On the Acts of the Apostles and History

For those of us in the New Testament discipline of “Christian Origins” or “Early Christianities,” the Acts of the Apostles has all the appearances of being a vital, defining book. It sets out, ostensibly, to tell the story of how a Jewish reform movement spread beyond its humble beginnings in Galilee to the cities of Syria, Asia, and Greece. For reasons that delimit permissible inquiry, we should be most interested in what “Luke,”[1] the supposed author of Acts, has to say about this black hole of the Jesus Movement.[2]

The problem with the book of Acts is that the author’s apologetic goals are apparent on any close reading of the book. Luke tells of a new appellation acquired by “Christians” in Antioch, and takes virtually every opportunity to antagonize against “the Jews,” who pose major problems for all of the book’s most important characters: Peter (4:1-3, 12:3-5), Stephen (6:11-15), and Paul (17:5, 20:3, 21:27-28, etc.) chief among them. Paul in particular is opposed by “the Jews” immediately after his “conversion” (9:23-25). In stark contrast, Roman officials, whenever called upon to adjudicate, can hardly find anything wrong the “movement” (17:35-39, 25:25-27).

The author of Acts goes to great lengths to show that Peter and Paul are delivering the same essential message about the faith (10:34, 11:18). Both are delivered miraculously from prison, and both are called upon to “finish the job” and shower the Holy Spirit upon nascent believers (8:14-17, 19:1-7). Peter’s shadow alone is an instrument of healing (5:15), whereas the handkerchiefs and clothes used by Paul can cure one of evil spirits (19:12). Peter faces opposition by circumcised believers (11:1-3), just as Paul does in Galatians. Who better to authorize the Pauline mission to Gentiles than the prototypical arch-apostle, Peter? The narrative of Acts demonstrates, essentially, that the only difference between Peter and Paul is the theater of their evangelistic mission.

Paul, furthermore, follows a “passion” sequence evocative of Jesus’s, each with three predictions of doom, four “trials,” three declarations of innocence and a mob seeking their demise.[3] It is particularly telling that Luke’s two volumes end with the triumph of Jesus (the gospel) and Paul (Acts), who is claimed to be “unhindered” in his ability to preach and teach the gospel in Rome (28:31). Finally, the subordination of other Christian centers, such as Antioch, to Jerusalem seems contrived. On the personal level, Paul is said to take orders from James after the Jerusalem Conference, when Paul’s attitude toward James in Galatians seems to rule out that potentiality.

During this spring quarter, which is very soon to come to a close, I have been taking an independent study on the book of Acts, where I have been reading Richard Pervo’s 2009 Hermeneia commentary on the book alongside the 2013 report of the Westar Institute’s Acts Seminar called Acts and Christian Beginnings.[4] This has been a particularly enlightening experience for me, given especially that Acts, more so than any other book of the New Testament (aside, perhaps, from the smaller of the general epistles), tends to fall through the cracks of a typical university’s course design. In my seminary experience, anyway, one semester can barely cover the gospels adequately, and the next semester is generally devoted to the Pauline letters, Revelation, and the general epistles (time permitting). These two halves of a typical academic year may appeal to the book of Acts when it becomes convenient, such as to support an argument,[5] but never does one get to read Acts in its own right and receive credit for doing so.

Pervo and the Acts Seminar reached a number of similar conclusions that break ground for a new generation of scholarship on the book of Acts and for the field of “Christian Origins” in general. A small sample of these is as follows:

