Tag Archives: Luke-Acts

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

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 »

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

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 »

Luke Makes Jesus More Patient with the Fig Tree

Just after posting Why Did Luke Replace the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the Sinner Woman Washing His Feet? I came across a similar explanation for why Luke removed Mark’s episode of Jesus cursing the fig tree and replaced it with a far more merciful one.

By sandwiching his story on either side of the Cleansing account, Mark indicates that he wishes the fate of the unfruitful tree to be seen as a proleptic sign prefiguring the destruction of the Temple cultus. The Markan import of the story, therefore, is both eschatological and symbolic.

The harsh import of Mark’s story was recognized by Luke who decided to omit it. The third evangelist replaced the pericope with a characteristic lament for Jerusalem and earlier has Jesus recount a parable of a barren fig-tree to which a period of grace was granted. The Lukan parable intimates that in Jesus’ ministry a time for repentance was offered to Israel and its Holy City. An allegorical tendency is hence discerned in Luke, in keeping with his view of salvation history.

(Telford, W. R. (1980). Barren Temple and the Withered Tree : A Redaction-Critical Analysis of the Cursing of the Fig-Tree Pericope in Mark’s Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleansing of the Temple tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 238f)

Once again, “Luke” evidently did not think he was reading historical memories or traditions about Jesus worthy of preservation and felt at liberty to create a quite different story to teach what he believed to be a more appropriate lesson.

Mark 11:12-14, 20 Luke 13:6-9
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, May no one ever eat fruit from you again. And his disciples heard it. . . .
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

As Tim concludes in the previous post,

As you will recall, many scholars think of Luke as a historian and a biographer. The preamble to his gospel, they insist, shows how much he cared about his many sources. Well, perhaps. But we see here that he was quite comfortable with inventing stories, freely repurposing and reusing his sources for his own needs.

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

Acts is historically reliable because its anonymous author says it is

[T]he author of the book of Acts explicitly tells us that he was concerned and committed to present a historically accurate account of the history of the early church. The author of Acts, of course, was the author of the Gospel of Luke, and the preface to Luke served as the preface to the entire two-volume work.  In that preface (Luke 1:1-4) the author tells us that he had “followed all things closely” and that he based his account on reports from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” – that is from those who were personally involved in the events he narrates and those to whom they told their accounts.  Moreover, he stresses that his ultimate concern is to provide an “orderly account” of all the things that had happened.  And so it was clearly his intention to write a historically accurate account.  That in itself does not prove that he did so, but it does prove that this was his goal.  He was not writing fiction but what he understood to be historical fact.  — Bart Ehrman, Is Acts Historically Reliable? The Affirmative Argument.

Okay, that is the opening argument of an affirmative side of a debate. But it’s presented by “a critical scholar”. How can even a critical scholar come up with such a facile and naive argument for a work being written with the goal of genuine historical accuracy? Presumably Ehrman will in the reply of the Negative team respond with a bit more common sense, but how could a critical scholar even present something so naive as we read above in the first place? That is an argument of pure and simple apologetics. It has no place in a critical analysis of any literature.

A critical analysis obviously begins with the context and identity and motivation and audience and circumstances of the writing of the text. Only an anti-intellectual apologist would even suggest that we should apply a “hermeneutic of charity” and believe the unknown author’s words unless and until we are hit smack in the face with a reason not to. A critical scholar could argue an affirmative case without resorting to such puerile nonsense.

Next, Bart Ehrman like so many others in his academic guild is also closing his eyes to uncomfortable published scholarship that refutes his interpretation of the phrase “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”. Does anyone know of a scholarly rebuttal anywhere to an article by John N. Collins published in 2010? For details see

Ehrman also just blithely claims as unquestionable fact that the same author wrote both Luke and Acts despite critical arguments to the contrary or at least offering more nuance. Again, this is not the way a critical scholar is (or should be) expected to conduct a serious debate.

I won’t pay to read the rest of Ehrman’s debate. He is putting out bait for readers to do so but he is clearly opposed to the very idea of open-access of public research or simply doesn’t understand it. I give to charities of my own choosing and find Ehrman’s attempt to be different and opposed to public access of his knowledge to be old fashioned at best, snobbish, elitist and deplorable at worst.

