The Genre of Luke-Acts: Individual Biography, Adventure Novel, or Political History?

David L. Balch  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 33 - Fall 1990

One of the most important questions that determines how we read Luke-Acts concerns the kind of literature we think it is, the genre. There are two proposals about the genre of Luke-Acts that are being actively discussed: A) Charles Talbert, a great Southern Baptist New Testament exegete, argues that these books are a biography of Jesus; and B) Richard Pervo urges that Acts is an ancient novel. I will explain and evaluate both of these suggestions and then make a third proposal: C) in these biblical books we read ancient history.

One major difference between these sug­gestions is that the first two encourage an individualistic reading of Luke-Acts; that is, if these books are either biography or novel, they are stories that inform about unique individuals, whom I as a Christian imitate in my individual life. These books concern rather a sovereign God who gave promises to Israel through Moses and Isaiah that “all nations” would be “received” into God’s people. Luke’s second volume tells the story of these foreign peoples’ reception into the congregations of God’s people scattered throughout the cities of Roman society, social events that transcend an individual life.


A.  Charles Talbert:
The Gospels as Ancient Biographies

Charles Talbert has argued that the gospels are ancient biographies,[1]See Charles H. Thibert, “Once Again, Gospel Genre,” Semeia 43 (1988): 53-73. See also idem, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and the Genre of Luke-Acts (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974); and idem, What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). Forthcoming is his ”Ancient Biography,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary. One must note the response by David E. Aune, “The Problem of the Genre of the Gospels: A Critique of C. H. Talbert’s What is a Gospel?” in Gospel Perspectives: Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT, 1981), 2: 9-60. See now the valuable historical reconstruction by Albrecht Dihle, “Die Entstehung der historischen Biographie,” Sitzungsbe­ richte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschajten, (Heidelberg: Universitatsverlag, 1987), 3:1-83, including an evaluation of Talbert’s conclusions, 8. and his description of that genre is as follows:

It is constitutive of ancient biography that the subject be a distinguished or notorious figure (kings, generals, philosophers, liter­ary figures, lawgivers, saints) and that the aim be to expose the essence of the person. Lucian, Demonax 67 puts it succinctly: “These are a very few things out of the many which I might have mentioned, but they will suffice to give my readers a notion of the sort of man he was.”[2]Talbert, “Once Again: Gospel Genre,” 55.

By the phrase “essence of the person” Talbert distinguishes what is accidental from the essence of the person and the genre: 1) whether the hero’s birth and death are narrated is acciden­tal – Mark, of course, does not narrate Jesus’ birth, whereas Matthew and Luke do, as are whether deeds or words predominate in the story – Mark narrates more deeds, Matthew and Luke more sayings of Jesus, 3) whether the book is organized chronologically or logically – Luke seems to think Mark’s story is not orderly, and therefore, rearranges it, 4) whether the hero is described in divine terms or not – John’s Gospel presents Jesus much more clearly as divine than do the other Gospels, and 5) whether the social function is didactic or not.[3]Ibid., 59-60.

When drawing parallels between ancient biographies and our four canonical gospels, Talbert emphasizes one particular social function, the didactic one. 1) Some ancient biog­raphies narrate the life of the founder of a philosophical school and 2) give a list or a brief narrative of his successors, 3) followed by an extensive statement of the teaching of the philosopher.[4]Ibid., 58-59.  Two examples from the ancient world are both from Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Laertius writes the lives of  Plato and of Epicurus, great founders of ancient philosophical schools, gives their suc­cessors, and outlines what they taught. For ex­ ample, Laertius narrates the life of Plato in forty­ five paragraphs (3.1-45), gives the names of his successors in two paragraphs (3.46-47), and outlines his teaching in sixty-two (3.47-109). The purpose, then, of the Christian gospels is to indicate what sort of person Jesus was (and is)­ his distinctive nature and teaching.

Talbert claims that Luke-Acts in particular shares with certain biographies a concern for “true tradition in the present, even if his sense of the radical difference between apostolic and post-apostolic times caused him to eschew use of the typical succession vocabulary.”[5]Ibid., 61. Jesus is the norm for the communities’ values; therefore, all four canonical Gospels correct misunder­standings about Jesus.

Talbert’s view that Luke is the biography of a Founder, and that Acts is centrally concerned with legitimate succession is problematic. David Aune states three objections:

  1. Only six of Laertius’ eighty-two lives have the three-fold pattern to which Talbert appeals.[6]David E. Aune, The New Testament and its Literary Environ­ment, Library of Early Christianity, ed. Wayne A. Meeks, no. 8 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 78. Cf. Mikeal C. Parsons, “Reading Talbert: New Perspectives on Luke-Acts,” in SBL 1987 Seminar Papers, ed. Kent H. Richards (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987), 687-720, at 705, n. 57, revised in American Contributions to the Study of Luke-Acts. ed. Joseph B. Tyson and M. C. Parsons (Atlanta: Scholars Press, forthcoming).
  2. Laertius first describes the life of these philosophers, then gives their successors. He treats many different schools of philosophy, including the Platonists, Aristotelians, and Stoics, but Laertius is not himself concerned to argue the legitimacy of certain successors in the var­ ious schools over against other possibilities, only to list who was considered Plato’s successor.[7]Aune, The New Testament and its Literary Environment, 78. He is descriptive, not polemical, not engaged in sectarian battles about who ought to have been leader of the group.
  3. Talbert calls certain brief paragraphs in Laertius ”succession narratives,” but Aune ob­jects that this is an inappropriate phrase for a brief list of students or successors. One of Laertius’ paragraphs about successors concerns Plato’s school:

His disciples were Speusippus of Athens, Xenocrates of Chalcedon, Aristotle of Stagira . . . , and many others, among them two women, Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Philius . . . . Some say that Theophrastus too attended his lectures. Chamaeleon adds Hyperides the orator and Lycurgus, and in this Polemo agrees. Sabinus makes Demosthenes his pupil, quoting . . .Mnesistratus of Thasos as his authority. And it is not improbable. (Diog. Laert. 3.46-47, trans. R. D. Hicks in Loeb Classical Library).

This does not read like Acts of the Apostles, a narrative. Luke-Acts is concerned with succes­sion, but more with who are the heirs to God’s promises to Moses and the prophets, less with who are the individual, institutional successors of Jesus.

I add two objections to Aune’s: Talbert’s view of Luke-Acts as a legitimation document presup­poses some type of opposition within the Lukan community, which Talbert usually specifies as some form of heresy.[8]Parsons, “Reading Talbert,” 703. Few interpreters have accepted his original thesis that “Luke-Acts was written for the express purpose of serving as a defense against Gnosticism,”[9]C. H. Talbert, Luke and the Gnostics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), 15 and “Once Again: Gospel Genre,” 66. Cf. Robert Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Edinburgh: T. & T Clark, 1982), 21, and Parsons, “Reading Talbert,” 689-91, 699, 703. against a docetic, over-realized eschatology, a thesis based on Luke 12:35-48; 17:20-37; 19:11-27; 21:5-36; 24:36-43; and Acts 1:6ff.[10]Charles H. Talbert, “The Redactional Critical Quest for Luke the Theologian,” in Jesus and Man’s Hope: Proceedings of the Pittsburgh Festival on the Gospels, ed. D. G. Miller and D. Y. Hadidian (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, 1970), 1. 171-222 bases this on Luke 12:35,.4. 8; 17:20-37; 19:11-27; 21:5-36; Acts 1:6ff He argues that Luke opposes overrealized eschatology and docetism in Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Third Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 166-69, 177-78, and 228-29. Is this over-realized eschatology so central that Luke opposed it by designing the passion narrative in terms of Jesus’ suffering and death, so that his readers would know that Jesus experienced rejection within the world? Not many interpreters have agreed.

