Carrier on Acts as Historical Fiction from OHJ

 

The book of Acts has been all but discredited as a work of apologetic historical fiction.[1] Nevertheless, its author (traditionally Luke, the author of the Gospel: see Chapter 7, §4) may have derived some of its material or ideas from earlier traditions, written or oral. But the latter would still be extremely unreliable (note, for example, the condition of oral tradition under Papias, as discussed in Chapter 8, §7) and wholly unverifiable (and not only because teasing out what Luke inherited from what Luke chose to compose therefrom is all but impossible for us now). Thus, our best hope is to posit some written sources, even though their reliability would be almost as hard to verify, especially, again, as we don't have them, so we cannot distinguish what they actually said from what Luke added, left out, or changed.

 But that project has not gone well. Really only one underlying historical source has been confirmed with any probability, and that's Josephus,[2] who said nothing about Christ or Christianity (see Chapter 8, §9). Luke simply used him for background material. All the other sources we can discern in Luke are literary, not historical. Those include what may have been a now-lost hagiographical fabrication, essentially a rewrite of the Elijah—Elisha narrative in the OT Kings literature, but now casting Jesus and Paul in the principal roles. That is not what we would call a historical account—its sources are not eyewitnesses or historical memory, but the OT (as a literary model) and the imagination of the author reworking it. Thomas Brodie argues that this evident reworking of the Kings narrative starts in the Gospel of Luke and continues to Acts 15, indicating either that Luke wove this literary construct into his story or used an underlying source text, a previous Gospel, that covered both the acts of Jesus and the acts of apostles in one book. So Luke took either this source text or his own literary idea (or perhaps an early draft) and inserted more stories, thereby expanding it into two books, using material from Mark, Matthew, and perhaps other now-lost Gospels (see discussion in Chapter 10, §6), as well as some of the Epistles of Paul, and then continued the story from Acts 15 to 28 (which portion may have its own similar source-text or may be Luke's own invention).[3]

 The remaining sources we can discern are not hypothetical, because we actually have them. For example, Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked tales from Homer, casting them with new characters and giving them new outcomes as it suited him. For example:

The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god. and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship]. [4]

Paul himself says he was shipwrecked three times, and at least once spent a day and a night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25). Luke may have been inspired by this remark to invent a story about it, borrowing ideas from other famous shipwreck narratives (including those in Jonah, the Odyssey and the Aeneid). Acts rewrites Homer several other times. Paul's resurrection of the fallen Eutychus is based on the fallen Elpenor.[5] The visions of Cornelius and Peter are constructed from a similar narrative about Agamemnon.[6] Paul's farewell at Miletus is constructed from Hector's farewell to Andromache.[7] The lottery of Matthias is constructed from the lottery of Ajax.[8] Peter's escape from prison is constructed from Priam's escape from Achilles.[9] And so on.

The author of Acts used many other literary sources as well. For example, the prison breaks in Acts share themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks in the Bacchae of Euripides.[10] But the source Acts employs the most is the Septuagint. For example, while MacDonald shows the overall structure of the Peter and Cornelius episode is based on a story in Homer. Randel Helms has shown that other elements are borrowed from the book of Ezekiel, merging both models into one: both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open (Acts 10.11; Ezek. 1.1); both are commanded to eat something in their vision (Acts 10.13; Ezek. 2.9); both twice respond to God, 'By no means, Lord! (using the exact same Greek phrase, medamos Kurie: Acts 10.14 and 11.8; Ezek. 4.14 and 20.49); both are asked to eat unclean food, and both protest that they have never eaten anything unclean before (Acts 10.14; Ezek. 4.14).[11] Obviously the author of Acts is not recording historical memory here. He's assembling a story using literary structure and motifs from sources that have little or nothing to do with what actually happened to Peter or Paul. And he is doing this all to sell a particular (historically fabricated) account of how early Christianity abandoned the requirement of Torah observance, one that made it seem approved even by Peter all along, complete with the confirming approval of divine revelation—when in fact we know from Paul (in Gal. 2) that Paul was for a long time its only advocate and was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter, often conten-tiously. In just the same way, Acts 15.7-11 'pretty much puts Paul's speech from Gal. 2.14-21 into Peter's mouth', the exact opposite of what Paul tells us actually happened.[12]