  • Date of Composition: Whereas previous scholarship assumed a date for the book of Acts in the latter decades of the first century—usually on the grounds that the gospel according to Luke itself was composed around 80 CE, and Luke wrote Acts shortly thereafter—Pervo and the Acts Seminar now believe that Acts should more properly be dated a whole generation later, in the first decades of the second century (115-120 CE). This later dating is supported by evidence that Acts used the works of Josephus, completed just before the end of the first century, as a source for some episodes and small details. More importantly, Pervo and the Acts Seminar concur that Luke knew of and used the Pauline letters in the composition of Acts in a non-transparent way,[6] using the details therein to develop missionary itineraries, narrative events, and particularly the reconstruction of the so-called Jerusalem Council. I have generally found these arguments persuasive. Aside from these source-related reasons to date the book of Acts later, Pervo frequently notes that the historical period conjured by the machinations of Luke better accord with the early second century. One major example of this comes in Paul’s final speech to the leaders of the Ephesian church (20:18-38), where Pervo identifies a unique construction of Paul and distinct similarities with the concerns also found in the Pastorals.[7]
  • The Author as Skilled Storyteller: The deception underlying the “we” passages in Acts becomes unavoidable on this later dating of the book, since it becomes infinitely more unlikely that an adult companion of Paul survived to 115 or 120 CE to narrate events that transpired between 60 and 70 years earlier. To be sure, the authorship of Acts by the historical Luke had been doubted prior to Pervo and the Acts Seminar, but their work may very well be the idea’s death knell.  Given their conclusions, one would anticipate some reprobation for the author on the account of Pervo. Bart Ehrman regards Luke, for example, as a “non-pseudepigraphic forgery.”[8] What one finds from Pervo, however, is only complimentary: frequently, he credits the author (whoever he was) with creating “thrilling,” “entertaining,” “lively” and “artistic” scenes from the slightest of content, and at one point he even notes the “genius” of the author.[9] Along the way, the author successfully intertwines elements from Josephus, the Septuagint, Homer, Ovid, and others from popular literature in ways that add cleverness, humor and verisimilitude to the book.[10] Unfortunately, the recognition of these sources in the last century, combined with artificial parallelism between Peter and Paul and Jesus and Paul, has an adverse affect on claims to historical accuracy.[11]
  • Historicity of the Book: In reading Pervo and the Acts Seminar Report, it becomes clear that the edifice of historicity has been turned on its head. Pervo notes relatively close to the outset of his commentary that the book of Acts is unlikely to persuade those for whom reports of miracles and numerical growth are not relevant proofs of legitimacy.[12] But even the assumption of “historical kernels” behind the various stories and trials of Paul have come under intense scrutiny. The ostensible sources for the book, regarding the environs of Jerusalem and Antioch, which were the furthest from the author’s Ephesian milieu, in these early centuries have been bent out of shape in the author’s thorough reworking of material. The author’s purposes for writing a work such as this and his strategies for accomplishing these goals have compromised reality. The deduction of the Acts Seminar Report is therefore apt: “No longer can Acts be assumed to be historical unless proven otherwise. Rather, the burden of proof has shifted. Acts must be considered nonhistorical unless proven otherwise.”[13]

These conclusions and more proffered by Pervo and the Acts Seminar are likely to influence research on the book of Acts for decades to come. The serious student of “Christian Origins” or the book of Acts cannot well avoid them. Though the entirety of a book such as Acts can hardly be summarized on essentialist terms, my reading this quarter has made it clear that Acts is more of a (hagio)biography of Paul—with a long introduction to demonstrate continuity of the Christian story since the last terrestrial days of the resurrected Jesus—than a genuine history of the “acts” of the “apostles.” For Luke, the substantiation of his own Christian existence hinges on the successful acceptance of Paul’s story. As Pervo writes in the context of Paul’s self-defense before Agrippa and Festus, “the legitimacy of the church Luke knows stands or falls with the legitimacy of the Pauline mission.”[14]

Other stories and tales that Luke has come across find cause for expression in Acts, but they are but handmaidens to his primary purpose of (self-)legitimization. Peter, the first among the apostles, supplies the justification for the Gentile mission that Paul leads, and is never heard from again after the Jerusalem Conference. Conveniently, and ahistorically, the opposition that Paul faces in the book comes exclusively from “the Jews” and nonbelievers (16:19, 19:23-27, etc.), making Paul the epitome of movement and the book’s main protagonist. Accompanying this is an implicit, but immutable claim that the Pauline mission represents the authentic church, against which there is only heresy (which Paul has conveniently warned against, 20:28-31). Christianity is portrayed as hospitable, even friendly to Rome, in comparison to rabble-rousing “Jews.”[15] Luke has constructed a rich, compelling, and skillful narrative, but one that is at best historically dubious and at worst, malignantly deceptive, throwing those interested in actual history well off the scent of the complex realities of the earliest decades of “the Way.” The book of Acts tells us more about the apologetic needs of developing Christianity in the early second century than it does about the historical black hole of the fledgling Jesus movement.

