Dutch Radical Criticism Part IIIa: Paul and Acts

Just over a year ago I started a series to critique the Dutch Radical (DR) interpretation of the Pauline corpus. In the first post I laid out a brief summary of the arguments of that school, which I won't reproduce here. In the second I looked at Albert Schweitzer's critique of DR from over a century ago, written when DR scholars were still very much the focus of scholarly attention. Even though Schweitzer praised them for their spirit of honest investigation he still found their arguments less than convincing. In the meantime I have not been idle, and in fact have been expanding my knowledge of Pauline scholarship in order to deal with DR as thoroughly as possible. Now, at the prompting of a skeptical blogger who was wondering where the rest of my critique was, I'm continuing the series.

In this post I'd like to start looking at the most sophisticated contemporary DR interpretation, put forward by Hermann Detering in his book, Falsified Paul: Early Christianity in Twilight (hence FP; translated by Darrell Doughty). When I started work on this series I intended to deal with each argument separately, in the order that I summarized them in my first post. But re-reading Detering's book made me realize how important its rhetorical structure is to the argument, so I'm going to go through it section by section, more like a review.

I must admit that going through the book again knowing what I know now about Pauline scholarship decreased my estimation of the author. He is clearly a smart, honest person who writes extremely well, with an elegance reminiscent of the 19th Century scholars he is so enamored of. He clearly believes that his work is scholarly and that the DR position is worth defending. But in light of the radical challenge he puts to mainstream Pauline scholarship, he really should have engaged with it more thoroughly than he does in FP. It is ironic that early on in the book he cautions against being dependent "only on reports, conjectures or opinions of others" (11), when in his own arguments he does little more than regurgitate the opinions of the DRs as well as those of the limited cross-section of mainstream Pauline scholarship (mostly German) he seems to be familiar with. This is evident in his treatment of Acts as a source for knowledge about the apostle Paul, as we will now see.

Detering points out that our two most important sources for information about Paul are the letters written in his name, and the book of Acts. He sets out to examine the latter first, perceptively observing that it is still "the best known and most popular source of information" about the apostle (11). Its importance for our reconstruction of Paul's missionary career cannot be overestimated. NT scholars Stanley Porter and Lee McDonald note that "it is not often recognized how much of what is tacitly assumed to be reliable knowledge of Paul is dependent upon the book of Acts"; indeed, "it is impossible to formulate any coherent understanding of the early church, from whatever perspective or stance one has regarding authorship and date, without considerable dependence on Luke-Acts." (Porter and McDonald, Early Christianity and its Sacred Literature, pp. 337, 297) Understandably, then, in order for DR to become even initially plausible the historical value of Acts must be decisively undermined.

Detering begins by claiming that "Acts has a decided drawback in that its historical value is questioned today by an increasing number of scholars" (11). He does not give even the most cursory survey of Pauline scholarship to substantiate this claim, and it is clearly rhetorical, a mere appeal to authority. In fact, the tide has actually turned from the radical skepticism of the 19th Century in the direction of a greater trust in Acts' reliability. The point is not to counter an argument from authority with another, merely to show that, even on his own grounds, Detering is out of touch with current scholarly trends. But on to the actual arguments.

Detering begins by sounding a note of skepticism based on Acts' supernatural content: "can a work that begins with an extensive description of the ascension of Jesus that in no way sounds particularly symbolic be regarded as a reliable historical source?" (13) Well, yes actually. This is an unvarnished statement of metaphysical bias, of the kind that Christian scholars tire of pointing out. The presence of the supernatural in an account has NO bearing whatsoever on whether it is fact or fiction (for further reflections, see my post here). Even if one does not accept the possibility of miracles, it is obvious from even a cursory look at the sources that even the most careful and critical historians of antiquity had no qualms about relaying supernatural occurences and even endorsing them. Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius all include miracle stories, but modern historians continue to regard them as (more or less) reliable sources. Reliability should be judged based on proximity to the events, access to earlier reliable sources, a clear intent to be critical and thorough, etc., and NOT (at least prima facie) on whether the document makes reference to miracles. That Detering fails to adhere to these scholarly standards is clear when he characterizes Acts as "an imaginary marvelous romance" despite the fact that "in the preface the writer takes on the appearance of an historian and follows the customs of an ancient historian in his presentation," a judgment with which most commentators are in agreement (13).

Detering then briefly addresses the question of whether Luke was an eyewitness to Paul's ministry. His verdict, naturally, is negative. Amazingly, he thinks that this is "self-evident from what has just been said [on Acts' supernatural content]. One should reckon that an eye-witness would hardly find it necessary to relate legends for the reader instead of historical events" (13). This is just another demonstration of his blatant metaphysical bias and clearly begs the question of whether Luke or his sources actually thought the events surrounding Paul's career were 'legends'. He is also under the curious impression that "it is recognized...even by conservative scholars, that...the author was not a travelling companion of Paul" (13). Apparently Gasque, Bruce, Hemer, Hengel, Barrett, Dunn, McRay, Witherington, Bock, Porter and many others didn't get the memo (admittedly, some are more cautious than others in affirming that the author was definitely Paul's companion; all, however, argue that Luke had access to excellent contemporary sources). Again an argument from authority without substantiation, and which is actually demonstrably false.

His reasons for rejecting Luke as eye-witness, again, are less than compelling. He asks why "Luke presents a picture of Paul that is entirely different from the picture of the apostle in his letters." He also quotes Philip Veilhauer as observing that "The writer makes historical mistakes regarding the life of Paul that no companion would make...apart from all the rest...A man who reserves the title and honor of an apostle exclusively for the twelve and consistently denies this for Paul, even though Paul claimed the apostolate for himself and defended it, cannot be a companion of Paul." (14) It was indeed Veilhauer who established something of a consensus in mainstream scholarship that Paul in the letter and Paul in Acts cannot be reconciled, but his views have been vigorously challenged by Stanley Porter in his Paul in Acts, as well as all the conservative commentators listed above. Christopher Price has an excellent discussion of the relationship between the two portraits of Paul in his extended article on Acts, pp. 81-100 and concludes that "none [of the objections to Luke's being an eyewitness to Paul] are convincing." Even if the portraits were substantially incompatible, however, this argument wrongly assumes that a companion of Paul would share down to the last detail Paul's own estimation of himself. As Mr. Price points out, however, "even a companion of Paul would write with his own purposes and his own understanding of theology and events. A companion of Paul who was apparently not a convert of Paul, who traveled with him only occasionally, who had significant contact with other early Christian leaders, and who was possibly writing decades after Paul's death, should not be assumed to share slavishly Paul's perspective and view of events." (pp.86-87)

Detering explains away the 'we' passages in Acts, which have long been interpreted as evidence for Luke's authorial participation in the events being related, as a literary device: "it is clearly recognized today...that the 'we-accounts' are a skillful literary fiction." He again quotes Vielhauer's opinion, which he takes to be representative (what was that again about not relying too much on other people's opinions?), that the author "employed the literary means of the personal report in order to feign eyewitness character for some passages concerning Paul." (14) This dismissal is far too easy. We have to ask why, if the author wanted to feign eyewitness authority for some events in Paul's career, he did not do so for all of them, especially the crucially important ones like the account of Paul's conversion. C.J. Thornton further points out that this 'literary fiction' did not exist in antiquity: "The We-narratives of Acts contain nothing which readers in antiquity would not have held to be completely realistic. In them they would be able to recognize only an account of actual experiences of the author" (quoted in Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, p.66n51). A similar argument of Vernon K. Robbins to the effect that the 'we' passages are an ancient literary device has been subjected to devastating criticism by Christopher Price in another article, but will not be examined here. Suffice it to say that the 'literary device' explanation of the 'we' passages is completely unconvincing and there is no reason to take them as anything else than evidence of Luke's participation in the events of Acts as Paul's companion. All that is clearly recognized from Detering's discussion is, again, that he is out of touch with most mainstream scholarship.

If the author of Acts is accepted as a companion of Paul, then our estimation of Acts' historical value should increase, as this is one of Detering's main reasons for skepticism about the historical Paul, viz. the lack of contemporary accounts. But Detering presents further reasons to be skeptical of the Acts account, which will be examined in the next part of this post (next post of this part??).


JD Walters said…
For tracking purposes.
Anonymous said…
Good stuff JD. Detering is simply wrong on his assesment of the move of scholarship in his direction. He might have been able to make that claim a century ago, but it's impossible today. Of all the recent scolarship on Acts, only Pervo comes to mind as presenting a serious case for post-apostolic historical fiction. But even he is cautious, claiming that much of the stories have historical cores.

I will be interested to read Keener's forthcoming commentary that he claims will be well over 5000 pages. I imagine it will be creative and rather authoratative based on his previous work.
JD Walters said…
Hi Anon,

I'm glad you liked it. Have you read Pervo's new massive commentary on Acts? It seems that it will be the definitive skeptical work that conservative scholars will have to come to terms with. Speaking of which, I too greatly look forward to Keener's commentary. Where did you hear that it will be over 5000 pages (presumably in two or more volumes??)? Based on Keener's previous work, I completely agree that it will be authoritative and will include the most exhaustive discussion of primary sources. Hopefully he'll interact with Pervo and Tyson as well!
Anonymous said…
Yeah, I've read much of it. I'll be honest in saying that I expected more of an advancement on his prior work. He doesn't seem to move much beyond his theses in "Profit with Delight," which he wrote nearly a quarter of a century ago. He makes his case as well as one could, but there are simply too many problems for me to find his case very compelling. If anything, he trades a perspective with a few, interesting and good problems for one with all sorts of issues.

His work would be good for a skeptic to become familiar with, but not for the radicalist (and mythicists), whom you deal with on this site.

He argues that the author of Acts knowing Josephus (esp. in regards to Gamaliel and Herod's death) as a source and responding to the proto-orthodoxy of Ignatius (the radicalists obviously deny Ignatian authenticity). As to the former argument, I am completely unpersuaded concerning any reliance of Acts upon Josephus. The linguistic parallels seem to require some extreme stretches and are more likely simply non-existent. More likely is that they are simply commonly known events in the Palestinian world. I'm not even sure there is enough similarity to suspect a common written source.

The linguistic similarities between Acts and the Fathers is more compelling, but lacks enough substance to overturn, or hardly even challenge, the case for an early date (or at least a middle - late 80s, early 90s). Much more likely is their language (shaped largely by their response to 'church' issues) is influenced by Acts (which deals with earlier 'church' issues).

This doesn't even get into the issues with arguing for disunity between Luke/Acts, which is necessary for this thesis. Of course, you are familiar with the many arguments for a pre-100 date, so I won't point them out here. Since that is the conclusions of the vast majority of scholars today and throughout history, the arguments are readily available.

I fully expect Keener to interact with Pervo extensively. I can't remember where I heard him mention it, but in an interview he said that his initial draft was something like 9000 pages and he had to revise it. The original publisher couldn't take on such a large project so he found another...if I remember the interview I'll quote it exactly.
JD Walters said…
You seem to be very familiar with biblical scholarship. Do you mind me asking your name and where you studied? Thanks for your further comments and insights, and please do link to the Keener interview if you find it!
Anonymous said…
As odd as this will sound, I keep anonymous due to reasons that have nothing to do with this blog or it's content, but with my profession and location (missions).

I'm not nearly as familiar with all of the literature as I'd like to be! I am working on a post-grad degree in historical theology though, so I have the background of my grad research, and access to a great library to make it sound like I know what's going on!

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