What Can an Ancient Erotic Romance Tell us About the Acts of the Apostles?

(This is a republication of an earlier post regarding the genre of Acts and Ancient Novels).

I have elsewhere responded to the notion that The Acts of the Apostles is of the genre of ancient novel. One example of this genre to which Acts has been compared is the ancient novel of Chaereas and Callirhoe. F. Scott Spencer, Journeying Through Acts, page 16. I have read Chaereas and Callirhoe (C&C), as well as other ancient novels, and studied them further through secondary sources. In this post I hope to elaborate on some points of comparison by using C&C as representative of some of the features of the ancient novel.

C&C is probably the earliest of the ancient novels. Written around the mid-first century, it places its narrative around 500 years earlier. Its author was a lawyer named Chariton. The name means “man of graces” and many commentators thought the name “too good to be true for an inhabitant of the city of Aphrodite; but it can be shown to be authentic.” B.P. Reardon, Collected Ancient Greek Novels, page 17. I thought this an interesting connection between C&C and Acts, because some commentators have supposed that Theophilus, the addressee of Luke-Acts, was a literary fiction because his name means “lover of God.” I agree with most scholars that Theophilus was a real person. As the C&C example shows, meaningful names are abundant and too much can be read into them.

The Story

But what about the genre comparison of C&C and Acts? Here is a helpful plot summary of C&C from Wikipedia:

The action of the story, which is to a certain extent historical, takes place during the time of the Peloponnesian War. In Syracuse, Chaereas falls madly in love with the beautiful Callirhoe and they are married, but when he suspects her faithlessness, he kicks her so hard that she falls over dead. There is a funeral, and she is shut up in a tomb, but then it turns out she was only in a coma, and wakes up in time to scare the pirates who've opened the tomb to rob it, but they recover quickly, and take her to sell as a slave in Miletus, where the new owner Dionysius falls in love with her and marries her, she being afraid to mention that she is already married (and pregnant). Meanwhile Chaereas has heard she is alive, and has gone looking for her, but is himself captured and enslaved, and yet they both come to the attention of the Great King (of Persia), who must decide on who is her rightful husband, but is thinking about acquiring her for himself. When a war erupts, Chaereas wins a naval victory on behalf of the Egyptians and the lovers are eventually reunited and return in triumph to Syracuse.

A more detailed summary can be found here. For the most recent English translation of the entire novel, read B.P. Reardon’s Collected Ancient Greek Novels. The Loeb Series also provides a translation.


In my article on Acts, I argue that the prefaces of Luke-Acts are strong evidence that the work was to be read as historical. Like other ancient historians, Luke refers to previous works on similar topics and compares them to his own, he refers to accounts being handed down by eyewitnesses, he refers to his own personal investigation into the matters about which he writes, and describes his narrative as an “orderly account” so that his audience would know the “exact truth” about Christianity.

The very brief preface to C&C, on the other hand, contains none of these indications of historical intent:

My name is Chariton, of Aphrodisias, and I am clerk to the attorney Athenagoras. I am going to tell you the story of a love affair that took place in Syracuse.

Chariton's brief preface clearly states the author's intent to write a “story” of a “love affair,” indicating that he is writing a romance. Some ancient novels do not even have a brief introduction. They just begin their story.

The Characters

The families of the two main characters are real, as are some of the rulers they encounter, but the two central characters are fictitious. Most of the secondary characters, such as Mithridates and Pharanaces, are fictitious though given typical names. Not so with Acts. In Acts the leading characters, Peter and Paul, are historical figures attested by contemporary evidence. Other important characters are also historical, such as Barnabas, James and John. Many of the secondary characters are attested by Paul’s own letters, including Priscilla and Aquila, Silas, Timothy, Apollos, Mark, Aristarchus, Sopator, Tychicus, and Erastus. Thus, C&C focuses on fictional characters whereas Acts focuses on historical characters.

In addition to the fictional/historical dichotomy, there is another important difference between the leading characters in C&C and those in Acts. In C&C, Callirhoe and Chaereas act in their own interests concerning their private capacities. This is typical of the ancient romance, which focus on “[t]he adventures or experiences of one or more individuals in their private capacities and from the viewpoint of their private interests and emotions.” B.E. Perry, The Ancient Romances, page 45. Acts, on the other hand, focuses Peter and Paul in their capacities as spreaders of “the Way.” Little or no interest is shown in their personal lives or fates. All that matters is their role in furthering the Gospel.