Eschatology is one of the dominent themes of Luke-Acts.[11]Maddox, Purpose of Luke-Acts, 183. But is the problem an overrealized eschatology, or does not Luke need to modify the early-church’s imminent eschatol­ogy, the expectation that Jesus was coming im­mediately? In texts with a paraenetic purpose, Luke holds fast to the idea of judgment (Acts 3:20-21; 10:40-42; 17:31), but the imminent ex­pectation of the parousia of Christ is false teaching (Luke 21:8). This chronologically im­minent expectation is replaced in Luke with a geographical expectation.[12]E. Grasser, “Die Parusieerwartung in der Apostelgeschichte,” Les Actes des Apotres: traditions redacation, theologie, ed. J. Kremer (Gembloux: Duculot, 1979), 99-127, at 112-13; 124, n. 118.  At the beginning of Acts, Luke takes up the problem: two heavenly beings ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). And Luke relates this temporal expectation of the Lord’s coming to a geo­graphical expansion of the church: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Therefore, the conclusion of Acts had to remain open-ended; there must be time and geographical space for the mission of proclaiming God’s kingdom. Acts ends on a triumphant note: the gospel is being proclaimed “openly and unhindered” (28:31), a continuing mission that fulfills both Old Testament prophecy and Christ’s command. At the end of the gospel of Luke, the resurrected Christ tells us that the whole Old Testament pro­phesies primarily two events: 1) that Christ should suffer and rise from the dead, and 2) that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem (Luke 24:46-47), and the Lord commands the apostles to do just that (Acts 1:8). Instead of Jesus coming immediately on the clouds, the church had to have time to go to the ends of the earth. And exactly this mission, this growth of the church by the power of the gospel, that the church in Luke’s day was ex­periencing, reassures the Christians Luke is addressing that the prophecies in Isaiah are true, are being and will be fulfilled “among us,” pre­cisely the reassurance Luke promises Theophilus in the prologue to the gospel (1:1, 4).

Finally, I observe that Talbert’s understanding of Luke-Acts is individualistic. Ancient biog­raphies, even when they describe kings or generals of the army, political, and social events are mentioned only when they throw light on the moral character of the hero’s life, and these political circumstances are not more important than historically irrelevant events from the protagonist’s private life.[13]Dihle, “Entstehung,” 9.

The related genre of “ecomium biography,” represented by Philo’s Moses and Lucian’s Demonax, “had as its primary concern the greatness and merit of individuals.”[14]Talbert, What is a Gospel? 13. In the biographies of historical rulers and philosophers on the Greco-Roman world, he observes, the intent was to speak about the significance of the individual.[15]Ibid., 33. Dihle, “Entstehung,” 9, 17-18, 20, 27 confirms that Greco-Roman biographies focus on individuals. Since ancient biography did focus on the individual, the writer typically included information about the person’s genealogy, youth, and education (tis ek tinon agoge).[16]Dihle, “Entstehung,” 13, 16-17, 27, 33. Furthermore, biographies like Plutarch’s were intended to be morally beneficial, and Greeks felt that a final evaluation was impossible to make until a person had died.[17]Ibid., 18, 26-27. Luke does con­tain information on Jesus’ genealogy, youth, and education, but Acts contains little such infor­mation on Peter (Acts 4:13), more on Paul (Acts 22:3, but without a genealogy), another factor suggesting that Acts is not the biography of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, and Paul.

Ancient biography also differs from modern biography. Some today read the biography of Lee Iacocca because they want to know what has made him a CEO for Ford and then for the Chrysler corporation. Both ancient and modern biographies narrate the central character’s private life, but in modern biography the sub­ject’s private psychology often helps clarify his or her public acts. This fascination with the public, social effects of a person’s life was not part of ancient biography; there was little or no concern for the individual’s psychology as a cause of public, social, or political events.[18]The Stoic historian Posidonius is an exception to this generali­zation. See David L. Balch, “The Areopagus Speech: An Appeal to the Stoic Historian Posidonius against Later Stoics and the Epi­cureans,” in Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Essays in Honor of Abraham f. Malherbe, ed. David L. Balch, Everett Ferguson, and Wayne A. Meeks (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), chap. 4.


B.  Richard Pervo:
Acts as an Ancient Adventure Novel

A second opinion actively being discussed as the genre of Acts is the proposal by Richard Pervo in his book Profit with Delight: Acts is an entertaining, ancient, historical novel.[19]Richard I. Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), originally a dissertation at Harvard (1979). If Acts were half as entertaining as Pervo’s own book, his case would be convincing. In what follows, I will survey the key second chapter in his book. He observes that

Acts’ succession of interesting, “action­ packed” stories has long made it one of the more interesting works to study in Sunday school. There are arrests and escapes, stonings and beatings, trials and riots, travel to various places, and as a grand finale, a shipwreck in the middle of the Mediterranean. These adventures distinguish Acts from Luke and raise the question of literary genre.Until recently there has been little atten­tion to the entertaining character of the apostolic escapades narrated by Luke. Biblical scholarship since the Renaissance has been at some pains to reject the stimulation of pleasure as a worthy object of inspired writings. Biblical criticism of the modern variety arose in circles influenced by Rationalism and Pietism, movements disinclined to approve of the frivolous and amusing, especially in the Bible . . . . Entertainment has evolved from a bane of Pietists to a tool of higher critics. When scholars discover anything aimed to please, they take umbrage. The presence of entertainment in the Apoc[ryphal] Acts serves as prima facie evidence for relegat­ing those works to an inferior status.[20]Pervo, Profit with Delight, 12.

Pervo’s indictment of prosaic scholarship and teaching rings true; he has drawn attention to an aspect of Acts that is usually neither noticed nor discussed. His first table lists thirty-three episodes of adventure or danger in Acts: arrests, persecutions, plots, mobs and riots, trials, and a shipwreck.[21]Ibid., 14-17.

There are many arrests in Acts. Despite the repetition of the theme and a limited number of outcomes, Luke’s story has a remarkable vari­ety of detail and results. There is a cycle of ar­rests in Acts 3-7, a crescendo of violence cli­maxing in the final Stephen episode.[22]Ibid., 18-24. Pervo points to the grand climax in Acts 16:19-40. As an example of Pervo’s own style, I quote his characterization:

Acts 16 contains Luke’s showpiece prison story. Within twenty verses the mission­aries rise from beaten and despised huck­sters of a new foreign cult to respected burghers worthy of official solicitude. They gain the support of their jailer, a local worthy, and leave the entire colony in their debt, since Philippi has one fewer religious fraud (16:16-18 [the demon-possessed slave girl who was being used by her owners]) and no escaped prisoners for whom to account. Most astonishing is that, amid all this good will, they also leave. There are, to be sure, some problems of law and logic: Since Luke is quite capable of writing sequential and logical narrative, I conclude that he did in Acts 16:19-40 just what he wanted to do. Historical probability was not this writer’s highest priority. Composition of appealing stories was not his lowest.[23]Ibid., 23-24.

Neither Luke nor Pervo can be accused of being dull. The pattern being employed by Luke occurs also in Jewish and pagan texts, especially in the Dionysiac tradition represented by Euri­pides’ play, Bacchae. Some in the society resist the new, barbarian god, but Dionysius vindicates his power, resulting in the death of king Penthus. This story has a parallel in Acts 12: after impri­soning both apostles James and Peter, killing James, and allowing himself to be addressed as divine, King Herod Agrippa is struck by an angel of the Lord, eaten by worms, and dies. Such stories portray the triumph of a new religion and its god or goddess over all opposition, and it surely serves as well to warn potential oppon­ents. We have all been moved by the stories of the imprisonment and death of Stephen Biko, narrated in the book and the movie ”Cry Free dom,” and by the imprisonment and recent release of Nelson Mandella, a story that is not finished. Luke employs such powerful escapades in a historical novel.

Pervo’s interpretation of “persecution and martyrdom” stories as “entertainment” is more difficult. Our own time is again one of martyr­dom: the six Jesuits and educators murdered in San Salvador in January is one recent example among many in Central America that in the recent past included Bishop Oscar Romero. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of Christians were murdered or disappeared in Latin America.

