Narrative Function in Luke-Acts: Did Luke Have a Historical Source?

James McGrath had an interesting discussion on Paul and mythicism on his blog a few weeks back (alas, I am far behind on my blogging! Still working on a syllogism post which is nearly complete!); while I am still in the process of working on my next installment of ‘Defining Mythicism’ and the ongoing discussion with historical Jesus scholars on the subject, James makes some very important points in his post which I have raised myself:

Acts has to be used with caution, and we cannot assume that Acts always views Paul in the same way that Paul viewed himself, nor had the same theological stance as Paul, never mind the question of whether the information in Acts is historically reliable in various places.

This criticism is important; it is important because it expresses the conflict the reader had when they read Paul and then read about how the author of Acts portrays Paul.  Joe Tyson remarks on this:

Contrariwise, the speeches of Paul, with one exception, do not sound like the Paul of the letters.  The one exception is in Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch,…. Here the Paul of Acts sounds like the author of Romans and Galatians.  Elsewhere in Acts, however, the themes of the Lukan Paul are fundamentally Jewish, more specifically Pharisaic.  The Lukan Paul stresses monotheism, creation, and resurrection.  Most importantly, there is a great deal of stress on his observance of Torah (Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle [Columbia: Univ of South Carolina Press, 2006], p. 3-4).

The implications for this are quite clear.  Luke portrays Paul differently, for reasons other than to express historical reliability.  His desires are, in effect, to craft a Paul more in line with how he views the Jewish Christian sects (perhaps those led by the Jerusalem pillars, either in the image of Peter or, more probably, in an image he presumes to akin to how he believes Peter would have been).  But then he makes the following claim and I am not so sure, in what capacity, he feels it is a solid one and I am hoping that by addressing it he will make his point more clear:

But that having been said, the evidence of Acts is very important for discussion with Jesus-mythicism, because it is the second volume of a two-volume work that also includes a story of Jesus. And so unless we want to argue that Luke was right about the historicity of major characters in his second volume, but completely wrong about the historicity of the main character in his first volume, then Luke-Acts provides yet another bit of evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

If we’re honest, if we only had Luke’s account of Paul being lowered over a city wall to safety, we’d treat it as a fantastic bit of hagiographical fiction. But Paul himself confirms that such an event happened (2 Corinthians 11:33), while providing enough different details so as to make it unlikely that Luke is simply deriving information from Paul’s letters. And so Luke can be shown to preserve a grain of historical reminiscence even in a story about which we’d naturally be skeptical (emphasis added- ed).

What More Could I Have Said About Paul? The New Perspective, Acts, and Mythicism.

What makes this statement so curious is that it does not make formulaic (logical) sense.  If you might have missed it, here is the summarized claim James is making above:  Since Luke has more details about Paul than Paul provides himself, that is evidence (“shown to preserve”) of a historical source or tradition to which Luke had access.

I don’t think this follows at all and I’m not sure that James really thought that claim through when he made it, or else he might have stayed a hand before typing it, to be sure.  First, while it might very well be true that Luke had another source, to claim that Luke’s source preserved a historical tradition or historical kernel is a little disingenuous since we just do not have that information.  We simply don’t have Luke’s sources about the figure of Paul at all, save for Paul’s letters, so it is impossible to know if he is drawing from a historical tradition or a fictional one upon which he is elaborating.  As even James will admit we don’t have all the textual sources (in fact, we know just from mentions in the secondary accounts we do have, we are missing a great deal of literature–Gospels, letters, treatises, etc…we even know of many no-longer-extant texts by name), so I am not sure why James feels the need to obscure the truth of this issue by suggesting that there is a historical core to this narrative.

What makes James’ point less logically sound, and which is perhaps more damaging to his statement, is that there are many instances where Luke takes a short theological statement in Paul or a short story where there are practically no details and elaborates upon them–not from historical source material, but from earlier literature.  Take Paul’s conversion narrative(s) in Acts (all three of them: Acts 9, 22, & 26).

I would argue that Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 is an emulation of Heliodorus’ conversion in 2 Maccabees 3.  The topoi of the narratives are in the same order and reflect the same sort of conversion (i.e. divine intervention): (1) In both stories, a nonbeliever (non-Jew, non-Christian) are on their way to persecute the righteous (loot the temple, persecute Christians), (2) the two nonbelievers are knocked down and their companions struck with dread, (3) both suffer at the hand of the lord, (4) and their recovery is only given to them by trusting faithful servants of the lord.  This emulation is upheld by a number of scholars, though I find N. T. Wright’s claim (The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003], 188-193) that Luke believed this act to be a historical event—while Wright himself argues for the allusion—to be a little disingenuous.

