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.

29 Responses

  1. I am not sure why you interpret what I wrote in the way that you do. I was not at all suggesting that Luke-Acts, because it has additional details when compared to Paul’s letters, therefore is likely to be historical. My point was twofold. First, Luke disagrees with what Paul wrote sufficiently that it becomes unlikely that the detail is taken over directly from his letters. Second, in relation to mythicism, it makes little sense (unless one is going to attribute to the author a level of incompetence that he doesn’t clearly exhibit) to treat this two-volume work as an account of a purely fictional character followed by fictionalized accounts of actual historical figures.

  2. Maybe I misunderstood your point then. So am I to assume you believe Simon Magus was a real person?

  3. If Dr. McGrath’s analogy were correct, then we would have to assume the historicity of the Acts of Paul as well, as it has a description of Paul’s encounter with wild beasts in Ephesus to explain the 1 Cor 15:32 reference.

  4. Also note that in Tyson’s view, the canonical gospel of Luke is also an anti-Marcionite production. So its concern about the historical Jesus is the same as its concern about the historical Paul. Its purpose is to steal both of them away from the Marcionites. Ultimately this means that the historicity of Jesus (using only the context of Luke-Acts) is tied to Marcion’s historical claims.

  5. Tom, I am not sure why you are asking about Simon Magus. There is certainly some reason to think that he may have been a historical person, although I can only describe myself as uncertain about whether he was historical. There were apparently Gnostic teachers not much later that claimed that their teacher was a disciple or a teacher of his, and I don’t see why such groups would borrow a fictional figure depicted negatively in Acts and trace their origins to him.

  6. James, I suppose it depends on when you believe Acts was written, doesn’t it? And there is good cause to accept the terminus ad quem as the date of composition (in which case, Acts came after those stories had circulated).

  7. At any rate, my point is that Luke-Acts is a two-volume work the main characters in the second volume of which are historical. Do you have an explanation for how it could have ended up having a first volume about a fictional figure and a second volume about historical figures who supposedly knew him? Or to put it another way, when Luke seems to have been able to accurately ascertain the existence of the main characters in volume 2, is there a particular reason (apart from personal preference) for believing that he was completely mistaken about the main character in volume 1, and his belief, shared with all other early Christian sources, that main characters in volume 2 knew the main character in volume 1?

  8. Clearly, James, they are not written for the same purpose. But to claim there are no fictional characters in Acts is a little disingenuous since I do not believe we can account, historically, for all the traditional figures of the early Church. Regardless, though, even if it turned out that the dramatis personae of Acts were all historical, I don’t believe you could make a case for Gos. Luke, being as most of it is taken directly from earlier Gospels (and we don’t have Marion’s or proto-Luke); and since Luke might be as late as Gos. John (or later, depending on how you date them), your argument doesn’t necessarily hold. After all, Luke’s author might very well have believed Jesus to be a historical person by the time he wrote.

  9. Did I say that there are no fictional characters in Acts?!

  10. “If we were to say that Luke had a source, it must have been the letters of Paul and 1 Sam. ” Must? that is a strong word. I think the presumption that the sources we have now are the only one that existed is more than a little short sited. It is like someone saying every one who knows Kennedy was assassinated must have watched Oliver Stone’s JFK. Why would you think that know one would know about Paul unless they read his extant letters? It is speculative, but a well founded speculation and more likely than the latter. If an archaeologist found 50 arrow heads at Agincourt would he conclude only 50 arrows were fired in that battle?
    On the link with 1 Sam. I’m not terribly familiar with how cites were made at that time. I suppose we may want to know if there were buildings built on walls at the time. Given that Paul expects people to believe this, it is likely that the window on the wall would not have struck people as preposterous. On the similarity of this tale and the one in 1 Sam, I have to point out that I often read crime reports of people being shot dead with a gun, but I don’t think any one is wondering if these are copy cat crimes or one guy with a similar M.O. If cities had windows on walls, then people may have used them to escape cities.

  11. Tom, that early readers of Mark took its characters to be historical does say something about how the work was received. This notion that there were Mythic Jesus people inhabiting the world of early Christianity that left no trace is highly speculative.

  12. Mike, be careful you do not apply anachronistically a definition to ‘historical’. Please check into sources on imitatio and μιμήσις, as well as what is meant by the ‘mythic mind’–Emanuel Pfoh has an excellent monograph on the subject (of the ancient mythic mind) as well as an article which is forthcoming in my collection with Th. L. Thompson. But there are other works on the ancient mythic mind which will help frame my discussion within an actual reference of study. As for imitatio, this is a very well-known subject in the fields of Classics and New Testament. Forgive me, but I don’t have the time at the moment to rehash these sorts of discussions which are so well laid out elsewhere. =)

  13. Tom, to be clear, are you suggesting that Paul’s version of his escape from Damascus is something he made up? I can see how the details from 1 Sam could influence Luke, a secondary source at best, but it seems a stretch that Paul, our primary source, would be so inventive with his life. Obviously he could have created a fiction, but I don’t know if that is what you are proposing.

