The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

(revised 1.15 pm)

Continuing notes from Pervo re the genre of Acts.

Pervo compares the genre of Acts with the genre of the works of other ancient historians. Below I’ve summarized Pervo’s comments but have added much more by way of illustration from Price and Feldman. I have also just received a copy of Revealed Histories by Robert Hall which I want to read before concluding this discussion. Till then, hope to discuss comparisons with historians other than Josephus in follow-up posts.

Imitation of the Masters

The Jewish historian Josephus attempted to imitate the “classical” historians, especially Thucydides. Imitation of the masters, even attempting to emulate or surpass them, was a mark of literary skill and good taste among ancient writers of the Hellenistic and early Roman imperial era, historians included. As Pervo writes (p.5), “Style was essential, not peripheral.” To be taken seriously historians would demonstrate in their works that they knew and were attempting to imitate the best in the ancients such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon. Thucydides was particularly in fashion in the time of the early Empire.

To illustrate this literary custom in particular among historians, — a few examples from Josephus:

Josephus’ self-identification as a Thucydidean author is announced in the first sentence of the BJ [Jewish War], in which, in direct homage to the master, he announces his name and mother-city, declares his subject to be the “greatest war” of all time, establishes his credentials as an authoritative eyewitness and avers his adherence to strict accuracy (ακριβεια) is another single word which instantly recalls Thucydides, and cf. BJ 1.6, 9, 17, 22, 26). The rest of the preface is thick with Thucydidean allusion and language, not least Josephus’ assertion (BJ 1.30) that he has written for lovers of truth (την αληθειαν αγαπωσιν) and not for pleasure (αλλα μη προς ηδονηη), recalling Thucydides’ famous claim that he wrote not for the pleasure of the moment but to leave “a possession for all time” (Thuc. 1.22.4).

(from “Josephus’ reading of Thucydides: A test case in the BJ” by Jonathan J. Price)

Price goes on to demonstrate that although Josephus regularly attempted to imitate Thucydides understanding of how states failed because of seditious wars and rebellions (στασισ), he fails to achieve Thucydides’ best efforts at an impartial bird’s eye description of the factious events. Josephus emerges, rather, as incapable of rising above partisanship. Unlike Thucydides he clearly sides with one of the players as an innocent victim and while condemning outright their opponents. Nevertheless, by using the language of Thucydides we can see he is attempting to have his work taken just as seriously. He may not reach the heights of his master but he is attempting to follow his lead.

Louis Feldman (Josephus’s Portrait of Joshua, 1989) shows how Josephus consciously modelled his description of Joshua on Thucydides’ portrayal of the Athenian leader Pericles.

Imitating Thucydides to write about Joshua

The emphasis on wisdom and eloquence is reminiscent of Thucydides’ discussion (2.60.5 -6) of the qualities of the ideal statesman in Pericles’ last speech to the Athenians. There we are told that the four qualities of the ideal statesman are knowledge of proper policy, the ability to expound it lucidly (σαφως), patriotism, and honesty. In Thucydides’ final summary of Pericles’ character (2.65.8) he stresses that Pericles owed his influence to his recognized standing and ability; notes that he had proved himself incorruptible to the highest degree; had restrained the multitude while respecting their liberties; had led them rather than was led by them, and did not resort to flattery; did not seek power by dishonest means; and was able to oppose the people and even to provoke their wrath. In particular, we may note that, like Thucydides, who emphasizes the pragmatism of Pericles, especially in the latter’s appraisal of the Athenian empire (2.62 -64), Josephus (5.177) stresses that Joshua had received profitable instruction for his role from Moses himself. Again, just as Thucydides stresses that after Pericles there was a precipitous decline in the quality of Athenian leadership — because his successors were more concerned with their personal well-being than with the commonweal-so Josephus (5.90), in a supplement to the biblical narrative (Josh 23: 1 -16), remarks that Joshua’s successors showed themselves careless guardians of the commonweal. (p.352)

Modelling Joshua on Thucydides’ portrayal of Pericles

As Thucydides had noted in his portrait of Pericles (2.65.8), a great leader just be able to restrain the multitude (κατειχε το πληθος). So also Josephus (3.316) paints a picture of Moses, who, by himself alone, calmed “myriads of angry men and brought them to a gentler mood” . . . . so we find in Joshua a similar ability, as illustrated, notably, in his success (5.103), not paralleled in the Bible (Josh 22:13), in restraining the people’s anger at the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half tribe of Manasseh, when the latter had created an altar on the banks of the Jordan. (pp.356, 361-2)

Role of the supernatural

[Josephus] is particularly careful not to drive his predominantly non-Jewish readership away by presenting the account as a theologian. Rather, he seeks to win them by expounding Jewish history as Polybius and others had presented their histories, through noting the consequences of the actions of his most important human characters. Apparently, he intended to deal with theological matters in a projected separate work (1.25, 192; 3.143; 4.198; 20.268), which, it would seem, he never completed. Examples abound of his de-emphasis of God’s role, particularly in the accounts of the sacrifice of Isaac (1.228 -31); in Jacob’s angry exchange with Rachel (1.305); in the omission of the reference to God (Gen 28:16) when Jacob awakens from his dream with the ladder (1.284); in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (2.50-52); in the omission of the fact that the spirit of God came over Samson in his encounter with the lion (5.287; cf. Judg 14:6); and in the total omission (except at the very end) of the name of God from the Ruth pericope (5.318-36) despite the fact that the Hebrew refers to him seventeen times. (p.366)

And miracles

  • When Josephus does refer to a miracle, he generally (though not consistently) tags it with the well-known line used by other historians, “Everyone is welcome to his own opinion.”

(Other uses of this sceptical line in connection with the reporting of miracles: Herodotus 2.123; 5.45; Thucydides 6.2.1; Dionysius of Halicarnassus Ant. Rom. 1.48.1, 4; 2.40.3, 74.5; 3.36.5; Lucian How to Write History 10; and Pliny Hist. nat. 9.18.)

  • Josephus re-writes the biblical account of Rahab by removing all reference to what she has heard about the miracles of God for Israel
  • He re-writes the appearance of the ram in the thicket when Abraham chose not to sacrifice Isaac as a naturally occurring event
  • He says Jacob only thought he saw the ladder with angels reaching to heaven
  • He removes the miraculous elements from the story of Samson
  • He rationalizes the biblical miracle of Joshua’s crossing of the Jordan to mean that the depth of the waters became low enough for the Israelites to wade through it safely
  • Joshua’s long day was merely prolonged to last longer than usual — certainly nothing like an extra “whole day”.
  • When he describes the miraculous collapse of the walls of Jericho he steps into the minds of the readers and expresses his own sense of incredulity.

Rabbis, on the other hand, exaggerated the miraculous. The Jordan river was banked up 700 miles high to allow Joshua’s Israelites to cross it.

Political overtones

One of the basic aims of the Antiquitates (IS),as it was of Josephus’s much admired model, Thucydides, is to evaluate the political constitution of the Jews. Indeed, one of the leitmotivs of the Antiquitates, based, undoubtedly, upon his bitter experience as a general in the war against the Romans, is the terrible consequences of civil strife. Just as Thucydides (3.82-84) stressed the theme of civil strife in his brilliant description of the revolution of Corcyra, so Josephus repeatedly stresses the terrible results of sedition (στασισ). Indeed, a good portion of Book 4 (11 -66, 141 -55) of the Antiquitates is devoted to accounts that illustrate the degree to which στασισ is the mortal enemy of political states. (p.372)

Dramatic and Romantic Motifs

The kinship of history and tragedy46 has a long history, both being based upon a common subject matter, namely, the Greek myths, which, of course, were regarded as historically true.”‘ Both appealed to emotions when read aloud (for history was also so read), both emphasized the moral lessons to be conveyed, and both had a common rhetorical background. The writing of history was particularly well suited for the orator, as Cicero (De leg. 1.5) put it, inasmuch as both the orator and the historian had to use similar dramatic devices in order to maintain the interest of the listener. (p.373)

Some examples where Josephus elaborates with dramatic details:

Rahab and the spies

  • whereas the Bible (Josh 2:3) states that the king of Jericho gives instructions to his emissaries to tell Rahab to bring forth the spies that have entered her house, Josephus adds (5.6) that the king straightaway sent men to discover by torture what their intent was.
  • whereas the Bible (Josh 2:4 -6) simply reports Rahab’s statement to the emissaries, Josephus (5.10) adds the details that they were cajoled by the woman and, suspecting no guile, departed without even searching the inn.
  • Likewise, Josephus builds up the drama of the situation through his extra-biblical addition (5.1 I), emphasizing the great risk which Rahab took in concealing the spies, namely, that she and all her house would have perished miserably at the hands of the king if she had been caught.
  • The drama is further increased by the remark (5.12) that Rahab knew that the Israelites would capture Jericho through certain signs which she had received from God. (p.374)

(Some readers might find it useful to remind themselves that such narrative details clearly do not signify an eyewitness report but the rhetorical and creative skills of the author.)

“There is added drama also, though without straining credibility, in Josephus’s additional details of battle scenes.” (p.374)

Abraham’s conquest of the Assyrians:

  • Josephus adds (1.177) to the biblical account that he slew some while they were asleep,
  • while he put to flight others who were not yet asleep but who were incapacitated by drunkenness

Joshua’s massacre at Jericho:

  • The biblical account (Josh 6:21) declares only that the Israelites “utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both men and women, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword” ,
  • Josephus adds (5.28-29) that the inhabitants of Jericho were dumbfounded at the miraculous overthrow of the ramparts,
  • that they were slaughtered in the streets or surprised in the houses,
  • that nothing could exempt them,
  • that the city was choked with corpses,
  • and that the invaders burnt the entire city and the surrounding region. (p.374)

David’s surprise attack on the Amalekites:

  • In the original (1 Sam 30:16 -17), we are told that the Amalekites were spread over all the ground, eating and drinking because of all the great spoil which they had taken from the Philistines
  • Josephus adds (6.362-63) that some were at their morning meal,
  • while others were already drunk and relaxed with wine and actually regaling themselves with their spoils
  • that some were surprised at the outspread tables,
  • and that streaming blood actually swept the food away,
  • that some were drinking to each other’s health when they were slain,
  • and that others were plunged in sleep through their drunkenness.

“Josephus’s source for his additions may well have been Herodotus (1.211), who has a similar account of Cyrus’s victory over his drunk and sleeping opponents.” (p.374)

Conclusion: Comparing Acts

Pervo writes: “One cannot point to an extant learned Greek model for Luke.” (p.5) This is not a minor matter. “Those who wished to compose ‘real’ history imitated the structure and style, often even the viewpoint, of an appropriate authority.” Pervo cites for classics in education, Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity, 266-308, and on mimesis, Reardon, Courants litteraires, 3-12 and throughout.

There is evidence that the author of Acts used Josephus as a source, but he certainly did not imitate him as an historian.

The role of the divine is central to the plot of Acts. Acts is about the workings of God, not the consequences of human actions. In that sense it reads more like a myhical romance than a history — even by ancient standards. God starts the action in chapter 2 and steers it in the way he wants it to go in responses to prayers and a plan to fulfill the prophetic pronouncements declared from the beginning.

Feldman writes of Josephus:

Josephus avoids undue exaggeration in portraying Joshua’s military achievements. In particular, Josephus is careful to tone down or rationalize miracles. If, occasionally, Josephus does exaggerate he is careful to do so in such a way as to add drama to the situation but without stretching the credulity of his readers. (pp.375-6)

The stark contrast with Acts is surely undeniable. Acts reads like a Hellenistic novella with the miraculous and the dramatic intertwined to read like a “Just-so story“.

Like Josephus, the author of Acts does introduce a dramatic element to his narrative, but unlike Josephus, he unabashedly meshes the dramatic with the miraculous in a way that would have embarrassed the historian in Josephus. From Josephus and other historians we understand that Acts would not have been heard as serious history, but as a gripping but incredible series of tales of adventure.

Sometimes it is claimed that the miraculous element in Acts is very minor or subdued when compared with the miraculous in the noncanonical stories. Perhaps, but I also suspect that such a judgment is a subjective rationalization borne of familiarity. Is there anything really subdued about a man-god rising into the sky in a cloud? A shadow of a passerby healing people? Raising the dead? Causing the living to drop dead at a word? A miraculous noise and flames of fire descending from heaven? Mass miracles of tongues? Being knocked blind by a light and voice from heaven? Prison doors and chains being broken and angels coming to the rescue?

Remove the genre of the miraculous and adventure from Acts and there is no tale left to explain “how the church began”.

Next — comparing Acts with other ancient historians


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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus”

  1. But there is a remaining story about the earliest ‘Christians’ or anointed ones or prophets – Acts is a garbled version of a real record originally written in and for an entirely Jewish milieu with no adventures to Gentile areas and no miracles. Any journeys were simply between Rome and Jerusalem – the last ship journey of Acts is obviously to Caesarea and not Rome. And the original epistles that were subsequently made Pauline were written probably to synagogues of different ethnic Jews in Rome.

    As for Josephus writing in Greek and Roman styles, how was it that he acquired such skills in a short space of time, supposedly after leaving Judea? Such skills were normally ingrained from childhood. It is doubtful that there was the opportunity to learn them in Jerusalem. After all, why were Agrippa 1 and 2 raised in Rome? – presumably because learning about the Greek and Roman worlds was not to be had in Jerusalem. To write as he did, and as an aristocrat, Josephus must have been raised in Rome in Claudius’s court. Thus he always was a Roman citizen, and it wasn’t he who surrendered at ‘Jotapata’ – this is the joke of later Flavian historians.

    Josephus had written the original version of Antiquities as a schoolboy exercise.

    The Jewish war was fought by Roman forces in Judea under the direct command of Nero himself with Josephus as his interpreter and historian. The myth created by the Flavian historians was that Nero went on a tour of Greece from September 66 to the early part of 68 CE. By then the Jewish war was done and dusted, and Roman forces let into Jerusalem. Nero went back to Rome to claim his triumph, only to face revolution.

  2. My post is addressing the genre of Acts, specifically in this instance comparing it with the literary/genre methods of the major work of Josephus. Its relevance is for those who argue that Acts should be read as genuine history for reasons such as the literary genre, and for anyone interested in exploring the nature of Acts in its contemporary literary context.

    Other speculations and hypotheses miss the point, sorry.

  3. I understand you very well. For me the genre of Acts was once completely Jewish, that is when you take the adventures, the miraculous and the Pauline doctrine.

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