The literary genre of Acts. 9: The ancient novel

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Richard Pervo’s Profit with Delight. (Previous related posts are archived here.) Skipping ahead here, wisely or otherwise, to chapter 4 and its discussion of “the ancient novel”. This post looks at different ways of seeing how ancient novels are made/how they work, with the hope of offering new ways to see and understand Acts by comparison.

Pervo begins with the question: Why discuss the ancient novel in a study of Acts?

Thematic, structural, and stylistic affinities [of Acts] with various novels should at the very least provoke further reflection upon the ancient novel and upon the usefulness of the genre for enhancing present-day appreciation of early Christian narrative. The aim should not be such sensationalistic oversimplifications as, Acts is a novel, concocted by Luke. My study intends to be more subtle. There is more at stake here than a label to pin upon Acts or an against-the-grain proposal to embrace or despise. . . .

The purpose of this chapter is not to devise a definition of “novel” into which works like Acts may be squeezed but to determine whether comparison with a body of texts so defined may shed more light upon the form and function of this book than will comparison with learned pieces of historiography. (pp 86-7)

After a review of the scholarly discussion Pervo concludes:

Novels are not a unified phenomenon with a single lex operis (generic formula). They cannot be dealt with by reference to a single theory. . . . No one theory serves to account for so diverse and productive a phenomenon. (pp 101-2)

The ancients lacked a term to cover the genre we refer to as novels. This leaves it up to us to arrive at the most useful terms and classifications for comparative studies. Pervo discusses some the terms that have been used to attempt to define or classify these works (“romance”, “mere entertainment”, “pure fiction”) but finds none satisfactory. In an attempt to work with a more comprehensive understanding of what these works do have in common and how they work, he describes them from four different perspectives.

1. A prescriptive definition

Prescriptively defined, the ancient novel was a relatively lengthy work of prose fiction depicting or deriding certain ideals through an entertaining presentation of the lives and experiences of a person or persons whose activity transcends the limits of ordinary living as known to its implied readers. (p.105)

2. Typical features

Themes or ideals
Most novels speak to several of these ideals. (The list is not exhaustive.) Reinforcing and communicating these sorts of ideals is a bonding, reassuring and even pleasurable form of social communication.

Politics — novels about social or political life, utopias, ideal rulers, social criticism and concerns about oppressed minorities (e.g. Esther, Alexander Romance, Cyropaidia, Iambulus . . .)

Patriotism — pride in ethnic cultural heritage, nobility of lineage, local group pride.

Religion — the role of religion is the most pervasive single theme found in novels, whether it is there in the background and intruding only once to set the plot direction aright (e.g. Chariton), or is the forefront message throughout (e.g. Metamorphoses of Apuleius and Ephesiaca of Xenophon)

Wisdom — a philosophical tract could be written as a novel (e.g. Chion of Alexandria), but more commonly wisdom sayings were either sprinkled throughout more subtly, or sometimes found their way into becoming the backbone of lengthy speeches.

Fidelity — not only in regards to love and chastity, but also to loyalty to family and friends, gods and nationalities. The ideals of married life and domestic virtue were very commonly centre-stage.

Status — many novels put strong focus on questions of wealth, rank, education, birth, social standing.

Again the following list is not exhaustive. All novels do not contain all of them, but some are found in virtually all. Modern readers might find their banality and repetitiveness unappealing but their recurrences tell us the ancients loved them.

Travel — this is the most common motif found in ancient novels. Travel could be “a means to an end, a source of adventure, a voyage of discovery, a device for motivating a plot or delaying resolution . . .” It is the most common means of escape from threatening or boring situations. It was also often used as a metaphor or symbol for a quest for identity or reality.

Adventure and excitement — “Fairly limited and predictable” by today’s standards, yet often “fantastic and incredible”. Trials, shipwrecks, piracy, banditry, threatened rape, kidnapping, seduction, imprisonment, riots, execution, intended suicide, apparent death were the oft repeated favorites.

Warfare — Sometimes military campaigns would be used to advance or delay the plot (e.g. Heliodorus). Sometimes they would be in the form of battles with pirates and thieves. They could be depicted humorously (e.g. Longus) or seriously (Xenophon of Ephesus).

Aretalogy — “The plots of nearly every ancient novel are ‘aretological’ in that the resolution redounds to the glory of the god who effected the final victory of the heroes and the vindication of their ideals.” The gods are active through miracles, divine rescues, dreams and revelations, and every denouement. Even in the “erotic” [Eros] or “romantic” novels one reads about the roles of the gods both incidentally and working out the overall structure of the plot.

Miscellany — display of an interest in the exotic, the bizarre, oddities in natural history, science, geography — often presented as entertainment on travels.

Court life and intrigue — Evil tyrants plotting against the helpless and innocent or pursuing beautiful women vowed to another, descriptions of pomp and ceremony of court life, expressions of pride in an imperial past or a mocking of “barbarian” arrogance.