  14. Paul was more inventive than you realize; I argue this in my forthcoming volume. The title of the paper is ‘Born Under the Law: Intertextuality and the Question of the Historicity of the Figure of Jesus in Paul’s Epistles’.

  15. Some books to read also (not comprehensive–see my forthcoming paper for a more comprehensive bibliography): R.B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven & London: 1989); Th. L. Brodie, The Birthing of the New Testament: The Intertextual Development of the New Testament Writings (NTM 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2004); Th. L. Brodie, D.R. MacDonald, & S.E. Porter, eds., The Intertextuality of the Epistles: Explorations of Theory and Practice (NTM 16; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006)

  16. Dear Tom,

    You will find that Jimmy tends to go round and round. Do not think that it is a lack in your questioning, or that getting more and more specific with your questions is in some ways missing the mark. A number of people have pointed out that this is part of Jimmy’s style. In fact, I have won $10 from a number of people by at specific points saying “I will bet you $10 you will not get a specific answer to that…” and they will later, sometimes after banging their head against the wall thinking that it is some lack in them being unclear post me and say “I owe you ten bucks.”


  17. That’s not fair Rich. James is a good scholar; he’s quite perceptive. I’m not at all concerned that James chooses to answer or not answer certain questions since we are in an informal setting and I imagine he has a lot more in his life to deal with than posting answers to people on blogs. Were this a formal setting or a professional one, I imagine James would be more inclined to respond. I can speak to this as well, since there are times I just can’t get to questions, even if i have an answer.

  18. Dear Tom,

    Note this quote in the discussion above; “But Paul himself confirms that such an event happened”.

    This shows a lack of the understanding of Christian history. “Paul” is not a character that we know anything about historically. We only have anonymous stories about a Paul character. We have no idea of the stories are authentic, and/or if they were written by any particular historical character.

    For example, I could write a letter in the guise of Santa Claus. If someone then uses my letter to make historical claims about Santa Claus, they make a fool of themselves. Historians FIRST have to authenticate sources before they can then begin to use these sources to make claims about the authors.

    These are the kinds of simply historical mistakes that often show that religion industry professionals are not historians. Or, certainly not competent ones.


  19. Again, that’s not necessarily the case, Rich. Of the letters of Paul (accounting for textual critical evaluations, of course) there is a probable chance they were written by a single figure (or, at least, individuals who had the same style). We call that figure ‘Paul’ (and in fact, I cover this in my paper, noted elsewhere in this comment thread); regardless of his historical identity, that figure is the earliest to offer testimony on the status of the church that we have extant. I have no problems accepting Paul’s historicity as tentative, but none the less it’s a probability (greater than 50%, which is not so bad as far as other characters in the Bible go). So James is not incorrect when he refers to Paul, but he might be incorrect when it comes to whether or not we can confirm an event via Paul. That involves more literary critical analysis. I will actually be dedicating significant time to this topic in my next book (currently in preparation).

  20. Dear Tom,

    I think you are falling into the speculation trap that many in the religion industry do. You will not find any of the speculation you were talking about by this in the field of history.

    General readers should be aware that there is a difference between the religion industry and the history industry. Readers should take great care to see if the author of the work they are reading had degrees in “history”, or if they have some religion industry degree like “NT studies” or some other degree that is not a actual degree in “history”, There is a very constant effort for those in the the religion industry to be known as “historians” even though they do not actually have degrees in the field of history, and operate vastly differently than those in the actual history field do.


  21. Rich,

    I’m afraid you’re quite wrong about this. It’s not speculation; this can be determined via quantitative methods (syllogisms, formal logic, Bayes theorem, etc…). Your general observations between religious studies and general history is, sorry to say, quite naive. In fact I can think of several historians who are far worse than those in, what you call, ‘the religion industry’. You are actually falling into a trap, it’s called being ‘too skeptical’; this is a serious problem which has actually led to the development of groups like the Zeitgeist movement–led by a bunch of overly-skeptical, paranoid conspiracy theorists and a rogue mystic whose ideas are so far out that she needed to create her own publishing company rather than face peer review or publish academically–and, actually, being ‘too skeptical’ has led serious scholars to ignore certain mythicist positions for the same reason (they are skeptical to a degree of absurdity, rather than taking into consideration the sound arguments that some mythicists make). You might think about treading more carefully with the terminology you use.

  22. Tom,

    Sounds like you are saying that yo simply disagree with my view. Can you name me a few folks with degrees in history that will confirm your hypothesis that there is a historical paul character, and can you point me to data on what is non definitively about him? Please be as specific as possible.

