Category Archives: Literary analysis


Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia

by Neil Godfrey

The following is not an argument in itself for Luke’s imitation of the utopian community in Plato’s Republic but it does provide the raw materials for such an argument. In another post I plan to elaborate on explanations for the points in common between the earliest Christians in Acts and Plato’s description of the guardians in his ideal state. Hint: they have to do with the relatively recent advances in studies of the way ancient authors imitated master-works and re-wrote them through a process we call “intertextuality”.


Laurent De La Hyre, Community of the first Christians

The table comes from “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén Dupertuis, a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. After the table I Dupertuis suggests that several inconsistencies in the Acts narrative may be explained most simply if the author was emulating the narrative of the ideal society led by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Traditional explanations for these inconsistencies have suggested the author was switching sources and/or not concerned about consistency. I’ll also cover these explanations in a future post.

First, have another look at those utopian summaries of the first Church. All quotations are from the 21st Century King James Version:

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common,

45 and they sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.

46 And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35

32 And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any one of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

35 and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 5:12-16

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

13 But of the rest, no man dared join himself to them, but the people magnified them.

14 And more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.

16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and those who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed, every one.

Dupertuis concludes his discussion on context, structure, terminology, density of parallels, with the following summary tables:


Support of the Guardians / Apostles

Guardians concentrate on philosophy, training and affairs of the state Apostles lead the community in teaching, fellowship breaking of bread, and prayers

they perform signs and wonders
Guardians are supported by the producing class Apostles are supported by other Christians (who lay the proceeds of goods sold at their feet)
in order to concentrate on being guardians (because all classes should do what is suited to their natures) The seven are elected so the apostles do not spend their time serving tables instead of preaching

read more »


Gospels As Historical Sources: How Literary Criticism Changes Everything

by Neil Godfrey
Owens1This post is best read in the context of the earlier posts on Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, in particular Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”. This post considers the different genres qualities (verbal categories, discourse types) between Gospels and historical writings and concludes the Gospels are characterized by language typical of make-believe narratives.

One would expect that it would go without saying that one must first understand what one is reading before one knows how to assess its value as a historical source. But the field of historical Jesus research is graced with many exceptions and methods found in no other field of historical inquiry. One of these is the belief that literary analysis has no relevance to the study of the historical Jesus.

James McGrath even publishes a diagram to show why literary analysis is irrelevant for historical inquiry. It is assumed that the literary approach does nothing more than explain the literary qualities and narrative structure of the work. It appears in The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith:

McGrath is not alone in this understanding of the difference between literary and historical studies of the Gospels, which is to say that a good number of Christian history scholars do not really understand the nature of historical source material or the fundamentals of how to undertake historical research. I am not saying all biblical scholars fall into this trap, nor that all other types of historians avoid it, since there are indeed a few biblical scholars more critical than their peers and some sloppy historians in other fields who build upon unexamined assumptions.

miles1Jack Miles (born 1942) is an American author and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the MacArthur Fellowship. His work on religion, politics, and culture has appeared in numerous national publications . . . . Miles treats his biblical subjects neither as transcendent deities or historical figures, but as literary protagonists. His first book, God: A Biography, won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1996 . . . . (Wikipedia)

What is wrong with the above model? Jack Miles, another scholar discussed by Clarke Owens in Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, strongly disagrees with the notion that one can validly “see through” the Gospel narratives to history below. He draws the analogy of the text as a stained-glass window: not to be looked through but looked at. According to Clarke Owens this is only “half right”. Owens identifies the flaw in Jack Miles’ analogy: Miles is embracing as a universal what “literary critics would recognize as [only] a theory” of literature — that of “autotelic literature“. That is, the idea that literature can and must be interpreted only within its own boundaries is only one theory among a number of valid ways of reading and understanding literature.

According to Owens, while it is correct that we cannot “look through” a text on the assumption that it is some sort of window to a real world of past persons and events, it must be recognized that there are ways literature can serve as historical sources — only not in the way biblical scholars too often assume.

The message of the stained glass window

Clarke Owens, writing as a literature scholar, reminds us that there are certain types of literature (e.g. allegory) acknowledged as taking their meaning and intended interpretations from reference points outside themselves. (One might call this type heterotelic, referring to something outside itself, as opposed to autotelic.) So Owens disputes the idea of Jack Miles that literature must be read exclusively “as literature” and without reference to history. read more »


Luke’s “Ahistorical” Widows, Hellenists and Deacons

by Neil Godfrey

The most important thing we need to know when reading any book is what kind of work it is. Is Luke’s Acts history or novel? If it is history, what sort of history? Above all, what did “history” mean to writers/readers in the Roman world of the first and second centuries CE?

