The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

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by Neil Godfrey

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) compares Acts with ancient novels and finds striking resemblances. We tend to resist finding the thrill of novelistic adventure and humour in the books of the Bible. Holy books are supposed to be read with much gravitas, after all. But Pervo’s comparison with ancient novels has persuaded him that Acts shared their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences. I have read many ancient novels over recent years — and many ancient historians over a longer period of time — and fully agree with him.

This is not to deny that the author of Acts wanted his narrative to be read as history. But by the standards of the day it was very much a history told like a popular novel. It was pitched at an audience whose tastes were more towards light and exciting reading than for the heavier and drier tomes of Thucydides. (I avoid the term “historical fiction” because the work was not read as fiction. It was meant to be read as history but it was pitched at the tastes of the wider public.)

Students of biblical literature should read widely in literature contemporary with those biblical books. It’s the only way to really dispel impressions we pick up from our religious background that the Bible’s books are like no others. I suspect that a cultural predisposition to read Acts as a devotional-like religious history has focused many till now on attempting to find parallels with ancient historians at the expense of “less serious” literature.

One major pillar of the dogma that Acts is ancient historiography comes from the use of a preface, the employment of speeches, and of course, the sustained narrative of events, including references to secular history. For those nurtured on the classics, Acts looks a bit of somewhat familiar ground. (p.4, Profit)

1. The Prologue

The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after he through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom he had chosen, to whom he also presented himself alive after his suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.

(Acts 1:1-3 — some prefer to restrict the prologue so it ends at “to the apostles whom he had chosen”, but one will see from the samples of prologues below that they would sometimes slide in to the main story without any clear division. A later rhetorician and satirist, Lucian of Samosta, tells us that this “easy and unforced transition to the narrative” was a good thing.)

Many readers are persuaded by the fact that Acts has a prologue just like ancient secular histories do that it must be considered a priori an attempt at real history. But Pervo notes the following:

  1. Part of the same prologue introduces the Gospel of Luke. If Acts is a priori real history because of the preface than so must the Gospel of Luke. (Some will not see a problem with thinking of the gospels as real history, but the implications are major and many. That’s another discussion.)
  2. The similarities between the prefaces of the gospel and Acts to the preface of Josephus imply “no more than that they conform to late first-century c.e. historical style.” (p.5)
  3. Prefaces were highly conventional, and probably taught in school. Their claims could be parodied.
  4. Medical writers, astrologers, dream interpreters, and novelists all used prefaces. They were not the preserve of historians. Novelists could use them to create verisimilitude.
  5. To add to Pervo’s note that prefaces were a feature of a wide range of genres, an online essay by Henry Wansbrough cites Loveday Alexander:

A large number of short treatises, of about the length of Lk’s work, have been examined in Loveday Alexander’s authoritative work (Alexander 1993). She establishes that it was a convention to begin with a preface similar to his, including such matters as name of author and recipient, his aim, the sources of his information, the importance of the subject, and a claim to personal competence for the task. Luke’s preface accords with these conventions, though in detail it is more similar to medical, mechanical, military and mathematical treatises than to historical works.

So Pervo concludes that the author’s use of a preface or prologue cannot decide the question of the genre of Acts, or lead us to conclude a priori that the ensuing narrative must be historical.

But we can’t expect to be persuaded without seeing some examples. (I’ve taken these from a range of online sites, Cadbury’s The Making of Luke-Acts, and Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels, and the Penguin publication of Selincourt’s translation of Arrian’s Anabasis or Campaigns of Alexander.)

i. Not only histories

That dedications were written to introduce a variety of texts, Onasander, about 58 c.e., prefacing his essay on The General which he dedicated to the general Veranius, wrote:

It is fitting, I believe, to dedicate monographs on horsemanship, or hunting, or fishing, or farming, to men who are devoted to such pursuits’ but a treatise on military science, Quintus Veranius, should be dedicated to Romans, and especially to those of the Romans who have attained senatorial dignity . . . . p.203, Cadbury, 1927

ii. Linking or split prefaces

The preface to Acts is a linking preface. It’s first part was to introduce the Gospel of Luke. Some nonbiblical examples of similar linking or secondary prefaces follow. The one that bears the most striking resemblance to the prologue in Acts is the one I cite first, from a book about dream interpretation (Note Wansborough’s citation of Loveday Alexander’s comments above):

Artemidorus, Oneirocritica ii.1 (A book on the Interpretation of Dreams)