Another Flip Flop Argument: Ehrman again on early Low Christology

Once again we see evidence of the ad hoc nature of arguments built upon the assumption of the historicity of Jesus.
Fra_Angelico_-_St_Peter_Preaching_in_the_Presence_of_St_Mark_-_WGA00464
Peter preaching: From Wikimedia

After a closer look at Romans 1:3-4 in Ehrman’s case for the earliest Christians thinking of Jesus as a “mere man” who only became a Son of God at his resurrection, I had to try to get a better grasp of the next pieces of pre-Gospel (and pre-Pauline) evidence he offered: passages in several speeches in the Book of Acts. I suspected these would not be so assailable as his interpretation of the Romans passage but I was wrong.

Here are the exhibits:

“We preach the good news to you, that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled for us their children by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’” (Acts 13: 32– 33).

“Let the entire house of Israel know with assurance that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2: 36).

“the God of our fathers raised Jesus . . . This one God exalted to his right hand as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5: 30– 31).

Inconsistency would not be expected but….

As with the Romans passage Ehrman points out that the author of these passages, “Luke”, believed something quite different. Here in Acts Luke has the apostles preach their conviction that Jesus became the Son of God or was exalted to divine status only at the resurrection, while he himself (called Luke for convenience) actually believed that Jesus was the Son of God from the moment of his inception and birth. That’s why he wrote the nativity scene in Luke 1.

Ehrman concludes:

On Acts 13:32-33

In this pre-Lukan tradition, Jesus was made the Son of God at the resurrection. This is a view Luke inherited from his tradition, and it is one that coincides closely with what we already saw in Romans 1: 3– 4. It appears to be the earliest form of Christian belief: that God exalted Jesus to be his Son by raising him from the dead.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 226). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

On Acts 2:36

The earliest followers of Jesus believed that the resurrection showed that God had exalted him to a position of grandeur and power. This verse is one piece of evidence. Here, in a preliterary tradition, we learn that it was precisely by raising Jesus from the dead that God had made him the messiah and the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s followers had thought he would be the future messiah who would reign as king in the coming kingdom of God to be brought by the Son of Man, as Jesus himself had taught them. But when they came to believe he was raised from the dead, as Acts 2: 36 so clearly indicates, they concluded that he had been made the messiah already. He was already ruling as the king, in heaven, elevated to the side of God. As one who sits beside God on a throne in the heavenly realm, Jesus already is the Christ.

More than that, he is the Lord. During his lifetime Jesus’s disciples had called him “lord”— a term that could be used by a slave of a master, or by an employee of a boss, or by a student of a teacher. As it turns out, in Greek the term lord in each of these senses was the very same term as Lord used of God, as the “Lord of all.” Just as the term Christ came to take on new significance once Jesus’s followers believed he had been raised from the dead, so too did the term lord. Jesus was no longer simply the disciples’ master-teacher. He actually was ruling as Lord of the earth, because he had been exalted to this new status by God. And it happened at the resurrection. The man Jesus had been made the Lord Christ.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (pp. 227-228). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

On Acts 5:31

Once more, then, in an early tradition we find that Jesus’s resurrection was an “exaltation” specifically to “the right hand of God.” In other words, God had elevated Jesus to his own status and given him a prominent position as the one who would “lead” and “save” those on earth.

Ehrman, Bart D. (2014-03-25). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (p. 229). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

So once again, as he argued in relation to Romans 1:3-4, here we find passages that are at odds with what the author of the larger two-volume work apparently believed. This is the foundation of the argument that these passages are adapted from very primitive Christian beliefs, relics that somehow hung around even into Luke’s day.

What is the motive?

So what could have motivated Luke to do something like this? read more »

Acts and Virgil’s Aeneid: comparison and influence

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Let me be transparent from the outset: the authors of the Gospels did not imitate Vergil’s Latin epic. . . . [Rather] the Evangelist was aware of the Aeneid and shaped his book to rival it. The affinities between Luke and Vergil thus pertain to genre or, better, to narrative structure and development, not to imitations of particular episodes or characterizations.