*******************************************************************

As part of my independent study, I was to develop areas for future research and burning questions related to the book of Acts that I could pursue going forward. Among those questions and research topics in which I have become interested are the following:

  • Source Criticism. With the later dating of Acts, the sources available to and used by Luke become all the more important to recovering any remains of historical accuracy. Whereas Pervo frequently notes certain narrative elements that are “Lukan inventions” or “free authorial compositions,”[16] and often highlights elements that betray the use of a source,[17] the format of his commentary precludes him from being more thorough about source criticism. One of the major advantages of the Jesus Seminar was its production of the red, pink, gray and black letter edition of the gospels; it seems to me that the Acts Seminar Report could have been produced with a similar color-coded goal of suggesting Luke’s use of sources, whether they be the Septuagint, Josephus, the “Gentile mission source,” the “collection source,” popular authors, or the like. From this independent study, I am therefore interested in source criticism for the book of Acts on a more comprehensive scale, to try to understand what sorts of “data” were available to the author when he set out to accomplish this monumental task, and what sorts of “data” he invented unencumbered by historicity or available sources.
  • What about the “Twelve”? This has been a question I’ve pondered for some time, finding no real outlet to express or explore it. To be sure, Luke had solid precedents for referring to the “Twelve,” the gospels and letters of Paul chief among them. However, after being listed at 1:13, when the eleven are gathered to select Judas Iscariot’s replacement, nine of the twelve quickly bow out of the narrative, including the recently selected Matthias.[18] James, brother of John, is mentioned again only at his death (12:2), and John is but a (sometimes) companion of Peter’s, rather than an independent agent. Indeed, Pervo recognizes the “artificiality” of the “Twelve,” who, though suggested to be present at the Jerusalem Conference (15:6), are merely the audience of Peter, Barnabas, Paul, and James.[19] Even Peter, who plays a major role in the first 12 chapters and then makes an encore appearance at the Jerusalem Conference, disappears as James rises to prominence without fanfare or explanation. My questions, therefore, are as follows: Historically speaking, what function did the “Twelve” have? Were the “Twelve” meaningfully distinct from other disciples/apostles of Jesus, either during or after his ministry? (Similarly, why are only two of the “Seven” featured by Luke?) Can this book really be called the “Acts of the Apostles” if three-quarters of them play no role whatsoever?
  • Dating Luke. If Acts is dated at 115 CE, surely the date of the gospel of Luke must be pushed back considerably as well, at least into the second century if not to around 110. Neither Pervo nor the Acts Seminar Report address this necessity, given that it’s not in their purview, but the question must be considered. Similarly, and perhaps unexpectedly, the later date of Acts would seem to add legitimacy to those, like Mark Goodacre, who question the existence of Q and instead suggest that Luke excavated Q statements from Matthew, appropriating them freely. This would seem to comport with what Pervo has recognized as Luke’s free authorial abilities (though he still hangs on to Q). Anyhow, had Q survived as a distinct written source into the early second century, it perhaps becomes more likely that it would have been copied as a stand-alone document. Questions to ponder!
  • Assmann on the Creation of History. I’ve been reading Jan Assmann’s Cultural Memory and Early Civilization for a separate class during this last quarter. Can, I wonder, his theories and observations about early Israel, particularly related to the “invention” of religion based on the charter myth of the Exodus,[20] be applied to the work and genre of Luke-Acts? Assmann says, for example, that “the past … is a social construction whose nature arises out of the needs and frames of reference of each particular present. The past is not a natural growth but a cultural creation.”[21] This characterization seems eminently applicable to the work that Luke has accomplished, whereby religious identity is demonstrated and legitimized by miracles and numerical growth, epiphanies from God to Peter and Paul, and a line of succession back to Jesus. I have not explored the connections between Assmann and Acts in depth, but I would certainly like to.

[1] Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul toward the end of the second century, is the first extant Christian writer to connect the book of Acts with Luke, the companion of Paul according to the so-called prison correspondence (Adv. haer. 3.14.1). Irenaeus based his judgment off the “we” passages in Acts (i.e., Acts 16:10-17; 27:1-28:16, etc.), where the narrative has the appearance of first-hand experience by its author. There are a number of good reasons to doubt the authenticity of this judgment; many critical scholars recognize this as a literary device perhaps left over from the author’s source(s) but more likely as an intentional attempt to deceive later readers. Intentional or not, the device worked. I, like many other scholars, continue to call the author “Luke” out of convenience alone.

