Genre, On the Life of Moses, and Luke-Acts

In a previous post, I discussed the difference a genre can make by focusing on Philo's On the Life of Moses (OLM). Although usually adopting a creative allegorical approach to Jewish scripture, in OLM Philo adopts a relatively straightforward biographical approach to the life of Moses. He makes relatively faithful use of the Old Testament and traditions of his people.

While reading OLM, I was struck by the similarities in many of its features with Luke-Acts. I will begin with the general similarities and then focus in more detail on the similarities of the works' prefaces.

General Features

On the Life of Moses and Luke-Acts are of comparable length, filling two scrolls. OLM is around 32,000 words long and Luke-Acts is around 37,700 words long.

On the Life of Moses and Luke-Acts are both Greco-Jewish works. Their audiences were predominantly Hellenized readers, though possessing an interest in the Jewish faith.

Related to the Jewish aspects of both writings is the regard for God’s providence and intervention in human affairs. Philo is clear that Moses’ rise and accomplishments were a result of God’s providence and direction. In Luke-Acts, the actions of Peter and Paul are similarly described as resulting from God's providence and direction.

Another similarity is that both OLM and Luke-Acts are "anonymous" works. That is, the text itself does not identify the author. This was not uncommon among ancient historical writers. For example, Tacitus' The Agricola and The Germania are both "anonymous." Obviously, anonymous does not mean that the author was unknown. It just means that the author did not mention himself by name in the text of the book. Authors were known to their patrons or communities, and likely would have been identified on the outside of the book.

Finally, although Greco-Roman historical writings are generally disinclined to endorse the miraculous, OLM and Luke-Acts are obvious exceptions. In OLM, most of the miracles related to Moses, such as the parting of the sea and miraculous provision of food in the desert, are repeated without qualification. Luke-Acts also recounts some miracle accounts.


Luke-Acts and OLM are two-volume works, each having an introductory preface in the first volume and a shorter preface in the second that references the first. Both have prefaces that include an explicit statement of the purpose for writing. OLM was written with “a desire to make [Moses'] character fully known” and Luke-Acts was written so “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

The prefaces of both works also refer to prior works on the same topic. OLM refers to accounts of Moses as lawgiver, other accounts as interpreter of the law, and to others of Moses as the greatest and most perfect man who ever lived. Luke-Acts refers to the “many others” who have drawn up accounts. Both OLM and Luke-Acts justify their own writing by distinguishing it from their predecessors.

The prefaces in both works refer to their sources. In OLM, Philo refers to his sources as the sacred scriptures written by Moses and the traditions of the elders of the Jewish nation. Notably, from what we can tell, OLM is relatively faithful to its sources. Luke-Acts refers to the “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.”

The prefaces in both works also discuss the author’s unique suitability to undertake the literary effort. Philo refers to his having “continually connected together what I have heard with what I have read, and in this way I look upon it that I am acquainted with the history of his life more accurately than other people.” Luke-Acts refers to having “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and his effort to write an “orderly account.”

Notable Differences

The similarities of the two works are significant, but so are the differences. There is less direct discourse in OLM than in Luke-Acts. Further, while OLM focuses on the life of one man, Luke-Acts splits its interest. The life of Jesus is the focus of Luke, whereas Acts focuses mainly on Peter and Paul, with other notable but less important characters receiving attention.

Also significant is that OLM writes about events that happened long ago. Moses was no contemporary to Philo or anyone in his audience. The traditions about Moses were well known in Philo's community, but the traditions were not fresh and certainly no eye-witnesses of his life had been accessible for hundreds of years when Philo wrote. Luke-Acts, on the other hand, was written about relatively recent events (even if dated as late as the 90's AD). This is reflected in the preface, as Luke-Acts refers to eyewitnesses passing on traditions. Eyewitnesses to Jesus, even if not directly available, were not far removed. For the actions of Peter and Paul, eyewitnesses were more likely available to the author, who claims to have been a participant in some of the events he narrates.


The similarities between OLM and Luke-Acts are intriguing. On the Life of Moses is a biographical work widely acknowledged as representing the features of that genre. Luke-Acts has been characterized as a biographical work with a succession narrative, but is more often seen as ancient historiography. Some simply conclude that Luke was an ancient biography and that Acts was ancient historiography. The two genres were related, so bright line distinctions between them are not always helpful. Accordingly, the similarities between On the Life of Moses and Luke-Acts adds further weight to the opinion that Luke-Acts is an ancient historical work, rather than some sort of ancient romance or novel.


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