Advancing religious literacy

Rethinking the Book of Acts

The six papers in this volume derive from several of the final sessions of the Westar Acts Seminar. The Seminar was an initiative begun in 1999 under the direction of Dennis E. Smith. It ran for just over a decade and culminates with a new commentary on Acts that, along with an English translation of the text, develops many of the findings related to the Seminar ’s discussion. Co-edited by Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson, Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report (Polebridge, 2013) appears in concert with this issue of Forum.

All of the articles in this issue argue against the historicity of Acts. While each develops a different topic and passage within the book, their combined perspective attests that Luke’s Acts is a stylized narrative that has been fashioned for particular purposes. Borrowing from a wide array of sources, Luke creates what moderns would call a work of historical fiction.

Using Acts 2:41–47 as his sample text, Dennis Smith ably demonstrates many points of similarity between Luke’s description of the early Christian community and Greco-Roman associations. As the early community is depicted in Acts, ancient Greco-Roman associations followed certain rules, shared meals in common, said prayers to a deity, and emphasized loyalty among its members. These close comparisons to other types of ancient gatherings suggest that Luke’s depiction of the early community reflects less of an actual early gathering of Jesus-believers and more of the Greco-Roman associations of Luke’s day, to a period in the early decades of the second century ce.

Richard Pervo has contributed two essays for this issue. In the first one, “Is There a There There? Looking for Antioch in the Former Antioch Source,” Pervo engages in a source-critical reading of Acts 2–14. Through his close reading of these early chapters, he locates material that conflict with Luke’s overall agenda as seen in later chapters. According to Pervo, these differences in perspective suggest the use of a particular source, a gentile-mission  source, which favors the seven instead of the twelve, holds to a spiritual connection with Jerusalem, and promotes Peter. According to Pervo, the source likely originated in a community centered in Antioch. In his second essay, “What Athens Has in Common with Jerusalem: The Speeches in Acts as Historical Record,” Pervo demonstrates that the speeches in Acts are not likely historical. Rather than declaim facts to persons signaled within the text, the speeches help to shape the plot and are directed to the text’s readers/hearers, to its external audience. Among the speeches Pervo reviews in Acts are Paul’s accounts of his conversion. Paul makes three speeches of this experience and all three differ.

By means of a comparison with Paul’s views on circumcision in his extant letters and Luke’s treatment of the account of Paul’s circumcision of Timothy in Acts 16:1–5, my own contribution argues against the historical reliability of Luke’s account. Throughout this essay, “Circumcision as a means of testing the historicity of Acts 16:1–5,” I observe that, unlike Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s actions, in his extant letters Paul consistently argues against the necessity of circumcision and does not buckle to the wishes of observant Jews. It is suggested that the reason why Luke promoted a Paul who accommodates Jews was to challenge Marcion’s rejection of Judaism and its scriptures.

In his paper “‘And so We Left Troy/Troas’ Pseudo-Luke’s  Imitation of the ‘We-Voyages’ in Homer’s Odyssey,” Dennis MacDonald finds extensive parallels between Paul’s voyages in Acts and the first leg of Odysseus’ nostoi (the returns). MacDonald demonstrates how viewing Homer’s Odyssey as a source for the “we-voyages” in Acts helps resolve the change in narration to the first-person plural. Homer’s narrator often switches between a first-person singular or plural form and a third-person singular. According to MacDonald, Luke both borrowed from and transformed his Homeric source. MacDonald demonstrates how tales of adventures at sea were the stock-in-trade of ancient literature. He concludes his essay with the provocative idea that a fictive Luke is signaled as Acts’ author, a name that would have cued the ancient readers/hearers that Acts tells its story of Christian origins from a Pauline perspective.

Finally, in his essay “Historical  issues in Acts 28:11–31,” Gerd Lüdemann writes that Luke bases this narrative on theological presuppositions and is historically inaccurate on many points. Since Luke claims to narrate history, Acts should be held to the same level of accuracy with regard to its claims as other similar ancient writings. In general, Luke’s account is biased in favor of the Roman military. As for examples of this tendency, Lüdemann mentions that without warrant Acts exonerates Rome from any responsibility for the deaths of Jesus and Paul. With his careful review and critique of the final passage in Acts, Lüdemann concludes that Luke’s agenda is to advise Rome to maintain a hands-off policy toward Christianity.

—Nina E. Livesey
Editor, Forum

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