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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Note: Part 3 of this series can be found here. It discusses how Dr. Richard Pervo, in his 2006 edition of Dating Acts, spends a surprising amount of time and effort trying to sheerly imagine connections between the Lukan and the Josephan references to a rebel Theudas. His attempt does not end well. {lopsided g}


Part 4 -- Of Course, There Are Some Differences...

“There are, of course, differences between the two accounts,” Dr. Pervo admits (p 157)--having already effectively admitted that one such huge and glaring difference is the terminology used to describe Theudas, despite his attempts to insist on a startling similarity between them. Another such difference is that one account talks about a Theudas rebelling before Judas the Galilean, and one talks about a Theudas rebelling afterward. This is not a small difference! But more on this and its implications for Dr. Pervo’s thesis later.

Yet another important difference, one that Dr. Pervo tries to gloss over the implications of, is that where Josephus claims a very large mob followed Theudas (“the largest mob imaginable” as Dr. P allows the gist of the phrase in Greek), Luke/Gamaliel mentions the much smaller and more precise 400 men.

Dr. Pervo’s defense of this difference, aside from the license of ancient historians to inflate for narrative effect (in this case meaning Josephus--which doesn’t discredit Josephus as a legitimate ancient historian in Dr. P’s reckoning, or that of any other sane and experienced student of ancient historiography), is that we can demonstrate (by comparing multiple accounts in his own texts) that Josephus does not necessarily have large amounts in mind when he writes about large amounts; consequently he and Luke could still be referring to the same account.

This would hold more water if the actual textual characteristics of the accounts were not so specifically different in their timing so as to exclude them, on the face of it, referring to the same Theudas incident. It is a fact, not a hypothesis, that once again Luke’s account is very different from Josephus not only on a crucial point of detail but in style and wording. Why would Luke bother to make a more sober guess as to the numbers, if all he was doing was making a slapdash and grossly inept reference to Book 20 of Antiquities? This is the kind of thing historians normally look for when inferring that two different incidents, despite surface similarities, are being referenced. Even Dr. Pervo has to eventually admit that the existence of this detail counts against his theory, although he tries to make it seem as small a problem as possible (a “gate” for the defense of Luke’s non-reference to Josephus “[that] seems little larger than the eye of a needle”)--mainly by the rhetorical expedient of mocking anyone otherwise as being just desperate to save their case in Luke’s favor.

Dr. Pervo can, admittedly, imagine a reason for (repeating my previous question) why Luke would bother to make a more sober guess as to the numbers, if all he was doing was making a slapdash and grossly inept reference to Book 20 of Antiquities. But his reason, aside from the problem of being purely imaginary, only stretches a thin thread thinner. Luke/Gamaliel states that Theudas was killed and his band of 400 was broken up and reduced to nothing; Josephus relates that many of Theudas’ massively large number of followers were either captured or slain, while Theudas himself was taken or beheaded. A sober imagination might explain this variance (if it needed any explanation, which strictly speaking it does not) by supposing that Luke, in his slapdash haste, saw no need to include more details and so just quickly generalized. Except of course for that 400 tally--which also wouldn’t require explanation at all if there are two different incidents being referenced (i.e. what the textual evidence itself indicates, not hypothetical theories about the text and its sourcing), but which does require explanation if Luke is supposed to be making a dash-through (and ultimately inept) reference to Book 20: because that 400 number is a sober and particular correction to Josephus’ tendency to exaggerate for stylistic effect (assuming hypothetically that it’s taken from Antiquities at all), and so is not the sort of thing that someone haphazardly borrowing material would do.

For the sake of defending his own thesis, then, Dr. Pervo needs an explanation for that 400. And he himself is aware that he needs one; so, he imagines what he calls “a good explanation”: four hundred is a common enough round number that “provides a good comparison with the Jesus movement”--by which Dr. Pervo means the size of the movement he himself expects (or feels?) is correct at the time of Gamaliel’s ostensible remark.

The problem here is that, as Dr. Pervo is well aware (he mentions it himself, p.157) Luke numbers Christians in the few thousands by the time of this scene.

My point is not that we, in assessing the data, are required to take those thousands as being historically accurate--although it might be worth remembering that if any of us, after the fact, feel that something like 400 is a more realistic number of Christians by this time in the story, we’re just feeling this against the report of someone (even if he was writing in the early-mid-2nd century) much closer to the situation than us; a person who in other regards (including in comparison to Josephus!--also especially here in this very example!) often shows restraint in reporting numbers. The only hard data to go by is the textual data here in Acts, be that data right or wrong.

But as I said, that isn’t my point. My point is this: if the author of Acts is going to just make up a “common round number” to match Christian population estimates, why would the author not have made up a number to match his own established information on Christian population estimates instead of one much lower?--an alternative number, moreover, which also happens to match better with Josephus’ own very large mob reference? Say, four thousand?

Amusingly, Dr. P’s explanatory thesis for the difference in numbering, practically requires us to tacitly accept that after inflating numbers for narrative effect (a practice which would not disqualify Luke from the standards of legitimate ancient historians, as Dr. P is entirely prepared to grant when talking about Josephus), Luke went on to report a more realistic number in the mouth of Gamaliel because Gamaliel was trying to make a point of rhetorical comparison between cases, and Luke felt obligated to report that detail correctly while (conveniently for his own purposes) leaving out the real reason for why Gamaliel was doing it. In other words, the most immediately plausible explanation for Dr. P’s own thesis regarding the numbering difference, is that Gamaliel really said this (not as a fictional mouthpiece for Luke, who could otherwise make him say anything with the stroke of a stylus) and Luke had to grudgingly report it!

But then, what’s missing from this explanation? A need for Luke to refer to Josephus at all.

This is all aside from the fact that there is exactly nothing in the Acts data to indicate Gamaliel (as a literary character or a historical one) is trying to make this kind of comparison. It's completely an imagined guess from Dr. P, to try to explain why Luke wouldn't follow Josephus on the size of the group.

That 400 number will circle back around to haunt his explanation again toward the end. But first, Dr. P has some circling to engage in himself.


Next time: why circling those shells is so important...

2 comments:

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Very well said.

Pervo's attempt to explain why Luke puts the number lower than Josephus while still having copied him fails by its own internal logic. If Luke was trying to build some sort of equivalence in size between Theudas' followers and Jesus' followers why would he make the number of Jesus' followers so much lower? Pervo fails to note that shortly before recounting Gamaliel's speech, Luke placed the number of Jesus' male followers at five thousand (Acts 4:4: "But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand."). Luke, therefore, places the number of Theudas' followers at less than 10% of Jesus' followers (just the men, in fact) at the time of Gamaliel's speech.

Luke is either referring to a different Theudas or is referring to Theudas more accurately, here, than Josephus, demanding a source distinct from Josephus.

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