Dec 29, 2011

Acts as Narrative

 
How does Acts work as a narrative? Simply stated, the plot of Acts unfolds in support of Luke’s theological aim. On the one hand, he designs his story according to a specific geographical and chronological framework. The action begins in Jerusalem before moving beyond the holy city into the neighboring provinces of Samaria and Judea before moving into the nations and peoples beyond Palestine. Many have found this geographical outline indexed by Jesus’ programmatic prophecy in Acts 1:8. In addition, Acts traces the key events with brief glimpses of the most important leaders of earliest Christianity to establish a general chronology of the church’s origins. On the other hand, the historical conception provides the framework for two grand thematic movements (‘conversion’ and ‘consecration’), each scripted by extended citations of Scripture (see 2:17-21; 15:16-18) that narrate how the redemptive purposes of God are realized through the church’s mission.”

Robert W. Wall, “Acts,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 10, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 13–14.

  

15 comments:

Richard Fellows said...

Charles, you quote "Simply stated, the plot of Acts unfolds in support of Luke’s theological aim". How does one demonstrate this without circular reasoning? We should not deduce Luke's "theological aim" from the plot of Acts and then suggest that the plot has been crafted to conform to his theological aim. And even if we can show that the plot corresponds to Luke's theological aim, how can we decide which came first. Did Luke's theology result from the events or did his exposition of the events result from his theology?

I fear that Wall's comments are insinuating bias by Luke. One reads this type of unsupported insinuation all too often. There is a tendency for NT scholars to assume that everything has to do with theology, but how about the simple explanation that Luke focussed on the times and places in which he was a participant?

Charles said...

Richard,

You raise some good points. But some measure of circularity is unavoidable.You state that, "We should not deduce Luke's "theological aim" from the plot of Acts and then suggest that the plot has been crafted to conform to his theological aim." But I wonder, how else would you propose to go about it? Furthermore, if one believes that you have correctly deduced Luke's theological aim, then does it not stand to reason that Luke crafted his work to communicate that aim? Now one might argue that someone has misconstrued Luke's theological aim based on a faulty reading of the text. But that is another matter.

You ask, "Did Luke's theology result from the events or did his exposition of the events result from his theology?" The answer is "Yes."

I wonder what you mean by "bias." Are you suggesting that you can have an unbiased recording of history.

While it may be a possible explanation that "Luke focused on the times and places in which he was a participant" but I am not sure that this is the best explanation. Are you suggest Luke as a participant in the early parts of Acts? Or take the Cornelius episode which is clearly significant for Acts, was Luke there? I don't suppose that you could rule it out but I am not sure that there is any real evidence that he was there. But perhaps I am misunderstanding your point.

Richard Fellows said...

Every writer has his/her selection criteria by which they decide what events are interesting enough to record. However, not every writer will make things up or misrepresent events to make them fit a certain view. It is often implied that Luke practiced this kind of 'bias'. Whenever I ask people for evidence to justify the skepticism about the historicity of Acts, they go strangely silent.

I think Luke certainly travelled from Antioch to Europe on Paul's 'second missionary journey'. His movements during the first half of Acts is an open question. The absence of "we passages' in the first half of Acts tells us little because the convention was to use the third person, especially for land journeys, even when the narrator was a participant. If Luke was Lucius of Cyrene, which I think is probable, he may well have spent time in Judea (see Acts 11:19-20).

It is also possible that Luke focussed on events that were of interest to his readers, such as events that brought the faith to them. If the target audience was in Rome or Ephesus, for example, this would explain why Luke wrote about the early church in Judea, but not about side branches such as Egypt.

I imagine that when Luke planned his composition, he asked himself, "What am I uniquely qualified to write about that will be of interest to my audience". The contents of Acts may have been shaped by this combination of Luke's personal experiences and the interests of his audience. Or am I missing something?

You ask a good question about how to avoid circularity. The proper method, I think, is to compare Acts with Paul's undisputed letters (being very careful not to be influenced by the disputed letters) and see if there are points of difference.

Charles said...

Richard,

Thank you for the continued interaction.

Although I have not interacted extensively with Wall’s commentary proper, his introductory remarks suggest that he does not believe that Luke is simply making things up or misrepresenting events. I would also be one to affirm the historicity of Acts.

I would also agree that traveled with Paul on his second missionary journey. But I would question your argumentation a bit about the presence/absence of the “we passages.” Namely, you state, “His movements during the first half of Acts is an open question. The absence of ‘we passages’ in the first half of Acts tells us little because the convention was to use the third person, especially for land journeys, even when the narrator was a participant.” By using this argument, we should see “we passages” in the first missionary journey which involved sea travel.