Is it conceivable to think of the emotional effect those stories have on us as entertainment? Pervo does consider the feelings of persons who consistently tell and read such stories, and before we dismiss it, we might consider the society we live in. We regularly rent entertaining movies for our VCRs that include an incredible amount of violence. Our President’s approval rating in the polls goes up when he sends the marines to Panama-he is no longer a “wimp.” Although Dan Rather may weep over the loss of American soldiers, the deaths receive little cov­ erage in our news, and on the TV screen it does not seem real.

In the Greco-Roman age, mob violence and war were common. In the novels which are the same genre as Acts, according to Pervo’s theory, apparent and actual death are also common. In the apocryphal Acts, stories of successive per­secutions and martyrdoms were popular reading in the churches for a millennium and beyond. Pervo argues that Luke is a good writer in this respect: he narrates the stoning of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14, then Paul’s being beaten by the Jerusalem mob in Acts 21-22. According to Pervo, however, this is a “theology of glory,” for suffering does not really exist in these tales.[24]Ibid., 27 (cf. 50). Contrast David L. Tiede, Prophecy and History in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), 12, 14. As in the invasion of Panama, actual death is glossed over, he thinks.

Pervo explains this as the world view of the adolescent. At that age one’s problems are due to the machinations of others. The root of this attitude is envy; jealousy over Stephen’s ability to preach and work miracles would bring him to the grave.[25]Pervo, Profit with Delight, 28. There is little theology here, but lots of excitement. Again, Pervo’s description of Stephen is quotable:

Having briefly outlined his work and then narrated the arrest, Luke retards his plot at this juncture with the longest and most breathtaking speech in the book (7:2-53). The transfigured Stephen holds the Sanhe­drin spellbound through a review of Bible history. Critique of cult and temple passes without demurrer, but when Stephen turns to the law, the judges rise in fury. In their zeal for the law, they lawlessly disregard even the trappings and appearance of jus­tice. Stephen is simply hauled out and killed. But how magnificently he expires! Still transfigured, battered by rocks but unbowed, the erect Hellenist offers pious prayer for a good and noble death (mors bona et nobilis). That done, he carefully kneels amid the swirling stones, prays once more, this time for his enemies, then dies. His passion, like that of Jesus in Luke, is more of a heroic scene than an ugly inci­dent. . . .

Death by martyrdom is the happy end­ing of such works [martyrologies in the Apocryphal Acts], occasional denials not­ withstanding. What makes an ending happy is that it conforms to the intended reader’s expectation of bliss.[26]Ibid., 29.

Therefore, our modern author concludes, ”in his ‘Life and Passion of the Holy Stephen’ (Acts 6-7) Luke offers a narrative no less lurid and thrilling than many of his other episodes.” Below (under C.3), I will argue that there is more real, ethnic conflict and relevant theology in Acts than Pervo suspects, but now I continue describing his thesis that Acts is a historical novel.

After outlining Luke’s treatment of “persecu­tion and martydom,” Pervo writes of “plots, conspiracy, and intrigue.”[27]Ibid., 30-34. Paul summarizes his career as a series of ”trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews” (20:19), a tumul­tuous career not because of his incendiary gospel, but because of intrigue. There is a plot against Paul immediately after his baptism in Damascus, then again in Jerusalem (Acts 9). Later, Jewish intrigue leads to expulsion from Pisidian Antioch-jealousy is again the cause­ an event repeated in Philippi. Pagans get their turn in Ephesus, ”and quite a fracas it was,” but still, nothing like the one which occurred when he returned to Jerusalem (chaps. 21-22). This whole “final third of Acts is probably the most entertaining segment of the work. Its contribu­tions to the specific history of the Christian mission are rather limited. Any definition of its genre needs to take these items into account.”[28]Ibid., 32.

Profit with Delight also treats ”crowds, mobs, riots and assemblies.”

The fickle crowd of the ancient Mediter­ranean is never far offstage in Acts. Whether to flood the streets or fill a syn­agogue, to listen to a sermon or conduct a lynching, the masses stand ready . . . . If one of Luke’s two villains is “the Jews,” the urban rabble is the other. Since the ruling class did not regard such gatherings as desirable manifestations of popular democracy, pointing the finger at them would in no way discredit the Christian move­ment . . . . Attentive readers will soon dis­ cover that Jewish legal process is scarcely different from pagan lynchings . . . . For Luke the Sanhedrin is a lynch mob with official sanction and permanent standing. . . . The facts, naturally, are less tidy. . . . This is vulgar propaganda.[29]Ibid., 34, 36, 37.

Near the end of this key chapter, Pervo treats “trials, legal actions, and punishment.” About a fifth of Acts consists of such judicial trials. But “after eight chapters [Acts 21-28] focused upon Paul’s legal problems, the reader no longer understands why he is under arrest, of what he is really charged, why he appealed in the first place, or why he did not  withdraw his appeal later. As an apology for Paul and for the faith, and as a stirring and appealing narrative, the last third of Acts leaves little to be desired. Here Luke has lavished his attention and skill, but it is also here that he will receive some of his worst marks as a historian. He appears by a historical criterion to be doing his worst when at his best. The criterion may be at fault.”[30]Ibid., 46-47.

Finally, Pervo interprets the great shipwreck in chapter 27. Luke writes 9 verses about the mission in Thessalonica, 17 about Corinth, 20 for Asia, and 60 for this sea voyage. Why? Storm and shipwreck stories were a staple of ancient adventure writing.[31]Ibid., 51. Here it focuses on the indi­vidual personality, Paul, typical of characteriza­tion in ancient novels.

This summarizes the key second chapter in an important book. Before any critique, I stress its contribution. The writers of biographies, novels, and histories were rhetoricians, the chief subject in ancient education. Biographies, novels, and histories were read out loud, that is, they were oral, aural works, unlike modern works read silently. When one looks at one of the greatest of ancient works on the subject, Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the first book does treat rational proofs, which the modern scholars and Puritan readers Pervo satirizes would certainly appre­ciate. But Aristotle’s second book treats the emotions, which ancient orators and writers knew they also had to understand: anger, love and friendship, fear, shame, benevolence, pity, and envy. Ancient speakers and writers, including Luke, knew they had to appeal to their hearers’ and readers’ feelings, and Pervo is one of the few interpreters of Luke-Acts who has even attempt­ ed to let us know that Luke quite consciously does so, and how. Both professors, we who spend our lives trying to understand how Luke thought, and fundamentalist Christians, whose first question is often whether there are contra­dictory ideas in the text, can learn from this book that we are missing half of what Luke is about. We may have perceived this adventure as children in Sunday school, but our serious study in church, college, and seminary has helped us to forget.

Now, four brief criticisms of Pervo’s ap­proach to Acts as a historical novel. First, he argues repeatedly that this is a novel, not history; but by “history” he consistently means modern, “accurate” history, without raising the question about what ancient historians were about.[32]Ibid., 3-8, 11, 18, 32-33, 37, 41, 47, 76-77, 79, 87-89, 91, 96, 117, 135-38. On the opening page he satirizes Sir William Ram­say’s acceptance of Acts as a factual account of high quality, probably written by a participant in many of the events, and on the closing page   of his book, Pervo observes that chroniclers and annalists do have their value, as do historians of scrupulous accuracy, but “Luke had little in common with such.”[33]Ibid., 1, 138. His primary, perfunctory definition of “history,” employed throughout the book, has two elements: 1) that Luke’s style does not match learned Greek historiography, and 2) that historians’ “primary task . . .was to reconstruct the most plausible description on the basis of reasonable criteria.”[34]Ibid., 7, citing H. Homeyer, ed. and trans., Lukian, Wie man Geschichte schreiben soil (Munich: W. Fink, 1965), 218-19. Then Pervo employs the adjectives “plausible” and “rea­sonable” with twentieth-century meanings. The first point deserves further discussion, but on the second point I observe that what is “reasonable” in the first and the twentieth cen­turies differs. Pervo has nowhere seriously considered the form, content, or function of ancient historiography. He constantly contrasts novels with history, but in this book the latter is his own reconstruction.

