The literary genre of Acts. 6: style and content

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Pervo’s Profit with Delight: the Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles — with a few additional references and citations of my own . . . .

However the structure and design of Acts may resemble monographs or other writings, the criteria of style and content must be taken carefully into account. Legitimate pieces of historiography needed, like all literary works, to reflect unity of style, vocabulary, and syntax, as well as proportion and balance. Minor skirmishes had no right to pose as the battle of Marathon. Speeches were to be appropriate to the circumstances, and all reporting should be suitable to its station in human affairs. Acts does not suit such requirements! Its inconsistent style and inclination to treat insignificant happenings as world-historical events would offend learned readers. (pp.6-7, Pervo)

The following is also from Pervo’s book, the main focus of this series.

What was expected of ancient historians?

They were expected to explain reasons, causes and effects of important events. Events such as major affairs of state and wars qualified. The circumstances in the lives of common folk, their beliefs and attitudes, rarely did. Or if they did intrude in the telling of major events they were treated in bland stereotypical fashion.

Pervo compares Acts with the way Roman historians like Livy and Tacitus described the growth and character of religious sects.

One can read online Livy’s description of the rise of the Bacchic cult in Italy in paragraphs 8-19 in his 39th book of the history of Rome. Pervo invites a comparison of this historical account of the account of another new religious sect in Acts. Even though Livy, like the author of Acts, was not immune from propaganda and fictional embellishments, the contrast is nevertheless so marked that it is clear Livy would have been embarrassed to be associated on the same historiographical level with the author of Acts.

Instructive also are comparisons of how Tacitus discussed the Jews (see paragraphs 1-13 in book 5 of Histories) and the Christians (see paragraph 44 of his book 15 of Annals).

What was expected of poets and dramatists?

We do find that the origins of a religious cult were portrayed in dramatic detail by Euripides. See The Bacchae. The supernatural, prophets, miracles were the stuff of poets.

Where does this leave Acts?

Luke thus had no real classical prose model for his work because his subject was not suitable for historians. (Pervo, p.7)

Pervo next discusses comparison with Second Maccabees.


  • scope and quality of a monograph
  • dramatic scenes
  • miracles
  • edifying message
  • episodic style


  • subject matter — political and military history
  • stylistic superiority of 2 Maccabees

Lucian’s comments

The Roman satirist Lucian both attacked and parodied the sorts of writings that were regarded as bad history. See The Way to Write History. He would have seen 2 Maccabees as a classic case of “bad history”.

A few extracts:

Another thing these gentlemen seem not to know is that poetry and history offer different wares, and have their separate rules. Poetry enjoys unrestricted freedom; it has but one law–the poet’s fancy. . . . But, if history adopts such servile arts, it is nothing but poetry without the wings; the exalted tones are missing; and imposition of other kinds without the assistance of metre is only the more easily detected. It is surely a great, a superlative weakness, this inability to distinguish history from poetry; what, bedizen history, like her sister, with tale and eulogy and their attendant exaggerations? . . . .

For instance, I have known a man get through the battle of Europus in less than seven whole lines, and then spend twenty mortal hours on a dull and perfectly irrelevant tale about a Moorish trooper. . . .

Another entertaining person, who has never set foot outside Corinth, nor travelled as far as its harbour–not to mention seeing Syria or Armenia–, starts with words which impressed themselves on my memory:–‘Seeing is believing: I therefore write what I have seen, not what I have been told.’ His personal observation has been so close that he describes the Parthian ‘Dragons’ . . . .

But Lucian was assaulting works that he saw as bad cases of history writing. Second Maccabees qualifies here. It was interspersed with “pseudos” (falsehoods). Acts on the other hand is pseudos through and through, and comes closer to Lucian’s parodies Alexander the Oracle Monger, The Death of Peregrine (Peregrinus), The True History (A True Story), The Liar (The Lover of Lies).


Those who would align this book (Acts) with some type of ancient history or another must therefore recognize the limitations of such proposals. At best they can appeal to no more than slight structural resemblances and a thin veneer of formal apparatus. Nor should it be overlooked that the more closely Acts is linked to historiography, the more acute the tension between volume one (Luke) and volume two (Acts) will be. (Pervo, p.8 )

Praxeis literature?

Pervo comments on the existence of “Praxeis (Acts of . . .) literature”. Most do not survive, but it appears there was a wide diversity of styles, forms, points of view among its works. The genre appealed to the Hellenistic and Roman audiences’ love of great deeds of the mighty. He looks forward to research in this field helping us grasp the context of Acts.

A new genre?

Eusebius did develop a new genre of ecclesiastical history but he based it on the antiquities format. Like his predecessors Hegesippus, Julius Africanus and Hipploytus he focussed on chronology, heresiology and lists of succession. He sketched the histories of the different schools. He extensively quoted sources. None of this was learned from Acts.


But for most it is the content rather than the style and form of Acts that is the most problematic. “After all excuses have been made for the presumed lack of ancient concern for strict truth, Acts is still lacking.” (Pervo, p.8 )

Many of its episodes contain evidence that they were invented, some even adapted from Josephus and Old Testament stories and characters. Pervo does not say it here, but arguments that historical events were told through the language and motifs and topoi of Old Testament stories lose credibility when there is no story left standing when those supposedly mere “stylistic touches” are stripped away.

Good sources were not used even when available — and this argument is especially potent if Acts was written after 90 c.e. when Paul’s letters were surely known.

The characterization of people and events in Acts can be demonstrated to be often “highly improbable or contrary to known facts.”

And “the very volume of apologetic efforts to defend Luke testifies in itself to the gravity of the problem”.

Next: a review of Acts 19 to demonstrate the magnitude of the problem when reading Acts as history . . .


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Neil Godfrey

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