Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface

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by Neil Godfrey

Since my previous post on looking at the preface to Acts in the context of contemporary prefaces, I have added a new section in that same post on the conventions of those prefaces. I have included it separately again here below.

I have also added the most obvious omission in my previous post, the preface of Acts itself. It is interesting to compare it with other prefaces to histories, and note not only Cadbury’s comments on where it fails to meet expected conventional standards, but also to observe the remarkable failure of the author to declare the purpose or contents of the work it is introducing. (Cadbury raises the possibility that the original preface may have been tampered with in order to account for this failure to match expected convention.)

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.”

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.


The preface of Acts, while conforming to many of the conventions, quite remarkably fails to explain either the purpose or contents of the work it introduces.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface”

  1. The only way the introduction to Acts could have been appropriate would have been for Jesus to have been living to continue what he ‘began to do and to teach’. I suggest therefore that the ‘former book’ was not originally about Jesus at all, and thus not about what ‘Jesus began to do and to teach’, but about what the Spirit began to say. Original Acts was about what the Spirit continued to say or command after the death of the prophet Judas. Acts was originally written entirely in and for a Jewish priestly prophetic milieu. It contained no reference to a mission to Gentiles.

  2. I would correct myself. I believe that the person with an interest in knowing what the new Jewish ideas were all about was Epaphroditus, an ex-Greek slave, who rose to various high offices in Nero’s government. The same Ephroroditus had been interested in the first book written by the very young Josephus while in Nero’s court. I refer to the original Antiquities which was written before original War. The extant books are the heavily edited versions produced as propaganda by the Flavians.

  3. Are you using the terms book and volumes loosely?

    What was it like classifying stuff, preventing plagiarism and editing, and all the technical side of producing protecting and ordering works prior to Dewey, printing, the invention of books, copyright, page numbering and a myriad other related technologies?


    See also the discussion in the book The Archimedes Palimpsest


  4. When I spoke of “book” here I was referring to a complete work, similar in concept to our understanding of “book”, that might comprise several “volumes”, similar to our modern concept of “volumes” that make up a series of a “book work” or “book collection”.

    One cannot answer your specific question “prior to Dewey” in a few sentences. As a professional librarian I am somewhat in touch with various developments and changes in the various issues you raise throughout the vast times and places relating to the western heritage — and a book could be written on what the situations were “prior to Dewey”.

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