2008-01-20

Reviewing Marion Soard’s review of Pervo’s “Profit with Delight”

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by Neil Godfrey

woops — i originally spoke of marion as a “she” — thanks to a respondent i have been able to correct my gaffe. there is less gender confusion when one consults marion’s (marty’s) homepage. (note added 24/jan/07)

Christopher Price draws on Marion Soards’ review to dismiss the argument of Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight as being without merit:

Professor Soards points to additional examples of such historiography that Pervo overlooks or downplays:

[S]cholars have long recognized that one of the goals of ancient historians was to please their readers. . . . The presence of entertaining or pleasing elements in an ancient work does not automatically mean that it is not history. Yet Pervo takes this position. He is able to do so largely by ignoring this characteristic in ancient historiography-for example, it is remarkable that while Pervo mentions Thucydides (only!) five times in his study, he completely ignores Herodotus, “The Father of History,” who writes in a lively, engaging, entertaining, and even fantastic manner-not unlike the author of Acts. Similarly, Pervo refers several times to Lucian of Samosata and Xenophon of Ephesus, but he brings Dionysis of Halicarnassus into the study only twice; Polybius, once; and Sallus, three times. Many – perhaps most or all – the common characteristics Pervo identified between Acts and the ancient novel may be located in these ancient historians whom Pervo basically ignores.

Marion Soards further writes (although not cited by Price):

Indeed, Pervo’s case that Acts is novelistic is made largely from Luke’s own lively style and from the inclusion of accounts of miracles in the narrative. But any reader of Herodotus knows that all ancient historians were not as skeptical about the miraculous as was Thucydides; the fact that Acts tells of miracles which Pervo cannot believe occurred is no reason to identify Acts as a novel. . . .

Pervo has far from made an ironclad case for identifying the genre of Acts as the ancient (historical) novel.

Perhaps Price was swayed in how he read Pervo by first reading Soards’ comments. Perhaps he read Profit with Delight by means of injecting into it Soards’ strangely baseless criticisms.

Soards wrote:

The presence of entertaining or pleasing elements in an ancient work does not automatically mean that it is not history. Yet Pervo takes this position. (pp 308-9)

Yet we have already seen (in the previous post re this topic) that simply not true. Pervo quite simply does not “take this position”. He explains in Profit with Delight :

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)

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)

Soards develops his misplaced criticism:

Many — perhaps most or all — the common characteristics Pervo identified between Acts and the ancient novel may be located in these ancient historians whom Pervo basically ignores. (p.309)

This misses the very point of Pervo’s thesis:

Although few would quibble at the description of the Gospels and Acts as “popular,” most studies have concentrated upon the profit and ignored the delight. . . . A major task of this book is to elucidate the entertaining nature of Acts. 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. . . . Through comparison of Acts with ancient popular narratives I seek not only the identification of literary affinities but also clarification of the religious and social values of the milieu in which it emerged. (p. xii)

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. (p.137)

Soards’ complaint also misses the details of Pervo’s monograph when he explains that the same motifs can be found in ancient histories. Pervo explains:

Probably not one of the themes, motifs, or modes listed in this section [Pervo has just listed 5 pages of typical features found in ancient novels] does not have numerous attestations in other genres. One cannot define literary categories by typical features alone. They are helpful aids to subclassification and comparison. Reference to them enables appreciation of both the diversity and the sameness of the prose fiction produced by the ancients, revealing the potential of the genre for absorption and development. The sheer number of elements refutes any suggestion that ancient novels were written to a single formula. What is fundamental, however, is the manner in which these themes, motifs, and modes were put to use in the creation of novels. I now turn toward an examination of these works in terms of their social settings, their functions, and the characteristic understandings of life displayed in them. (p.110)

Soards wrote:

Indeed, Pervo’s case that Acts is novelistic is made largely from Luke’s own lively style and from the inclusion of accounts of miracles in the narrative.

It should be clear from the preceding extract from Pervo that this is over simplification to the point of outright misrepresentation.

Soards compared Herodotus:

But any reader of Herodotus knows that all ancient historians were not as skeptical about the miraculous as was Thucydides

Apart from this being a non sequitur in relation to Profit with Delight, any reader of Herodotus knows that Herodotus as a rule expressed two minds about any supposed miraculous event.

Soards concludes:

Pervo has far from made an ironclad case for identifying the genre of Acts as the ancient (historical) novel.

As Thomas Phillips observes in “The Genre of Acts: Moving Toward a Consensus?” (Currents in Biblical Research, 2006, 370)

Although Pervo is often sharply criticized for classifying Acts as an ancient novel (e.g. Walker 1989), he never made a complete equation between the genre of Acts and the ancient novel. His research did, however, highlight both what he regarded as strong parallels between the ancient novel and the book of Acts and what he considered a fruitful point of comparison for subsequent research. Although such comparisons were already in their infancy (e.g. Schlierling and Schlierling 1978; Praeder 1981) before Pervo’s eloquent apology for rethinking the fictive nature of Acts, in the wake of Pervo’s monograph comparisons between Acts and ancient novels became increasingly common in leading peer-reviewed publications (e.g. Dawsey 1989; Alexander 1995; Ascough 1996; Harrill 2000; Schwartz 2003).

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Neil Godfrey

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  • Pingback: Reviewing Chris Price’s and Marion Soard’s critiques of Pervo’s “Profit with Delight” « Vridar

  • John
    2008-01-24 01:24:11 GMT+0000 - 01:24 | Permalink

    Is this the Marion Soards who is Professor of New Testament at Louisvile Presbyterian Theological Seminary? If so, it is a he, not she.

    Small fact, of course, in relationship to your analysis. However, it is always good to know who you are criticizing.

  • 2008-01-24 05:40:07 GMT+0000 - 05:40 | Permalink

    Thanks John. What perilous last days we must be living in when there is such unbridled confusion of the genders. Have made the correction.

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