Continuity — The Acts Puzzle


Robert Price has used an analogy for years to illustrate the principle of analogy as it relates to these ancient Christian texts. Imagine that you get home from work, get yourself some iced tea, and sit down on the couch and click on the remote control; the first image you see on the TV screen is that of a giant reptilian creature wreacking havoc in what seems to be Tokyo Harbor, tearing high tension cables down, scaring the bejeezuz out of helpless people on subway trains, who scream bug eyed as the creature looks in on them. What would your first reaction to these images be? It certainly would not be, "Oh! Look! CNN is on!!" No. Of course not. You are familiar with the genre of Toho Studio movies and make the right connection. "Aha! A Godzilla movie! My daughter must have left the TV on the Sci-Fi channel." Right. This is the principle of analogy expressed very simply.

But what if, instead of the Sci-Fi channel, it turns out that this footage is being shown on a news network? What if at the bottom of the screen you see the CNN logo being displayed, with an accompanying right-to-left flowing ticker-tape below the main image—updating you about fatalities and damage caused by this terrible creature etc.? This, in a sense, is what we have in the case of the book we know as The Acts of the Apostles. It is a tendentious, religious patchwork of different genres and styles trying to pass itself off specifically as a historical document that describes actual, real events accurately, though we know the events are fictional.

Most telling in all of this recent brainstorming I've been engaging in, ironically, is the fact that the one source which explicitly claims to be a history of the apostolic tradition, is virtually silent on the very matter it purports to illuminate. Regarding the earliest period of Christianity, the narrative is meager. The “Twelve” are there at the beginning of Acts but they seem more like paper dolls meant to validate the story than authentic people. They are obviously there to "testify" to the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, only to then disappear from the story altogether. Except for Cephas and James, nothing is known about either the teaching or of the eventual fate[1] of any of the supposed earliest witnesses of the life of Jesus.

Yet apologist appeals to the “martyrdom” of these seminal group of founders are still forwarded as 'evidence' of the verisimilitude of the claims of the religion. This is yet another example of consensus-based-on-conjecture that needs to be corrected if any progress is going to be made in the field of study. The book of Acts, traditionally seen as a sequel to the third gospel, seems more like the third book of a trilogy to my eyes, a trilogy from which the second book is missing(!). Acts’ sequence of the formation of Christianity leaves much to be desired. Jesus died. His companions, a school of Galilean peasant fishermen, ran and hid. Then, all of a sudden, the spirit descended upon them and, behold, they were transformed into the mighty apostolic Jerusalem community, the authority that every other church looked to as a model. But I have a problem with this all-too-brief cursory glossing.

How did the Jerusalem community achieve its pivotal focal status? Was their authority really just magically bestowed on them one midsummer day? Why doesn‘t the Acts provide more detail? There is a step missing in its logic. How the threadbare account of such a continuity in the Acts went unquestioned through the centuries is hard to understand, given this nether-grey zone in the record. The author and/or editor(s) of the Acts succeeded in reconciling a Pauline variety of Christianity with its rival Petrine form. This done, it simply became second nature to make the inference. Voilà! Another case of consensus-by-inertia, consensus-by-default, that I have already pointed to previously. One of the ways that the author manages this merger of ideologies is by attributing a Jewish piety to Paul that is inconsistent with that of the author of the epistles. Another way of suggesting a continuity is by putting speeches in the mouth of Peter that are essentially Pauline in content. Accurately recalling speeches, needless to say, is too much to ask from a historical record from the days before tape recorders or instant replay. Such documentation of what was said on a given occasion is therefore necessarily a composition of the author's own design, paraphrased according to the needs of his purpose for writing.

Writing speeches for historical characters that fit the desired sectarian/didactic function is a convention of ancient historiography. Here’s Thucydides on his technique for this:

In this history I’ve made set speeches, some of which were delivered just before and others during the war [the Peloponnesian—Thucydides had been an eyewitness and participant]. I found it difficult to remember the precise words which were used in the speeches, which I listened to myself, and my various informants have experienced the same difficulty. So my method has been, while keeping closely to the general sense of the words that were actually used, to make the speakers say what in my opinion was called for by each situation[2]

Some Facts about Acts

  1. We don’t know who wrote it.
    Hypotheses have been raised, certainly, the first being Irenaeus of Lyons near the end of the second century. He based his attribution on the famous “we" passages. But even if you accept those “we”s as indication that the author was some kind of seafaring companion of the historical Paul, the question must be asked: By what criteria are we justified in pinpointing Luke, specifically, among Paul’s many friends, as the author? The process likely went something like this:

    —“Hmm …Let’s see, which one of Paul’s homeys was likely educated and kinda smart?……Why … LUKE !!! … Yes! …He has greek name … He was a doctor… Of course!!

