Category Archives: Smith: Acts Christian Beginnings


Paul’s Letters As Sources for Acts (Acts Seminar Report)

by Neil Godfrey

The Acts Seminar Report (Acts and Christian Beginnings) maintains that, contrary to the view that has long been widely held among biblical scholars, the author of Acts (with the routine caveats we call him Luke) did know and use the letters of Paul.

datingActsI begin with some comments by one of the Acts Seminar Fellows, Richard Pervo, in his 2006 work, Dating Acts, because thy sum up some of the apparent reasons scholars have traditionally rejected the idea that Luke knew (or used) the letters of Paul.

[Morton S.] Enslin states that rejection of Paul’s letters as a source for Acts was a result of the reaction against the Tübingen school and claims that this reaction became like its polar opposite, “une sort de these qui n’a pas besoin de demonstration,” [=”A type of thesis that requires no proof”] the “assured result of higher criticism.” (p. 54)

Scholars who have considered Luke to be primarily an historian have argued that he could not have known of the letters

because they would have clarify some issues and correct some errors. (p. 137)

Those who have seen him as a theologian have been able to argue that Luke’s Paul was so different from the Paul of the letters that Luke must have chosen not to use the letters

because they presented a different theology. (p. 137)

Pervo, however, was able to note that a growing appreciation of Luke as an author allows us to acknowledge that as a creative writer Luke was free to use or not use sources as he willed. Scholars have also come to increasingly accept that even as an ancient historian his purposes differed from those of modern historians.

I love Pervo’s conclusion, and I am sure Thomas Brodie (whose latest publication I have been blogging about) would, too:

That is to say that the question can no longer be dismissed by resorting to the shoulds and woulds that posit what Luke would have done and how he should have used Paul. Statements of this nature reveal what their proponents would do, but shed no light upon ancient practices in general or upon Lucan practice in particular. They are egocentric and anachronistic.

Especially painful for some has been the inevitable conclusion that, if Luke knew Pauline letters, he ignored them at some points and contradicted them at others. Why this experience should be more painful than it is with regard to the Gospel of Mark — which Luke also ignored at some points and contradicted more than once — is not perfectly clear, but there can be no doubt it has been a burden.

As Enslin says, “The common denial . . . that Luke knew or used the Pauline letters needs fresh consideration instead of automatic repetition.” As the followers of the Artemis of Ephesus allegedly learned (Acts 19:21-40), constant reiteration of a claim does not make it valid or effective. (pp. 54-55, my formatting and bolding, italics original)

So why would Luke have created such a different Paul from the one found in the letters? And why would he have used the letters to create that different Paul? I’ll return to that question at the end of this post.

It’s time to look at what the Acts Seminar says about the evidence. (It’s brief. I could not hope to cover Richard Pervo’s 100 pages of packed argument and illustrative tables here. I have posted a few detailed arguments, however, coincidentally by another who was a Seminar Fellow, Joseph B. Tyson: How Acts Subverts Galatians; Dating the Book of Acts, 6, late date reconsidered (Paul’s letters).)

Words Taken Out of Paul’s Mouth

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Women in Acts (An Acts Seminar Perspective)

by Neil Godfrey

I very much doubt that it is possible to tell the gender of an author simply from reading the author’s works. (Surely there are too many times women authors have fooled reading publics with male pen-names and male authors of romance are also on record as having fooled even literary judges with female pseudonyms.) But the women in Luke-Acts are sometimes singled out as indicators that the author at least had a special interest and affection for women.

Shelly Matthews

Shelly Matthews

So while we still have the Acts Seminar Report fresh in mind let’s see what Shelly Matthews, one of the Seminar Fellows, has to say about the women in Acts. She has a “cameo essay” addressing this topic in Acts and Christian Beginnings (the main title of the report).

Matthews writes:

[C]areful consideration of how women characters function in this narrative [Acts] suggests that the overarching rhetorical aim of this author is not to demonstrate friendliness toward women, but rather to circumscribe women within limited social and ecclesiastical roles. (p. 193)

Certainly there are more misogynist ideas extant in the second century than we find in Acts, Matthews continues:

  • The Pastoral Epistles insists women have no teaching authority and offer them salvation only through child-rearing.
  • The Gospel of Thomas has Peter declare that women are not worthy of eternal life.

