Continuing from Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1)
The reasons Luke-Acts has been considered a form of ancient history writing:
- Like other ancient historiography the work begins with a prologue announcing its superiority over what has gone before;
- Steve Mason notes that unlike the preceding gospels Luke-Acts, as a two volume work, narrates a changing or developing historical movement (see p. 9 of the article for details; I think of the way the author has restructured the events in the gospels in order to )
- Like Xenophon, Plutarch, Tacitus and others the author of Luke-Acts fuses “biography with a quasi-biographical history”;
- Like other historical writing of the day Luke-Acts constant changes of scene, notes on geographical and political details, episodes of high drama such as storms at sea and encounters with murderous enemies, and speeches.
Mason addresses works of Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) and Loveday Alexander (The Preface to Luke’s Gospel) — there are posts on Pervo and Alexander here and here — that dispute the ‘historical’ character of Luke-Acts. In response Mason observes that the line between ancient historiography and ancient novels may not be so easy to discern given, in addition to the nature of ancient historiography, the difficulty in “defining” the ancient novel. Perhaps, but I think that’s another question for another chapter or article. In short, to Mason nothing can be gained by assigning Luke-Acts to another genre since writers were simply too willing to innovate and mix elements that we think of as belonging to separate genres.
The reasons against considering Luke-Acts as a form of historiography:
- The prologue of Luke-Acts does not identify the author and anonymity defeated the whole point of ancient prologues to historiography. The point was establish “the author’s character and unique moral assessment of the past.” (I have set out my view that the historian used his identity in order to establish confidence among readers of his work that he was in a position to know and to give his work authoritative status.)
- Josephus did not identify himself in the prefaces to his later works but he certainly did “introduce himself magnificently” in his first work (and again in his closing section). The author of Luke-Acts does nothing like that.
- The next point has long been decisive for me: “The effect of the missing author-identification in Luke-Acts is greatly compounded by the complete absence of historia-language, or Thucydides’ preferred συγγράφω and cognates, along with any suggestion of knowledge from open-ended inquiry—if we leave aside the prologue’s covering reference to the author’s careful observation—or the political analysis that was history’s reason for being. Even though the author shows himself well aware of political conditions in the eastern Mediterranean, and is happy to use them as furniture, this is simply not a work of political or historical analysis comparable to other histories. By comparison with any other histories, Luke-Acts is far removed from historiography in both its characteristic language and its prevailing ethos: the stories of Peter and Paul proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.” It is rare to read an article acknowledging this start difference between Luke-Acts and other histories.
- I quote in full (p. 11, my bolding as always):
- In place of normal historical analysis, the author boldly announces his subject matter as ‘the deeds that have been fulfilled among us’ and the observation and reception of truth by those who were ‘eyewitnesses and servants of the word/teaching’ (1.2-3). Historians were not supposed to be anyone’s servants or emissaries, a posture antithetical to history’s purpose of truth-seeking inquiry. The anonymous author does briefly stress his efforts to get the story straight, in the prologue, but the story itself comes from revelation. The work’s many episodes of heavenly and angelic visitation as revelatory of the most important truths undercut any notion of a historian’s authority, which derives from rigorous inquiry and his own moral character. Of this there is no trace in the anonymous Luke-Acts.
- That the most important truth comes via revelation is reinforced throughout the two-volume work at all crucial junctures: infancy narrative, explanatory angelic appearances at Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and the decisive revelations to Peter, Paul, and the early community. Equally, the account is driven by wondrous deeds beyond the ken of historical inquiry, from Jesus’ divine birth through his many miracles and resurrection to the signs and wonders performed by his emissaries.
It is at this point that Steve Mason parts company with the critical studies that have sought to understand Luke-Acts as a form of history writing by focusing on details in common with works of Greco-Roman historians. Yes, the comparisons are significant, but at the same time we ought not to lose sight of “the highly distinctive atmosphere and content of Luke-Acts.”
