In the previous post I briefly discussed the problem of Luke as real history. I used the analogy on a film based on historical events. Luke was forced to select from a wide range of events those which fit his over all agenda and adapt what he did choose to fit the format of a short book.
It is obvious that Luke writes his story as just that, a story. There are elements of the book included in order to enhance the story from the perspective of literature. He intends to tell an interesting story, with foreshadowing and surprising twists. These rhetorical elements are not simply flourishes added as an after-thought; they are essential to the way Luke “does history.”
Perhaps the best example of this is the dramatic introduction of the main character of two-thirds of the book. At the end of Chapter 7, Saul is introduced as “approving” the stoning of Stephen. Luke then drops him from the narrative for a chapter to create tension. The reader knows show this shadowy figure is, but Luke wants to build anticipation for Saul’s introduction. In chapter 9 Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is told he will be the “light to the Gentiles,” yet the plot line is dropped. Luke tells a series of stories about Peter before picking up the thread of Paul’s ministry in chapter 13. This is the work of a story-teller, teasing his readers with hints and foreshadowing of what we know must be coming.
This way of writing history employs a number of rhetorical principles common in history writing in antiquity. Philip Satterthwaite lists elements such as selection and arrangement of material as methods common in Greco-Roman histories. Luke selected some material and ignores the rest. For Luke, who Paul is and how he came to be a part of the Jesus Movement is important, what Thomas did after the resurrection is of no interest at all. By arranging the stories as he has, Luke highlights the importance of Paul for his overall agenda.
In fact, Craig Keener points out that rhetorical techniques were pervasive in ancient historiography (1:131). Although historians sought to restrain themselves, no one opposed good rhetorical technique in history writing. While Polybius was accused of over-using rhetoric to stress the importance of his topic, ancient writers all used literary conventions in order to write a history that was pleasing to the reader.
This makes sense, since no one really wants to read the raw facts of history. A history writer always struggles to find a way to fairly present dry facts in a compelling way. This is why children learn more about history from educational cartoons than their history textbooks. Telling a story of a child who witnesses the events of the American Revolution is more compelling than memorizing a list of facts drawn from American history.
There is some range of opinion for how well Luke was trained in rhetoric. While scholars like Satterthwaite think Luke was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions (337), but Richard Pervo thinks Luke’s use of these styles would be considered rather unrefined to most educated Greek readers (Keener, 139). Keener explains Luke’s use of rhetoric by observing that his target audience is not necessarily the elite historian. In fact, there was no “professional historian” in the first century who would have naturally read a book like Acts. No one will place Luke’s book in the same category as the classic Greek historians, but he does work very hard to create a compelling story in order to present the expansion of Christianity.
One implication of Luke’s use of contemporary Greco-Roman conventions for writing “history as story” is that his original readers would have understood his presentation as a legitimate history, even though it might not qualify as history in the modern sense of the word. I suspect one’s faith commitment to Scripture will have a bearing on this issue, but to what extent does this view of “Luke as Historian” differ from contemporary understanding of history writing? Does it limit (or exclude, some would say) the book of Acts as a source for understanding the church in the first century?
Bibliography: Satterthwaite, Philip. “Acts Against the Background of Classical Rhetoric.” Pages 337-80 in The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting, Volume 1. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993.