[2] Our first primary sources for followers of Jesus are from Paul, whose authentic letters date approximately from 48 CE (1 Thessalonians) to 55-56 CE (Romans). The gospels, as we have them, all date after 70 CE. Nearly two decades elapsed after the crucifixion of Jesus before any proto-Christian put their thoughts on papyrus! In this void, Luke set out to pick up the narrative where his gospel left off, in the days after the resurrection, in order to tell a certain kind of story about this “black hole” of Christian history.

[3] Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 533.

[4] Not only does the Acts Seminar Report use Pervo’s Hermeneia translation as its base text, but a significant amount of cross-pollenation has transpired between the two. Pervo was a voting member of the Acts Seminar, and often cites his colleagues, who wrote excurses for the Acts Seminar Report, from its sessions in the Hermeneia volume. Pervo similarly authored several of the excurses appearing in the Acts Seminar Report. Without taking away from the value of both publications, it may be said that the Acts Seminar Report is a reader’s digest version of the Hermeneia volume. Whereas Pervo intentionally overwhelms the scholar with his voluminous background research, the Acts Seminar Report attempts to reach a broader audience with a cleaner version supported, more silently, with equal scholarly bona fides.

[5] The example that comes immediately to mind is Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: A Critical Life, where the recently departed scholar simultaneously doubts Acts’ overarching witness to the biography of Paul, but nevertheless uses Acts when it aligns with his thoughts. Murphy-O’Connor believes, for example, that Acts preserves the truer version of the Jerusalem Conference than does Paul in Galatians. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul: A Critical Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 133.

[6] Whereas Bart Ehrman has recently suggested that the author of Acts doesn’t know the letters of Paul particularly well, Pervo and the Acts Seminar believe that he did, but sought to override them with his own narrative, wherein the “authentic Paul” became a Lukan construction of early orthodoxy. Bart D. Ehrman, Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 281. Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson, eds., Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report (Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2013), 117. While this latter perspective is not without its problems—for Luke could not have possibly thought that the Pauline letters would be suppressed—I am more inclined to accept it than the postulation that he knew of the letters but didn’t avail himself of the opportunity to understand them. Pervo finds that Luke used his other sources, such as the “Gentile mission source,” in highly creative and transformative ways to suit his discursive needs, and there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t have done the same with the letters of Paul.

[7] Pervo, 525-526.

[8] Ehrman, 264.

[9] Pervo, 140, 400, 442, 506.

[10] One magnificent example of this that caught my attention comes in Lystra, where the locals claim that Paul and Barnabas are actually Zeus and Hermes after Paul heals an infirm man (14:8-18). Pervo, citing A. D. Nock, suggests that this comes from a tale of Ovid in which the residents of Phrygia fail to recognize Zeus and Hermes within their midst, and suffer for it with a flood that claims their lives. Pervo writes, “Those who know the story will appreciate its wit. These yokels are determined not to be taken unawares again.” Pervo, 353-354.

[11] Pervo, 592-593.

[12] Ibid., 42.

[13] Smith and Tyson, 4.

[14] Pervo, 620.

[15] It is likely that this portrait of Jews would have found favor with the Roman elite, who were all aligned against Jewish “superstition” in this period. Luke’s work has sought to distinguish Christians from Jews, but in so doing, substantiated centuries of lamentable Christian anti-Judaism. Shelly Matthews (in Smith and Tyson, 91), suggests that this was part of an endeavor to carve out space for Christianity in the Roman Empire.

[16] Pervo, 580.

[17] Often times, these sources include lists of names or places, but he hints at more comprehensive sources as well.

[18] I concur with Pervo that the Philip who features most prominently in ch. 8 is the Philip named among the “Seven,” not the Philip of the “Twelve.” Pervo, 205.

[19] Pervo, 307 n. 73.

[20] “Charter myth” is my phrase, appropriated from elsewhere. Assmann refers to Exodus’ function as a “memory figure.” Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 180.

[21] Assmann, 33.

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