MacDonald, Dennis R. (2014-11-05). Luke and Vergil: Imitations of Classical Greek Literature (The New Testament and Greek Literature) (Kindle Locations 101-107). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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Luke has endeavored to interpret the underlying meaning of the whole of Christian history — and in a manner surprisingly analogous to Virgil’s interpretation of the meaning of Roman history.

Bonz, Marianne Palmer (2000). The Past as Legacy: Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic. Fortress Press.

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This post is following up a point I touched on the recent interview: a possible link between the Acts of the Apostles and the famous founding epic of Rome, Virgil’s Aeneid.

Painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson: Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Painting by Jean-Joseph Taillasson: Virgil reading the Aeneid to Augustus and Octavia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s an intriguing idea. I know of a handful of scholars who have published positively about the possibility though I understand most do not accept it. Here are my own reasons for my suspicions that the author of Acts had in part an emulation of the Aeneid in mind. The “in part” qualifier points to indications that the author was interested in depicting the founding of the Christian movement as pointing towards both a New Jerusalem and a New Rome as one.

The Aeneid is an epic poem about Aeneas, a Trojan hero who escaped the city after its capture by the Greeks and after an adventurous westward journey across the Mediterranean in search for a new divinely appointed home he eventually found his way to Italy where he established a new settlement that became the ancestors of the Romans. The epic was widely known and esteemed from the moment of its composition for the ensuing centuries, even among Christians. (We know Christians at least from the time of Lactantius understood Virgil’s poetic hope of child to come to usher in a new golden age was a divinely inspired prophecy of Jesus.) Virgil’s fame extended beyond the literary elite:

Verses and characters from his poetry appear in wall-paintings and graffiti, mosaics and sarcophagi, even the occasional silver spoon, in locations ranging from Somerset to Halicarnassus. (Tarrant, 56)

Monuments to Aeneas became almost as common as those to Romulus in the wake the Aeneid‘s entrance into the world.

The celebrity of Virgil’s works in the Roman world was immediate and lasting. The Aeneid enjoyed the rare distinction of being hailed as a canonical poem while it was still being written: ‘something greater than the Iliad is being born’. . . , wrote the elegist Propertius in the mid-20s, perhaps with a touch of irony, but anticipating the serious comparisons with Homer that would become conventional. (Tarrant, 56)

Poets, story tellers and historians were influenced by Virgil in general and his Aeneid in particular. I’m not referring just to literary style but especially to what Tarrant calls an “ideological engagement” (pp. 63, 64). Subsequent authors would strive to revise or reapply Virgil’s message about the greatness of Rome finding its culmination in the reign of Augustus. One poet adapted Virgil’s message to argue that Nero was the true turning point in Rome’s history. A later historian inverted the Aeneid’s message to reject entirely the dynasty that had produced both Augustus and Nero and to promise a pessimistic future for the empire. Nor was the influence uni-linear. Emulators did not attempt to re-do Virgil’s style but engaged with his ideas and expressed them through a wide spectrum of the styles of other writers, in poetry, drama and prose.

The striking similarities

Despite the above another scholar, John Taylor, believes it is “much less likely” that the author of Acts “knew the Aeneid” but even he acknowledges “striking similarities” in Classics and the Bible: Hospitality and Recognition. I dot-point those he identifies: read more »

Who Were the Hellenists in Acts?

23730
By Fra Angelico, “Life of Stephen: Ordination and Distributing Alms” — making sure the Hellenist widows get a fair deal.

Larry Hurtado’s Blog is a sincere effort to share biblical scholarship with a wider lay readership. He has most recently pointed to a site that promises to address biblical issues for a general readership and even has an “ask a scholar” section: Bible Odyssey. Hurtado’s interpretations are (in my view) quite conservative. I think one should raise questions when a scholar’s explanations for so many questions coincidentally support traditional Christian dogma. I don’t suggest that all of his views should be suspect for that reason alone: I have found some of his analysis into how soon Jesus was worshiped as an exalted divine figure to be very strong. But I think Biblioblogs fail to fully respect readers when they present just one view of scholarly research as if that one view were “the correct” one.

