Dating the Book of Acts: the Marcionite Context (1)
by Neil GodfreyThis post continues notes from Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle. Previous posts reconsidering the date of the composition of Acts and the Marcionite challenge can be found in my Tyson and Marcion archives.
Tyson begins with Haenchen. Haenchen (on the assumption of a first century date for the composition of Acts) attempted to explain the fact that there is no certain evidence that Acts was widely known before the middle of the second century by it having no “life situation” in the church before then. It was not used in preaching, had no wider value for the church, and only survived because of its association with the Gospel of Luke. H notes that Acts first proved useful in the struggle against Gnosticism and was extensively used by Irenaeus.
For Tyson, Haenchen creates the problem for himself by insisting on a first century date for the composition of Acts while finding no context for its reception before the late second century. Tyson argues that the earlier neglect of Acts is better explained by it not being available than by the assumption that “no earlier writer knew what to make of it.” (p.51)
Tyson explores the possibility of finding a context that would give meaning to both the composition and reception of Acts. Of course a work can find itself being used for purposes in ways its author never intended, but nor is there any reason to avoid asking if their is a context that explains both the composition of Acts and its first usage.
To this end Tyson asks:
- What are the themes of Acts?
- What literary patterns are employed?
- How are the characters portrayed?
- Why does the author adopt these themes and shape these characterizations?
- In what historical context does this kind of presentation best fit?
Themes and literary patterns in ActsTyson begins with the problem of subjectivity and absence of accepted method in determining the controlling themes in Acts. There are many lists of themes in Acts but no or few clear explanations about how they were determined.
Since questions of genre and the intended audience of Acts are also problematic, and in the discussions depend in part on a subjective assessment of the themes of Acts, Tyson decides he must find a way of determining the fundamental themes of Acts without (circular) reference to genre or audience.
Tyson therefore seeks the dominant themes of Acts in the following:
- redactional passages, where the author summarizes or interprets events in his own voice
- repeated literary patterns
- “exemplary episodes that contain points of stress to which the author returns on several occasions
1. The Summaries and their themesThe summaries lay great stress on the growth of the community (Acts 2:47; 5:14)
in Jerusalem (2:41; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 21:20)Summaries also stress the order of the community (Acts 2:42, 43; 4:33, 35; 5:12)
and beyond (9:31; 11:21, 24; 12:24; 14:1; 19:20)
This order is maintained by the apostles who were appointed by Jesus (1:2), who proclaim the resurrection and perform miracles. The story of both why and how their number Twelve was maintained is carefully and fully explained (1:15-26). The requirements for apostolic leadership are made clear, and the names of the twelve made public. The apostles speak for the community before potential converts and political and religious leaders; they also control the community’s property ownership and distribution (4:35; 5:1-11).Summaries emphasize the divine leadership of the community (Acts 2:47; 4:33)
Most prominent examples are the divine guidance in the choice of the twelfth apostle (1:15-26) and the descent of the spirit at Pentecost (2:1-13)Summaries give special stress to the internal harmony of the community (Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12)
The characteristic word used in this connection is Homothumadon (concord, agreement) which is found nowhere else in the New Testament apart from once in Romans 15:6 — ten times altogether in Acts. (1:14; 2:46; 4:24; 5:12) The story of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11) shows awareness of violations of this accord, but also shows how harmony was quickly restored.
2. Literary Patterns and their themesNote the literary pattern used to support the harmony theme
Note the same literary pattern in Acts 1:12-2:1; 5:12-42; 6:1-7; 8:6-13; 8:14-25 and elsewhere.
- Harmony: a utopian beginning, exemplified by Barnabas — 4:32-37
- Threat: the lie of Ananias and Sapphira– 5:1-2
- Resolution: Peter’s condemnation and elimination of the threat — 5:3-10
- Restoration: the whole community in awe — 5:11
- Harmony: All united in one room in prayer
- Threat: Judas fell, incomplete number
- Resolution: Resolution through lots
- Restoration: All with one accord in one place again
- Harmony: Another utopia as all united in Solomon’s Porch
- Threat: Apostles arrested
- Resolution: Gamaliel reasons with the rulers
- Restoration: All harmoniously back in temple and homes.
