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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

The Genre of the Acts of the Apostles

Of what genre is the Acts of the Apostles? Is the question even important? Yes, it is. "Identification of a work's genre helps us understand its place within the literary history of both early Christianity and the Greco-Roman world and aids us in its interpretation." A.R. Cross, "Genres of the New Testament," in Dictionary of New Testament Background, Eds. Craig Evans and Stanley E. Porter, page 402. Indeed, scholars have spilled much ink exploring the genre of Acts. Given the many features of Acts that correlate with the ancient historical writings of his time -- such as Thucydides, Josephus, and 2 Maccabees --, many scholars have concluded that Acts is what is called ancient historiography. That is, the author of Acts was following many of the literary characteristics of historians of the ancient Greco-Roman world.

Luke T. Johnson explains why he concludes that the author of Acts was attempting to write history:

(1) His prologue tells us that he is writing an 'orderly account. Historians of his age used such language to describe their work. He refers as well to oral and written sources; he knew others had written narratives before him. He had sources; therefore, he regarded them as such, and he used them critically. (2) He tries to relate his story to the broader historical context. He does this first by providing chronological references for pivotal events (see Luke 1:5; 2:1-2; 3:1-2; Acts 18:12). In addition, he identifies power blocs and governing agents, not only in Palestine (Acts 18:12-17). (3) Above all, Luke has the historian's instinct for chronology and causality; he makes connections between events, so that a thread of purpose runs through his narrative.

Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, page 200.

In addition to the prologue, Luke-Acts scholar Joel Green provides additional similarities between Acts and Greco-Roman historiography:

Moreover, Luke's two volumes evince a number of other attributes common in Greco-Roman historiography -- for example a genealogical record (Lk. 3:23-28); the use of meal scenes as occasions for instruction (as in Greco-Roman symposia); travel narratives; speeches; letters; and dramatic episodes, such as Jesus' rejection at Nazareth (4.16-30) and Paul's stormy voyage and shipwreck (Acts 27.1-28.14). Further in characterizing his work as a narrative (diegesis), Luke qualifies his project as a long narrative of many events, for which the chief prototypes were the historiographical writings of Herodotus and Thucydidies.

Joel B. Green, "Internal Repetition in Luke-Acts," in History, Literature and Society in the Book of Acts, page 286.

There are other theories about the genre of Acts. I will look at three of the more common ones and briefly discuss their merits.

First, some scholars have concluded that the author of Acts saw himself as writing scripture, just as Old Testament authors before him. Even here, though, proponents of this theory see Acts as influenced by the "historical" books of the Old Testament, such as 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Samuel. They also do not rule out the influence of Greco-Roman historiography on Acts. There is much to commend this theory and I see little conflict between it and the notion that Acts follows many of the conventions of ancient historiography. Indeed, when the two theories are combined, we may have the best explanation of the intentions of the author of Acts.

Second, a popular alternative theory about the genre of Acts is the notion that Acts is ancient fiction, or an "ancient novel." The key proponent of this theory is Richard Pervo and his book Profit with Delight. Ibid. at 136-37. However, leading New Testament and Lukan scholars have found his arguments unpersuasive. See, e.g., David A. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment; F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles; Ben Witherington, A Socio Rhetorical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles; John Polhill, Acts; and, Stanley Porter, Paul in Acts. In his highly influential book, Professor Aune levels many criticisms against Pervo's conclusion. The first goes to the heart of much of Pervo's argument, which is that the author of Acts was writing to entertain and edify. Aune notes that this is not particularly persuasive because "[t]hough ancient historians wrote to entertain, they did not think truth and usefulness had to be sacrificed." In other words, ancient novels wrote to entertain/edify and ancient historians wrote to entertain/edify and impart historical information. Simply noting that Acts shares this characteristics, then, does not tell us that he is not writing history, because ancient histories also shared this characteristic.

This one-sided view is a recurring flaw in Pervo's analysis. As Aune notes, "[m]any of the episodes [Pervo] discusses, with their constituent themes and motifs, far from being unique to novels and Acts, are found in both factual and fictional narratives in the Hellenistic world ." Ibid., page 80. Pervo takes characteristics common to historiagraphy and novels, and reads them as indicating Acts is the latter. At the same time, he unsuccessfully attempts to explain away the features of Acts found in historiography but not in novels. For example, Pervo argues that Acts' prologue should not be taken to indicate he was writing history because novels also had prologues. While this is true, it does not make his case. The argument is not that Acts has a prologue and therefore it is historiography. The argument is that it has a prologue that specifically identifies the writing as historiography. A review of Pervo's references to novel prefaces actually adds considerable weight against his argument. Novel prologues did not, as Pervo suggests but does not prove, attempt to simulate historiographical prologues. To take on of Pervo's own examples, the preface of Longus, "[Longus'] aim was to make a verbal equivalent of a painting he saw in Lesbos, and that is what he has done - summoned up a Golden Age of innocence in which his hero and heroine can have adventures and never get hurt." This is clearly stated in his preface.

Ultimately, Pervo fails to find in Acts characteristics uniquely associated with ancient novels, he fails to explain away features of Acts not found in ancient novels, and he fails to explain away features of acts closely associated with ancient historiography.

Finally, another theory is that Acts is a form of ancient biography. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this theory is C.H. Talbert. He initially made his case in his book, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels. This genre, like ancient historiography, intended to impart historical information about ancient figures. However, the focus tended to be more narrow, such as the life of a famous person. Given the broad range of subjects covered in Acts and the similarities of Acts with ancient historiography, the better explanation remains that the genre of Acts is most likely ancient historiography.

Accordingly, the genre of Acts informs us that its author believed he was writing history. This is no guarantee of accuracy or objectivity, of course. The standards of historical writing in ancient history are not what they purport to be today. Nevertheless, by studying the writings of other ancient historians we can get insights into the intent and meaning of Acts.

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