Vridar was started as an attempt to share “the other side” of so much scholarly research in biblical studies. When I first took up learning so much about scholarly studies into the nature and origins of the Biblical literature I found that it was so difficult to wade through so much that was logically suspect or short on clear evidence. There was so much assumption, specious reasoning, possibilities that were transformed to probabilities and then to facts, circular argument . . . . and most of it was (suspiciously) essentially consistent with conventional religious dogmas.

So when I read The “Hellenists” of Acts: Dubious Assumptions and an Important Publication — a post in which Larry Hurtado argues that the only difference between the Hellenists in Acts and other Jewish members of the first church was that they hailed from the Diaspora and hence spoke Greek — I felt compelled to submit the following comment:  read more »

The Origin of the Good Samaritan Parable and Other Lucan Favourites

David Teniers the Younger (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

John Drury, DD, in The Parables of the Gospels, explains why it is very doubtful that Jesus ever spoke the parable of the Good Samaritan. The evidence points towards the real author of this parable being the same person who was responsible for the work of Luke-Acts. For convenience we’ll call him as Luke.

The parables of Jesus in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew are strongly allegorical. In the Gospel of Luke their allegorical character takes a back seat. The parables in this third gospel are found to be more “realistic stories which are rich in homely detail and characterization.” (Drury, p. 111)

It is not likely that different traditions, one recalling allegorical parables spoken by Jesus and the other more realistic stories of his, went their own distinct ways so that Matthew heard one sort and Luke the other. I think it’s more reasonable to suggest that we see the creative hands of the authors at work.

The All Important Mid-Turning Point

Another indicator that Luke’s creative imagination was responsible for the parables unique to his gospel is their structure.

L [i.e. unique to Luke] parables have a characteristic shape of which the most striking feature is that the crisis happens in the middle, not, as so often in Matthew’s parables, at the end. (Drury, p. 112)

It is this “middle” part of the story, or the mid-point in time, that is the turning point. Not that this observation is original with Drury. It is a familiar pattern to students of Luke’s parables ever since Conzelmann’s The Theology of Saint Luke.

This pattern is in fact a characteristic of all of Luke’s work, so much so that Drury can say

The pattern in the L parables is deeply embedded in Luke’s mind. It is the pattern of the whole of his history. Jesus in his Gospel is not history’s end but its turning point, setting it on a new course in which Judaism drops away and the Christian Church goes triumphantly forward. (p. 113)

So the story of Jesus begins in a narrative rich in allusions to the patriarchal stories of Genesis and Judges, proceeds to portray Jesus as the new Elijah (contrast Mark and Matthew who gave this role to John the Baptist), and follows up Jesus’ mission with the growth of the church as seen in his parables and in Acts. Jesus is the mid-point or turning point of the grand narrative.

This carries over to Luke’s eschatology. In Luke we read less of the end of the age, period, than we do of the end of a person’s life. But that end of the individual’s life is not the end of the story. Consequences of the life led follow. The individual’s end is the turning or mid-point. In the parable of the rich fool, for example, the crisis comes with his unexpected death and this is followed by the punishment he must receive in his afterlife. For Luke the “end” is moved from the cosmic to the individual level.

It’s the way Luke thinks and the way he designs narratives. He didn’t just happen to inherit a subset of parables from Jesus that coincidentally matched his own literary-narrative style and no-one else’s. The parables of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are Luke’s own creations.

If only by symmetry of pattern, the L parables fit perfectly into Luke’s perception of the historical significance of Jesus’ biography. 

By contrast Matthew was “very ready to end his parables with the end of time.”

The All Important Individuals

read more »

How and Why Luke Changed Matthew’s Nativity of Jesus Story

One of the earliest known depictions from a th...
One of the earliest known depictions from a third century sarcophagus. Vatican Museums, Rome, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Gospel of Matthew opens with the story of the Magi following a star to find the baby Jesus,the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, the flight into Egypt and Herod ordering the massacre of all infants near Bethlehem to be sure of getting rid of the unidentified newborn king.