- Harmony: Disciples multiplying
- Threat: Murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists
- Resolution: The Twelve appoint the Seven
- Restoration: Disciples multiplying again
- Harmony: Samarian multitudes of one accord through Philip
- Threat: Enter Simon the Sorcerer, reputed to be “the great power of God”, who has a large following
- Resolution: Simon also believes
- Restoration: Simon, amazed, is united and continues with Philip
Acts 8:14-25So the theme of harmony is underscored by this repeated literary pattern. Harmony is presented as the natural and original order of the church, threats to it are quickly resolved, and the church is then restored to its utopian condition.
- Harmony: News of Samarian converts spreads and they receive the holy spirit
- Threat: Simon the Sorcerer’s “Simony”
- Resolution: Peter rebukes Simon forcing him into retreat
- Restoration: Preaching among the Samaritans is resumed
Below when we discuss the episodes of Paul we will see further use of a repeated literary pattern.
3. Themes in exemplary episodes with repeated stress pointsThe theme of the community’s fidelity to Jewish traditions and practices is seen in the centrality of the temple setting for many episodes in the early part of Acts.
Believers gather in the Temple (2:46; 5:12) which is the centre for many episodes – 2:46; 3:1, 2, 3, 8, 10; 4:1; 5:20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 42. The apostles perform their miracles there, they pray there, they preach there. The temple is also the centre of conflict. The apostles are arrested there, but return on their release to speak to everyone gathered there.The theme of Jewish opposition:
The Jewish leaders oppose the apostles — Acts 4:1,5, 8, 23; 5:17, 21, 24, 26Tyson selects a few of these “exemplary episodes” to illustrate:
Individual Jewish opponents are named — Acts 4:6
Apostles appear before the Sanhedrin, some of whom want them executed — Acts 5:27, 34
Gamaliel, described as a Pharisee and teacher of the law, argues in favour of the apostles.
i. The episode of the Hellenists vs the Hebrews in Acts 6:1-7This episode uses the literary patten discussed above:
The narrative continues an emphasis on themes introduced in earlier chapters:Harmony: Growth of the numbers of disciples
Threat: Hellenists complain about the Hebrews
Resolution: The Twelve call everyone together, propose a plan, all accept the plan, and the Seven are ordained
Restoration: Disciples multiply again, and even priests join them
the order of community is shown by apostles’ convening the assembly and proposing and executing the plan; the ordination of the Seven allowing the Twelve to do their work. So as new characters are introduced the themes of harmony and order are still in the forefront of the narrative.
ii. The episode of Stephen in Acts 6:8-7:60This episode focuses on the themes of Jewish opposition and the early Church’s fidelity to Jewish practices:
The opposition begins with diaspora Jews (1:9) but quickly extends to the people and leaders of Jerusalem (1:12). The charges are blasphemy against Moses and God and speaking against Torah and Temple.After the Stephen episode a new theme finds regular reappearances, the theme of the community’s inclusion of Gentiles.
Stephen stresses the church’s common heritage with the Jews, identifies himself and the church with Israel and his accusers (“our ancestors”, “our nation”), makes abundant use of the Pentateuch and figures from the Jewish scriptures.
The speech stresses that the charges against him (and the community) are false, implying that the church did not at all teach against Moses or the Law or the Temple.
The author will make the same point in a later episode in regard to Paul (21:18-28)The author uses Stephen to argue that the Jewish people have always been stiffnecked and opposed to the will of God. Without citing any specific incidents he also accuses them of having always murdered their prophets. Thus the Jewish opposition to Jesus and the Christians is merely an extension of the characteristics of the Jewish people.
At the end of the speech Stephen no longer speaks of “our ancestors” but of “your ancestors”, thus distancing himself from their rebellion; and he finally accuses the Jews of being the ones who do not observe the Torah.
