Book Review: Reading Acts Today: A Festschrift for Loveday Alexander

Walton, Steve, Thomas E. Phillips, Lloyd Keith Pietersen, F. Scott Spencer, eds. Reading Acts Today. FS Loveday C. A. Alexander. LNTS 427; London: T&T Clark, 2011. 232pp. Hb; $130.00; Pb. 39.95 (2013).   Link to T&T Clark

Loveday Alexander is Professor Emerita in Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield where she has been since 1986. Alexander is well known for her monograph Acts in its Ancient Literary Context: A Classicist Looks at Acts of the Apostles (LNTS 298; London: T&T Clark, 2005) as well as an important article on Luke’s preface to the book of Acts. She is honored by a former student Lloyd K. Pietersen in a preface to this festschrift.

Reading ActsThe first set of essays are grouped under the heading “Reading Acts in its Ancient Contexts,” beginning with Richard A. Burridge, “The Genre of Acts-Revisited.” Burridge is well-known for his work on the genre of the Gospels and in this important essay he applies the same methodology to the genre of Acts. He begins by surveying several options for their genre of the Gospel and Acts, including ancient history (Hengel and Dibelius), novel and epic (Pervo), and ancient biography with affinities to a historical monograph (Talbert). It is no surprise that he settles on the genre of bios for Acts, as he did in his What are the Gospels? (Eerdmans, 2004). To demonstrate this conclusion he examines the generic features of the book of Acts and uses a computer analysis of the verbs in the book to show that Paul is the subject of almost a quarter of the total, disciples another nearly 20%. From this analysis he concludes that Luke “he picks his key actors, namely Peter, Stephen, Paul and the other disciples, interpreting what is happening as the activity of God” (15). It appears the book of acts is “closely linked to both ancient biographies and the Gospels and its motive representation, size, structure, and use of literary sources” (23).

In the second essay in the section, Thomas E. Phillips asks, “Why Did Mary Wrap the Newborn Jesus in ‘Swaddling Clothes’? Luke 2.7 and 2.12 in the Context of Luke-Acts and First-Century Literature.” He begins by surveying symbolic “swaddling” in Greek literature beginning as early as the Homeric hymns. There is in fact a remarkably large number of examples of symbolic use of swaddling clothes in Greek myth him drama and poetry before the first century. For Phillips, the swaddling of Jesus is a “culturally appropriate Lucan sign indicating the birth of the divine son” (38). While it is possible this swaddling symbolism could be read as an anti-imperial rhetoric, Phillips grounds the use of the image in Luke’s specifically Christian theological agenda: “Luke was probably cloaking his Christian theology in the generic cultural garb of the first century and not countering any specific ancient text or tradition” (42).

In “Luke’s Use of Papias for Narrating the Death of Judas,” Dennis R. MacDonald develops something of a surprising argument for the origin of Luke’s Gospel. First, he assumes a date of 60-65 for the sayings of Jesus (which he calls Q+). Second, he thinks Mark knew Q and Matthew used both Q+ and Mark. Third, he dates Papias to about 110 and argues Luke used all four of these documents in 115-120. This Q+/Papias Hypothesis could be used to determine the contents of Q: “simply by comparing Matthew and Luke and expunging Markan contamination” (44). In order to test this hypothesis MacDonald studies the death of Judas in Matthews gospel, fragments of Papias found in Eusebius, and finally Acts 1:16-26. From this analysis, he claims “Luke not only knew Papias’ version of Judas’ death, he apparently knew Mathew’s as well!” (55). This intriguing hypothesis rests on a number of assumptions, not the least of which is a complicated Q theory. The source document known as Q has come under fire in recent years, perhaps limiting the usefulness for this proposal. I find it interesting that Mac Donald argues for a very late date of Luke yet accepts the traditional date for Papias. It seems the evidence for the date of Papias is taken at face value while external evidence for the date of Luke is not. If Luke is written in the 80s, a much more common view, then this hypothesis falls apart.

