Dutch Radical Criticism Part IIIb: Paul and Acts

In the previous post I began my critical review of Hermann Detering's Falsified Paul, in which he argues for the inauthenticity of the entire NT Pauline corpus. He begins the book with an examination of our sources for the historical Paul, the letters written in his name and the book of Acts, trying to argue that they are both highly suspect. Instead we have so far found his reasons for skepticism themselves highly suspect. In this post we will continue to examine his reasons for rejecting the book of Acts as historically reliable, even though the burden of proof has shifted in light of the fact that he has not given good reason to doubt that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul (see the previous post).

Detering begins with Paul's claim in Acts that he received his religious training from Rabbi Gamaliel I, one of the most respected Jewish scholars of the 1st half of the 1st Century CE. He notes that "The Jewish-rabbinic tinge that one notices in many passages in the Pauline letters is usually explained from this background," and of course "The name of Rabbi Gamaliel is well-known in Jewish tradition." However, he does not think that Paul's connection to Gamaliel is historical because "in Jewish writings of the first two centuries CE there is no mention of a rebellious student of Gamaliel named Paul or Saul." (17) But he does not explain why we should have found one. Even though Gamaliel was highly regarded by later Jewish authors (one going so far as to say that "Since Rabban Gamaliel the Elder died, there has been no more reverence for the law, and purity and piety died out at the same time," Tractate Sotah 15:18), we have very little information about him, including the bulk of his teaching. In fact, "Tradition does not represent Gamaliel as learned in the Scriptures, nor as a teacher, because the school of Hillel, whose head he undoubtedly was, always appears collectively in its controversies with the school of Shammai, and the individual scholars and their opinions are not mentioned" (The Jewish Encyclopedia). The only information we have about any of his pupils is a saying he supposedly spoke comparing them collectively to different classes of fish (see ibid.)! And given that Saul/Paul was probably only one of many pupils, and that his own account of being "far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors" (Gal 1:14) may not have been shared by everyone he encountered, it is not at all surprising that the rabbinic writings, which in any case are already fragmentary and obscure, should not have mentioned him.

Another problem Detering finds with Paul being a student of Gamaliel is that "It is...very remarkable that the supposed student of Gamaliel, who certainly would have received instruction from him in the original Hebrew text of the Old Testament, cites passages from the Old Testament exclusively from the Greek version-as if in his life he had never learned Hebrew!" (17) Whether Paul knew Hebrew or not is obviously hard to tell because all his letters are in Greek, and we should note two things: 1) Paul was first and foremost a diaspora Jew, living in the Gentile world for most of his life despite having received his formal education in Jerusalem (see further Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, pp.323-335), and 2) The Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, was itself a translation from the original Hebrew (though we should be cautious in speaking of THE original, since the Hebrew Bible itself circulated in various manuscript traditions even in late antiquity) done by Jewish scholars in Alexandria, many of them from Judea (see here for a convenient summary). Given that Paul's primary ministry was to the Gentiles (i.e. Greeks) and that the Septuagint was fully accepted in the 1st Century as a legitimate translation there is no reason for Paul's extensive use of the Greek Bible to puzzle us. What's more, Paul writes as a theological innovator, making free use of many different authoritative sources in his work, including the LXX, Jesus tradition, common Hellenistic wisdom, etc. An interesting parallel may be drawn with Philo, who although he was born in Alexandria to a Diaspora family who had lived there for generations, was educated in both Jewish and Hellenistic culture and combined elements of both in his writings. Furthermore, there is also scholarly controversy over whether he actually knew Hebrew because he too cites mostly the LXX, despite being trained by Jewish scholars and his family having close connections with the Jerusalem religious leadership (see the Wikipedia entry here and here).

