Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Speeches in Acts: History or Legend?

Apologists routinely point to the Book of Acts as reliable history. Well, they sort of have to, given their dogmatic determination to protect their confessional investment in Christian literalism. Though while the proclamation that Acts records accurate history seems redundant in the case of the choir, it is perhaps more than a stretch for those outside the holy tent.

Its formal title is The Acts of the Apostles, though curiously it focuses primarily on two apostles (Peter and Paul), makes some references to a third (Stephen) and says very little about any of the others (it gives their names, and that’s about it!). In fact, all apostles other than Peter and Paul are completely dropped midway through the book without explanation, and the New Testament gives no indication of their fate. 

G. A. Wells rightly reminds us that “speeches make up nearly a third of Acts, and they often adduce Septuagint passages which actually mistranslate the original – as if the Jewish audiences addressed would have been impressed by distortions of their own scriptures” (Can We Trust the New Testament? p. 89). He gives as an example the Septuagint rendering of Psalm 16 in a speech attributed to Peter in the second chapter of Acts.

A major purpose of penning the Book of Acts in the first place appears to be to portray two early Christian rivals, Peter and Paul, as harmoniously joined in both their theology as well as their evangelizing efforts. And whereas Acts purports to trace Paul’s Christianizing campaign right up to his demise before Caesar, Acts “never suggests that Paul had written any letters at all” (Op. cit., p. 77), even though by the time Acts was written Paul would likely have been very famous for his letters – treated as “Scripture” by his followers as they were, though no doubt scorned as heresy by other Christian factions. Acts thus reflects a period well after the founding of Christianity, when various strands of belief which had at one point been in conflict with one another had come to be woven into a single fabric, giving a clue to the dating of its authorship.

Earl Doherty thus summarizes as follows:
One of the reactions to Marcion and his appropriation of Paul seems to have been the composition of the Acts of the Apostles, sometime around the middle of the second century. By attaching Paul securely to the Jerusalem apostles, by giving him speeches which held not a trace of heresy – they are identical in tone and content to those put in Peter’s mouth – and by ignoring the very fact that Paul had written letters which the Marcionites were declaring gave support to their own doctrines, the Church of Rome reclaimed Paul for itself.  
At the same time, Acts created a unified view of the Christian movement in its spread across the empire, arising out of “Golden Age” events in Judea. Such a picture clearly linked the idealized beginnings of the movement with the Roman Church and not the Marcionites. (The Jesus Puzzle, p. 269)
As to Paul’s letters, “[Acts’] silence on the letters of Paul must be deliberate” (p. 270).

Elsewhere in his book, Doherty brings to light a fundamental discrepancy, owing to ignoring Paul’s letters, which is easily overlooked but damning to the credibility of Acts as genuine history. This discrepancy, no doubt missed even by Christian leaders of the day, underscores the legendary evolution of the overall Christian narrative. According to the gospel narratives, the Christ movement of the New Testament
had supposedly begun as a response to a human man. This man had such a profound effect on people that they forsook everything in life to preach him; for this man’s sake they had abandoned, even betrayed, much that was held sacred in their Jewish heritage. He should have lain at the forefront of their minds. And so Acts would seem to indicate. In speech after speech, the Christian apostles start with the man Jesus and make certain factual statements and faith declarations about him. (p. 16)
Doherty gives as an example a speech attributed to Peter in Acts 2:22-36, where the focal disciple of the gospels states: “I speak of Jesus of Nazareth, a man singled out by God and made known to you through miracles, portents and signs… God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Doherty then brings in a context critical to the New Testament but quietly ignored by such speeches:
But what do we find in the letters of Paul and other earthly writers? They start with the divine Christ, the figure of the Son in heaven, and make their faith statements about him. And there is no equation with an historical man, a human teacher who had recently lived. Paul believes in the Son of God, that that anyone was the Son of God. (Ibid.)
We might be tempted to apply more specificity here, since the gospels themselves put Jesus the man in a setting of specific place and time, with specific surrounding players, movements and actions, and speeches and prayers, none of which are found in the earlier layers of the New Testament, such as Paul’s letters. Some may point to the kata sarka references in Romans 1 (vs. 1-4) as evidence that Paul did in fact have in mind an earthly man as the start of his gospel. But there are numerous reasons why this would be a hasty conclusion. For one, this reference is an isolated instance in the Pauline corpus; throughout Paul’s writings he nowhere cites the teachings of the earthly Jesus we find in the gospels as the source of his message (Paul either points to revelation from “the Scriptures” for this, or he claims to have received the teachings he gives from revelation – see for example here). Also, the very notion that Jesus came from the stock of David was itself something Paul would have gotten from ancient sacred writings, not from recent historical accounts about a wonder-working human being who had been missionizing in first century Palestine. Doherty himself provides an analysis of this passage in Romans 1 in The Jesus Puzzle (see pp. 82-86), arguing cogently that Paul’s references here could only refer to a spiritual setting in a supernatural realm, not a human-historical realm here on earth.

Many things can be said about the Book of Acts and why it should not be regarded as historically accurate material. But one thing that always called attention to itself in my mind involves the speeches that Peter is said to have made, in Jerusalem and only weeks after the leader of the sect had been arrested for sedition and executed outside the city walls, and how those speeches supposedly affected a significant portion of the population at the time.

In spite of the fact, as noted above, that these speeches hinge on the Septuagint’s distortions of Jewish scripture,
Peter’s speeches in the early chapters of Acts go down extraordinarily well. He declares that “God foreshewed by the mouth of all the prophets that his Christ should suffer (3:18). One might expect the Jesus to regard this as stretching their scriptures more than a bit. But no, Peter’s audience accepted it in their thousands (4:4). This speech, and his previous one at Pentecost, have sufficed to Christianize what has been calculated as one fifth of the then population of Jerusalem.  
This again is not history. It is part of Luke’s concern to show that Christianity was no hole-and-corner business (“not done in a corner,” 26:26). To this end he likes to portray not only mass conversions but also sympathetic responses in high places. The Roman Proconsul of Cyprus is said to have “believed” (13:12). At Ephesus the Asiarchs, men concerned to promote the cult of the Emperor, appear as Paul’s friends (19:31), and the town clerk declares the Christians innocent of sacrilege and blasphemy (19:37). The Jewish king Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great, comes near to being a convert (26:28). It all serves the thesis that Christianity is essentially God-driven, propelled to success after success by the divine power behind it. (Can We Trust the New Testament?, pp. 90-91).
Is it really plausible that such open-air preaching in the city streets of Jerusalem, so fresh after Jesus had been tried under Pilate for seditious acts and crucified alongside common thieves, would not have aroused the attention and suspicion of the local authorities? Is it plausible that those same authorities would have been aware of overt Christian activity in their city and yet paid it no mind? Or are we supposed to believe that the centurion who allegedly proclaimed Jesus an innocent man when he gave up the ghost on the cross, was instrumental in converting Pilate and other civil authorities in the time between Jesus’ burial and Peter’s emergence as a public speaker influencing thousands of Jews in a single sermon?

Such an image seems just too good to be true, and, given the other points reviewed above, it most likely means that what we have here is an elaborate romanticized yarn, a fish story passing itself off as genuine history when in fact it’s really just a retrospective filled with legends and lore.

by Dawson Bethrick


Ydemoc said...

Thanks again, Dawson!


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