ROUGH DRAFT--NOT FOR CITATION
This paper appeared in Currents in Biblical Research 4.3 (2005): 365-96. CBR is an international peer-reviewed journal which publishes surveys over topics related to contemporary Biblical scholarship.
The Genre of Acts: Moving Toward a Consensus?
Thomas E. Phillips
Colorado Christian University
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, issues of historical accuracy and reliability dominated Acts scholarship. As early as the turn of the twentieth century, surveys of scholarship demonstrated that Acts scholarship was clearly divided into two traditions, a conservative (largely British) tradition which had great confidence in the historicity of Acts and a less conservative (largely German) tradition which had very little confidence in the historicity of Acts (van Manen 1898; Bumstead 1901; Moffatt 1908). Several subsequent surveys of scholarship have demonstrated that the same division continues within Acts scholarship to the present time (e.g., Robertson 1920; Clarke 1922; Hunkin 1922; McGiffert 1922; Barrett, 1961; Guthrie 1963; Rese 1967; Blaiklock 1970; Karris 1979; Plümacher 1984; Hahn 1986; Powell 1991; Tyson and Parsons 1992; Grässer 2001; Marshall 2003). The two most important histories of nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century Acts scholarship also illustrate this division with W. W. Gasque (1989) privileging the more historically conservative tradition of Acts scholarship and A. J. Matill (1959) privileging the less historically conservative tradition of Acts scholarship.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the best of the conservative tradition was represented by scholars like F. F. Bruce (1954; 1960; 1984; 1990), I. H. Marshall (1969; 1970; 1978; 1992; 2003) and C. Hemer (1977; 1989), who often followed the earlier work of the British W. M. Ramsay (1897; 1911) and the American H. J. Cadbury (1927; 1955; 1958). During the same period, the other tradition, which had less confidence in the historicity of Acts, was best represented by M. Dibelius (1956), H. Conzelmann (1960; 1966; 1987) and E. Haenchen (1966; 1971). In this two-century long debate over the historicity of Acts and its underlying traditions, only one assumption seemed to be shared by all: Acts was intended to be read as history. Although the debate over historicity has never fully abated, since the mid-1970s another debate has arisen to parallel (and sometimes overshadow) the unsettled historicity debate.
This parallel debate has questioned whether the historicity debate was predicated upon an inaccurate assessment of the genre of Acts as history. This essay will examine the Acts scholarship of the last 35 years which has engaged in this rethinking of the genre of Acts. It will examine the major proposals for the genre of Acts as biography, novel, epic and various kinds of history. After examining these proposals, the essay will conclude by examining what may be an emerging consensus regarding the genre of Acts.
Acts as Biography (Charles H. Talbert)
The first major challenge to classifying Acts as history came from Charles Talbert (1974). In his wide ranging and influential monograph, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and the Genre of Luke-Acts, Talbert observed the ‘principle of balance’ which was ‘present in the Lucan mileu and rooted in the aesthetic assumptions of the Mediterranean peoples’ (1974: 125). For Talbert, the balance present both between the two volumes of Luke-Acts and between the characters and deeds within those volumes were the key to understanding the genre of Luke-Acts. Talbert noted, ‘It has not yet been determined, however, just exactly how the patterns are related to the genre of Acts….The major problem, of course, is to determine exactly to what genre Luke-Acts belongs’ (1974: 125). Talbert attempted to solve this ‘major problem’ by comparing Luke-Acts to Diogenes Laertius’ third century Lives of Eminent Philosophers.
Talbert’s comparison focused upon three areas: content, form, and function. In regard to content, Talbert argued that Laertius’ subjects, philosophers, ‘were regarded as divine figures….The proper model for understanding the role a founder of a philosophical school in antiquity is a religious, not an academic one’ (1974: 126). He further explained that Laertius’ Lives not only discussed the lives of the founders of the various philosophical schools, but also included ‘narratives about the masters’ successors and selected other disciples who in actuality formed a type of religious community created and sustained by the divine figure’ (1974: 126). The final component in the content of Laertius’ Lives contained ‘summaries of the doctrine of the various schools’ (1974: 127).
In Talbert’s analysis, this content therefore took ‘an (a)+(b)+(c) form’ in which ‘(a) life of the founder + (b) narrative about the disciples and successors + (c) summary of the doctrine of the school’ could be expected (1974: 127). Importantly, however, the (c) component could be omitted in some cases because both the (a) and (c) components fulfilled the same function, ‘to protect the master from false charges’ (1974: 129). According to Talbert, both the life of the philosopher (a) and the narrative about the disciples (b) were consistently present because they complemented—without overlapping—one another in function. The account of the founder’s life established ‘the way of life of a given school derived from or associated with him,’ while the narrative about the founder’s disciples sanctioned ‘the authentic or true way of the various schools’ (1974: 128). According to Talbert, the disciples’ narrative served to legitimate the true and appropriate heirs of the founder’s tradition.
After offering this explanation of the content, form and function of the biographies in Laertius’ Lives, Talbert made comparisons between Laertius’ Lives and Luke-Acts. In terms of content, Talbert argued that ‘Luke-Acts, as well as Diogenes Laertius, therefore, has for its contents the life of a founder of a religious community, a list or narrative of the founder’s successors and selected other disciples, and a summary of the doctrine of the community’ (1974: 129-30). In terms of form, Luke-Acts contains the two essential elements of Laertius’ form, the account of the founder’s life (a) and the narrative about the subsequent disciples (b) even though the less significant third element, the summary of doctrine (c), is omitted (1974: 130). For Talbert, Luke-Acts, therefore, functioned as did Laertius’ Lives: to legitimate the proper interpreters of the founder’s original teachings. Talbert explained:
In the ancient
world the (a)+(b) pattern is found only in certain Lives of the philosophers
and in Luke-Acts. This is a striking fact. There is furthermore a similarity in purpose
between Luke-Acts and the Lives of philosophers following this pattern, whether they be
collections or individual Lives. Both are concerned to say where the true tradition is to
be found in the present (1974: 134).
