This installment will be shorter than I had thought because Neil’s quotation of and linking to many ancient prefaces contains surprisingly little argument. I will move quickly through the list and then address Neil’s “Conclusion.”
Citing The General, Neil apparently thinks this preface is relevant because it includes a dedication. But again, no one argues that the mere existence of a dedication in the preface means that Luke-Acts is ancient historiography. Such dedications are found in different genres, including ancient historical writings. Plutarch, for example, dedicates The Rise and Fall of Athens to Socius Senecio.
Next, Neil refers to a number of “linking prefaces” from non-historical works and some from historical works. He then links to more non-historical prefaces and some historical prefaces. He concludes the litany with a recitation of statements by Cadbury about ancient prefaces.
Rather than wade through the short statements and recitations and guess what Neil intended to convey by copying them into his blog, I will address the arguments in Neil’s “Conclusion.”
1. The prologue of itself cannot assign Acts to the genre of historiography. “For such devices could be employed by novelists to create verisimilitude.” (Pervo, p. 5)
Notably absent from the litany of prefaces that Neil provides is an example of an ancient novel using a historical sounding preface to create verisimilitude. That is an odd omission if there were any examples to be found. It is an omission shared by Pervo in his book where he originally makes the same argument. Further, I believe I have read most of the surviving ancient novels and checked the beginnings of all that I could find, yet I have not found a suitable example of this either. If there are no, or even if only a few, examples of this, on what basis does Neil consider it a possibility?
Additionally, what kind of criteria is Neil proposing? That the mere possibility that someone might use a historical sounding preface to “fake it” means that prefaces are irrelevant for telling us anything about the work they describe? Obviously that is unconvincing. And it reminds me of a scene from friends where Phoebe is arguing with Ross about evolution and uses the slightest possibility of doubt as a basis for rejecting the entire theory.
ROSS: Ok, Phoebe, this is it. In this briefcase I carry actual scientific facts. A brief case of facts, if you will. Some of these fossils are over 200 million years old.
PHOEBE: Ok, look, before you even start, I'm not denying evolution, ok, I'm just saying that it's one of the possibilities.
ROSS: It's the only possibility, Phoebe.
PHOEBE: Ok, Ross, could you just open your mind like this much, ok? Wasn't there a time when the brightest minds in the world believed that the world was flat? And, up until like what, 50 years ago, you all thought the atom was the smallest thing, until you split it open, and this like, whole mess of crap came out. Now, are you telling me that you are so unbelievably arrogant that you can't admit that there's a teeny tiny possibility that you could be wrong about this?
ROSS: There might be, a teeny, tiny, possibility.
PHOEBE: I can't believe you caved.
PHOEBE: You just abandoned your whole belief system. I mean, before, I didn't agree with you, but at least I respected you. How, how, how are you going to go into work tomorrow? How, how are you going to face the other science guys? How, how are you going to face yourself? Oh! That was fun. So who's hungry?
The point is that the mere thread of a doubt or alternative does not render prefaces worthless as indicia of genre.
2. Of all the examples of ancient prologues cited and linked above, the closest one in appearance to Acts is the one introducing a treatise on how to interpret dreams. When comparing the words used, its brevity, its structure and the function of its contents in relation to the main text, its avoidance of self-identification and other specific details about sources and predecessors, the prologue of Acts is least like the more well known prefaces to ancient histories.
The first sentence is rather odd. Sure, if Neil gets to create the list then he can fix it so that the most similar preface is one about dreams. Notably absent from the list is Josephus’ apologetic historical work, Against Apion. Like Acts, it refers to the “former” book, a summary of the former book, and a reference to the dedicant of both works. As we will see further below, when the preface in Luke is included in the discussion, the comparison to Josephus and other historical prefaces is even stronger. But more important than the form used is the content of what is being said. Acts is writing about what a person in the recent past did and said, focusing on events of significance. This is historical, perhaps with a biographical focus. It is not about the content of dreams or instructions on how to interpret them.
I have dealt with the so-called “brevity” of the preface in Part 2. The prefaces in Luke-Acts are not of uncommon length among historical writings of the time given the length of the work itself.
I am not sure what Neil has in mind by referring to the “structure and function” of the preface in Acts. There is nothing about having a dedication or linking back to a prior work that is unusual for a historical preface.
The supposed “avoidance of self-identification” is a new one. I take it that Neil means that Luke-Acts does not identify its author explicitly. Of course, this might be a dicey proposition for a Christian anticipating a wide distribution for his work. But it is not the case that ancient historians always explicitly identify themselves by name in the preface. I do not recall Tacitus doing so in The Agricola or The Germania. And as Sean A. Adams points out "important Greek historians such as Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and others, not only fail to commence their work with a third person opening, but do not even mention their names throughout their entire work." "Luke's Preface and its Relationship to Greek Historiography: A Response to Loveday Alexander," JGRChJ 3 (2006) at 181.
Equally important is that Luke-Acts is not just the product of the Greco-Roman world, but of the Jewish world as well, including Jewish historiography. 1 and 2 Kings for example, does not self-identify authorship (in a preface or elsewhere). Neither 1 or 2 Maccabees (or 3 or 4 for that matter) self-identify the author. So Neil can only use this as a means of exclusion by ignoring many Greco-Roman examples and what appears to be the practice among Jewish historiography.
But it is perhaps the last line that is the most telling. Neil thinks that the preface of Acts is not like those of “the more well known prefaces to ancient histories.” However, one does not establish genre by examining only the most famous examples of each.
3. “But note Cadbury’s comments on the preface to Acts to quite unconventionally fail to mention the purpose or contents of the book it introduces.”
Apparently, Neil claims that the preface of Acts has no summary of the content of what is to follow, which is a departure from the norm. He does not explain why this would render Acts an ancient romance instead of ancient history. Heck, many ancient writings have no preface at all.
In any event, I think Neil misses how Acts actually does summarize the content to follow. The author explains the purpose and explanation in Jesus’ first words:
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth."
Jesus summarizes the contents of Acts by alluding to Pentecost, the witness in Jerusalem, then through broader parts of Judea and even Samaria, and then throughout the Roman Empire. For the rest of this post, I will rely on part of my discussion from my article on Acts.
"[The prefaces of Luke-Acts] certainly suggest that the author is attempting to write history. He refers to 'eyewitnesses' as sources of information. He writes about information being 'handed down.' He writes of investigating everything 'carefully.' He is putting his writing in the form of a 'narrative,' using the same term that Dionysius uses in his Roman Antiquities to describe his own work. Rom. Ant. 2.48.1. Perhaps most important, he states that his purpose for writing is that his reader will know 'the exact truth' about the subject. In short, everything about the preface suggests that the author intended to write history, not narrate fictitious stories.
This is the way the ancients thought history should be written. In his second-century work, The Way to Write History, Lucian of Samosata writes: 'Facts must not be carelessly put together, but the historian must work with great labor and often at great trouble make inquiry, preferably being himself present an eyewitness, failing that, he must rely on those who are incorruptible, and have no bias from passion or prejudice, to add or to diminish anything.' Quomodo 47. The author of Acts seems aware of this maxim and explains that while he himself is not an eyewitness for matters related in the Gospel of Luke, his information is derived from them. Notably, Lucian and Acts’ author use the same Greek word for 'eyewitness.' Regarding making note of the effort put into writing their respective histories, the author of 2 Maccabees refers to the 'labour of making this digest,' Josephus refers to growing weary and the difficulty of translating into Greek, and Luke refers to 'carefully investigating' all things (Lk. 1:3).
The reference in the Gospel’s preface to the author’s forerunners also invites comparison to ancient historiography. 'It is customary in ancient historiography to give a critical evaluation of the other historians, the predecessors, who had dealt with the same history as the historian in question.' The preface of 2 Maccabees, for example, says of his predecessor (and one of his sources), 'I was struck by the mass of statistics and the difficulty which the bulk of the materials causes to those wishing to grasp the narratives of this history.' So, he summarized and reordered the material. 2 Mac. 2:23-25. Josephus is more critical of his predecessors, claiming that he wrote because others had 'perverted the truth' of the war between the Jews and the Romans. Ant. 1.4. His preface to Jewish War is similarly critical. War 1:1-2. In his preface to Roman Antiquities, Dionysius ironically notes with disapproval other historians who were critical of other historians, although he goes on to mention that some historians were “careless and indolent” in compiling their 'narratives.'"
The author of the Luke-Acts does something similar, noting that others had written accounts before him and that he was going to offer his own contribution because he wanted to write an “orderly account.” Although the criticism – if any – of earlier writings is mild, Luke distinguishes his account from them. All told, the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts works in “all the crucial points” we would expect from a preface to ancient historiography.