Saturday, May 5, 2012

Acts of the Apostles - An historian's perspective

The Acts of the Apostles is an interesting exercise in literary creativity. Despite the fact that the work is a composite construction, from six main sources, and these sources can be easily identified in the final document, the author has been able to craft his product so that a consistent and guiding theme pervades the whole work.

Author and audience

Acts has traditionally been ascribed to Luke, the physician and companion of Paul. Even though there is no definite statement in the text itself that Luke was the author, such self identification of the author as is found there does not give us any grounds to doubt the traditional attribution to Luke. This attribution is very early indeed, and given the wide geographic distribution of the work, it has to be accepted that it would have been hard to arrive at a later universal acceptance of its authorship if it was not acknowledged from the beginning.

In analysing the work, it is useful to consider whether this work was intended for a single initial reader, or whether it was intended for an initial wider audience. In this regard, we are helped by the text itself, since both this work, and the Gospel of Luke, are addressed to Theophilus. The Gospel of Luke gives him the title, "most excellent," which is probably meant to indicate his status in secular society.

Nevertheless, presenting the work as if it were a letter is not conclusive evidence, since addressing a work to someone who was not actually the intended or expected reader was a conventional literary device. We find this device in the Christian apologies addressed to the reigning emperors. Nevertheless, there are pointers in both the Gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles that Luke knew the person to whom these works were addressed.

We can be quite confident that Luke/Acts was written to a non-Jewish audience. We can glean this by comparing the Gospel of Luke with the Gospel of Mark, wherein we will quickly discover that Luke borrowed a significant proportion of his gospel from that found in the Gospel of Mark. However, in doing so he dropped those parts of Jesus' teaching found in the Gospel of Mark that had specific reference to the Jews, whereas the parts that he retained can be seen to have a wider direct application.

Despite this, Luke/Acts does show signs that the reader (or readers) was expected to know something about recent Jewish history. This is because both the Gospel of Luke and Acts show that the author was confident that his reader (or readers) knew that Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, had imposed a tax on the people of Judea, and that this had provoked a revolt by the Jews. This is mentioned in both Luke and in Acts. Yet it would be surprising if Luke expected a wider non-Jewish readership to know this. It is more likely that this information about Quirinius was shared knowledge between Luke and Theophilus; and this in turn suggests that these works were first intended for a single reader.

The reference to Quirinius in Acts is unambiguous. It refers to the revolt that took place in Judea in response to the tax, which is also mentioned in Josephus, Antiquities, 18.1.1, where it can be dated to AD 6. The reference to Quirinius in the Gospel of Luke is slightly ambiguous. It is given in the context of setting the date for the property list (which is usually called a census in translations) that Augustus ordered to be established in the whole Roman world. Luke reports that Jesus was born around the time of Augustus' census, to which Luke adds a note about the census ordered by Quirinius. This note can be translated (and usually is) as "this was the first census that happened during the time Quirinius was governor of Syria." This is a fair translation. However, an equally valid translation would take into account the fact that the relevant Greek word (πρώτη) can also mean "before," provided it controls an expression in the genitive case (which it can be considered to do here). In this case, the correct translation would be "this census happened before the governorship of Quirinius in Syria," and the "census" ordered by Augustus "in the whole Roman world" can be the one noted in Res Gestae, 8, that was dated 8 BC.

If the latter translation is actually the correct translation (rather than just accepting that the traditional translation is correct), it is necessary to accept that Luke could have removed the ambiguity just by changing the word order, so that it was clear that the translation "before" belonged to the governorship of Quirinius, rather than the translation "first" belonging to "this census" (it stands, in a sense, between them). However, if Luke was sure that Theophilus would have understood what he was talking about, and that this note was specially introduced for his benefit, as appears to be the case, then he would not have thought there was any ambiguity to be excluded. Indeed, it is quite unlikely that Quirinius would have ordered more than one property list to be constructed during his governorship, but rather his order that a property list be constructed can be more reasonably attributed to the point at which the status of Judea was transformed from a client kingdom (under Herod the Great) to a province of Rome, under the Emperor.

There is a parallel situation in Acts, where the author appears to assume that his reader or readers know relevant information beyond that found in the text. This is where the author seamlessly introduces himself into the narrative. Luke refers to "Paul and his companions" journeying overland to Troy, by which the context indicates he meant Silas and Timothy. Then he says, "We got ready to leave for Macedonia." There is no indication in the narrative to explain his action in joining Paul, Silas and Timothy; he just assumes that his reader (or readers) already knew the background. This is another good indication that Luke and Theophilus shared this bit of information as well. This self-effacing transition is most easily explained if Acts was written for a specific person called Theophilus, whom Luke knew personally.