Hence the reader is being persuaded that it is Stephen and the Christians who are the true “Jews” or believers and observers of the Torah, while the Jews are continuing in their age-old habit of opposing the will of God.
iii. The episode of the conversion of CorneliusThe author uses a series of anecdotes to show how the church changed ethnically from Jewish to Gentile. The primary exemplar is the story of Cornelius but this is prepared for by a series of smaller episodes that begin with the time of Stephen. It change began among Samaritans and diaspora Jews, those on the ethnic periphery of the Jerusalem Jews. There is a convert from Ethiopia, believers in Damascus and converted Hellenists in Antioch. All of these forerunners gradually extend the ethnic base from the core of Jerusalem Jews until the climactic conversion of Cornelius, regarded narratively as the first true Gentile.
(Tyson does not make the following observation, but I suspect the author in his lead up to the conversion of full gentile Cornelius was also setting the scene with the healing of Aeneas, the namesake of the founder of the Romans, and another healing at Joppa, the port from which Jonah left on his unavoidable way to preach to the gentile Assyrians.)
So the literary pattern is:
- to the Jews first and within the setting of Jewish customs, thereby demonstrating the theme of fidelity to Jewish practices and customs by the believing community;
- followed by Jewish opposition to the believer community
- and rejection of their message;
- followed by theme of inclusion of the gentiles
The theme of Jewish rejection of the Christian messageiv. The paradigmatic episode of Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-52)This same theme, the community’s inclusion of Gentiles, governs the Pauline mission, Acts 13-28.
The same literary pattern is used repeatedly here, too. Paul enters a city, goes first to the Jews, or some Jews and God-fearers, meets with some success but always ends up with a major rejection. From then on he goes to the Gentiles where he meets with often unbounded success. This provokes further Jewish opposition, and results in his expulsion. But before he leaves he announces publicly that since the Jews have rejected him he will thenceforth offer salvation to the more receptive Gentiles (13:46; 18:5; 28:28).
Paul’s announcement in 13:46 is a statement of how the author controls the story. Paul regularly begins each new mission to a city with a visit to the synagogue, thus reinforcing the theme of fidelity of the believing community to the Jewish traditions and practices.
See also Acts 13:13-52; 14:1-7; 17:1-9, 10-15; 18:1-17
This theme is dominant in the later episodes of Acts. In the earlier chapters the Jews embrace the message but with the mission of Paul we read of their initial partial acceptance and then their rejection of the message. Meanwhile the conversion of the Jews back in Jerusalem continues offstage — 21:20.
So the literary pattern that the author plies to the Paul stories ties together 4 of the above themes:
- fidelity of the believing community to the Jewish traditions and practices — Paul always begins with the synagogue
- the community’s inclusion of Gentiles
- Jewish rejection of the Christian message
- Jewish opposition to the community
The major themes for the whole of Acts thus identified are:
- growth of the community
- order of the community
- divine leadership of the community
- internal harmony of the community
- community’s fidelity to the Jewish traditions and practices
- Jewish opposition to the community
- the community’s inclusion of Gentiles
- Jewish rejection of the Christian message
Themes and literary patterns are under the control of the author, so it is not enough to say that any sources used led the author to read the events that way.
Some of the themes may be accounted for as rhetorical devices: utopian beginnings to present the church in a good light, Jewish customs to give it the credibility of venerable roots, Jewish opposition to distance Christians from contemporary Jews.
Tyson however sees many of these themes as best explained by a motivation to counter Marcionism.
- Marcion taught a split between Paul and the older apostles.
- Compare the theme of harmony.
- Marcion taught the leadership of Paul (and Tyson does not say
it, but Marcionism was also known for its lack of disciplined
organizational structure and chains of authority).
- Compare the theme of order under leadership of the apostles.
- Marcion opposed the application of Jewish practices and customs and traditions.
- Compare the theme of fidelity to Jewish traditions and the Hebrew scriptures.
That’s a future post/s.
Dating the Book of Acts: Marcionite Context 2 — and beyond
by Neil Godfrey
After attempting a form of controlled analysis for determining the main themes and their supporting literary patterns in Acts, and arguing that the results are best explained as a response to the Marcionite challenge, Tyson examines the characterizations of Peter and Paul in Acts to see if they also are best explained the same way.
Tyson leaves what I think is a major gap in his discussion of how the author presented Peter in Acts but I’ll leave that discussion till after outlining Tyson’s argument.
Characterization of PeterThere is no subtlety in how the author of Acts portrays this leading apostle. We all know Peter is the leader — (Tyson specifies that he is depicted as the leader of the church at Jerusalem), miracle-worker, bold and convincing speaker before rulers and converting crowds of thousands (2:41), taking the initiative in reconstituting the Twelve in the wake of the demise of Judas, interpreter of divinely sent visions (10:28 ) and miracles (2:14-16). Sinners drop dead (5:1-11) or beg for mercy (8:20-24) at his word and his mere shadow heals the cripples (5:20). Not even prison chains and guards can hold him (12:8-10).
But Tyson asks, if the author knew the epistles of Paul, why did he portray Peter this way? In Galatians Paul portrays a Peter who is unstable, very much “unleaderlike” — I would add, as much more akin to the Peter of the synoptic gospels. There Jesus had to regularly correct him; in Galatians Paul assumes that role.
Tyson asks if it is possible the author of Acts derived his alternative image of Peter from 1 Clement, thought to be written near the end of the first century. (Tyson, of course, is arguing for a second century date for canonical Luke-Acts.) That document elevates both Paul and Peter to leadership status, and speaks of Peter’s sufferings. But there is no indication of his relationship to the Jerusalem church or of his role as a prominent preacher and witness there.
Tyson believes that the best explanation for the way Peter is drawn in Acts is the Marcionite context. Marcion relied exclusively on the letters of Paul, and declared the other apostles, including Peter, to be false apostles. Paul seems to be referring to the Jerusalem apostles in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15 when he criticizes those known as “super apostles”, whom he calls “false apostles”, implying they were preaching a “different gospel” (cf Gal.1:6-7).
Tyson argues that a Marcionite challenge would have provided the perfect foil for the way the author of Acts accounted for Peter.
He was answering the charge that Peter
- was an unreliable and false apostle
- was not a dependable witness to the faith — nor even the resurrection (Marcion’s gospel apparently disputed Peter’s witness of this)
A question — the limits of the anti-Marcion hypothesis?While I like the idea of canonical Luke-Acts being a response to Marcionism, I cannot avoid a problem when it comes to Tyson’s discussion of Peter in support of this. If Acts was composed so late, then surely the author knew of the gospel of Matthew. And if, as Tyson’s argument goes, the same author heavily redacted Luke to become a companion volume to Acts, then why would he have omitted any reference in his gospel to Jesus’ promise to give the keys of heaven to Peter and use him as a foundation stone for his church (Matt.16:18)?
This passage in Matthew would surely have served as the most direct challenge conceivable to Marcionism.
If Matthew was written as a response to the “Paulinism” many see in Mark (compare Matthew’s heavy emphasis on obedience to a law more binding than that of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 23, etc.) one might easily see Matthew’s depiction of Peter’s confession as a direct rebuff to the name and authority of Paul.
If the author of Acts intended to show that Paul stood subordinate to the Twelve then surely this claim about the leader of the Twelve would have found a prominent place in the debate.
The broader catholicizing agenda of Acts — embracing James, and group work, too?To me the best explanation is that while Marcionism might have been a/the prime challenge that its author was addressing, it was not the only one. Marcionites looked to Paul as The (Sole) Apostle. But there were others who looked to James. Indeed, Paul’s letter to the Galatians appears to acknowledge James as the leader of the Jerusalem community by naming him first among the pillars there.
The Gospel of Thomas informs believers that James is the primary focal point of the church on earth. It was even believed among some Christian quarters that God willed the destruction of Jerusalem because of the martyrdom of James. And James was undeniably a representative of a form of Jewish Christianity.
The author of Acts obviously had no problem with allowing James to assume the leadership of the Jerusalem church. Presumably this was because James represented the same Jewish flavoured Christianity as Peter also represented and that stood in opposition to Marcionism .
But there was more than the inclusion of those Christians who looked to James at work here.
Peter does not wield Matthew’s keys to the kingdom of heaven willy nilly — or ever at all, really, in Acts.
- In the appointment of Matthias to fill the twelfth position Peter may initiate the action, but the action is carried out by the collective as they roll the dice while praying to God. Matthias is not added by Peter, but by God, through the acceptance of “the Twelve”.
- Peter’s first dramatic miracles are performed in partnership with John (3:1, 12).
- Similarly in the appointment of the Seven. Peter is not seen there. It is the Twelve who summon the community and give directions for how they were to appoint the new leaders.
- Philip and others are used to first push the ethnic boundaries of the church by evangelizing among the Samaritans and to an Ethiopian.
- And in the conversion of the Centurion, Peter is confused at first, not knowing what the vision he has just seen means. He has to explain both to the centurion’s household that he is letting God decide how things turn out and what they mean.
- And after that moment, he is summoned to give an account of his actions to those “of the circumcision”, presumably among both the apostles and brethren (Acts 11:1-3).
Justin Martyr is witness, in Trypho, that at the time of Marcion, other well entrenched traditions throughout the Christian “philosophy” included the belief that its beginnings could be traced to The Twelve at Jerusalem, and that among those Christians were those who followed Jewish customs, and that these were to be accepted as brethren, too.
Canonical Luke-Acts comfortably fits in such an environment.
Matthew 16:18 could well have been a response too much in the faces of those the author of canonical Luke-Acts wanted to embrace. It could serve well in a power conflict between West and East. But it risked supplanting the idea of the Twelve as an authoritative foundation from Jerusalem. Note that Matthew even concluded his gospel with some of the Twelve (or Eleven) doubting the resurrection.
The literary genre of Acts. 3: Speeches
by Neil Godfrey“We cannot name any historian whom . . . Luke has taken as a model” (Dibelius, 1956, 183-185)
Pervo cites Dibelius as one scholar unimpressed with claims that the speeches in Acts are necessarily attributable to historiographical intent. Certainly ancient historians crafted lengthy speeches for historical characters, and certainly the speeches in Acts are not like those in the gospel of Luke. But it does not follow, as is sometimes argued, that therefore the speeches in Acts demonstrate the author’s intent to write real history. Anyone who has read ancient novellas would immediately recognize the speeches in Acts as just one of the many features found in fiction. Lengthy speeches were tools of historians and fiction writers alike. They were used to convey information about characters and situations, both historical and fictional.
Examples are too numerous to mention, so I would simply suggest to anyone who doubts this claim to find a collection of ancient novels (such as Reardon‘s collection) in a library or on the net (some are linked in my Prologue post) and read a couple. They are not very long and quite entertaining as insights into ancient cultures, interests and humour.
For this post I opened my copy of Reardon’s collection at random and the first page opened was 206 in the middle of the story of Leucippe and Clitophon by Achilles Tatius. There at paragraph 37 begins a lengthy speech on the beauty of women. I flip over to pages 340-1 to fine Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe and on each page are speeches equal to the length of anything in Acts.
But one need only recall the emphasis on rhetoric in ancient education and the popularity of tragic drama to quickly guess the need of scepticism over claims of the relationship between speeches and historicity.
I will in time give more specific discussions here on the different types of speeches in Acts, the legal defences, the exhortations, and their structures and comparisons with their counterparts in other forms of literature.
I often felt some resonance in the fictional literature somewhere when reading the long speech of James at the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. I seemed to hear echoes from somewhere each time I read its stylized account of preliminary short speeches followed by Jame’s lengthy decision-pronouncing finale. I don’t know why it took me so long to notice how similar the structure and pattern of the speeches and speech situation was to the speeches delivered in the grand royal assemblies in Homer’s Iliad. I suppose what we have been trained to associate from very early years with religious truth and fact is not easily recognized when we view it through the perspective of literature with which its author would certainly have been familiar, if only from his education in learning how to write Greek.
A crisis in the war needs to be dealt with. An assembly of the notables is called. Names of renown stand up to express their views while the king listens in silence. After the to and fro debating has finished the king rises to deliver his decision and the course that all must follow. The pattern is a regular one, and the assembly in Acts 15 is only one of its many echoes.