APOLOGETIC IN ACTS AND THE NEW TESTAMENT

Is it possible to determine any more precisely how these varied scenarios relate to one another and to the text’s overall rhetorical strategy? We might prefer more simply to maximize the variety and richness of the narrative world which Luke has created, stressing the open-endedness of narrative as opposed to the purposive closures of rhetorical discourse. Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry begins with the formal synchronism of 3: i: but the event so portentously introduced is not the coming of Jesus, or even of John the Baptist, but in true prophetic fashion the coming of ‘the Word of the Lord’ (Luke 3: 2). Arguably it is this divine Word, rather than any of its human propagators, which is the true hero of Acts, and its progress in the world certainly provides one of the narrative’s most prominent agendas (Acts I: 8). By creating so many dramatic opportunities for speech, we might argue, Luke is simply giving maximum coverage to this Word and its impact on a succession of audiences. This is a record which has a strong exemplary force for a Christian readership: as Cassidy puts it, Acts provides Christian readers with ‘perspective and guidance’ to inform their own apologetic witness. Luke’s Jesus has already predicted (twice) in the Gospel that Christians will find themselves in situations where they will be called upon for an apologia before ‘synagogues and rulers and authorities’. Acts simply dramatizes this prospect by providing a whole repertoire of opportunities for the apostles to proclaim the Word with parrhesia in every conceivable situation. Moreover, apologetic speech in this context is more than mere dramatized pathos (an essential difference from the superficially similar narrative construction of the novels, where speech serves largely to dramatize the characters’ emotions in any given situation). In Acts, speech is an important event in its own right, transcending the boundaries of narrative to exert persuasive force directly on the readers.

Looked at in this light, the apologetic speeches embedded in Acts tell us a good deal about the apologetic strategies of the New Testament period. They demonstrate how easy is the slide from apologia in the strict sense (self-defence against a specific charge) to propaganda in a much broader sense. This slide (which is particularly clear in the speech before Agrippa in ch. 26) is tacitly endorsed by Paul’s own use of the word in the Epistle to the Philippians, where the apologia of the imprisoned apostle is effectively interchangeable with ‘the confirmation of the Gospel’ (Phil. i: 7), and its expected outcome is the spread of faith (Phil. I: 12—14). Similarly, when I Peter 3: 15 urges its readers, ‘Always be prepared to make a defence (apologia) to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence . . .’, the word belongs quite properly in a context where the believer may be called upon at any time to ‘suffer as a Christian’ (4: 16): yet there is an underlying assumption that the correct Christian response may serve not so much to deflect persecution as to win over the opposition (2: 12; 3: I). In this sense the apologetic of Acts, and of the New Testament in general, tends to corroborate Schussler Fiorenza’s observation that apologetic and missionary propaganda ‘functioned like two sides of the same coin’.

This is a feature of the apologetic scenario which anticipates the propaganda opportunities seized by Christians (and noted by their opponents) in the later accounts of Christian trials and martyrdoms; but it also draws on the older traditions of Jewish martyrology. The speeches of the Maccabean martyrs provide an opportunity to defend not merely themselves but a whole way of life—a form of parrhesia which also figures in the defiant deathbed speeches of philosophers and of the so-called pagan martyrs of Alexandria. It is against this background, I believe, that we should understand the rather puzzling vagueness which pervades the apologetic scenarios in Acts. Despite their careful dramatic construction and characterization, it is not always easy to tell what the precise charge is and how (if at all) it is rebutted.

The apologetic speeches in Acts also exemplify other important features of early Christian apologetic in the New Testament period. The formal distinction between speech and narrative is largely deconstructed by Luke himself, in that the speeches he gives to his characters constantly refer back to narrative, repeat narrative, and reinforce and interpret narrative. Two pools of narrative resource inform this interpretative activity: stories and characters from the Hebrew Bible and miraculous and charismatic events from the narrative of Acts itself. The former was a hallmark of early Christian apologetic, from the pre-New Testament ‘testimonies’ to the second-century apologists: in this sense, Luke’s narrative dramatizes (and probably over-simplifies) a flurry of exegetical activity which must have occupied quite a lot of somebody’s time in the first decades of the church, and which is presupposed by the already developed use of Scripture in the epistles.

The latter, however, takes us out of the study and on to the streets. Time and again, it is the activity of the Spirit (tongues, healings, visions) which is appealed to as the decisive argument in apologetic speech. Gamaliel’s warning (3: 39) is picked up by character after character: ‘Who was I that I could withstand God?’ (II: 17); ‘What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?’ (23: 8); ‘Wherefore, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision’ (26: 19). Two visions above all—Peter’s and Paul’s (each repeated three times)—hold a pivotal place in the book’s cumulative argument. This is a type of apologetic which does not really rely on demonstrative argument (even exegetical argument) at all for its persuasive force, at least not in any sense that Galen would have recognized:

Most people are unable to follow any demonstrative argument consecutively; hence they need parables and benefit from them—and he [Galen] understands by parables tales about the rewards and punishments in a future life—just as now we see the people called Christians drawing their faith from parables [and miracles alii] and yet sometimes acting in the same way as those who philosophize.

In its reliance on the demonstrative force of ‘signs’—miracles and visions—Acts falls almost entirely on the ‘parable’ side of this division: and this was a position which later Christians were quite happy to accept. It places Acts’ apologetic squarely within the broader context of early Christian missionary activity described by MacMullen, with its heavy dependence on miracle and prophecy. In this sense, the apologetic of Acts must be differentiated from the more philosophical stance of the second-century apologists (and, for that matter, of 4 Maccabees). Despite the Areopagus speech, Luke’s interest in Stoic philosophy is minimal (though it is undoubtedly significant that he mentions it at all: Acts 17 in this sense represents the first glimmerings of a philosophical strain in Christian apologetic, which was to become much more important in the second century). But Luke’s apologetic strategy belongs firmly on the ‘story’ side of early Christian discourse. Aratus’ philosophical poem proclaimed the universal indwelling of Zeus in all human life: ‘Let us begin with God, whom men never leave unspoken: full of God are the streets, and all the marketplaces of humanity, and full the sea and the harbours; and we are all in need of God everywhere. We are all his children . . .’ Luke’s narrative, by contrast, inscribes his God into the Mediterranean landscape of street and harbour, city and sea, just as Chariton’s novel inscribes the power of Aphrodite into the same landscape.

Nevertheless, it is tempting to try to decide which, of all the book’s apologetic scenarios, has the most claim to represent the author’s real interests: and in purely numerical terms, it is not difficult to see which it should be. Types I and III (inner-church debate and presentation of the Gospel to the Greeks) take up relatively little narrative time. Luke’s purpose in the former seems to be eirenic rather than apologetic, showing a reluctant Peter convinced by supernatural means to accept the ‘Pauline’ position (only Acts does not so identify it) on Gentile converts. Similarly, the theme of preaching to the Greeks has surprisingly little prominence in terms of direct speech: important though the theme is, it would seem a little unbalanced to identify philosophically minded Greeks as the book’s primary audience. Of all the reported sermons in Acts, only two are addressed to pagans, and Paul’s synagogue discourse to the Jewish community in Antioch-in-Pisidia (13: 16—41) is longer than the two put together. Even more striking is the relative weighting accorded to Types II and IV (self-defence to the Jewish community and self-defence to the Romans). Maddox points out that Luke devotes more narrative time to Paul’s arrest and imprisonment than to his missionary journeys: ‘when we read Acts as a whole, rather than selectively, it is Paul the prisoner even more than Paul the missionary whom we are meant to remember’. Even more significant for our purposes, however, is the observation that, over both kinds of speech in Acts (sermons and defence speeches), by far the greatest number of verses are addressed to a Jewish audience. Even where the dramatic audience is Roman (as in the hearings before Felix and Festus), the accusers and the charges are essentially Jewish; and by bringing on Agrippa as an interested observer in the final court scene (ch. 26), Luke effectively turns Paul’s last and fullest apologetic speech into a restatement and defence of his whole theological standpoint before a figure who can be identified as a symbolic spokesman for Diaspora Judaism. It is the cynical, worldly-wise Agrippa to whom Paul addresses his most impassioned and direct appeal, and it is arguably this powerful Jewish patron who has the best claim to be identified as the ideal (and doubtless idealized) target audience for the apologetic in Acts. The Romans, on this view (as so often in the first century), are simply brought in as external arbitrators in a dispute which is really (as Gallio declares in 18: 13) ‘about words and names and your own law’. The success of the mission among pagan audiences provides divine confirmation of its effectiveness and of Paul’s prophetic destiny: but it does not follow that Luke’s primary readership is Gentile. Acts is a dramatized narrative of an intra-communal debate, a plea for a fair hearing at the bar of the wider Jewish community in the Diaspora, perhaps especially in Rome. It may be that one of the most significant pointers to the apologetic scenario of the book as a whole is the neutral, uncommitted stance of the community leaders in Rome in the final scene: ‘We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brethren coming here has reported or spoken any evil about you. But we desire to hear from you what your views are; for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against’ (28: 21—2).

Will this work as a setting for the apologetic of Acts? If so, it must be placed somewhere within the ongoing debate between church and synagogue which went on well into the second century: it would be interesting (though it is beyond the scope of this essay) to try to pin it down to a more precise date. But any solution must take into account the essential literary observation that the dramatized apologetic of Acts is also embedded within a complex narrative. Generically, Luke’s choice of vehicle brings him closer to the world of ‘popular’ narrative and pamphlet than to the ‘higher’ forms of rhetorical discourse which were adopted by the later apologists: closer, let us say, to the novels, the martyrologies, the idealized philosophical biographies, or even the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, than to Against Apion. But narrative imposes its own disciplines, one of which is the need to bring the story to an end. Whatever its ambiguities, the final scene of Acts does appear to place some kind of closure on the appeal to the Jewish community: ‘Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen’ (28: 29). The ‘most chilling prophecy’ quoted here from Isaiah 6: 9—10 (28: 26—7) already has a long history in early Christian apologetic, and will continue to figure in the patristic debate. It provides a biblical explanation for Judaism’s failure to respond to the Gospel, and a prophetic model for the theological puzzle of a divinely inspired message which fails to convince its target audience. On this view, the ending of Acts, with its puzzling failure to narrate the outcome of Paul’s appeal to Caesar, is entirely consistent with the prominence of the Jewish apologetic scenario throughout the narrative:

Absolutely nothing hinges on the success or failure of Paul’s defense before Caesar, for Luke’s apologetic has not been concerned primarily with Paul’s safety or even the legitimacy of the Christian religion within the empire. What Luke was defending he has successfully concluded: God’s fidelity to his people and to his own word.

Whether this conclusion would be acceptable to any readers outside the church is another question: apologetic, as we have seen, often fails to reach the dramatic audience to whom it is ostensibly addressed. That does not make it any the less apologetic.

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