Here’s an interesting question. What are we to understand by the phrase “Author of life” in the ESV translation of Acts 3:15? Since we would normally say that God as creator is the author of life, we might imagine that Peter is saying, in this very early defence of the apostolic witness, that Jesus is God. We would be wrong. But what’s interesting here is not the negative (Peter is not saying that Jesus is God) but the positive thought that emerges regarding how the saving impact of Jesus’ death was understood—at least, how Luke understood it to have been understood by the early Jewish-Christian movement.
BDAG, which is the standard dictionary of New Testament Greek, gives three meanings for archēgos: 1) leader, ruler, prince; 2) “one who begins someth. that is first in a series, thereby providing impetus for further developments”; 3) “one who begins or originates, hence the recipient of special esteem in the Gr-Rom. world, originator, founder”.
In the Greek Old Testament archēgos is used most often for the “head” (roᐣsh) of a tribe of Israel, but since “head” indicates someone who is in the first or foremost position, I think we can say that the word basically signifies a person who first does something or who initiates, inaugurates, or instigates something.
The city of Lachish is the archēgos of “sin for daughter Sion because in you were found the impious acts of Israel” (Mic. 1:13). Lachish sinned first, Israel followed suit. 1 Maccabees 9:61 speaks of certain men who were “instigators (archēgōn) of the evil” of a plot against the Maccabeans. Alexander, the son of Antiochus Epiphanes, is described as “the archēgos of peaceful words to them”—the first to speak words of peace to them (1 Macc. 10:47). The archēgos is the first person to do something; others will follow.
When Jesus is described as archēgos in the New Testament, therefore, we should ask in what sense he is the beginning or initiator of a series, for which he has become the recipient of special esteem.
This sense is especially clear in Hebrews. In order to bring “many sons to glory”, God “made perfect the archēgos of their salvation through sufferings”. Because Jesus and the many sons, who will be tested and will suffer in the same way (2:14-18), have the same source, Jesus is “not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:10-11). The idea here is that the “salvation” of these Jewish believers consists in the fact that they are walking the path that Jesus walked before them. God made him perfect through suffering and brought him to glory. Therefore, his persecuted followers, his brothers, will also be perfected through suffering and brought to the glory of resurrection and vindication.
This is exactly the argument that Paul makes in Romans: this community, which will soon face Nero’s savagery, has been chosen “to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Jesus and his followers are “brothers” to the extent that they share the same experience of suffering, death, vindication and glory.
The writer to the Hebrews also urges his readers to “run the contest” (the agōn of faithful witness under severe opposition) with endurance, “looking up to the archēgos and perfection of the faith, Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has been seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2). The inspiration for the endurance of the persecuted community will be the vision of Jesus who travelled this painful path before them and is now seated in glory at the right hand of the Father.
Through his faithfulness even unto death on a Roman cross (cf. Phil. 2:6-8), Jesus has initiated a concrete modus operandi, a narrow and difficult road leading to the life of the age that will come after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (cf. Matt. 7:13-14; Lk. 13:24), which the Jewish-Christian community must follow if it is to be saved in this period of eschatological crisis—as it works out its own salvation, in the wake of the vindication of Jesus, with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:9-12). The narrative conforms closely to the BDAG definition: Jesus begins something that is first in a series, thereby providing impetus for further developments.
Now let’s go back to Acts. I think that the very Jewish argument of Hebrews helps us here.
Peter’s contention, in two speeches, is that the Jews in Jerusalem had Jesus killed, but the God of Israel raised him from the dead, glorified his obedient servant (paida), and exalted him to his right hand (Acts 3:13-15; 5:30-31). It is this Jesus who is the archēgos of life, or archēgos and saviour.
Because this is the work of Israel’s God, the people of Jerusalem ought to repent of what they have done (they killed the originator of the life of the age to come) and turn back from the course they are on, so that they may be forgiven by God, receive the Holy Spirit, and await the time when Jesus will restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 3:19-21; cf. 1:6).
Notice how the soteriology was supposed to work: the Jews recognise that their God has raised from the dead the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel; therefore, they repent and begin to produce the fruit that the vineyard owner’s Son sought; therefore, because they have repented, they are forgiven and will not suffer the catastrophe of divine judgment. All very straightforward, no theology of atonement required.