A Historical Introduction to the New Testament by Robert M. Grant
Robert M. Grant is professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, A formost scholar in the field, his books include Gnosticism, The Earliest Lives of Jesus, and The Secret Sayings of Jesus. Copyright 1963 by Robert M. Grant. Originally published by Harper and Row in 1963.
Chapter 10: The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts
Since many have undertaken to draw up an account concerning the events which have taken place among us, as those who from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the matter delivered (accounts of them) to us, it seemed good also to me, since I followed all of them carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for your excellency, Theophilus, so that you might possess accurate knowledge about the matters concerning which you have been informed.
With this preface, characteristic of the writings of Graeco-Roman historians and would-be historians, the author begins the first of his two volumes which deal with the life of Jesus and the continuation of his mission in the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. The preface marks a higher level of literary culture than almost anything else in the New Testament (with the exception of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in antiquity Sometimes ascribed to the same author). It differs from ordinary prefaces because it does not state who the author is; it resembles them in its statements about (1) the occasion of the work, (2) its reliance on trustworthy materials, and (3) its insistence upon the competence of the author. It is thus evident that the author intends to write a history.
His history, however, is not an ordinary one, since he proceeds from the good Greek style of his preface directly into an account of the miraculous conceptions of John the Baptist and his distant relative Jesus and makes use of a Semitizing style full of reminiscences of the Septuagint. The break is so sharp that scholars have often supposed that he is making use of different sources and not troubling to make them over. Such a conclusion is unwarranted, however, for (1) since Luke writes as a historian he evidently possessed some training in grammar and rhetoric, and therefore had learned to write in various styles, and (2) he varies his own style in accordance with the situation; in Acts his style becomes more ‘classical’ as the gospel is brought closer to Rome.
Furthermore, it should be stated that he was almost certainly unaware of the modern distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘history’. In his view faith and history worked together, and one way of propagating the faith was to state what the history had been. This is not to say that he was always reliably informed, or that -- any more than modern historians -- he always presented a severely factual account of events. It does mean that he believed that the events, if represented accurately and in order, at least pointed in the direction of the Christian gospel.
Who was the author? The oldest discussion of this question is also the classical one. Irenaeus (c. 180) began, as all critics must begin, with Acts (Adv. haer. 3, 14, 1). (1) The author of the ‘we-passages’ in Acts, presumably from a travel diary, went with Paul to Troas and Macedonia (Acts 16:8-17); he sailed with him back to Troas (20:5-15) and thence to Jerusalem and Rome (21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). (2) Luke alone was with Paul later (II Tim. 4:11); he was a ‘beloved physician’ in prison with Paul, presumably at Rome (Col. 4:11). (3) Therefore the author of Luke-Acts was Luke. Further identifications were provided later; thus Origen (early third century) thought he was the Lucius of Romans 16:21, while Ephraim Syrus (fourth century) identified him with the Lucius of Cyrene mentioned in Acts 13:1. The reliability of this proof obviously depends on several prior assumptions: (1) Paul must have written Colossians, and from Rome. (2) The tradition reflected in II Timothy must be trustworthy. Others have attempted to support these arguments by claiming that Luke makes use of ‘medical language’, but H.J. Cadbury has shown that his writings do not reflect the details about ailments and their cures which are found in medical writings, that apart from such details there was no medical language in antiquity, and finally -- by a reductio ad absurdum -- that the arguments used to show that Luke was a physician could prove that he was a veterinary.
On balance we should incline to accept the argument of Irenaeus and to assume that it was intended to confirm a prior belief rather than to introduce a new hypothesis. It should be said, however, that the question of the author’s name is not as important as the question of the author’s purpose; the latter question can be answered only from his writings.
It has sometimes been claimed that Luke cannot have been a companion of Paul because in neither the gospel nor the Acts is there any trace of the specifically Pauline doctrines to be found in the major epistles. This claim neglects the extent to which it is possible to associate and work with others without necessarily sharing all their concerns; in other words, it fails to do justice either to the variety to be found within the unity of modern Christianity or to that within the early Church.