I agree with your statement, “I imagine that when Luke planned his composition, he asked himself, ‘What am I uniquely qualified to write about that will be of interest to my audience.’ The contents of Acts may have been shaped by this combination of Luke’s personal experiences and the interests of his audience.” I would think that Wall and many others would agree with it as well, especially if you think that both Luke and his intended audience would have had theological interests.

Concerning your methodology, I am not sure that this would help to get at Acts literarily. To do that, you need to read Acts on its own terms. I am not opposed to bringing Paul into the discussion of Acts for other reasons, but not to understand where the narrative of Acts is going. By the way, I am not sure that your assertion that to be “very careful not to be influenced by the disputed letters” is sound methodologically. First, though they are “disputed,” it does not mean that they are inauthentic. They are disputed. I think that it is too quickly overlooked. Second, even if these epistles are not authentically Pauline, it seems likely that they do represent or contain some strands of Pauline tradition. If so, I am not sure what the benefit would be to ignore whatever contribution that they might make to the discussion.

Richard Fellows said...

Thanks, Charles. I agree with most of your comment.

The first missionary journey is the part of Acts where the author is least likely to have been a participant, because it includes sea voyages, as you say.

I do think that people give the disputed letters the benefit of the doubt too often. As you may now, I ague that Rom 16:21 provides strong evidence that Acts was written by Paul's traveling companion, Lucius/Luke, but people don't see this because they trust Col 4:11,14. Then there is the sexism in the disputed letters, which colors people's interpretation of the real Paul. These are just two reasons not to trust the disputed letters, but I could give numerous others.

Charles said...

Richard,

I wonder whether you have misunderstood part of my remarks. I was responding to your argument that "the absence of 'we passages' in the first half of Acts tells us little because the convention was to use the third person, especially for land journeys, even when the narrator was a participant."

Here is the problem I was trying to highlight.

(1) The "we passages" do not begin until chapter 16.

(2) You state that the convention was to use of 3rd person in land journeys. As I understood your point, you seem to be arguing that the first person "we" would be used in sea journeys such as the second missionary journey.

(3) The problem as I see it is one of consistency. "We passages" occur in land/sea journey of the second missionary journey but not in the land/sea journey of the the first missionary journey. Why is this? So I am not sure how your argument works. You have to explain the presence of the "we passages" in some way.

I also am not sure I understand your second paragraph. I am arguing that the so called disputed letters should be taken into consideration on historical grounds. I happen to believe that these epistles are authentically Pauline but that is another discussion. My point is that even if Paul did not write them, they at least contain Pauline tradition. Whether to trust the disputed letters on a given point or not is another issue. I am not sure that we should distrust this material because we do not like what they say or that they happen to work against our arguments.

Richard Fellows said...

I'll try to clarify.

Acts 1-12 and Acts 15 We don't know whether Luke was present for these events because he would probably use the third person whether he was present or not.
Acts 13-14 Luke was probably not present because there are sea voyages here and we suspect that he used the first person for sea voyages where he was present.
Acts 16-end. Luke was present for most of these events.

Does this help? I am saying that Luke was present for all the events where he uses the first person, and for at least some of the land occasions when he uses the third person. I am essentially taking Vernon Robins's observations and using them to support the opposite conclusion to the one that Robins comes to. I have blogged on this.

I would question whether there is much "Pauline tradition" in Colossians and the PE. There is much in the PE that is anti-Pauline. I have argued on my blog that the author of Colossians read and misunderstood the letter to Philemon, and that the author of the PE misunderstood 1 Corinthians, for example. We should distrust them not because they contain some offensive material, but because they contradict the genuine epistles and Acts too often. I would class the PE as forgeries and I don't think we can assume that the author even tried to represent Paul's teaching. I have no firm opinion on 2 Thess and Eph. There is a tendency for scholars (not you, though, since you think the letters are genuine) to want to find a diplomatic middle ground between seeing the PE as genuine and fraudulent, but in the real world there are honest people (e.g Luke) and there are liars (the PE), and it is the job of scholarship to call them out.

Charles said...

Richard,

Your clarification is helpful.

I happen to take the "we passages" to be genuine indications of Luke's presence. But I find your latest clarification to be difficult to square with your initial assertion: "The absence of "we passages' in the first half of Acts tells us little because the convention was to use the third person, especially for land journeys, even when the narrator was a participant." If you are right then it tells you a lot about at least the crucial chapters of 13-14, the first missionary journey. Namely, based on your understanding Luke was not there since there are sea jouneys and no "we passages.". If that be the case, then it calls into question one of your original criticisms of Wall, that is, "how about the simple explanation that Luke focused on the times and places in which he was a participant?" Can one really argue that Luke does not focus on the first missionary journey, a journey which by your criteria, Luke probably did not participate in? Would this fact point alone call into serious question your "simple explanation"?

