Sorry for another post about questions, but here’s a brief example of the kind of work I’m currently doing for my thesis. It is interesting (to me, anyway) to see how in the most minor details—the crafting of a sentence—Luke saturates his literary work with attempts to persuade the reader of his theological arguments.

The author of Luke/Acts skillfully uses questions to persuade characters within the text as well as the reader. Often, questions and the act of questioning become associated with particular characters. Angels, for instance, figure very heavily in Luke’s two volumes. These heavenly creatures serve primarily as heraldic bearers of divine news (see Luke 1:13, 1:28, 2:10, etc.) as well as lesser known roles like hearing the Son of Man’s testimony at the eschaton (Luke 12:8), conveying the righteous to “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22), offering comfort to the distressed (Luke 22:43), and giving directions to the apostles on behalf of God (Acts 5:19-20). It is rarely noted, however, that among the most significant theological events of the two-volume work—the resurrection in Luke and the ascension in Acts—angels represented in both stories as “two men” (ἄνδρες δύο) in strange attire[1] frame these climactic events using dramatic rhetorical questions.

Near the end of the Gospel of Luke, when a group of women arrive at the tomb to properly anoint Jesus’ corpse for burial, they are met instead by an empty tomb and two strangers dressed in “dazzling garments” who ask the question, “Why do you seek the Living One among the dead?” (Τί ζητεῖτε τὸν ζῶντα μετὰ τῶν νεκρῶν—Luke 24:5b). Later, in the opening scene of Acts, the disciples follow Jesus up the Mount of Olives and train their gaze on him as he is carried upward out of sight. While standing together straining their necks to watch him leave,[2] they are suddenly approached again by two men in white (the same who were at the empty tomb?) who ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Ἄνδρες Γαλιλαῖοι, τί ἑστήκατε βλέποντες εἰς τὸν οὐρανόν;—Acts 1:11a).

Luke Timothy Johnson rightly notes that both questions “serve as something of a rebuke,” and further compares them to the questions Jesus asks of his parents at the beginning of the Gospel in 2:49.[3] But what makes us read the question as a rebuke? What about the text inherently causes the reader to think of the question as sarcastic or even reproachful? Wayne Weissenbuehler explores the rhetorical and theological impact of the Acts 1:11 questions a bit further:

There is a preoccupation in verses 9-11 with seeing and not seeing. First, the apostles are “looking,” and then a cloud “takes him from their eyes.” They were “looking intently” into heaven and then the two men in white robes say, “Why do you stand looking?” The contrast indicates that some actions that were necessary prior to the ascension are no longer appropriate. The seeing that was essential if the apostles were to be eyewitnesses is no longer possible. It is time for something else. Visual perception will occur again only when Jesus returns. This text is both the ground of the church’s proclamation of Jesus’ exaltation to God’s right hand and its warrant not to spend its time therefore “gazing intently into heaven in loss or anticipation.[4]

As we will see below, a closer look at the rhetorical properties of each of these questions reveals that Weissenbuehler’s interpretation is indeed very close to how Luke’s audience would have read, heard, and interpreted the text. Both of the above questions likely fall under the category of what Douglas Estes refers to as expository reflective questions.[5] Reflective questions are intended to “cause a reader or listener to stop and think,”[6] i.e., to reflect on the subject of the question being asked. An expository question is a specific sub-category of reflective question in which the asker continues right away with his or her desired response.[7] Expository questions “do not signal a request for information but a request to prepare for information as provided.”[8] In both of the text-segments mentioned above, the angels’ question is answered by the angels themselves in the very next sentence.

In Luke 24:5b-7, the expository question is immediately followed by a hypophoric[9] answer: “He is not here, but has risen.  Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified, and on the third day be resurrected.” The reason the question “serves as something of a rebuke” is because—as the angels immediately point out—they should already know where the body of the Lord is. The question and its subsequent exposition yields the following response from the women in v.8: “Then they remembered what he said.” Here the imperative active indicative μνήσθητε (“remember”) from the angels corresponds with the aorist passive indicative ἐμνήσθησαν (“they remembered”). Just why are the women searching for Jesus among the tombs when he has previously explained to them “what must take place” (9:22)? The expository question jogs their memory. Rhetorically, furthermore, the exposition calls for the same result from the reader as well as the women, pointing backward into the narrative and beckoning the audience of the text to remember, as well.

Similarly, in the Acts passage, the expository question is immediately followed by the answer in 1:11b: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Here, the repeated use of “heaven” (οὐρανόν) draws attention to the eschatological focus of the discussion. The expository question, as in Luke 24:5a, also functions as a minor reprimand, and the subsequent statement regarding Jesus’ return results in the disciples’ departure from Olivet (Τότε ὑπέστρεψαν εἰς Ἰερουσαλὴμ…). The statement serves to push the assembled crowd back into “real life,” reminding them that there are more important things to be doing than standing around looking into heaven. Once again, as is the case with the Luke 24 text, the expository question is not only asked of the “men of Galilee,” but of the reader, as well. The nature of the reflective question causes the reader to consider what they are waiting for, drawing them away from staring expectantly at the sky and prompting the reader to travel with the disciples down from Olivet back into the city where the work of the Church is just beginning.

[1] In Luke, the two men are wearing “dazzling garments” (ἐσθῆτι ἀστραπτούσῃ) while in Acts they are wearing “bleached-white garments” (ἐσθήσεσι λευκαῖς).

[2] Generally accepted as a reference to Elisha watching Elijah being carried off to heaven in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:9-14. Elisha is told that he will receive a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit if he witnesses Elijah’s departure, and as Elijah is taken up his mantle falls from the sky, which Elisha then picks up for himself. Cf, however, N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 655.

[3] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Luke 24:1-11: The Not-So-Empty Tomb,” Interpretation 46 no. 1 (Jan. 1992), 60.

[4] Wayne Weissenbuehler, “Acts 1:1-11,” Interpretation 46 no. 1 (Jan. 1992), 64.

[5] Douglas Estes, The Questions of Jesus in John: Logic, Rhetoric, and Persuasive Discourse (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 107.

[6] Estes 81.

[7] Estes 107.

[8] Estes 107.

[9] Hypophora, according to Pseudo-Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium, is a type of question in which the answer is expected to be provided by the asker immediately following the question in order to reflect positively on the asker and negatively on the opponent.