Given the similarity of content, form and function, Talbert was able to conclude that ‘Luke-Acts, to some extent, must be regarded as belonging to the genre of Greco-Roman biography, in particular, to that type of biography which dealt with the lives of the philosophers and their successors’ (1974: 134). According to Talbert, the author of Luke-Acts chose this genre in order to vindicate a particular form of Christianity (represented by the apostles and Paul) as the true heir to Jesus’ life and teachings and to undermine competing claims to legitimacy. Talbert explained:
Both Luke’s choice
of genre type for his message to the church and his development
of the type chosen were rooted in the Sitz im Leben of his community. The Lucan
community was one that was troubled by a clash of views over the legitimate
understanding of Jesus and the true nature of the Christian life. The Evangelist needed to
be able to say both where the true tradition was to be found in his time (i.e., with the
successors of Paul and of the Twelve) and what the content of that tradition was (i.e.,
how the apostles lived and what they taught, seen as rooted in the career of Jesus) (1974:
135, emphasis Talbert’s).
In subsequent writings, Talbert continued to defend this argument both in regard to the genre of the gospels as biography (1977; 1992) and in regard to Luke-Acts as biography (1978; 1980; 1996). Not surprisingly, several scholars have accepted and continued to develop Talbert’s suggestions about the biographical nature of the gospels (e.g., Shuler 1990; Stuhlmacher 1990; Burridge 1992; 1998). More significantly, some scholars have also continued to develop Talbert’s hypothesis in regard to Luke-Acts (Robbins 1979; 1981; Barr and Wentling 1984; Alexander 1993a; 1999). In spite of such sporadic attention, the fact remains that in terms of the consensus of scholarship, J. T. Carroll’s assessment is correct: Talbert’s classification of Acts as biography ‘has found few followers’ (1999: 59).
Acts as Novel (Richard I. Pervo)
In his widely discussed monograph, Profit with Delight, R. Pervo described his attempt to identify the genre of Acts as an effort ‘to view the document of Acts from a different perspective’ (1987: 1). Pervo was well aware of scholarly tendencies both to regard Acts as historiography and to remain suspicious of the historicity of Acts. Pervo, therefore, began his analysis by considering an irony which he found in the work of the distinguished Acts scholar E. Haenchen. According to Pervo, Haenchen assumed ‘without reference to evidence, that Luke was a historian,’ but also dismissed the historicity of Acts as untenable (Pervo 1987: 3). Yet, according to Pervo, Haenchen ironically demonstrated that Acts needed ‘no apologies’ when viewed as a literary achievement because
skill he [Haenchen] revealed Luke’s capacity to conjure up exciting
episodes with creative ingenuity and a sound dramatic instinct. Heanchen convincingly
elucidated Luke’s bewitching ability to foist upon his readers one inconsistency after
another and convert the most dreary material into good reading (Pervo 1987: 3).
The central concern for Pervo’s monograph, therefore, became the ‘enigma thus produced: a Luke who was bumbling and incompetent as a historian yet brilliant and creative as an author’ (1987: 3).
Pervo rejected the notion that Luke could be both a ‘stupid historian and brilliant writer’ and instead sought a more appropriate genre classification for ‘works that are bad history and good writing’ (1987: 3). Pervo acknowledged that the prefaces and speeches in Acts were consistent with ancient historiography, but he also insisted that their presence alone was insufficient to establish the genre of Acts as historiography. Instead, Pervo noted ‘the great gulf fixed between Luke and learned historians of his era’ (1987: 7). Pervo argued that cultured writers in the first century ‘sneered at the notion of lowbrow history’ and that the lowbrow Acts, therefore, could not be historiography (1987: 11).
For Pervo, Acts was distinguished from the histories of the era by two major criteria. First, Acts was a popular, as opposed to, a learned document. ‘Luke did not write a learned treatise. He was “popular” writer’ (1987: 11). Second, as popular literature, Acts maintained a deeper interest in entertaining its readers than did the learned historiography of the time (1987: 11). For Pervo, many of the literary themes (e.g., persecution, conspiracies, riots and travels) and literary devices (e.g., wit and irony) in Acts would have entertained ancient readers and encouraged them to read Acts as something other than historiography (1987: 12-85).
Pervo suggested that Acts bears significant resemblance to ancient novels, which he defines as ‘a relatively lengthy work of prose fiction depicting and deriding certain ideals through an entertaining presentation of the lives and experiences of a person or persons whose activity transcends the limits of ordinary living as known to its implied readers’ (1987: 105). Pervo, like Talbert, offered a formula for determining the genre of Acts, suggesting that ‘the novel = material + manner + style + structure’ (1987: 114). For Pervo, a novel is a fictive narrative about intriguing personalities which incorporates predictable themes (e.g., religion, status, travel, and adventure) and is told both in an entertaining manner and in a style accessible to the common person (1987: 104-14).
Pervo suggested that the apocryphal Acts are very close to the canonical Acts in genre and that ‘none of the attempts to distinguish these Acts into canonical and apocryphal types of substantially different genres is compelling’ (1987: 131). Although none of the apocryphal Acts have a companion volume like the third gospel, Pervo was unbothered because he assumed that Luke and Acts do not belong to the same genre (1987: 4; 1989; Parsons and Pervo: 1993). For Pervo, the gospel of Luke is probably biography or perhaps a ‘biographical novel’ (1987: 185, n. 5), while Acts tilts ‘sharply toward the historical novel’ (1987: 137). Pervo argued for the ‘ancient novel’s relevance to the understanding of Acts’ and desires ‘that such comparison [between Acts and ancient novels] proceed alongside, as well as in competition with, investigations using historiographical models’ (1987: 137).
