Unity of Luke-Acts in Current Scholarship

That we should even be talking about Luke-Acts or “Luke and Acts” is an open question in contemporary scholarship. It has become common in Luke-Acts studies to discuss several potential ways in which Luke and Acts can be read together. Following the outline of Pervo and Parsons (Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts), there are five factors to consider when discussing the unity of Luke and Acts.

First, authorial unity is almost universally accepted. Recently, however, Patricia Walters challenged this consensus in her 2009 monograph The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts. She argued the summary statements in Luke and Acts indicate two different authors. Walters’s study has been frequently reviewed so it is not necessary to fully examine her argument here. I agree with the common criticism her sample texts are too small to be significant. Although Walters’s study has convinced few, it is at least possible Luke and Acts come from two different authors.

Second, literary unity refers to reading Luke and Acts together as a unit. Since Cadbury’s The Making of Luke-Acts in 1939, it has become customary to refer to Luke and Acts with a hyphen, or perhaps a slash, as if to say there is a single book with two parts. An analogy might be Josephus’s multi-volume Antiquities of the Jews or The Jewish War.  In both cases there are themes and interests running through all of the books in the series and it is quite clear Josephus intended his Antiquities as a unit. In fact, there are no real segues in Antiquities at the beginning of a new book. In the case of Luke-Acts, there is an intentional allusion to the first book at the beginning of Acts and many have observed some literary connections between the end of Luke and the beginnings of Acts. Luke Timothy Johnson focuses on the literary aspects of Luke-Acts in his commentary, the most significant to him are similar miracles by Jesus, Peter and Paul. In fact, these are the only parallels most commentators notice between Luke and Acts. Johnson does state that “Acts should be read in the light of the Gospel: just as Luke’s first volume can best be understood in the light of these literary patterns established in the first section of Acts” (13).

Third, it is possible to accept a single author but reject literary unity based on the genre of each book. Mikeal Parson and Richard Pervo issued just this challenge to the consensus view in their 1993 monograph Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts (Fortress 1992). Parsons and Pervo do not deny the same author wrote both books, but they question whether the genre of Luke is the same as Acts. If it differs, were the books intended to be read as a unit? For Pervo, “The unities of Luke and Acts are questions to be pursued rather than presuppositions to be exploited” (Pervo, Acts, 20)

Fourth, unity may refer to the purpose of the two books. Did a single author intended a single, overarching purpose for a unified two volume work? For Johnson, “As a whole, Luke-Acts should be read as an Apology in the form of a historical narrative” (Acts, 7). Yet the purpose of Luke may be narrowed to Jesus and his death on the Cross, while Acts concerns the spread of the message of the Cross throughout the Roman world. These may be related purposes, but they are not necessarily the same.

Fifth, even if some or all of these other unities prove true, it is possible to challenge the unity of Luke-Acts by using a relatively new approach, Reception History. Kavin Rowe, for example, argues no one in the early church ever read a book called “Luke-Acts” as a single unit. Canonically, the two were always separated and it was not until modern scholarship that anyone thought to read them as a unit. Building on the work of Andrew Gregory, Rowe examines Gregory’s two exceptions which appear to read Luke and Acts together, and concludes these are not true exceptions at all. Both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Canon focus on the authority of the Gospel of Luke rather than Acts. In fact, for Rowe, there is no evidence Luke and Acts were ever circulated as a unit. Acts sometimes introduced the Pauline or Catholic epistles, but no manuscript collected Luke and Acts as a two-part book.

Nevertheless I suggest there are a number of intra-textual links between Luke and Acts that support a literary unity between the two books. The introduction to both books certain link them together as a two-part work. A real problem for reading the two books together (whether hyphenated or slashed) is that there is no evidence the two books were ever considered together in the early church. In every New Testament canonical collection, Luke is placed with the gospels, Acts is set off on its own (sometimes as an introduction to the Pauline collection, but not always). Even if Luke intended them to be read together, until the modern era, no one read a book called “Luke-Acts.”

 

On Acts and Reception history, see C. Kavin Rowe, “History, Hermeneutics and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” JSNT 28 (2005): 131-157; Luke Timothy Johnson, “Literary Criticism of Luke-Acts: Is Reception-History Pertinent?” JSNT 28 (2005): 159-162; Markus Bockmuehl, “Why Not Let Acts Be Acts?: In Conversation With C. Kavin Rowe.” JSNT 28 (2005): 163-166; Andrew Gregory, “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts.” JSNT 29 (2007): 459-472. [1] Andrew F. Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century (WUNT 2/169; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). Gregory responds to Rowe’s use of this work in “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts,” JSNT 29 (2007): 459-72.

