Tag Archives: Luke

The Fiction of Stephen the First Martyr

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 »

The Author of Acts

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 »

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

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 »

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

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 »

The earliest gospels 6(c) – Luke’s Gospel (Couchoud)

Evangelist Luke writing, Byzantine illuminatio...

Image via Wikipedia

Continuing the series archived here: (I have also marked the name Josephus in bold for easy reference for any interested in the study of Luke’s use of Josephus.)

Irenaeus is the first to speak of Luke as the author of our Gospel and Acts dedicated to Theophilus (Haer. iii.1,2). Before Irenaeus we read in Colossians 4:14 of a Luke with the epithet “the beloved physician” having been interpolated into the original; and in the fictitious 2 Timothy 4:11 we read “Only Luke is with me.” Following

is an outline explication of the Gospel of Luke from Couchoud’s perspective of it having been composed around 142 c.e. by Clement of Rome.

The prologue refers to a number of Gospels and Acts already in existence and leads readers to infer that the author is collating his information from these earlier sources while also being in a unique position to offer more authoritative insights and a more coherent narrative of the whole.

With an acrobatic leap he passes from the fine style of a Greek rhetor to that of Biblical narrative. (p. 275)

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea,
A certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abijah:
And his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

And they were both righteous, walking before God
In all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
And they had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren;
Both were well stricken in years.

Couchoud then outlines the narrative we know from Luke 1:8-38 and that I won’t repeat here. read more »

Stephen — The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in the Jerusalem church – 2

Stephen disputing with Jews of the synagogue of the Freedmen and others in Jerusalem - by Vittore Carpaccio

Following from The Hellenistic-Hebrew division in Acts – 1 . . . .

Stephen makes a most awkward fit into the narrative that follows the Acts 6:1-7 when we try to make sense of the account as history. There are two options that I see:

  1. Either the author of Acts is attempting to weave a narrative about Stephen that he has inherited from a tradition that is incompatible with his propaganda narrative about the growth of the church
  2. Or the same author or redactor who made a botch of trying to reverse the traditional order known to Mark and Matthew of Jesus appearing first in the Capernaum synagogue and later facing opposition in his hometown — an attempt that led to a number of anomalies and loose ends in his narrative — finds himself in Acts in something of a similar pickle with the way he attempts to explain a persecution event that is quite implausible historically with incompatible fictions.
  3. Or I am sure there are any number of other alternatives but I’m only counting to two for purposes of this post.

In this post I explain the argument for the first option as it appears in Paul and James by Walter Schmithals and conclude with a few thoughts from the alternative argument.

For Schmithals there is “no doubt for his account of Stephen’s martyrdom . . . Luke is making use of an existing tradition.” The reasons?

  1. The mention of the Hellenistic Jews who dispute with Stephen (Acts 6:9) is not accounted for by anything that has preceded (Stephen himself is not introduced as a Hellenist Jew).
  2. The description of Stephen as a powerful preacher is inconsistent with his introduction in 6:1-7 where it is the apostles whose job is to preach leaving the task of almsgiving to Stephen and his fellows. read more »

Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

I was reminded of Luke’s prologue (again) when I recently read (again) the prologue of Roman historian Livy. Stream of consciousness takes me immediately to Loveday Alexander’s argument that Luke’s prologue is very “unlike” the prologues of ancient historians and to my own pet notion (anathema to most interested classicists, I am sure) that Luke’s second volume, Acts, is structured around the founding myth of Rome: both narrate the voyage of a hero from the east, via Troy, to establish a new (imperial/spiritual) headquarters in Rome. But I do take some courage in that at least one scholar, Marianne Palmer Bonz, has written an exploratory book, The Past As Legacy: Luke-Acts As Ancient Epic, expressing the same theme. (I call it “exploratory” because I am still seeking more specific details to support the argument.)

So I collate the different possible explanations of Luke’s Prolog in this post. read more »

The Jesus Genealogies: their different theological significances

A late date and anti-Marcionite context for Luke-Acts not only has the power to explain why Luke may have rejected Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, but even more directly why Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is so different from Matthew’s. (The common belief that Luke records Mary’s family line and Matthew Joseph’s is a simplistic rationalization that defies the textual evidence.)

Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus goes back to Abraham and is traced through Solomon. Luke’s bypasses Solomon and traces back to Adam and God himself. read more »

A reason Luke might have rejected Matthew’s nativity story

There are arguments for and against Luke having known and used the gospel of Matthew, but one of the stronger arguments against him having done so is that his nativity story appears to owe nothing to Matthew’s – indeed appears to have been composed in complete ignorance of it. Matthew tells the story of the star, the visiting Magi, the infant Jesus being whisked off to Egypt to escape the Herod’s massacre of the infants, and eventual settlement in Nazareth. Luke’s story is as much about the miraculous birth of John the Baptist as it is about Jesus, involves shepherds instead of Magi, no Herodian massacre, and a presentation at the Jerusalem Temple rather than a flight to Egypt.

If Luke as we have it was, with the book of Acts, a response to Marcionism (or even an attempt to baptize Paul into orthodoxy quite apart from Marcionism), then it would seem he would have every reason to dismiss the Matthean nativity totally. read more »