Indeed, it has been plausibly suggested that Theophilus was Luke's patron, since most of Greco-Roman society was organised on a patron/client basis, and furthermore, that Theophilus funded the copying and distribution of Luke's two works.

Luke's sources

There are at least six distinct sources used by Luke in compiling the Acts of the Apostles. He may have had more, but accounts dealing with the following events are easily identified as originating from discrete reports covering the following episodes and periods:
  1. The history of the early Church up to the martyrdom of Stephen. This section concludes with an account of the message about Jesus being taken to Samaria and also being shared with an Ethiopian eunuch.
  2. Peter visiting the Christians throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria (the political division of Judea only included Galilee and Samaria after AD 41), and finally bringing the message of Jesus to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, in the Judean capital, Caesarea.
  3. Peter being arrested by Herod, and sometime after that Herod dying.
  4. After Stephen's death the Christians scattered, some going to Antioch, where the message of Jesus was passed on by Hellenistic Jews to other Greek speaking peoples, and then to a wider audience via the journey of Barnabas, Paul and John Mark to Cyprus and southern Galatia.
  5. The Council of Jerusalem was held to resolve the issue of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews.
  6. Finally, we have Luke's own account of Paul's subsequent journeys and adventures, most of which Luke shared in personally.
For a long time, indeed since Thucydides (5th century BC), it has been considered that a well-written work of history was best written by an eyewitness. If it was not written by an eyewitness, then it was appropriate to seek the most reliable eyewitnesses, or eyewitness accounts, to provide the content. This can be seen to have been Luke's method as well.

In drawing on these separate accounts it is likely that Luke made few changes in the text of his sources, keeping the emphasis and literary style of his originals relatively intact.

In making his selections from the available material, Luke chose those parts that highlighted the Christian mission to the nations. Luke had little to say about the Christian mission to the Jews after Jesus' death and resurrection. Nevertheless, Luke included James' comment, quite late in the piece, that many Jews had come to accept Jesus. We have only a few other indications in Acts of the success of the Jesus mission amongst the Jews, and those that have come down to us in Acts primarily relate to Peter's early preaching, together with other indications that there was a growing body of Christian Jews, such as found in an account of the events concerning the Council of Jerusalem. At least in his letter to the Galatians, Paul also indicates that Peter was quite successful in reaching Jews with the message of Jesus.

In writing Acts, Luke can be seen to have had two main purposes. The first was to chart the progress of the early Christian movement, from the time of Jesus' death and resurrection, up to the time of the Council of Jerusalem. The second was to make a record of Paul's missionary endeavours, as far as Luke knew about them, and to write an account of the new phase of the expansion of the Christian movement. In a sense, Luke can be seen to have intended to create a written testimonial to Paul, to whom he was devoted, and to tell of Paul's life and achievements from the time that he came to be associated with Paul.

Speeches in Acts

In an explanation of his method, Thucydides included the actual speeches of the protagonists. Presumably he had in mind that this was a good way to give the reader an insight into the person, his attitudes, prejudices, approach to others, and so on. He also said that if he did not hear the speech, and did not have access to a person who heard the speech, then he included a speech that represented what he through the person would have said.

Certainly, someone close to the times and who knew the person was in a better place to create a speech in this way than someone a long way removed; and if this method were followed, the reader would be more likely to gain an insight into the character of the person represented that could be obtained by a more prosaic approach.

It is possible that Luke invented the speeches that he included in Acts, for it was permitted (even encouraged) according to the literary standards of the day. Yet it is actually quite unlikely, particularly in regard to the early history of the Church.

In the first of his sources there are two major speeches recorded:
  1. Peter preaches to the people on the occasion of the festival of Pentecost (held fifty days after the Passover).
  2. Stephen, a Hellenistic Jew, makes his defence before the Sanhedrin, leading to his death by stoning.
The first of these speeches in structured in a particularly Jewish style, sometimes called a chiasmus, usually laid out to resemble the left hand side of the Greek letter chai (χ). This is a pattern found occasionally in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, in which the last idea balances the first idea, the second last idea balances the second idea, and so on.

A   Jesus, accredited by God by miracles, but put to death by wicked men
      B      God raised Jesus from death
             C      David died, but he said the messiah would not see destruction
      B’     God raised Jesus to life, and we are witnesses
A’  God has made Jesus to be Lord and messiah, whom you crucified

The same structured style is also found in this passage in 1 Peter 2 (and elsewhere in that letter):

A   Rid yourselves of all malice
      B      You are being built into a spiritual house
             C     Jesus is the living stone: obey him
      B’     You are a chosen people
A’  Abstain from sinful desires

The speech in Acts purporting to come from Stephen, the Hellenistic Jew, is structured quite differently. Here Stephen gives the Jewish leaders assembled a sequential lesson in Israelite history. He brought this history lesson to an end when he pointed out to these leaders that their scriptures taught the God does not live in a temple made by hands. Recognising that he had not convinced them, he condemned them for their stubbornness. Both of these statements would have enraged them, evidenced by the fact that they stoned him henceforth, and killed him.

There is no indication in Stephen's speech of the kind of balanced rhetorical structure that is found in Peter's speech. It is quite different.

One can speculate that Peter's speech style could have been learnt from a Jewish rabbi, perhaps when Peter was a young man. On the other hand, Stephen's speech was a sequential arrangement, such as one might expect from someone who had a basic level of rhetorical training as part of his Greek education. For example, in his work explaining how an imperial oration ought to be constructed, Menander followed a sequential approach to the subject matter.

It is possible that Luke carefully distinguished between the two styles, and invented speeches in each style according to what he knew of Jewish rhetoric and Greek rhetoric. Yet it seems more likely that he was actually using a source that had direct contact with an eyewitness who heard both speeches, or what is equally likely, both speeches were recorded by the same person who was an eyewitness to both of these events, and who understood both rhetorical styles. This could have been any educated person who had been trained in Judea or Galilee in both Greek and Jewish learning.

Luke's account of Paul's speeches falls into three groups:
  1. The first group covers those speeches associated with Barnabas and Paul's journey to Cyprus and southern Galatia. Here Luke is most likely to have been dependent upon an account of this journey, which probably circulated amongst the Christians after the Council of Jerusalem, probably based on Paul's recounting of the story. It is likely that Luke subtly changed this account, changing the order found at the beginning of the account, which is "Barnabas and Paul," to that found later in the account in Acts to "Paul and Barnabas." 
  2. The second group contains those speeches that Luke could have only learnt from Paul himself. This is a surprisingly large group, and represents the majority of Paul's speeches. It is as if Luke set out to ask Paul what he did when they were separated, and that Luke methodically recorded these episodes.
  3. The third group contains those speeches that Luke would have heard Paul deliver for himself. Contrastingly, this is a small group, since Luke does not deal at length with Paul's speeches during those episodes in which he was an active participant in the events.
On balance, it is not likely that Luke invented the speeches found in Acts on the principle of what was "most likely to have been said," but that he had access to sources that provided him with eyewitness accounts, or something very close to eyewitness accounts.

Geography and politics

One of things I have previously found difficult in Paul's letter to the Galatian Christian is his discussion of the Jews in Judea, as if they represented the whole of the "homeland" Christians. I wondered, what about the Galilean Christians? This was because, throughout the gospels, Judea and Galilee are always carefully distinguished.

However, there is really no difficulty. Up to AD 39, Galilee and Perea were under Herod Antipas. Galilee was a mixed territory, with many Jews and many non-Jews. Perea was mostly populated by non-Jews. Judea and Samaria formed part of a single province under a Roman procurator, even though Samaria is always treated in our sources as a separate region, because of the sense of separation on religious grounds between the Jews and the Samaritans. In AD 39 Herod Antipas lost his authority to rule in Galilee and Perea. Around AD 41, the Romans, prone to making changes in the political arrangements in these fringe territories, gave Judea to Herod Agrippa to rule, adding Galilee to his territories. From that time, Galilee was no longer a separate political territory, and it was quite reasonable for Paul to refer, without qualification, to the "homelands" as Judea, for that reflected the political arrangements at the time he was writing. This arrangement of territories remained in place even after Herod Agrippa died, although Judea was changed back to a province, and then back to being ruled by a Roman-appointed king.

The earlier situation, in which Galilee was politically separate, is reflected in the early part of Acts. The early history refers to the Church enjoying a time of peace "throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria." This separate reference to Galilee places the events described, and possibly the account itself, before AD 41. This is not difficult, since these events can be placed within a few years of Jesus' death in AD 30, and therefore well before AD 41.

The next source used by Luke, beginning with Peter's journeys "about the country" and ending with Cornelius' baptism as a Christian, can probably be dated after AD 41, or at least it is likely that it was written up after that date. This is because we find no distinction between Galilee and Judea in this account such as is found earlier in Acts. Indeed, in recording Peter's opening address to Cornelius he referred to the events happening "throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee." When this was recorded, and probably when Peter spoke these words, Judea already included Galilee.

The last place where Galilee is mentioned is in Paul's speech to the people of Pisidian Antioch (in southern Galatia), dated to AD 48, where he referred to the travels of Jesus and a company of disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem. Here we are not talking about a political division, but to a movement within the country, from the region of Galilee to the city of Jerusalem. This provides some support for the idea that Paul thought of Judea as encompassing Galilee, as I discussed in the introduction to this section.

A unified account

For those who have tried to do it will agree that it is difficult to create a unified account by collecting together disparate sources, especially if one tries to keep as close as possible to the original sources. Nevertheless Luke has done quite a good job of this.

Luke designed his work around the statement that Jesus' disciples would be witnesses to him:
  • In Jerusalem
  • In all Judea
  • In Samaria
  • To the ends of the earth
Luke began with an account of the disciples being witnesses to Jesus in Jerusalem, first during the festival of Pentecost and then in temple precinct. He recorded that so many became followers of Jesus that a dispute arose between the Hellenistic Jews and the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Leaders were appointed from amongst the Hellenistic Jews to heal this rift, and they themselves became witnesses in Jerusalem. The trouble stirred up by the successful advocacy of Stephen, one of these, led his stoning, and the scattering of all the disciples, except the twelve, throughout Judea and Samaria.

Since in Luke's account Paul was the pivotal figure in witnessing the message of Jesus "to the ends of the earth," it was necessary to bring in Paul here.  Luke did this with a light touch. Firstly, he mentioned that Paul was present at, and consenting to, Stephen's stoning. This information probably came from Paul himself, since it is unlikely that anyone else really noticed. Secondly, Luke inserted the story of Paul's conversion, on the road to Damascus. He put this between the account of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by the Hellenistic Jewish Christian leader, Philip, and the account of Peter's journey throughout the country. Thirdly, Luke followed this by giving an account of Christians in Antioch passing on the message of Jesus to the (non-Jewish) Greek-speaking population. This led to Barnabas calling Paul from neighbouring Tarsus to join him in Antioch. Luke then returned to tell his final story of Peter, reporting his imprisonment by Herod Agrippa. Luke then resumed the story of the missionary journey of Barnabas and Paul, inserting into it a note about John Mark, since he needed his readers to know this piece of information for a subsequent part of the full story.

The final transition, and it was a vital one, was the account of the Council of Jerusalem. This came between the missionary journey and Barnabas and Paul, and appears to have led to further missionary activity, leading to work being undertaken in many other places. For example, Luke only gives a passing reference to Barnabas and John Mark going to Cyprus, but gives an extended account of Paul and Silas going back to Galatia, and then on to Europe. It is likely that others went out as well, with Eusebius mentioning an unsourced tradition that Matthew wrote his account in Hebrew (meaning Aramaic) before going himself to other nations. (If this is correct, we can consider that this Aramaic "gospel" would have been earlier, and less fulsome than our Gospel of Matthew, which also draws on the Gospel of Mark.)

Luke concluded his account of the acts of the Apostles with Paul being held for two years under house arrest in Rome. He does not mention Paul sending out missionaries from Rome, such as Crescens to Galatia and Titus to Dalmatia, as are noted in 2 Timothy. (There is no problem in accepting Paul's authorship of this work, although there are significant issues to be resolved in regard to 1 Timothy and Titus.) This makes it feasible to argue that Luke wrote Acts before Paul's "first defence" before the Romans, adding Acts to his account of the gospel of Jesus, with these two works being sent to his friend (and possible patron), Theophilus, with the intention that Theophilus read them, and if the latter agreed, that Theophilus publish them more widely.


Please let me have your feedback. I am happy to answer your questions.

Further reading

Paul Barnett, Paul: Missionary of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2008). Get from Amazon.

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