    Irenaeus' methodology in linking them, though slightly better than that which he used in his mystical musing on why there must four gospels, is still just a conjecture in the end.

    We simply don’t know who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Insisting that we do is no more than apologetic posturing.

  2. We don’t know when it was written.
    Some people use those eyewitness-friendly “we”s to show that it was written in the late 80s (though I’ve seen apologists even date it as early as the 40s!) , as this would really be the latest that anyone could really believe that a companion of Paul could have been alive to write it. Whoever wrote it (presumably, this nameless old friend of Paul’s) would have been quite an old man by then. But this line of reasoning assumes without argument that in those passages the author was recounting his own experience, in the first person, and that he consciously is claiming to be Paul’s companion. The other, just-as-plausible possibility, namely that the author might have instead been quoting from one of his “many” sources (c.f. Luk 1:1), is simply ignored in its favor.

    Other internal arguments for the dating of Acts are even less secure than the ones involving “we“ passages; they rely on the (just-as-tentative) dating of the third gospel in the 80s, which is somewhat uncritically accepted in another paper-doll consensus. However, I don’t think that this is quite as secure as people believe.
    For some detailed explorations on this particular sub-topic, I recommend the following books:

    • David Trobisch - The First Edition of the New Testament

    • Mikeal Carl Parsons & Richard I. Pervo - Rethinking the unity of Luke and Acts

    • Richard Pervo - The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling its Story

    • John Knox - Marcion and the New Testament

    • Joseph Tyson - Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle [3

    A crucial point: if those arguments that are advanced to date the third gospel to post-70 are accepted, it is not altogether clear why we must keep this “Luke-Acts” to pre-100, unless an argument from the “we” passages is introduced (which we've already seen is historically useless).

    The fact is that there is no evidence from external sources for the reception of the third gospel until the second half of the second century at the earliest, and no evidence for the Acts until slightly later. This does not require a second century dating of Luke-Acts, but it does make it difficult to rule it out. Once we accept a post-70 C.E. dating to the synoptics, it's not clear to me why we should limit provenance to the first century.

  3. There are in the Acts some verifiable historical errors. By this I don’t mean the inconsistencies and contradictions with the Pauline epistles, although there are those, too.
    For example, the words put into Gamaliel’s mouth (in Acts 5:36–37) and into the tribune’s mouth (in 21:38, which seems to be a conflation of three different events, as detailed by Josephus in Antiquities 20:8:5-6,10 and in War 2:13:3-5) are problematic in this regard (the Gamaliel one is especially so, on a couple of different levels—he gets both the sequence and the time frame of the events he relates wrong).

The Westar Institute, notorious for its Jesus Seminar, which caused an inconspicuous ripple in the ordinarily insular pond of New Testament studies in the 80s and 90s of the twentieth century, recently reported the findings of its newer Acts Seminar, a continuation of their earlier work done on the gospels.

Among the conclusions reached by these scholars (these will come as a shock to the pious, orthodox "believer"—cover your ears if this is you) are:

  1. The use of Acts as a source for history needs serious critical reassessment.
  2. Acts was written in the early decades of the second century at the earliest.
  3. The author of Acts used the letters of Paul as one of his sources.
  4. Except for the letters of Paul, no other historical source can be definitively identified for Acts.
  5. Acts can no longer be considered an independent source for the life and mission of Paul.
  6. Contrary to Acts 1-­7, Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Christianity. (I'd like to meditate on this some more.)
  7. Acts constructed its story on the model of epic and related literature.
  8. The author of Acts created names for characters as a storytelling device.
  9. Acts constructed its story to fit ideological goals.
  10. As a product of the second century, Acts is a historical resource for understanding second century Christianity.

Richard Pervo says—and it's hard to disagree:—“Acts is a beautiful house that readers may happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live.” Luke did not even aspire to write a real history (overt vouching in the opening verses notwithstanding) but rather told his story to defend the gentile communities of his day (the early 2nd century) as the legitimate heirs of Israelite religion. It's the same question that keeps popping up in this exploration; namely, Why is a group of gentile god-fearers so intent on claiming the Israelite/Judean God and the Israelite/Judean scriptures as its own?

That is the kernel in the puzzle.

1 - The one exception is the mention of at least the death of James the son of Zebedee in Acts.

2 - History of the Peloponnesian War

3 - Stephan Huller has written a series of blog posts (he intended once to publish it as a monograph called Against Polycarp) that goes into this same late-dating of Acts territory. I enjoyed it. It's spread out within his blog. Just go there and do a search for "Against Polycarp." His theory is a more assertive and muscular version of Trobisch's. -  Sort of.

Further Reading:


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