Category Archives: Luke-Acts


“Eyewitnesses” in Luke-Acts: Not What We Think

by Neil Godfrey

There is a very good argument that the word for “eyewitnesses” in the preface to the Gospel of Luke (and by extension to Acts) does not refer to persons who literally saw the people and events that are found in the narratives.

The argument by John N. Collins has been published in The Expository Times (June, 2010) and deserves far more attention than it appears to have received. Its implications are far-reaching and highly significant for any thesis that rests upon the view that Luke drew upon oral traditions or accounts of individuals who were known for having personally witnessed Jesus or other events found in the Gospel and Acts.

I originally posted this as What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? I won’t repeat it in all its detail here. I’ll outline here the main points of the argument but first let’s have another look at that prologue in the inspired King James translation:

1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

The original article and my post have the details, but in sum the argument goes as follows: read more »

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 »


Functions of Dionysiac Myth in Acts, #2

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing the Jesus and Dionysus posts (sharing the 2006 Hermathena article by John Moles) . . .

The status of Christianity against Judaism

The Dionysiac myth also serves as a framework through which to address the status of Christianity in relation to Judaism. The god came to Thebes, to his own people among whom he was born to Semele, but he came as a stranger, unrecognized, even punished by the king as a trouble-maker for introducing something new that had no rightful place in the established order.

Christianity must also be presented as something “new” (“new wine” and the “sweet wine” claims made at Pentecost) but as nonetheless legitimate. Luke achieves this by portraying Jesus as the natural progeny, the rightful heir, fulfilment, of the (reputedly) ancient Jewish religion. All the Jewish scriptures spoke of him.

The above is my own interpretation of the state of affairs and my own synthesis of a longer discussion by John Moles. I’m open for others to make modifications or corrections.

Interestingly another scholar, Lynn Kauppi, has found that the same scene of Paul “on trial” before the Athenians is bound intertextually to another famous Greek play, Eumenides by Aeschylus. Kauppi cites F. F. Bruce and Charles H. Talbert as earlier observers of this link.

See Kauppi: Foreign But Familiar Gods for three posts addressing the details.

Creating a new work by weaving together allusions to more than one earlier master was consistent with literary practice and the art of mimesis in that day.

In Acts 17 we come to a scene that serves as a mirror for the narrative of the whole of Acts (p. 85).

Paul enters Athens and attracts notice as a purveyor of “strange deities” and a “new teaching”. Since Paul has just visited the synagogue in Athens to discuss his teachings we know that what he is bringing to Athens is far from “brand new”. It is an interpretation of the existing Jewish scriptures.

The scene evokes the Athenian reaction to Socrates. Socrates, we know, was also accused of introducing new deities. So the Athenians are doubly in the wrong: they are repeating the sins of their forefathers who condemned the wise Socrates and they are themselves enamoured of novelty. Indeed, they are no different from the “strangers” among them who share the same shallow interests. So Athenian prestige and distinctiveness is cut down by narrator.

“Luke” plays with the ironies of double allusions here: the Athenians are like their ancestor judges who condemned Socrates for introducing “new” ideas and like Pentheus who condemned the stranger for introducing a “strange” god. All the while, along with the “strangers” in their midst, they condemn themselves for their own love of the novelty. The Jews in Athens, on the other hand, condemned themselves for their love of the old and rejection of the new revelation.

The relationship between Jesus-religion and Dionysus-religion

At one level Dionysus represents the totality of pagan gods and here (in Acts 17) we find Paul using a “recognized Jewish proselytizing technique” to bring pagans to Christ through their own gods. read more »


The Point of the Dionysiac Myth in Acts of the Apostles, #1

by Neil Godfrey
English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (...

English: Pentheus (Jonathan Klein) and Agave (Lynn Odell) from The Baccahe, directed by Brad Mays, 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The previous post in this series set out the evidence that there are correspondences between the canonical Acts of the Apostles and Euripides’ famous play Bacchae. This post continues presenting a lay version of classicist John Moles’ article, “Jesus and Dionysus”, published in 2006 in Hermathena.Do the allusions to the Bacchae and the Dionysiac myths and rituals in Acts actually “do” anything? Are they meaningless trappings, perhaps mere coincidences of imagery, or do they open the door to a new dimension of understanding of the work of Acts. If they “do” something meaningful that enhances our appreciation of what we read in a coherent and consistent manner then we have additional evidence that we are seeing something more than accidental correlations with the imagery and themes of the Dionysiac cult.

