Reviewing Chris Price’s and Marion Soard’s critiques of Pervo’s “Profit with Delight”

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by Neil Godfrey

Christopher Price has published online a lengthy discussion titled Genre, Historicity, Authorship and Date of Acts (several places, e.g. here and here). In his 12 to 13 page section of this essay where he discusses Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight he references Marion Soard’s 1990 review of Pervo’s book in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Both Price’s essay and Soard’s review are classic illustrations of how sometimes people can so completely misread the clearest text. Perhaps this is the result of careless assumptions substituting for a careful engagement with the text. In the case of the fundamentalist Price, however, there also seems to be an assumption that any unorthodox critique of the Bible must by definition be a bad argument, and this leads him to misread — or misrepresent — Pervo’s text repeatedly.

I’ll address both Price’s and Sourd’s criticisms of Profit with Delight here.


Price writes:

The notion that Acts is ancient fiction, or an “ancient novel,” has been advanced by Richard Pervo in his book Profit with Delight.

and adds the explanation:

This genre is also referred to as “ancient romance.”

Despite Price’s penchant for black and white thinking and epitomizing, Pervo’s discussion of the genre of Acts simply cannot be so simply categorized. Indeed, Price’s attempt to simplify and refute Pervo’s book has led him to misrepresent Pervo’s analysis completely. Pervo simply argues no such thing as Price suggests. He nowhere argues that Acts is “ancient fiction” or an “ancient romance”. If Price has read other critics suggesting or even stating this, and if Price has also read Profit with Delight, he ought to have known immediately that there was something wrong with their claim and exercised a bit more critical judgment in his reading. Unfortunately, Price shows a tendency to attempt critical readings of only those works with which he disagrees.

Pervo in fact makes clear repeatedly:

Since one customary means for rejecting popular literature has been to label it pure entertainment, I wish to make clear that there is no intent here to deny Luke’s serious theological program. . . . (p. xii)

Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain. (p. 86)

I hope that it is by now clear that relating Acts to ancient novels is hardly a means for writing the book off for being fiction, least of all, pure fiction. (p.122)

By reference to novels in general and historical novels in particular I have attempted to provide detailed evidence for the ancient novel’s relevance to the understanding of Acts. My intent is that such comparison proceed alongside, as well as in competition with, investigations using historiographical models. Description of Acts as a historical novel does not imply that the author concocted it from thin air. Reconsideration of the question of genre does not eliminate the possibility of sources. (p. 137)

Unfortunately Price continues for two whole pages attempting to disprove what Pervo does not argue and to prove what Pervo has already made clear.

Price’s next criticism of Pervo:

Pervo argues, however, that the prefaces are irrelevant to the issue of genre and that the author might have been trying to simulate historical intent:

Prefaces were highly conventional. Composition of them may have been taught in school. Their claims would (sic) be the object of parody. Not only historians but medical writers, astrologers, dream interpreters, and novelists made use of such marks of erudition. The use of the preface does not settle the question of genre, for such devices could be employed by novelists to create verisimilitude.

The notion that prefaces are irrelevant to the issue of genre, however, is not persuasive.

Pervo does not write that “their claims would be the object of parody” as Price quotes but rather, “their claims could be . . . “.

For some strange illogical leap Price here seems to interpret Pervo’s statement “The use of the preface does not settle the question of genre” as meaning “prefaces are irrelevant to the issue of genre.” This is surely another major misrepresentation of Pervo’s words. Price as a lawyer ought to know better than many that the fact that a piece of evidence does not settle the question of whether someone is guilty or innocent, it by no means follows that the evidence is irrelevant.

Price continues:

Pervo’s suggestion that the author of Acts could have been attempting to “create verisimilitude” is likewise unpersuasive.

Here Price is presumably referring back to his statement “Pervo argues . . . that the author might have been trying to simulate historical intent.”

This is surely another demonstration of Price’s inability to comprehend the logic of Pervo paragraph. By use of the conjunction “for” Pervo is explaining the reason prefaces do not of themselves “settle” genre. By apparently ignoring the conjunction “for” and perhaps mentally reading “would” for “could” again here, and presuming that Pervo is arguing that the author is only pretending to write history, Price has imputed a suggestion to Pervo that he nowhere makes. Price however finds himself writing another page to tear down his straw man.

Price “finds” another ground for rebuttal:

One reason Pervo concludes that Acts is not historiography is that he believes Acts is too full of inaccuracies. But as Pervo candidly admits, he simply assumes rather than demonstrates that Acts is replete with historical inaccuracies. 1

1. Pervo, op. cit., page 1 (“I do not seek to demonstrate once again the presence of historical problems in Acts.”).

and further,

Accordingly, even if Pervo’s evaluation of the accuracy of Acts had merit, it does not count against classifying Acts as historiography.

