By Micah Kiel
In a recent article, I surveyed how different texts in the Old Testament end. Some have endings that are neat and tidy, but most seem to have endings with loose ends or unfinished plot lines that leave the future decidedly open.
The texts of the New Testament run this gamut as well. Some narrative texts end with a flourish and with everything wrapped up. Most notably, the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Revelation. Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ ascension and a call to make disciples of all nations. Revelation ends with a definitive vision of a future heaven and earth, an eschatological end to the suffering the book evinces.
The Acts of the Apostles, however, has a very unfinished ending. This book is a second volume, written by the same author as the author of the Gospel of Luke. The second half of the book focuses on Paul. The book ends with Paul in Rome. After a series of arrests, trials, and escapes, Paul arrives in Rome, living by himself under Roman guard (28:16). The text’s parting words tell us that Paul lives in this situation for two years, preaching with boldness. This ending might not seem troublesome at first, but Paul is awaiting trial before the emperor, to whom he appealed (25:10-12). Festus responds to Paul’s appeal: “you have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.” The story ends before Festus’ words are fulfilled, and, more pointedly, before Paul’s death. Acts ends in an unfinished manner; one scholar refers to its ending as a “disappointment.”
Some scholars deal with the unfinished ending of Acts by saying it is simply not well done. One theory claims that Luke died before he could finish writing. Another common response is that Luke intended to write a third volume, which he never completed. The sentiment here is clear: either the ending is not adequate (the result of untimely death) or, the ending is abrupt because there is more to come, even though there is no evidence of a subsequent installment.
A second response suggests that, even if abrupt, the ending is appropriate. In Acts, it is profitable to read the ending as appropriate to the narrative it concludes. The ending is somewhat abrupt and leaves some details untold, but it presumably ends the way the author intended.
The last thing said of Paul is that he preached the Gospel in an unhindered manner with boldness (28:31), which fulfils the words of Jesus from the beginning of the story: that his witnesses will extend to the end of the earth (1:8). Acts, at its core, tells the story of God pushing the message of Jesus further into the world. Paul doing this very thing in Rome is the zenith of this push, the perfect ending to a story that repeatedly narrates God’s message crossing into new territory. While the ending may not fulfill all expectations, it is appropriate to the text itself.
A final response is to suggest that the author intended an implied ending and left clues for the observer to interpret and fill in the gaps. Paul’s death may not be included, but the narrative signals that it is to be assumed. The story of Paul has similar shape to the story of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. Both Jesus and Luke are castigated, arrested, and repeatedly called before leaders to give account of their actions. Both characters also are engulfed in an inexorable journey, Jesus to Jerusalem (see Luke 9:51) and Paul to Rome (Acts 25:6-12; 28:16). If we know how it ended for Jesus, presumably the end was similar for Paul. Paul’s death also infuses his words in chapter 20. He does not know what will happen to him in Jerusalem (20:22), but at the end of the speech there is much weeping because Paul had said that he would not see them again (30:38). In this chapter, Paul seems resigned to his own impending death, which the readers of Acts could have associated with Rome. So, although it is not specifically shown or narrated, it is possible that the reader is meant to assume Paul’s death. Such interpretation, however, paints us as fulfillment specialists, who seek a conclusion to something that seems troubling.
The ending of the book of Acts is open. Some things are left unresolved. Tensions are not relieved. What comprises a good ending? Is it a good ending to see the characters from Harry Potter when they are old, rotund and living a life free from fear? Or, does the best type of ending question all that has come before? Does a good ending constrict and determine the future or leave the future open? In the case of the Acts of the Apostles, however the quality of its ending is to be assessed, it evokes strong reactions from those who experience it. In these endings, the reader is not offered easy answers, but instead faces a challenge. It seems that the best ending is the one that calls forth an open future, and makes you go back to the beginning and start all over again.
(Micah Kiel is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)