Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities in the New Testament (Part 2)

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts — Tim Widowfield @ 7:13 pm

(This post is a follow-on to Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts.)

In the comments section of the previous post, Squirrelloid asked, “I’m curious, have you also compared to the Pauline corpus as reconstructed for Marcion to see if the affinities you find are not present using his presumably less redacted versions?

With respect to the Lukan Prologue, one difficulty in finding statistically meaningful affinities outside of Luke/Acts is the rarity of many of the words. The author used a good many (NT) hapax legomena, no doubt because he was trying to sound more like Polybius than the LXX. And those words that aren’t unique are often found only in Acts (or perhaps Luke). We’re going to have to go farther afield than the prologue to find anything convincing regarding the Pauline epistles.

Servants of God

At least one curious exception to the above disclaimer is the word for “servant” in Luke 1:2.

A nineteenth century picture of Paul of Tarsus

A nineteenth century picture of Paul of Tarsus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ὑπηρέται (hypēretai) – “servants, officers, attendants” — As we pointed out before, the author of the prologue uses this term when speaking about “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” The gospels generally use this word to denote an officer under the charge of a hostile group.  Hence, we have “officers of the Jews” seizing Jesus and binding him in John 18:12. I think many times you could translate it as “henchmen.”

Paul, of course, when he talks about servants of Christ, prefers the word for slave — δοῦλος (doulos). The one exception to the rule is in 1 Corinthians 4:1.

First the Greek (SBLGNT):

Οὕτως ἡμᾶς λογιζέσθω ἄνθρωπος ὡς ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ καὶ οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ.

And then the English (NASB):

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Here Paul (or whoever wrote the passage) is using officer/servant instead of slave/servant for the first and only time in the entire corpus.  Interestingly, he’s using it in a sentence with a formulaic designation for the followers of Jesus. They are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Yet, if it is a formula, it is the only time we find it in the NT; nor do we find its constituent parts.  In other words, the exact phrases “ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ (servants of Christ) and “οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ (stewards of the mysteries of God)” never occur anywhere in the Bible except for 1 Corinthians 4:1. (more…)


Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts — Tim Widowfield @ 5:43 pm
Saint Luke the Evangelist

One of the disciples hands Luke a sworn, signed, eyewitness statement. — Saint Luke the Evangelist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Robert Bumbalough asked, “. . . What of the style and grammar of the Lukan prologue vs. that of the Lukan infancy narrative vs. subsequent sections? Is there evidence [that] portions stem from the same pen?” This question reminded me of a personal, informal study I undertook a short while back, comparing the word selection in the Lukan Prologue to the rest of the New Testament. What follows is a brief recap of that study. Caveat lector: I’m not a professional text critic, just a curious amateur; I’m interested in your take on the matter too.

Is the prologue original to the text of Luke?

I start with the hypothesis that the original core of Luke probably did not contain the prologue and perhaps not even the genealogy or birth narrative. My working theory, at least for the purposes of the study, is that the later author who wrote the Acts of the Apostles added introductions to both works and “ironed out” the language in the original gospel of Luke to conform better to his linguistic preferences.

Word selection is not proof of authorship, but it can be a strong indicator. When we write we tend to follow known, comfortable patterns. These patterns include sentence length, preferences for correlative clauses versus clauses concatenated with conjunctions, and word choice. For example, if you ever see me use “author” as a verb, you’ll know my body has been taken over by aliens.

Food for thought: If the short introductions to Luke and Acts, which were addressed to a fictional Theophilus (“Dear God-lover . . .”), can be shown to be the products of a second-century redactor (to add verisimilitude and “a touch of class”) then what does that say about historicists’ assertions that we have “no reason to doubt” Luke when he says he knew of “many” gospels and talked to “eyewitnesses”?

Textual analysis: Verse 1

Here’s the Greek text of Luke 1:1 from Westcott and Hort:

Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων,

Epeidēper polloi epecheirēsan anataxasthai diēgēsin peri tōn peplērophorēmenōn en hēmin pragmatōn,

As a reminder, here’s the English translation of the first verse:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, (KJV)

We’ll look at each word (other than common words such as articles, conjunctions, and prepositions) to see where they were used elsewhere in the NT. (more…)


Acts, the Areopagus and the Introduction of New Gods

The south side of Areopagus in the ancient ago...

Areopagus: Image via Wikipedia

Literary allusions and influences are generally not about one-to-one correspondences of plot or character details. Authors are for most part motivated to write something new, something that interests them and their audiences, and that means drawing upon familiar written and oral words and weaving them into new creations. Perhaps a good comparison could be drawn from those music programs that trace the history of certain genres of music through the decades. One soon learns that even “the new and different” is really a re-mix of the old from here, there and somewhere else that has been repackaged and presented in a very new way.

Nor does the fact of literary allusion of itself suggest that the topic being written about is fiction. One is quite entitled to write a history of a modern event and draw on allusions from Shakespeare or Homer in the process. Where the line is crossed is where the entire narrative can be most simply explained in terms of literary allusions and ideological interests. Whether that line is crossed is the case with Paul before the Areopagus I do not know. I have not taken the time to give it proper consideration. But surely Lynn Kauppi’s discussion is one part of the discussion that cannot be ignored. (Nor am I suggesting that Kauppi herself rejects the historicity of Acts 17. I have no idea if she does or not and her thesis I am addressing here does not allow me to know her thoughts on the question of historicity.) And in the process of preparing these posts I have had opportunities to catch up with what others have had to say about this Areopagus episode — e.g. Talbert, Kirsopp Lake, Haenchen — and have uncovered a range of ideas that are too broad to include in these posts here. The question of historicity is another one I may take up in another post when I have time to collate the contributions of these and Lynn Kauppi among others.

