Category Archives: Pervo: Profit with Delight


2008-02-09

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

by Neil Godfrey

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):

Herodotus

  • 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

Thucydides

  • 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.


2008-01-21

The literary genre of Acts. 9: The ancient novel

by Neil Godfrey

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? read more »


2008-01-20

Reviewing Marion Soard’s review of Pervo’s “Profit with Delight”

by Neil Godfrey

woops — i originally spoke of marion as a “she” — thanks to a respondent i have been able to correct my gaffe. there is less gender confusion when one consults marion’s (marty’s) homepage. (note added 24/jan/07)

Christopher Price draws on Marion Soards’ review to dismiss the argument of Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight as being without merit:

Professor Soards points to additional examples of such historiography that Pervo overlooks or downplays:

[S]cholars have long recognized that one of the goals of ancient historians was to please their readers. . . . The presence of entertaining or pleasing elements in an ancient work does not automatically mean that it is not history. Yet Pervo takes this position. He is able to do so largely by ignoring this characteristic in ancient historiography-for example, it is remarkable that while Pervo mentions Thucydides (only!) five times in his study, he completely ignores Herodotus, “The Father of History,” who writes in a lively, engaging, entertaining, and even fantastic manner-not unlike the author of Acts. Similarly, Pervo refers several times to Lucian of Samosata and Xenophon of Ephesus, but he brings Dionysis of Halicarnassus into the study only twice; Polybius, once; and Sallus, three times. Many – perhaps most or all – the common characteristics Pervo identified between Acts and the ancient novel may be located in these ancient historians whom Pervo basically ignores.

Marion Soards further writes (although not cited by Price):

Indeed, Pervo’s case that Acts is novelistic is made largely from Luke’s own lively style and from the inclusion of accounts of miracles in the narrative. But any reader of Herodotus knows that all ancient historians were not as skeptical about the miraculous as was Thucydides; the fact that Acts tells of miracles which Pervo cannot believe occurred is no reason to identify Acts as a novel. . . .

Pervo has far from made an ironclad case for identifying the genre of Acts as the ancient (historical) novel.

Perhaps Price was swayed in how he read Pervo by first reading Soards’ comments. Perhaps he read Profit with Delight by means of injecting into it Soards’ strangely baseless criticisms.

Soards wrote:

The presence of entertaining or pleasing elements in an ancient work does not automatically mean that it is not history. Yet Pervo takes this position. (pp 308-9)

Yet we have already seen (in the previous post re this topic) that simply not true. Pervo quite simply does not “take this position”. He explains in Profit with Delight :

Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain. (p. 86)

I hope that it is by now clear that relating Acts to ancient novels is hardly a means for writing the book off for being fiction, least of all, pure fiction. (p.122)

My intent is that such comparison proceed alongside, as well as in competition with, investigations using historiographical models. Description of Acts as a historical novel does not imply that the author concocted it from thin air. Reconsideration of the question of genre does not eliminate the possibility of sources. (p.137)

Soards develops his misplaced criticism:

Many — perhaps most or all — the common characteristics Pervo identified between Acts and the ancient novel may be located in these ancient historians whom Pervo basically ignores. (p.309)

This misses the very point of Pervo’s thesis:

Although few would quibble at the description of the Gospels and Acts as “popular,” most 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. (p. xii)

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. (p.137)

Soards’ complaint also misses the details of Pervo’s monograph when he explains that the same motifs can be found in ancient histories. Pervo explains:

Probably not one of the themes, motifs, or modes listed in this section [Pervo has just listed 5 pages of typical features found in ancient novels] does not have numerous attestations in other genres. One cannot define literary categories by typical features alone. They are helpful aids to subclassification and comparison. Reference to them enables appreciation of both the diversity and the sameness of the prose fiction produced by the ancients, revealing the potential of the genre for absorption and development. The sheer number of elements refutes any suggestion that ancient novels were written to a single formula. What is fundamental, however, is the manner in which these themes, motifs, and modes were put to use in the creation of novels. I now turn toward an examination of these works in terms of their social settings, their functions, and the characteristic understandings of life displayed in them. (p.110)

Soards wrote:

Indeed, Pervo’s case that Acts is novelistic is made largely from Luke’s own lively style and from the inclusion of accounts of miracles in the narrative.

It should be clear from the preceding extract from Pervo that this is over simplification to the point of outright misrepresentation.

Soards compared Herodotus:

But any reader of Herodotus knows that all ancient historians were not as skeptical about the miraculous as was Thucydides

Apart from this being a non sequitur in relation to Profit with Delight, any reader of Herodotus knows that Herodotus as a rule expressed two minds about any supposed miraculous event.

Soards concludes:

Pervo has far from made an ironclad case for identifying the genre of Acts as the ancient (historical) novel.

As Thomas Phillips observes in “The Genre of Acts: Moving Toward a Consensus?” (Currents in Biblical Research, 2006, 370)

Although Pervo is often sharply criticized for classifying Acts as an ancient novel (e.g. Walker 1989), he never made a complete equation between the genre of Acts and the ancient novel. His research did, however, highlight both what he regarded as strong parallels between the ancient novel and the book of Acts and what he considered a fruitful point of comparison for subsequent research. Although such comparisons were already in their infancy (e.g. Schlierling and Schlierling 1978; Praeder 1981) before Pervo’s eloquent apology for rethinking the fictive nature of Acts, in the wake of Pervo’s monograph comparisons between Acts and ancient novels became increasingly common in leading peer-reviewed publications (e.g. Dawsey 1989; Alexander 1995; Ascough 1996; Harrill 2000; Schwartz 2003).


2008-01-19

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

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. read more »


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

by Neil Godfrey

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. read more »


The literary genre of Acts. 8: clarification

by Neil Godfrey

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.


2007-12-23

Making sense of the Ephesian Riot in Acts

by Neil Godfrey

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.

read more »


2007-12-20

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

by Neil Godfrey

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. read more »


2007-12-08

The literary genre of Acts. 6: style and content

by Neil Godfrey

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? read more »


2007-11-27

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

by Neil Godfrey

(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: read more »


2007-11-18

The literary genre of Acts. 3: Speeches

by Neil Godfrey

“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

 



2007-11-13

The literary genre of Acts. 2: Chronology

by Neil Godfrey

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

read more »


2007-11-12

The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

by Neil Godfrey

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.

read more »


2007-04-23

The sea adventure of Acts 27 an eyewitness account?

by Neil Godfrey

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. read more »