Although Pervo is often sharply criticized for classifying Acts as an ancient novel (e.g., Walker 1989), he never made a complete equation between the genre of Acts and the ancient novel. His research did, however, highlight both what he regarded as strong parallels between the ancient novel and the book of Acts and what he considered a fruitful point of comparison for subsequent research. Although such comparisons were already in their infancy (e.g., Schlierling and Schlierling 1978; Praeder 1981) before Pervo’s eloquent apology for rethinking the fictive nature of Acts, in the wake of Pervo’s monograph comparisons between Acts and ancient novels became increasingly common in leading peer-reviewed publications (e.g., Dawsey 1989; Alexander 1995; Ascough 1996; Harrill 2000; Schwartz 2003).
Acts as Epic (Dennis R. MacDonald)
During the 1980s and early 1990s, D. MacDonald distinguished himself as a leading scholar in the study of the apocryphal Acts (1983; 1984; 1990; 1990a; 1993; 1993a). In the mid and late 1990s, MacDonald began to investigate the relationship between early Christian narratives and the Homeric epics. His initial explorations considered the relationship between the apocryphal Acts and Homer (1994) and between the Apocrypha’s Tobit and Homer (2001). During this time, he also made occasional comparison between specific New Testament scenes and Homer (e.g., 1994a; 1998; 1999; 2000), but MacDonald broke entirely new ground when he announced that ‘I have come to conclude that Mark wanted his readers to detect his transvaluation of Homer’ (2000a: 3). MacDonald suggested that discussions of Mark’s genre had been misguided to that point. He explained that in regard to the genre of Mark, ‘the elusive Holy Grail of gospel studies’,
…[t]he most common
solution avers that Mark intended to write a biography of sorts but
was humbugged by the unreliable, legendary traditions available to him. In this book I
argue, however, that the key to Mark’s composition has less to do with its genre than with
its imitation of specific texts of a different genre: Mark wrote a prose epic modeled
largely after the Odyssey and the ending of the Iliad (2000a: 3).
Although MacDonald’s arguments demonstrated his characteristic scholarly acumen and meticulous analysis, many reviewers remained skeptical about Mark’s imitation of Homer because, as MacDonald noted, they wondered ‘why did ancient readers not mention it?’ (2003: 13). Eventually, MacDonald came to believe that he had discovered at least one of Mark’s early readers who ‘did recognize his [Mark’s] imitations of the epics: the author of Luke-Acts’ (2003: 14). MacDonald contended that having recognized Mark’s imitation, Luke employed the same technique in Acts. For MacDonald, the implications of his literary reclassification of Mark and Luke-Acts as imitations of Homeric epic were immense. It meant that ‘one best reads these texts against the backdrop not of history and antecedent Christian tradition but of classical Greek literature and mythology’ (2003: 14-15; also see Selvidge 1986; Kullman 1988). The supposed Greek heritage behind Mark and Luke is important, because it legitimized MacDonald’s criticism of Bonz’s attempt to identify Acts with the Latin epic poem, Aeneid (Bonz 2000). MacDonald appropriately noted that the incongruities between the New Testament’s Greek prose and the Aeneid’s Latin poetry presented ‘a high hurdle’ which Bonz was unable to clear (MacDonald 2003: 8-9).
MacDonald offered six criteria for establishing one ancient author’s imitation of another author, including Luke’s imitation of Homer. These six criteria were: (1) accessibility, the originating text must have been widely available and readable to the imitating author (Bonz’s Latin model fails this test); (2) analogy, other ancient writers must have also imitated the originating text; (3) density, the imitation must display several specific signs of imitation; (4) sequence, the imitation must convey accounts in the same sequence as the source text; (5) distinctiveness, the source and its imitation must share distinctive (rather than culturally common) features; and (6) interpretability, the imitation must reveal its intention to reinterpret the source text (MacDonald 2003: 2-6). For MacDonald, ‘If any author of the New Testament was capable of imitating Homeric epic it was the author of Luke-Acts’ (2003: 7). MacDonald sought to demonstrate this imitation by comparing four scenes from Acts with similar scenes from Homer. He compared the visions of Cornelius and Peter (Acts 10:1-11:18) with Agamemnon’s dream (Iliad 2); Paul’s farewell at Miletus (Acts 20:18-35) with Hector’s farewell (Iliad 6); the election of Matthias (Acts 1:15-26) with casting lots for Ajax (Iliad 7); and Peter’s escape from prison (12:3-17) with Priam’s escape from Achilles (Iliad 24).
Not surprisingly, after subjecting these accounts to a cautious analysis on the basis of his six criteria, MacDonald concluded: ‘Does the New Testament imitate Homer? For me the answer is a resounding Yes! One cannot discount the parallels as coincidental or trivial’ (2003: 151). According to MacDonald, the recognition of Acts as an imitation of Homeric epic entails ‘theological implications [that] are profound’ (2003: 151). According to MacDonald, in the mind of the author of Acts, the function of the narrative was never to preserve historical memories from the early church (even though at points, the author may have been informed by such traditions) and the nature of evangelism in the early church was not an appeal to the supposed facts of history. Rather the function of Acts was ‘intertextual “transvaluation,” the strategic replacement of the values of the targeted text [Homer] with new ones [those of early Christianity]’ (2003: 151). For MacDonald, therefore, ‘[a]ncient evangelism was, to a large extent, a mythomachia, a battle among competing fictions’ (2003: 151).
MacDonald recognized that acceptance of his arguments about the genre of Acts would demand a reconsideration of a vast array of religious and scholarly assumptions—and he is not naïve. He recognized that ‘scholarly glaciers move slowly’ (2003: 14). Of course, the acceptance or rejection of his arguments will ultimately be determined in large part by the plausibility of the intertextuality he offered. On this point, MacDonald was walking a treacherous path. He argued that ancient imitators
disguise their dependence to avoid charges of pedantry and plagiarism, but
mimesis often is difficult to recognize even when authors advertise their works as
imitations. Today we read these texts with a cultural competence radically different
from those for whom they were written; ancient readers could detect allusion invisible to all
but the best-trained classicists (2003: 2).