In the Gospel of Luke there are 19,400 words and, in Acts, 13,380. The vocabulary of the Gospel includes 2,055 words; that of Acts, 2,038. In the Gospel there are 261 words not found elsewhere in the New Testament; in Acts, 413. (Taking the two books together, their vocabulary consists of 2,700 words.)
Among Luke’s favourite expressions in the Gospel are the following: the imperfect verb ‘egeneto’ (‘it happened . . .’) with ‘and’ or with a finite verb or with an infinitive. He also employs the preposition ‘in’ with an article and an infinitive to indicate that something was done or said while something else was going on. Events often take place ‘in the presence of’ (‘enopion’) persons. In this way he demonstrates his concern with historical connections and historical witnesses. In improving the style of Mark he often uses a more ‘literary’ word for ‘immediately’ (‘parachrema’ for Mark’s ‘euthus’).
The ‘formulas’ he uses are less striking than those of Matthew, but it is worth noting that he speaks of an ‘only’ (‘monogenes’) son or daughter’s being healed, three times (7:12, 8:42, 9:38), and sometimes begins parables with ‘what man’ (15:4) or ‘what woman’ (15:8), or ‘a certain man’ (10:30, 12:16; 14:16, 15:11, 16:1, 19; 19:12).( Parables like these occur only in two instances in Matthew, where they are introduced differently).
We can see something of Luke’s viewpoint when we consider his use of his principal source, the Gospel of Mark. (Fortunately we possess this source and therefore are not reduced to pure conjecture.) Luke uses Mark in large blocks, instead of interspersing it with other materials as Matthew’s practice was; usually, though not always, he retains the order of Mark. Sometimes he anticipates something which Mark mentions later, and thus it appears that he read large sections of Mark, and perhaps the whole gospel, before writing his own Section to correspond to it.
In general his use of Mark can be summarized thus:
Luke 1-2 non-Marcan
3:1-6:19 mostly Mark (1:2-3.19; 6:1-6)
6:20 - 8:3 non-Marcan
8:4- 9:50 Mark (3:31-9:41,omitting 6:17-29;6:45-8:26)
18:15-24:11 Mark (10:13-16:8)
He improves Mark’s style by omitting repetitious words and clauses; he omits expressions which attribute human emotions to Jesus (so also Matthew); he severely abridges the account of a violent action such as the cleansing of the temple. In the words of Cadbury, ‘the conduct of Jesus’ disciples and friends towards him in Mark can easily be improved on, and Luke improves it.’
Such observations may point towards an explanation of Luke’s omission of Salome’s dance in the story of the death of John the Baptist, but they do not indicate why he dropped a whole block of materials from Mark (6:45-8:26). It is most unlikely that Luke began cutting out materials with the story of walking on water because he found it incredible. While ancient standards of credibility were largely personal, the rest of Luke’s writings does not suggest that he would have found this story difficult to believe. It has been suggested that the copy of Mark which he used did not contain this section -- either because there was an ‘original Mark’ to which it had not been added as yet, or because somehow some leaves had fallen out of the papyrus codex and Luke either did not notice their absence or did not /could not obtain them. Such theories possess all the fascination of the absolute -- in this case, the absolutely hypothetical. We may suggest that Luke, as astute as most modern historians, observed that the materials in Mark 6:45-8:26 add little or nothing to what he could obtain either from other passages in Mark or from other materials available to him; he therefore chose to omit them. He could see that they were somewhat repetitious.
Luke was concerned with writing history. For this reason he attached to the public ministry of John and Jesus an elaborate synchronism (for which there are parallels in Greek historians and Josephus), dating the coming of the word of God to John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (AD. 28-9), when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea (26 -- 36), Herod tetrarch of Galilee (4 BC. -AD. 39), Philip his brother tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis (4 BC.-AD. 34), Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (doubtful date), and when Annas and Caiaphas were high priest (3:1-2). This notice illustrates Luke’s desire to set the gospel narrative in the context of world history; it also reflects a certain lack of familiarity with Jewish affairs, for only Caiaphas was high priest at the time (though his father-in-law Annas doubtless retained the title honorarily). Another difficulty occurs in his story of the birth of Jesus, which he dates both ‘in the days of King Herod’ (1:5, before 4 BC.) and in relation to a census under Quirinius, governor of Syria, in AD. 6 (2:2). Various attempts have been made to clear up this apparent contradiction by postulating an earlier Roman census in Palestine, but it cannot be said that they have been entirely successful.