Acts 28:30 – The Main Theme of Acts

The books of Luke – Acts end with the phrase, “boldly and without hindrance. Since Paul is in prison when the book ends, it is quite remarkable that Luke could describe Paul’s activity not being hindered. But the statement is not about Paul but the rather the Gospel. How is it that Paul’s preaching can be described in this way?

First, Paul’s preaching in Acts and throughout all his letters is based on Jesus as Messiah and his work on the cross. That the person and work of Jesus is the basis of the gospel is clear from the preaching of the apostles in Acts. Beginning with the preaching of the Apostles in Acts 2:22-24, the central theme is Jesus Christ, that he was crucified and rose from the dead. On Acts 13:26-31 Paul emphasizes the death and resurrection of Jesus. Notice that in both Peter and Paul’s sermon the fact that Jesus was crucified is clear, but also that God raised him from the dead and exalted him to his right hand, proving that he was in fact God’s son, the messiah. In fact, in 16:31, Paul says that the only want to be saved is to “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

It is tempting to downplay the centrality of Jesus to our faith since he is still as controversial today as in the first century. People seem to like the idea of spirituality and religion, but they are not attracted to Jesus – the scandal of the cross is very real in contemporary culture. “Spiritual but not religious” is a movement which rejects religions, advocating love and respect without being dogmatic on who Jesus is or whether there is a God or not. It is also possible to place such a strong emphasis on building relationships and social activities that there is no confrontation with Jesus. Our churches need relationships and social activities, but we need to confront people with the truth of the Gospel, the Gospel demands a response!

Paul’s preaching centered on Jesus and what he did on the cross, and what this atonement for sin means for people in the present age. Paul brought his sermons to a decision. As the jailer in Acts 16:31 asks, “what must you do to be saved?”

Second, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his gospel was based on Scripture. If we go back in Acts and read Paul’s sermons, we find that they are based on the fulfillment of scripture. The same is true for the letters, Paul constantly quotes scripture and alludes to the Hebrew Bible as the revealed word of God.

Using Paul’s sermon in Acts 13 as an example, he blends several verses from the Hebrew Bible in order to show that Jesus is the messiah. In fact, ever apostolic sermon in Acts is laced with references to the Hebrew Bible, whether that is Peter in Acts 2 and 3 or Stephen in Acts 7. The only exception are the two sermons of Paul in pagan contexts, but even there he alludes to the story of the Bible without directly quoting it. This implies that Paul knew his Bible well and was able to apply that scripture to new events. In this case, to show that Jesus is the messiah and that his death on the cross means salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Here is another potential problem for modern Christians. We lack confidence in the Bible for several reasons:

  • Biblical Ignorance – Biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church, it is an epidemic in the world. Most church kids are taught the Old Testament by vegetables, most twenty-somethings only know the few Bible stories that were on the Simpsons. This is a problem which must be overcome, but not by downplaying the text of the Bible.
  • Biblical Embarrassment – some of the stories from the Hebrew Bible are difficult to read in a modern context. When I teach freshmen Bible survey classes, frequently I hear from students, “I had no idea that was in the Bible!) There are stories in the Hebrew Bible that are attacked by secularists as violent, misogynist, or portraying God as a sociopath.
  • Biblical Replacement – it is sometimes easy to get people to a spiritual idea without using the Bible. (Using movie clips at camp, teaching the gospel through a secular song or literature, the Gospel according to Lord of the Rings, for example). This is a legitimate way to generate interest, but if the Bible is not the foundation of the sermon, it does not matter how crafty your illustration is.

As shocking as it seems, there are churches in America that do not peach from the Bible. Their people do not bring Bibles to church because they do not own Bibles and there is little need for them in the sermon.

Third, Paul taught freely and with boldness because his preaching of the gospel was the fulfillment of God’s plan. We are looking at the last line of the book of Acts and seeing how Luke wanted to end the story. But the idea that God is fulfilling the great story of redemption in the work of Jesus is a major theme of his two books.

Luke 1:1 states that his purpose for writing was so that Theophilus might have an accurate record of the “things which have been fulfilled among us.” Luke 24:44-49 concludes the book of Luke with the same idea, Jesus himself states that everything that happened fulfilled scripture. Acts is the story of how that fulfillment works it’s way from Jerusalem to the rest of the world, and ultimately to Rome itself.

If I absolutely knew how a sporting event was going to come out, I would be able to wager with confidence. I might even have a boldness to “bet it all” on the outcome of the game. What Luke is telling us in the last few verses of Acts is that we can have confidence in the outcome because God has already planned the key events of salvation history and he has already won the victory in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Standing on the foundation of the scripture, we can have confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and share our faith “with boldness” and “without hindrance.”

Why is it, then, that we pretend we are hindered in our presentation of the Gospel?

Acts 28 – Nothing Will Hinder the Gospel

The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.

To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue to give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).

apostle_paulBut the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.

“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).

If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, and continue to harass him when he returns to Jerusalem in the late 50s.

While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.

We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.

The book ends by telling us nothing is restraining the gospel. Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment and there is nothing Rome can do to stop the gospel from going “to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 28:1-6 – Paul on Malta

Just as Paul had prophesied, all the passengers make it to the shore. There they are met by the people of the island of Malta. The island was known as Μελίτη in Greek and Melite Africana in Latin. About 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Tunis, the island is only about 100 square miles. Since Carthage controlled the island from the sixth century B.C., Keener suggests they spoke Punic. He cites bi-lingual inscriptions from the period as evidence Punic was the majority language on the island (Keener, 4:3668). Some have argued the island was actually Kephallenia, but most commentators disagree with this identification. (Kephallenia does have poisonous snakes, see below on this issue.)

Luke describes as “barbarians.” The word βάρβαροι simply meant they did not speak Greek. Most English translations avoid the stigma of the word by translating the word “native people,” I prefer “the locals.” Do not think of these people as a tribe of savages from some old movie! These are likely local fisherman who saw the ship grounded and were waiting to give whatever aid necessary to the survivors.

The locals are “unusually kind” (φιλανθρωπία) toward the castaways and help to build fires to warm up. The word is rare in biblical literature, usually referring to the kindness or clemency of a foreign ruler towards their people (3 Macc. 3:15; TDNT 9:109). For example, Josephus used the word when describing “the generous and clement conduct of the Romans” (JW 2.399). The word is used by someone making a public speech honoring his benefactor, praising them for their generous patronage. Acts 27:3 used the adverbial form of the word for the kindness of Paul’s Roman escort Julius when he permitted Paul to visit friends in Sidon. They may be barbarians, but they demonstrate “they have the best of Hellenic manners” (BDAG).

While gathering wood for the fire Paul is bitten by a viper. The locals think this is a deadly snake and assume Paul is a murderer since he survived the storm only to be bitten by a snake (v. 4). Most commentators will point out there are no poisonous snakes on Malta (supported by the modern Times of Malta). BDAG suggests this was “vipera ammodytes, commonly known as sandviper.” But this sort of thing is typical of a good Greek story, the guilty cannot outrun their fate. The gods will avenge the murderer. Most modern translations capitalize Justice (ἡ δίκη), acknowledging the people are referring to divine Justice.

But Paul is not guilty, he simply shakes off the snake and goes about his business. When he does not die immediately, the locals watch him to see if he “swells up and dies.” Since he does not, they conclude that he is a god (v. 6). This is not the first time Paul has been mistake for a god (at Lystra, Acts 14:8-10). In both cases the local people do not understand a miracle and make assumptions about the source of Paul’s power based on their own worldview.

This is as far as Luke takes the story, but it is not surprising that Christian readers have wondered about this snakebite. Some have argued this is a fulfillment of Mark 16:18, “they will pick up serpents with their hands” and healing the sick by the laying on of hands. Aside from the textual problems associated with long ending of Mark, Paul does not strictly speaking pick up the snake, but in the next story he does lay hands on a sick man and he recovers. Luke 10:19 does say Jesus gave his disciples “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions.” Various writers in church history have considered this verse and the snake in Acts 28 as an allusion to the power of Satan (see Keener 4:3674 for references). I would suggest the story in Acts has influenced the author of the longer ending of Mark, Paul overcomes poisonous snakes and heals the sick, demonstrating his apostolic authority.

