2007-11-18

The literary genre of Acts. 3: Speeches

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by Neil Godfrey

“We cannot name any historian whom . . . Luke has taken as a model” (Dibelius, 1956, 183-185)

Pervo cites Dibelius as one scholar unimpressed with claims that the speeches in Acts are necessarily attributable to historiographical intent. Certainly ancient historians crafted lengthy speeches for historical characters, and certainly the speeches in Acts are not like those in the gospel of Luke. But it does not follow, as is sometimes argued, that therefore the speeches in Acts demonstrate the author’s intent to write real history. Anyone who has read ancient novellas would immediately recognize the speeches in Acts as just one of the many features found in fiction. Lengthy speeches were tools of historians and fiction writers alike. They were used to convey information about characters and situations, both historical and fictional.

Examples are too numerous to mention, so I would simply suggest to anyone who doubts this claim to find a collection of ancient novels (such as Reardon‘s collection) in a library or on the net (some are linked in my Prologue post) and read a couple. They are not very long and quite entertaining as insights into ancient cultures, interests and humour.

For this post I opened my copy of Reardon’s collection at random and the first page opened was 206 in the middle of the story of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. There at paragraph 37 begins a lengthy speech on the beauty of women. I flip over to pages 340-1 to fine Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and on each page are speeches equal to the length of anything in Acts.

But one need only recall the emphasis on rhetoric in ancient education and the popularity of tragic drama to quickly guess the need of scepticism over claims of the relationship between speeches and historicity.

I will in time give more specific discussions here on the different types of speeches in Acts, the legal defences, the exhortations, and their structures and comparisons with their counterparts in other forms of literature.

I often felt some resonance in the fictional literature somewhere when reading the long speech of James at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. I seemed to hear echoes from somewhere each time I read its stylized account of preliminary short speeches followed by Jame’s lengthy decision-pronouncing finale. I don’t know why it took me so long to notice how similar the structure and pattern of the speeches and speech situation was to the speeches delivered in the grand royal assemblies in Homer’s Iliad. I suppose what we have been trained to associate from very early years with religious truth and fact is not easily recognized when we view it through the perspective of literature with which its author would certainly have been familiar, if only from his education in learning how to write Greek.

A crisis in the war needs to be dealt with. An assembly of the notables is called. Names of renown stand up to express their views while the king listens in silence. After the to and fro debating has finished the king rises to deliver his decision and the course that all must follow. The pattern is a regular one, and the assembly in Acts 15 is only one of its many echoes.


Next: Use of historical models

 


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Neil Godfrey

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