Luke was concerned with the historical setting of the mission of John and Jesus. He is the only evangelist to report John’s counsel to tax-collectors and soldiers (3:12-14). He apparently cannot agree with Mark that the tetrarch Herod would suppose that John had risen from the dead, so he ascribes this opinion to others (9:7-9) He realizes that the beginning of Jesus’ mission, as Mark relates it, is historically incomprehensible, and he therefore tells how Jesus read from Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth and stated that the prophecy had been fulfilled (4:21). In his view, Mark’s passion narrative did not adequately emphasize ‘non-theological factors’, and he therefore lists the precise charges brought against Jesus: he was overturning the nation, forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling himself an anointed king (23:2). Since Jesus was a Galilean, he must have been investigated by Herod (23:6-12). And for the centurion’s recognition of Jesus as ‘son of God’ (Mark 15:39) he substitutes his acknowledgment that he was ‘an innocent man’ (Luke 23:47). It should of course be added that when Luke makes these changes it is easier for us to see that they have been made than to assign definite motives for each change or (and especially) to say whether or not Luke’s account is thus more reliable than Mark’s. We do not know that he did not possess the reliable information he claims to have had.
Luke emphasizes the concern of Jesus’ ministry with rich and poor and with money. In his version of the Beatitudes Jesus blesses the poor (6:20, not the ‘poor in spirit’ as in Matt. 5:3) and the hungry (6:21, not those who ‘hunger and thirst for righteousness’ as in Matt. 5:6); Jesus denounces, indeed curses, the rich and those who are now well-fed (6:24-5). There are a good many references to women and their relation to the gospel, even though it is Luke alone who states that ‘wives’ must be left for sake of discipleship (14:26; 18:29). The range of the mission of Jesus is extended beyond the Jewish people (cf. Mark 7:24-30, which Luke omits) to the despised Samaritans (10:30-7, the Good Samaritan; 17:11 -19, the Samaritan leper; a similar interest in Acts 8:5-35). Presumably these Lucan emphases reflect at least one aspect of the ministry of Jesus.
It is clear that as a historian, and as a second-generation Christian, Luke is aware of a certain distance between himself and the earliest disciples. This means that, like the other evangelists, he repeatedly states that the disciples misunderstood Jesus during his ministry; unlike them, he specifically indicates that their eschatological views were wrong. As they approached Jerusalem, they ‘supposed that the kingdom of God would appear immediately’ (19:11), but they were mistaken. Before they knew of the resurrection, some of them could say that ‘we hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (24:21); even afterwards they could ask, ‘Lord, will you restore the kingdom to Israel at this time?’ (Acts 1:6). They did not yet understand that the Christ had to suffer and then enter into his glory (Luke 24:26); they did not know that the Spirit would be given to the Church, which would then witness to Jesus ‘to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8). For this reason Luke reports the saying of Jesus that ‘the kingdom of God does not come with watching; people will not say, "Lo, here" or "there"; for behold, the kingdom of God is within you (or, ‘in your midst)’ (Luke 17:20-1). Luke modifies some of the eschatological material derived from Mark; he agrees that the end will come, but Christians must not follow those who say, ‘The time has drawn near’ (21:8). It may be that the fall of Jerusalem has come (21:20-4; but, even if it has, the end is not yet.