Every other story in Acts is like this: a fictional creation, woven from prior materials unrelated to any actual Christian history, to sell a particular point Luke wanted to make. Maybe there was some authentic source material behind some of what appears in Acts, somewhere. But how can we find it? From beginning to end Acts looks like a literary creation, not a real history. It was written to sell a specific idea of how the church began and evolved.[13] It is clear 'the author of Acts wanted to stress the continuity of Judaism and Christianity, Paul's close relation to the other apostles, and the unity of the first believers' and thus had to 'subvert' the Epistles of Paul, especially Galatians.[14] For example, we know Paul 'was unknown by face to the churches of Judea' until many years after his conversion (as he explains in Gal. 1.22-23), and after his conversion he went away to Arabia before returning to Damascus, and he didn't go to Jerusalem for at least three years (as he explains in Gal. 1.15-18); whereas Acts 7-9 has him known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church continuously from the beginning, even before his conversion, and instead of going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts he goes immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem just a few weeks later, and never spends a moment in Arabia. And yet we have the truth from Paul himself.

Clearly the author of Acts was not writing actual history but revisionist history. Which we call pseudohistory. He simply made things up, with little real care for historical accuracy or fact. Besides what we've already seen, the most obvious example of this is Luke expanding Jesus' post-resurrection stay on earth to an incredible forty days of hanging out with his disciples and more than a hundred other believers in secret the whole while, teaching them daily—even more, apparently, than he could think to teach them while alive—and then flying up into outer space to the accompaniment of angels (Acts 1.3-12). This is myth, not history.

Burton Mack gives another example of how Luke's version of the history of early Christianity in Acts is wholly unrealistic: 'Luke says that the standard sermon was preached to the Jews on the day of Pentecost and often thereafter, whereupon hundreds converted and the world became the church's parish overnight', but this is 'a story that does not make sense as history by any standard'. Not only in respect to its absurdly hyperbolic growth, but even just in the context of how people would really behave.[15] As Mack puts it:

No Jew worth his salt would have converted when being told that he was guilty of killing the messiah. No Greek would have been persuaded by the dismal logic of the argumentation of the sermons. The scene would not have made sense as history to anyone during the first century with first-hand knowledge of Christians. Jews, and the date of the temple in Jerusalem. So what do we have on our hands? An imaginary reconstruction in the interest of aggrandizing an amalgam view of Christianity early in the second century. Luke did this by painting over the messy history of conflictual movements throughout the first century and in his own time. He cleverly depicted Peter and Paul as preachers of an identical gospel. . . . That is mythmaking in the genre of epic. There is not the slightest reason to take it seriously as history.[16]

In short, the narrative we have in Acts is so unrealistic, it cannot have been based on anything that actually happened. It's what Luke wishes to have happened, maybe what he wants people to believe happened; but it's certainly not what happened, even in outline. And as for this instance, so for all others in Acts.

This conclusion should not surprise us, since all other Acts literature written by Christians was wholly fabricated as well. The Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John and the Acts of Thomas all look substantially like the Acts of the Apostles in the NT, yet are obviously not based on any kind of history. They are literary creations, telling stories the authors wanted, using known legendary characters (the various apostles after which they are named, plus in each its own cast of characters, some historical, some mythical, some invented to the purpose). There is really no reason we should privilege the Acts in the NT as somehow more historical or more reliable than any of these others, which were all written within decades of each other. Indeed for this very reason we should have presumed Acts to be fiction all along, albeit historical fiction, just like the Maccabean literature before it and other purported works of religious history (see, again, Element 44). Prior probability favors no other conclusion.

