Saturday, May 7, 2011

Acts as a Historical Source

Beginning from Jerusalem (Christianity in the Making, vol. 2)Despite all appearances to the contrary, I am still working my way through James Dunn’s Beginning from Jerusalem. I’m just doing it slowly.

In his second chapter (chapter 21 following Jesus Remembered), Dunn lists and evaluates the primary sources on earliest Christianity (30 to 70 CE). The bulk of the chapter is devoted to evaluating the earliest narrative of the church’s development – Acts of the Apostles.

Dunn’s analysis of Acts as a historical source begins by probing the authorship and date of the book. In just a few pages Dunn manages to weigh in on a variety of introductory issues. He, like most scholars, considers Acts to be a literary companion to the gospel of Luke based on the similar prologues (Lk 1.1-4; Acts 1.1-2), stylistic similarities, and significant literary parallels (e.g. Lk 3.21-22 \\ Acts 2.1-4; Lk 4.14-21 \\ Acts 2.14-39; 13.16-41; etc.). Like the gospels, there is no authorship ascribed to Acts and so we are left to evaluate early church tradition. Irenaeus is the earliest source to indicate that Luke/Acts was composed by Paul’s travelling companion Luke (Against Heresies, 3.1.1; cf. Muratorian Fragment 3-6; Col 4.14; 2 Tim 4.11). Whether or not this tradition is accurate, Dunn does not think the evidence is strong enough to say (65-66). But, he finds the “we” passages (Acts 16.10-17; 20.5-15; 21.8-18; 27.1-28.16) to be crucial in evaluating Acts as a source and indicates the author’s involvement in the events he describes. As one would expect, the suggestions about dating Acts range widely from before Paul’s death to well into the second century. Dunn, following Schnelle and Fitzmyer, opts for the 80s or early 90s.

Having described his view of the date and authorship, Dunn moves to the question of genre. He begins with the statement, “there is almost universal agreement, despite numerous qualifications, that [Acts] has to be accorded the title ‘history’ in at least some sense” (68). So, Acts is history, but in a highly qualified way. What are the necessary qualifications? Dunn suggests four helpful caveats for describing Acts as history. First, it is important to understand that there is “no single ideal type of ancient ‘historian’” (69). Luke was not following a standard literary form, but rather attempting “to tell the story of Christianity’s beginnings” (69). He may have followed some standard conventions, like including speeches, narrative summary statements and the like, but he was not rigidly following or attempting to follow a standard historical form.

Second, Acts as history does not depend on literary sources. This is surprising in light of the Luke’s obvious use of source-material in composing his gospel. Dunn draws the conclusion that, “Luke’s sources [in composing Acts] were seldom literary and probably much more a matter of reports made personally to Luke” (70). I think this observation raises some interesting questions about the overconfidence of source critical assumptions in regard to the gospels, but more to the point, it speaks to Acts as a different kind of literature than the gospels. Unlike stories about Jesus, a narrative of the early church was not a common literary concern in the first century. “Acts” literature does not become common until the second and third centuries. This might suggest that since Acts was not the kind of literature with which Christians were typically concerned, it was written for a more practical purpose – to tell the story of what happened after Jesus’ ascension.

Third, scholars have longed framed the evaluation of Acts as a literary source by asking whether it is history or theology. Indeed, “the working assumption evidently was that Acts could not be both history and theology without the history being diminished or corrupted” (70-71). This false dichotomy is an unfortunate bias of modern historiography that attempts to scientifically retell “just the facts.” There is no reason why Acts cannot be both theology and history. As Dunn argues, “Modern historians [. . . ] are hardly less biased, tendentious and rhetorical [. . .] in their reconstructions and portrayals of characters and events than ancient historians” (71-72). The time has long since passed that the history vs. theology dichotomy be dispensed once and for all.

Fourth, Dunn observes that describing Acts as “history” does mean that it meets modern standards of historical writing. The ancient world had different measures of history. This is not to suggest that ancient historians were less concerned with “what happened,” but rather to observe that modern historians have the benefit of “extensive source material and more refined methods” (72). Ancient history-writing was a different kind of thing than modern work, but that does not mean it is worthless history. According to Dunn, it does mean that uncritical acceptance of everything written is probably naïve.

So, Dunn considers Acts to be history, but how accurate? In his view, Acts is quite accurate history. Dunn sees accuracy reflected in Luke’s concern to tell what happened (Lk 1.1-4; Acts 1.1-2) and his access to eyewitness accounts of Paul, Silas (Acts 16.10-17), Philip (Acts 21.8, 10), Agabus (Acts 21.10) and surely others. In Dunn’s estimation, “Luke both had personal involvement with Paul’s mission and [. . .] he was able to draw on first-hand (eyewitness) reports for at least much of the substance of the earlier episodes which he narrates in Acts” (76). Dunn also finds a high degree of “concurrence between Acts and data from Paul’s letters” (77). Numerous non-biblical sources also support Luke’s account. On all these counts, then, Luke demonstrates both concern for accuracy and corroborating evidence.

Despite the historical value of Acts, it also demonstrates literary and theological tendencies. Dunn observes how Luke’s primary concern is the outworking of God’s purpose. Furthermore, Acts is concerned to parallel the gospel of Luke, as well as highlight the similarities in Peter and Paul’s respective ministries. Dunn sees Luke indulging in certain literary freedoms such as idealizing the first Christian communities (Acts 2.41-47; 4.32-35), telescoping events, smoothing out relations between Paul and the Jerusalem church (esp. Acts 9.23-30), and ignoring Paul’s letter-writing activity. Dunn also thinks that Luke accepts miraculous accounts “in an uncritical way” (cf. Acts 2.43; 4.30; 5.12; 6.8; 8.13; 14.3; 15.12). I wonder if Dunn would extend this criticism to the accounts of Jesus’ miraculous activity, or even what criteria define an ancient’s “critical evaluation” of miraculous accounts? Despite these tendencies, Dunn concludes his evaluation of historicity, “It is of first importance in all this that we neither attribute to Luke an unrealistically idealistic quality as an ancient historian nor assume that his mistakes and Tendenzen [tendencies] show him to be unworthy of the title ‘historian’” (87).

Though a fitting conclusion to his argument, Dunn goes on to evaluate “the most sensitive area of unease over Luke’s portrayal of Christian origins” – namely the speech material (87). Composing roughly 30 % of the book, the speeches constitute a major portion of Acts and carry the theological freight. How do Luke’s speeches fit ancient historiographical standards that vary from great creativity (compare Josephus, JW 1.373-79 & Ant. 15.127-46) to rigorous effort “to give the general import of what was actually said” (Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22, cited by Dunn 88)? Dunn thinks that Luke has done pretty well drawing from traditions while obviously demonstrating his own literary concerns.

This line of argument raises an important question. How is it that we can differentiate between Luke’s literary concerns and earlier tradition? Dunn goes about this by assuming an early imminent eschatology that eventually tapers off, as well as a low Christology that eventually becomes high. This approach seems suspect to me. It’s not that I doubt eschatology and Christology developed, for I’m sure they did. Rather, I question our ability to observe when this happened as though it were simply an evolutionary development. I question our ability to put firm dates on material based on its theology, especially within a single literary composition. I think Dunn has provided an important question in evaluating the creativity of Luke’s speeches, but I wonder if there is not a better method by which to determine what is “tradition” and what is “Lukan.”

As usual, Dunn has provided a sober reading of the evidence. Acts is a good historical source, but that does not mean it fell from heaven. It demonstrates theological and literary concerns that at times override historical interests.

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