ACTS IS NOT AN APOLOGETIC DISCOURSE

This brings us within sight of one of the crucial problems for the whole enterprise of reading Acts as apologetic. There is, as we have seen, abundant testimony to the popularity of the label ‘apologetic’ among readers of Acts: but equally significant for our purposes is the high level of disagreement as to the precise lineaments of the text’s apologetic situation. For literary apologetic to work, the key elements of the fictional scenario (audience, charge, defendants) should be easy to pick off the surface of the text, even if its real audience and purpose may be less transparent. Some of the apologetic readings proposed for Acts are complementary (for example, the demonstration that Christianity is a legitimate development of Judaism may serve equally for apologetic addressed to the Jewish community and for apologetic addressed to the Roman authorities). But many of them are mutually contradictory: Walaskay and Cassidy, for example, have identified a number of counter-apologetic elements which appear to undermine the consensus view that Acts is conciliatory towards the Roman authorities. The fact that 200 years of Acts scholarship have failed to produce a consensus on the text’s purpose and audience need not, of course, occasion either surprise or concern in these postmodern days; but it is particularly damaging to the attempt to configure the text as apologetic, which must above all make its fictional situation clear. Any apologetic reading which aims to give a reasonably coherent view of the text as a whole must find a way to account for those features which suggest a counterreading. The fact that so many mutually contradictory viewpoints can be argued from the same text with equal plausibility suggests at the very least that, if Luke’s aim was apologetic, he has failed in his task: a defence speech which provides equally convincing arguments for the prosecution is clearly not achieving its purpose.

One reason for this lack of clarity, I would suggest, is that, in the quest to uncover the text’s deepest motivations, insufficient attention has been paid to surface matters of genre and discourse mode. This may be because apologetic itself is not an ancient genre description: but the apologetic scenario, as we have described it, belongs squarely within the larger, and very familiar, generic framework of forensic rhetoric. Within this framework the dominant mode of discourse is direct speech, in which the inscribed speaker (the ‘I’ of the discourse) makes a direct address to an inscribed audience (the ‘you’ of the discourse). As we have noted, these elements can be transmuted in a number of ways in literary apologetic (including the occasional transposition to the more overtly dramatic form of dialogue): but the dominant speech mode (as we would expect in this highly rhetorical world) is argumentative speech. Narrative has a part to play in this discourse, as it does in any forensic speech, in the formal statement of the facts of the case (diegesis/narratio); but the authorial voice of the inscribed speaker will always be there to explain the narrative and drive home the conclusions the audience should draw from it.

This pattern can be seen clearly in Josephus, Against Apion, which contains long narrative sections (for example, in the refutation of Manetho), but where the apologetic significance of the narrative is always explained and rammed home by an insistent authorial voice. It is precisely the lack of this authorial voice in Acts which leaves the narrative so open to diverse interpretations. Acts, on the other hand, is uniformly narrative except for the opening half-sentence (Acts 1: 1), which takes the form of a conventional first-person recapitulation of the contents of the first volume. Apart from this, the narrator of Acts never intervenes in the text: Luke simply leaves himself no space to explain how the text’s dramatic situation is to be constructed. Sterling notes the difference clearly:

It is hard not to compare Josephos and Luke—Acts in this regard. Each pleads for respectability and uses precedents in the form of acta or trials to argue their case. There is, however, a difference: Josephos made his case directly to the Hellenistic world; Luke—Acts makes its case indirectly by offering examples and precedents to Christians so that they can make their own apologia.

But this difference of surface texture is actually a crucial factor in the determination of literary genre: and it raises the question whether Acts can in any meaningful sense be placed in the same generic category as the second-century apologies.

Sterling in fact provides one of the few readings of Acts to tackle the genre question directly. He proposes that Acts belongs to a specifically narrative genre which he calls ‘apologetic historiography’. This is defined as ‘the story of a sub-group of people in an extended prose narrative written by a member of the group who follows the group’s own traditions but Hellenizes them in an effort to establish the identity of the group within the setting of the larger world’. Other examples of the genre are Manetho and Berossus, the lost Hellenistic Jewish historians, Philo of Byblos, and Josephus’ Antiquities. This generic description is a useful one, and it may well be helpful to place Luke’s work in this broader literary context. How far it illuminates the specifically ‘apologetic’ aspects which concern us here, however, is another question. On the one hand, because these texts are predominantly narrative, the imputation of apologetic intent rests to a large extent on the assumption that any text written in Greek in the eastern Empire around the turn of the eras and describing non-Hellenic cultural or religious traditions was in some sense seeking to ‘Hellenize’ non-Greek material for a ‘larger’ (and by implication unitary) cultural world. I have no quarrel with that as a description of the literary activities of Manetho and Berossus: but it does not seem to me self-evident that all such texts had such an ‘apologetic’ intent. The Greek reading public was far from homogeneous, and it seems to me perfectly conceivable, at least in principle, that some texts were written in Greek for a much smaller cultural world which happened to use Greek (as so many did) as a lingua franca. Clearly such language-users cannot be isolated altogether from the larger cultural networks to which the language gives access: but it is a large assumption that the use of the Greek language necessarily commits a writer to wholesale cultural propaganda. (Using computer software does not necessarily mean becoming a computer buff: even the Internet, a recent newspaper article lamented, is turning out to produce a nexus of small communication groups rather than the ‘global’ audiences which the propaganda promised.)

And secondly, the identification of Acts’ genre as ‘apologetic historiography’ raises problems of its own. Oden’s study of Philo of Byblos lists five typical features of ‘hellenistic historiography . . . composed by those living in lands subjected to the full force of Hellenism’—that is, of ‘apologetic historiography’. These are euhemerism; a universal scale, with ‘vastly extended’ chronological and geographical limits, combined with ‘special pleading on behalf of the great and unparalleled antiquity of [the historian’s] nation’; ‘patriotic cultural history’, in which ‘each historian claims [humanity’s] cultural benefactors as his own nation’s ancestors’; ‘a belligerent and defensive stance with respect to Greek civilization and particularly Greek mythography’, expressed ‘without resorting to circumlocution and without searching for subtlety’; and a claim to have access to recently discovered archives of unimpeachable provenance and antiquity. I find it hard to parallel most of this in Acts: if Luke does share some of the aims of this kind of historiography, the narrative strategies he employs to fulfil them are rather more subtle.

I would suggest that if we are to make any progress in understanding the rhetorical strategies of this text, we must begin by paying more serious attention to the details of structure and surface texture. As we have seen, Acts lacks the formal structure of an apologia, in that it is not presented as direct rhetorical discourse addressed to an identifiable audience. Luke’s work must first of all be taken seriously as a narrative; but it is not in any primary sense an antiquarian account of Judaeo-Christian historical traditions. It is a relatively short description of recent historical events, set in the real world of the eastern Empire in the middle of the first century CE. This narrative construct is much too substantial to be called merely a framework, like the narrative frameworks to the great dialogues of the classical tradition. Nevertheless, it is a narrative which creates a great number of dramatic opportunities for formal speech: and these are the most obvious places to look for apologetic in Acts.

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