The Gospel of Luke could not be any more different, or so it seems. No Magi, no precious gifts, no flight into Egypt, no Herod or mass infanticide. Rather we have shepherds being directed by angels to find Jesus in a manger.

The most common explanation for this narrative gulf between the two is that the author of the Gospel of Luke (let’s take a wild guess and call him Luke) knew nothing of the existence of the Gospel of Matthew and had quite different sources to draw upon to account for Jesus’ birth. It is impossible, the argument goes, to imagine Luke discarding such a dramatic and memorable story as found in Matthew’s Gospel had he known it.

Michael Goulder disagreed and in Luke: A New Paradigm (1989) he published his reasons for believing Luke did know of the Magi and Herod narrative and deliberately changed it.

First, notice the points that Luke has in common with Matthew.

  • Mary ‘bore a son’ (έτεκεν υίόν, Mt. 1.25; Lk. 2.7).
  • It was in Bethlehem of Judaea, as Micah had foretold (Mt. 2.1, 5f), and Matthew turns the citation in line with the prophecy to David, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel’ (v. 6d, 2 Sam. 5.2); Luke says that Joseph went up to Judaea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, being of Davidic ancestry, and Mary with him (2.4).
  • In Matthew God brings a company of strangers, magi, leading them by a star rising in the sky; in Luke God brings a company of strangersshepherds, summoning them by his angel, and the multitude of the heavenly host.
  • When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy (έχάρησαν χαράν μεγάλην σφόδρα, 2.10); the angel brought the shepherds good news of χαράν μεγάλην for all the people (2.10).
  • The magi come and see the child (τό παιδίον) with Mary his mother, and fall before him (‘when you have found him’, said Herod). The shepherds came with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the baby laid in the manger; and when they had seen, they made known the saying told them of the child (του παιδιού τούτου, 2.17).
  • Magi and shepherds close the scene by returning whence they had come; and Luke then notes that ‘his name was called Jesus’ at his circumcision, just as Matthew says that Joseph called his name Jesus (1.25).

(From Goulder, Luke: A New Paradigm, p. 247, with my formatting) read more »

The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer

goulder
Goulder closer to 1963 than much later

As a follow up to my previous post here is more detail of Michael Goulder’s argument that the Lord’s Prayer was originally composed by the author of the Gospel of Matthew. I am referring to Goulder’s “The Composition of the Lord’s Prayer” as published 1963 in The Journal of Theological Studies.

Goulder begins by setting out the five propositions generally accepted as the explanation for how the Lord’s Prayer came to be recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He finds each of these propositions unsatisfactory. From pages 32-34 (excerpts with my formatting and bolding):

  1. The Prayer was composed by Jesus, incorporating phrases from the synagogue liturgy, but in a unique combination and meaning.
    • If the Prayer was composed by Jesus and taught to his disciples, then it is the only thing of the kind he ever did. . . . [T]here is no very obvious reason why he should so have done [i.e. passed on this one teaching to learn by heart — which is the same principle as setting down one’s teaching in writing].

  2. The Prayer was universally used in the primitive Church, but a number of slightly different versions of it became current, either in the Palestinian churches, in Aramaic, or later when it was translated into Greek.

    • Where are the variant versions to have originated? It is hard to believe that a dominically composed Prayer should have been corrupted anywhere without authority immediately objecting.

  3. St. Mark does not include the Prayer in his gospel for reasons best known to himself; but in general St. Mark felt at liberty to include only a proportion of the teaching of Jesus known to him, seeing the gospel as primarily the acts of Jesus.

    • The theory that St. Mark might have felt at liberty to leave out the Prayer, along with other of Jesus’ teachings, is at variance with (1), which maintains that Jesus thought it to be the most important piece of teaching he ever gave. If Jesus thought this, it is hardly likely that St. Mark thought otherwise; and it is especially difficult to maintain that he did when he records teaching very close to the Lord’s Prayer at xi. 25 f. 

  4. Of the two versions preserved in our gospels St. Luke’s is likely to be nearer the original, as it is shorter, and liturgical forms tend to grow more elaborate in time.

    • [Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of the LP each show strong traces of their respective styles; Luke’s LP wording lapses into the same awkwardness in which he falls when adapting Mark’s gospel.] This means . . . that the Lucan version is not likely to be a Greek translation of the original Lord’s Prayer; and we have a highly elaborate hypothesis on our hands in consequence. [That elaborate hypothesis involves attempting to work out the history of the prayer through three unknowns: Q, L (sources or a special version of Q known only to Luke) and an Aramaic original as the root of both.]

  5. St. Matthew’s version shows strong traces of Matthaean vocabulary and style, and is an embroidery upon the Prayer as received by him in the tradition.

    • The most remarkable assumption of all is that two generations after the Prayer had been committed to the Apostles St. Matthew should have been at liberty to expand and improve it at will. . . . A sound argument must run: it is impossible that St. Matthew should have had licence to amend a Prayer composed by Jesus, and it is a fortiori  impossible that his scribes, or the author of the Didache, should have had this licence. Therefore Jesus did not compose the Lord’s Prayer.

The Invention of the Lord’s Prayer

Goulder then moves on to his own argument (italics original), p. 35: read more »

Luke’s Unwelcome Creativity

quote_begin I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome. — Michael Goulder quote_end

Visitation-1In his memoirs Michael Goulder describes the eureka moments that led him to challenge major planks of the conventional wisdom New Testament scholarship. The first of these challenges was his thesis that the evangelists (especially Matthew and Luke, but in particular Luke) imaginatively created material for their gospel narratives as opposed to being slavishly bound to now lost traditions — oral traditions and Q — and that derived directly from Jesus or his immediate followers.

The early chapters of the Gospel of Luke narrate the miraculous and idyllic circumstances of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. John’s parents, Zechariah and Elisabeth, are very old, way past child-bearing age, yet are very devout. When an angel appears to Zechariah while he is going about his Temple duties and promises him and his wife a child Zechariah finds it too much to believe. Maybe it’s the translator’s fault but it has long sounded to me like the opening scenes of a fairy tale. We must remember, however, that a good many readers, even wise and learned scholars, read it as a true story or at least as closely based on one.

Michael Goulder was not the first to notice that the similarities between these stories and narratives of miraculous childbirths in Genesis — divine promises, at first disbelieved, to devout parents otherwise not able or not ready to have children. No doubt most readers of the Bible have seen that much. What took Goulder a step further was when he noticed that in addition to the similarity of story there is also a similarity in language.

Luke (or whoever the author really was) read the Book of Genesis in Greek (known as the Septuagint, or LXX) and he wrote his gospel in Greek. There were certain distinctive peculiarities of expression in the Septuagint Genesis narrative that were repeated in Luke’s narrative.

[I]t is striking that Luke’s gospel contains phrases identical to those in the LXX, such as ‘they were advanced in days’, where one would naturally say ‘they were old’. So it began to look as if the story was not so much a record of a true experience of Zechariah, but rather one composed by Luke himself on the pattern of the Abraham/Isaac story. (p. 26)

Interesting. Coincidence?  read more »

Acts 1-7 as Creative Literature, not History — Illustrated

InPraiseChnOrigns2I’ve been preoccupied with catching up with what certain New Testament scholars have writing about the way ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote history and the relevance this has for how we interpret Acts and the Gospels and what they can tell us about Christian origins. This all started after I began reading and posting on some works from the Acts Seminar. One work has led to another and back again and I think I’m ready to resume.

In an earlier post I quoted something written by Dr Todd Penner that encapsulated a conclusion I have been persuaded to reach not only about one episode in Acts but about the entirety of Acts also about the Gospels:

There is nothing in Acts 7 to suggest that there lies behind them anything but an adept ancient writer, someone extremely well-versed in Jewish traditions and styles of rewriting the biblical story.

The narrative portions of Acts 6:1-8:3 leave one with the same impression.

Could the narrative portions be historically accurate and true? Absolutely. Could they be completely fabricated? Absolutely. Could the truth rest somewhere in between? Absolutely.

The problem, of course, is that it is impossible to prove any of these premises.

Attempts by Hengel and others to intuit their way behind the stories aside, the unit is too tightly knit to allow one to go beyond what is given in the narrative itself. If the dominant view in Acts scholarship is that one can separate out the core historical events from the Lukan redaction, this study argues for the futility of such attempts. (In Praise of Christian Origins, pp. 331-332, my formatting and bolding)

Dr Penner covers a lot of ground, surveying ancient commentaries on what made for good and bad writing of historia/history. I cannot cover any of that in this post. What is particularly significant about his argument, for me, is the assumptions and logic he brings to his reading of Acts. He takes readers back through a time tunnel to show them the origin of modern scholarly assumptions that Acts is fundamentally (beneath all its fantastical tales of miracles and romantic adventures) based on historical sources. If we read “beneath” the text then we will begin to glimpse genuine historical data related to Christian origins.

In so doing he leaves the alert reader with the awareness that the a priori assumption of historicity cannot be justified. At the same time, being able to explain narrative details in terms of literary artifice does not mean that they are not also, at some level, based on genuine historical events. What we are left with, however, is an explanation that does work and that can be justified (the creative literary one), and the question of historicity left hanging. Readers who approach Acts with Christian faith need not be alarmed.

As I read Penner’s arguments I wondered if he would be prepared to apply his same pertinent critical questions to the Gospels. As far as I can see there is no reason to confine his approach to Acts.

Not yet, but scholars like Thomas L. Thompson, Neils Peter Lemche, Philip Davies have demonstrated the literary (non-historical) character of much of the Old Testament, and a few have now published similar arguments about Acts. Surely, eventually, the methods applied in these instances will have to catch up one day with our analysis of the Gospels.

As I was reading Penner’s In Praise of Christian Origins I was imagining illustrative diagrams that would capture some of the multilayered complexity of the author’s literary creativity. I’ve added the result below. read more »

Earliest Christians fulfil Plato’s Utopia

The following is not an argument in itself for Luke’s imitation of the utopian community in Plato’s Republic but it does provide the raw materials for such an argument. In another post I plan to elaborate on explanations for the points in common between the earliest Christians in Acts and Plato’s description of the guardians in his ideal state. Hint: they have to do with the relatively recent advances in studies of the way ancient authors imitated master-works and re-wrote them through a process we call “intertextuality”.

Community-early-Christians
Laurent De La Hyre, Community of the first Christians

The table comes from “The Summaries of Acts 2, 4, and 5 and Plato’s Republic” by Rubén Dupertuis, a chapter in Ancient Fiction: The Matrix of Early Christian and Jewish Narrative. After the table I Dupertuis suggests that several inconsistencies in the Acts narrative may be explained most simply if the author was emulating the narrative of the ideal society led by Plato’s philosopher-kings. Traditional explanations for these inconsistencies have suggested the author was switching sources and/or not concerned about consistency. I’ll also cover these explanations in a future post.

First, have another look at those utopian summaries of the first Church. All quotations are from the 21st Century King James Version:

Acts 2:42-47

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayers.

43 And fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common,

45 and they sold their possessions and goods and divided them among all men, as every man had need.

46 And continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their meat with gladness and singleness of heart,

47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4:32-35

32 And the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and of one soul; neither said any one of them that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.

33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.

34 Neither was there any among them that lacked, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold

35 and laid them down at the apostles’ feet. And distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.

Acts 5:12-16

12 And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people, and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.

13 But of the rest, no man dared join himself to them, but the people magnified them.

14 And more believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women,

15 insomuch that they brought forth the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might overshadow some of them.

16 There came also a multitude out of the cities round about unto Jerusalem, bringing sick folks and those who were vexed with unclean spirits; and they were healed, every one.

Dupertuis concludes his discussion on context, structure, terminology, density of parallels, with the following summary tables:

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Support of the Guardians / Apostles

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read more »