Thursday, September 27, 2007

Is Luke a trustworthy historian?

I want to pick up a thread from my last post, one that I left dangling yesterday. I want to pose what I consider to be a very serious question.

Why is Acts written off today as a Lukan myth with little or no historical value? Why do scholars who wish to argue for the historicity of elements of Acts have to go through an inordinate amount of justification before doing so?

I ask this question for several reasons, reasons that feel schizophrenic to me:
1. When Luke uses Mark, he does not rework Mark as much as Matthew.
2. When Luke uses Q, Q-scholars tell us that he retains Q better in terms of verbage and order than Matthew. In fact, our reconstructed Q is versed according to Luke.
3. Luke tells us in the beginning of his gospel that he relied on older sources to rewrite the Christian narrative which we apparently trust given our hypothesis that Luke is a second edition of Mark.
4. If we think that Luke used Mark and Q as literary sources, wouldn't the best assumption be that he also used older traditional sources for the composition of Acts?
5. If 4 is valid, then shouldn't we be trying to figure out what those older traditions are and what they tell us about Christianity earlier than Luke?
I might add that many of the same scholars who are Q experts, are also the scholars who completely discard Acts in terms of any historical value.

I know that many scholars in the previous generation trusted Acts much more than is done today and perhaps more than it should have been. They didn't allow skepticism to be in the forefront of their scholarship; and more than not they were controlled by a Christian apologetic agenda.

But this doesn't mean that in response we should throw the baby out with the bath water. In my view, it means that we have to get back to the hard work of sifting through the actual primary text narrative to recover any historical nuggets we might be able to locate.


Judy Redman said...

It also seems strange to me that someone might accept Luke as reasonably accurate and then dismiss Acts as myth. The fact that it is likely to have been written from the perspective of a particular faction of the early church does not make it myth. There seems to be little reason for an author who has produced a reliable account of Jesus' ministry to suddenly indulge in wild flights of fancy when producing an account of the establishment of the early church and the mission to the Gentiles. It would seem to me that to argue that Acts is so much less reliable than Luke would be to suggest that they are actually written by two different authors - Luke and pseudo-Luke, if you like. This is not my area of expertise, but I assume that people are not making this argument? said...

Nothing at all wrong with 4.and 5.

May be original Acts started something like: In my former book Epaphroditus I wrote about all that the Spirit began to say. Epaphroditus was Nero's ab epistulis (Director of Chancery) and a libellis (who wrote Nero's replies to petitions). I believe the writer of Acts was James who had gained access to the imperial court, possibly via Seneca - there is extant correspondence between the fictitious 'Paul' (James) and Seneca. The former book about the Spirit and its prophet would have been original 'Mark' with no birth story of Jesus and no resurrection story either.

A parallel is Josephus' original
Antiquities written before War for Epaphroditus. This was while the aristocratic Josephus was being raised in the court of Claudius with Nero - just as Agrippa 1 was raised in the imperial court before him and Agrippa 2 after him. Nero and Josephus were born in the same year. Josephus' original War covered a period up to 68.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see this discussion on the historical validity of Acts. I am working toward a dissertation in Acts and cannot simply dismiss that there is some historical value in Luke's narrative. Granted, my minor is theological hermeneutics so i am constantly asking, "how do we know anything is of historical value?"
Geoff offers an interesting perspective on Acts; interesting but not convincing.

Jim Deardorff said...

Regarding points 4 and 5, I would differ from Geoff. If the writer of Luke did make use of Matthew (no Q), he apparently had an agenda of disfavoring Mark relative to Matthew. This included taking the material of Matthew that the writer of Mark had omitted out of its Matthean context when incorporating it into his own gospel. It also included following Mark's order and text where that deviated from Matthew's order. So why should a reasonable critic trust that Acts would be any more trustworthy than Luke?

Jim Deardorff said...

Oops! I obviously meant, the writer of Luke than apparently had an agenda of disfavoring Matthew relative to Mark. said...

J C Baker, here is something I will throw in briefly that you might find even more interesting even if you are not convinced. In Acts 24, the trial of the fictitious 'Paul' before Festus was the trial of James before the Consul Seneca, probably in the Senate. His accusers were the high priest Ananias and the so-called lawyer Tertullus (who I believe was Ananus, the son of Ananias). Felix (24.24) was Nero and the 'wife' was Poppea (not Drusilla). Nero released James without charge for two years, but for safety allowed him to stay in the palace. Two years later he was accused again by the same high priests. Acts 25 was originally about James' trial before Nero. The outcome was that James was sent back to Judea with Roman blessing to sort out the problems with the messianic priests. This was about 60 to 62 CE.

D. Timothy Goering said...

Great post! I've been waiting to hear something like this for a long time - I strongly feel that the skepticism of 19th and early 20th century theologians desperately needs to be reappraised.
I argee - we should not throw the baby out with the bath water, but it is time to relate to the texts with our own skepticism instead of the inhereted skepticism of previous chairholders.