On the other hand, not all Luke’s modifications can be explained in this way. Why does he omit the statement in Mark 10.45, ‘the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many’? Why does he substitute the words, ‘I am in your midst as one who serves’ (Luke 22.27)? He cannot be opposed to mentioning Christ’s sacrificial death, for he plainly refers to it in Acts 20:28. Perhaps he believes that the earliest disciples did not understand it as Paul did. This problem leads us to another, the question of the text of Luke 22:19b-20. Some manuscripts state only that at the Last Supper, Jesus took a cup, blessed it, and passed it to his disciples with an oath not to drink wine again until the coming of the kingdom; then he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body.’ Other manuscripts continue at this point, adding these words:
given for you; do this in my remembrance. And likewise the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.
There is a considerable measure of confusion in the order of these words in the various manuscripts, and they are omitted entirely in Codex Bezac and in the Old Latin version, while they are paralleled partly in Mark (14:22-4) and partly in I Corinthians 11:24-5.
It can be argued that (1) the longer version was written by Luke and the confusion is due to the sequence cup-bread-cup, not found in early liturgies and therefore disliked by early copyists, or (2) what Luke wrote was only the shorter version (cup-bread, as in the Didache); the confusion is due to the efforts of copyists to supply additional materials.
Here we enter the realm of textual history and can note that there are significant disagreements in other parts of Luke and, above all, in Acts, where Codex Bezae gives us practically a different edition of the book from the one found in other manuscripts. In Luke itself we find such divergences as (1) the ascription of the Magnificat (1:46-55) to Elizabeth rather than to Mary (Irenaeus in the second century, Niceta of Remesiana in the fourth; some Old Latin manuscripts); (2) the appearance of an angel to Jesus in Gethsemane (22:43-4); found in Codex Bezac but omitted in Alexandrian and Caesarean manuscripts); (3) ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (23:34 [cf. Acts 7:60], omitted by many Alexandrian and Caesarean manuscripts, perhaps in opposition to the Jews; contrast Matt. 27:25); (4) ‘He is not here but has been raised’ (24:6; omitted in Codex Bezae and the Old Latin, but found in the parallel, Mark 16:6); (5) Luke 24:12, apparently based on John 20:8-10 and omitted by Codex Bezae, the Old Latin, and Marcion; and (6) the statement about the ascension in Luke 24:51, omitted by the same witnesses and in one Syriac version.
What does this evidence prove? It proves only that the text of Luke has been subject to a good deal of modification -- in various directions. We know that in the second century two tendencies were at work (if not more). On the one hand, Marcion busied himself with deleting what he regarded as interpolations from the gospel; as far as we can tell from later witnesses to his now lost work, he rejected Luke 22:43-4 and 24:12 but accepted the other passages. On the other hand, Tatian prepared his Diatessaron in which the four gospels were run together; this process of combination tended to result in mixed texts. In consequence of the two tendencies and inevitable scribal errors, it becomes impossible for us to say whether the longer text or the shorter in Luke 22:19b-20 is the original one. Marcion himself accepted the longer text, removing only the word ‘new’ from the expression ‘new covenant’, since he did not believe that there was an old covenant.
While we have indicated that Luke regarded himself as a historian, we should bear in mind that his conception of history was to a considerable degree ‘rhetorical’. He felt free, as other ancient historians felt free, to give an arrangement to his materials which was not necessarily chronological but brought out their meaning as he understood it. Thus in Luke 9:51-18:14 we have an account of a journey towards Jerusalem which the evangelist has used to provide an occasion for including materials of various sorts, mostly without precise indications of time or place.
Similarly the many speeches in Acts are largely in Luke’s style (the speech of Stephen in Acts 7 is a partial exception) and reflect his ideas (or does he reflect theirs?). The tendency towards uniformity in these speeches has been explained as due to the common practice of ancient historians who invented speeches suited to the occasions they were describing. In this regard, recourse is often had to a statement by Thucydides, to the effect that when he did not have records of what was actually said he tried to compose something appropriate. Those who thus appeal to Thucydides usually neglect the rest of what he said: he stated that when he did have reliable reports he used them. Since we do not know that Luke did not have reliable reports, we cannot say that he did more than rewrite his sources, or perhaps write them for the first time from oral tradition. It should be added that Thucydides did not provide the only model known to ancient historians, in any event; Polybius, in the second century BC., severely criticized some of his predecessors for inventing speeches and said that the historian’s business was to record what was actually said. And while we know that Luke’s contemporary, Josephus, liked to make up appropriate speeches -- one of them was supposedly delivered in a cave just before all the witnesses committed suicide -- we do not know that Luke followed his example.