InPraiseChnOrigns2Todd Penner, Professor of Religious Studies at Austin University, has written a richly informative study of historiographical writing in antiquity as it is relevant to our appreciation of Acts, in particular to Luke’s account of Stephen and the Hellenists, Acts 6:1-8:3. This is the section most scholars of Christian origins consider historical at some level. Usually they suspect Luke was attempting to cover-up real events of unsavory divisions within the early church. Penner has a different perspective. Those little details that other scholars see as evidence of a cover-up Penner sees as quite coherent contributions toward Luke’s larger literary and theological narrative. But other scholars have generally not read Acts with any significant understanding of its literary character and have accordingly misread literary sails as archaeological trowels. Penner’s book is In Praise of Christian Origins:

There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.

The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting)

Acts 6 opens with a problem in the church. Some of the widows are being neglected. read more »


Jesus Is Not “As Historical As Anyone Else in the Ancient World”

by Neil Godfrey

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailOne of the gold nuggets in Clarke Owens’ Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels is its simple explanation of how how to distinguish between historical persons (e.g. Socrates, Thales, Alexander, etc) and fictive ones like (as we shall see) Jesus. I say it’s a “simple explanation” but maybe that’s because I am biased towards the idea of studying how literature works and the importance of understanding the nature of a literary source before we can know how to interpret its story.

I can already hear the groans of people thinking, “But we all know the Gospel Jesus is not the historical Jesus; we all know the Christ of the Faith is not the historical person,” and so forth, so what’s the point? Answer: In a future post we shall see that the very idea that the Gospels can even be used as sources through which theologians can dig to find history beneath them — an archaeological image often used by HJ scholars — is a fallacy.

Let’s return again to John P. Meier. (We’ve spotlighted him a lot lately, and not only with these Owens posts. The price of scholarly renown!)

In The Marginal Jew, v. 1, page 12, Owens focuses on Meier’s bald assertion that literary criticism is of no use to scholars who are seeking to discern genuinely historical material behind the Gospels. (I have argued that that is nonsense but in this post I will try to channel Owen’s voice as much as possible.) And what are Meier’s grounds for giving a priori confidence in the Gospels as gateways to historical information lurking behind the texts?

1st-century documents of Christian propaganda . . . advanced truth claims about Jesus of Nazareth, truth claims for which some 1st-century Christians were willing to die. . . .

  • Against these tired claims we do know people die for all sorts of nonsense and delusions;
  • we also know — well many of us do — that the stories of early Christian martyrdoms have been greatly exaggerated into mythical dimensions;
  • and we also know — at least many of us do — that there are more plausible explanations of Christian origins than a handful of devotees coming to feel a new inner-presence of their master who had been killed as a social and political outcast. (This is nothing other than a rationalistic paraphrase of the myth.)

Is not this a scholarly version, a slightly diluted version, of: “The Bible claims to be the Word of God and since the first generations of Christians willingly died for its message it must be true! No-one would die for a lie!” Scholar’s edition: “The Bible claims. . . . and since Christians died. . . . there must be some truth somewhere there if we look with the proper tools.” Both the conservative believer and the critical scholar in the service of increasing the credibility of theology to the modern world rhetorically conclude: How else do we explain the martyrdoms? How else do we explain Christianity?

When John Meier in his opening chapter of volume one discusses the “basic concept” of “The Real Jesus and the Historical Jesus” he creates the illusion of starting at the beginning but in fact he leaves the entire question of historicity begging.

  • Of course we can’t know “the real Jesus” given the time-gap and state of the records; after all, we can only partially know “the real Nixon” despite his recency and the avalanche of material available on him.
  • Of course it becomes increasingly difficult to assess “the historical” the further back in time we go; it’s hard enough knowing what to make of Thales or Apollonius of Tyana “or anyone else in the ancient world” and the evidence is just as scant for Jesus.

Owens identifies what Meier has done in making such comparisons (my bolding in all quotations):

An implication exists in the double comparison, which is that Jesus is as real as Nixon and as historical as Thales but the explicit point is that there is less ‘reality’ data on Jesus than on Nixon, and as meager ‘historical’ data on Jesus as on Thales.

We note that what we might consider the “first question” of any book purporting to deal with the issue of a ‘historical Jesus’ – the question of whether or not Jesus existed — is being set up to go begging. ‘Reality’ is impossible, and ‘history’ is impossibly difficult, so we are to assume both, as we do with Nixon and Thales.

(Owens, Clarke W. (2013-07-26). Son of Yahweh: The Gospels As Novels (Kindle Locations 216-221). Christian Alternative. Kindle Edition.)

Is Jesus really as historical as Thales?

No. And the reason the answer is No is because the qualitative difference between the literary evidence for the existence of Thales and the literary evidence for the existence of Jesus. (John Meier introduced the comparison of Thales so Clarke Owens takes this as a case-study to illustrate his argument.) read more »


Is Luke Among the Lying Historians?

by Neil Godfrey

GillWisemanOne of my earliest posts asked what Josephus might have said about the worth of the Gospels as history had he read them. In preparation for my final post on historical-critical methods with Stephen’s martyrdom as a case study I have come across (as another commenter also did) a chapter in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World titled “Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity” by T.P. Wiseman.

The reason for this post is to enhance awareness of one aspect of the nature of ancient historical writing whenever we think about Acts of the Apostles (or even the Gospels) as histories of sorts. (All bolding in all quotations is mine.)

Wiseman begins with line from Seneca, of the first century CE, where he dismisses a theory about comets by a certain Ephorus:

It takes no great effort to refute him—he’s a historian. (p. 122 in Lies and Fiction; original in Quaestiones Naturales, 7.16.1f)

Seneca explains why he has such a dim view of historians of his day:

Some historians win approval by telling incredible tales; an everyday narrative would make the reader go and do something else, so they excite him with marvels. Some of them are credulous, and lies take them unawares; others are careless, and lies are what they like; the former don’t avoid them, the latter seek them out.

What the whole tribe have in common is this: they think their work can only achieve approval and popularity if they sprinkle it with lies.

Seneca at another time parodied historical writing as the narrator of Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius):

I want to put on record the business transacted in heaven on 13 October . . . No concession will be made to umbrage taken or favour granted. This is the authentic truth. If anyone inquires about the source of my information, first, I shan’t reply if I don’t want to. Who’s going to compel me? . . . If I do choose to reply, I’ll say whatever trips off my tongue. Who ever demanded sworn referees from a historian? But if it is obligatory to produce the originator of the account, let the inquirer ask the man who saw Drusilla on her way to heaven.

Classical historians ought to have learned from the Christians that the criterion of embarrassment would have compelled belief in a resurrection if the eyewitness had been a woman and not a man. Seneca’s jibe would then have fallen flat, no doubt. Meanwhile, anyone in a seminary who has been fed the argument that detailed dates (compare Luke 3:1-2) and claims to be telling the truth (Gal. 1:20; Luke 1:1-4) are all indicators of an honest account might easily become the butt of Seneca’s joke.

Seneca’s historian joke hangs upon the principle that historians were “supposed” to always be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. This is found in what Wiseman describes as “the only theoretical discussion of historiography that survives from antiquity”, Lucian’s How to Write History (mid second century CE):

The historian’s one task is to tell it as it happened . . . the one particular characteristic of history is this, that if you are going to write it you must sacrifice to Truth alone. (p. 122)

The context of this maxim, however, would appear to limit the “Truth” to avoidance of both tall-tales or myths (which are more appropriate to poetry) and obsequious flattery of rulers and other persons of power.

The reputation of historians had not improved by the fourth century CE. We read from that period in the Historia Augusta the following conversation:

Tiberianus maintained that much of [historian] Pollio’s work was brief and careless. I protested that as far as history was concerned there was no author who had not lied about something. I went so far as to cite the places where Livy, Sallust, Cornelius Tacitus and even Trogus were refuted by clear evidence, at which he yielded to my argument and jokingly held up his hand. ‘All right then,’ he said, ‘write what you want. You can safely say whatever you like, and you’ll have those admired masters of historical style as your companions in mendacity.’ (p. 124)

The subtitle of Wiseman’s chapter is “Seven Types of Mendacity”. So what are the seven types of lies historians of the day were prone to tell?

read more »


Theologians’ Miracle: Turning Fallacy into Proof

by Neil Godfrey

David Hackett Fischer

Professor of History, David Hackett Fischer, has long been known for his book, Historians’ Fallacies, in which he amasses copious examples of fallacious historical analysis and argument committed (at least on occasion) even by otherwise highly reputable historians. Unfortunately, critical fallacies that he identifies as periodic blights on the work of his peers are standard practice among works of theologians writing about Christian origins.

