What Does Acts 27 Tell Us About Acts? Odds and Ends Against a Novel Idea (Part III)

In Part III, I will pick up some loose comments and statements by Neil and add a few points of my own. Check Parts I and II if you have not been following the arguments regarding the genre of Acts.

Purpose of Placement

In something of a rehash of an earlier point, Neil asks, “Why would the author introduce such a piece of narrative here? The sea voyage and storm and wreck add nothing to the advancing of the church or gospel.”

Actually, as I have shown, the sea voyage narrative serves a number of uses for Luke, including demonstrating how the Gospel prevailed even in reaching Rome through adversity and opposition. It also exonerates Paul from likely accusations against him and enhanced the author’s esteem as a historian. It certainly does relate to the advancement of the Gospel.

The Apocryphal Acts

Neil then turns his attention to the Apocryphal Acts, which do show more signs of being fictitious. He, apparently, tries to claim that they are of the same literary genre because when Paul appears on the scene he is the central character. But you only get to Paul by going through Peter and to a lesser extent James. Paul is not the central character of Acts, only of part of it. And even then only because Paul is the representative of the Gospel spreader highlighted at that time. The Apocryphal Acts on the other hand focus on telling the stories about their central characters.

The reality and significance of this difference is demonstrated by consideration of the notably un-novelistic ending of Acts. Whereas ancient novels have certain, usually predictable endings that close off the stories, even Pervo admits that Acts’ abrupt ending is problematic for an ancient novel. Much of what follows in this section from my Article on Acts.

To emphasize this point we can examine the apocryphal Acts, which clearly contain fictional elements. The Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Thomas, and the Acts of Andrew all narrate the deaths of their leading characters. The Acts of Paul narrates Paul’s judicial sentence and execution in detail. (10.5). The Acts of Peter likewise narrates the sentencing and execution of Peter. (37-40). Nero plays prominent roles in both accounts, but in the Acts of the Apostles Nero does not even make an appearance. Moreover, what happened to Peter? Or James? And what about Paul? By the time Acts was likely written, all three of these figures were dead. Yet Acts narrates nothing of their fates.

The failure to narrate Paul’s fate is especially glaring because he is the hero of the second half of the book. Nevertheless, Paul is left in Rome awaiting trial (and thus in danger of his life or about to be set free). This is far from what we would expect from an ancient novel. But if Acts is a history of the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, it is not surprising as ancient historiography.

Another significant problem with equating Acts with the Apocryphal Acts is that it smacks of question begging:

The circular and anachronistic nature of this argument is manifest. He uses texts that are self-evidently derivative in order to assess the primary source. However, these later fictive interpretations of scenes from canonical Acts cannot be used to assess the literary or historical dimensions of Acts itself. This is confirmed by the treatment of canonical Acts even by classicists who consider Apocryphal Acts to fall within the ancient novel tradition. For example, Hagg assumes canonical Acts is a different sort of literature than the Apocryphal Acts of Paul, which he sees as a type of ancient novel.

Stanley Porter, Paul in Acts, page 17.

Finally, there is the very notable absence of romance – or a romance substitute – in Acts whereas such elements are prominent in the Apocryphal Acts. As I state in my Article:

"The absence of any hint of romance from Acts is all the more telling in light of its presence in the apocryphal Acts. Far from proving a Christian lack of interest in the characteristics of the ancient novel, the apocryphal Acts prove the opposite. “Many of the motifs of the Hellenistic romance recur in the Christian apocryphal acts.” Goodspeed, Edgar J. A History of Early Christian Literature, revised and enlarged by Robert M. Grant, page 64. Perhaps the most telling example is found in the Acts of Paul, which narrates the plight of the young virgin Thecla. This story is what we might expect from a Christianized version of the romance novel. As Richard Baukham explains:

The story of Thecla is of special interest because it is the only part of the Acts of Paul in which a character other than Paul takes centre-stage and because it bears a very close relationship to the themes of the Greek novels that tell the story of two lovers (such as Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe, and Xenephon’s Ephesiaca). . . . Thecla, like the heroines of the novels, is a beautiful young girl who preserves her chastity and remains faithful to her beloved through trials and dangers in which she comes close to death but experiences divine deliverance. Thamyris and Alexander are unwanted suitors such as appear in the novels. Unlike the heroines of the novels, of course, Thecla’s chastity is not temporary, but permanent, and represents her total devotion to God. But her devotion to God is also devotion to his apostle Paul, and the author does not hesitate to depict this devotion in terms which, while not intended to be sexual, parallel the erotic (cf. Athe 8-10, 18-19). As in the case of the heroes and heroines of the novels, the plot partly turns on the separation of Paul and Thecla, her search for and reunion with him (Athe 21-25, 40-41). Thecla’s offer to cut her hair short in order to follow Paul where he goes and her adoption of male dress when she travels in search of Paul [resemble] the novelistic theme of a woman traveling in male disguise to escape detection. The wealthy upper-class circles in which the story takes place, including the historical figure of the emperor’s relative Tyrphaena, are also consonant with the character of the Greek novels. It seems clear that the story of Thecla has been directly modeled on the themes of the Greek erotic novel. . . .

Richard Baukham, “The Acts of Paul as a Sequel to Acts,” in The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting, pages 135-36.

So, there are clear novelistic elements of romance, but adapted for its Christian message and audience. There are other examples:

● The Acts of John includes a story about the pious Druisiana being romantically pursued by “a messenger of Satan.” She was so pious she had even “separated herself” from her husband for a time. After she died, the “messenger of Satan” defiled her corpse.

● In the Acts of Peter, the martyrdom of Peter’s wife is described, even recounting the last words of Peter to his wife.