In the first book, Cassius Maximus, I gave an account of the materials of the art and of the teaching as to how dreams ought to be interpreted, etc . . . But in this book I shall make the differentiations that are necessary. (Cadbury, 1927)

“I gave an account” is εποιμσαμην τον λογον
Compare in Acts 1:1 “the account I gave” λογον εποιμσαμην

Chariton, Chaereas and Callirhoe, Book 5, 8 (A popular novel)

[Summary of what has been narrated till now] . . . Now I shall describe what happened next. (Reardon, 1989)

Lucian, A True Story, 2.32 (Lucian is a parodist)

I am going to talk about the town first, because no one has ever written about it except Homer, and what he says is not very accurate. (Reardon, 1989)

Diodorus Siculus, Iambulus (An imaginary voyage — see Winston article)

iii. Some examples of secondary prefaces from histories

Links are direct to the prefaces or pages on which they appear.

Polybius, Histories, IV, 1

Josephus, Antiquities, 13 and Antiquities, 14

Diodorus Siculus, 17th book (The beginning of his history of Alexander)

iv. Prologues from non-historical works

Links are direct to the prefaces or pages on which they appear.

Lucian’s preface to his “True Story” (Lucian is a parodist)

Longus, Daphnis and Chloe (A popular novel)

Antonius Diogenes, The Wonders Beyond Thule (Prose fiction pretending to be historical fact — Reardon, p.776)

Xenophon, Cyropedia (About a noble education — case study, Cyrus)

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana (a biography of a holy man said to have lived not long after Jesus)

Prologue to Sirach (A Jewish example — non-historical)

Pseudo-Callisthenes, The Alexander Romance (not available online: the prologue below copied from Reardon, p.654)

No finer or more courageous man is held to have existed than Alexander, king of Macedon. He had a special way of doing everything and found his own qualities always had Providence for a partner. In fact, his wars and battles with any one nation were over before historians had time to gather full information on its cities. The deeds of Alexander, the excellences of his body and of his soul, his success in his actions, his bravery, are our present subject. We begin with his family — and the identity of his father. People are generally under the misapprehension that he was the son of King Philip. This is quite wrong. . . .

v. Prologues from histories

Links are direct to the prefaces or pages on which they appear.

(I have previously discussed some of the following in comparison with the evidence for Jesus here.)

Herodotus, Histories

Thucydides, Peloponnesian War

Polybius, Histories, 1.i

Plutarch, Life of Alexander (Not really a history as he says himself in his introduction)

Tacitus, Annals of Rome

Josephus, Antiquities and Wars of the Jews

Marcus Junianus Justinus (Justin), Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus

Arrian, Campaigns of Alexander (Anabasis) (I have not been able to find an online text that includes Arrian’s preface. Below is the translation by Aubrey De Selincourt, Penguin, 1958)

Wherever Ptolemy and Aristobulus in their histories of Alexander, the son of Philip, have given the same account, I have followed it on the assumption of its accuracy; where their facts differ I have chosen what I feel to be the more probable and interesting. There are other accounts of Alexander’s life – more of them, indeed, and more mutually conflicting than of any other historical character; it seems to me, however, that Ptolemy and Aristobulus are the most trustworthy writers on this subject, because the latter shared Alexander’s campaigns, and the former – Ptolemy – in addition to this advantage, was himself a King, and it is more disgraceful for a King to tell lies than for anyone else. Moreover, Alexander was dead when these men wrote; so there was no sort of pressure upon either of them, and they could not profit from falsification of the facts. Certain statements by other writers upon Alexander may be taken to represent popular tradition: some of these, which are interesting in themselves and may well be true, I have included in my work.

If anyone should wonder why I should have wished to write this history when so many other men have done the same, I would ask him to reserve judgement until he has first read my predecessors’ work and then become acquainted with my own.


vi. More about prologues, from Cadbury, 1927 (pp.194-204)

When, where and who

Prologues or prefaces came into vogue in the Hellenistic era.

They were used in all kinds of formal prose.

In the Greek Bible the only other prefaces are by the grandson of Jesus ben Sirah (Ecclesiasticus) and the author of the Second Book of Maccabees.

Prefaces were the usual form for Greek and Latin historians, geographers, scientists, doctors and other prose writers, and even poets provided prefaces (sometimes in prose).


Contents of the prefaces were prescribed by the rhetorical rule-books.

Prefaces often include references to particular preceding writers on the same theme (sometimes to comment on them negatively), to the author’s authority in the subject, to his decision to write and his purpose in writing.

Prefaces mention the official addressee of a work, to whom it is dedicated and his interest in the work following.

The author’s name is usually included at the end of the preface.

Prefaces were often in marked by a sophisticated style in contrast with the technical books they introduced. Aim was to make a favorable impression at the start. Even purely scientific works had artistic prefaces.

This interest in the style of prefaces led to the custom of writing prefaces for practice; to sometimes treating prefaces as quite separate subjects from their main work; to writing them as separate units; and prolonging them to become out of all proportion to the main work. (Cicero had written for himself a supply of prefaces for him to select from as needed. He once accidentally used one twice, for two separate works.)

Secondary prefaces

When a work required more than one volume, a secondary preface often occurs.

The preface to the later book would begin with summaries of the preceding book and of the book just begun.

Sometimes the latter summary occurs instead at the close of the preceding book, or even in both places.

In Acts there is no summary of the new book. “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which . . . ” leads over into a repetition of the closing scene of the gospel. “This sentence lacks the systematic arrangement which we often find in contemporary transitions of the sort.” (Cadbury raises the possibility that the preface has been tampered with so that it no longer appears as it was originally written.)

Secondary prefaces were not universal. In many cases the books followed one another with no obvious break. And in many cases, the divisions into the books we know were not the work of the original author.

Rhetorical writers, however, could elaborate each separate volume with artistic prefaces — often alien to the subject of the volume to follow — as if they were completely new works.

We are told Ephorus wrote 30 books prefixing each with a new preface.

Diodorus Siculus claimed to write regular prefaces to prevent, he said, others from revising the works into something he hadn’t said.

Jerome justified prefaces on the grounds that they helped keep the books or volumes in their correct order.

Possibly books without prefaces and on separate rolls risked becoming mixed up in order.

When a work was of more than one volume it was customary to mention the addressee at the beginning of each volume.

Confusion with letters

Sometimes the preface took the form of an attached letter.

This custom has led to moderns mistaking formal treatises for personal letters. (e.g. “letter” of Aristeas to Philocrates, and the so-called Epistle to Diognetus). Neither of these treatises was really a letter.

Significance of the addressee

The relation of the addressee to the work and to its author varied. Personal friend, fellow author, patron, a name to add prestige, or any person appropriate to the book’s contents (e.g. a general for a work on military strategy). The name may not have had any personal association with the author and may not even have been personally interested in the work written.

The significance of including an addressee was to declare that the work was for public reading. The real readers may have been quite different from the addressee in the preface.

vii. Conclusion

The prologue of itself cannot assign Acts to the genre of historiography. “For such devices could be employed by novelists to create verisimilitude.” (Pervo, p. 5)

Of all the examples of ancient prologues cited and linked above, the closest one in appearance to Acts is the one introducing a treatise on how to interpret dreams. When comparing the words used, its brevity, its structure and the function of its contents in relation to the main text, its avoidance of self-identification and other specific details about sources and predecessors, the prologue of Acts is least like the more well known prefaces to ancient histories.

But note Cadbury’s comments on the preface to Acts to quite unconventionally fail to mention the purpose or contents of the book it introduces.

Next: 2. Chronology

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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues”

  1. Very interesting reading and nicely related to the christiancadre.blogspot.com Acts historicity claims. You have really research the subject. Can’t wait for the 2nd part.

    Peter (former Anonymous commenter on “Archaeological Confirmation of Acts 18:2” thread)
    From the south side of the border.

  2. No scholar (worth his salt) actually claims that having a prologue itself is indicative of it being historiography. Instead, its the contents in the prologue which can help assign whether its historiography or something else.

    Chris Weimer

  3. And it is the nature of the contents as much as structure and wording that one is invited to compare with the above examples.

    (Not all who study Acts are scholars worth their salt, unfortunately. But we all have to start somewhere.)

  4. Since most men and women of that age of the world were unable to read or write, it being work of scribes and scholars, you are forgetting that the work was read to them as oral history and story, and part of the storyteller’s art. Of course it was going to be written as lovely and enticing as possible, knowing the audience was one used to such spoken words.

  5. Cadre blog have quietly begun a series to critique on their “all of one mind” blogsite this and subsequent posts. Well, after Cadre deleted two links I posted in response to their posts — in which I had pointed to a fuller rebuttal of some of their claims — and after being regularly addressed with insults, I decided it would be preferable to put my reply to their discussions here — where I know it and associated links will not be deleted at whim and where I have some control over the level of abuse these good Christian folk like to deploy.

    My first response is here.

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