    The general reader should simply begin to talk to some actual folks with degrees in history, and ask a few of them about the ideas I am expressing. I’m just making you aware of some basic flaws in the religion industry.


  23. Yes, Richard Carrier is a scholar with degrees in ancient history, classics, and ancient science. He accepts the probability of a historical Paul. Also, Michael Grant, I recall, also believed in a historical Paul.

    Edit: Will you stop referring to ‘degrees in history’–there is really no such thing. Are you referring to scholars with Classics degrees? Or degrees in Classical Civilization (not the same thing as Classics at some universities)? Or American History (modern or postindustrial/ reconstruction)? Ancient Near East Historians?

  24. so I will take that as a “no” if you can only think of a single person, and don’t know their specific argument.

    So the general reader should note, that this idea of Toms sounds very fringe. He himself can only think of one person that even supports it, and he does not seem to be able to clearly lay out the case.


  25. So Richard Carrier doesn’t count? Michael Grant? Why don’t you name someone with a “degree in history”(sic) which doesn’t accept the historicity of the figure of Paul?

  26. Dear Tom,

    when I said the answer is “no” it was related to my question, “can you name a few… and be specific”. You named one, and were not able to lay out what proof yo are talking about.

    So that is a “no” to the total of my question. one is not a few, and to just list a name without explain the case he makes to demonstrate that a historical paul existed, again that is a “no” to my question as a total.

    RE more detail, if you are saying that say of the X letters that used to be claimed to be of paul, that today some X-y are still thought to be from a single author, but others are not. That does not really address the idea of this “Paul” that people refer to.

    What is to say that these x-y letters were written by a single author, Irenaeus, or someone many years after the events they claim to be about took place. Don’t get hung up on it being Irenaeus, it could be many persons. The point is the character paul is supposed to have lived at a certain time, and done certain things as pers the stories attribted to him. Saying X letters were written by a single author… exactly how does it show that the person is the person as characterized in the legendary stories? So if I write 7 stories in the character of santa claus… that demonstrates that I am santa claus.

    Your case does not seem to be making sense at even a minimal examination.

    If I wroie 7 letters proported to be by santa claus and someone said “all 7 of these letters can be proven to be written by a single person with scientific rigor” how does that demonstrate that a santa claus exists?


  27. Rich, I’m sorry to put you on the spot like this, but you are really out of your mind if you think you are actually speaking knowledgeably about this subject. Your naivety is clear to anyone with a working knowledge of the field. You don’t even realize that there is no such thing as a ‘degree in history’ (you can have a concentration in history, but only when you’re going for a AGS–a two year degree only. BA degrees are more specified and usually not generalized. Most experts in the field have specialized degrees in either Classics or CC, or ancient history, or a specified branch of those fields–like philology).

    First, Classical scholars or those with degrees in Classical Civilization are hardly concerned with Biblical matters to the point where they would have read the studies and research done on the Pauline Epistles; I’d be surprised if they could cite the required secondary soures to even begin to have a legitimate, professional discussion about Paul. Most spend their time working with Classics topics. You hardly ever see a Classics scholar publishing in a journal or monograph series dealing with early Christianity or Second Temple Period Judaism unless there is an overlap of the two (like linguistics, or literary theory, or socio-cultural assimilation questions where a Classics scholar would have useful things to say). There is a reason why Religious Studies and Classics are different fields…there is simply far too much published material out there for one person to accumulate and remember in both fields that it only makes sense that there would be a completely separate field for Classics, Christianity, and Judaism (and also Islamic studies).

    If you ask a Classics professor, any Classics professor, about a Biblical Studies or Religious Studies question, I promise you, you will not be happy with the answer (and subsequent dismissal of the question) simply because they don’t have the time to read anything dealing with those questions and, more than likely, they will resort to looking in general dictionaries and encyclopedias for answers (like the ODOCC or Eerdmans) rather than looking through the thousands of papers, monographs, and edited volumes that exist. They probably would not know where to begin, nor could they tell you which are conservative or more critical papers. It’s just not their field.

    So, for your own sake, stop pretending to have a clue about what historians outside of Biblical Studies think; you don’t really even know what the difference is to make any sort of authoritative claim about what is ‘fringe’ or what isn’t. You are so far removed from this knowledge, you don’t realize just how ‘fringe’ your own perspective is.

  28. Dear Tom,

    I posted a prior comment
    that addresses a number of the issues in your most recent post. I do not see that post in the thread. Let’s hold off on me addressing any issues in your most recent ost till we can find the comment #1513 which was my most recent prior to your latest.


  29. You’re even more delusional if you think Irenaeus had anything to do with the authorship of the Pauline Epistles. And you have the nerve to suggest that something I wrote is ‘fringe?’

This blog is no longer in use; NO comments will post.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: