Saturday, January 25, 2014

Acts' Historicity

Craig Keener writes:

Just as later apocryphal gospels diverge further from Palestinian and Semitic traits in the early strata of the Jesus tradition, so these apocryphal acts [of the second century and later] often diverge much further from the undisputed epistles' portrait of Paul than Luke's Acts does….

Luke abridges, rather than expands, the adventures and signs available to him; cf. 2 Cor 11:23-12:9; 12:12; Rom 15:19…

That Luke is at least concerned for precision is suggested by his caution with estimates (e.g., Acts 25:6; "about" in 4:4; 5:7, 36; 10:3, 9; 13:18, 20; 16:25; 19:7, 34; 22:6; 27:27; Luke 3:23; 8:42 [vs. Mark 5:42]; 9:28 [cf. Mark 9:2]; 22:41, 59; 23:44; 24:13)….

Luke is well informed about the first-century C.E. history of Judea's rulers (e.g., Luke 3:1; Acts 23:24; 24:27; 25:13), including plausible events not recorded elsewhere (e.g., Luke 13:1). This suggests that he found records or memories of Judean events available; neither he nor Josephus (who was not alive during the period reflected in the earlier accounts in his War) composed histories from thin air….

Luke's adaptation of Mark generally sticks close to Mark's stories and (with very rare exceptions) even his sequence. If this is representative of his use of written sources, Luke may stay closer to his sources than Josephus stays to the Bible in his Antiquities….

Because Luke's narrative, where we can compare it with external data, corresponds with the real world far more often than not, scholars who focus on these data are impressed with his carefulness. In contrast to some earlier generations, many scholars today have grown in their appreciation of Luke's historiography. Hengel thus opines that "Luke is no less trustworthy than other historians of antiquity." Michael D. Goulder, comparing numerous details in Acts with Paul's letters (see ch. 7 below on this subject), argues that Acts is a work of ancient history and points out, "One may get other matters wrong, and one may tell the story with a spin on it, but one cannot be repeatedly accurate unless one is well informed."…

No one regards the speeches [in Acts] as verbatim, but few scholars would regard Luke's speech summaries as less historical than the fleshed-out speeches of other historians of his time….

Most scholars today would probably concur with Fitzmyer: the genre and external corroborations of many points in Acts do "not guarantee, of course, the historicity of every Lucan statement or episode, but" they do reveal "that what is recounted in Acts is substantially more trustworthy from a historical point of view than not."…

Despite some scholars' reservations, it seems most logical to presume that Luke's standards of reliability where we cannot test him are roughly equivalent to his standards where we can….writers could not know what information would remain extant, even in the unlikely event that they wrote only for future generations; thus the burden of proof rests heavily on interpreters who expect the degree of reliability to decline precipitously where we cannot test it….

One area of interest here is Luke's accuracy in titles for local officials, which changed from one locale to the next and sometimes within a locale from one decade to the next….

The itinerary, weather conditions, and sailors' actions are correct down to minute details in most of [Acts] 27:1-28:15….

As Richard Wallace and Wynne Williams, both classicists, observe, "It is the accuracy over quite obscure details which is striking."…

Today, as another commentator notes, "even skeptical critics" are impressed with Luke's accuracy on "geographical, social and political minutiae," but "reference works that would make such research possible did not exist in the first century." The relative inaccessibility of such information suggests that, to acquire it, either Luke would need very reliable information from someone who traveled or he himself would have had to travel in the period described - with or without Paul. Yet he does not write himself into narratives in the Anatolian interior and elsewhere (as someone seeking to validate a fiction might)….

The twentieth century's most renowned historian of Greco-Roman antiquity, Eduard Meyer, opined that Luke was a great historian and that Acts, "in spite of its more restricted content, bears the same character as those of the greatest historians, of a Polybius, a Livy, and many others."…Indeed, as one historian notes, where the details can be checked, Luke is, on the whole, "marked by carefulness" far more than Josephus is….

we should be readier to lend the benefit of the doubt to Luke than to the sort of modern hypotheses of Christian origins that dismiss our only concrete historical source and then argue from the silence that remains. Such hypotheses are all too common, yet they prove speculative, subjective, and impossible to verify or falsify; occasionally they gain respect through repeated citation, but otherwise they merely compete with other equally speculative scholarly proposals. Writing when eyewitnesses could still be consulted, two millennia closer to the events he reports than we are, Luke remains, for reconstructing Christian origins, a source that we neglect only to our historiographic peril. Whatever limitations we might attribute to him, Luke knows more about this subject than we do….

the speeches in Acts are much briefer than the usual speeches in ancient histories. They are not, strictly speaking, merely outlines, but Luke's failure to fill them in more fully may imply that he has engaged in free composition less than some of even the most careful Hellenistic historians, perhaps because he writes for an audience with less elite rhetorical expectations….

[quoting G.B. Caird] Luke has often been accused of credulity because he has packed his narrative with signs and wonders, but it would be more in keeping with the evidence to commend him for his faithful reproduction of one of the major constituents of early Christianity. For the Epistles bear their concurrent witness that the preaching of the Gospel was everywhere accompanied by exorcisms and healing and by other forms of miracle. [end of quotation of Caird]

(Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume I [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012], 78, 147, n. 75 on 175-6, 176, 192, 200-3, 206-7, 216-7, 269-70, 382)

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