘living and the dead.’ You are either alive, or you are dead. Jesus was, for three days, one of the dead. Now he is appointed Judge of the living and the dead, or, as Peter said before, ‘But David was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. He foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ… This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses… For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘ The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand.’ Jesus is the Firstborn Immortal Human Being, body and soul, raised from the dead, and therefore is Judge, given the life-giving power to raise the dead when he shall ‘judge the world’ in the Day God has appointed.
The message of the Acts is clear. The message of the Gospel is to go out into the world wherein we ‘shall have tribulation.’ It is a world that will hate this message, but many within this world-at-enmity-with-God will repent, and receive the Holy Spirit. That mission did not end, because the Gospel is to be a ‘testimony to all the nations’ before the end, or, ‘the day’ when Jesus shall ‘Judge the living and the dead.’ The King has been enthroned. The Nations are enraged (Psalm 2, which is quoted in Acts 4). The Judge has been appointed. ‘Today,’ if you hear his voice, repent. These latter times of his grace and mercy, since the days of the Apostles, are a demonstration of his great love for the those who are appointed to salvation. But there is coming a day wherein he shall judge each man according to his deeds (Romans 2.5-6), on the Day of God’s wrath (Romans 2.6), as Paul’s ‘gospel’ (and Peter’s) declares (Romans 2.16).
 See, Ben Witherington III, ‘Epistles: Biblical Profile: Paul of Arabia? The Apostles Early Adventures,’ BAR, 47:4, Winter, 2021.