I was reminded of Luke’s prologue (again) when I recently read (again) the prologue of Roman historian Livy. Stream of consciousness takes me immediately to Loveday Alexander’s argument that Luke’s prologue is very “unlike” the prologues of ancient historians and to my own pet notion (anathema to most interested classicists, I am sure) that Luke’s second volume, Acts, is structured around the founding myth of Rome: both narrate the voyage of a hero from the east, via Troy, to establish a new (imperial/spiritual) headquarters in Rome. But I do take some courage in that at least one scholar, Marianne Palmer Bonz, has written an exploratory book, The Past As Legacy: Luke-Acts As Ancient Epic, expressing the same theme. (I call it “exploratory” because I am still seeking more specific details to support the argument.)
So I collate the different possible explanations of Luke’s Prolog in this post.
Here is Luke’s Prologue:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Here is the historian Livy’s prologue to his grand history of Rome, beginning with the fall of Troy and the travels of Aeneas to Italy. I highlight the portions that remind me of the prologue above.
Whether the task I have undertaken of writing a complete history of the Roman people from the very commencement of its existence will reward me for the labour spent on it, I neither know for certain, nor if I did know would I venture to say. For I see that this is an old-established and a common practice, each fresh writer being invariably persuaded that he will either attain greater certainty in the materials of his narrative, or surpass the rudeness of antiquity in the excellence of his style. However this may be, it will still be a great satisfaction to me to have taken my part, too, in investing, to the utmost of my abilities, the annals of the foremost nation in the world with a deeper interest; and if in such a crowd of writers my own reputation is thrown into the shade, I would console myself with the renown and greatness of those who eclipse my fame. The subject, moreover, is one that demands immense labour. It goes back beyond 700 years and, after starting from small and humble beginnings, has grown to such dimensions that it begins to be overburdened by its greatness. I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years; so long, at least, as I am devoting all my thoughts to retracing those pristine records, free from all the anxiety which can disturb the historian of his own times even if it cannot warp him from the truth.
The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. [I see here a transvaluation of this thought in Luke’s prolog. Luke is writing for his patron to “know the certainty” of what he writes.] This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states. Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that when she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder’s father, the nations of the world accept the statement with the same equanimity with which they accept her dominion. But whatever opinions may be formed or criticisms passed upon these and similar traditions, I regard them as of small importance. The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these-the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.
There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid. Unless, however, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any commonwealth greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which avarice and luxury have been so late in making their inroads, or poverty and frugality so highly and continuously honoured, showing so clearly that the less wealth men possessed the less they coveted. In these latter years wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness. But criticisms which will be unwelcome, even when perhaps necessary, must not appear in the commencement at all events of this extensive work. We should much prefer to start with favourable omens, and if we could have adopted the poets’ custom, it would have been much pleasanter to commence with prayers and supplications to gods and goddesses that they would grant a favourable and successful issue to the great task before us.
“Luke” may not embrace everything we find in a Roman historian’s prologue, but much (not all, but the greater proportion) of Luke’s prologue is an echo of what we read in that of the Roman historian’s.
The most obvious difference is length, of course. But that is also the first striking difference between Luke’s 28 chapters and Livy’s five whole books.
But to be specific:
- Luke and Livy acknowledge the many others who have written on their subject before them;
- They both self-consciously express their intentions to surpass the works of those others;
- Luke and Livy compare their work with their predecessors’ and explain that theirs is based on equally diligent personal investigation, laying everything out in a more “stylistic”/”orderly” manner;
- While Livy concedes that there are stories involving the supernatural that he will not pronounce on their truthfulness or falsehood, Luke insists that he will write to ensure that there is no doubt about the stories he writes.
If anyone reading this notices other similarities do comment.
But then here comes Loveday Alexander:
A large number of short treatises, of about the length of Lk’s work, have been examined in Loveday Alexander’s authoritative work (Alexander 1993). She establishes that it was a convention to begin with a preface similar to his, including such matters as name of author and recipient, his aim, the sources of his information, the importance of the subject, and a claim to personal competence for the task. Luke’s preface accords with these conventions, though in detail it is more similar to medical, mechanical, military and mathematical treatises than to historical works.
So the Livy echoes are not to be interpreted as being modelled on historiographical masters after all?
Alexander challenges the common view that Luke’s preface was modeled on those of ancient Greek and Roman historians. The latter were noted for their attempts to impress audiences with high levels of literary expression. Not so Luke’s. Among the differences:
- Luke’s preface is one sentence long; Thucydides’ is 23 chapters long, each at least 4 times the length of Luke’s sentence;
- Luke does not include any moral reflections that characterized the prologues of Hellenistic historians;
- The convention of Greek historians was to speak of themselves in the third person (Luke uses the first person);
- Ancient historians never open with a second person address, while Luke’s preface is such an address (directly to Theophilus)
Loveday Alexander argues that Luke’s preface is like those used in “the scientific tradition” (i.e. those introducing works of philosophy, mathematics, engineering, herbal astrology, dream interpretation, medicine, rhetoric)
These authors were less interested in their audiences, so there is less interest on presentation beyond what is necessary for the introducing the subject matter. Alexander sees Luke’s preface, particularly its structure and content, as being very much like the prefaces found in these works. The topics most often covered in these, as in Luke’s, are:
- the author’s decision to write
- subject and contents of the book
- the dedication or second person address
- nature of the subject matter
- others who have written on the subject, whether as predecessors or rivals (conventionally without explicit reference to names or identifying descriptions)
- author’s qualifications
- general remarks on methodology
Is Luke imitating a historian like Livy? Or is he making the most of the illusion?