But in the meantime let’s continue with what I intended to be just one quick post but that has turned itself into some sort of mini-series now. I am discussing the thesis of Lynn Kauppi that the author of Acts 17 (let’s call him Luke) was writing with conscious allusions to (among other literary sources to be discussed another time perhaps) the fifth century BCE play Eumenides by Aeschylus. This post follows on from the previous two posts. (more…)


Paul’s sermon on the Areopagus inspired by the Muses

Erinyes (Furies)

Some years ago I somehow stumbled into an email exchange with a doctoral student on the other side of the world who kindly let me preview a chapter of the thesis she had been working on. Since I recently noticed her thesis has since 2006 been commercially published as Foreign but Familiar Gods: Graeco-Romans Read Religion in Acts I feel free to share the contents of that chapter now.

Lynn Kauppi argues that the scene in Acts where Paul is brought before the Areopagus to explain himself partly on the impression that he is introducing new gods to Athens was inspired by a scene in a play well-known to Greek speakers of the day.

The play is Eumenides, the third in a trilogy of plays composed by Aeschylus around the 450’s bce. The name Eumenides refers to devotees of the Furies (Erinyes). These Furies pursued and tormented one who had murdered his own mother.

In the first play of the series King Agamemnon returned home victorious from the Trojan war but was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play their son Orestes was moved by his sister and the god Apollo to avenge his father’s death by killing his mother.

The third play, the one said to contain the influences on the author of Acts, contains the resolution of the moral conflicts built up in the first two plays. On Apollo’s advice Orestes flees to Athens seeking escape from the torment of the Furies. Meanwhile the ghost of Clytemnestra rises up from the dead to rebuke the Furies for not completing their just vengeance on her son.

In Athens Orestes is met by the goddess Athena who listens to his case and also hears the counter-claims of the Furies. Unable to determine the rights and wrongs of the matter alone she founds the court of the Areopagus to help her decide the case. Orestes appears at this court, the Areopagus, along with his prosecutors, the Furies, and his defender, the god Apollo. The court is divided so the goddess Athena casts the deciding vote in favour of Orestes, thus cleansing him from the stain or pollution of blood-guilt and setting a precedent for mercy over justice. When the Furies threaten to destroy Athens in retaliation a shrine is established for them and a procession is held in their honour by the Athenians.

The outline of the play does not encourage the modern reader to suspect it may contain an influence on the author of Acts.

But Kauppi argues that the play was well-known in the early Christian era and did influence other writings of the time; and that a Graeco-Roman reader of Acts would likely recognize allusions in the play to “the resurrection” from the dead, the role of the Areopagus in examining the central character and the theme of the introduction of new gods into Athens. (more…)


A classicist’s insights into how Acts was composed and stitched together

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,New Testament,we-passages — Neil Godfrey @ 10:26 pm

I love to read fresh insights that potentially open new understandings on how a biblical author worked to produce what became a part of the foundational canon of western civilization.

I’ve recently been catching up with New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism by classics professor George A. Kennedy (1984).

Acts 1:1-15:35 seems to be a compositional unit and could be read as a complete work. The disciples have carried on the mission of Jesus and seem to have settled their internal differences; faced with Jewish opposition they have persevered, and the gospel is being extended to the gentiles. From 15:36 to the end of the book, focus is turned entirely upon the missionary activities of Paul; Peter and the other apostles are forgotten. (p.127)

I have frequently read the view that the Jerusalem Council is a climactic turning point in the book of Acts, but I think this is the first time I have taken note of the view that this episode also constitutes a satisfactory conclusion to a story that began in Acts 1.

Another take on the “we passages”

Kennedy adds some other interesting observations in support. The first of the “we passages” appears soon afterwards, in 16:10. Kennedy notes that scholars generally assume this marks the moment Luke joined Paul, but he himself points out that if this is the case, then it is odd that the author does not say that. Rather, Kennedy finds it interesting that the first “we passage” comes just after the introduction of Timothy as a companion of Paul.

Again in chapter 20 Timothy joins Paul and the narrative slips into the first person plural. . . . It is possible that Luke utilized Timothy’s account of his travels with Paul and did not alter “we” to “they.” This is unlikely to be an editorial oversight, considering the number of times it occurs and the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. . . . Firsthand knowledge of what Paul said begins in chapter 20, when Timothy is present, and the speech there is rather different from what has gone before. (pp. 127-8)

I think there is a better accounting for the “we passages”, but I have not spent any time thinking through Kennedy’s suggestion here. It might be worth doing so, at least in respect to a source ostensibly claiming to be by a Timothy. (I don’t think I ever got around to completing my old notes on an alternative explanation for the we passages that I began here two years ago, darn it.)

Classical historiography — and classical endings

Kennedy suggests that the narrative from Acts 1 to Acts 15:35 “may represent a compositional unit which was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel.”

While I can readily accept that section of Acts is “a compositional unit”, I think it would be hard to sustain an argument that it was all that was originally intended to be added to Luke’s Gospel. The introduction speaks of the gospel going to all nations and the narrative presages Paul taking the message before kings and rulers. Both these are not fulfilled until the gospel reaches the capital and ruler of all nations (Rome) and till Paul has addressed Jewish and gentile rulers in Caesarea and Rome. But that the narrative up to 15:35 does represent an independent literary unit with a certain completeness in its own right is nonetheless interesting.

On the eminent suitability of Acts 15:30-35 as a classical ending to a work of ancient historiography, Kennedy writes:

Classical historiography generally does not employ a rhetorical epilogue and instead often concludes with a very brief reference to continuing events (as at the end of Acts 28). This well describes where we are left in Acts 15:30-35. (p. 128 – my emphasis throughout)

Here is Acts 15:30-35

So when they were dismissed, they came to Antioch: and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the epistle: which when they had read, they rejoiced for the consolation.  And Judas and Silas, being prophets also themselves, exhorted the brethren with many words, and confirmed them. And after they had tarried there a space, they were let go in peace from the brethren unto the apostles. Notwithstanding it pleased Silas to abide there still. Paul also and Barnabas continued in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also.

I had not before noticed how this is so well echoed by the ending of Acts 28:

And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.

But what is particularly interesting is Kennedy’s observation as a scholar and professor of the classics:

The opening of 15:36 is reminiscent of the opening of Xenophon’s Hellenica, a work read in Greek schools. Xenophon attached his work on Greek history to the abrupt end of Thucydides (probably as left at the latter’s death) by the words meta de tauta, “And after this . . . .” Acts 15:36 begins “And after some days . . . .” An educated audience such as Luke had in mind might have perceived this.

I like reading of such fresh possibilities when someone more steeped in the broader literary context of the biblical books than in the confines of theological studies publishes his or her insights. If, as Kennedy notes, Xenophon’s Hellenica was studies in Greek schools, his case is quite plausible.

Putting it all together

If in fact the second half of Acts is Luke’s version of Paul’s travels, conceived as a separate entity and based on Timothy’s account filled out by Luke for those periods Timothy did not witness, the retention of the “we” is not an editorial oversight, but a stylistic rhetorical device to increase the authority of the account. No deceit need have been intended; Luke may have thought that the introduction of Timothy in chapter 16 made clear what he was doing, and it is possible that 15:36 was intended to be given a title such as “Luke’s Account of the Missions of Paul, after Timothy.” (p. 128)

If this is a credible option, Kennedy opines that the author originally had in mind a three part corpus:

  1. The Gospel
  2. The Activities of the Disciples from the ascension to the meeting in Jerusalem
  3. Second Acts: The Missions of Paul

Kennedy comments that although there is no real difference in the prose of the two halves of Acts, there is a significant difference in tone. The second half conveys an immediacy of a first-hand observation. I would qualify Kennedy’s observation by saying that this first-hand impression is itself a rhetorical device and not necessarily a fact of the sources at all.

I think that the difference in tone owes more to an additional explanation Kennedy offers — the movement beyond Palestine, Syria and Pisidia and to the Ionian coast, Greece, and beyond.

In this new setting Paul’s speech at Athens, the first address in what might be called Second Acts, takes on special meaning. Not only the Jews reject the gospel; so do the philosophers of the intellectual capital of the world. There is a dramatic movement from rejection in Athens, to rejection in Jerusalem and Paul’s trial, to rejection in Rome, but this rejection by leaders everywhere is shown against a pattern of acceptance by the people. (p.128-9)

I am not sure that Kennedy’s suggestion that the author originally intended a distinctly two part work for Acts is the only explanation for a Xenophon/Hellenica-like join at 15:36. The half-way cathartic ending in Acts with the Jerusalem Council and its aftermath, and the possible half-way kick-re-start at 15:36 could well have been the author’s way of informing his audience that one part of the story had finished and a new part, with a different theme, was to begin. Such rhetorical devices were the tools an author necessarily drew upon to speak his mind to an audience when he had adopted the voice of the anonymous narrator. As Jan-Wim Wesselius comments in The Origin of the History of Israel: Herodotus’s Histories as Blueprint for the First Books of the Bible,

The almost complete absence of the personal aspect of the narrator makes it impossible to express personal thoughts and feelings . . . .  This apparently made it necessary to invent or apply various literary techniques that enable an anonymous narrator . . . . to introduce the programme of a book through purely literary means . . . . (p. 77)

Not much is changed if we do see the author having originally intended for Acts to be a two-part work, or if a rhetorical device at Acts 15:36 served to introduce a new thematic program. What it does offer, however, is an insight to the human processes and plans that were responsible for its creation. Anything that helps us see with sharper clarity the West’s primary canon as a human product is A Good Thing.


From http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ApostleFedorZubov.jpg

Ministry of the Apostles. Russian icon by Fyodor Zubov, 1660.

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The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities

Following is my own elaboration of Pervo’s introduction to a discussion of ancient historical novels. My Stadter citations are independent of Pervo’s book. I do not refer to Acts in this post. Others can think through the comparisons. But will discuss a few more historical novels before returning to Acts.

The Cyropaedia by Xenophon – the first historical novel

The author Xenophon, ca 400 b.c.e., wrote histories of Greek wars (Hellenica) and of his expedition in the Persian empire (Anabasis). Some of his works have been translated as modern Penguin classics and all can be found online.

He also wrote “a historical biography” of the Persian king Cyrus. In this account we read of historical characters who at times are true to known historical actions. The Cyropaedia reads like history.

He begins by explaining how careful he was to research his facts:

Believing this man to be deserving of all admiration, we have therefore investigated who he was in his origin, what natural endowments he possessed, and what sort of education he had enjoyed, that he so greatly excelled in governing men. Accordingly, what we have found out or think we know concerning him we shall now endeavour to present. (From the Perseus Project text.)

That sounds impressive and reassuring enough to a first time reader.

