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2011-11-23

Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

by Neil Godfrey

I was reminded of Luke’s prologue (again) when I recently read (again) the prologue of Roman historian Livy. Stream of consciousness takes me immediately to Loveday Alexander’s argument that Luke’s prologue is very “unlike” the prologues of ancient historians and to my own pet notion (anathema to most interested classicists, I am sure) that Luke’s second volume, Acts, is structured around the founding myth of Rome: both narrate the voyage of a hero from the east, via Troy, to establish a new (imperial/spiritual) headquarters in Rome. But I do take some courage in that at least one scholar, Marianne Palmer Bonz, has written an exploratory book, The Past As Legacy: Luke-Acts As Ancient Epic, expressing the same theme. (I call it “exploratory” because I am still seeking more specific details to support the argument.)

So I collate the different possible explanations of Luke’s Prologue in this post. read more »


2007-11-12

The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) compares Acts with ancient novels and finds striking resemblances. We tend to resist finding the thrill of novelistic adventure and humour in the books of the Bible. Holy books are supposed to be read with much gravitas, after all. But Pervo’s comparison with ancient novels has persuaded him that Acts shared their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences. I have read many ancient novels over recent years — and many ancient historians over a longer period of time — and fully agree with him.

read more »


2019-02-03

Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2)

by Neil Godfrey

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:

  1. 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 )
  2. Like Xenophon, Plutarch, Tacitus and others the author of Luke-Acts fuses “biography with a quasi-biographical history”;
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”

We should not, then, become so fixated on the parallels with Graeco-Roman historiography, as I would suggest Cadbury, Lake, and Foakes Jackson were, that we miss 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. read more »


2019-02-02

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

by Neil Godfrey
TL;DR
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’.

read more »


2012-12-09

What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?

by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Luke begins with words that many have understood to be an assurance that its narrative is based on the firsthand eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus for themselves. Here is Craig S. Keener‘s rendition of Luke 1:1-2

. . . many have sought to complete a narrative of the acts fulfilled in our midst, just as those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the message have from the beginning transmitted them orally to us. (from the header to chapter 10, “The Gospels’ Oral Sources”, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 139)

Keener captures the meaning Richard Bauckham imputes to the term “eyewitnesses” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

The autoptai [eyewitnesses] are simply firsthand observers of the events. (p. 117)

Now . . . we have discovered how important was the notion of an eyewitness who was qualified to tell the whole gospel story by virtue of participation in it from beginning to end . . . . (p. 124)

John N. Collins, in a 2010 Expository Times article, ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’ on the other hand, has cogently argued that the term translated “eyewitnesses” in Luke 2 almost certainly means something quite different from this widely-embraced view, and after 2 1/2 years Richard Bauckham has still to find time to respond. One scholar who has noticed Collins’ article is Thomas L. Brodie. He cites it six times in Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (For info on John Collins see his details at the end of his review on Catholica.)

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke
English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collins closely examines the context of the word for eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2 and concludes it refers to officers of long-standing in the Christian community. At this point it is important to recall the opening words of Luke’s preface:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled [peplērophorēmenōn] among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you [NRSV]

Given that the opening verses are about literary activity, and the close association of the “autoptai” with “servants”, Collins further concludes that their role was related to the authentication of the documents accumulated from those many literary endeavours.

The word in question is found only once in the New Testament so there are no other biblical comparisons that can assist us with its meaning. The essence of Collins’ argument follows. (In all quotations the bolding is my own, not original.)

Eyewitnesses are also the Servants of the Word “From the Beginning”

First, Collins draws attention to the word order of the Greek. He sets out the above NRSV translation the following word order to reflect the Greek:

the from beginning eyewitnesses and servants being of the word

Servants and eyewitnesses are bracketed as a unit between “the” and “being/genomenoi“. It is clear that the two terms, eyewitnesses and servants, are to be understood as the one and same group with the same dual functions — eyewitnessing and serving — from the beginning. read more »


2011-02-22

Historical Imitations and Reversals in Ancient Novels — and the Gospels?

by Neil Godfrey
Daphnis et Chloé
Image via Wikipedia

If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, but doesn’t quite quack like a duck, then maybe it is not a duck. Just because we see one or even a few features in the gospels that we recognize from historical or biographical writings, we cannot assume that the gospels are therefore history or biography. Formal features can be easily copied from one genre and applied to another.

Mere formalities of style — word-choice, content, syntax — that appear to be trademarks of one particular genre can and often are copied and re-used in other genres for special effects.

There can be no such thing as a completely new genre emerging on the scene. No-one would know how to understand any such beast. New genres emerge through borrowing one or two elements at a time from other genres and repackaging them into another genre so they convey new meanings.

To understand the gospels it is a good idea to have a reasonable grasp of the wider literary world of the gospels. How else can we evaluate a study that purports to argue that the gospels are “ancient biographies” by means of drawing attention to certain formal features in common? I suggest the reason Burridge’s Are the Gospels Really Biography has apparently won widespread acceptance among biblical scholars is that relatively few such scholars have given much time to studying ancient literature. What accord hath Christ with Belial?

This post looks at how ancient Greek novels — fictional narratives — borrowed some of the literary formalities of well-known works of history. It is worth keeping such examples in mind whenever one encounters arguments that the gospels themselves are some form of history on account of similar formal resonances with non-fiction literature of the day.

As in the preceding posts, much of the following draws upon Cueva’s The Myths of Fiction, although Cueva does not himself discuss biblical literature at all. Those comparisons here are mine alone. read more »


2007-01-25

Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Chapter 2c

by Neil Godfrey

To those who might wonder if Papias’s reference to “living and abiding voice” is one of the multiple Johannine resonances in his Prologue (c.f. the final chapter of John’s discussion of whether and how long the beloved disciple would “remain” with them; and further note other Johannine touches such as both the names and the order of the disciples, the preference for the word “disciples” over “apostles” and the apparent reference to Jesus as “the truth”) Bauckham argues No. Papias’s preference for “a living and abiding voice” over information from books is further evidence that Papias was embracing the best conventional historical practice. read more »