Reconciling the historiographical and non-historical features of Luke-Acts
It is here that Steve Mason finds Josephus useful for understanding Luke-Acts and its mix of historical and even “anti”-historical features.
Josephus pits historical inquiry against divine revelation
Firstly, we note that Josephus is clearly a historian in the Greco-Roman mold. He uses the language of inquiry, the same “inquirying” and collating terminology as found in the well-known historians. Like other historians he writes of political affairs of interest to his elite audience; he borrows and recasts the styles and motifs and technical language of historians and philosophers of his day; he creates impressive speeches with appropriate rhetorical and dramatic flourish as was expected in works of historiography.
Secondly, there is another side to Josephus that is less often noticed:
Less obvious, indeed rarely noticed, are Josephus’ view of history as a distinctively Greek pursuit and, in keeping with his self-presentation as a non-Greek, his view that higher truths cannot be found by historical inquiry—even if, he says, he can write history better than the Greeks. The most important truth comes from revelation via prophecy.
Josephus opens his account of the Jewish war by presenting himself as its superlative historian: BJ 1:1-12
The war of the Jews against the Romans—the greatest not only of the wars of our own time, but, so far as accounts have reached us, well nigh of all that ever broke out between cities or nations—has not lacked its historians. Of these, however, some, having taken no part in the action, have collected from hearsay casual and contradictory stories which they have then edited in a rhetorical style ; while others, who witnessed the events, have, either from flattery of the Romans or from hatred of the Jews, misrepresented the facts, their writings exhibiting alternatively invective and encomium, but nowhere historical accuracy. In these circumstances, I— Josephus, son of Matthias, a Hebrew by race, a native of Jerusalem and a priest, who at the opening of the war myself fought against the Romans and in the sequel was perforce an onlooker—propose to provide the subjects of the Roman Empire with a narrative of the facts, by translating into Greek the account which I previously composed in my vernacular tongue and sent to the barbarians in the interior.
I spoke of this upheaval as one of the greatest magnitude. The Romans had their own internal affairs disorders. The Jewish revolutionary party, whose numbers and fortunes were at their zenith, seized the occasion of the turbulence of these times for insurrection. As a result of these vast disturbance the whole of the Eastern Empire was in the balance ; the insurgents were fired with hopes of its acquisition, their opponents feared its loss. For the Jews hoped that all their fellow-countrymen beyond the Euphrates would join with them in revolt; while the Romans, on their side, were occupied with their neighbours the Gauls, and the Celts were in motion. Nero’s death, moreover, brought universal confusion ; many were induced by this opportunity to aspire to the sovereignty, and a change which might make their fortune was after the heart of the soldiery.
I thought it monstrous, therefore, to allow the truth in affairs of such moment to go astray, and that, while Parthians and Babylonians and the most remote tribes of Arabia with our countrymen beyond the Euphrates and the inhabitants of Adiabene were, through my assiduity, accurately acquainted with the origin of the war, the various phases of calamity through which it passed and its conclusion, the Greeks and such Romans as were not engaged in the contest should remain in ignorance of these matters, with flattering or fictitious narratives as their only guide.
Though the writers in question presume to give their works the title of histories, yet throughout them, apart from the utter lack of sound information, they seem, in my opinion, to miss their own mark. They desire to represent the Romans as a great nation, and yet they continually depreciate and disparage the actions of the Jews. But I fail to see how the conquerors of a puny people deserve to be accounted great. Again, these writers have respect neither for the long duration of the war, nor for the vast numbers of the Roman army that it engaged, nor for the prestige of the generals, who, after such herculean labours under the walls of Jerusalem, are, I suppose, of no repute in these writers’ eyes, if their achievement is to be underestimated.