● In the Acts of Thomas, a king’s daughter is getting married. At the wedding, Thomas sings a mystical bridal song and persuades the bride and groom to renounce marriage. There is also a side story of a flute-girl who obviously becomes infatuated with Thomas. After his song, she was “gazing and looking earnestly upon him” and “loved him well.”

● In the Acts of Andrew, it is lending aid to a woman in distress that lands Andrew on a cross. Maximilla is the wife of the proconsul of Greece. Following her conversion by Andrew, Maximilla wants to escape from her husband and Andrew encourages her to do so. When she is successful in leaving him, the proconsul has Andrew crucified. Maximilla saw to it that Andrew received a proper burial.

While it is true that these “romances” are different than the pagan ones in that the emphasis is often on abstinence even within marriage, the similarities remain. Women in distress or difficult situations are followed through until resolution of their plight. As noted by Goodspeed and Grant, this Christian fiction was “valuable as a substitute for the romances current among Greeks and Romans. It is sometimes supposed that these romances were characterized by what we should call pornography, but generally speaking they were rather edifying narratives of love and adventure. The emphasis put on sex in their Christian counterparts is rather more impressive, in spite of – and partly because of – the enthusiasm of the heroes and heroines for asceticism.” Goodspeed, Edgar J., op. cit., page 64. That the romantic features of ancient fiction are so common in the apocryphal Acts but absent from Acts itself is telling. It counts heavily against Acts being an ancient novel.

Tail Wagging the Dog

Next, Neil argues that you cannot isolate this one section of Acts and determine its genre from it: “it is simplistic to argue on the basis of a face-value reading of one piece of datum for an eyewitness account (or two, actually — Loveday Alexander draws in the prologue to support her view as well) when there are so many other larger questions about Acts that could overturn any such narrowly based assessment” In other words, you cannot let the tail wag the dog. There is something to this criticism but what is perhaps most interesting is how easily it is turned back on Neil. He appears perfectly willing to take this one section and conclude that Acts is ancient fiction. All the while he gives scant attention to other evidence, such as the prefaces of Luke-Acts or the “we-sections.” We will turn to this evidence briefly.

An Explicit Claim to Authorial Participation

The we-sections occur in places in Acts, not in other, and never in Luke. Giving such slight attention to the we-sections is hard to understand, for it is not just the vivid detail that leads Alexander and so many other scholars to conclude that Acts contains eyewitness accounts, it is the fact that the author writes such a vivid account while claiming to have been there. I have an extended argument for accepting the we-sections as evidence of authorial participation, here. For now, I think a helpful citations about how Pervo mishandles this evidence will suffice:

"Pervo fails to consider the significances of the use of the first-person plural in any of the passages in which it is found. This includes the passage in Acts 27, a chapter which does figure heavily into his discussion of Act since it contains an account of a sea voyage. His only direct reference to the ‘we’ passage in terms of a sea voyage is an excursus, where he states, apparently as fact, that the conventions of this passage had been established in Homer’s Odyssey (14:244-258) and were fixed through centuries of imitation, as Robbins has supposedly pointed out, the best example being the Voyage of Hanno. One can usefully speculate why Pervo fails to exploit the supposed conventions in Acts. One possible reason for failing to discuss the use of ‘we’ could be the lack of suitable parallels in the novel accounts, evidence that would hurt Pervo’s comparison; another reason might be the failure to find a category by which it clearly seems to imply the use of a recognizable source, not simply a historical antecedent… The sea-voyage convention is not established by usage in the Odyssey, including the passage cited by Pervo above, or in Vergil’s Aenid (3.5), or in any number of other writers sometimes mentioned (see section c below for further discussion). Citation of the Odyssey is not surprising, because the entire epic account is formulated around travel, much of it by sea, so almost all any use first-person could be construed as failing within the sea-voyage genre. The majority of the account in the Odyssey is not told in the first person sea-voyage convention. The obvious differences between the book of Acts and the Odyssey further mitigate comparison. One of these differences is the radically different literary genres of these work (poetic epic versus prose historical/fictive narrative), another is the alternation of singular and plural in the Odyssey, quite dissimilar to the sustained usage of the first person plural (without alternation with first-person singular) in Acts, and a third is the lack of identification of the ‘we’ character in Acts, but who is identified in the Odyssey, occurring as part of a flashback technique unparalleled in the book of Acts. Thus, the usage of the first-person plural in Acts is without apparent parallel in at least the sources that Pervo has surveyed.”

Porter, op. cit., page 19.

As for Vernon Robbins, his theory was dealt an exhaustively fatal blow by Peter Kirby, here, and I have focused on other deficiencies in his theory, here.

Good Greek As Evidence of Cheating?

Neil also offers the odd suggestion that Luke is “cheating” and has “borrowed” Acts 27 from someone else because Pervo notes that the Greek is at its best in this part of Acts. This is a flawed methodology which would rob all the works of antiquity of their best parts if applied globally. It is also, as Neil admits, not a claim made by Pervo. Moreover, given that GrecoRoman education would have emphasized how to write sea narratives, it is not surprising that Luke follows that education here. Moreover, as Witherington notes, “with Paul in a situation familiar to he readers of classical literature, Luke resorts to more classical Greek.” Witherington, The Acts of the Apostle, page 75. There is no mystery here, unless one is intent on finding it.

Alexander's Comparative Analysis

A concluding problem I found in Neil's analysis is that he never really engages Alexander's argument. Alexander is perfectly aware of the sea voyage accounts in other literary works of her time. She also appears to know that there are some parallels. It was the intent of her work to consider the density of specific nautical and geographical references and knowledge in Acts and compare it with the kind of specificity we find in ancient literature. She finds that it is unlike that of the ancient novels. Having read many ancient novels, I would agree with her. So to do other scholars. Neil has no response to that except a few anecdotes, yet that is the heart of her case.


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