The literary coincidences in Acts are also too numerous to be believable history, and reflect the deliberate intentions of the author to create a narrative that served his purpose. For example, as Robert Price observes:

Peter and Paul are paralleled, each raising someone from the dead (Acts 9.36-40; 20.9-12), each healing a paralytic (3.1-8: 14.8-10). each healing by extraordinary, magical means (5.15: 19.11-12). each besting a sorcerer (8.18-23; 13.6-11), each miraculously escaping prison (12.6-10; 16.25-26).

Similarly, just as Peter is sent by God to save Cornelius when Cornelius sends for him after a vision (Acts 10), Paul is sent by God to save the Macedonians "when a certain Macedonian man" sends for him in a vision (Acts 6.9-10).[17] Luke makes Paul's story parallel Christ's as well: 'both undertake peripatetic preaching journeys, culminating in a last long journey to Jerusalem, where each is arrested in connection with a disturbance in the temple', then 'each is acquitted by a Herodian monarch, as well as by Roman procurators'.[18] Both are also plotted against by the Jews, and both are innocent of the charges brought against them. Both are interrogated by 'the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin' (Acts 22.30; Lk. 22.66; cf. Mk 14.55; 15.1), and both know their death is foreordained and make predictions about what will happen afterward, shortly before their end (Lk. 21.5-28; Acts 20.22-38; cf. also 21.4).

But Paul does almost everything bigger than Jesus: his journeys encompass a much larger region of the world (practically the whole northeastern Mediterranean); he travels on and around a much larger sea (the Mediterranean rather than the Sea of Galilee); and though, like Jesus, on one of these journeys at sea he faces the peril of a storm yet is saved by faith, Paul's occasion of peril actually results in the destruction of a ship. Likewise, Paul's trial spans years instead of a single night, and unlike Jesus, veritable armies plot to assassinate Paul, and actual armies come to rescue him (Acts 23.20-24). While Jesus stirs up violence against himself by reading scripture in one synagogue (Lk. 4.16-30), Paul stirs up violence against himself by reading scripture in two synagogues (Acts 13.14-52 and 17.1-5).[19] However, whereas Christ's story ends with his gruesome death (which had a grand salvific purpose, which could not be claimed for Paul's ultimate death, and which to end well had to be followed by a once-and-final resurrection, something that could also not be claimed for Paul), Paul's story ends on a conspicuously opposite note: 'and he abode two whole years in his own hired dwelling, and received all that went to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, none forbidding him', something even Jesus could not accomplish when he was in Roman custody (Acts 28.30-31). Thus Paul outdoes Jesus even in that.

Paul and Jesus also both die and rise again from the dead, yet unlike Jesus, Paul actually stomps right back into the city unmolested and continues to publicly preach throughout the land, winning many more disciples for Jesus (Acts 14.19-21 and thereafter). In contrast, Jesus wins no new disciples after his resurrection and doesn't even try. And all this occurs immediately after Paul, also just like Jesus, is hailed as a god (Lk. 22.70)— and yet again Paul outdoes Jesus by humbly denying the claim (Acts 14.11-18). And in the end Paul, unlike Jesus, is sent to meet the emperor of Rome, something even Jesus did not accomplish. In other words, by Luke's account, Paul was vastly more famous and successful than Jesus.

