The literary genre of Acts. 7: Chapter 19 as a case study

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Pervo’s Profit with Delight on the literary genre of Acts . . . .

Pervo offers a review of Acts 19 to illustrate the magnitude of the problem of reading Acts as history.

Acts 19 disturbed Ramsay. Here he saw his beloved historian behaving more like a retailer of gossip than like the Thucydidean figure of his admiration. The Ephesian ministry was one of the most important phases of Paul’s missionary career, and this portion of Acts lies within the arena of the Aegean, the chapters framed by the use of “we.” Hence, one is hard pressed to excuse Luke on the grounds of sources. (p.9)

  1. 19:1-7 — the “perplexing description” of some disciples of John the Baptist. Acts says they knew only the baptism of John, yet unlike John they had never heard of the Holy Spirit. They had continued praying together in the same city as Christians, apparently completely unknown to those Christians, until Paul arrived. All this despite the same Christians having had contact with another disciple of John the Baptist (Apollos) in the verses leading in to Acts 19. When Paul arrives he corrects their beliefs and lays hands on them giving them the holy spirit with the miraculous ecstasy, and since they numbered 12 it appears to the author that they are the foundation of a new phase in the missionary work of Paul.
  2. The next 2 verses narrate the stereotypical separation of Paul from the synagogue. (One might also ask why the separation happens only after Paul arrives this second time and had not happened earlier with the Christians, particularly in relation to his first visit, and then under the leadership of Apollos and other companions of Paul — 18:19-28.)
  3. Verse 10 is the sole account we have that Paul’s missionary work in Ephesus was the climax of his work, lasting two whole years and reaching the whole population of Asia. Just one verse covers all of this! Historians and students of history are left screaming for some detail — how did this happen? who were some of the converts (elsewhere we hear names of at least one or two)? was, or how was, all this managed from his preaching in the school of Tyrannus?
  4. Following this short verse brushing aside Paul’s most astounding missionary work of all, we read in much greater detail
    1. the sensational way Paul was able to heal sick and exorcise demons at a distance by sending patients bits of cloth that had touched his body (vv 11-12);
    2. how some “religious quacks are driven out of business and left wounded and nude” (vv 13-17) — a comic scene that raises many questions if read too closely, such as the unlikelihood of 2 exorcists halving their chances of income by traveling together, of being described the sons of a high priest who never existed, . . .
    3. how Ephesians are so impressed by this comic scene that they renounce magic (vv 18-19)
    4. how some souvenir merchants are miffed with their declining sales (vv 23-27)
    5. and how these same merchants are able to stir up a near-riot that at no time comes anywhere near to endangering Paul (vv 28-40)

Pervo notes that the author of Acts has pulled out all the stops to portray Paul’s stay in Ephesus as the peak of his mission in the Aegean region:

  1. Acts 19 describes Paul’s opponents as low-class rabble — magicians, Jews and itinerant exorcists, while his supporters are depicted as the very leading citizens of the province
  2. This chapter is the most colourful, varied, exciting of all of Acts, and it portrays Paul experiencing unmitigated success in leaps and bounds:
    1. Paul converts sectaries at the touch of a finger
    2. cures diseases with castoff rags
    3. humiliates opponents who merely seek to misuse his name
    4. convinces myriads to renounce superstition
    5. hobnobs with Asiarchs

This is impressive. No less impressive is the complete lack of information about a community of believers, or a clear statement of actual converts (other than ex-disciples of the Baptizer), or a single name of a believer.” (p.9)

If we are looking for historical information here we must wonder at the narrative’s coincidental ways of having Apollos and Paul never crossing paths despite both being central to events in Corinth and Ephesus. The author appears to be working to sever all ties between the two.

We know from Paul’s letters that he did experience serious difficulties in Ephesus. The letters may point to his being imprisoned there. Many see them as even referring to a literal, not a metaphorical, occasion when he was forced to fight wild beasts (1 Cor. 15:32). We know from the correspondence that Paul certainly had real difficulties with maintaining his personal influence in the church in Corinth. Yet the author of Acts appears to deliberately bypass all these things, although he clearly knew Paul had difficulties of some sort in Ephesus (e.g. the riot scene and his later speech to the elder of Ephesus — 20:17-38). Yet the way Paul presents his life and difficulties in his letters to the Corinthians is at stark odds with the sort of account we read about him in Acts 19.

Yet the riot in Ephesus according to Acts did not result in Paul’s eviction from the city, and he was never at any time even directly involved in it. He had planned to leave Ephesus before the riot (19:21) . The only time he is mentioned directly in connection with the riot itself is when he thought to go out and attempt to restore law and order. It was at that moment that the Asian rulers expressed more concern for Paul’s personal safety than they did about the fact that their city was at that moment risking the wrath of a Roman military crackdown.

So we have a most dramatic and colourful and lengthy detailed narrative of a riot that has only indirect connection with Paul, never endangers Paul at any time, bears no obvious relationship to what the correspondence indicates Paul experienced, and which serves to demonstrate the high respect Paul had among the nobility of society in contrast to the rabble responsible for the riot. (It is not even the leaders or priests of the temple who are at any time involved in instigating the riot — merely souvenir merchants! And one cannot help but wonder what happened to the supposed instigators of the riot once the crowd launched into a 2 hour chant! They simply disappear and reason from another quarter disperses the crowd.)

The author has told a good story, full of improbabilities and high drama. But history?

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “The literary genre of Acts. 7: Chapter 19 as a case study”

  1. Thanks for another good read, I am enjoying your writing about Acts. I am a bit confused about Paul’s status as a Roman citizen and how he was still happily accepted, firstly by the Pharisees as leader of an anti Christian militia, and later by the new Christian community. Was it only tax collectors who were despised as collaborators with the Romans?

  2. The letters of Paul, if we take them at face value, contradict the portrayal in Acts that Paul was a Roman citizen. Would a Roman citizen have been repeatedly flogged by Jews or faced death with wild beasts? Acts appears to be an attempt to present Paul (and every Christian) as a model (even Roman) citizen, an exemplar of good civilized (Roman) virtues, by contrast with the Jews and low-class riff-raff who sought to cause him/Christians trouble at every turn. The letters however suggest someone who was often in trouble with the established authorities. Luke was reconstructing Paul — not only theologically (to be more catholic) but also to be more socially respectable. Will summarize other readings that discuss this in more depth next post.

    Thanks for comment. I’m only interested in sharing stuff I keep reading and thinking what a shame it is that so much info too rarely leaks outside the halls of academia.

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