Essentially, MacDonald has given himself the task of making the ‘invisible’ visible again. Not surprisingly, some interpreters suspect that MacDonald was creating rather than discovering the parallels that he developed.
The reader will ultimately have to determine the plausibility of MacDonald’s parallels. The following examples are typical. On a thematic level, MacDonald (2003: 101) offered this chart:
* Hector was a target of violence.
* Hector returned to Troy to have the elders pray to the gods.
* Hector was eager to return to the battle despite the danger.
* Hector’s farewell to Andromache took place not at their home but at the gate.
* Hector would not die until days later.
* Paul was a target of violence.
* Paul had left Troas and summoned the elders for instruction and prayer.
* Paul was eager to return to Jerusalem despite the danger.
* Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders took place not at their home but at Miletus.
* Paul would not die until years later.
As more direct literary parallels, MacDonald (2003: 111-12) offered these analogies.
And nine men all stood
And nine men all stood,
The first by far to stand was Agamemnon,
Lord of men, then rose mighty Diomedes
of Tydeus, and after them the two Ajaxes,
clothed in impetuous valor, and after them
Idomeneus and Idomeneus’s comrade
Meriones, equal to man-slaying Enyalius,
and after them Eurypylos, glorious son of
Euaemon, and up jumped Thoas of Andaemon and bold Odysseus—
all these wanted to
fight with noble Hector.
And each man marked his lot
and cast it into the helmet of Atreides
And the people prayed and lifted their
hands to the gods, looking up to broad
heaven, one would speak like
this: “Father Zeus,
(I pray that) Ajax may win the lot,
or the son of Tydeus,
or the king of gold-rich Mycene himself.”
So they spoke, and the horseman, Nestor
of Gerenia, shook them, and out from the
helmet popped the lot that
they had wanted: that of Ajax.
And they presented two men.
They ascended to the upper room
where they stayed—Peter, and John, and
James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas,
Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of
Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and
Judas son of James—
all these were continuing
together in prayer.
(Peter’s statement in 1:17 anticipates
the casting of lots: Judas won his ministry
with the Twelve in a lottery of sorts)
And they prayed
“Lord, knower of hearts,
indicate which of these two men
you select to take
the place of this service and apostleship
that Judas forsook to go to his own place.”
And they gave them lots,
and the lot fell
Undoubtedly, some parallels will prove more convincing than others. In the appendix, MacDonald (2003: 153-65) offers 12 pages of parallels in Greek and Latin (the italics in the table above indicate where MacDonald finds direct correspondence between the language in Homer and Acts).
Acts as History (Variations on the Majority Opinion within Scholarship)
In spite of the significant arguments raised by the scholars considered to this point in this article, a clear majority of scholars still argues—and, in fact, often assumes—that the book of Acts belongs to a historiographical genre. For many scholars, the possibility that Acts belongs to something other than a historical genre is dismissed with little more than a brief mention. A great number of Acts scholars has been satisfied to grant Acts the largely undifferentiated designation of ancient historiography (e.g., Haenchen 1971: 90-103; Scott 1974; Hemer 1977; 1989; Hengel 1979; Roloff 1981: 6-10 ; Maddox 1982: 15-18; Krodel 1986: 39-43; Kurz 1987; 1990; Jones 1989; Lüdemann 1989; Thornton 1991; Green and McKeever 1994: 32-35; Pesch 1995: 34-36; Jervell 1996; Dunn 1996: xv-xix; Green 1996; 2002; Kee 1997: 11-14; Alexander 1998a; Gilbert 1999; Verheyden 1999: 45-48; Wilson 2001; Bovon 2003; Culy and Parsons 2003: xviii-xix).
In spite of the scholarly tendency to blur distinctions between different types of ancient history, a significant number of scholarly works (including other works by some of the scholars just noted) has sought to provide Acts with a more precise classification within the broadly conceived genre of historiography. For these scholars, the question has not been whether or not Acts is history, but rather to what the specific subgenre of history Acts belongs. Scholars have suggested various descriptions of Acts as ‘apologetic history’ (Sterling 1989; 1992; Barrett 1996a: 37; 1996; Johnson 1992: 3-9; Tomson 1999; Penner 2000), ‘rhetorical history’ (Yamada 1996), ‘apostolic testimony’ and ‘oral history’ (Byrskog 2000: 228-34; 1999), ‘historical monograph’ (Plümacher 1979; Conzelmann 1987: xl-xliii; Palmer 1993; Fitzmyer 1998: 127), ‘hagiography’ (Evans 1993), and ‘institutional history’ (Cancik 1997). Although such designations are often useful for the various authors’ immediate purposes, many of these designations overlap and, therefore, lack the precision to clearly distinguish them from other historiographical genre designations.
After one sorts through the competing and overlapping designations for the historical subgenre of Acts, one is left with four major options for the historical subgenre to which Acts belongs. This article will now examine these four major options as explained by their most important advocates.
Acts as General History (David Aune)
Even though Talbert’s arguments for placing Luke-Acts in the genre of biography were never widely accepted, his monographs (1974; 1977) about ancient biography helped to reinforce the scholarly consensus about the biographical nature of the gospels (but not Acts). In his influential examination of the literary backgrounds for the New Testament, D. Aune agreed with Talbert about the biographical nature of the gospels (1987: 46-74). Somewhat surprisingly, however, Aune argued that the gospel of Luke could not be classified as ancient biography, because it ‘was subordinated to a larger literary structure. Luke does not belong to a type of ancient biography for it belongs with Acts, and Acts cannot be forced into a biographical mold’ (1987: 77). Aune, like Talbert before him, sought a genre designation which was appropriate for the two volume work of Luke-Acts in its entirety. For Aune, ‘Luke-Acts is a popular “general history” written by an amateur Hellenistic historian with credentials in Greek rhetoric’ (1987: 77).
