2008-01-19

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

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

I do argue in several places that Acts is not “true history”, meaning it is not an historically true and factual account of the beginnings of Christianity. It seems some readers therefore assume that anything I write in relation to Acts is an explicit and direct continuation of those arguments.

But my discussion of the prologues is not at any point given as a “proof” that Acts is not historical. This is why I wrote:

This is not to deny that the author of Acts wanted his narrative to be read as history. But by the standards of the day it was very much a history told like a popular novel. . . . (I avoid the term “historical fiction” because the work was not read as fiction. It was meant to be read as history but it was pitched at the tastes of the wider public.)

and

Many readers are persuaded by the fact that Acts has a prologue just like ancient secular histories do that it must be considered a priori an attempt at real history.

Indeed, one often reads, particularly in fundamentalist literature, that it is the very prologue of Luke and Acts that is a significant reason for reading these works as historically true accounts. One critic actually took some of my above statements to imply I was contradicting myself. The only contradiction was in the imagination of the critic.

Such a naive reading makes no allowance for the possibility of propaganda or a false account regardless of the personal beliefs of the author — not to mention the tendency of fictional episodes to slip in to ancient histories. It was this naive approach to the reading of Acts that I was in part attempting to address. To stimulate a rethink by introducing a wider perspective on the literature of the day. Hence my many illustrations of ancient prologues. One critic even found fault with my not presenting ‘much argument’ with my list of prologue samples. He was disappointed I was not arguing what he believed I must have been arguing and missed the point of the list entirely. (And no, I am not arguing here or anywhere that the prologue of Acts is proof Acts is propaganda or false history. If that sounds contradictory to someone then someone has missed the point once again.)

The prologue post was to show the wide variety of ways prologues were used in ancient literature and the wide variety of formats they could take. And to demonstrate how the preface of Acts compares with these. Prologues of and by themselves generally prove very little. However, yes I do elsewhere argue that the content of the prologue in Acts can be garnered in support of other arguments. But that is another question again, and the prologue is not at any point used as “a reason” for arguing against the historical accuracy or truth of Acts.

Unfortunately “rethinking” one’s entrenched belief system is not on a fundamentalist’s agenda, and some fundamentalists are very prolific in their online critiques of what they think “nonbelievers” are arguing.

But this is the sort of information I found interesting and helpful when I was myself beginning a major rethink. It was good enough for the likes of Irenaeus and Tertullian to take their received texts at face value but the techniques of historical investigation and literary criticism really have moved on since then.

  • 2008-01-20 07:27:49 UTC - 07:27 | Permalink

    Loveday Alexander on the preface of Acts:

    “In 1993, L. Alexander published a volume with the unpretentious title. The Preface to Luke’s Gospel (1993a). This volume and the host of articles with which Alexander continued to develop her thesis (1993b; 1995; 1996; 1998a; 1998b; 1999a; 1999b; 1999c) were, however, to have a profound influence upon the fixture direction of studies into the genre of Luke and Acts. Alexander’s central thesis, which she restated many times, was essentially: ‘If Luke is writing history, the preface conventions he chooses would locate his work on the fringes ofthe genre’ (1999a: 23). Alexander repeatedly argued that the prefaces to Luke and Acts are more compatible with the style, grammar and vocabulary of’scientific writings’ than with the literary conventions of first-century history. Alexander has maintained that ‘the personal tone evoked by the dedication is at home in the technical manuals ofthe various school traditions in a way that it is not in historiography’ (1999c: 19; Robbins [1999: 66] correctly designates such texts ‘profession-oriented writings’). Alexander has been reluctant to assign Luke-Acts to any narrowly defined genre. In fact, she has considered several different possibilities forthe genre of Luke-Acts, including biography (1993b), romantic novels (1995), and even history (1996; 1998a; 1999a; 1999b). Alexander has, however, consistently maintained that Luke’s prefaces, traditionally one ofthe surest evidences of Luke’s assumed historiographic intent, are not very consistent with the historical genres ofthe first century.

    “Of course, not everyone has been convinced by Alexander’s arguments (e.g. Balch 1999; Moessner 1999a; 1999b; Aune 2003). Her work has, however, done more to challenge the prevailing association of Acts with historiography than have any of the existing counter-proposals for the genre of Acts.”

    Thomas Phillips in Currents in Biblical Research 2006, “The Genre of Acts: Moving Toward a Consensus?” pp 382-383

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