Anyone who does not know the play Bacchae can read an outline of its narrative in my earlier post linking it to the Gospel of John, based on a book by theologian Mark Stibbe.

We begin with some general points about the practice of imitative writing before addressing the significance of the use of Bacchae in Acts. Where I have added something of my own (not found in John Moles’ discussion, or at least not in the immediate context of the point being made) I have used {curly brackets}.

Why should we expect Luke to have written like this?

This conclusion should not surprise: similar intertextuality marks [Luke’s] engagement with the Septuagint, or, among Classical authors, with Homer. Hence, just as Classical texts are intensely ‘imitative’ in the sense of ‘imitating’ other Classical texts, so too is Acts. (p. 82)

At the end of this post we look at Luke’s literary predecessors who likewise drew upon Bacchae through which to frame their narratives of imperial efforts to impose paganism upon the Jews.

What are the chances of the author of Acts using this Greek play?

* 2 and 3 Maccabees

** Horace, Epictetus, Lucian

Bacchae remained for centuries a popular tragedy: it had been exploited by Jewish writers as a tool through which to explore the relationships between religion and politics, between Judaism and pagan (Dionysus) religion;* and by Stoic and Cynic philosophers** in philosophical and political contexts. The author of Acts (let’s call him Luke) knew of both these groups.

Are we really to expect Luke’s audience would have recognized all of the allusions?

* Origen (ca 249 CE), in Contra Celsum 2:34, noted thematic parallels with Bacchae.

Don’t think, however, that Luke’s knowledge of the way other authors used Bacchae and his own similar use of it in Acts means his audience must have been restricted to a sophisticated elite. Surely he would have expected some of his audience to recognize the allusions — and we know that some of them did* — but that does not mean he must have expected all of them to have done so. We will see that in Acts itself may contain the message that “while Christianity does not need great learning, it can hold its own in that world”: compare the charge against Peter and the original apostles that they were “unlearned” even though they were “turning the world upside down” with the charge leveled at Paul that when he clearly presented much learning to his accusers, that “much learning had made him mad”.

Why would Luke make use of a Greek play in a work of history?

Acts consists of a “highly varied literary texture”. {Pervo’s work demonstrating the characteristics of the Hellenistic novel that are found throughout much of Acts has been discussed on this blog.} Ostensibly the work is a form of historiography, but if so, we can note that in some types of historiography “tragedy” finds a very natural place. Herodotus’s Histories, for example, is one ancient instance of historical writing in which myth is part and parcel of the narrative. {Some scholars have also described it as a prose work of Greek tragedy.} Dennis MacDonald has identified certain Homeric influences in Acts and these Homeric episodes are themselves bound up in motifs and themes of classical tragedy.

How do the Dionysiac parallels highlight key elements in the Acts (and Gospel) narrative(s)?

First, note the key elements that are highlighted by the Dionysiac parallels: read more »


Jesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity

by Neil Godfrey

euripides-bacchaeJesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity” by classicist John Moles was published in Hermathena No. 180 (Summer 2006), pp. 65-104. In the two years prior to its publication the same work had been delivered orally by John Moles at Newcastle, Durham, Dublin, Tallahassee, Princeton, Columbia, Charlottesville and Yale.

The names Moles thanks for assistance with this work are many: Loveday Alexander, John Barclay, Stephen Barton, Kai Brodersen, John Dillon, Jimmy Dunn, Sean Freyne, John Garthwaite, Albert Henrichs, Liz Irwin, Chris Kraus, Manfred Lang, Brian McGing, John Marincola, Damien Nelis, Susanna Phillippo, Richard Seaford, Rowland Smith, Tony Spawforth, Mike Tueller and Tony Woodman.

John Moles begins his article with two questions. The first of these is a dual one:

Is Acts influenced by Dionysiac myth or ritual and does it quote the play Bacchae?

Old questions, yes, but they are still being raised in the literature, as Moles indicates with the following list:

E.g. Nestle (1900); Smend (1925); Fiebig (1926); Rudberg (1926); Weinreich (1929) ; Windisch (1932); Voegeli (1953); Dibelius (1956) 190; Hackett (1956); Funke (1967); Conzelmann (1972) 49; Colaclides (1973); Pervo (1987) 21-2; Tueller (1992); Brenk (1994); Rapske (1994) 412-19; Seaford (1996) 53; (1997); (2006) ch. 9; Fitzmyer (1998) 341; Dormeyer-Galindo (2003) 49 ff.; 95; 365; Hintermaier (2003); Lang (2003); (2004); Weaver (2004); Dormeyer (2005).

The second question is the one that is the main point of the article and the one given the most space in answering:

If the answers to the above are affirmative, what are the consequences?

I have it on authority that John Moles is not a mythicist so those who read this blog with a jaundiced eye can look elsewhere for material that serves their agenda.

Broad thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

John Moles lists the following:

  1. the disruptive impact of the ‘new’ god
  2. judicial proceedings against the ‘new’ god and his followers
  3. ‘bondage’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  4. imprisonments of the ‘new’ god’s followers
  5. their miraculous escapes from prison
  6. divine epiphanies
  7. warning that persecution of the ‘new’ god or his followers is ‘fighting against god’
  8. a direct warning by the unrecognized ‘new’ god to his persecutor
  9. ‘fighting against god’ by the ‘new’ god’s persecutor
  10. ‘mockery’ of the ‘new’ god or his followers
  11. general human-divine conflict
  12. kingly persecutors
  13. a kingly persecutor who arrogates divinity to himself
  14. divine destruction of impious kingly persecutor
  15. rejection of the ‘new’ god by his own, whom he severely punishes
  16. the destruction of the palace/temple
  17. adherence of women to the ‘new’ religion
  18. Dionysiac ‘bullishness’

Though some of these parallels need justification, as Moles points out, it is clear that the two texts “share numerous important themes”. The possibility that the Bacchae influenced Acts is thus not implausible.

Detailed thematic parallels between Acts and Bacchae

Moles lists three “crucial cases”. read more »


What Luke’s witnesses saw — according to Luke

by Neil Godfrey
Witnesses of the Resurrection

Witnesses of the Resurrection (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

The most solid argument I have read about what the word in Luke 1:2 translated as “eyewitnesses” actually means is by John N. Collins: see the post What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? Collins presents a cogent argument that the word really means officials who have the responsibility for the writings/library of the community: it is their job to assess and preserve the authenticity of the documents entrusted to them — they are “specially authorized guarantors of the traditions.”

But in this post I am backtracking and working from the assumption that the word does convey the idea of one who sees firsthand some event. What I am saying here is this: What if the word really did express the idea of a witness? What does such a witness mean for Luke?

Norman Perrin answered this question nearly forty years ago in Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus.

Firstly, Perrin begins by reminding modern readers that they must leave behind their modern conceptions and make an effort to enter the world of the biblical authors. Get out of your heads any modern notion of what the word “eyewitness” means to us today who are familiar with the concept from our newspaper reports and court proceedings:

If we resolutely ban from our minds . . . what a modern writer would mean by an ‘eyewitness’ and ask ourselves what Luke meant by the expression . . . . (p. 27)

Perrin’s conclusion?

Luke considers Paul an eyewitness!

Perrin explains: read more »


‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Reviewing chapter 11, Luke’s Sophisticated Re-Use of OT Scriptures

by Neil Godfrey

carpenterPrevious posts in this series are archived here. Another review of this chapter can be read at Aaron Adair’s blog.

I liked Ingrid Hjelm‘s chapter, “‘Who is my Neighbor?’ Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel”, for several reasons:

  1. it presented the first cogent explanation I have ever encountered for why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s and why it avoided all mention of David’s son Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel and Judah;
  2. it explained how a Davidic Messianic figure did not necessarily imply a worldly conqueror (at least not until the last days) but that the OT also contained a nonviolent priestly vision of David who united God’s people as a priestly, Moses-like figure;
  3. it showed how the Gospel of Luke is very much an extension of the same sort of literature that came to make up the Jewish Bible;
  4. it reminded me of the importance of the sacred meaning of numbers among biblical authors, something too easily overlooked today;
  5. it also indirectly prompted possible explanations for why Luke might have adapted and changed the Gospel of Matthew (if he did — but this is really a topic that belongs to another post entirely.)