After rejecting Talbert’s and Pervo’s suggestions (as outlined above), Aune surveyed historiographical genres within the Greco-Roman world. He found ‘five major genres of Hellenistic “historical” writing in antiquity …: (1) genealogy or mythography, (2) travel descriptions (ethnography and geography), (3) local history, (4) chronology, and (5) history’ (1987: 84). Within the fifth category of ‘history’, he suggested three additional subgenres which he labeled: ‘historical monographs’ (which addressed a specific topic within the recent past), general history (which presented the recent history and culture of a particular people), and antiquarian history (which presented the ancient history of a people) (1987: 86-89). For Aune, Luke’s self-designation of his gospel as a ‘narrative’ (1:1), rather than a ‘gospel’ (as in Mark), ‘indicated his intention to write history’ (1987: 116) and the content of Luke-Acts placed the text within the subgenre of general history (1987: 139).
In Aune’s opinion, as a general history, Luke-Acts was designed to define the community’s identity for its adherents and to legitimate its identity for non-adherents. Aune suggested that ‘Luke-Acts provided historical definition and identity as well as theological legitimation for the author’s conception of normative Christianity’ (1987: 137). Aune argued that Luke-Acts addressed a series of important needs which arose among Christians during the second half of the first century. According to Aune’s reconstruction of the occasion for the writing of Luke-Acts,
[b]y ca. A.D. 50,
Christianity was a religious movment [sic] needing definition,
identity, and legitimation. (1) Christianity needed definition because during the first generation of
its existence, it exhibited a broad spectrum of beliefs and practices, sometimes manifested
in splinter groups making exclusive claims.…(2) Christianity needed identity because,
unlike other Mediterranean religions, it had ceased to remain tied to a particular ethnic
group (i.e., it had increasingly looser relations to Judaism).…(3) Christianity needed
legitimation, because no religious movement or philosophical sect could be credible
unless it was rooted in antiquity (1987: 137, emphasis Aune’s).
According to Aune, the genre of general history allowed Luke the opportunity ‘to conceptualize Christianity on analogy to an ethnic group…as an independent religious movement in the process of emerging from Judaism to which it is its legitimate successor’ (1987: 140). Aune argued that even Luke’s use of the titles like ‘the Way’, ‘the Nazarenes’, ‘sect’, and ‘Christians’ conforms to the identity-establishing function of a general history because ‘these labels all serve to identify Christians as a distinct group’ (1987: 141). For Aune, therefore, the book of Acts (more accurately Luke-Acts) belonged to the genre of general history, a genre which allowed Luke to establish the identity and legitimacy of the emerging church as a people with a distinct cultural heritage within the Greco-Roman world.
Acts as Political History (David L. Balch)
Throughout the 1980 and 1990s, D. Balch produced a host of influential articles exploring the book of Acts as ancient historiography (1985; 1987; 1989; 1990; 1990a; 1993; 1995; 1997; 1998; 1999). Of course, Balch was not alone in comparing Acts to Roman and Greek political historiography (e.g., Plümacher 1972; 1999; 1999a; van Unnik 1979; 1999; van der Horst 1983; Donelson 1987; Porter 1990; Hilgert 1993; Winter 1993; McCoy 1996; Witherington 1996: 1998: 1-39; Hengel 1997; Heil 2000), but he did distinguish himself as a leading advocate for understanding Luke-Acts as political history—and his work serves as a noteworthy example from this scholarly tradition. Although he read Acts against the background of several different ancient historians, the primary thesis of his work over the course of 15 years is well illustrated by his article aptly entitled ‘The Genre of Luke-Acts’ (1990). In this article, which predated MacDonald’s work, Balch rejected both Talbert’s biographical and Pervo’s novelistic theses as too ‘individualistic’ (1990: 11). He insisted that the genre designations offered by Talbert and Pervo ‘encourage an individualistic reading of Luke-Acts; that is, if these are either biography or novel, they are stories that inform about unique individuals, whom I as a Christian imitate in my individual life’ (1990: 5). Balch countered that ‘[t]hese books concern rather a sovereign God who gave promises to Israel through Moses and Isaiah that “all nations” would be “received” into God’s people’ (1990: 5). Balch insisted that ‘[a]ncient history was not individualistic, but narrated social and political events, as does Luke-Acts’ (1990: 11).
In order to demonstrate the social and political nature of ancient history and of Luke-Acts, Balch compared Luke-Acts to the Roman Antiquities by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (which he assumed also to be the model for Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities) (Balch 1990: 5, 11). Balch suggested that ‘Dionysius writes of Ancestors and Kings’ and organized his work into a preface, the story of Rome with its ancestors and settlement, the story of the Roman monarchy with its founding and overthrow, and the story of the Roman aristocracy with its annual conculs to the first Punic War (1990: 11). Similarly, he understood Luke-Acts to be organized in parallel fashion, consisting of prefaces (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2), the story of the ancestors (Luke 3:23-38; Acts 7:1-53; and 13:16-41, 46-47), the story of the royal founder (Luke’s gospel), and the story of the growth of the word among all the nations (Acts) (1990: 12). After a careful and detailed analysis, Balch summarized his analysis by arguing that
I find significant
similarities as well as important differences between the “narratives” of
Dionysius and Luke in their central sections describing the Founder(s), but it seems possible
to explain many of the differences as developments within the genre.
Dionysius and Luke-Acts both narrate history in three epochs: ancestors,
Founder(s), and successors. For both historians the first epoch requires an encomium of
selected patriarchs, but for Luke this means an invective of the remaining “fathers” who
were unjust, enslaved their brother, were disobedient and impious (Acts 7). One function
of these stories of the ancestors for both Dionysius and Luke is that these great heroes of
the past serve as models of the coming king, Aeneas and Romulus of Augustus, Moses
and David of Christ.