Contrast women in Acts:

  • Lydia is a female head of a household who hosts Paul in Philippi
  • Priscilla is acknowledged (along with her husband) as a coworker of Paul
  • Priscilla (along with her husband) instructs Apollos more correctly in the Way
  • There are four daughters of Philip who are prophetesses

But none of this dents the “text’s overarching androcentrism.” Shelly Matthews shows that on closer inspection even these examples are not particularly favourable to women. read more »


The Author of Acts

by Neil Godfrey
Dennis E. Smith

Dennis E. Smith

Dennis E. Smith, one of the editors of the Acts Seminar Report, published as Acts and Christian Beginnings, includes in that publication a short essay on on the identity of the author of Acts (pp. 9-10).

Smith begins by noting that the first writer we know who identified the author of Acts as Luke, a companion of Paul, was Irenaeus who wrote in the late second century. We can read Irenaeus making this assertion in Against Heresies, 3.14.1:

But that this Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel, he himself clearly evinces, not as a matter of boasting, but as bound to do so by the truth itself. For he says that when Barnabas, and John who was called Mark, had parted company from Paul, and sailed to Cyprus, “we came to Troas;”(10) and when Paul had beheld in a dream a man of Macedonia, saying, “Come into Macedonia, Paul, and help us,” “immediately,” he says, “we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, understanding that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel unto them.

So Irenaeus was the first to rely upon the prima facie inference of the “we passages” in Acts and conservative scholarship through to the twenty-first century, despite twentieth century research into the the matter, has not uniformly advanced in learning since.

Dennis E. Smith points out that Irenaeus was

evidently thinking of the person mentioned in Col 4.14, Phlm 24, and 2 Tim 4.11

who was named Luke and who was a close companion of Paul. Irenaeus was also of the belief that the real Paul wrote all three of those letters and was also the author of the Gospel of Luke. Modern scholarship has largely followed the reasoning and conclusion of Irenaeus insofar as the same author who wrote Acts was also responsible for the Gospel of Luke, but (contrary to what one may expect from web and blog-active New Testament scholars)

few have accepted the theory that a companion of Paul was the author.

So critical readers here can be assured that, according to the word of Smith and Tyson and contrary to some prominent web/blogging scholars, “the majority of critical scholars” do not accept that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul. read more »

Top Ten Findings of the Acts Seminar

by Neil Godfrey

originalThe Acts Seminar was a Westar Institute sequel to the Jesus Seminar. It met between March 2000 and March 2011. It was

charged with the task to develop methods for determining the reliability of Acts and produce a comprehensive guide to Acts as history. (Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report, p. 1)

The Acts Seminar Report has now been published and this post shares “the top ten accomplishments” as listed in its Introduction, pages one to four. I have decided to try to stick to these ten findings alone here and restrain myself from posting here several supporting findings that I have over the years shared from other perspectives on this blog. I am a little satisfied to see some of the views on Acts that I have been expressing here since 2006 now are backed up by this Seminar Report. That should not be too surprising, actually, since the bibliography of the Report includes several critical works that I found especially interesting and cogent and that I have addressed in various ways, sometimes as jumping boards to other conclusions, in the past. (One reason I find this particularly satisfying is that it does add some respectability to the posts I have taken the trouble to share on this blog while various scholars have cavalierly ridiculed the posts as some sort of “conspiratorial” or “hyper-sceptical” and “unscholarly” nonsense.)

In sum:

  • The Acts narrative is worthless as history of first century Christianity, but quite informative as history of second century Christianity;
  • it provides us no reason to believe that Christianity began in Jerusalem — the Jerusalem centre of the faith was a myth created for second century ideological reasons;
  • some of its characters are fictional and their names symbolic;
  • Acts was created as a type of Christian “epic” (coherent and literary throughout, not a patchwork quilt of diverse sources) and as such, we have reasons to believe, is no more historical than Homer’s or Virgil’s epics;
  • the author did, indeed, know of the letters of Paul;
  • and finally, one of its main reasons for being written was to counter Marcion’s “heresy”.

That last detail (re Marcion) is not explicitly included in the “top ten” list below. It comes from the supporting essays in the same Introduction chapter. I will expand on some of these in future posts.

So here we go. (By the way, I’ll list the names of the scholars involved at the end of this post.) read more »