Scott Spencer’s contribution to the volume (“Scared to Death: The Rhetoric of Fear in the ‘Tragedy’ of Ananias and Sapphira”) pays close attention to the emotional impact of the strange death recorded in Acts chapter 5. After a few comments on Aristotle’s view of fear, Spencer suggest several objects of the sphere including God or the Holy Spirit, God’s apostle Peter, God’s adversary Satan, humanity’s ultimate foe Death, or loss of honor (shame or disgrace). As Spencer observes fewer does not concern the now dead couple but “the great fear gripping the whole church.” Ananias and Sapphira were the first to die in the Christian community but they were also the first to lie. He suggests perhaps Adam and Eve are the model for the story. Ultimately, the church “lives in the fear of the Lord” but also in the “comfort of the Holy Spirit” and it continues to grow in numbers.

Barry Matlock asks “Does the Road to Damascus Run through the Letters of Paul?” Matlock confesses he is a Pauline scholar attempting to study the biographical details of Paul’s life in the book of Acts. He recognizes some of the historical problems one encounters comparing calls version of his conversion with the book of acts. In addition he briefly wonders about whether to call Paul’s experience a conversion, a call, or even a transformation. He concludes all these terms are useful and he will use both conversion and call to “indicate Paul’s dramatic reversal and his sense of being appointed to a special task” (85). After surveying and analyzing Paul’s own reports of his conversion in the epistles, Matlock considers the New Perspective on Paul’s conversion. His main dialogue partner here is James Dunn, although he leans towards Francis Watson’s recent proposal that Paul’s mission to the Gentiles develop out of a failed mission to Israel. Matt luck in finding several points of comparison between Luke’s version of his conversion and Paul’s story from his epistles. Both have a sense of dramatic reversal after a time of deadly violence. Paul’s assertion of independence in Galatians is a point of contention. In Galatians Paul clearly claims to be independent of Jerusalem yet there is more cooperation in Acts.

The second section of the book, “Reading Themes in Acts,” begins with Joel B. Green’s essay, “Luke-Acts, or Luke and Acts? A Reaffirmation of Narrative Unity.”  Since the publication of Parsons and Pervo’s Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts in 1993 there has been a great deal of discussion over the designation Luke/Acts as a literary unit. For most of the twentieth century the scholarly consensus has been the two books were intended to be read together as a unit and there are theological themes running through both books. Green summarizes the canonical approach suggested by Robert Wall. Second, Green offers a summary of Kavin Rowe’s use of reception history. Third he examines Patricia Walters’ recent monograph The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts (2009). Walters argues that the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by two different people. To support this she examines the seams and summaries in both Luke and Acts, concluding there is enough stylistic difference in these seams and summaries to suggest “with a high degree of probability” the books come from two different authors (109). Green critiques this suggestion on a number of levels, the most important is the small sample size Walters used for her comparison. Since only 31 verses (and four partial verses) were used for her stylistic analysis, the conclusion must remain tentative at best (111). On the other hand, Green argues the author of Acts was consciously finishing the story begin in Luke. To support this, he compares Luke 24 and Acts 1:1-14. For Luke, Green states, there is only one story to tell: “God’s gracious activity on behalf of Israel” (117). Acts 1:1-14 is transitional, alluding to Luke 24 as well as Luke 1-2. The book of Acts is therefore a continuation of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Church.

In “Luke’s Jerusalem Perspective,” James Dunn argues Luke based his presentation of Paul’s life from the version of the relationship of Paul and Jerusalem which he heard from Jerusalem itself. It is a well-known problem that the details of Paul’s life differ slightly in Acts when compared to Paul’s letters. Dunn agrees that Paul is the great hero of the second half of the book and the book may very well be Luke’s apologia for Paul, but Luke sought seems to have wanted to “rub off the jagged edges of Paul’s relationship with Jerusalem” in order to present the church has more unified and perhaps actually was (120-1). Order to make his case, Dunn first examines the resurrection appearances of Christ. These appearances are limited to the 40 days after the resurrection, meaning Paul himself would not meet the qualifications to be an apostle from Acts 1. With only one exception, Luke does not use the title apostle for Paul, despite Paul’s insistence he was appointed an apostle by the resurrected Jesus. From Jerusalem’s perspective, Paul would not be “one of the twelve.” The second piece of evidence is Luke’s presentation of two journeys to Jerusalem after Saul’s conversion. Dunn calls this “the most out rages disagreement between Paul and Luke” and he suggests the famine visit was undertaken by Barnabas alone (127). The third thread Dunn picks up is the relationship of the Jerusalem meeting and the apostolic decree (Acts 15) to the book of Galatians 2. He argues (as he has elsewhere) Galatians 2 and Acts 15 referred to the same meeting. Here Dunn suggests Luke tells the story from the perspective of the Jerusalem leadership (129). In Galatians to Paul’s reporting the meeting from his own perspective. Another well-known problem is Luke’s almost complete omission of Paul’s collection. Considering how important the collection is in Paul’s letters it is strange to find it completely omitted from the book of Acts. Dunn concludes Luke’s purpose is to present the beginnings of Christianity as he “essentially harmonious” (130).

In “Philological and Performative Perspectives on Pentecost,” Heidi J. Hornik & Mikeal C. Parsons examine Acts the perspective of performance rather than philology (meaning of words, syntax, etc.). While philology focuses in solely on the text, a performance study focuses on “the aftereffects of the text on a variety of readers” (138). In order to do this, the authors survey several pieces of art showing the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 in order to demonstrate how later readers enacted the text for themselves.

I. Howard Marshall argues Acts 20:28 is Luke’s equivalent to Mark 10:45 in his “The Place of Acts 20.28 in Luke’s Theology of the Cross.” Marshall argues Mark 10:45 was the “victim of Luke’s decision to drop the whole of Mark 10:35-45” (170). Marshall is reacting to Bart Erhman’s Orthodox Corruption, a recent popular work that Luke consciously eliminated Atonement Theology when Luke edited Mark’s gospel. Marshal finds this an unconvincing reinterpretation of the text (156) and he attempts to show Acts 20:28 serves as a kind of equivalent to the Atonement Theology found in Mark 10:45. Since Luke omitted the discussion of purity and the healing of the Gentile from Mark, the saying in Mark 10:45 had no context (159). Marshall shows that the phrase “through his own blood” in Acts 20:28 should be understood as representing an Atonement theology analogous to Mark 10:45.

In his “The Resurrection and its Witnesses in the Book of Acts,” Daniel Marguerat argues “witnessing to the resurrection” in Acts is not simply a repetition of the events following Jesus’ death. Witnessing to the resurrection is to read “history theologically,” or more precisely, Christologically (175). Witness is also “an announcement of the restoration of human beings” as well as a guarantee of the universality of salvation. Finally, “witnessing” must involve telling the story of one’s own life (183).

The final essay in the collection is by one of the volume’s editors, Steve Walton. He is concerned with an often overlooked theme in the book of Acts: “A Spirituality of Acts?”  People engage with God in the book of Acts primarily through divine initiative. God reveals himself to humans through angelic beings, the Holy Spirit, and dreams and visions. Another avenue of this divine initiation of spirituality the interpretation of Scripture and the light of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit (193). Even the name of Jesus functions as a divine agent in healings signs and wonders, forgiveness of sin, even deliverance for demonic powers. While there is a human response to this divine initiative, Walton points out it is usually a slow, partial response to God (194). People do not often know what is going on when God clearly reveals himself. For example, in chapter 8 the Samaritans fail to fully understand Philip and in Acts 11 the community fails to understand fully the significance of Peter’s Gentile mission. This is a realistic portrayal of “the slowness of religious people to change” (194). Other responses to God include attention to the teaching of the apostles, fellowship around the breaking of bread and prayer.

Conclusion. This collection of essays would be considered valuable simply because it includes important articles by Burridge, Dunn, Marshall and Green. Yet virtually every chapter is a valuable contribution to the study of the book of Acts and a fitting tribute to the dedicatee, Loveday Alexander.

NB: Thanks to Bloomsbury for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

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