The extent of the parallels drawn between Peter and Paul, and between Paul and Jesus, are altogether improbable as history. Likewise, the account of Paul's conversion in Acts 9.1-20 is simply a rewrite of the Emmaus narrative in Lk. 24.13-35 (which, as we'll see in Chapter 10, §6, is obviously mythical): (1) Both stories feature a journey on a road from Jerusalem to another city (Emmaus: Lk. 24.13; Damascus: Acts 9.1-3); (2) both stories feature a revelation of Christ; (3) in Luke the revelation came as 'they drew near eggizeirif the city where 'they were going (poreueiny (Lk. 24.28), while in Acts the revelation came as Paul 'drew near (eggizein)' the city where 'he was going (poreueiny (Acts 9.3); (4) in both stories Jesus appears and rebukes the unbeliever and instructs him, and as a result they become believers and go on to preach their newfound faith; (5) in both stories there are at least three men on the road together and yet only one of them is named (Paul [as Saul] in Acts; Cleopas in Lk. 24.18);[20] (6) in both stories "the chief priests" of Jerusalem are the named enemies of the church (Lk. 24.20; Acts 9.1. 14); (7) in Luke God says Jesus had to suffer (Lk. 24.26), while in Acts God says Paul had to suffer (Acts 9.16); (8) both stories feature blindness (Paul is blinded by the divine light of his vision in Acts 9.8; Cleopas and his companion's eyes are blocked from seeing that their fellow traveler is Jesus in Lk. 24.16); (9) both stories end with this blindness being lifted (Acts 9.17-18; Lk. 24.31); (10) in Luke the visitation occurs on the third day (Lk. 24.21), in Acts the visitation is followed by a blindness of three days (Acts 9.9); and (11) in Luke the blindness ends after a meal commences (Lk. 24.30-31). while in Acts a meal commences after the blindness ends (Acts 9.18-19).

The author of Acts also uses features of the John the Baptist narrative to construct Paul's conversion story: (1) the names of John (the Baptist) and Ananias (who restores Paul's sight) mean the same thing in Aramaic (John = io-utmes = yahu-hanan = 'Yahweh Is Gracious'; Ananias = anan-ias = hanan-yahu = 'Gracious Is Yahweh'); (2) John says 'prepare the way [hodos] of the Lord, make his paths straight [euthus]' (Lk. 3.4), and so Paul takes shelter on Straight Street (euthus: Acts 9.11) after attempting to destroy 'the way' {hodos: Acts 9.2), but instead sees the Lord in the way {hodos: Acts 9.27) and takes up the cause of preaching the way; (3) and finally, the initial order of events is almost exactly reversed: God speaks to Paul in a vision from heaven (Acts 9.3-8). then Paul prays (Acts 9.11), and is baptized (Acts 9.18), then goes on to teach the gospel (Acts 9.20); Jesus is baptized, then prays, then God speaks to him in a vision from heaven (Lk. 3.21-22). and then (in this case just like Paul) goes on to teach the gospel (Lk. 3.23).

Luke has also taken elements from the book of Tobit. When Paul is healed after his blinding vision, by Ananias acting on God's orders, we're told 'immediately [the blindness] fell from his eyes like scales [lepides], and he saw again and rose and was baptized' (Acts 9.18). In Tob. 3.17, the angel Rafael is told by God to 'scale away' (lepisai, the verb of lepides) Tobias's blindness. Literally the text in Tobit says, 'to scale away the whiteness', as Tobias's eyes had become clouded with white (Tob. 2.10), so here scaling away the whiteness makes sense, whereas there is no intelligible reason why Paul's blindness should be described as like scales, except as an allusion to the tale in Tobit, which also involves a story of traveling on a road with a divine being in disguise (in this case an angel), on a mission that would result in saving lives. And just as Paul is given letters from the high priest authorizing him to arrest Christians in Damascus (Acts 9.1-2), Tobias was given a letter from his father authorizing him to claim a deposit of money—also, like Paul, in a foreign city (Tob. 5.1-3). More tellingly, the angel accompanying Tobias poses as 'the son of Ananias" (Tob. 5.12), and provides the means to cure the blindness of Tobias, just as in Acts the analogous divine being (the Lord Christ) provides the means to cure the blindness of Paul through a man named Ananias (Acts 9.10-17). Other descriptive elements of Paul's encounter on the road also derive, more loosely and creatively, from Ezekiel and Daniel.[21]

For this to be history, one has to posit all these agreements and parallels are historical coincidences, which is far less probable than that they are inventions, intelligently designed to reflect each other. And when you remove them all, you have no real story left to call authentic. Any one or two or even three of these parallels or coincidental details could be historical (at a stretch), but not all of them together. Maybe there is some historical core to either or both tales that has been dressed up with all these fabricated symbols and coincidences and tall tales, but we have no way of knowing what that core might be, or even if there is one. Therefore these stories cannot be relied upon as evidence of any historical fact, beyond the vaguest of generalizations, such as that Jesus may have originally appeared as a divine heavenly light, or that Christians may have believed God could visit them in the guise of an ordinary stranger; but such conclusions are neither certain nor helpful to the present purpose.

The same kind of analysis repeatedly destroys every narrative in Acts. I've presented only a few examples.[22] But even in general, Acts shares too many features with popular adventure novels of the same period to warrant trusting it as a genuine history: (1) they all promote a particular god or religion; (2) they are all travel narratives; (3) they all involve miraculous or amazing events; (4) they all include encounters with fabulous or exotic peoples (e.g. 'bull-sacrificing pagans of Lycaonia in Acts 14.8-19, superstitious natives of Malta in 28.1-6, and philosophical Athenian dilettantes in chapter 17'. as well as fanatical pagan silversmiths of Ephesus in 19.23-41, and so on); (5) they often incorporate a theme of chaste couples separated and then reunited (a token nod to this element exists in Paul's chaste interaction with Lydia in Acts 16.13-40 and his many women followers, named and unnamed); (6) they feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes (as in Acts 12, 16, 21 and 26); and (7) they often include themes of persecution, (8) scenes involving excited crowds (who become a character in the story, as in Ephesus and Jerusalem, in Acts 18-19 and Acts 6-7 and 21-22), (9) and divine rescues from danger; and (10) divine revelations are always integral to the plot (through oracles, dreams and visions, all of which feature in Acts).[23] In fact, Acts looks far more like a novel than any historical monograph of the period.[24] If Acts looks exactly like an ancient novel (and it does), are we really going to chalk this up to coincidence?

 

 

Notes

 

1. See Richard Pervo, The Mystery of Acts (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge. 2008): and Richard Pervo, Acts: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 2009). for the most thorough accounting of this fact (see especially the latter, pp. 17-18). with substantial support in Thomas Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix. 2004), esp. pp. 377-445 (on Acts specifically); Dennis MacDonald, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles (New Haven. CT: Yale University Press, 2003); and John Dominic Crossan, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus (New York: HarperOne. 2012), pp. 196-217. See also Clare Rothschild, Luke-Acts and the Rhetoric of History: An Investigation of Early Christian Historiography (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck. 2004); Loveday Alexander, 'Fact, Fiction and the Genre of Acts', New Testament Studies 44 (1998), pp. 380-99; and P.E. Satterthwaite, Acts against the Background of Classical Rhetoric', in The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting (ed. Bruce Winter and Andrew Clarke; Grand Rapids, Ml: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), pp. 337-80. There are conservatives who protest, but not with logically valid arguments.

2. That Luke used Josephus as a source to fill his account with various items of historical color, see note in Chapter 7 (§4). That similar details also appear in his account of apostolic travels outside Judea suggests Luke may have used other historians (of those regions) to color those accounts as well (those historians were simply not preserved for us to detect their influence now).

3. If Luke did not use a source text (a 'Kings Gospel") for the material equating Jesus and Paul to Elijah and Elisha. then Luke obviously had to have invented that material himself. That Luke knew and used (mainly to subvert) the Pauline Epistles see Dennis MacDonald. Two Shipwrecked Gospels: The Logoi of Jesus and Papias's Exposition of Logift about the Lord (Atlanta. GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), pp. 50-52: and Richard Pervo. Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa. CA: Polebridge Press. 2006).