That this is yet another misrepresentation of Pervo’s argument has already been demonstrated by the above extracts from Pervo in bold italics. Further, Price’s charge that Pervo “assumes rather than demonstrates that Acts is replete with historical inaccuracies” is quite beside the point and once again is based on a misunderstanding of what Pervo is actually saying. Pervo is referring to the many studies that have already discussed this. He discusses Dibelius’s and Cadbury’s “tacitly [setting] historical questions to one side”, the “aggressively skeptical approach exemplified by the Tubingen school”, and finally Haenchen’s low opinion of the historical accuracy of Acts. Yet Price’s portrayal of Pervo’s position here is one of someone who merely “assumes” there are questions regarding the historical accuracy of Acts. But more to the point, Price is making a false claim when he says Pervo argues against Acts being “historiography” because of its inaccuracies. (It seems, moreover, Price considers literary genres as absolute categories rather than cultural constructs and that it is vital to get the genre right to establish his black and white beliefs about the book.)

Price also accuses Pervo of arguing Acts is fiction because it is exciting:

Pervo argues that it is not merely the existence of exciting episodes that proves Acts is fiction, but the way he weaves them together to create an exciting narrative. This argument is unpersuasive.

Price provides no reference to any passage from Profit with Delight to support this claim, but presumably he bases it on the opening pages of chapter 2. Some of Pervo’s statements in that section:

Acts’ succession of interesting, “action-packed” stories has long made it one of the more interesting works to study in Sunday school. . . . (p.12)

As a popular document, Acts may well be expected to contain some entertaining stories. Determination of what readers of ancient times might have found pleasing can be difficult. I have attempted to reduce the subjectivity by basing my observations upon criteria derived from ancient novels, in particular, romantic novels. Themes and motifs frequently recurring in such works may reasonably be assumed to have been found pleasing. . . . (p.13)

Luke presents his story of the early church largely as a series of escapades, from nearly all of which the leading characters escape great danger. Critical study must do more than analyze this or that incident to extract a historical kernel. The sheer number of adventure stories must also be given its due. (p.18)

Yet Price seems to construe Pervo as arguing that Luke is writing fiction pure and simple:

Because the author of Acts has successfully strung together several true episodes we must conclude that he is writing fiction? Is this not better construed as evidence of historical intent?

Pervo of course is not using the adventures in the novels to argue that Luke was likewise writing the same sort of fiction. He is using analyzing in the popular novels the types of things that ancient audiences loved to read, what they found exciting. He then demonstrates where Acts employs the same sorts of motifs. Apparently this is too close to heresy for Price so he charges Pervo with arguing that Acts is fiction in the same way a an ancient romance is fiction.

Pervo states his reason for this study:

A major task of this book is to elucidate the entertaining nature of Acts. (p. xi)

Until recently there has been little attention to the entertaining character of the apostolic escapades narrated by Luke. Biblical scholarship since the Renaissance has been at some pains to reject the stimulation of pleasure as a worthy object of inspired writings. (p.12)

Pervo is demonstrating that Acts is written as much to entertain as it is to inform or edify or profit the reader, but that there has been a centuries’ old bias in scholarship against seeing too much fun and pleasure in writings that are deemed holy. Price appears to be himself so steeped in this bias that he cannot help but equate any observation in Acts of the same motifs found in popular novels as something scandalous.

Accordingly he writes two pages to prove:

In conclusion, none of the exciting episodes or the fact that Acts was written to be entertaining means it is a novel as opposed to historiography.

He could have saved himself the effort. Pervo makes no such argument.

Price writes:

Pervo attempts to make much of the fact that later, apocryphal Acts, such as the Acts of Peter and the Acts of Paul, are fiction. Because Acts is literarily related to these later documents, Acts too supposedly is fiction. The most obvious problem with this argument is the causal flow. The later apocryphal Acts are embellishments perhaps encouraged by the original Acts and the gospels. They can tell us nothing, however, of the intent of the author of Acts. You cannot assess the genre of the original by simply equating it with some later, derivative writings.

What Pervo is doing in his discussion of the Apocryphal Acts is to question the logical basis for presuming the historical nature of Acts while at the same time presuming the fictional nature of the Apocryphal Acts. Pervo observes that the literary features found in the Apocryphal Acts that are used to determine their fictive character are also found in Acts.

