An Academic Book Review of Profit With Delight: Revisiting the Genre of Acts
A few months ago I wrote a piece about the genre of Acts. I concluded that the author of Acts intended, and his audience would have understood, that he was writing as a historian of his time.
One of the possible genre classifications that I ended up rejecting was that of the ancient novel--that is, the idea that Acts was a fictitious narrative meant primarily to entertain its audience. It's most articulate proponent is Richard Pervo, who made his case in the book Profit with Delight. I have read his book and responded with several problems with his theory. Recently, however, I ran across an excellent review by Marion L. Soards of Pervo's book that discusses some of these same problems as well as others.
The strongest part of Pervo's argument is that ancient novels were written to entertain and Acts was written to entertain. Pervo discusses several elements of Acts' narrative that suggest that its author intended to entertain his audience. As I pointed out, however, although ancient novelists wrote to entertain, so too did ancient historians. Soards agrees and provides additional examples:
[S]cholars have long recognized that one of the goals of ancient historians was to please their readers.... The precense of entertaining or pleasing elements in an ancient work does not automatically mean that it is not history. Yet Pervo takes this position. He is able to do so largely by ignoring this characteristic in ancient historiography--for example, it is remarkable that while Pervo mentions Thucydides (only!) five times in his study, he completely ignores Heroditus, "The Father of History," who writes in a lively, engaging, entertatining, and even fantastic manner--not unlike the author of Acts. Similarly, Pervo refers several times to Lucian of Samosata and Xenophon of Ephesus, but he brings Dionysis of Halicarnassus into the study only twice; Polybius, once; and Sallust, three times. Many--perhaps most or all--the common characteristics Pervo identified between Acts and the ancient novel may be located in these ancient historians whom Pervo basically ignores.
Soards also criticizes Pervo for failing to give due consideration to the features of Acts that are characteristic of ancient historiography but not of ancient novels: "[T]here are elements in Acts outside the boundaries of ancient novels, even historical ones, that place Acts more in the circule of ancient histories than of ancient novels." He goes on to list "the historical prologues of Luke and Acts, the author's remarks about sources and intentions, [and] the exact use of titles in relation to Roman officials and provinces." Though Pervo waves briefly at these features, he "moves quickly here, and does not build his case."
Finally, Soards makes a point that I did not emphasize--the absences from Acts of features typical of the ancient novel genre. This includes the absence of "sex, romance, details of persecutions, encounters with bandits, and graphic depictions of executions." Though Pervo is aware of the problem, he tries to explain it away as the result of a Christian audience. "Ultimately, there is too much in this reasoning that has to be given away to the audience. It will seem easier to many who weigh Pervo's case to conclude that Acts communicates to its readers using a different genre from the ancient novel rather than that genre minus most of its juicy parts."
Marion L. Soards, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58.2 (Summer 1990), pages 307-10.