Founders which both writers describe have a number of remarkable
similarities: stories of their birth, nature, teachings, disappearance, physical appearance
after death, and ascension are told sometimes in the same words (1990: 16).
For Balch, these parallels between Luke-Acts and the Roman Antiquities were sufficient to demonstrate their common genre—political history. The most important difference between the Roman Antiquities and Luke-Acts was the means by which the world-changing events of the Founders and their successors were accomplished. ‘Dionysius develops the military possibilities of the topic, while Acts emphasizes rather the logos, the powerful “word” “growing” throughout the world’ (1990: 18). According to Balch, as a political history, Luke-Acts narrates how the ‘ancestors’ (e.g., Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah) proclaimed the blessing of God to all people, how the ‘founder’ (i.e., Jesus) returned this mission to the people of God in spite of opposition from the Jewish leadership, and how the ‘successors’ (i.e., the apostles and the Christian church) stood in the truest tradition of the ancestors and founder (1990: 19). For Balch, understanding Luke-Acts as political history enables one to appreciate how the two volumes serve to establish the Christian church as the true successors of the Jewish ancestral traditions.
Acts as Deuteronomistic History (or prophetic biography) (T. L. Brodie)
Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, T. Brodie advanced the thesis first developed in his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Thomas (1981). His thesis, simply stated, was
that, of all the models and sources used by Luke—and he seems to
have used many, old
and new—the most foundational was the main body of the Elijah-Elisha story (1 Kings
17:1-2 Kings 8:15, a text which is approximately the same length as Mark’s Gospel).
This was the component around which all the other components would be adapted and
assembled (1990: 78).
For Brodie, this ‘model’ for a literary work is best described as ‘a prophetic biography’ (1990: 79). Brodie was careful, however, to distinguish his understanding from Talbert’s earlier work. According to Brodie, Luke’s model was not Talbert’s generalized biographical genre from the Hellenistic world, but rather the specific Elijah-Elisha narrative in the deuteronomistic historian. Of course, several scholars, both before and concurrent with Brodie, had observed the deuteronomistic historian’s influence upon Luke and Acts (e.g., Goulder 1964; Dahl 1966; Cave 1969; Drury 1976; Karris 1979; Sanders 1982; Schmidt 1985; 1999; Marcos 1987; Schmidt 2002), but Brodie made a unique contribution.
Brodie argued that the Elijah-Elisha narrative in particular was ‘centered on the taking of Elijah, and it is thus divided into two parts of about seven chapters each’ (1990: 79). He then noted a parallel between the Elijah-Elisha narrative and Luke-Acts. He found this parallel demonstrated first by Luke’s emphasis upon Elijah in Jesus’ inaugural speech (Luke 4:16-30), second by Luke’s presentation of Jesus as ‘Elijah redividus’ and his presentation of Jesus ‘as emulating the OT, as going beyond it’ (1990: 80-81), third by Luke’s ‘meticulous reworking’ of passages from the Elijah-Elisha narrative (e.g., Luke 7:11-17//1 Kings 17:17-24; Luke 7:36-50//2 Kings 4:1-37; Luke 9:51-56//2 Kings 1:1-26; Acts 1:1-2:6//1 Kings 21:8-13) (1990: 81), and fourth by ‘the basic organization of the narratives’ (1990: 82). According to Brodie, this basic organization of the narrative was particularly important for understanding the genre of Luke-Acts as ‘prophetic biography’. Brodie noted that
the Elijah-Elisha narrative consists of two balanced parts. The
same is true of Luke-Acts.
While the Third Gospel presents Jesus, among other things, as a great prophet, Acts tells
of the words and deeds of Jesus’ disciples, and it does so in such a way that those words
and deeds consist sometimes of variations on the example of Jesus. In other words, not
only are both narratives (Elijah-Elisha; Luke-Acts) composed of two parts, but, in both
narratives, the two parts, in some elements at least, balance one another (1990: 82-83).
In spite of the similarities between the analyses of Brodie and Talbert, Brodie believed that his model better explained the genre of Luke-Acts because Luke-Acts and the Elijah-Elisha narratives—unlike the Diogenes Laertius’ Lives—had ‘an assumption into heaven’ in the center of their narratives (1990: 84). For Brodie, therefore,
[w]hat also seems true…is that there is direct dependence on the
for Luke-Acts overall plan. Such dependence is first suggested by the place given to Elijah
and Elisha in the programmatic Nazareth speech, but decisive indication comes from the
fact that, like the balanced Elijah-Elisha text, the balanced two-part narrative is centered
on an assumption which, in many ways, appears to be an assumption of Elijah (1990: 85).
Although a number of scholars have recognized the influence of the Septuagint upon Luke-Acts (e.g., Schmidt 1985; Kurz 1990; 1999; Rosner 1993; Evans 1993; Holladay 1999), Brodie has given the most compelling arguments for the notion that Luke consciously used specific Septuagint narratives as a model for his entire composition. Unfortunately, in spite of Brodie’s numerous attempts to defend his thesis with several detailed studies (1984; 1986; 1989; 1990; 1994; 1997; 1999) and his more recent effort to extend his argument to the other gospel narratives (2000; 2001), his arguments have not gotten the attention they deserve from scholarship. Perhaps scholarship’s general disregard for Brodie’s thesis has stemmed from his reluctance to speculate upon the theological purposes which could have motivated Luke’s selection of this particular genre (compare Barrett 1996).
Acts as Apologetic History (Gregory E. Sterling)
As an important crest to the wave of studies on the genre of Acts, G. Sterling published his revised dissertation, arguing that Acts was ‘apologetic history,’ a genre which he defined as
the story of a
subgroup of people in an extended prose narrative written by a member of
the group who follows the group’s own traditions but Hellenizes them in an effort to
establish the identity of the group within the setting of the larger world (1992: 17).