Yet Price, and also Porter whom Price quotes here, appear to completely miss Pervo’s argument. Stanley Porter even accuses Pervo of “[verging] on parallelomania” (p.18) but then argues that Acts is not a true parallel of the Apocryphal Acts:

In the parallels that he cites from the ancient novelist, however, not one of the sources he cites has all of the features that Acts does. (p.18, Paul in Acts)

Porter’s fallacy here should be obvious. Just because there is not 100% agreement in the total quantity of parallels does not mean that any two works are “unlike” each other or of a different genre.

But Price makes no attempt to “refute” what he thinks is the circular reasoning of Pervo, and misses the logic of his argument once again.

Price writes of Pervo’s discussion of the speeches in Acts:

Though claiming that the nature of the speeches in Acts cannot be used as a guide to genre he goes on to claim that ancient novels “provide much more convincing and useful parallels to the contents and literary function of the speeches in Acts than will histories. This assertion is not backed up by convincing evidence.”

Price surely read the evidence Pervo did provide for his claim but fails to explain why it is not “convincing.” But I’m not sure whey Price would object to Pervo’s argument here anyway since he acknowledges that Pervo does not use speeches as a determinant of genre. What is wrong with finding analogues in fiction to the nature and literary function of speeches in Acts? It does not follow from such a point of contact that Acts is also a fictional novel. Perhaps Price with his insistence on black and white thinking feels it does.

Price then makes an embarrassing charge that leaves me wondering if he really did read or merely skim Pervo’s book, or if maybe he was writing very late at night after a long day:

If Acts is intended to be an ancient novel it is strange that there is no romance in it. Romance was an important, even defining, part of ancient novels and “[t]he absence of [it] is a significant omission.”

Price does quote Brosend in support of this ludicrous charge. I don’t have access to Brosend so cannot comment on Price’s use of this footnote.

Let’s just conclude that Pervo himself would surely fully agree that Acts is definitely not a “romance novel” like other “romance novels”. As can be seen from the quotations from Pervo’s book above Pervo at no point argues or even hints that an ancient fictional novel, let alone an erotic novel (the technical term for ancient novels with themes of love — which is preferable to the ambiguous term “romance” in this case — from the god eros).

Price comes across as the sort of reader who will never learn anything new from all his reading. He will only keep on writing longer and longer essays constructing and demolishing straw men as he “proves” his fundamentalist beliefs.

Will have to complete this with the review of Marion Soard’s review next post. . . . . .

continued here

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2008-01-19 17:29:56 GMT+0000 - 17:29 | Permalink

    I should add a post script:

    Pervo’s point, at least as I understand it, is to deepen our understanding of Acts, and the way we read it, by broadening our perspective of where it fitted in the larger literary scene.

    Yes Pervo does compare Acts with the “historical novel” — but it should be clear from the above that this is not to say that it is a fictional historical novel in the sense some critics take it. It ought to be clear that Pervo allows for as much material of “historical value” in Acts as many others who would classify the work as “historiography” allow.

    What some critics appear to overlook, including Price, is this sort of statement found in Pervo:

    When the content of Acts, with its high proportion of exciting episodes, legendary presentations, and brief speeches, is taken into account, the scale tilts even more sharply toward the historical novel. (p.137)

    Luke presents his story of the early church as a series of [“action-packed stories”]. Critical scholarship must do more than anaylze this of that incident to extract a historical kernel. The sheer number must also be given its due. (p.18)

    Maybe not all critics overlook this point, but I have not yet seen Price or other critics address it. If some comparisons can be drawn between these instances of rhetoric and motif in Acts and Herodotus’s Histories, one is still left with the need to account for the chasm of difference in both ratio and overall rhetorical function of these motifs to the rest of those respective works — not to mention the other obvious differences between the likes of Herodotus and Acts. (See my earlier “Comparing the sources” post for a similar discussion comparing secular histories with the gospels.)

    One point Price makes I overlooked in my post was his discussion on the ending of Acts. Price does not quote Pervo in his discussion and I cannot find in the book the basis of his criticisms. Price does however insist that since the ending of Acts is incomplete and unpredictable it cannot therefore be “a novel”. Again it appears Price is arguing semantics unless he is implying that novel means complete fiction. If so, this point has been addressed enough in my post. One additional comment to be made though since Price seems to be arguing that the ending of Acts is evidence of its “historical” nature. Not so, as I discuss in another post discussing the endings of biblical literature in relation to other ancient works. Price might also like to compare the ending of Acts with the ending of 2 Kings and raise the appropriate questions. But he might also like to read more widely on other ways that the original audience may well have interpreted the ending of Acts as a most appropriate climax. But then again, if Price is only looking for straw men then maybe not.

  • 2008-01-20 08:25:46 GMT+0000 - 08:25 | Permalink

    You must have got your computer time back! If people have an old book for a sacred cow it is likely that their reasoning will be a little skewed.

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