It seems James might be taking a stance akin to H.J. Cadbury (i.e. that the author/redactor of Acts had the use of source material), but even Cadbury exhibited caution in his analysis, suggesting rightly that in the end, the author had full control over the rhetoric of the text and its uses.  But the emulation of motifs, archetypes, and figures found in earlier literature in order to supplement narrative details is not new (see notes below), but has been tackled more recently (see I. Hjelm’s treatment ‘”Who Is My Neighbor?” Implicit Use of Old Testament Stories and Motifs in Luke’s Gospel’ in my forthcoming volume with Thompson) and the evidence is quite strong (T. Penner argues this persuasively).  His motives for creating these scenarios from OT literature (rather than, say, from historical sources) are also quite well-known; first proposed by R. Karris but also echoed in C.K. Barrett.  C.H. Talbert, R.I. Pervo, and Joe Tyson (cf. the Acts Seminar) have taken up the challenge to offer more relative, recent studies on the subjects as well.

So is it really ‘a grain of historical reminiscence’, as James suggests, or simply Luke engaging with Paul’s letters?  In that event, what reason would he have to include it in the narrative?  And what was Paul’s purpose of expressing this story?  Did he have a reason behind it or was he simply recounting an actual event for no reason?  And if there was a reason, was it relevant to his theological message in the rest of the text?  In order to make any determination about the value of the textual narrative, we need to ask more questions which raise or lower the probable expectation that this event was, in fact, based on a ‘historical reminiscence’ instead of being a emulative theological fiction passed from Paul to the author/redactor of Acts.

Paul writes, for example, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.  The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.” (2 Cor 11:30-33)

But Luke has a different story: “When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.” (Acts 9:23-25)

And one cannot help but wonder why Paul would include this?  Is he trying to show cowardice or something else?  Is he showing that it is acceptable to be meek, to be human?  This part of the letter doesn’t fit with his normal style; very little does Paul say about his ministry in his letters.  And, to top it off, I am always hesitant when reading the letters of Paul, upon coming to a verse which reads “The God and Father of the Lord Jesus…knows that I am not lying.”  My thoughts always turn to a child saying, “Honest mom, I didn’t take that cookie from the counter!  Scouts honor!”  It’s just hard to believe.  But if it were for that alone, then maybe James would have a point.  But Paul often alludes to emulations when he makes these sorts of statements–God knows Paul isn’t lying because Paul is drawing from scripture:

From 1 Sam. 19:9-12, “But an evil spirit from the LORD came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. While David was playing the lyre, Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. That night David made good his escape. Saul sent men to David’s house to watch it and to kill him in the morning. But Michal, David’s wife, warned him, “If you don’t run for your life tonight, tomorrow you’ll be killed.” So Michal let David down through a window, and he fled and escaped.”

Interesting that the scenarios in 2 Cor., Acts, and 1 Sam. have the same thematic elements, the same sorts of language…

λαβόντες δὲ οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς διὰ τοῦ τείχους καθῆκαν αὐτὸν χαλάσαντες ἐν σπυρίδι

and the disciples having taken him, by night did let him down by the wall, letting down in a basket.

καὶ διὰ θυρίδος ἐν σαργάνῃ ἐχαλάσθην διὰ τοῦ τείχους καὶ ἐξέφυγον τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ

and through a window in a rope basket I was let down, through the wall, and fled out of his hands.

καὶ κατάγει ἡ μελχολ τὸν δαυιδ διὰ τῆς θυρίδος καὶ ἀπῆλθεν καὶ ἔφυγεν καὶ σῴζεται

And Michal causeth David to go down through the window, and he goeth on, and fleeth, and escapeth;

If we were to say that Luke had a source, it must have been the letters of Paul and 1 Sam.  To make the claim that Luke had another source is speculative at best and would require a much more complicated and undoubtedly convoluted explanation.  Indeed, this motif goes back to Joshua 2:15, when Rahab hid spies sent by Joshua: “Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the city wall, so that she was living on the wall.”  None of these topoi are new.

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