(But it took some time to grasp what the chapter was about initially. It launches straight into a detailed discussion of details of Matthew’s genealogy and one is immediately wondering, “What the heck is this all about? Was an opening paragraph outlining her argument lost by an editor?” More likely, perhaps, it was cut and paste from other publications by Hjelm yet with insufficient re-editing to clarify the direction of the argument for readers completely new to her views. And there are several passages in the rest of the chapter that leave a reader unfamiliar with the contents of cited references bemused. (Only after tracking down online citations and catching up with some background reading was I able to make sense of some of Hjelm’s statements. Needless to say, some of her claims whose citations are not online remain obscure to me.) Unfortunately this chapter is not the only one in this volume that suffers from this sort of difficulty for those unfamiliar with some of the authors and ideas, — not to mention just a few too many typos. But as you can tell from my positive introduction it was worth making the effort to understand the flow of her argument.)


Ingrid Hjelm

Hjelm shows us that the author of the Gospel of Luke interpreted and reused the Old Testament scriptures as a template for his own Gospel story of Jesus in quite subtle and sophisticated ways that are foreign to the ways most modern readers have come to understand the OT. Luke (we’ll imagine the author’s name was Luke) viewed the David figure embodied in Jesus not through the stained history in the books of Samuel, but through the idealized portrait in the books of Chronicles where a priestly David is portrayed as a second Moses, and as such reunites Samaritanism and Judaism once again into the theological ideal of a new Israel.

(I use the term “Judaism” here instead of “Jews” because it is worth keeping in mind what that word “Jew” actually describes at that time: see Where did the Bible’s Jews come from? Part 1, Part 2. Hjelm even concludes that Luke was not the gentile convert most readers have assumed him to be, but a Hellenized “Jew”.)

What we see in the Gospel are reiteration and paralleling of the motifs and themes of the older Scriptures. If that sounds a lot like the sort of argument we have come to expect from Thomas L. Thompson, we should not be surprised to find Hjelm is also from the University of Copenhagen and Thompson’s name appears frequently in her list of publications.

There is, of course, much more to be written about the Gospel of Luke’s use of the OT — see, for example, Origin of the Emmaus Road Narrative and More on Luke’s Use of Genesis — but this chapter by Hjelm gives readers an excellent insight into the way the author used Scriptures. Hjelm concludes ambiguously on the question of the implications of Luke’s use of Scriptures for the narrative’s historicity. What really matters is that we understand and accept the nature of the Biblical stories and what they meant for their original creators and audiences.

Against Hjelm’s references to Samaritans as the heritage of Moses in this chapter one should be aware that Ingrid Hjelm clearly has a special interest in Samaritan studies (see her list of publications) and last year was awarded The Samaritan Medal for Peace and Humanitarian Achievement by the Samaritan community. At one point she justifies the pivotal reference to Samaritans as well as Jews as an allegorical interpretation (Moses represents the Samaritans and Elijah the Jews) by citing an earlier (2004) publication of hers.

42 = the meaning of life*, David & Jesus read more »

Collins’ Eyewitness source citation

by Neil Godfrey

Expository Times 121.9 (June 2010) 447-52: ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’

The previous post was based on John Collins’ article found via the above link online. I am posting this here because in my initial post my link to this site was not obvious and I only attempted to rectify that after many readers had accessed the article.


What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?

by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Luke begins with words that many have understood to be an assurance that its narrative is based on the firsthand eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus for themselves. Here is Craig S. Keener‘s rendition of Luke 1:1-2

. . . many have sought to complete a narrative of the acts fulfilled in our midst, just as those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the message have from the beginning transmitted them orally to us. (from the header to chapter 10, “The Gospels’ Oral Sources”, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 139)

Keener captures the meaning Richard Bauckham imputes to the term “eyewitnesses” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

The autoptai [eyewitnesses] are simply firsthand observers of the events. (p. 117)

Now . . . we have discovered how important was the notion of an eyewitness who was qualified to tell the whole gospel story by virtue of participation in it from beginning to end . . . . (p. 124)

John N. Collins, in a 2010 Expository Times article, ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’ on the other hand, has cogently argued that the term translated “eyewitnesses” in Luke 2 almost certainly means something quite different from this widely-embraced view, and after 2 1/2 years Richard Bauckham has still to find time to respond. One scholar who has noticed Collins’ article is Thomas L. Brodie. He cites it six times in Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (For info on John Collins see his details at the end of his review on Catholica.)