Historical Setting

The historical setting of Luke-Acts is not vague (though sometimes his chronology is inexact). This does not require that Acts be devoid of historical mistake, though I have argued that Acts has an excellent historical record when it comes to rulers and geography. But Luke “tries to relate his story to the broader historical context. He does this first by providing chronological references for pivotal events (see Luke 1:5; 2:1-2; 3:1-2; Acts 18:12). In addition, he identifies power blocs and governing agents, not only in Palestine (Acts 18:12-17).” Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, page 200.

On the other hand, in C&C “the historical setting is vague” and it “displays a number of anachronisms.” Reardon, op. cit., page 18. “[T]he story reflects a number of historical events and people distributed over most of the fourth century.” Id. Callirhoe’s father, for example, actually died around 407 BC. Yet C&C includes the siege of Tyre by Alexander the Great, which took place over 70 years later. More dramatic is the reference to a woman from Sybaris, which was a Greek colony that was destroyed over 100 years prior to the earliest possible setting for C&C. Also, C&C commits a “gross anachronism” by including women in public assembly because “at the dramatic date of this story women took no part in politics.” Id. page 56. Another geographic anachronism is the reference to a ship putting in “at Paphos. Paphos is a real city, but it was several miles inland from the coast. “It was only after the dramatic date of the story, in the early Hellenistic period, that a port was built near Paphos; and the port usurped the names.” Id., page 113, n. 123.

Some of these anachronisms are simply too extreme to be the result of ignorance or simple mistake. It appears that Chariton consciously incorporates events and details from widely different times for simple dramatic effect. Even assuming some historical mistakes in Acts, they are incomparable in substance and purpose to those present in C&C.

Action & Adventure

It is undeniable that Acts contains some exciting elements in its narrative. Paul escapes an unpleasant fate by being lowered down from a window in the city wall. He escapes death by drowning after his ship is shipwrecked. His life is threatened by a violent mob. He faces trials before government officials.

C&C is also full of harrowing tales, including shipwrecks and trials. But too much can be read into such similarities. "The general themes of travel and adventure, though they are characteristic of the novel, are by no means unique to it.” Bauckham, "The Acts of Paul as a Sequel to Acts," TBATALS, page 145. Historians also added spice to their accounts to maintain reader interest, which appears to be Luke’s goal. In his How to Write History, Lucian noted that historians should write “what will interest and instruct” their audience. § 53. In any event, we know from Paul’s own letters that he in fact did escape by being lowered through a city wall, that he suffered beatings and violence at the hands of his enemies, and that he survived shipwrecks. Thus unlike the tales in C&C, Acts’ dramatic portrayals involving Paul -- even if embellished -- are based on real events that happened to real people. Moreover, if one compares the “entertaining” dramatic elements in C&C to Acts, the ratio towards drama is much greater in C&C than in Acts. The “action” is continuous, with the goal of the narrative to move from one harrowing circumstance to the next.

Finally, pirates play a key role in the C&C narrative. After Callirhoe is buried alive, it is pirates who “rescue” her in their attempt to plunder her grave. She is taken away by them and courted by their members, eventually being sold by them into slavery. Pirate or bandit gangs play similar important roles in other ancient romances, yet play no role in Acts.


The most notable difference between C&C and Acts is the romance. C&C is a story of a couple separated by dramatic events, who find their love tested by dramatic events and notable suitors, and who are finally reunited to live happily ever after. Richard Bauckham’s description of erotic novels captures the essence of C&C: “the erotic novel [] tells the story of two lovers who remain faithful to each other through separations, trials and dangerous adventures, before arriving at a happy and final reunion.” Bauckham, “The Acts of Paul as a Sequel to Acts,” TBATALS, page 145.

C&C is full of descriptions of the protagonists’ beauty, describing in detail its effect on secondary characters. Callirhoe is described as “a wonderful girl, the pride of all Sicily, her beauty was more than human, it was divine, and it was not the beauty of a Nereid or mountain nymph at that, but of the maiden Aphrodite herself. Report of the astonishing vision spread everywhere, and suitors flocked to Syracuse….” Chaereas is described as “surpassingly handsome, like Achilles and Nieus and Hippolytus and Alcibiades as sculptors and painters portray them” and as “radiant as a star.” When the two met by chance on the streets of Sicily, “[a]t once they were both smitten with love.”

Physical suffering or irrationality due to the love or lust inspired by the protaganists' beauty, usually Callirhoe's, is described in detail in C&C. After meeting Callirhoe, Chaereas “was like a hero mortally wounded in battle” and “began to waste away bodily.” When a later suitor first met her, “her voice seemed the voice of a god to Dionysius; it had a musical sound, with the effect of a lyre’s notes. He did not know what to do; he was too embarrassed to continue talking to her; so he went off to his house, already aflame with love.” Kings, nobles, and the wealthy fall madly in love with Callirhoe instantly upon seeing her.

Obviously, there is nothing comparable in Acts. There are few physical descriptions, no mention of romantic love, nothing that could be deemed erotic or romantic. The constrast is stark.


Other than suggesting caution before reading too much into the meaning of an author or addressee's name, C&C is most instructive as an exmple of what Acts likely is not--an ancient novel. It also is helpful in illustrating an acceptable definition of the genre.

After examining C&C’s preface, characters, historical setting, action and adventure, and romance, it is clear that to the extent that it is representative of ancient romances, Acts is fairly distinguished from that genre. Moreover, with a better understanding of C&C, the first of the ancient romances, we can better understand the genre definition for the ancient novel provided by Niklas Holzberg, Professor of Classics at the University of Munich:

[B]y ancient novel we mean an entirely fictitious story narrated in prose and ruled in its course by erotic motifs and a series of adventures which mostly take place during a journey and which can be differentiated into a number of specific, fixed patterns. The protagonists or protagonist live(s) in a realistically portrayed world which, even when set by the author in an age long since past, essentially reflects everyday life around the Mediterranean in late Hellenistic and Imperial societies; the actual characters, however, are given idealistic or comic-realistic features.

Niklas Holzberg, The Ancient Novel, pages 26-27.

Acts is not an entirely fictitious story. Its characters are real historical figures who indisputedly did things or have characeristics as reported in Acts. Rather than being ruled by erotic motifs, the course of Acts is set by the Holy Spirit and spread of the Gospel. Although there are missionary journeys in Acts, they are not part of one grand adventure resulting in a definite conclusion (such as the happy ending of C&C). Rather than setting its narration in an "age long since past," Acts is most commonly dated around 25-30 years after the events it narrates. Even a dating into the second century appears too small a gap for what we would expect in an ancient novel like C&C. Additionally, though left out of Niklas' definition (but included by Perry), it is notable that C&C's story focuses around the private lives of private individuals caught up in extraordinary events. Acts, on the other hand, focuses on the public ministries of Peter and Paul and their place in the history of the spread of Christianity. All in all, C&C proves a very helpful illustration in distinguishing Acts from the ancient novel.


Anonymous said…
Another excellent post, Chris.

Another interesting comparison would be the book of Judith, in the OT Apocrypha. It gives a precise chronological reference in the beginning ("the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar", 1:1) and is full of historical details, but according to the editor "There can be no doubt that Judith was composed as didactic fiction, not factual history" (HarperCollins Study Bible, p.1314) because although "Judith shows familiarity with Palestinian, Assyrian, Babylonion, Persian, and Greek history and geography", it is also the case that "Judith is replete with conflated details drawn from at least five centuries" and furthermore that "The story imaginatively intermingles references to well-known geographical sites with uncertain and even imaginary ones" (Ibid., p.1313). "Not only are historical and geographical details of the story conflated, but its most important scene and star character are otherwise unknown" (Ibid., p.1314).

Contrast with Acts, where historical and geographical details are firmly confined to the mid-1st Century, the star characters are definitely otherwise attested, and the author explicitly says that he is writing an ordered account, based on eye-witness testimony.

If the study of early Christianity was not so tendentious, would there be any doubt as to the intentions (i.e historical) and accomplishment of the writer of Acts?

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