The fallacy of the prevalent proof

Here is one that many readers will recognize, and it is one that unfortunately does too often extend beyond the limits of subgroups. On pages 51 and 52 Fischer writes (my bolding in all quotations):

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification.

This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true.* If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. . . .

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, to some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . .” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of the problem. . . .”

[* Reference: see page 102 of Vansina’s Oral Tradition]


Most historians agree . . .

. . . that a genuine historical event lies behind the story of Stephen

I could just as easily have written “most historians agree that genuine historical events like behind the stories in Acts.” But let’s limit the discussion here to Stephen’s martyrdom. (This post is, after all, my follow-up to my Stephen post.)

Shelly Matthews (also a theologian but who seems to be one of the relatively few who happily demonstrates a clear understanding of sound historical-critical method and writes history with a clear understanding of the philosophy undergirding her approach) admits she stands against what has been the traditional consensus of her peers over the historical value of Acts.

Firstly, however, Matthews correctly explains how her peers have traditionally attempted to glean “kernels of history” from the Book of Acts:

Biblical scholars employing methods of historical criticism do recognize that the coherence of various aspects of Acts is ahistorical, imposed by Luke upon his sources because of his theological concerns, his apologetic tendencies, and/or his aim to delight his audience. For more than two hundred years, historians of Christian origins have approached the book of Acts presuming that its author’s intrusive hand can be pulled away, freeing his sources to bear unencumbered witness to the historical events that occurred in the earliest decades of the church.

Applying methods captured by metaphors of winnowing and digging, they have attempted to distinguish Acts’ redactional/theological/fictional elements from the actual history presumed also to reside in the text.

From these “kernels of history,” from this “bedrock,” scholars have then constructed their own versions of a coherent narrative of Christian origins understood to correspond with events that happened in history. (p. 15, my formatting)

Theologians have thus generally assumed that “real history” lies “beneath” the text and that all they have to do is apply tools like redactional criticism to know what parts of the text to pull away (e.g. the theological or literary creations of the author) and thereby expose the original source. And that source material is for some reason often presumed to point to “bedrock history”. read more »


The Fiction of Stephen the First Martyr

by Neil Godfrey

Screen shot 2013-11-26 at 8.05.04 PMI was introduced to the work of Shelly Matthews through the Acts Seminar Report. She is one of the Seminar Fellows. I have since read — and enjoyed very much — her historical study Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity.

Shelly Matthews is one of the few theologians I have encountered who demonstrably understands the nature of history and how it works and how to apply historical-critical questions to the evidence. She is a postmodernist (and I’m not) but I won’t hold that against her. At least she understands and applies postmodernist principles correctly — unlike some other theologians who miss the point entirely and resort to trying to uncover “approximations” of “what really happened” behind the fictional (and ideological) narratives in the Gospels and Acts.

Matthews is critical of the way scholars have with near unanimity assumed that the story of Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts is based on some form of bedrock historical event:

  • How else to explain the sudden propulsion of Jesus followers beyond the limits of Palestine?
    • (Recall that the Acts story tells us it was the death of Stephen that instigated the wider persecution of the “church”, and persecution led to the scattering of the believers, and that scattering led to the proclamation of the message beyond Judea.)
  • How else to explain the conversion of Paul?
    • (Recall that Paul — originally “Saul” — was one of those persecutors and it was his “Damascus Road” experience that brought him to heel and turned him from persecutor to missionary.)

Those are the twin (prima facie) arguments that have assured scholars that the Stephen event is historical ever since they were made explicit in the nineteenth century by Eduard Zeller (son-in-law of F. Baur).

But let’s save the discussion of method and criteria of historicity till last this time (or maybe a follow up post). To begin with we will set out the grounds for questioning whether the Stephen narrative in Acts owes anything to some historical “core” event. The question of the historicity of Stephen’s martyrdom is not the primary theme or interest of Shelly Matthew’s study (as its title indicates) but she does address it as part of her larger discussion on historical-critical inquiry and the way scholars have culturally fallen under the spell of the fundamental narrative outline and ideology of Acts. (Her discussion could equally well apply to the question of the historicity of Jesus but I think we need to wait for scholars to come to grips more generally with critical and methodological questions about Stephen before taking that step.)

External evidence

Outside of Acts there is not a whisper of awareness of the martyrdom of Stephen until Irenaeus talks about it around 180 CE. And Irenaeus is clearly using Acts itself as his source. (Recall, too, that the Acts Seminar has concluded that Acts itself was written in the second century.) read more »


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

read more »


“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 »