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collins closely examines the context of the word for eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2 and concludes it refers to officers of long-standing in the Christian community. At this point it is important to recall the opening words of Luke’s preface:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled [peplērophorēmenōn] among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you [NRSV]

Given that the opening verses are about literary activity, and the close association of the “autoptai” with “servants”, Collins further concludes that their role was related to the authentication of the documents accumulated from those many literary endeavours.

The word in question is found only once in the New Testament so there are no other biblical comparisons that can assist us with its meaning. The essence of Collins’ argument follows. (In all quotations the bolding is my own, not original.)

Eyewitnesses are also the Servants of the Word “From the Beginning”

First, Collins draws attention to the word order of the Greek. He sets out the above NRSV translation the following word order to reflect the Greek:

the from beginning eyewitnesses and servants being of the word

Servants and eyewitnesses are bracketed as a unit between “the” and “being/genomenoi“. It is clear that the two terms, eyewitnesses and servants, are to be understood as the one and same group with the same dual functions — eyewitnessing and serving — from the beginning. read more »


17. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism – Pt.17

by Earl Doherty


Jesus Tradition in the Acts of the Apostles



  • Ehrman accepts Acts as reliable history
  • Acts as a second century product
  • Judas treated as an historical figure
  • More Aramaic tradition?
  • Quoting Paul quoting Jesus
  • The speeches in Acts
  • Adoptionism: Jesus becomes God’s son
  • Tracing the sequence of ideas about Jesus
  • Syncretizing two separate movements


* * * * *

Canonical Sources Outside the Gospels and Paul

(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 106-113)


In the midst of addressing the testimony to an historical Jesus in epistles both canonical and outside the New Testament, Bart Ehrman devotes several pages to the “Jesus Tradition in Acts.” In introducing Acts he fails to enlighten his readers that there is great uncertainty within mainstream scholarship over the historical reliability of the content of this document. Furthermore, he accepts without question that the author of Luke was the author of Acts, and thus what was known to the former was known to the latter.

Is Acts reliable history?

Ehrman fails to question any aspect of this ‘history’ of the spread of the faith. He treats everything from Acts as though it were part of known Christian tradition, and as reliable as anything else. . . .

— No matter that the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is nowhere mentioned in the epistles (despite their focus on inspiration and revelation).

— No matter that the figure and martyrdom of Stephen is nowhere attested to outside Acts.

— No matter that in Acts the settling of the issue of requirements for gentile converts is presented in an Apostolic Council which the authentic Pauline letters seem to know nothing about.

— Nor is the dramatic shipwreck episode at the end of Acts mentioned by early writers who talk about Paul, inviting us to see it as sheer fiction, emulating a popular element in second century Hellenistic romances. (The so-called “we” passages, often alleged to be from a Lukan journal, have also been identified as a common literary feature in recounting travel by sea, such as is found in earlier parts of Acts surrounding such travels.)

When and why was Acts written?

There is also no discussion about the dating of this document.

Ehrman places it in the most traditional position, some time in the 80s of the first century, shortly after the most traditional dating of the Gospel of Luke, c.80 CE. No mention is made that much critical scholarship has moved toward a date at least a couple of decades, sometimes more, into the second century (Townsend, Mack, O’Neill, Tyson, Pervo). And, of course, no mention that the first attestation to Acts comes around 175 in Irenaeus, with possibly an allusion to it a decade or so earlier in Justin. That such a ‘history’ could have lain unnoticed for so long if it had been written a century earlier (or more, for those who maintain it was written before Paul’s death), is not considered worthy of note.

As long ago as 1942, John Knox (Marcion and the New Testament) presented a compelling case that Acts was not written until the 140s or 150s, an ecclesiastical product to counter Marcion’s appropriation of Paul in which he used the letters to demonstrate that Paul operated independently of the Jerusalem apostles and with a very different view of Jesus.

Thus, Acts was written and designed to show the opposite, that Paul immediately upon his conversion subordinated himself to the pillars and subscribed to their teachings, lock, stock and circumcision. Which is why the speeches in Acts, clearly composed by the author, show the identical content between those of Peter and those of Paul. (Neither does Ehrman discuss the considerable discrepancies between Acts and the Pauline epistles.)

Independent witnesses to Judas’ death

Ehrman hardly covers himself in glory with his treatment of the figure of Judas in Acts. According to him,

the author of Acts has access to traditions that are not based on his Gospel account so that we have yet another independent witness. (DJE? p. 107)

Independent from whom? Was Luke the author of the Gospel “independent” of Luke the author of Acts? It seems that for Ehrman every saying or anecdote which can be found nowhere else, or fails to agree with some other version of that saying or anecdote, constitutes an “independent witness” to the historical Jesus. read more »


Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities in the New Testament (Part 2)

by Tim Widowfield

(This post is a follow-on to Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts.)

In the comments section of the previous post, Squirrelloid asked, “I’m curious, have you also compared to the Pauline corpus as reconstructed for Marcion to see if the affinities you find are not present using his presumably less redacted versions?

With respect to the Lukan Prologue, one difficulty in finding statistically meaningful affinities outside of Luke/Acts is the rarity of many of the words. The author used a good many (NT) hapax legomena, no doubt because he was trying to sound more like Polybius than the LXX. And those words that aren’t unique are often found only in Acts (or perhaps Luke). We’re going to have to go farther afield than the prologue to find anything convincing regarding the Pauline epistles.

Servants of God

At least one curious exception to the above disclaimer is the word for “servant” in Luke 1:2.

A nineteenth century picture of Paul of Tarsus

A nineteenth century picture of Paul of Tarsus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

ὑπηρέται (hypēretai) – “servants, officers, attendants” — As we pointed out before, the author of the prologue uses this term when speaking about “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” The gospels generally use this word to denote an officer under the charge of a hostile group.  Hence, we have “officers of the Jews” seizing Jesus and binding him in John 18:12. I think many times you could translate it as “henchmen.”

Paul, of course, when he talks about servants of Christ, prefers the word for slave — δοῦλος (doulos). The one exception to the rule is in 1 Corinthians 4:1.

First the Greek (SBLGNT):

Οὕτως ἡμᾶς λογιζέσθω ἄνθρωπος ὡς ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ καὶ οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ.

And then the English (NASB):

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Here Paul (or whoever wrote the passage) is using officer/servant instead of slave/servant for the first and only time in the entire corpus.  Interestingly, he’s using it in a sentence with a formulaic designation for the followers of Jesus. They are servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Yet, if it is a formula, it is the only time we find it in the NT; nor do we find its constituent parts.  In other words, the exact phrases “ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ (servants of Christ) and “οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ (stewards of the mysteries of God)” never occur anywhere in the Bible except for 1 Corinthians 4:1. read more »


Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts

by Tim Widowfield
Saint Luke the Evangelist

One of the disciples hands Luke a sworn, signed, eyewitness statement. — Saint Luke the Evangelist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Robert Bumbalough asked, “. . . What of the style and grammar of the Lukan prologue vs. that of the Lukan infancy narrative vs. subsequent sections? Is there evidence [that] portions stem from the same pen?” This question reminded me of a personal, informal study I undertook a short while back, comparing the word selection in the Lukan Prologue to the rest of the New Testament. What follows is a brief recap of that study. Caveat lector: I’m not a professional text critic, just a curious amateur; I’m interested in your take on the matter too.

Is the prologue original to the text of Luke?

I start with the hypothesis that the original core of Luke probably did not contain the prologue and perhaps not even the genealogy or birth narrative. My working theory, at least for the purposes of the study, is that the later author who wrote the Acts of the Apostles added introductions to both works and “ironed out” the language in the original gospel of Luke to conform better to his linguistic preferences.

Word selection is not proof of authorship, but it can be a strong indicator. When we write we tend to follow known, comfortable patterns. These patterns include sentence length, preferences for correlative clauses versus clauses concatenated with conjunctions, and word choice. For example, if you ever see me use “author” as a verb, you’ll know my body has been taken over by aliens.

Food for thought: If the short introductions to Luke and Acts, which were addressed to a fictional Theophilus (“Dear God-lover . . .”), can be shown to be the products of a second-century redactor (to add verisimilitude and “a touch of class”) then what does that say about historicists’ assertions that we have “no reason to doubt” Luke when he says he knew of “many” gospels and talked to “eyewitnesses”?

Textual analysis: Verse 1

Here’s the Greek text of Luke 1:1 from Westcott and Hort:

Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων,

Epeidēper polloi epecheirēsan anataxasthai diēgēsin peri tōn peplērophorēmenōn en hēmin pragmatōn,

As a reminder, here’s the English translation of the first verse:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, (KJV)

We’ll look at each word (other than common words such as articles, conjunctions, and prepositions) to see where they were used elsewhere in the NT. read more »