I have no intention of rivalling those who extol the Roman power by exaggerating the deeds of my compatriots. I shall faithfully recount the actions of both combatants ; but in my reflections on the events I cannot conceal my private sentiments, nor refuse to give my personal sympathies scope to bewail my country’s misfortunes. For, that it owed its ruin to civil strife, and that it was the Jewish tyrants who drew down upon the holy temple the unwilling hands of the Romans and the conflagration, is attested by Titus Caesar himself, who sacked the city ; throughout the war he commiserated the populace who were at the mercy of the revolutionaries, and often of his own accord deferred the capture of the city and by protracting the siege gave the culprits time for repentance. Should, however, any critic censure me for my strictures upon the tyrants or their bands of marauders or for my lamentations over my country’s misfortunes, I ask his indulgence for a compassion which falls outside an historian’s province.® For of all the cities under Roman rule it was the lot of ours to attain to the highest felicity and to fall to the lowest depths of calamity. Indeed, in my opinion, the misfortunes of all nations since the world began fall short of those of the Jews ; and, since the blame lay with no foreign nation, it was impossible to restrain one’s grief. Should, however, any critic be too austere for pity, let him credit the history with the facts, the historian with the lamentations.
Next, Josephus turns on Greek “historians” of his own day for wasting time writing about ancient conflicts that had already been covered by the masters of those days. His Greek contemporaries were shallow, more interested in impressing readers with their art of rhetoric than in writing truth. Josephus, on the other hand, though a foreigner, has written of a great recent event and done so by beating the Greeks at their own game: he went to great pains to master the Greek language and to show up the Greeks by writing history as it should be written: BJ 1:13-16
Yet I, on my side, might justly censure those erudite Greeks who, living in times of such stirring actions as by comparison reduce to insignificance the wars of antiquity, yet sit in judgement on these current events and revile those who make them their ancient special study—authors whose principles they lack, even if they have the advantage of them in literary skill. For their own themes they take the Assyrian and Median empires, as if the narratives of the ancient historians were not fine enough. Yet, the truth is, these modern writers are their inferiors no less in literary power than in judgement. The ancient historians set themselves severally to write the history of their own times, a task in which their connexion with the events added lucidity to their record ; while mendacity brought an author into disgrace with readers who knew the facts. In fact, the work of committing to writing events which have not previously been recorded and of commending to posterity the history of one’s own time is one which merits praise and acknowledgement. The industrious writer is not one who merely remodels the scheme and arrangement of another’s work, but one who uses fresh materials and makes the framework of the history his own. For myself, at a vast expenditure of money and pains, I, a foreigner, present to Greeks and Romans this memorial of great achievements. As for the native Greeks, where personal profit or a lawsuit is concerned, their mouths are at once agape and their tongues loosed ; but in the matter of history, where veracity and laborious collection of the facts are essential, they are mute, leaving to inferior and ill-informed writers the task of describing the exploits of their rulers. Let us at least hold historical truth in honour, since by the Greeks it is disregarded.
Even though through much effort and expense he excelled the Greeks in historiography, his most worthy and truest insights came about as a result of his status as a priest and God’s granting him divine knowledge and revelation: BJ 1:3, 3:252-53
I — Josephus, son of Matthias, a Hebrew by race, a Joseph native of Jerusalem and a priest . . . .
He [=Josephus] was an interpreter of dreams and skilled in divining the meaning of ambiguous utterances of the Deity ; a priest himself and of priestly descent, he was not ignorant of the prophecies in the sacred books. At that hour he was inspired to read their meaning, and, recalling the dreadful images of his recent dreams, he offered up a silent prayer to God.
In Against Apion Josephus launched a heated attack against those Greek historians for thinking the Judaeans were newcomers into the world and claiming they lacked an ancient heritage that bestowed honour upon other peoples. On the contrary, retorted Josephus. It was the Greeks who were the Johnny-come-lately race. The Greeks were so bad at writing history, he sniffed, that they all disagreed with one another, and even accused Herodotus and Thucydides of telling lies. Greeks, he sneered, cared only for rhetorical flourish and no reputation for telling the truth about the past. It was up to foreigners like Josephus “to seek out the truth.” – Apion 1:18, 1:27, 46
And why is it necessary to speak about the histories of city-states and minor matters, when the most reputable historians have disagreed even on the subject of the Persian invasion and what took place during it? On many points even Thucydides is accused by some of lying, although he is reputed to have written the history of his time with the highest standards of accuracy. . . .