Second, Pervo’s understanding of the conflict between Christians and Jews in the book is fallacious. For him, Luke uses “Jews” primarily as whipping boys. Below (under C.3), I will argue that the conflict within Judaism and within Rome[35]A similar conflict occurred in Athens., See David L. Balch, “Comments on the Genre and a Political Theme of Luke-Acts: A Preliminary Comparison of Two Hellenistic Historians,” SBL 1989 Seminar Papers, ed. David J. Lull (Atlanta: Schqlars Press, 1989), 343-61, at 356-57. as recounted in Acts involved actual, contemporary social alternatives; in other words, is more than Luke’s literary creation. The conflict is not only an intra-Jewish one, but a serious problem within Roman society as a whole and cannot be dismissed simply as Luke’s anti-Jewish polemic.

Third, the theological issues Luke raises are not the same as those wrestled with by Paul in an earlier generation,[36]Philipp Vielhauer, “On the ‘Paulinism’ of Acts,” in The Writings of St. Paul, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (New York: Norton, 1972), 166-75. but they are ideas which could and did produce conflict leading to actual suffering, not to a simple theology of glory.[37]Pervo, Profit with Delight, 67-68, 74.  And “kindly providence,” which Pervo dis­misses,[38]Ibid., 83, 123, 129. was considered by ancient historians, for example, by the influential Stoic Posidonius, to be a serious philosophical issue, argued with precisely the terminology found in Acts. Does divine providence favor the “growth” of the Roman empire or the “growth of the word” of the gospel?

Finally, like Talbert’s biographies, Pervo’s ancient novels are individualistic.[39]Ibid., 52, 81, 92, 94, 97, 110, 112, 131. Ancient history was not individualistic, but narrated social and political events, as does Luke-Acts.


C. Luke-Acts as Ancient History

Luke-Acts is neither a biography nor a novel, but rather is ancient history.[40]David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environ­ment, 77: “Luke-Acts is popular ‘general history’ written by an amateur Hellenistic historian with credentials in Greek rhetoric.” Cf. also Gregory E. Sterling, “Luke-Acts and Apologetic Historiography,” in SBL 1989 Seminar Papers, ed. David J. Lull (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 326-42. I will support this thesis by comparing the content, form, and function of these volumes with a specific Hellenistic historical work, that by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities. Dionysius was a Greek who arrived in Rome in 30 B.C.E., after the civil war between Antony and Cleo­patra, on the one side, and Octavian (later called Augustus), on the other. He did research for twenty-two years and began writing his history in 7 B.C.E., just before Jesus was born. His narrative became a model a century later for the historian Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities.[41]0n the little we know of Dionysius and his associates see S. F. Bonner, The Literary Treatises of Dionysius of Halicarnassus: A Study in the Development of Critical Method (Cambridge: University Press, 1939), 1-15. G. W. Bowersock, “Historical Problems in Late Republican and Augustan Classicism,” Le Classicisme a Rome aux lers Siecles avant et apres j.-C. (Geneva: Fondation Hardt, 1979), 57-78. I will cite the edition and translation of Dionysius, Roman Antiquities by Earnest Cary, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937-50), 7 vols.

1. Of Origins and Ancestors:
Dionysius, Roman Antiquities 1.9-70; Acts 7 and 13

Dionysius does not narrate these stories primarily as a “historian,” but as a rhetorician. At no time in Greco-Roman antiquity was history taught as a subject. I assume that rhe­torical conventions in Dionysius may well also have influenced Luke, independently of whether he read the particular rhetorician/historian Dionysius or not. A preliminary comparison of the two historians shows significant similarities. At the beginning of his narrative, Dionysius has a long section describing the origins of the six groups which later combined to found Rome (Rom. Ant. 1:9-70, immediately following the preface). When a rhetorician like Dionysius speaks of a people, a city, or a family, their origins must be narrated. There are phrases that explain what Dionysius narrates by such stories of origins. When he is describing the end of the wars between the Romans and the Sabines, he names the king of the Sabines, Tatius from the city of Cures, and then he observes parenthe­tically, “for. . .my narrative requires that I should speak of them also, and say who they were and whence” (2.48.1; cf. 1.62.1). One must narrate who the ancestors were, from where they immigrated, and when the city or people were founded. Further, these points could be treated either as a eulogy or as an invective.

Second, there was a key epoch in history, the Roman monarchy, which he reckons as having lasted 244 years, from 751 to 507 B.C.E. (1.75.1, 3; 5.1.1). The fall of the Roman monarchy occurred in the same century as the fall of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. In 1.75 Dionysius lists the order in which the Roman kings suc­ceeded each other and the total years each ruled. Dionysius refers repeatedly to events that hap­pened “during the monarchy” or “after its over­ throw.” Therefore, Dionysius writes of Ancestors and Kings, organizing his work narrating Roman history as follows:

1.1-8                 Preface
I. 1.9-70              Rome: Ancestors and Date of Settlement
II. 1.71-IV.85     The Roman Monarchy: Founding & Overthrow The Roman
III. V-XX            Aristocracy: Annual Consuls to the First Punic War (before Polybius’ history)

Since Luke (1:1) tells us he is writing a “narra­tive,” the same word Dionysius uses, “the subject requires” that he also describe these people’s origin, their immigrations, and the founding events. However, unlike Dionysius, Luke surpris­ingly does not tell us about all this at the beginning of the narrative, but delays until the speeches in Acts 7 and 13. Corresponding to the outline of Dionysius’ history above, Luke-Acts has the following structural elements:[42]Talbert, “Luke-Acts,” 301-2 judges that Conzelmann’s basic suggestion of a three-stage salvation history in Luke-Acts (Israel-Jesus­ Church) has not been successfully criticized, although it has been modified in important ways. The outline given in the text corresponds with Conzelmann’s.

Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2                   Prefaces
I. Luke 3:23-38; Acts 7:1-53;      Ancestors
and 13:16-41, 46-47
II. Luke                                            The Royal Founder
III. Acts                                            Growth of the Word among All Nations

Jesus’ genealogy is included in the section on ancestors, just as Dionysius includes them in such sections (see e.g. Rom. Ant. 1.60.3). Both Acts 7 and 13 also belong here. Commenting on Acts 13:17, Haenchen says, “As in Stephen’s speech, only more briefly, the orator [Paul] begins by outlining the history of salvation from the time of the fathers…This time Luke omits the patriarchal and Mosaic periods, thus dividing his description of the Heilsgeschichte between Chapters 7 and 13.”[43]E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia: West­ minster Press, 1971), 408. These ancestors are often called “fathers.”

a. Stephen’s Speech (Acts 7)

Luke, unlike the other synoptic Gospels, dates Jesus’ ministry in Luke 3:1-2, and then give his genealogy all the way back to Adam, or rather to God (Luke 3:23-37). In these birth narratives we hear that Jesus’ ancestors are Abraham (Luke 1:55, 73) and Jacob (Luke 1:33) and that he is the son of David (Luke 1:27, 32, 69; 2:4, 11); we hear of the law of Moses (Luke 2:22, 27, 39) and the people Israel (e.g. Luke 1:16; 2:25, 32, 34). We hear about David, Jacob, and Abraham in the genealogy (Luke 3:31, 34), and we can assume, of course, that Luke’s Jewish Christian readers knew these names well. The birth narrative actually tells us little about them. Luke’s Gentile Christian readers and any pagan readers might well be perplexed about who Abraham, Jacob, and David were. The best known figure mentioned by Luke is Moses, who is not in Jesus’ genealogy, of course, but even accounts of this best-known figure are garbled by pagan authors. Where does Luke tell us about these ancestors, perhaps not well known to some of his readers? The answer is in two speeches in Acts: Stephen’s address to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and Paul’s speech to those assembled in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. The following concerns only Stephen’s speech.

It is surprising that Luke would wait until well into the second volume to narrate who the ancestors are, but this surprise may help understand Luke’s purpose. At the conclusion of a book on Acts 6:1-8:4, Earl Richards draws the following conclusions: the narrative is so structured as to fit into the plan of Acts (as a Jerusalem episode with an introduction, 6:1-7), to serve as a fitting context for the long disclosure, and to prepare for the persecution and dispersion out of Jerusalem.[44]Earl Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4: The Author’s Method of Composi­ tion (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976), 311; cf. 246, 264, 266, 302, 311, 343, 352. The Stephen story is both the climax of the persecution of the church in Jerusalem and the transitional point for it to move outward from Jerusalem in mission.[45]Ibid., 313. On the Stephen story as the climax of persecution compare Pervo, Profit with Delight, 29. Here one of David Aune’s observations is important: in Israelite historiography [e.g. Deuteronomy, Chronicles, Nehemiah, the Maccabean books], “Events in Israel (centering in Jerusalem) occupy center stage…In spite of Israel’s extensive experience in exile after 721 B.C., no historical work seriously treats experience outside of Palestine.”[46]David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environ­ment, 97. Therefore, precisely at that point where, in distinction from centuries of Israelite historiography, the center of attention shifts from Jerusalem to events and mission in the diaspora as well as from focus on the ethnic group itself to “all nations,” Luke places Stephen’s speech reviewing the history of Israel, a fulcrum point not only in the book but also in the whole history of the people of God.

The Stephen story is the final Jerusalem episode. Afterward God’s prophesied will is fulfilled; the promise to “all nations” (Luke 24:47) is heard. In the story of Stephen, where there is conflict between Hellenists and Hebrews (Acts 6:1), the narrative resolution leads to Luke’s summary in 6:7, “the word of God increased,” a summary followed by similar ones (12:24; 19-20; cf. 28:30), each of which is related to all nations hearing the Word.[47]Henry J. Cadbury, “The Summaries in Acts,” in Beginnings of Christianity, ed. F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London: Macmillan, 1922), 5: 392-402.

A glance at the Lukan texts about the “fathers” reveals that Stephen’s treatments of the ancestors is not a eulogy as is Dionysius’ narration about ancestors,[48]David L. Balch, “Two Apologetic Encomia: Dionysius on Rome and Josephus on the Jews,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 13, nos. 1-2 (1982): 102-22. but rather an invective.[49]Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4, 264-65, 325; I use the term in a technical way. There is prophetic hope for the fathers and their children in Luke 1:17 and 32, but on the other hand, some woes prepare for Acts 7: “Woe to you when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). “Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them and you build their tombs” (11:47-48). Similarly, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the former argues, ” ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead’ ” (16:30-31; cp. 24:44, 46). Peter’s speech in Acts 3 contains the same message: “The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up and denied in the presence of Pilate” (3:13). This speech ends with a prophetic citation and an appeal: “All the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came afterwards, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God gave to your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your posterity shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ [Gen. 22:18]. God having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you in turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:24-26).

Stephen’s speech follows, referring to the fathers, the ancestors, fifteen times! As rhetorical theory requires, Stephen tells us who the fathers are: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and David (not Solomon). Further, be­ cause the author of such a “narrative” must, we hear of their migrations: from Mesopotamia to the promised land, to Egypt, burial in Shechem, to Midian, to the Red Sea, the wilderness and Mt. Sinai, and finally the conquest, migrations analogous to those of Aeneas and his Trojans to the land which the oracle had foretold (Dion­ysius 1.48.2; 49.2; 51.1; 53.5; 55.5-56.5; 58.2, 5; 59.1). Then too, we hear of the founding events: the epiphany to Moses in the wilderness of Mount Sinai (Acts 7:30-34), the Exodus (7:36), the reception of living oracles at Sinai (7:38), as well as the vision in the wilderness of the pattern for the tent of witness (7:44).

Dionysius’ section on origins is an encomium, Luke’s an invective. The last two words of Steph­en’s speech are the crucial ones: ”As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (ouk ethuliazate) (Acts 7:51-53), precisely what Dion­ysius’ apologetic history denies may be said of the Romans (see esp. 7.70-73, e.g. 7.70.2: ethe kai nomima . . .palaia . . .phulattousi, and the discussion below). It is often noticed that Ste­phen’s speech does not defend him against the charges listed in Acts 6:11, 13, 14.[50]Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4, 258-59, 278. Cf. John Kilgallen, The Stephen Speech: A Literary and Redactional Study of Acts 7.2-53 (Rome: Biblical Institute, 1976), 6-10. The details of the accusation are less important than the general charge that Jesus “will . . .change the customs” (6:14). Stephen’s speech is not a de­fense; it is rather an invective (psogos) on origins which reverses the charges. Those who are accusing Stephen of changing the law do not themselves keep/guard it, and they are the sons of their fathers who did not guard the Mosaic law.

As 2 Maccabees (12:40) shows, the worst sin of the Gentiles is to worship idols, precisely the charge Stephen makes against the fathers of his Jerusalem audience (Acts 7:40-43).[51]Exodus 32-33 plays an important role in the composition of the speech. Cf. Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4, 117, 129-30, 138. One may see how sensitive this story is by comparing Josephus; when he recounts the biblical stories in his Antiquities, promising to omit nothing (Ant. 1.17), this story is glaringly absent (Ant. 3.90)![52]Cf. Harold W. Attridge, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1976), 134, n. 1. The primary charge then is “impiety” or even “superstition.”[53]See Emilio Gabba, “Political and Cultural Aspects of the Classi­cistic Revival in the Augustan Age,” Classical Antiquity, no. 1(1982): 43-65, at 49 on patriotism, justice, pietas, and moderation, values. praised by Isocrates.

The primary vice to be censured is injustice (Rhetoric to Alexander 1421b 37[54]Trans. Rackman, 276; cited by Craig Wayne Rinker, “The Art of Censure: Classical Rhetoric” (Ph.D diss., University of Oklahoma, 1979), 121.; Aristotle, Rhetoric 1366a 35-36[55]Trans. Freese, 91; cited by Rinker, ”Art of Censure,” 192, 230.). Offense against the virtue of justice is prominent in Acts 7:24, 26, 52.[56]Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4, 82-83, 85, 140, 336. When Aristotle, Rhetoric  1396a 19-24, gives examples of censurable injustice, he writes, “. . .the Athenians subjugated the Greeks, and reduced to slavery the Aeginetans and Poti­daeans who had fought with distinction on their side against the barbarians . . . ,”[57]Trans. Freese, 291; cited by Rinker, ”Art of Censure,” 206, 219. a case similar to the censure of Joseph’s brothers, who enslave him (Acts 7:9). And we know that one important Stoic historian, Posidonius, followed Aristotle’s advice. The following fragment of his history is preserved:

Nicolas the Peripatetic and Poseidonius the Stoic both say in their Histories that the Chians were enslaved by Mithridates the Cappadocian and handed over in chains to their own slaves, to be transported to Colchis; so truly did the Deity vent his wrath upon them for being the first to use purchased slaves, although most people did their own work when it came to menial services (Athenaeus, Deip. 6.22ef, trans. Gulick in LCL; Frag. 250 Theiler/ Frag. 51 Edelstein-Kidd).

In Hellenistic rhetoric and historiography, the deity was understood to have punished those who first purchased slaves and/or those who mistreated slaves by handing these wealthy owners over as slaves to their own former slaves.[58]See Balch, “The Areopagus Speech.” Greco-Roman readers, whether Jews or Gentiles, would have shuddered when they heard, “and the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him”(Acts 7:9).[59]Cf. Earl Richard, “The Polemical Character of the Joseph Episode in Acts 7,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98, no. 2 (1979): 255-67.

Further, disobedience toward rulers is censur­able,[60]See Balch, “Two Apologetic Encomia.” a vice prominent in Acts 7:27, 35, 39, a charge against which Josephus repeatedly de­fends his people.[61]Ibid.

The kind of speech we find in Acts 7, an invective, is found in Hellenistic historiography precisely at such turning points in the narrative. Historians and their characters suggest by these speeches that the present habits of the people are intolerable,  and some “change” is needed, a change which is, nevertheless, a return to the customs instituted by the Founder. Dionysius tells of significant conflict between patricians and plebians in Rome (Rom. Ant. 6:22-90), conflict that results in the institution of tribunes magistrates who are to represent the interests of the plebians. Lucius Junius (Brutus) gives a speech (Rom. Ant. 6.72-80) indicting Roman senators, an invective which narrates the history of Rome from the plebians’ point of view (6.74-75, 80), claiming that Aeneas and Romu­lus, founders of Rome, are paradigms for plebians, not for the patricians (6.80.1). Stephen makes the same claim for Abraham and Moses! And at this transition point in his narrative, Dionysius’ (Brutus’) invective is like Luke’s (Stephen’s): the senators have offended against justice (6.73.2-3). Despite the plebians helping senators free themselves from the ruling tyrants (6.75.1), the senators abused them like slaves (6.76.1). The senators even treat their oaths to the gods contemptuously (6.78.3); but heaven frees the plebians, and god will preserve their liberty (6.79.3). These three invectives, that the senators are unjust, impious, and enslave the plebians, are the same three Stephen employs. The speeches also have a similar function, to prepare for a change that is, nevertheless, inter­preted as a return to the original way of life instituted by Romulus and/or Moses.

Josephus employs invective in a similar way in his Antiquities. After God through Moses had given the people the perfect constitution at the end of book four, through progressive stages of immorality they have sunk to a base tyranny. Abandonment of the principles of Moses and his way of life results in the tyranny of the sons of Eli, the “darkest picture of vice” in book five.[62]Attridge, Interpretation of Biblical History, 138; see 174. They are insolent, impious tyrants (Josephus, Ant. 5.338-39), a low point that precedes Josephus’ narrative of the birth of Samuel, a “new era.”[63]Ibid., 139.


B.  Stories of Ancestors
Foretell the Coming King

Understanding Stephen’s speech as an invective on the ancestors explains another often-noticed characteristic of the speech: there is no positive affirmation of the possibility of salvation through Jesus.[64]R. Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts, 52. Again, the Hellenistic historian Dionysius offers a parallel: when he is narrating the Romans’ ancestral origins (Rom. Ant. 1.9-75), he says little of their descendents, the coming kings, Romulus or Augustus. How­ ever, according to Paul Martin, all Dionysius’ stories of the ancestors-those of Evander (1.31-33), Hercules (1.34-44) and Aeneas (1.45-70) as well as Romulus (1.71-2.56)-are told by the historian in the service of Augustus’ regime.[65]Paul M. Martin, “La Propagande Augusteenne dans les Anti­ quites Romaines de Denys d’Halicarnasse (Livre I),” Revue des Etudes Latines 49 (1972): 162-79, esp. 172, 178.

Prophetic oracles, for example the Iliad 20.307-08, “foretell” the dynasty of Aeneas/Au­gustus (Dionysius 1.53.5). If we exchange the Iliad for the prophetic Hebrew Scriptures, the thesis in Luke 1 and 2 as well as Acts 7 and 13 is parallel: Abraham, Moses, and David prepare for the prophet like Moses and the royal son of David, Jesus Christ. Dionysius does include philosophical speculations about Romulus’ nature, but later, at the beginning and the end of the “book” on Romulus (1.77.2; 2.56.6), not earlier in the section on ancestors.

2. The Royal Founder

Reading Dionysius’ and Luke-Acts’ narratives, certain structural similarities emerge. Within the key section on Founder(s) and founding events, the various stories exhibit similar content and   concerns, some of which I will outline.

A) Dionysius is concerned with chronologyat the beginning of his book on Romulus (1.74-75), as is Luke, for example 1:5; 2:1-2. He informs us, in fact, that “there was a great dispute concern­ ing both the time of the building of the city and the founders of it” (1.72.1), the kind of tension which Luke rarely lets us observe (but see Acts 15:2).

B) Dionysius gives various versions of the story, but Romulus’ mother, Ilia, was ravished by someone. Most writers say it was the image of a daemon: there were supernatural signs, the sudden disappearance of the sun, and darkness spreading over the sky. This god comforted the girl, commanding her not to grieve since she had been united in marriage to a divinity and would bear two sons far exceeding other men in virtue and warlike courage (1.77.1-2), an event which is the “work of the god” (1.78.4). Our author worries whether he ought to relate such a story, since God is incorruptible and blessed, but on the other hand, some philosophers suppose that between the race of gods and mortals, there is a third order of being, daemons who, uniting sometimes with humans and sometimes with gods, beget the fabled race of heroes (1.77.3).[66]Dionysius may refer to the Platonist Xenocrates. See C. Zintzen, “Geister (Daemonen): c. Hellenistische und kaiserzeitliche Philoso­ phie,” Beallexikon fur Antike una Christentum 9 (1976): 640-68 and Frederick E. Brenk, ”An Imperial Heritage: The Religious Spirit of Plutarch of Chaironeia,” Aufstieg una Niedergang aer Romischen Welt II.36.1 (1987): 248-349, at 276-84.

We can be grateful that Luke did not take over the philosophical theory, but the story of Jesus’ birth does have parallels in an angel prophesying her son’s greatness and divinity to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), a section perhaps added in the final editing of the gospel.[67]Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (I-IX), Anchor Bible 28 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979), 89-90, 310.   There is miraculous divine intervention in both stories[68]Ibid., 338 for an interpretation of Luke 1:35.; Luke’s differs in narrating a virginal conception.

Compared to Dionysius, Luke reduces the number of such miraculous divine births. One of Rome’s ancestors, Hercules, had a divine lineage and was honored as a god (1.40.1, 3). Others, the Trojans led by Aeaneas, have Atlas, the seven stars in Pleiades, Zeus, Hermes, the nymph Hieromneme, and Aphrodite in their lineage (1.61.1-3; 62.2). And Romulus’ successor, the sixth king, Tullius Servius, was born of a slave woman and a divine phantom, so that he also was “superior to the race of mortals” (4.2.2), his divinity confirmed by a transfigura­tion story (4.2.3-4). Just as some doubted Jesus’ divine sonship (Luke 4:22), so, despite stories of his birth generated by a god, many called Tullius merely the son of a slave woman (4.1.2-2.3; 6.6). Another significant difference between Dionysius’ narrative and Luke-Acts is that the former has several founding kings, seven in fact. Luke has only one Founder, as well as only one character without a human father.

C) As a result of their genealogy and this story of divine conception, “the Romans believe them [Romulus and Remus] to have been the sons of Mars” (2.3.3), a near confessional formulation close to Luke 1:35 (cp. 3:38 and even Acts 17:28-29).

D) His grandfather had instructed Romulus what to say about the Roman form of govern­ment, and he followed his teaching (2.3.1; 4.1; see 28.1). Romulus’ constitution, or way of life, is then presented (2.6-29).

Jesus, too, is presented as teaching in syna­gogues (Luke 4:15), delivers his inaugural ser­mon in Nazareth, and continues teaching in Capernaum (4:31), a teaching to which Pharisees object (5:17, 21); he teaches the disciples to pray (11:1) and teaches in the temple (19:47), for which he is accused of stirring up the people (23:5). There are several significant similarities and differences between Romulus’ way of life and Jesus’ teaching in Luke. One of the parallel political practices will be presented (under 3) below.

One might compare the “last words” of the two. Romulus’ final words are consistent: they stress Mars’, his father’s, values, military preparedness and courage, not only as reported by Julius Ascanius in Dionysius, but also in Livy: “Declare to the Romans the will of Heaven that my Rome shall be the capital of the world; so let them cherish the art of war. . .” (1.16.7). This is consistent with Dionysius’ whole narrative, fairly described as nationalistic and militaristic. Whichever of Jesus’ final words (Luke 22:19 or 24:46?) are compared with those of Romulus, the result is a fundamental contrast.

E) If one excludes the stories of his birth and death, Romulus performs no healing or nature miracles. Dionysius is quite reluctant to narrate any miracles, one of the only exceptions being the “many marvelous. stories” told of Numa (2.60.4). The only one he does narrate concerns the nymph, Egeria, who visited and instructed him in the art of reigning. When people did not believe, he gave the unbelievers proof of his converse with the daemon, as she instructed. Then Dionysius narrates a feeding miracle, at which the Romans are astonished (2.60.6-7). He is hesitant about this story (2.61.1), so explains it comparing Numa to other wise men, Minos of Crete and Lycurgus of Sparta. Jesus, of course, works many miracles in Luke, including one feeding miracle (Luke 9:lOb-17), so here is another fundamental contrast with Dionysius’ narrative.

F) Romulus died suddenly, darkness rushed down out of a clear sky, and a violent storm burst, after which he was nowhere to be seen. Some writers ”believe that he was caught up into heaven by his father, ” Others plausibly say he was murdered, because he exercised his power more like a tyrant than a king (2.56.2-3). Nevertheless, the incidents that occurred by the direc­tion of Heaven in connection with this man’s conception and death would seem to give no small authority to the view of those who made gods of mortal men and place the souls of illustrious persons in heaven. For they say that at the time when his mother was violated, whether by some man or by a god, there was a total eclipse of the sun (ton elian eklipein) and a gen­eral darkness as in the night covered the earth, and that at his death the same thing happened (2.56.6).

At the death of Jesus, Mark 15:33 and Matt. 27:45 mention darkness over the whole land repeated by Luke 23:44, but only the latter add that “the sun’s light failed” (tou eliou eklipon­ tos), an observation not to be explained by apoc­alyptic imagery in Luke. Like Romulus, Jesus disappears (Luke 24:31). Absolutely central for Luke, of course, is Jesus’ ascension (Luke 9:51; 24;51; Acts 1:9).

The stories of Romulus’ and Jesus’ deaths dif­fer in many ways, not least in their length, but one similarity is striking. The reason given for Romulus’ murder is that “he released without common consent, contrary to custom, the hos­tages he had taken from the Veientes . . .” (2.56.3). In his inaugural sermon at Nazareth, Jesus informs the audience that the Lord “has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, . . . to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Isa. 61:2 and 58:6 cited in Luke 4:18), a mission concerning which the resurrected Christ is still teaching the disciples (Luke 24:47).

G) There is also an appearance story. The second king, Numa, ordered Romulus honored under the name of Quirinus as one beyond mortal nature. While Romans were in doubt whether divine providence or human treachery had been the cause of his disappearance, Julius Ascanius, who had never told an untruth, said he saw Romulus departing from the city fully armed [rather physical!]. He was told to “an­nounce to the Romans from me, that the genius to whom I was allotted at my birth is conducting me to the gods, now that I have finished my mortal life, and that I am Quirinus” (2.63.3-4; compare Livy. 16). Jesus, too, appeared after his death to two on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), then to the disciples in a way which stresses his physical body (Luke 24:36-53, esp. 42-43).

In summary, I find significant similarities as well as important differences between the “nar­ratives” of Dionysius and Luke in their central sections describing the Founder(s), but it seems possible to explain many of the differences as developments within the genre.

Dionysius and Luke-Acts both narrate history in three epochs: ancestors, Founder(s), and successors. For both historians the first epoch requires an encomium of selected patriarchs, but for Luke this means an invective of the remain­ing “fathers” who were unjust, enslaved their brother, were disobedient and impious (Acts 7). One function of these stories of the ancestors for both Dionysius and Luke is that these great heroes of the past serve as models of the coming king, Aeneas and Romulus of Augustus, Moses and David of Christ.

The Founders which both writers describe have a number of remarkable similarities: stories of their birth, nature, teachings, disappearance, physical appearance after death, and ascension are told sometimes in the same words.[69]Ancient opponents of Christianity, e.g., Celsus, made this observation; the reply by the Christian theologian Origin is still instructive. See Origin: Contra Celsum, trans. Henry Chadwick (Cambridge: University Press, 1953) 2.55 ff., a reference I owe to Prof. Frederick W. Norris. Stories of their deaths differ significantly in length, but one primary reason for their being killed is related. However, Dionysius tells of no miracles performed by Romulus, Luke of no military deeds accomplished by Christ.

Aspects of their teaching also offer sharp con­trasts. Some political policies already practiced by the ancestors and taught authoritatively by the Founders are, however, debated in the pres­ent by their successors, social-political questions which indicate that Luke-Acts is ancient history. One such question concerns the reception of foreign immigrants.


3. The Reception of Foreign Nations,
a Roman and Christian Custom from their Very Beginnings

Some of the most important chapters in Dionysius’ history for understanding his pur­pose are in Roman Antiquities 1.89-90. There we learn that Rome is the most hospitable and friendly of all cities (1.89.1), having intermixed with Aborigines, Arcadians, and Peloponnesians. Dionysius insists, however, that Rome has not been barbarized, even after receiving Opicans, Marsians, Samnites, Tyrrhenians, Bruttians, thousands of Umbrians, Ligurians, Iberians, Gauls, and innumerable other nations, who dif­fered from one another in language and habits (1.89.2-3). One might expect this mixture to cause many innovations in the ancient order, so that they would no longer speak the same lan­guage, observe the customs, acknowledge the same gods, nor have the same equitable laws (1.89.4). But all these customs have been main­tained from the first; Romans are not more virtuous now than formerly, a thesis for which Dionysius has many arguments that he says will be supplied later (in Rom. Ant. 7.70-73).

He argues the problematic thesis that the founders of Rome were Greeks sent out from the most famous places, not, as some believe, origin­ ally barbarians and vagabonds. As he promised, he demonstrates this thesis by several proofs, citing time-honored customs, laws, and institu­tions which the Romans preserve (phulattousi) up to Dionysius’ time just as they received them from their ancestors (7.70.2). He begins with the established worship of the gods, because, he writes, both the Greek and barbarian world have preserved this for the longest time and have never thought fit to make any innovation in them due to their fear of divine anger (7.70.3). Egyptians; Libyans, Gauls, Scythians, Indians, nor any other barbarian nation can be induced to forget or transgress rites of their gods, unless a foreign power compels them to exchange their institutions for those of their conquerors (7.70.4).[70]Compare 2 Maccabees.

Dionysius’ specific examples begin with an ancient Roman festival which included a procession in honor of the gods: “this custom continued even to my time at Rome . . . , but it is now abolished in Greece, the Lacedaemonians having put an end to it” (7.72.2). Dionysius establishes the nature and antiquity of these customs by citing Homer (7.72.3, 4, 8, 9, 16, 17; 73.3); these customs include athletes competing naked (7.72.2-5), carrying the images of the gods and demigods in procession (7.72.13-14), ancient methods of purifying oxen by water and corn before sacrificing them (7.15-17), and games where crowns are awarded (7.73.1-4). Dionysius finds it absolutely necessary to argue that the Romans have guarded these ancient customs and have neither changed nor abolished them.

These passages show that Dionysius holds two values which are in tension with each other: 1) valid customs and laws must be ancient,[71]Luke shares this value, a primary source of his movement away from an imminent eschatology, the change criticized by Ernst Kasemann, “Ephesians and Acts,” in Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays Presented in Honor of Paul Schubert, ed. L. E. Keck and J. Louis Martyn (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966), 288-97. and 2) one of these ancient Roman customs is the reception of foreign nations into the body poli­tic. The second custom leads either to the accu­ sation that Romans were immoral barbarians from their beginnings (1.4.1, 2) or that the ancient, originally Greek customs have been barbarized and corrupted (1.89.3; 2.19.2). I will examine the second value and compare it with Luke-Acts.

Here I pause to observe that the question of whether to receive numbers of foreigners into one society when they have been forced to immigrate from another, foreign country is a political issue that is both ancient and contem­porary. Whether one studies it in ancient Rome or in modern Europe, modern America, or else­ where, it is an issue which is highly divisive and has long-lasting social consequences.

Because it is related to the basic apologetic in Dionysius’ history as seen in the key passage 1.89-90, I will focus on one section of Romulus’ constitution, the one having to do with Rome receiving foreign nations (Rom. Ant. 2 .15-17).[72]See Balch, “Two Apologetic Encomia,” 106, 111, 118-19. The Greek historian counters the charges against Romans by insisting in the preface of his history that “from the very beginning, immediately after her founding, she began to draw to herself the neighboring nations” (1.3.4). Romulus made the city large and populous by welcoming and at­tracting fugitives, provided that they were free, from cities governed by tyrannies and oli­garchies (2.15.3). His purpose was to make the power of the Romans grow.[73]The theme of “increase” or “growth” occurs not only in Dionysius and Luke-Acts, but also in earlier historians. It appears in Herodotus 1.58.4, 8 and is developed by Polybius, e.g., 2.37.8; 2.39.11; 5.10.1. When Polybius compares Athens and Rome, he dismisses the former simply because it did not continue to “grow” (6.43.2)! I owe the suggestion to compare Herodotus and Polybius with my material on Dionysius to Hubert Cancik, professor of classics in Tubingen. He invented a pretext, appearing to honor a god; picking a place, he made it an asylum for suppliants (2 .15.4). Using this occasion of piety toward the divine, he protected the ones fleeing from suf­fering any harm at the hand of their. enemies. A related policy was not to kill all men of military age and enslave the rest of cities cap­tured in war, but to send (apostellein) settlers, make them Roman colonies, and grant citizen­ ship to some (2.16.1). By these measures, he made Rome great from small beginnings, for the number of those at the founding of Rome was not more than three thousand   foot (2.16.2), but it became inferior in numbers to no other nation.

Greek customs, especially those of Athenians, who pride themselves on their wisdom, guard (phulattontes) their noble birth, grant citizen­ ship to none or few, and even expel foreigners, are not advantageous and are not to be praised (2.17.1). Through a single disaster [their defeat by Philip II at Chaeronea in 338 B.C.E.], Athen­ians lost the leadership of Greece and the liberty they inherited from their ancestors. But Rome derives strength from disasters thanks to the number of her soldiers.

Later in his work, Dionysius stages a debate between the Alban general Fufetius and the Roman king Tullos on this issue (3.10-11). In this debate over which city should rule the other, Fufetius makes the following charges: he ob­ serves that the Albans are Greek. They sent out a colony to Rome, and therefore are the mother city. Second, Albans have granted citizenship only to Greeks and Latins, whereas Romans have corrupted the purity of their body politic by admitting Tyrrhenians, Sabines, and others who were homeless, vagabonds, and barbarians in great numbers, so that most are now of an alien race (3.10.4). The immigrant mob has control of public affairs, kings are outsiders, and most of the senate are newcomers (3.10.5). Third, Albans have not altered their constitution, now in its eighteenth generation, but continue to observe all its customs and traditions, whereas Rome is without order and discipline, a conglomeration of many races (3.10.6).

The Roman Tullos responds to the first argu­ment, that Alba is the mother colony, then sec­ond, offers his own comparison of the ways of life of the two cities. The charge is that Rome has been corrupted by various admixtures of foreigners, and so should be ruled by “noble” Albans; far from being ashamed, the Roman takes pride that the privileges of the city are free to those who want them (3.11.3-4). Owing to this humane policy, the city from a small and contemptible beginning has become large and formidable. One should disparage another state and praise one’s own when, by the practices laid down, the city has become great and flourish­ing, true for Rome, not for Greek Alba (3.11.7). The factional strife resulting from this mixture does not corrupt and diminish the common­ wealth, but preserves and makes it grow, a result of competition for honor between older and newer citizens (3.11.8). This debate in Dionysius’ literary work corresponds, he tells us, to an actual contemporary debate: “there is a great dis­pute concerning both the time of the building of the city [Rome] and the founders of it” (1.72.1).

By now the direction of my argument will have become obvious: this cluster of “historical” ideas is central not only in Dionysius but also in Luke-Acts. Dionysius develops the military possibilities of the topic, while Acts emphasizes rather the logos, the powerful “word” “grow­ing” throughout the world. Interpreters have puzzled over the unusual formula, “The word of God (the Lord) grew” (Acts 6:7; 12:24; 19:20). Various explanations have been offered: it is said to be either a Lucan development of the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15) or an adaption of the “be fruitful and multiply” formula from the Priestly tradition (e.g., Gen. 1:22, 28, as well as twelve other Old Testament texts).[74]Jerome Kodell, ” ‘The Word of God Grew.’ The Ecclesial Tendency of  in Acts l(sic),7; 12:24; 19:20,” Biblica 55, no. 4 (1974): 505-19. I will leave examination of the Lucan parable to a later time, but the “be fruitful and multiply” formula refers to reproduction in God’s creation or to the growth of a particular family (e.g., Gen. 28:3, Jacob’s family, which is not to intermarry with Canaanites; cp. Jer. 23:3).

In contrast to Priestly Israelite ideology, Dion­ysius narrates Rome’s growth[75]Olof Gigon, “Zur Gischichtsschreibung der riimischen Repub­ lik,” Studien zur antiken Philosopbie (Berlin: Walter de Gruyer, 1972), 276 says this is a Greek idea, dependent on Greek political theory, as is the construction of a primitive history in Dionysius, Rom. Ant. I.76-84. through the addition or mixing of nations, but in Acts “the word grows” in a context of Hebrew/Hellenist or Jew/Greek polarity and unity. 1) after the resolution of the Hellenist/Hebrew conflict in Acts 6:1-6, “the word of God grew” (6:7). 2) At first the word was spoken to none except Jews, but then some spoke to Greeks (11:19-20), with the result that “a large company was added to the Lord” (11:24). After James is killed by Herod, which “pleased the Jews” (12:1-2), Peter is rescued from Herod’s and a similar death. The king lets himself be proclaimed a god and dies, because he did not give God the glory (12:22-23). Then “the word of God grew and multiplied” (12:24). 3) Paul preaches in the synagogue in Corinth where some disbelieved; he changes to the hall of Tyrannus so that both Jews and Greeks hear the word (19:8-10). Jewish exorcists compete with Paul, but are overpowered, an incident that is known to all Ephesians, Jews and Greeks. The name of the Lord Jesus is extolled and magic books burned, “so the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily” (19:20). The story in Dionysius’ narrative of the growth of Rome leaves its mark on the vocabulary of Luke’s narrative of the growth of the early church.



I conclude that a cluster of problematic ideas in Dionysius’ history of Rome are also employed in Luke-Acts. The custom and laws of Moses are guarded both by God’s people as a whole and by individuals; for example, Stephen (Acts 6-7) and Paul (Acts 21), not abolished, corrupted, or transgressed. From the beginning Abraham, Moses, and Isaiah spoke of God blessing all nations, Jesus preached about prophets being sent to Syrians (Luke 4), the apostle Peter preached already on Pentecost to people “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2), and the foreigner Cornelius was received and baptized by the same apostle (Acts 10). Finally, the scribes who copied manuscripts 614 and 2147 added the following words in brackets, correctly interpreting Luke’s conclusion of the two volumes: preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus in Rome, Paul “received all who came to him [both Jews and Greeks]” (Acts 28:30). “So the world of the Lord prevailed mightily.”


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