Acts as a Rewriting of Gospels and Paul’s Letters, part 1

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by Neil Godfrey

This post selects a few of the highlights from Mogens Müller’s chapter in Luke’s Literary Creativity (2016) in which he presents a case for Acts being a “biblical rewriting of the gospels and the letters of Paul”. I omit several important questions that his thesis raises and that he addresses in the same chapter, attempting to focus here exclusively on some of the indicators that Acts could be such a rewriting.

Müller accepts the possibility that Luke-Acts was written well into the second century, possibly even as late as the 140s, as a revised foundational story for the church. Such a late date should not be a problem, Müller suggests, if we no longer accept that the author did not use Q as one of his sources but knew of and included both Matthew and even possibly John as among the previous lives of Jesus that he was critical of in his introduction. (For other arguments that Luke and Acts in their current canonical form were a mid second century product see the archive on Tyson‘s book and links within those posts to related archives.) Müller even points to recent scholarship that allows for the work of Papias as a possible source for the author of Luke-Acts.

Inclusion of the Non-Jewish World

If Paul’s letters are our oldest surviving Christian documents and the authors of our first gospels, Mark and Matthew, needed to find a way to explain how gentiles came to be incorporated into a church supposedly founded by a Jewish teacher in Galilee, we know they found the solution by creating “proleptic episodes and teaching” in their stories of Jesus.

For example, in Mark 7 we read an editorial comment explaining to readers that in one particular parable Jesus was declaring all foods to be clean, and thus by implication breaking down the barrier between Jew and gentile. This saying is followed up by having Jesus heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman and performing a second miraculous feeding of thousands in gentile territory. In the “cleansing of the Temple” episode Jesus quotes a scripture declaring the Temple to belong to “all nations” and in the Little Apocalypse of chapter 13 announces that the gospel would be preached to “all nations”.

In Matthew we begin with magi from the east coming to honour Jesus at his birth and later see the story of the Roman centurion’s son being healed in Capernaum. Jesus speaks in a parable in this gospel of “many coming from east and west to sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”

That they really are proleptical events is suggested by the prohibition in the Missionary Discourse against following the way to the gentiles (10:5) and the saying of Jesus in the story of the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24; cf. 10:6). That this changed after the resurrection comes from the words to the eleven in the Concluding Commission at the end of the book, which may be best understood as permission to teach, as well as the Jews, all the nations. (pp. 100f)

In the Gospel of John we have gone a giant leap further by treating the Jews as “the others” and where the separation from the Synagogue is already presupposed.

The author of Luke-Acts has created a work that postpones several stories in the other gospels to the time of the church or Acts (such as the inclusion of gentiles and cleansing of foods) yet at the same time establishes a continuity by certain repetitions:

  • the martyrdom of Stephen contains reminders of Jesus on the cross
  • Paul’s meeting with Agrippa has obvious similarities with Jesus’ meeting with Herod Antipas (an episode unique to Luke).

These parallels also serve to inscribe authority into the story. Thus the “authority” in Luke, the figure of Jesus, in Acts is nearly written out of the story after forty days of their being together, leaving room for a new player. (p. 104)

Thus to create a new foundation history to explain the church of his day our author has transferred certain events from the life of Jesus to the time of the apostles. (Müller believes, with most critical scholars, that gentiles really were embraced some time subsequent to the historical Jesus and that the gospels of Mark and Matthew had erroneously attempted to justify their inclusion by incorporating it into the acts and words of Jesus himself.) At the same time he includes summaries of the story of Jesus in Acts, notably in its introduction and in speeches in later chapters.

The Openings in the Gospel of Luke Towards a Continuation of the Story

The gospels of Mark, Matthew and John close off their narratives with various commands and/or resurrection appearances. Mark cuts the story short but a subsequent scribe attempted to make up for his lack by adding elements from other gospels. Matthew concludes with the command from Jesus in Galilee to go to the gentiles; John adds appearances around Jerusalem before returning the final scene to Galilee. Luke’s resurrected Jesus speaks of the fulfilment of Scriptures and the need for Scripture to be fulfilled by the work of the disciples to follow. The disciples need to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit, as we know. Acts is being set up as the all important next stage of the story.

But first, Judas has to be sorted out.

Papias 3: Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.

Luke’s Source for Judas: Matthew and/or Papias?

Before the story can go on, the circle of the Twelve has to be re-established by electing a successor for Judas. As a prelude, a story about the disgusting end of Judas is inserted. As the Gospel of Mark (like the Gospel of John) is silent about the later fate of the traitor, the author of the Lucan writings could have had his source in Matt 27:3-10, where we hear of the suicide of the repenting Judas. This reconciling trait does not find any place in the rewriting in Acts 1:17-20. Here the buying of the Field of Blood is told as something Judas himself accomplished, and his death is described as an accident. In this way the Lucan edition reminds readers more of Papias’ account as we know it from one of the surviving fragments of his work (3:2-3), although it is less gruesome. (p. 106)

In a footnote Müller observes that if Luke did know Papias’s dramatic version of the death of Judas then we may be see the “same tendency towards dedramatizing” in his very much briefer account of the death of John the Baptist.

I think a common rule of thumb many of us assume is that literary traditions tend to expand with further embellishments over time. But if we can be reasonably certain that the author of the Gospel of Luke used the Gospel of Mark, Müller is correct in reminding us that authors, and here “Luke” in particular, do sometimes “dedramatize” their sources. Mark’s sixteen verses of 6:14:29 are reduced by Luke in 3:19-20 to two verses:

But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.

(I have omitted here the possibility of Mark’s lengthy John the Baptist scene not being part of the original version of Mark, but if Luke used Matthew, and if Matthew knew of the lengthy episode in his version of Mark, ….. and so another discussion can ensue.)

— continued in next post…..


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Neil Godfrey

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