Thus in eloquence and cleverness in that field we must give pride of place to the Greek writers, but certainly not in the true history of ancient times—particularly that of the various native groups. . . .
In fact, even in relation to the war that happened recently to us, some have published works under the title of histories without either visiting the sites or going anywhere near the action; rather, concocting a few things on the basis of misinformation, they have given it the name of “history” with the complete shamelessness of a drunk.
What offended Josephus most of all, though, was the subject of the “antiquity of the Jews”. Jewish records were not piecemeal and contradictory like those of the Greeks. Greeks relied upon “historical inquiry” to try to sift out what had happened and only produced accounts that were hotly disputed. No, the Jews, or more justifiably, the Judaeans, had a perfectly accurate record covering the entire first 3,000 years of human existence, from creation right up to the time of Moses, because Moses, after all, was a prophet who had the truth revealed to him: Apion 1:37-39
Naturally, then, or rather necessarily—seeing that it is not open to anyone to write of their own accord, nor is there any disagreement present in what is written, but the prophets alone learned, by inspiration from God, what had happened in the distant and most ancient past and recorded plainly events in their own time just as they occurred—among us there are not thousands of books in disagreement and conflict with each other, but only twenty-two books, containing the record of all time, which are rightly trusted. Five of these are the books of Moses, which contain both the laws and the tradition from the birth of humanity up to his death; this is a period of a little less than 3,000 years.
Revelation thus trumped historical inquiry. The prophets were able to document that past, the correct genealogies over millennia, because they had the truth revealed by God. The Judaeans had no need for the Greek pursuit of “historical inquiry”. The Judaean records were without contradictions and true, with not reason for debate or argument. Why, the Judaeans were so sure of their revealed history and laws that they were willing even to die for their written heritage — “something no Greek would ever do”: Apion 1:42-43
It is clear in practice how we approach our own writings. Although such a long time has now passed, no-one has dared to add, to take away, or to alter anything; and it is innate in every Judean, right from birth, to regard them as decrees of God, to remain faithful to them174 and, if necessary, gladly to die on their behalf. Thus, to date many have been seen, on many occasions, as prisoners of war suffering torture and all kinds of deaths in theaters for not letting slip a single word in contravention of the laws and the records associated with them.
Human inquiry versus God’s revelation
In short, Josephus believes that ultimate truth comes from God and is found in scripture. This has nothing to do with historia, which is a human undertaking developed by Greeks to discover the truth about their past. By considerable effort he has trained himself to learn Greek ways, so that he can explain the recent war to foreigners in language they accept, but he stresses that his people do not care for the Greek fascination with rhetoric, to which their historiography has is entirely subservient: AJ 20.262-65
And now I take heart from the consummation of my proposed work to assert that no one else, either Jew or gentile, would have been equal to the task, however willing to undertake it of issuing so accurate a treatise as this for the Greek world. For my compatriots admit that in our Jewish learning I far excel them. I have also laboured strenuously to partake of the realm of Greek prose and poetry, after having gained a knowledge of Greek grammar although the habitual use of my native tongue has prevented my attaining precision in the pronunciation. For our people do not favour those persons who have mastered the speech of many nations or who adorn their style with smoothness of diction, because they consider that not only is such skill common to ordinary freemen but that even slaves who so choose may acquire it. But they give credit for wisdom to those alone who have an exact knowledge of the law and who are capable of interpreting the meaning of the Holy Scriptures.
Although he can do history better than they can, if he must, it is not something esteemed among Judaeans.
(p. 13 — I have inserted the quotation from AJ)
Luke-Acts shares Josephus’ ambivalence towards historical inquiry
The author of Luke-Acts appears to be making some necessary concession towards a certain need for a historia or Greek-like historical inquiry into Christian origins, it is clear that he (I am not convinced by arguments the author was a she) believed divine revelation was the genuine source of all relevant truth.
