Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)

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by Neil Godfrey

The author of Luke-Acts was following an ideal that Josephus had presented as a superior feature of Jewish historical writings: that history learned from revelation (e.g. works of Moses) was superior to the uncertain and often disputed historical inquiries of the Greeks.

I think Steve Mason has nailed Luke-Acts. I think, as a specialist in Josephus, he has identified something crucial in Luke-Acts that appears to have been more generally overlooked.

Up till now I have posted at length scholarly proposals that Acts is a work of ancient fiction, that its prologue follows the pattern found in technical medical or military or mathematical treatises rather than those found in works of ancient historians, and I have even ventured to suggest that Josephus would have deplored the gospels, and by extension Acts, as serious history – a post I now see is badly flawed in places. Most recently we looked at some findings from the Acts Seminar Report.) Well, having read Steve Mason’s paper I now think the author of our canonical version of Luke-Acts was more in tune with Josephus’s ideals than I had suspected. (Some readers will know of Steve Mason’s earlier book, Josephus and the New Testament, which includes a chapter offering reasons to think the author of Luke-Acts knew the Antiquities of Josephus. We have also posted, and plan to post further in depth, on Mason’s newer work, A History of the Jewish War A.D. 66-74.)

Steve Mason

The following is taken from a paper Mason has just uploaded on academia.edu, Luke-Acts and Ancient Historiography.

When Biblical Scholars Took the Lead in Critical Studies

I was fascinated and sobered to learn that there was a time when biblical scholars took the lead over their classicist peers when it came to critical study of their literary sources.

So we should not imagine that biblical studies merely followed classical trends. In fact, critical study of the Old and New Testaments largely paved the way for critical history as a discipline, including ancient history. It was not until the late 1970s through the 1990s that such authors as Livy, Polybius, Diodorus, and Pausanias were subjected to searching study as genuine authors, who had crafted their narratives to serve their moral and thematic purposes, rather than as mere transmitters of data. This post-Hippie period corresponded roughly to that in which redaction- and composition-critical research flourished in OT and NT studies.

(p. 4)

I had not appreciated the full extent to which the studies in Acts by Cadbury, Foakes Jackson and Lake had been so ground-breaking.

To write the important second volume, they enlisted the controversial Quaker, classicist, pacifist, and agnostic Henry Joel Cadbury, later of Harvard but then at Andover Seminary. Cadbury agreed with Foakes Jackson and Lake about the need to understand Acts in light of ancient historiography, and letting the theological chips fall where they may

. . . . 

He was ahead of his time in calling for scholars to pay more attention to the nature of ancient historiography. In order to responsibly understand and use this crucial account of Christian origins, he was saying, one needed to understand how people generally wrote about the past 2000 years ago (BC 2.7–8). Understanding Acts this way, as ancient historiography, was not merely different from proving is historicity. It required a different mindset because it directed scholars’ attention to how things were being said rather than to the underlying facts.

. . . .

So, having laid out this rather bracing summary, by 1920 standards in the Anglophone world, Cadbury began comparing the Lucan double-work with other creations of ancient historiography. And he found Luke-Acts—to which he compared the Jewish historian Josephus—to be in general agreement with contemporary historiographical practice. In the 1920s, this was a huge advance. In many respects, Cadbury was far ahead of his time. I say that because even in the field of Classics, although a few scholars were thinking about the artistic qualities and literary freedom of some historians, it would take another half-century—after the ‘literary turn’ in the humanities— before such perspectives were broadly applied. The historian and philosopher R. G. Collingwood told his Oxford undergraduates in 1926 that ‘the average professional historian is far less critical in his attitude to Herodotus than the average professional theologian in his attitude to St. Mark’.

And what was it that was distinctive about ancient historiography? We’ve posted the details many times, now, so it is interesting to see the same points identified by Cadbury according to Mason’s paper:

  • Ancient historians wrote primarily moral edification and entertainment, “teach and delight”;
  • Form and style were more important than verifying facts;
  • Rhetorical principles of structural balance, constant variation (of all sorts of topics and scenes) to maintain interest, and reworking and integrating source material into one’s new creation. Speeches were important, and authors were expected to imaginatively and stylistically create what they believed would have been appropriate.

So Classics departments as well as Biblical Studies found themselves being challenged over their traditional focus on “recovering the facts of what actually happened in the past” by new insights into “the facts of what the ‘historians’ were actually doing and how they were doing it”. Steve Mason observes that the gains for critical study in the Classics were “hard won” so the related controversies in biblical studies can surely be of little surprise.

The study of history itself has tended to align itself with archaeology now. Recall the kerfuffle of the “minimalistversusmaximalist” debates in Old Testament studies.

What was ancient history writing, exactly?

John Moles

Steve Mason is addressing the question of genre and finds the concept difficult to apply to the collection of “histories” left us by the ancients. The classicist John Moles once made a similar comment to me when he said something to the effect that classicists don’t place a lot of importance or interest in genre. Perhaps he was trying to get me to tone down my focus on genre in various posts here at the time. But we do want to note what the authors themselves had to say about their craft.

You can read four “typical features” of ancient historiography as set out by Mason on pages 6 and 7 of his paper. I will single out for this post what were meant by certain “laws of history” that some of the ancient authors spoke about.

  • Lucian remarks that Thucydides made it a law … that the historian must put aside personal inclinations of friendship, hatred, polis-allegiance or the like . . . 
  • Polybius begs his reader’s pardon for departing from proper historical narrative as he indulges in rhetoric to accuse fellow-Greeks whom he holds responsible for the fall of Corinth . . . . Normally, he insists, ordinary human loyalties properly lead us to be partial toward our friends and hostile toward our enemies, but history demands that its practitioners be willing to criticize or praise whoever deserves it, strictly on their merits.
  • Cicero refers to a law (lex) or laws (leges) of history: that one must always tell the truth, excluding either favour or malice . . . . Elsewhere . . . , however, Cicero asks his respected historian friend Lucceius, who knows how to write soaring prose, to disregard the laws of history (leges historiae) in his case, and make a rhetorical feast of Cicero’s consulship.
  • Josephus too refers to such ‘laws’ of history. In the prologue to his Judaean War (1.11), he ostentatiously requests a waiver of the law of history on one point: like Polybius, he cannot refrain from expressing his pathos, either suffering or emotion, in relation to those he holds responsible for Jerusalem’s fall. Following up on this, at War 5.20 he promises the reader that he will rigidly follow history’s law—but only after he has violated it for a moment, with a denunciation of the rebels’ crimes in the holy city.

(p. 7)

As you probably noticed, and as Steve Mason himself comments, most of the above are waxing eloquent about the “laws of history” only when they are clearly in the process of breaking them:

The remarkable thing about these laws of history is that, apart from the directive to tell the moral truth, the authors who speak most enthusiastically about them do so only when they violate them. They could stretch and twist their narratives to accommodate virtually any degree of drama, tragedy, oratory, or other rhetorical device in the interest of a compelling story. Their allegedly bold transgression of laws only serves to raise their stature as historians, because it shows that how deeply involved they are as eyewitnesses—the historian’s greatest asset. They have an urgent and unique story to tell, and they will break any supposed rules to do their job. We must conclude that they were no such real laws, if historians were free to manipulate them so ostentatiously.

Further challenging any idea that ancient history writing followed any particular genre boundaries, look at the wide range of types of “histories”:

  • Succinct single or double volume accounts (Sallust et al) vs 80 or 144 volumes (Livy et al)
  • Narrow topics like a single war (Caesar at al) vs national and universal histories or ‘libraries’ (Cassus Dio et al)
  • Recent past (Herodotus et al) or of ancient times
  • Sparse “field notes” or highly florid style.

I can’t help but think that historical works today come in a similar array of shapes and sizes. But there are certainly differences in purpose as reflected in quite different types of content. But Mason’s point is that history-writing

was a field open to wide experimentation. Historians were constantly inventing, mixing and matching, and bending genres. Whether one looks at Xenophon’s varied corpus, Pliny’s Natural History, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or the diverse texts we now call ‘novels’, it is striking how often the modern introductions describe the work as a ‘hybrid’ form.

(p. 8)

History and/or Biography?

Tim and I have often discussed the question of genre in relation to the gospels and how different scholars have explored that question in the past and today, so it is interesting to note Mason’s evidence for concluding that there was no essential difference between those two terms when it came to ancient authors. If interested in further details consult page 8 of the paper.

Luke-Acts Looks Like Historiography 

Here we come to the interesting part.

But I’ve done over 1500 words already and am being called to dinner. So I’ll complete this tomorrow and call this post Part 1.


Mason, Steve. 2019. “Luke-Acts and Ancient Historiography.” Workshop presented at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, January 25. (https://www.academia.edu/38231029/Mason_Luke-Acts_and_Ancient_Historiography.pdf)

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Neil Godfrey

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