But Philip Stadter (Fictional Narrative in the Cyropaideia) compares this research-statement by Xenophon with others written by Herodotus and Thucydides (p.462):


  • noted his desire to preserve and understand the past
  • gave a sample of the oral traditions upon which he would draw
  • claimed he would start from what he himself knew, showing no partiality


  • stressed the analytical and investigatory effort needed to get to the truth
  • presented a schematic example of his mode of inquiry by analyzing the growth of unified action and maritime power re the Trojan War

Contrast Xenophon

  • makes no overt claim to factual accuracy
  • no statement on the difficulties of ascertaining the truth in a distant time and country
  • no allusions to the weaknesses of memory or the reliability of informants

Stadter writes:

In telling his story, Xenophon composed the first extant novel, and demonstrated the power and flexibility of fictional prose narrative. His work is heavily influenced by earlier narrative in poetry and prose, and yet developed new possibilities and emphases. (p.461)

The Cyropedia was an ancient historical novel.

Xenophon does on occasion accurately preserve customs – such as wearing high-soled shoes – or names, at least within the limitations of his own knowledge. But these items are subservient to the narrative, the source of which is Xenophon’s invention, not historical tradition or research. . . .

Xenophon shapes a story of Cyrus which is composed of dialogues that were never spoken, battles that never took place, and people summoned and dismissed from the written page without any shadow of historical reality. . . .

The creation and selection of narrative episodes, the temporal and geographical framework in which they are set, and the mode in which the reader is expected to respond are fictional. (p.463-4)

The purpose of this historical novel? To teach readers the principles of an ideal government and the qualities of an ideal ruler.

Yet as Stadter points out, the reader is assured from the beginning that the story is based on the author’s diligent enquiries into the facts. It is not until one reads “some 21 pages” of unrelenting success stories that one begins to dsicern the fictional nature of the work. (Stadter, p.462). Not that any one story is incredible on its own, but it is the steady avalanching of success stories that eventually collapses under its own weight, at least in the minds of savvy readers.

Ancients recognized its fictional character.

Cicero wrote:

Take the case of the famous Cyrus, portrayed by Xenophon, not as an historical character, but as a model of righteous government, the serious dignity of whose character is represented by that philosopher as combined with a peculiar courtesy. (Letter to Quintus)

In Diogenes Laertius we read:

Then, too, the one wrote the Cyropaedia and the other a book on Politics ; and Plato in his Laws says, that the Cyropaedia is a mere romance, for that Cyrus was not such a person as he is described in that book.

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight, p.177) adds a third citation, the letter to Pompey 4 by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, to the same effect.

The power of the historical novel format

Stadter lists the following advantages (not necessarily his words) of the narrative format:

  • A long narrative is an effective way to convey complicated information or concepts.
  • Narrative also permits the interweaving of a number of themes.
  • Narrative replicates the human experience of “one durn thing after another”, creating a vivid sense of reality in the telling of each piece of information.
  • Narratives are a form of teaching by example rather than abstract precepts or summary statements, and thus naturally more memorable and even plausible.
  • If the events are credible, the reader may accept them as possible. If the events are contrary to common experience, the reader will either place them in a distant time and place (e.g. The Odyssey) or treat them as allegory or parable (e.g. Aesop’s fables). Either way, narrative is persuasive by its nature.
  • Narratives (good ones) are enjoyable, and listeners generally want to hear more.
  • Narratives are memorable. The lessons or messages they convey are easily recalled.

One can add three points to Stadter’s list the value of historical fiction:

  • added verisimilitude
  • added verisimilitude
  • added verisimilitude

Recall how all the more enthralled we were as children when a fairy tale ended with words like, “And we know this really happened because you can see to this very day . . . ”

That eternally persuasive “historically-true” story of Atlantis

Pervo does not discuss Plato’s story of Atlantis but Stadter helpfully brings it in to the discussion.

The history of Atlantis is a fictional morality tale within a larger work by Plato, Timaeus. But it has taken a life of its own, as everyone knows. Most of us treat the story as a fable. But that was not how it is introduced, and those people today who believe it was real have a good case, at least by the standards often set out for believing the historicity of ancient writings accepted into religious canons.

Plato goes to great pains to explain through Critias how he carefully he decided to introduce the story in the first place, since his concern was to get the true details right in his own mind before expounding it. For though it might be seen as a quite extraordinary story, it nonetheless definitely “was true”. To remove any doubt from readers’ minds Plato writes that

  • the story is actually documented by custodians — in Egypt — who can be trusted to preserve such records
  • the story was passed on via a chain of highly reputable and credible named witnesses
  • these witnesses took pains to be sure they got the story exactly right and passed it on without deviation
  • the transmitters were conscious of the risk of normal memory lapses so took specified preventive measures to minimize this risk

Plato insisted in his writing through his characters that the story was definitely and without a shadow of doubt true and factual. An abundance of references to what appear to be the records of eyewitness details follow.

And many remain persuaded even today. And many more, though not persuaded, are open to wondering if maybe there was some truth to it after all. And it all started with Plato’s simulation of history — his mini historical novel within Timaeus.

Such is the power of a narrative that reads like history.


Clark’s criteria for valid parallels (continuing Tyson on Marcion and Luke-Acts)

Tyson draws on the criteria devised by Andrew Clark in his Parallel Lives to further his discussion of Peter’s and Paul’s characterization in Acts. (Have been discussing Tyson’s argument that our canonical Luke-Acts was largely a second century response to Marcionism.) Before continuing with notes from Tyson, am listing here Clark’s criteria. (more…)


The literary genre of Acts. 9: The ancient novel

Continuing notes from Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight. (Previous related posts are archived here.) Skipping ahead here, wisely or otherwise, to chapter 4 and its discussion of “the ancient novel”. This post looks at different ways of seeing how ancient novels are made/how they work, with the hope of offering new ways to see and understand Acts by comparison.

Pervo begins with the question: Why discuss the ancient novel in a study of Acts? (more…)


The literary genre of Acts 1(a): Ancient Prologue followup

My post on the style, content and function of ancient prologues or prefaces in relation to the Book of Acts has been misunderstood as interpreted by some as an attempt to argue or prove from the prologue itself that the author did not intend to write history. (more…)

Reviewing Chris Price’s and Marion Soard’s critiques of Pervo’s “Profit with Delight”

Christopher Price has published online a lengthy discussion titled Genre, Historicity, Authorship and Date of Acts (several places, e.g. here and here). In his 12 to 13 page section of this essay where he discusses Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight he references Marion Soard’s 1990 review of Pervo’s book in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Both Price’s essay and Soard’s review are classic illustrations of how sometimes people can so completely misread the clearest text. Perhaps this is the result of careless assumptions substituting for a careful engagement with the text. In the case of the fundamentalist Price, however, there also seems to be an assumption that any unorthodox critique of the Bible must by definition be a bad argument, and this leads him to misread — or misrepresent — Pervo’s text repeatedly.

I’ll address both Price’s and Sourd’s criticisms of Profit with Delight here. (more…)

The literary genre of Acts. 8: clarification

Some have misread my notes from Pervo’s book as if I/Pervo claimed Acts is itself an ancient romance or a fictional historical novel. Pervo demonstrates that Acts shares many similarities with ancient novels. The theological and historical intent of Acts is expressed through many novelistic features. How much “historical fact” is to be found in Acts is a separate, although inevitably related, question.

Pervo writes in his preface:

[M]ost studies have concentrated upon the profit and ignored the delight. A major task of this book is to elucidate the entertaining nature of Acts. Since one customary means for rejecting popular literature has been to label it pure entertainment, I wish to make clear that there is no intent here to deny Luke’s serious theological program. . . .

Through comparison of Acts with ancient popular narratives I seek not only the identification of literary affinities but also clarification of the religious and social values of the milieu in which it emerged. . . .

In chapter 4 (p86) he writes:

Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain.

Pervo also concludes with:

By reference to novels in general and historical novels in particular I have attempted to provide detailed evidence for the ancient novel’s relevance to the understanding of Acts.

My intent is that such comparison proceed alongside, as well as in competition with, investigations using historiographical models. . . . Reconsideration of the question of genre does not eliminate the possibility of sources.


Making sense of the Ephesian Riot in Acts

Continuing from the previous post on the literary genre of Acts which left dangling some unusual problems with the Ephesian Riot scene in Acts 19, two of which are:

  • Paul is not involved in the riot at all, so what is the significance of this lengthy graphic narrative?
  • A previously unmentioned Jew is put forward to address the crowd but gets nowhere: what is the narrative point of this detail?
  • Who was leading the riot, how could they hold such sway, and why do they disappear in the heat of the moment, and why is the crowd so easily persuaded to disperse?

Pervo’s Profit with Delight discussion of the Ephesian Riot scene in Acts 19 is picked up and viewed from another angle in his Dating Acts (pp.179-183). Here Pervo draws heavily on Robert Stoops’ article, Riot and Assembly: The Social Context of Acts 19:23-41.



The literary genre of Acts. 7: Chapter 19 as a case study

Continuing notes from Pervo’s Profit with Delight on the literary genre of Acts . . . .

Pervo offers a review of Acts 19 to illustrate the magnitude of the problem of reading Acts as history. (more…)


The literary genre of Acts. 6: style and content

Continuing notes from Pervo’s Profit with Delight: the Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles — with a few additional references and citations of my own . . . .

However the structure and design of Acts may resemble monographs or other writings, the criteria of style and content must be taken carefully into account. Legitimate pieces of historiography needed, like all literary works, to reflect unity of style, vocabulary, and syntax, as well as proportion and balance. Minor skirmishes had no right to pose as the battle of Marathon. Speeches were to be appropriate to the circumstances, and all reporting should be suitable to its station in human affairs. Acts does not suit such requirements! Its inconsistent style and inclination to treat insignificant happenings as world-historical events would offend learned readers. (pp.6-7, Pervo)

The following is also from Pervo’s book, the main focus of this series.

What was expected of ancient historians? (more…)


The literary genre of Acts. 5: a note on “prophetic history”

Robert Hall in Revealed Histories compares Luke-Acts with the works of Josephus as being similar prophetic histories. This does not affect the literary genre of Acts, however. Prophetic history is one of many thematic types of history. Compare economic history, political history, existentialist history, social history, “black arm band” history, whig history, marxist history, feminist history.

Josephus saw prophets like Joshua as historians since their prophetic gift gave them insights into the past as much as their present or future. This was not an unusual concept in ancient times. Even Homer among others called on divine spirits to inspire him with an accurate knowledge and understanding of history. How else could he know anything about the Trojan war and the acts of Achilles?

Josephus saw in history the working out of God’s will. So also Herodotus saw in the history of the Greeks the working out of the will of Apollo. (I have begun, still to continue it, a comparison from Mandell & Freedman of Herodotus’ Histories and Israel’s Primary History here.)

Comparisons between Acts and Josephus as “prophetic history” are a separate issue from the literary genre of history itself. Robert Hall discusses the content of speeches and interpretations of scripture, but Acts is a narrative in which those things are embedded. Literary genre comparisons look at the whole picture — the speeches as well as the narrative details and plot structure. That’s what I have been doing here and hope to continue in further depth.


The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus

(revised 1.15 pm)

Continuing notes from Pervo re the genre of Acts.

Pervo compares the genre of Acts with the genre of the works of other ancient historians. Below I’ve summarized Pervo’s comments but have added much more by way of illustration from Price and Feldman. I have also just received a copy of Revealed Histories by Robert Hall which I want to read before concluding this discussion. Till then, hope to discuss comparisons with historians other than Josephus in follow-up posts.

Imitation of the Masters

The Jewish historian Josephus attempted to imitate the “classical” historians, especially Thucydides. Imitation of the masters, even attempting to emulate or surpass them, was a mark of literary skill and good taste among ancient writers of the Hellenistic and early Roman imperial era, historians included. As Pervo writes (p.5), “Style was essential, not peripheral.” To be taken seriously historians would demonstrate in their works that they knew and were attempting to imitate the best in the ancients such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. Thucydides was particularly in fashion in the time of the early Empire.

To illustrate this literary custom in particular among historians, — a few examples from Josephus: (more…)


Luke’s dialogue with John on the first resurrection appearance?

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Religion,The Simons of the NT — Neil Godfrey @ 7:25 am

Imagine for a moment that the author of the Luke knew the gospel of John.

Some scholars have argued on the basis of close textual comparisons that the Gospel of Luke was written after, and used, the Gospel of John. (e.g. Matson, Shellard, et al) A few others also believe our canonical Luke was written very late, some time in the first half of the second century, and this would support the possibility that the author of Luke knew and used the gospel of John.

John’s gospel describes two disciples, one named and the other unnamed, wandering off together (“to their own homes”) after finding the tomb of Jesus empty as they had been told. The named disciple is Simon Peter (20:6). It also claims Mary Magdalene was the first to see the resurrected Jesus.

Luke describes a post resurrection scene where two disciples, one named and the other unnamed, are walking together to a village outside Jerusalem. (We learn in the course of the narrative that their destination village is the home of at least one of them.)

To address the easy difference first: Luke also claims, contra John, that Mary Magdalene did not linger at the empty tomb but returned to the other disciples. Is the author directly and intentionally contradicting the claim found in John? Is he disputing the identity of the first to see the resurrected Jesus as a result of some theological rivalry that involved respective founding figures such as Mary, Thomas, Peter?

But the more interesting contact between the two gospels concerns two disciples wandering off together after seeing the empty tomb.

In both Luke and John there are two disciples, one named and the other anonymous, walking together back to their home(s) after seeing or hearing about the empty tomb. (John 20:3-10 and Luke 24:13:34)

The named disciple in John is Simon Peter. The named disciple in Luke is Cleophas. Cleophas does not sound so far removed from Cephas, an Aramaic name having the same meaning as the Greek Peter, and whom in 1 Cor.15:5 we read was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. (I have discussed in an earlier post the possibility of Cleophas being a deliberate pun by the author of Luke.)

The possibility that Cleophas was a pun used by the author to withhold from his audience the identity of the disciple until the end (I cite a few arguments for this possibility in that earlier post lined in the above paragraph) is rarely considered by readers who approach the gospels for “historical” information and to find out exactly “what happened”.

But if we read Luke through the known good story-telling literary devices of his time, as a story told by an author who knew the tricks of holding and teasing an audience, then a different view of the identity of Cleophas emerges.

When Luke is read as a good story using the tricks of novelists then we strengthen the possibility that the mention of Simon at the end of that Emmaus road narrative is the author’s climactic announcement to his audience (more than to the eleven) that Cleophas is Simon Peter.

There is another strong indication that Luke is in direct dialogue with the gospel of John:

— In Luke, Cleophas gives a summary of what had transpired that morning, but not all the details are found in that gospel. They are only otherwise known from a reading of John. (The visit of the 2 disciples to the tomb is narrated in John, but told second hand by Cleophas in Luke.)

If his is the case, that Luke is addressing the Gospel of John and audiences who knew that gospel, then some of the problems about the Emmaus passage in Luke 24 that modern interpreters attempt to answer begin to fade away. The audience hearing Luke’s gospel will be wondering about the identity of Cleophas from the beginning. When they read or hear the account in Luke that there were 2 disciples traveling together their first recollection would quite likely be the two disciples wandering off to their homes that they knew from John. So the introduction of the name Cleophas (not unlike Cephas) instead of Simon Peter would have had the audience wondering. I have explained this technique used in Luke in my earlier post — especially in relation to his retelling the Markan account of anointing of Jesus in my earlier post.

If indeed some of the questions surrounding the Emmaus episode in Luke are resolved by the hypothesis that Luke was written after John, and in dialogue with John (and the other gospels too, but that’s again another story), then is not the case for this re-dating Luke strengthened?

Which will bring me back to my discussion from Tyson and the anti-Marcionite agenda for the creation of canonical Luke-Acts.


The literary genre of Acts. 3: Speeches

“We cannot name any historian whom . . . Luke has taken as a model” (Dibelius, 1956, 183-185)

Pervo cites Dibelius as one scholar unimpressed with claims that the speeches in Acts are necessarily attributable to historiographical intent. Certainly ancient historians crafted lengthy speeches for historical characters, and certainly the speeches in Acts are not like those in the gospel of Luke. But it does not follow, as is sometimes argued, that therefore the speeches in Acts demonstrate the author’s intent to write real history. Anyone who has read ancient novellas would immediately recognize the speeches in Acts as just one of the many features found in fiction. Lengthy speeches were tools of historians and fiction writers alike. They were used to convey information about characters and situations, both historical and fictional.

Examples are too numerous to mention, so I would simply suggest to anyone who doubts this claim to find a collection of ancient novels (such as Reardon‘s collection) in a library or on the net (some are linked in my Prologue post) and read a couple. They are not very long and quite entertaining as insights into ancient cultures, interests and humour.

For this post I opened my copy of Reardon’s collection at random and the first page opened was 206 in the middle of the story of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. There at paragraph 37 begins a lengthy speech on the beauty of women. I flip over to pages 340-1 to fine Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and on each page are speeches equal to the length of anything in Acts.

But one need only recall the emphasis on rhetoric in ancient education and the popularity of tragic drama to quickly guess the need of scepticism over claims of the relationship between speeches and historicity.

I will in time give more specific discussions here on the different types of speeches in Acts, the legal defences, the exhortations, and their structures and comparisons with their counterparts in other forms of literature.

I often felt some resonance in the fictional literature somewhere when reading the long speech of James at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. I seemed to hear echoes from somewhere each time I read its stylized account of preliminary short speeches followed by Jame’s lengthy decision-pronouncing finale. I don’t know why it took me so long to notice how similar the structure and pattern of the speeches and speech situation was to the speeches delivered in the grand royal assemblies in Homer’s Iliad. I suppose what we have been trained to associate from very early years with religious truth and fact is not easily recognized when we view it through the perspective of literature with which its author would certainly have been familiar, if only from his education in learning how to write Greek.

A crisis in the war needs to be dealt with. An assembly of the notables is called. Names of renown stand up to express their views while the king listens in silence. After the to and fro debating has finished the king rises to deliver his decision and the course that all must follow. The pattern is a regular one, and the assembly in Acts 15 is only one of its many echoes.

Next: Use of historical models


The Emmaus narrative and the techniques of popular story-telling

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Religion,The Simons of the NT — Neil Godfrey @ 7:03 am

Below I have summarized the conclusions of the far more detailed discussion of the Emmaus road narrative. It offers an explanation for some of the problems with this narrative by seeing it in the context of the art of popular story telling. Having lost appreciation for this context of the original gospel, subsequent literal and historical approaches have failed to understand the nature and intent of the episode. And it has been this far “too serious” approach that has raised the interpretative and textual problems. Those problems largely disappear when the ending is read as being constructed with the tools of ancient popular fiction. (more…)


The origin and meaning of the Emmaus Road narrative in Luke

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Religion,The Simons of the NT — Neil Godfrey @ 10:54 pm

The Emmaus Road narrative in Luke 24 raises many questions. Why is the hitherto unknown Cleopas one of those who appears to be the first to meet the resurrected Jesus? Who is his unnamed companion? Why does the narrative conclude with a statement that Jesus has appeared to Simon when no such appearance is described? Is this really a reference to Simon Peter or some other Simon? Do the two travellers tell the eleven apostles about the appearance to Simon or is it the eleven apostles who are telling the two travellers that Jesus has appeared to Simon?

The account is found in Luke 24:13-35.

The best explanation I can think of is based principally on the problems faced by an author wanting to introduce relatively late in the life of the church a brand new narrative involving a central character. This leads to an look at the logic of the narrative of the gospel and an attempt to understand its structure through the standards of popular story-telling of the day, as well as in the context of similar well-known Jewish stories. It also considers the possibilities that the text found in an alternative manuscript, the Codex Bezae, contains some elements of the original story. (more…)


The literary genre of Acts. 2: Chronology

There is not a lot to say about the use of chronological markers in Acts. There aren’t many.


Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 7:52 pm

Since my previous post on looking at the preface to Acts in the context of contemporary prefaces, I have added a new section in that same post on the conventions of those prefaces. I have included it separately again here below.

I have also added the most obvious omission in my previous post, the preface of Acts itself. It is interesting to compare it with other prefaces to histories, and note not only Cadbury’s comments on where it fails to meet expected conventional standards, but also to observe the remarkable failure of the author to declare the purpose or contents of the work it is introducing. (Cadbury raises the possibility that the original preface may have been tampered with in order to account for this failure to match expected convention.) (more…)


The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) compares Acts with ancient novels and finds striking resemblances. We tend to resist finding the thrill of novelistic adventure and humour in the books of the Bible. Holy books are supposed to be read with much gravitas, after all. But Pervo’s comparison with ancient novels has persuaded him that Acts shared their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences. I have read many ancient novels over recent years — and many ancient historians over a longer period of time — and fully agree with him.



The shipwrecks of Josephus and Paul (Part 3)

Filed under: Josephus,Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Paul and his letters,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:24 pm

Let’s get some Jewish and historical balance to my notes on Paul’s shipwreck. Paul was not the only Jew sailing to Rome who suffered shipwreck. Compare historian Josephus’s description of his own voyage, from his Vita (Life): (more…)

Acts 27-28 an eyewitness account? (Part 2)

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Religion,we-passages — Neil Godfrey @ 5:24 pm

Why does the Christian author of Acts bother to tell readers (in 28.11) that Paul’s ship had the figurehead of two pagan gods?

Why does the author of Acts use words that are only elsewhere found in fictional shipwreck stories in Homer?

Is there anything truly distinctive about Paul’s shipwreck to set it apart from fiction? Is Paul’s adventure at sea anything other than stereotypical? (more…)


The sea adventure of Acts 27 an eyewitness account?

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Pervo: Profit with Delight,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 8:32 pm

This post is in response to a lengthy citation from a work by Loveday Alexander arguing reasons for believing that the sea travel story of Acts 27 was an eyewitness account. Against that one point the following demonstrates that Alexander’s reason is relatively weak when balanced against the weight of other literary factors worthy of consideration in this chapter. (more…)


Endings of Mark/John/Acts in wider literary context

Filed under: Gospel of John,Gospel of Mark,Literary analysis,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 10:15 pm

It is widely assumed that the endings we know of Mark (16:8), John and Acts cannot have been the ones originally intended but after reading “Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature” edited by Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn, and Don Fowler (1997) I have less confidence in that assumption. Nowhere are Mark, Acts and John discussed in the book and the extrapolations below are entirely my own.

In the book Carolyn Dewald discussion of “Strategies of Meaning at the End of Herodotus’s Histories” struck me as raising the same sorts of questions over Herodotus’s ending as are raised over the present endings of Mark and Acts. Herodotus leaves his work in mid-air too. This could only have been intentional since Herodotus throughout his work manages to consistently draw many satisfying conclusions to his many story sections. The question that arises then is what Herodotus was wanting to achieve by way of response from his audience by not framing a formal final conclusion to his work. ‘Histories’ can be read more accurately as a kind of theological tragedy than as a history in a modern sense. It is about the fate of Athenians and their lot within the common destinies of mankind, and their future is left in doubt. The mid-air ending of Histories inevitably left the questions about how one understood the present and future as uncertain and as issues to be questioned in the light of all that had just been read.

Francis M. Dunn discusses the ending of Euripides’ Heracles is tormentingly ambiguous and incomplete, so much so that there have long been many attempts rearrange the text or re-write the ending. The ending is indecisive and the audience has no way of knowing if it is meant to see Heracles as a failure or a hero let alone what sort of future is in store for him. Again, it appears that the author was by this means seeking to provoke a certain type of response in the audience to the deeper questions raised in the play.

Philip Hardie has much to say about the Virgil’s Aeneid and hellenistic fiction in general that is also reminiscent of issues that arise in the scholarship relating to the endings of Mark, John and Acts. He writes: “Ancient novels use many paratextual devices, usually to give a sense of (historiographic) authenticity to the fiction …” By paratextual devices he means those sorts of intrusive authorial comments we find in John 20:30-31. With this consideration the disputed ending of John can then be read as something like: “I can’t possibly write about everything but I have to add just one more thing before I close…. ”

The Aeneid is another case of an abrupt “improper” ending leaving the reader on the point of lurching in mid-air. Hardie says the more appropriate ending has been already written and is tucked away in Book 8 with its prophecies of the future history of Rome and Augustus. Deaths always need a resolution of some kind, a new treaty or funeral etc. but in the Aeneid we have the treaty of peace being made near the beginning of the story and the death it is meant to follow is at the end. Not only so, but there are many textual allusions in the final scenes that echo those found in the opening scenes thus reassuring the reader/listener that this ending really is as intended however unconventional it is. So Mark was by no means the first to create an unconventional story with suitable endings in the middle and an ending that leaves readers hanging, and wondering, and scrambling back over all they have read before to find its meaning.

The obvious objection is that Mark is alone in ending his work with that conjunction ‘gar’. Maybe so, but “Classical Closures” leaves less assurance that the endings we find problematic in Mark, John and Acts were not originally intended to be just as they are.


Acts 15 falling into its (literary) place at last

Filed under: Literary analysis,Luke-Acts,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 4:28 am

Something about the Jerusalem Council meeting in Acts 15 has eluded me — including even the question to help me know what that “something” is.

This morning I’m sure I’m catching up with what most others have long known, must surely have been alluded to countless times in the literature not to mention “basic texts”, when it finally hit me.



Re-reading Virgil’s Aeneid

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Literary analysis,Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 11:03 am

Initially read Virgil’s Aeneid for my interest in the classics and culture of the Roman world and the literature that inspired many throughout the ages. Re-read it recently to compare with the New Testament literature. In particular, note the sudden ending that is not a satisyfing ending at all for our tastes, and compare sudden “non-endings” of the Book of Acts and Gospel of Mark (assuming 16.9-20 is not original). Even some ancients could not accept that Virgil really intended the Aeneid to end so abruptly and composed their own endings for it, just as many have attempted to deduce possible intended endings for Acts and Mark.

Yet when one notices that the existing ending of the Aeneid is decorated with literary allusions and images used at the beginning (e.g. the literal storm imagery that opens the Aeneid in Book 1 is repeated figuratively in Book 12 to describe Aeneas attacking Turnus), thus bracketing the work like bookends, then one can more easily accept the current conclusion is as the author intended it. Similarly one notices a similar literary allusions bracketing the current opening and endings of Mark — (the most well known examples being the tearing of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and the tearing of the temple veil at his death; and the disobedience of the healed leper to the command to remain silent against the disobedience of the women to the command to speak (16.8).)

As for the ending of Acts, one cannot avoid the similarities between the constant mythic and literary themes of pioneers struggling through hardships and opposition and dangerous travel to establish “a new and truly God-fearing community” in Rome. In both the conclusion is abrupt once the beginninngs of this are established through one final conflict.

(There is much more to add by way of comparison with NT literature, but I have saved specifics for other posts to come, in particular for the series I am adding to this site on the we-passages in Acts. An interesting read, with its plusses and minuses like like any read, is Marianne Palmer Bonz’s “The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic” (Fortress Press, 2000).)

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Paul’s reception in Italy and Rome: another Josephus link?

Filed under: Literary analysis — Neil Godfrey @ 11:47 am

While it is commonplace to think of the Book of Acts as an unfinished work, appearing to end without a real narrative resolution (with Paul left a prisoner in Rome for “2 years” — no trial, no death, no release) , I keep wondering if the real problem is that we are missing something critical about the intent of the narrative. As one small facet of this question I have raised before the possibility that the author of Acts was emulating the conclusion of the Primary History of Israel which ends with the king of Judah a prisoner in Babylon (sometimes later used as a cypher for Rome) and the circumstances of his imprisonment.

Now on reading bits of Josephus again I wonder if another piece is falling into place, (more…)

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