Cadbury’s statement about Luke’s work is rather enigmatic. ‘Even though devoid of historical basis in genuine tradition the speeches in Acts have nevertheless considerable historical value.’(F.J.F. Jackson -- K. Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity, V [London, 1933], 426.) Obviously the speeches have historical value as expressions of what Luke thought the apostles had said; but we do not actually know that they are devoid of historical basis.
The Acts of the Apostles
The book of Acts, the second of the two volumes written by the evangelist Luke (probably after his gospel), is first certainly utilized by Irenaeus of Lyons, towards the end of the second century. He not only used it but also provided the classical proof that it was written by Luke: the detailed information given in the ‘we-passages’ (Acts 16:9-18; 20:5-21:18; 27:1 - 28:16) proves that it was written by a companion of Paul who went with him to Rome; this companion must have been Luke, in prison with Paul at Rome (Col. 4:14) and later (II Tim. 4:11). In the Muratorian fragment the book is described as containing the acts of all the apostles, presumably in order to reject apocryphal books of acts by implication. Thereafter no question was raised about it among orthodox Christians, though it was often neglected in periods when there was little interest in church history.
Even before Irenaeus’s time, the book may have been known to Clement of Rome and/or Justin Martyr, but the evidence for their use of it is ambiguous.
The text of the book has been transmitted in two quite different forms. (1) Most of the Greek manuscripts, including the old uncials, and most later versions contain the form of Acts which is translated in English New Testaments. (2) On the other hand, in Codex Bezac (sixth century) we find what looks like another edition of the book, full of alterations and additions. Something like this edition was used by the earlier Church Fathers and is reflected in the old Latin and Syriac versions.
Two views, with various modifications, have been held concerning the relation of the two kinds of text. (1) The more elaborate version was the original one; later it was revised, perhaps by Luke himself, and the ‘standard’ version was the result. This theory has been criticized by J. H. Ropes on the following grounds. (a) Among the passages omitted in the version supposed to be later are references to the name or the person of (the Lord) Jesus Christ, to the Holy Spirit, and to divine guidance. Did Luke change his mind in this direction? (b) In fourteen instances essentially different pictures of events are set forth. Would Luke have rewritten his book in this way? For these reasons Ropes concluded that another solution must be correct. (2) The shorter version was the original one, and during the late first century or early second it was amplified in order to improve the style and add ‘religious commonplaces’. These modifications gained widespread acceptance for the book.
A notable example of revision is to be found in the report of the ‘apostolic decree’ in Acts 15:20 and 29 (also 21:25). Here the original decree was probably concerned with Levitical purity. The editor of the expanded version dropped a reference to ‘things strangled’ and twice added the ‘golden rule’, thus giving the impression that the decree was concerned with moral requirements.(Ropes claimed that at this point the original decree was correctly reported in the second version, but this claim is inconsistent with his basic theory.)
Acts -- Sources
According to an ingenious theory propounded by Harnack, Acts 2-5 is based on two separate sources which describe the same events. The first, from the evangelist Philip and his daughters, he called ‘A’; the second, less reliable because more ‘theological’, he called ‘B’. His equations can be summarized in a table.
(A miraculous cure) (3.1-10) ---
The gift of tongues 4.23-31 2.1-13
Sharing of property 4.32, 34-5.16 2.44-5
Arrest and trial of the apostles 4.1-3, 5-22 5.17-42
Harnack recognized that Acts 2:42-3:46-7 and 4:33 were summaries, and therefore did not include them in either source.