What is the point of this story of unusual hospitality? Joshua Jipp suggests this is an example of a common motif, “unwitting hospitality” toward a god. He argues Luke is drawing a contrast between these barbarians (who treat Paul with unusual hospitality) and the Jews in Rome in 28:17-25 who reject Paul and his Gospel.

For Luke, there is nothing which can stop Paul from getting to Rome. Paul has survived an assassination attempt, a terrible storm and shipwreck, and hidden (and possibly satanic) dangers on an unknown island. Whatever the danger to Paul’s life, God will protect him and bring him to the court of the Empire.

 

Bibliography: Joshua Jipp, “Hospitable Barbarians: Luke’s Ethnic Reasoning in Acts 28:1-10,” JTS 68 (2017): 23–45).

Acts 26:16-18 – Paul and The Reasonable Faith

In Acts 26 Paul re-tells his story to Festus, the new Roman governor. While there are a few differences, the story of Paul’s conversion is fairly consistent.  He had persecuted followers of the Way until he met the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus, whey he was commissioned to be the “light to the Gentiles.”

Festus interrupts Paul’s speech: “You are out of your mind!” (v. 24)  The Greek verb (μαίνομαι) has the sense of going too far with something, or even speech which appears crazy to an outsider (such as the reaction of outsiders to tongues in 1 Cor 14:23).  It is possible that this means that Paul’s knowledge of esoteric doctrines find things that are not necessarily true. This may reflect the common-sense “down to earth” Roman worldview. Festus is saying that the conclusions to which Paul comes is “beyond common sense,” not that these are strange and outlandish things.

Paul states that he is speaking “true and rational words” (v. 25)  This description is good Greek rhetoric, sobriety is a chief virtue in Greek philosophy.   The noun Paul chooses refers to the “exercise of care and intelligence appropriate to circumstances” (BDAG).  The noun Paul uses (σωφροσύνη) has the sense of a reasonable  conclusion based on the evidence, as opposed to someone who has crazy visions which he over-interprets to mean far more than it does.  Paul is not dreaming up some fairy tale, his conclusions are based on some rational thought and some very real evidence.

Agrippa, on the other hand, understands that Paul’s speech has a persuasive value, that he is trying to convince them both of the truth of the Gospel.  What Paul has done has “not been done in a corner,” but rather out in the open for all to hear and evaluate.  This too is a feature of good philosophy and rhetoric, those who engage in secrets and mysteries are questionable (and probably not sober and self-controlled).

To me, this is one of the most applicable sections of Acts – Paul’s faith is described by a Roman as “crazy” for believing what he does, but Paul says that he is “rational.”  I am deeply troubled by many Christians who reject reasonable thought based on evidence as a basis for Christian faith.  Too many prefer to call emphasize a “relationship with Jesus” rather than rational claims of truth about the nature of reality.  Christianity, as Paul is describing it here in Acts 26, is rational and reasonable.  Christianity, as presented in the media, or as practiced by many Americans, is irrational.  Paul would be ashamed of most of what passes for Christianity in contemporary evangelicalism.

I think that it is time to remember that God gave us minds and equipped us to think.  If we did that, what would change?

Acts 25 – Who was Festus?

As soon as Paul arrives in Caesarea, prominent Jews from Jerusalem approach Festus for a “favor,” to release Paul to their custody.  What we know about Festus is generally good, especially when compared to Felix.  He dealt quickly with two separate messianic movements (Antiq. 20.8.10).  Unfortunately, Festus died after less than two years in office (A. D. 61-62) and his replacement Albinius was not an able administrator at all.

Porcius FestusWhen he arrives in Judea, Festus finds himself it a difficult situation politically.  He needs the help of the “ruling Jews” to manage the province of Judea. The elite of Jerusalem included the former high priests and other Herodians.  They were, by and large, interested in power and wealth (as most politicians are). There is a certain irony here, since these men do not represent a very large segment of the population on Judea in the mid first century! They are but one small splinter group of many at the time.  Festus buys very little influence over the people of Judea if he does do this elite group a “favor.”

The language of their request points to a formal alliance.  If Festus expects to have the support of the local elite, then he needs to hand Paul over to them for justice rather than release him.  It is quite remarkable that there is still a plot afoot to assassinate Paul (25:3). It has been two years since Paul’s alleged offense yet there is still a faction which considers him guilty of desecrating the Temple.  While this seems extreme, remember that bringing a Gentile into the court of the (Jewish) men was nearly as bad as the blasphemy committed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  That act of desecration was a major factor in the Maccabean revolt.  These enemies of Paul are burning with the same Zeal for the Law Paul had in Acts 9 when he traveled to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way.