Rhetoric — The classical rhetorical education of the ancients generated a strong interest in speeches, apostrophes, sermon, monologues, descriptions and other flourishes. Readers could enjoy making observations and judgments about the stylistic qualities and erudite allusions.

Modes here means subgenres like “western”, “mystery”, “gothic”. Encompasses features of tone, style, setting and manner.

The marvelous — refers to a world where things happen by magic; readers must suspend all disbelief to enjoy the story

The historical and biographical — real persons in important roles, description of historical events, use of historiographical style and techniques. To some degree the vast majority of ancient novels were historical.

The sentimental — evocation of personal sympathy, describing a world as it should be, not as it is (e.g. love conquers all and virtue brings reward)

The comic and satiric — comedy would be used for social criticism and ordinary life in realistic detail. Wide range of viewpoints and tones – some could be read either as fundamentally serious or comical. Essentially serious works could contain some comedy.

The realistic — the use of realistic and graphic episodes in novels that were not comic

The didactic — those novels that aimed to convey information or fundamental truths

The missionary — a particular type of didactic novel: portray the advance of a religious or philosophical message (e.g. bios of Apollonius and Pythagoras, the Apocryphal Acts)

The pastoral — e.g. Longus.

The tragic — striking by its absence. But new questions are being asked about tragedies of individual persons and ideas?

Pervo concludes the above lists with the following:

Probably not one of the themes, motifs, or modes listed in this section 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)

3. Cultural Function and Setting

Pervo offers a sweeping overview of the world in which novels became popular, some of which I paraphrase:

Novels flourished in cosmopolitan societies. They require a literate public with leisure time and better than subsistence means. And with cosmopolitanism comes individualism and these replaced the parochialism of the city-state (polis). Distant kings or emperors replaced the dominance of the self-contained community of citizens. Political, economic, social, religious barriers were broken during the Hellenistic era before the rise of Rome and again after the world began to settle from the ravages of Roman conquests.

With the collapse of cozy systems before the breaking of barriers that defined the new cosmopolitanism, people were more prone than before to “despair and to dream”. Escapist literature took two forms: the novel as well as the apocalyptic. Both create visions of ideal worlds where the virtuous overcome the powers of evil, or the meanness of existence is swept away somehow. In the apocalyptic this may be through exorcisms and warfare, in novels it may be through the luck of circumstances (usually divinely controlled) as a reward for their faithfulness to the good values.

Cultural changes did not mean a rejection of the old but a new use for it. In novels mythical kings like Ninus became conquerors like Alexander, or national heroes like Moses became originators of culture and wisdom. Women were able to step out from home to face adventures in a world of men and emerge triumphant. Ordinary folks could take on pirates and tyrants.

But with this sort of novelty there was maintained an close attachment to the old fashioned conventional values of marital fidelity. Utopian literature and the apocryphal acts, however, could promote rebellions against some of these, such as the valuing of chastity above marriage. But for most part, the narrative goals in novels were for the heroes and heroines to find there way back to their original or rightful place and live happily ever after.

“The ‘escapist’ label is probably misleading, for even the romantic novels deal with serious moral problems, and all seek either to promote change or repress it. Novels expanded culturally in every direction, attracting educated readers and then authors, appealing to proponents of new religions and audiences . . . . The novels had something for everyone and something for every movement and ideal. This genre had more potential for universal appeal than any other of the imperial period. It spoke to the common denominator of educated people . . . . Because the empire ultimately became Christian, verification of this statement must be sought in popular Christian writings, especially those about apostles, saints, and martyrs.” (p.113)

4. Structure

Pervo concludes this section with a brief look at structuralist approaches to understanding ancient novels. He outlines the views of Cizek with his model of a generative grammar and then Praeder’s narrative paradigm. Pervo offers his own structural view of ancient novels:

. . a novel . . . is not just content, style, or structure but the presentation of certain themes, motifs, and modes in culturally shaped ways. Expressed as a formula,

the novel = material + manner + style + structure

Pervo attempts “to grapple with each of these elements in their complexity.” (p.114)


This will give some idea of the comprehensiveness and complexity of Pervo’s attempt to find a basis for comparing Acts with this genre. The point is not to find parallels in an array of motifs and on that basis declare Acts to be just another novel. But it is just as simplistic to look for the same or other motifs for comparison with ancient historiography and on that basis declare Acts to be another instance of that genre.

The point of this section, and the reason I find it interesting enough to share here, is that Pervo sets up structured windows from new angles to help us think afresh about Acts as we read it and think about how it fits in with our readings of popular novels.

Questions of historicity will inevitably follow. But they are a separate set of questions. And in our rethinking the cultural and literary context of Acts we cannot be swayed by where we fear those subsequent questions may lead.

Personally I think I might like MacDonald’s epic thesis just a little more than Pervo’s. Questions of historicity are even more directly linked with that one. But that’s also another discussion.

Hope in a future post to cover the next section of Profit with Delight where the ancient historical novel is discussed specifically.

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Neil Godfrey

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