The summaries were further investigated by Cadbury, who argued that they could be isolated and that earlier ones could be differentiated from later. The earlier ones were Acts 2:41- 2; 4:32, 34-5; and 5:11-14. Others were added later: 2:43-7, based on the older ones; 4:33, based on 2:47a and 5:42; and 5:15-16. This analysis meant that Harnack’s sources were diminished in size, but not necessarily removed from the scene.
The basic question, however, is whether or not the events are really the same. Jeremias has suggested that Peter undoubtedly preached more than once, and that the gift of tongues is not necessarily the same as the shaking of a house (4:31). In addition, he has shown that according to Jewish law a criminal had to be warned before he could be punished. In Acts 4:18 the apostles were warned not to speak, but they were not punished; in Acts 5:28 they were reminded of the warning; and in Acts 5:40 they were beaten. The two accounts do not describe the same event. Therefore the sources ‘A’ and ‘B’ did not exist. Acts 2-5 is probably based primarily on oral tradition, as Luke suggests (Luke 1:2).
As for the materials which follow, it would appear that two kinds are involved, obviously related to the geography of the early Christian missions which were based on Jerusalem and Antioch. These materials reflect two points of view. (1) The viewpoint of Jerusalem is reflected -- as in Acts 2-5 -- in Acts 8.5-40 (Philip); 9:31-11:18 (Peter); 12:1-24 (Peter); and 15:1 -33 (the Jerusalem council). (2) The viewpoint of Antioch, and of some Jerusalem Christians, is reflected in Acts 6:1-8:4 (the story of Stephen, leading on to Saul); 9:1-30 (the story of Saul); 11:19-30 (Saul and others at Antioch) ; and 12:25 -14:28 (Antioch and its missions). This Antiochene source, which leads on to what follows the Jerusalem council, is called by Jeremias ‘the only source of Acts which can be reconstructed with some probability’ and ‘the oldest mission history of the Christian Church -- the kernel of Acts’.
After this point begins the part of Acts with which Luke as an eye-witness was directly concerned (unless, as is possible, he is the Lucius of Acts 13:1), for in Acts 16:10 we find the first of the ‘we-passages’, presumably from his diary. The author of the ‘we-passages’ represents himself as going with Paul to Troas and then to Macedonia (16:8 -11), sailing with him back from Philippi to Troas (20:5 -- Is) and thence going to Jerusalem (21.1 -- 18) and Rome (27.1 -- 28.16). The appearance and disappearance of the ‘we-passages’ has occasioned some criticism. Their style is the same as that of the rest of Acts, and we may assume that when Luke wished to emphasize the fact that he had accompanied Paul on his major journeys he used this means of doing so. It cannot be determined whether or not he was present at events described only in the third person, though it would seem likely that he was. Why did Conrad usually employ the third person in The Nigger of the Narcissus but occasionally speak of ‘we’?
The book of Acts, then, is essentially based on (1) oral traditions about the early church of Jerusalem, (2) other traditions about the Jerusalem missions, (3) materials about the church of Antioch for which Luke himself may have been responsible (cf. 13:1), and (4) an account of the mission of Paul of which to a considerable extent Luke was an eye-witness. To his narrative he has naturally added summaries, as well as what have been called ‘panels of progress’ -- which summarize but also indicate the passage of time (2:47; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31). It has been claimed that these passages mark five-year intervals of time, beginning with the year 30 and ending with the year 60. Such a correlation is possible, but we have no reason to suppose that Luke actually regarded five-year periods as significant.