Concerning the disputed epistles, I think that contradictions might be a relevant basis for evaluation. But of course there are two issues. One is that there must be a legitimate contradiction. I personally do not see the Pastorals for example as contradicting the seven accepted Pauline epistles. But we can agree to disagree here. Second, a number of NT scholars would see at least some contradictions among the seven (although I am not one). If one applies the criteria of contradiction then even some of the seven should be viewed as inauthentic.

Richard Fellows said...

Charles,

you are right that Acts 13-14 does not fit well with my suggestion. Your point is well made and well taken. However, I was not suggesting that Luke focussed EXCLUSIVELY on events in which he participated. Nor can we be absolutely sure that Luke was not present for the first missionary journey. I believe that Luke has a tendency to use the first person for sea voyages, but I cannot be sure that he did so every time.

There are, of course, other events that Luke includes that he certainly did not witness. The damascus road account is an example. He would, however, have been well qualified to discuss it since he would have heard Paul talk about it first hand. He might well also have been very qualified to discuss the first missionary journey, since he may have heard reports about it from Paul, Barnabas, and the Galatians themselves. I believe that Peter visited Antioch twice and he probably met Luke there. This could explain Luke's focus on Peter. It's all speculation of course, but I suspect that Luke writes about things about which he knew more than his readers, especially events that he had witnessed. I have not read this line of thinking in the commentaries, but I often read the suggestion that Luke's scheme is to present the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman empire.

Charles said...

Richard,

As you know, the persuasiveness of any theory depends in large part on whether it best accounts for and explains the data. My point simply here is that your "simple explanation" may be simple, but it fails in my view to provide an adequate accounting and explanation of the data because of the anomalies (Acts 13-14) and dependence on untestable speculation (whether Luke was present at all in the first half of the book).

Richard Fellows said...

You seem to be misrepresenting what I said. I never claimed that Luke dealt only with events where he was present, did I? I said he "focussed" on events where he was present. By "focussed" I meant "emphasized", not "dealt exclusively with". Perhaps I could have chosen a better word.

Charles said...

Richard,

I certainly don't mean to misrepresent you. But it seems to me that one would have a hard time denying that Luke focused on the first missionary journey. It would also seem unlikely that he did not "focus" on any event prior to the "we passages" which begin in chapter 16. You speculate that Luke may have been present in Acts 1-11, but the best anyone can do is speculate. So it seems to me that the issues I have raised calls into serious question your "simple explanation" which fails to adequately account for about half of Acts.

Richard Fellows said...

I think we are in actually in agreement. You seem to be exaggerating the extent of my claims in order to knock them down. You are even getting me to misread what I had said: contrary to what I wrote in my last comment, I did not say that Luke emphasized events where he was present. I merely put forward the idea that he dealt mainly with the times and places where he was a participant. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Luke gives a history of the early church, but a selective one. He says a lot about how the faith spread to Antioch, Galatia, and the Aegean. He says nothing, though about how the faith spread to Egypt or to Rome, or about developments to the east of Judea. Nor does he say much about Palestine after 50CE. He clearly decided to focus on early developments in Palestine and on the region from Antioch to the Aegean. My suggestion (and it is just a suggestion) is that he focussed on (i.e. dealt mainly with) these things because these were the things that he knew about from being in those regions at those times. Lucius/Luke of Cyrene probably spent time in Judea in the early days of the church, and travelled with Paul from Antioch to Galatia and the Aegean. He later went with Paul from Judea to Rome. If Lucius of Cyrene was the author of Acts, the macro structure of Acts can be explained: he would have written about the times and regions that he know about. That is not to say that he would have written only about events that he personally witnessed. If he was not present himself, the events of Acts 15 could have been reported to him in Antioch by Paul, Barnabas and Silas. Acts mainly describes events that Lucius/Luke would probably have been close to. He would have known less about the history of Christianity in Egypt, for example, so he left that to others. Does that help?

Charles said...

Richard,

I have no problems with your explanation. I do take exception to your claim that I am exaggerating your claims in order to knock them down. This would be unethical. I have merely attempted to use your language (note how often I quote you directly) and your criteria and apply those to the evidence. It is in that exercise that I have expressed my skepticism.

Part of the problem may go back to some of the language that has been used. For example, I would question your use of participant. If I told who that I was a participant in the New York marathon, I dare say that you would assume that I actually ran the race and not that I was merely in New York at the time the race was run!

I would affirm that Acts is a selective account. I would also have no problem with Luke writing about persons, places, and events that he was most familiar with. But I would go on to note that he is also selective about those persons, places, and events that he was familiar with. I suspect that this selectivity is due in great measure to his theological purposes (going now back to Wall).

Richard Fellows said...

Fair enough