4. Dennis MacDonald. 'The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul". New Testament Studies 45 (1999). pp. 88-107 (88): with Vernon Robbins. 'The "We" Passages in Acts and Ancient Sea Voyages'. Papers of the Chicago Society of Biblical Research 20 (1975). pp. 5-18: and Henry Cadbury. •"We" and "I" Passages in Luke-Acts'. New Testament Studies 3 (1956-1957). pp. 128-32. It is sometimes argued that the 'we" passages (portions of Acts where the author inexplicably switches from third person to first person plural and back again, without ever explaining why, or who 'we' are) indicate an actual source. Some even argue these prove the author was an actual companion of Paul, but few scholars believe that's likely—it isn't what the author himself ever says, yet it was standard practice of the time to say so. if that is what the author meant to be understood. But fabricating a fictional narrative using 'I' or 'we' is already evident in the pre-Christian book of Jubilees, a made-up rewrite of OT history-adapted from Genesis, passed off as a revelation given directly to Moses, even though it was actually composed around the second or first century bce So the motif has an established precedent in historical fiction. A more famous model for writing fiction in the first person is the Odyssey of Homer, and notably (as MacDonald demonstrates) the 'we' sections in Acts all center on sea travel.

5. Dennis MacDonald. The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (New Haven. CT: Yale University Press. 2000). pp. 9-14.

6. MacDonald. Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?, pp. 44-65 (with pp. 19-43).

7. MacDonald. Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?, pp. 74-102 (with pp. 69-73).

8. MacDonald, Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?, pp. 107-19 (with pp. 105-106).

9. MacDonald. Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?, pp. 137-45 (with pp. 123-36).

10. Euripides. Bacchae 440-49 (miraculous unlocking of chains), and 585-94
(escape due to an earthquake). Compare Acts 12.6-7 and 16.26.

11. See Randel Helms. Gospel Fictions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus. 1988). p. 21.

12. Robert Price, The Pre-Nicene New Testament: Fifty-Four Formative Texts (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature. 2006). p. 841.

13. For a survey of Luke's methods as a historian compared to his contemporaries: Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 173-87.

14. Joseph Tyson. 'Why Dates Matter: The Case of the Acts of the Apostles', in Finding the Historical Jesus: Rules of Evidence (ed. Bernard Brandon Scott; Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge. 2008). pp. 59-70 (67).

15. On the rate of Christian expansion and growth almost certainly being nothing like what is depicted in Acts, see Carrier, Not the Impossible Faith, pp. 407-48.

16. Burton Mack, 'Many Movements. Many Myths: Redescribing the Attractions of Early Christianities. Toward a Conversation with Rodney Stark', Religious Studies Review 25.2 (April 1999), pp. 132-36 (134).

17. Price. Pre-Nicene New Testament, p. 484.

18. Price, Pre-Nicene New Testament, p. 483.

19. The parallels among these three synagogue incidents are even more numerous and obviously intentional: see Crossan, Power of Parable, pp. 205-207.

20. though in Luke the third man on the journey is Jesus walking along in disguise (Lk. 24.15) he never tells anyone his name: whereas in Acts Jesus appears as a light from heaven, but Paul is accompanied by at least two unnamed men (Acts 9.7).

21. Ezek. 1.26-2.3. Alan Segal. 'Conversion and Messianism; Outline tor a New Approach', in The Messiah: Developments in Earliest Judaism and Christianity (ed. James Charlesworth: Minneapolis. MN: Fortress Press. 1992). pp. 296-340 (331-35). Similarly. Dan. 10.2-21.

22. For many more, see the scholarship cited in earlier notes (esp. n. 1). For example. Pervo. Mystery of Acts. pp. 55-91. 101-40.

23. Price, Pre-Nicene New Testament, pp. 492-93.

24. See the table in Pervo, Mystery of Acts, pp. 168-70. where he enumerates ten different respects in which Acts is notably unlike ancient historiography (yet all ten are commonly encountered in ancient fiction).

 

Return to Foundations of Christianity