Both the author of Luke-Acts and Josephus, Mason points out, “sit on the Judaean-inflected margins of Graeco-Roman culture”. In his earlier writings Josephus bent over backwards to communicate with his audiences through historia, but in his later writings he was content to rely much more on the “supreme revelation of Moses”.
Christianity and hence the background to Luke-Acts was different from the one experienced by Josephus. The author of Luke-Acts, writing as a “Christian”, was not writing as an “ancient ethnos” who had been alienated from their homeland. Unlike the Judaeans the Christians were deemed a “suspect voluntary association” throughout the Roman world.
Those differences allowed our Christian author to go further than Josephus in setting down the history or past of his group. He does not feel constrained, as Josephus did at the beginning, to emulate the ideals of the best Greek historians. He does not have to resort to “mere historical inquiry”. The resurrection of Jesus is his central point and that has been revealed to witnesses entrusted to pass on the word. Historical inquiry is quite superfluous in this context.
And as for the speeches that were such a colourful part of Graeco-Roman histories?
The speeches of Luke-Acts, which we don’t have time to consider (but my seminar group discussed yesterday: Acts 17.22-31), make the point with particular clarity. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus comes across as a rather Spartan, laconic figure. He, like John the Baptist, speaks in pithy statements and parables of only a couple of sentences. In Acts, his emissaries must give proper speeches, but these too are extremely brief by ancient standards, and characterised throughout by stark simplicity and παρρησία, a death-defying directness or frankness, rather than rhetorical commonplaces or high-flown elaboration.
Steve Mason’s Conclusion
As we noted in the previous post Mason elsewhere sets out his reasons for believing the author of Luke-Acts knew the works of Josephus. But the explanation for the mix of historical and ahistorical elements of Luke-Acts needs to stand apart from that possibility.
If we start with Josephus, we can see a Jewish author embracing the method of Greek historiography insofar as it serves his purpose that is, in part, to demonstrate his superiority over the Greeks. For Judaeans, the truly important matters were the divinely revealed sacred writings of divine law and history of human origins.
It seems to me that the author of Luke-Acts, who may or may not have known Josephus’ works, was doing much the same thing but going significantly farther. Whereas the recent cataclysmic event that concerned Josephus lent itself to historical presentation—the proud aristocrat and general recounting an upheaval with trenchant political analysis, military explanation, battle scenes, sieges, geographical excursus, affairs of kings and potentates, and psychological insight—the recent earth-shattering event that concerns this author does not. Jesus’ resurrection, although the epochal revelation of God’s will, cannot be known through hard experience and inquiry but only through revelation, angelic visitation, and prophecy. This author borrows some historiographical tropes, therefore, and shows that he could have been a historian had he wished. By his time, historiography was such a broad tent that one could perhaps, irrespective of the author’s intentions, associate this two-volume work with it. There are clear affinities. But the author is obviously not following in the footsteps of Herodotus and Thucydides. He is not investigating the past open-endedly, weighing possibilities, or offering any analysis of polis affairs.
I am not convinced that our author of Luke-Acts was inheriting a tradition whose tradents “had not choice but to declare what they had seen and heard” as Mason appears to indicate. He creates too much of his narratives out of the writings of others — Jewish Scriptures and other well recognized Greek works — to be such an innocent conveyor of what has been revealed to others. But apart from the question of personal motive and circumstances, I do think that Steve Mason has offered a cogent explanation for the mixed character of Luke-Acts, even pointing us towards an understanding why the volumes look so well matched alongside Jewish scriptures.
Josephus, Flavius. 2007. Against Apion. Edited by Steve Mason. Translated by John M. G. Barclay. Vol. 10. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Brill.
Josephus, Flavius. 1965. Jewish Antiquities, Book 20. Translated by Louis H. Feldman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Josephus, Flavius. 1976. The Jewish War, Books I-III. Edited by H. ST J. Thackeray. Reprint edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ Pr.
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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