Detering then argues against the historicity of the stoning of Stephen and Paul's participation in it on the grounds that the scene is "theatrical and histrionic" and it "produces very little for a biography of Paul," other than "as evidence for which side the pre-Christian Saul-Paul was on, namely, on the side of fanatical, anti-Christian Pharisaism." In light of the portrait in Paul's own letters as persecutor, this would seem to be pretty important evidence for a biography of Paul! It is hard to see what exactly Detering's problem with this passage is. He mentions H.J. Schoeps' criticisms of the account, namely that "in spite of great significance as an archetypal martyr, Stephen plays no great role in early Christian literature and that his martyrdom falls entirely into the background next to that of James the brother of the Lord in 66 C.E." He overlooks the fact that Stephen may have been an archetypal martyr only in certain circles, and that Luke's perspective should not be taken as that of the early church as a whole. JP Holding further notes that "in terms of honor ratings, priority to someone like James over Stephen is completely intelligible. Schoeps' mindset is that of the modern individualist who thinks every individual deserves equal time; just as CNN sees fit to report in depth the deaths of single soldiers in war and stories of their families. Schoeps is off target sociologically, and so is his criticism. Stephen would not become a leading example versus someone like James simply because he was not a community leader whose example would be the one to be followed."

Detering also notes that "the material Luke uses for developing his destined death-Stephen is stoned after his speech against the Temple-contains the same motifs as the account of the stoning of James the brother of the Lord." (17-18) The implication is supposed to be that Luke is dependent on the James account. He does not say which account he is referring to, the one in Josephus or the one in Eusebius drawing on Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria. In any case neither of these mentions a speech against the Temple, but there are two similarities, both things that James says. In response to the Jews' request that he warn the people not to "entertain erroneous opinions concerning Jesus," James instead proclaims openly that Christ "sitteth in heaven, at the right hand of the Great Power, and shall come on the clouds of heaven." When the Jews angrily rush to stone him, James prays "I beseech Thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." These sayings are both indeed reminiscent of Luke's account of Stephen's martyrdom, but it seems that the dependency should be the other way around, given that Hegesippus was a late 2nd Century author. In fact, James' last word seems drawn, not from Acts 7:60 (where Stephen says "Lord, don't hold this sin against them!") but from Luke 23:34 ("Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing"), which however has a complicated textual history (see footnote 1 here). In any case, Detering does not further argue for this dependency and Schoeps' suggestion that "The retouching of the facts [transferring details from the account of James' death to Stephen] allowed Luke...to unload the anti-cultic disposition, which was entirely foreign to him" is just that-speculation. If anything, if the 'anti-cultic' disposition was foreign to Luke, the fact that he included Stephen's speech is evidence of historicity: Luke includes the story even though it may not have fit his theology because it was handed down to him from his sources, whom he had thoroughly investigated and consequently trusted to be reliable (whether Luke actually had a 'cultic' disposition is a subject too big for this series).

Detering then takes issue with Acts' account of Paul's persecution of Christians in Damascus, forecfully insisting that "Paul did not have the slightest authority to undertake a persecution of Christians in Damascus, which was an independent city and not subject to the jurisdiction of the Jewish central authority (Sanhedrin)." (19) First, we should note that the scope of Paul's authority was quite limited. He obtained letters from the high priest for the synagogues, not the city officials, so this would have been an entirely local affair. Paul's persecutions may not have even been public arrests. He might have kidnapped the followers of the Way and taken them out of the city furtively. C.K. Barrett notes that "Given the good will of the synagogues in Damascus [towards Jerusalem leadership] it would be quite possible for Jews known to be Christians to 'disappear' (our own age is familiar with the phenomenon, and the word) and subsequently to find themselves in unfavorable circumstances in Jerusalem." (Barrett, Acts, Vol.1 pp. 446-447) Second, Acts does not tell us just what the letters would have told the synagogue officials. It may not have been an order so much as a 'firm request'. Professor Dunn's comments on this episode are worth quoting in full:

"For one thing, Luke attributes the initiative to Saul himself: it was he who went to the high priest and asked for letters of commission (cf. Acts 22:5)...Now, it is quite true that the high priest had no formal jurisdiction over synagogues, least of all in other countries. But he had at least two considerable constraints which he could bring to bear on archisynagogoi and synagogue elders. One was that he was responsible for much of the content and timing of lived-out Judaism; he and his councilors were the ultimate authority in matters of dispute, and it is not at all unlikely that Jerusalem authorities occasionally wrote to diaspora synagogues to encourage them to maintain the traditions and possibly to take sides in some dispute on timing of festivals and the like. The high priest might even have been willing to claim jurisdiction over a 'greater Judea' which included Damascus. In any case, the high priest was not a person whose envoy could be lightly disregarded or dismissed with his mission unfulfilled. The other is that the Temple in Jerusalem held an amazing range of financial deposits for Jews at home and abroad; it was Judaism's 'central bank'. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that any requests were backed, explicitly or implicitly, with threat of financial sanctions." (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, p. 337)

This of course does not prove that Luke's account of Paul's persecution is accurate, but it does remove the taint of suspicion from this episode on account of its historical implausibility, and hence removes another reason to doubt Acts' reliability.

Detering then moves on to the accounts of Paul's conversion. He promises that"We will see below in more detail that Luke's presentation is clearly not to be understood as a rendering of historical events, but as a tendentious rejection of the claim put forward by the writer of the letters to be an eyewitness and thereby a legitimate apostle of Jesus Christ." We will deal with this argument when it comes up, but already there is a serious problem with this suggestion: even though Luke does not describe Paul as actually seeing the form of Jesus in the bright light that surrounds him in the first conversion account (Acts 9:3-8), later in Acts Ananias is reported as telling Paul the following: "The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak" (Acts 22:14). If Luke really meant to 'tendentiously reject' Paul's claim to having seen the Lord he would not have included this testimony. In any case there is really no doubt that Luke means to convey that Paul encountered Jesus and received a commission from him, as is evident again from Ananias' testimony to what Jesus told him about Paul: "this man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel" (Acts 9:15) Luke may have defined the term 'apostle' more strictly than Paul did, but in terms of its general meaning, 'one who is sent', Paul is clearly an apostle in Acts and whatever else Luke would have called him, he was clearly 'legitimate'. Again we should say though that even if Luke meant to undermine Paul's claim to being an apostle, this does not preclude him being the companion of Paul, only that Luke and Paul understood Paul's status differently.

The only other reason Detering gives for doubting the conversion narrative is that "some of the material from which the author constructed his conversion story shows remarkable similarity with other well-known conversion stories in ancient literature. This too does not exactly speak for the historicity of the Lukan presentation." (21) Actually, the only thing it doesn't speak for is Detering's familiarity with historical scholarship. As JP Holding documents in detail, the recasting of stories in terms of previous stories was "a normal practice and an admired skill in this day" (see here, point 2). One important parallel we can point to and which Detering should have mentioned is Justin Martyr's conversion account in his Dialogue with Trypho, chs. 1-8, which also follows standard conversion narrative conventions. Some scholars appeal to this fact as reason to doubt the accuracy of Justin's portrayal of his own conversion, but they do not deny that Justin himself wrote it, or that this was his own understanding of his conversion!

In any case, the one example Detering gives of a parallel falls far short of establishing his argument. In one of Luke's accounts Paul describes the voice he heard as saying, "It hurts you to kick against the goads." This is reminiscent of a scene in Euripides' Bacchae, in which the god Dionysios counsels King Pentheus that "Instead of kicking against God's goads as a mortal, you should rather offer sacrifices." Detering quotes Uta Ranke-Heinemann as concluding that "This Dionysius episode has obviously been taken over into the Damascus scenery. An ancient persecution saying is taken up in a Christian persecution saying." (21) There are two problems with this: 1) as documented above, speakers often recast their stories in terms of other stories, so even if Paul is borrowing from the Bacchae this would not mean the account is ahistorical and 2) by Paul's time the expression 'kicking against the goads' was a common one, not necessarily alluding to Euripides' play. When we take into account Paul's audience in this scene, the Hellenistically inclined King Agrippa and his court, Paul's use of common Hellenistic images seems entirely appropriate.

Detering's further comments on Acts are even less substantial, noting only that "The apostle is portrayed by the writer of Acts primarily as a miracle worker and missionary (not as an independent theological thinker)" and that "At the Areopagus in Athens the apostle preaches the message of the resurrection, which stands at the center of his preaching (The Paul of Acts has never heard anything about justification by faith alone)." (22) As to the former, he seems to have no inkling that these two portraits are not mutually exclusive (see again Christopher Price's discussion of this issue in his extended Acts article, linked to in the previous post); this is just another feeble attempt to twist the difference in perspective between Luke and Paul, which even conservative commentators acknowledge, into an absolute incompatibility which makes Acts useless as a historical source for the life of Paul. As to the latter, we should note two things: 1) Paul was speaking on the Areopagus to a thoroughly Hellenistic audience for whom the dispute over the righteousness of the Law would have been meaningless and irrelevant, in contrast to his audience in the letters for whom the issue IS important, indeed crucial and 2) Paul's doctrine of justification by faith is inextricably linked to, and is in fact founded upon, the fact of Jesus' crucifixion and then resurrection from the dead. One wonders what Detering makes of this passage: "Therefore [Abraham's] faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now the words, 'It was reckoned to him,' were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." (Romans 4:22-25)

Detering then briefly wonders why Acts ends so abruptly "although there would certainly have been many wonderful stories to tell here" (22) before dramatically concluding that "After working intensively on Acts, I realized that the attempt with its help to get closer to the person of Paul had failed miserably. The biographical information it contained about the apostle seemed to be mostly legendary in character...anyone who would base his historical knowledge of the Apostle on Acts must tumble into the deep, golden abyss of fairy tales and legends...The question whether anything at all in the presentation of Acts could have historical value could basically not be answered by a historian who was aware of his responsibility." (23-24)

As we have seen in some detail, however, nowhere does Detering offer the kind of thorough discussion which would legitimate this radical skepticism about Acts, and his interaction with mainstream scholarship-which again and again clarifies and demystifies Detering's supposedly insurmountable challenges-is almost non-existent. Nowhere does Detering discuss the work of Martin Hengel, for example, one of the most highly regarded modern historians of antiquity, who has extensively argued for the reliability of Acts in its original context. And he does not discuss the other reasons scholars have given for trusting the author of Acts, such as his vast and detailed familiarity with features of mid-1st Century geography, politics and culture that would have been hard to come by for someone who was not familiar with them first-hand, in an age when "there were no almanacs providing ready information regarding titles and dates of officials and no easy access to official records by someone of Luke's likely rank and status." (for a full documentation, see Christopher Price's article on Acts, pp.20-35) Thus Professor Dunn's judgment seems justified, that the accuracy of detail "can hardly be better explained than by Luke's own involvement with those caught up in the events (or with the events themselves), or by his having access to eyewitness accounts of the events." (Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem, p.81)

We conclude then that there are no good reasons for thinking that the author of Acts was anything other than a sometime companion of the historical Paul, a contemporary whose account can be corroborated by external sources and by Paul's own letters to a remarkable degree. This by itself should make any further discussion superfluous, and our contact with the historical Paul secure. But the main thrust of Detering's book is his reasons for skepticism of our other important source for knowledge of Paul: the letters written in his name. And since historians work in a dialectical way with the letters and Acts, each being compared with the other, and further that Paul's letters are universally taken to be a more secure historical starting point than Acts, we will still have to look at those reasons. That will be the task of subsequent posts.


JD Walters said…
For tracking purposes.
Jason Pratt said…
Good posts so far, JD!

Notably, things like the termination point of Acts indicated to JAT Robinson that the text was written pre-70--and before the martyrdom of James, too. Indeed, considering that James plays a more extensive role in Acts than Stephen, it doesn't make much sense for an author writing in the 80s (not to say substantially later!) to land so strongly on Stephen at the expense of the James-cult. (Luke could have presented it prophetically foreshadowing the death of James--who doesn't appear in Acts until well after Stephen's martrydom. Indeed, the only prophetic foreshadowing of martyrdom in Acts is Paul's, and that's pretty loose.)

Quixie said…
Thanks . . . . . I read all the links you gave me and these new posts too.
I sorta jotted down some impressions on my own blog.




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