Sterling understood this genre to be a reaction to Greek ethnography by ‘[i]ndigenous authors [who] were dissatisfied with the way they had been represented by Greeks in the ethnographic tradition and responded by setting out their own definition of who they were’ (1992: 18). According to Sterling, apologetic history ‘provided a self- rather than a [sic] alien-definition’ and the most important example of this genre was Josephos’ Antiquities of the Jews (1992: 19).
For Sterling, the author of Luke-Acts (emphatically taken as a unity, 1992: 331-32) began his account with an implied criticism of his predecessors, the ‘other accounts’ to which Luke refers (1992: 345). In Luke-Acts, the author’s agenda was to defend what he regarded as the authoritative tradition, the traditio apostolica (1992: 345-46). This tradition, however, was not limited to a single individual, but rather was ‘a movement’ (1992: 349). In language very similar to Aune’s earlier work, Sterling explained that
the story of Christianity from its beginnings through its transformation
from a Palestinian sect into an empire-wide movement some seventy years later. It is,
therefore, not the story of Jesus nor of Paul. It is the story of Christianity, i.e., of a
people. In this sense it is reminiscent of historical works which relate the story of a
particular people (1992: 349).
For Sterling, Luke-Acts is distinguished from most apologetic history by its concern to explain the plan of God. Sterling suggested that
[w]hat is unique
to Luke-Acts is the writing of history from the perspective of the
fulfillment of both the promises and prophecies. The plan of God is in the OT in the
form of promise. Luke-Acts represents an attempt to write out the record of its
fulfillment (1992: 359).
According to Sterling, in Luke-Acts, ‘[t]he period of promise is the LXX; the period of fulfillment is Luke-Acts subdivided into the age of Jesus (Luke) and the church (Acts)’ (1992: 361-62). Therefore, ‘Luke-Acts represents sacred narrative’ (1992: 363, emphasis Sterling’s).
Sterling found clear parallels between this Lukan agenda and the agenda of Josephos. According to Sterling, both authors were narrating the story of God’s people. However, ‘Josephos retold the entire story; the author of Luke-Acts was a continuator’ (1992: 368). For Sterling, Luke-Acts was therefore to be regarded as apologetic history which defined the Christian heirs to God’s promise. According to Sterling, ‘Luke-Acts argues de rigueur that Christianity has taken its rightful place in history. It must, therefore, be defined not only in relation to itself, but in relation to the larger world in which it exists’ (1992: 379, emphasis Sterling’s). Sterling explained that
Christianity both internally and externally. The two are related by the
recognition that Christianity is a movement in history. It must understand both itself and the
world in which it exists. It was essential therefore to define Christianity in terms of
Rome (politically innocent), Judaism (a continuation), and itself (traditio apostolica)
In many ways, Sterling’s widely discussed monograph merely reiterated and expanded the ideas already put forward by Aune and Balch, a judgment which could also be rendered against those who have sought to further develop Sterling’s arguments (e.g., Moessner 1996; Marguerat 2002). In the wake of Sterling’s extensive (but not particularly revolutionary) monograph, it seemed that there was little new to say about Acts as ancient history. The proliferation of historical subgenres was doing little to add to our understanding of Acts.
A Challenge and a Consensus
In 1993, L. Alexander published a volume with the unpretentious title, The Preface to Luke’s Gospel (1993). This volume and the host of articles with which Alexander continued to developed her thesis (1993a; 1995; 1996; 1998; 1998a; 1999; 1999a; 1999b) were, however, to have a profound influence upon the future direction of studies into the genre of Luke and Acts. Alexander’s central thesis, which she restated many times, was essentially: ‘If Luke is writing history, the preface conventions he chooses would locate his work on the fringes of the genre’ (1999: 23). Alexander repeatedly argued that the prefaces to Luke and Acts are more compatible with the style, grammar and vocabulary of ‘scientific writings’ than with the literary conventions of first century history. Alexander has maintained that ‘the personal tone evoked by the dedication is at home in the technical manuals of the various school traditions in a way that it is not in historiography’ (1999b: 19; Robbins (1999: 66) correctly designates such texts ‘profession-oriented writings’). Alexander has been reluctant to assign Luke-Acts to any narrowly defined genre. In fact, she has considered several different possibilities for the genre of Luke-Acts, including biography (1993a), romantic novels (1995), and even history (1996, 1998, 1999; 1999a). Alexander has, however, consistently maintained that Luke’s prefaces, traditionally one of surest evidences of Luke’s assumed historiographic intent, are not very consistent with the historical genres of the first century.
Of course, not everyone has been convinced by Alexander’s arguments (e.g., Balch 1999; Moessner 1999; 1999a; Aune 2003). Her work has, however, done more to challenge the prevailing association of Acts with historiography than have any of the existing counter-proposals for the genre of Acts. With both Talbert’s biographical and Pervo’s novelistic designations largely dismissed and MacDonald’s epic designation not yet widely discussed, Alexander’s work gained rapid ascendancy as the premier challenger to Acts as historiography. Although Alexander has been reluctant to provide a definitive answer to the question of Acts’ genre, her placement of Acts on the ‘fringes of history’ has encouraged scholars to reconsider their categories, and the result has been a softening of the borders between genre designations.
Recently, Talbert and his student P. Stepp revisited Talbert’s early work on the genre of Acts. In a masterful two part article, they examined ‘succession’ in the ancient world (1998) and in Luke-Acts (1998a) and noted that ‘the succession principle [in Luke-Acts] raises the question of genre’ (1998a: 175). Rather than restating Talbert’s earlier conclusions, the pair answered their own question by lamenting: ‘Unfortunately, it [the presence of the succession theme] does not automatically answer the question. Various genres were shaped by the succession principle’ (1999a: 175). Eventually, they concluded that Luke-Acts are a blending of genres:
It is as though the author of Luke-Acts stands with one foot in the
of succession with its biographies of founders and their successors and the other foot in
the biblical world of Ancient Judaism with its stories of successions, and from that dual
stance creates a distinctive synthesis of the two that would nevertheless be recognizable
to pagan, Jew, and early Christian alike as a succession narrative….the issue that remains
for the two authors of this paper is: is Luke-Acts more like biographies of individual
founders that contain within them a succession list or narrative, or biographies of
communities that employ a Life of their founder to define the Way and then follow with a
succession list or narrative?...At this point, from our perspective, the decision is too close
to call (1998a: 178-79).
