A friend of mine brought to my attention yet another attempt to argue that Acts was some sort of ancient fiction. Usually this allegation claims Acts is an ancient romance novel, but Neil Godfrey does not seem to be that precise. He is supposedly reacting to the arguments of Loveday Alexander, but apparently has not read the arguments nor does he really engage them. His entire case seems to rest on the vivid nature of the narrative of a sea voyage in Acts 27. If you want to read a full treatment of the issue of Acts’ genre, date, authorship, and historicity, see my article on Acts, here. However, I thought it worth a few blog posts to respond. This is Part 1 and it will address the purpose of the Acts 27 narrative in Acts. I will address Neil’s other arguments in later posts.
Neil asks why “the author” of Acts devotes “60 verses on this story.” Obviously, because the current verse/numbering system was introduced in the middle-ages, the author did not have any particular number of verses in mind. But he obviously knew that he was writing a detailed and vivid account; more so than for any of the other sea voyages in Acts. For Neil, the only offered answer is that such narratives “were a staple of ancient adventure writings.” Setting this erroneous claim aside for the moment – there is no such genre as “ancient adventure writings” as I will explain in Part II – are there any other possible explanations as to why Luke chose to write such an account in this particular part of Acts?
Yes. In fact, there is more than one possible explanation.
1. Ancient Historians Wrote to Entertain
Neil and Pervo are simply wrong that a writer of ancient history would have no interest in writing an exciting narrative of a sea voyage. Indeed, writing to entertain the audience is one of the characteristics of the ancient history genre. As Professor Mason explains, “[h]istorians of the period were also obligated to make their narratives exciting and ‘delightful.’” Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, page 264. This element of the genre was well known in ancient times. In How to Write History, Lucian noted that historians should write “what will interest and instruct” their audience. § 53 (emphasis added). The author of 2 Maccabees tells his audience that he was writing “to provide for the entertainment of those who read for pleasure, the convenience of students who must commit the facts to memory, and the profit of even the casual readers.” 2 Mac. 2:25.
Professor Soards points to additional examples of such historiography that Pervo overlooks or downplays:
[S]cholars have long recognized that one of the goals of ancient historians was to please their readers. . . . The presence 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 Herodotus, “The Father of History,” who writes in a lively, engaging, entertaining, 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 Sallus, 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.
Marion L. Soards, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58.2 (Summer 1990), pages 307-10.
So, historians and novelists would have shared an interest in portraying a sea voyage in an exciting way. And as I will show in my next post on this topic, many historians did just that.
2. The Exoneration of Paul
The most extensively argued theory on the purpose of Acts 27 I have encountered is that Acts 27 was written to exonerate Paul. Charles H. Talbert and J.J. Hayes, “A Theology of Sea Storms in Luke-Acts,” Jesus and the Heritage of Israel, pages 267-283. Paul was a man accused on many fronts. Many of his fellow Jews accused him of blasphemy. Some of his fellow Christians accused him of lawlessness. Some Greek and Roman authorities accused him of disturbing the peace or of teaching false gods. Additionally, Paul had experienced more mundane travails, such as poor health and shipwrecks.
This was a problem because some would see these troubles as portents of divine disfavor. To dissuade such concerns, Acts shows that Paul is innocent of these charges. Just prior to Acts 27, Acts demonstrates Paul’s innocence, before men, of violating Jewish and Roman law. In Acts 27, Acts shows Paul’s innocence before God. Luke is careful to emphasize that the storm faced by the crew was a natural one (not sent by God), while also emphasizing that Paul’s survival was a result of God’s intervention; prompted by God’s favor. Thus, Paul stands innocent as proclaimed by man and by God. Id.
Brian Rapske puts it this way:
Luke’s object at Acts 28f. is to recount the actual events of a rough sea journey and shipwreck in a manner which helpfully addresses what would have been their troubling theological implications to a reader who knows a Paul of distressing experiences and mixed reputation. To this end, Luke furnishes his readers in the record of a divine assurance at Acts 27:23f. the hermeneutical tool by which known Pauline difficulties—storm, the threat of summary execution, the shipwreck, and the snakebite—may be accurately deciphered. These actual experiences, when properly interpreted by this key, indicate that neither the messenger nor his message is disqualified.
Brian M. Rapske, “Acts, Travel and Shipwreck,” in The Book of Acts in its GraecoRoman Setting, page 46.
3. Reinforcing the Claim to Authorial Participation
Acts 27 also served to validate Luke’s claim to being a serious historian. Participation in the events about which a historian wrote was a credibility enhancer. No doubt Luke would have liked to have inserted himself in his first book, The Gospel of Luke, but since he was not there he could not do so. He could, however, stake this claim in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles, by writing an exciting sea voyage in vivid detail, claiming throughout by the use of the first-person plural that he was present. As Witherington writes, “the Greek historical tradition emphasized the importance of travel, investigation, and eyewitness participation and testimony. For the sake of the credibility of his work as a piece of Greek history writing, at some point Luke needed to be able not merely to claim but demonstrate that he had participated in at least some of the events he chronicled.” Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, page 755.
4. Supernatural Spread of the Gospel
Another theory is that Luke intended to show that God’s word prevailed through incredible hardship. F.F. Bruce articulates this view when he agrees with Henry Chadwick, “who sees in this detailed narrative the author’s emphasis on the divine determination that Paul’s purpose of seeing Rome should be fulfilled, despite all the circumstances that rendered his ever getting there extremely improbable. ‘For the author of Acts the preaching of the apostle to the Gentiles in the capital of the Gentile world is a supernatural fact’”. F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, pages 509-10.
Nothing about any of these purposes precludes Acts 27 from being an eye-witness account, as the author claims it is and the early readers of Acts understood it to be. Additionally, it is most likely that more than one motivation is at work. As Luke was nearing the end of the second of his two volume work, he apparently decided to build to a climax, holding the attention of his readers and preparing them for the end. This made his work more likely to be read and served the interest of entertaining his audience, as historians were supposed to do. It also demonstrated that despite all the opposition – from man and nature – that Paul had experienced, he was still acting as God’s instrument in spreading the Gospel. A Gospel that no amount of opposition could stop from reaching even the capital of Paganism, Rome.
In short, Acts 27 is an entertaining account that educates the audience about the author's status as a historian and about Paul's mission and the spread of the Gospel.