Luke evidently regarded himself as a historian, but many questions can be raised in regard to the reliability of his history, and most of them have been raised in the commentary of Ernst Haenchen (1957; 3rd ed., 1959). In the first fifteen chapters, which deal primarily with the church of Jerusalem, Luke is producing an edifying sketch rather than a history. The speeches and sermons are based on the Septuagint, not on the Hebrew Bible, and therefore reflect Luke’s interests, not those of the early community. His ‘statistics’ are impossible; Peter could not have addressed three thousand hearers without a microphone, and since the population of Jerusalem was about 25-30,000, Christians cannot have numbered five thousand (Acts 4:4). Something is clearly wrong with Luke’s chronology, for he has Gamaliel refer to Theudas and Judas in the wrong order, and Theudas actually rebelled about a decade after Gamaliel spoke(5:36-7)
The most important difficulty in the early part of Acts has to do with the conversion of Cornelius, described as a centurion of the Italian cohort (10.1). But during the reign of Herod Agrippa (d. 44.), no Roman troops were stationed in his territory. Cornelius is really a stock figure, probably modeled upon the anonymous centurion of Luke 7:1-10. The whole story has been elaborated by Luke in an effort to show that the church of Jerusalem was responsible for the gentile mission. This mission did not involve circumcision (10:45; 11:18). How, then, could the question of circumcision be discussed anew at the ‘council of Jerusalem’? How could the Jerusalem Christians have forgotten the story of Cornelius (though Peter alludes to it in Acts 15.7)? In Haenchen’s view the apostolic council is ‘an imaginative construction and corresponds to no historical reality’.
The parts of Acts which deal primarily with Paul are not much better. Luke constantly reads in notions of his own time, for example in the statement that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in various churches (14:23) or in the reference to the presbyter-bishops of Ephesus (20:17, 28). Paul’s address at Athens reflects Luke’s theology, not Paul’s; and even if isolated elements in it correspond with isolated elements in Paul’s letters, comparisons must be based upon the basic directions present in the theological ideas of both.
Luke makes Paul’s relations with Jerusalem much closer than they really were. Paul did not study with Gamaliel, for he was not in Jerusalem in his youth (Gal. 1:22); his exegesis is not’ essentially rabbinic; and his writings reflect a life-long acquaintance with the Septuagint. Acts 18:22 implies that Luke thought that Paul visited Jerusalem at that point, but he actually did not do so, since Galatians 2:11 shows that there was a complete break between him and the Jerusalem church.
He tries to give an impression of familiarity with Roman officials and their procedures, but Paul’s ‘trial’ is incoherently presented. Why did neither Felix nor Festus give a judgement? Why did Paul not wait for a decision instead of appealing to Caesar? Why did Festus not decide a case of crimen laesae maiestatis? When Luke describes Festus’s discussion with Agrippa he is doing no more than telling the story ‘as he supposed that Roman officials would have told it’ (Lake-Cadbury).
Even the story of Paul’s final journey to Rome, including the narrative about the shipwreck, is full of theological motives and historical difficulties.
We do not agree that every instance is as unhistorical (in our understanding of the term) as Haenchen claims it is. Historical events are not always historically comprehensible; in their particularity they often resist general or logical classification. But when Haenchen reminds us that in Acts ‘we have no photograph of Paul taken by a colleague, but the picture which stood before the eyes of the post-apostolic community -- that of a Paul whom the early Catholic Church recognized and revered and until Augustine and Luther was preferred to the Paul of the epistles’, we cannot altogether disagree.
This is to say that while the traditions which reached Luke may have been generally, or largely, historical, in some respects they were not, and his own use of them did not often increase their historical value. It is also to say that just as the writings of Greek and Roman historians cannot be accepted at face value by the student of history, so the book of Acts has to be analysed not only internally but also in relation to the Pauline epistles. Its primary value lies in its witness to the picture of the life of the early Church which was developed a decade or so after the fall of Jerusalem and the deaths of the principal apostles.
Why was Acts written at all? Here again Haenchen provides a clear, though disputable, answer (pp. 84 -- 8). In the time it was written two questions were especially important: (1) the time of the coming of the end, and (2) the relation of the gentile mission to the Jewish law. The author could have solved the first problem as John does, by setting what had been future in the present; or he could have done what he actually did, i.e. place the end in the indefinite future. As for the second question, the author clearly minimizes as much as possible the differences between Jews and gentiles in the Church.
It is true that the end is, so to speak, postponed; but we should not agree that it was originally regarded as imminent. Similarly while Luke minimizes Jewish-gentile differences it is possible that in Galatians Paul exaggerates them. The fact that Acts reflects certain purposes on its author’s part does not mean that views contrary to those purposes are necessarily authentic, or more authentic.