Festus sees that there is nothing about Paul that requires punishment.  In fact, these are not even real accusations being made against Paul!   Paul’s accusers are not present, therefore the very basis of a case against him in Roman law is missing.  This was Paul’s point in his defense before Felix (his accusers are the Asian Jews, who disappear when the action moves to Caesarea).

Luke only briefly comments on Paul’s defense before Festus, although he adds the claim that Paul has neither offended the Temple or Caesar.  This is the first time that Paul has emphasized that he is not guilty of anything under Roman law.  Paul clearly realizes that his only chance at justice is to rely upon his citizenship.

Acts 24 – Who was Felix?

In Acts 24 Paul is transferred to the governor Felix for protection from the Jews. Although he is twice called “most excellent Felix” (23:26, 24:2), Felix is well known as a particularly bad governor of Judea. As Keener observes, although Luke does not paint a flattering picture of Felix, he is more flattering toward the governor than any other ancient writer (Acts, 3:3328).

His full name was likely Marcus Antonius Felix. He was appointed as governor of Judea about A.D. 52 by the emperor Claudius. Felix and his brother Pallas were freed slaves of Claudius’ mother Antonia. Both were  favorites of Claudius. a favorite in the court, this lead Felix to believe that he could do as he pleased. That Claudius would appoint freedman to posts such as this was considered unusual by Roman standards (Seutonius, Claud. 28). Since he was a freed slave, Tacitus thought his “servile nature” explained his inability to rule well (Hist. 5.9).

Antonius_FelixFelix had a reputation for cruelty, he suppressed many of the bandits that had risen in Judea, but he did so by extreme violence. He made a deal with one of the leaders, promising safe passage,  then captured him. When the Egyptian rallied people in the desert, Felix attack, killing four hundred followers. Later he paid the sicarri, the knife-wielding assassins, to take kill the high priest Jonathan who had complained to Rome about Felix, hoping for a better governor (Antiq. 20.163, JW 2.256).

Antiquities 20.164–165 Certain of those robbers went up to the city, as if they were going to worship God, while they had daggers under their garments; and, by thus mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew Jonathan; (165) and as this murder was never avenged, the robbers went up with the greatest security at the festivals after this time; and having weapons concealed in like manner as before, and mingling themselves among the multitude, they slew certain of their own enemies, and were subservient to other men for money; and slew others not only in remote parts of the city, but in the temple itself also; for they had the boldness to murder men there, without thinking of the impiety of which they were guilty.

Like the other Roman governors of Judea, he was anti-Semitic, although this might be better to describe Felix as “Roman-centric.”  Nevertheless, this assassination is one of the factors which led to the Jewish Revolt.

Felix was married to Drusilla, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 24:24). Only six years old when her father died in 44, Julia Drusilla was originally betrothed to Epiphanes, the son of the king of Commagene (between Cappadocia and Syria), on the condition he convert to Judaism (including circumcision).  When he was unwilling to do so, she was married to Azizus, the Syrian king of Emesa (about A.D. 53) at the age of 14. She was reputed to be very beautiful (Antiq. 20.142) as was her sister Bernice (Agrippa II’s wife), who was jealous of her younger sister.  Felix persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him, although he refused to convert. She and Felix had a son, Agrippa, who died in A.D. 79 in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Antiq. 20.144).

Felix persuaded Drusilla, then about 20, to leave her husband and marry him. There is no indication that he was forced to be circumcised, perhaps this was her father’s will not her own.   Felix also married the granddaughter of Anthony and Cleopatra (Seutonius, Claud. 28). Felix and Drusilla had a son, Agrippa, who died in 79 in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Antiq. 20.144.), and it is at least possible that Drusilla was with her son at the time.

Felix’ mismanagement of the territory of Judea was one of the factors leading to the revolution in A.D. 66.  Acts portrays him as treating Paul fairly and finds nothing which merits punishment. However, for political reasons he is unwilling to challenge the Jewish authorities by simply releasing him. Like politicians of all ages, Felix simply did nothing and left the matter to his successor, Festus.

 

Bibliography: D. C. Braund, “Felix” ABD 2:783; Schürer HJP² 1:460-466.