Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Should A Work Of History Refer To People's Thoughts And Emotions, Advocate Theology, Etc.?

Critics of Acts and other Biblical documents often object to passages that describe a person's thoughts or emotions, quote what somebody said at length, or claim some other sort of knowledge that the author supposedly shouldn't have had. How could Luke have known what a person was thinking? Or the person's emotions? How likely is it that a lengthy discourse, like what Peter said on the day of Pentecost or what Paul said during one of his trials, was accurately remembered and passed down over the years? How could Luke have known what happened during highly private conversations, especially ones in which only non-Christians were involved? What about Luke's inclusion of theology in his writings or his inclusion of moral assessments of the people he's discussing? Sometimes this sort of objection is raised not just to dispute Luke's (or another Biblical author's) quality as a historian, but even to suggest that he must not have been writing in a historical genre. Supposedly, a historian shouldn't have written the way Luke did.

But characteristics like the ones mentioned above in Luke's writings were common in ancient historical sources. Craig Keener gives some examples in his recent commentary on Acts.

Keener notes that Luke's comments on people's thoughts are "perhaps fewer proportionately than even some relatively careful, elite ancient historians (e.g., Tac. Hist. 2.74; Ann. 4.38, 39; 12.4)." (Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, Volume I [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2012], n. 204 on 74) Ancient historians also commented on people's emotions (n. 89 on 101). Not only do other historians include lengthy discourses like the ones Luke reports, but Luke is even relatively restrained in his use of speech material:

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. (269-70)

Ancient historians reported private conversations (n. 263 on 81). They wrote with moral and religious motives, expressed moral and religious judgments in their historical works, and sometimes included miracle accounts approvingly in their histories (153-4, 156-7). Historians, as well as other ancient sources commenting on historical matters, often wrote without chronological order (193-4). Critics often cite a small handful of alleged errors on matters like geography and topography to dismiss a source like Mark or Luke, but such errors were common in ancient historians, including the best of them (195-6, n. 262 on 196). It's often suggested that parallels between figures in the Bible, such as Moses and Jesus, John the Baptist and Jesus, or Peter and Paul, are evidence of the non-historicity of the accounts. But ancient historians frequently arranged their historical accounts in a manner that would highlight such parallels (488, n. 49 on 556, 563, nn. 82-3 on 563). It wasn't a matter of making up stories in order to create an account involving an unhistorical parallel. Rather, it was a matter of seeing parallels in history and wanting to highlight them. Thus, although there are many ways in which Jesus' life differs from and contrasts to Moses' life, for example, the decision of some Biblical authors to focus on the similarities is comparable to what other ancient historians did.

Much could be said about how Luke could know people's thoughts, how he could know about various private conversations, how the speeches he records could have been accurately transmitted over time, why there's nothing wrong with including miracle accounts in a historical work, etc. Keener addresses such issues in his commentary. And we've discussed them at this blog many times. But what I want to emphasize here is that characteristics like the ones often criticized in Luke's writings are often found in other ancient historians. Whether they intend it or not, critics aren't just objecting to Luke, but to ancient non-Christian historians as well. Yet, they often treat those other sources as highly credible and depend on those sources to formulate some of their objections to the Biblical authors.

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