For Talbert, the person who—more than other—initiated the quest to understand the genre of Luke-Acts, the question has become unanswerable in light of Luke’s apparent blending of genres. Talbert and Steep quote R. Burridge approvingly and suggest that Luke has take a ‘“leap of imagination” from the known to the unknown’ and created a new genre of his own (1998a: 178). For Talbert and Steep, however, Luke-Acts is not without ancient parallels; they have found parallels between Luke-Acts and the succession narratives in a large number of biographical and historical texts. Luke-Acts, regardless of ‘whatever name one gives to the genre of Luke-Acts’ has ‘affinities’ with such works (1998a: 1978).
By loosely associating Luke-Acts with a broad cluster of biographical and historical genres in antiquity, Talbert and Steep foreshadowed an emerging consensus of scholarship. Just a year later, in his reexamination of the genre of Acts, V. Robbins echoed sentiments similar to those of Talbert and Steep. Robbins noted that
one of the characteristics of works like Luke and Acts is the
variegated texture of their
discourse—they inherently defy simple classification. Precisely because they contain
multiple generic features that interact dynamically with one another, they regularly evoke
new insights from highly disciplined and well-informed interpreters (1999: 65).
In the same volume, even though R. Pervo remained committed to the label of ‘fiction’ for Acts, he was also willing to admit that ‘[t]hose who look to more general histories and antiquities correctly sense the compass of Luke and Acts. Apologetic history is not an inappropriate label for the author’s aim’ (1999: 135).
More recently, even D. Balch, has abandoned the importance of attaching a specific genre to Acts, noting ‘in contrast to my earlier publications, I argue that the question of genre is for the most part secondary’ (2003: 141; also see Stichele: 2003). Balch has come to accept that ‘the line between history and biography is not so easily drawn, as the overlap in material is not always statistically evident’ (2003: 143). For Balch, therefore, ‘the debate about genre—whether the authors are writing history or biography—is much less important in this light than the issues at stake in the argument itself’ (2003: 145). For Balch, Luke-Acts continues to belong to ‘historical literature’ (2003: 186), but further narrowing of the categories is resisted.
The emerging consensus of scholarship seems clearly in agreement with Balch. Acts is ancient history of various kinds and the mixture of genres within Acts makes further narrowing of the categories unwarranted. Against this consensus, however, D. MacDonald continues to maintain that
it would appear that Luke expected at least some of his readers to
appreciate the stories
not as aspiring historical reports but as fictions crafted as alternatives to those of Homer
and Vergil. In other words, the truth of Luke’s narrative lies in its imaginative
reconstruction of the past to address the ideological needs of the nascent church….By
insisting that Luke-Acts is history in one form or another, scholars have placed a burden
on Lukan narrative that its author never intended his story to bear (2003a: 203).
Apparently, MacDonald assumes that historical genres cannot participate in the mythomachia, the battle between competing fictions, to which he earlier alluded (2003: 151). Yet, Pervo (1999: 135) and even Alexander (1998) have recently reminded us that the genre designation of history does nothing to assure the historicity of an account. Few contemporary scholars of Acts would disagree with Alexander’s recent conclusion that ‘it now seems abundantly clear that we shall never solve the question of Acts historicity by solving the genre question’ (1998: 394). History, at least in the antiquity, is not a genre which preludes the inclusion of fiction.
Ironically, therefore, as J. Tyson has noted (2003), the question of the genre of Acts initially drew attention away from questions of the historicity of Acts and towards the rhetorical effects of the narrative. Now, however, the question of Acts’ genre has come full circle and is again raising the question of historicity. Is Acts history or fiction? In the eyes of most scholars, it’s history—but not the kind of history that preludes fiction. As Pervo has suggested, Act is probably both fiction and history at the same time. If we can adapt MacDonald’s term, perhaps we should say that Acts is historical mythomachia.
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AB Anchor Bible
ABD Anchor Bible Dictionary, D. N. Freedman (ed.) (New York: Doubleday, 1992)
ACNT Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament
ANRW Aufstieg und Niedergang der römishen Welt
BETL Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum lovaniensium
BJRL Bulletin of John Rylands Library
BW Biblical World
CB Classical Bulletin
CBQ Catholic Biblical Quarterly
EKKNT Evangelisch-katholisher Kommentar zum Neuen Testament
ExpTim Expository Times
IBRB Institute for Biblical Research Bibliographies
IBS Irish Biblical Studies
IR Iliff Review
JBL Journal of Biblical Literature
JECS Journal of Early Christian Studies
JETS Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
JHB Jahrbuch der theologischen Hochschule Bethel
JHC Journal of Higher Criticism
JSNTSup Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series
JSOTSup Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series
JSPSup Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha Suppelement Series
LTQ Lexington Theological Quarterly
NICNT New International Commentary on the New Testament
NovT Novum Testamentum
NovTSup Novum Testamentum Supplement Series
NTD Das Neue Testament Deutsch
NTS New Testament Studies
PJT Perkins Journal of Theology
PRS Perspectives in Religious Studies
SBLRBS Society of Biblical Literature Resources for Biblical Studies
SBLSP Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers
SNTSMS Society for the New Testament Studies Monograph Series
SP Sacra Pagina
SUNT Studien zur Umwelt des Neuen Testaments
SWJT Southwestern Journal of Theology
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentaries
TRev Theologische Revue
TRu Theologische Revue
TSR Trinity Seminary Review
VE Vox Evangelica
WUNT Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament
ZNW Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche