A Response to Neilgodfrey on the Genre of Acts (Part 1)

This post begins a series of responses to a series of posts by Neildgodfrey on the genre of Acts. Specifically, this post addresses his introductory remarks, which can be found here.

Neil begins by stating his “full” agreement with the theory of Richard Pervo -- whose conviction and resignation in disgrace from the University of Minnesota on child porn charges proves that irony in names is not evidence of fictitious creation -- that Acts is an ancient romance novel. Yet, Neil concedes that Acts was intended to be read as history. Ancient novels, however, were not intended to be read as history. They were meant to be read as novels.

But Neil argues that it is significant, and I guess in Pervo’s favor, that Acts was targeted at a popular audience. It is not like the “heavier and drier tombs of Thucydides.” Apparently because of this, and despite admitting that Acts was meant to be read as history, Neil claims Acts cannot be understood as ancient historiography. It is unclear why the fact that Acts was written to a more popular audience means that it cannot be ancient historiography. Are all American novels that are not as “heavy and dry” as The Great Gatsby not novels at all? Does the fact that This Hallowed Ground by Bruce Catton is drier and more academic than Stephen Ambrose’ popularized history of D-Day mean that Ambrose was not writing history? Of course not.

So why must Acts be an ancient romance despite its historical elements rather than an ancient history despite its popularizing elements? Given that genre is intended to communicate authorial intent, it would seem that the scales would tilt toward historiography. Perhaps it is a historiography meant to include an audience of somewhat lower social stature than ancient histories such as Thucydides. We shall see whether Neil has anything more convincing to say on the matter.

Neil also – as usual – argues that those scholars who identify Acts as ancient historiography do so because of bias. Such people cannot help but see Acts as religiously significant and simply lack familiarity with contemporary classical works. Neil, you see, has read ancient histories and ancient novels and avoids this trap. But Neil is trapped by his own skeptical biases, as we have seen before. Ironically, many classical historians have placed greater value on Acts as a valuable piece of ancient historiography than many professors of biblical studies.

Robin L. Fox, perhaps most famous for his book Pagans & Christians, is a Fellow of New College, Oxford, and University Reader in Ancient History. An avowed atheist, Fox wrote a book about the Bible titled The Unauthorized Version. Although critical of what he perceives as fundamentalist views of the Bible, Fox concludes that Luke-Acts is a valuable historical writing authored by a companion of Paul. Indeed, Fox compares Luke-Acts to Herodotus and Thucydides, noting that he based his histories on first hand experience and accounts:

I regard it as certain, therefore, that he knew Paul and followed parts of his journey. He stayed with him in Jerusalem; he spent time in Caesarea, where he lodged with an early member of the Seven, Philip, who had four prophetic daughters, all virgins (Acts 21:8-9). It must have been quite an evening. He had no written sources, but in Acts he himself was a primary source for a part of the story. He wrote the rest of Acts from what individuals told him and he himself had witnessed, as did Herodotus and Thucydides; in my view, he wrote finally in Rome, where he could still talk to other companions of Paul, people like Aristarchus (a source for Acts 19:23 ff.; cf Acts 27:2, 17:1-15) or perhaps Aquila and Priscilla (whence 18). From Philip he could already have heard about the Ethiopian eunuch (Philip met him), or Stephen and the Seven (Philip was probably one), or the conversion of the Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea (Philip’s residence); from the prophet Agabus, whom he met at 21:10, could come knowledge of Agabus’ earlier prophecy in 11.28.

Fox, Pagans & Christians,, page 210.

Then there is A.N. Sherwin-White. An imminent Roman historian at Oxford and member of the British Academy, one of Fox’s books, Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, focuses on the earliest Christian documents’ relationship with the broader Roman context. When he turns his attention to Acts, Sherwin-White states, "For Acts the confirmation of history is overwhelming" and that "any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted." Ibid., page 189.

In Roman Law and Roman Society, Sherwin-White find contemporary biblical studies to be unduly skeptical:

So, it is astonishing that while Greco-Roman historians have been growing in confidence, the twentieth-century study of the Gospel narratives, starting from no less promising material, has taken so gloomy a turn in the development of form-criticism... that the historical Christ is unknowable and the history of his mission cannot be written. This seems very curious.

Ibid., page 187.

So in the case of these two leading classical historians, familiarity with the classics has resulted in a more favorable view of Luke-Acts as history than many New Testament scholars hold. Sherwin-White’s statements that most classicists have faith in the New Testament documents receives further support from the reviews of his own book and by the works of other classicists.

For example, John Crook reviewed Roman Society and Roman Laws for Classical Review and agreed that Acts is “an historical source talking about exactly the same world as Tacitus and Suetonius.” He thought that Sherwin-White’s work “support the authenticity in detail of Acts.” Classical Review 14 (1964): 198-200. Another reviewer, J. J. Nicholls, agreed with Sherwin-White that the Gospels and Acts “are to be treated as equally serious and valuable evidence” as other ancient historians, such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Tacitus.” Journal of Religious History (1964): 92-95.

So we have several classical historians accepting Acts as ancient history, and even comparing him to the classical historians with which they were so familiar. Neil’s contention that familiarity with classical writings leads to a rejection to Acts as ancient history is simply wrong. Speaking personally, my study of ancient novels, histories, biographies, and other writings has convinced me that the attempt to place Acts in the sphere of ancient novel or romance is misplaced, whereas the location of it in the sphere of ancient historical writings, such as historiography and biography, is on more firm ground.

I would add that Neil sells many New Testament scholars short by implying they are ignorant or dismissive of classical studies. For examples, Ben Witherington, Darrel Bock, Joseph Fitzmyer, David E. Aune, and Gregory E. Sterling seriously engage the classical literature in their discussions of the purpose and genre of Acts.

As time permits, I will address future installments, beginning with a discussion of the Prologues to Luke-Acts.


Anonymous said…
Yes! I've been looking forward to this, although I personally came away from those posts thinking that if Pervo and Tyson really argue as Godfrey is summarizing them, they don't have much of a case.
Jason Pratt said…
{{I would add that Neil sells many New Testament scholars short by implying they are ignorant or dismissive of classical studies. For examples, Ben Witherington , Darrel Bock, Joseph Fitzmyer, David E. Aune, and Gregory E. Sterling seriously engage the classical literature in their discussions of the purpose and genre of Acts.}}

Ditto Hemer.

Neil said…
The first claim my Cadre critic says about my post is:

"Neil begins by stating his “full” agreement with the theory of Richard Pervo"

Unfortunately, I have never at any time expressed "'full' agreement" with the "theory" that "Acts is an ancient Romance novel."

This was just the first of a litany of distorted paraphrases of what I wrote.

I have responded to these straw-man criticisms by quoting the full sentences and sometimes contextual paragraphs of my critic and setting them beside my actual words so honest readers can compare and see the difference.

Layman said…

Perhaps you could clarify. Acts is closer to being an ancient romance novel than ancient history? Acts borrows so much form ancient romance novels that it cannot be ancient historiography?

The wonders of blogs is that you can clarify what you mean quite easily.

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