Thursday, August 14, 2008

Some background information on Luke and the Acts of the Apostles

These are the notes I shared with the Bible Study last night, as we began the Acts of the Apostles.

Tradition tells us Luke is the author of the Gospel and Acts—the Sacred Text itself does not say this—and there is no reason to question Luke as the author. If it weren’t true, there seems no reason for anyone to come up with someone who was otherwise obscure.

Again, Tradition tells us he was from Antioch, in Syria; Scripture itself tells us he was a physician and a companion of Paul at various times.

No one seriously disputes that Luke and Acts were written by the same author.

Scholars debate over when Luke and Acts were composed.

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary argues that the Gospel of Luke must have been written after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, but before the bitter persecution of Christians toward the end of the reign of Emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), and that it “does not reflect the severe controversy that existed between the church and synagogue after the Pharisaic reconstruction of Judaism at Jamnia (AD 85-90).” So the NJBC proposes a date of AD 80-85 for Luke and Acts.

On the other hand, the Navarre Bible argues for an earlier date, because Acts makes no actual mention of the destruction of Jerusalem, and because Acts ends with Paul a prisoner in Rome, and does not explain what comes next.

While I can’t resolve these questions, it’s worth noting the presuppositions lying behind these theories:

 The NJBC presupposes Luke’s Gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem—why? The Gospel itself doesn’t say that; in fact, the NJBC makes this argument from the section of Luke where our Lord foretells the city’s destruction. So why do scholars hold that this foretelling must have been written afterward? Because they see evidence in the text that suggests an awareness of the issues that arose afterward.
 Navarre argues from silence—i.e., Acts says nothing about the destruction of Jerusalem—and that is a tricky argument to make. There might be other reasons for the silence. But note the NJBC does as well: Luke doesn’t reflect awareness of either the Domitian persecution or the controversies with Pharisaic Jerusalem.

Related to this debate is an even more interesting question: Luke’s relationship with Paul.
Was Luke a constant companion of Paul, and is that what is reflected in the latter part of Acts? Or, was he only an intermittent associate, and he writes the narrative from some distance. If the former, than an earlier date for Luke to compose Acts seems warranted, since it ends so abruptly with events we have to date around AD 63-65; but if the latter, then we can date the composition of Luke and Acts to AD 80-85 as NJBC holds.

Why would anyone question Luke’s companionship with Paul throughout? Well, to many scholars, it seems Luke has only a passing acquaintance with Paul’s theology; he seems unaware of Paul’s letters (there’s that argument from silence again). Yet Paul’s own letters refer to Luke as a companion, so, the reasoning is that he was intermittent, or only closely associated with Paul early on.

What we know is what Luke himself tells us, first at the beginning of his Gospel, and then when he begins Acts: he is aware of many others preparing Gospels, and he—after carefully investigating the matter, chose to give his own account. We know that his Gospel alone tells us a number of things, including most of what we know about the birth of the Savior, and many parables are included only in Luke, such as that of the Prodigal Son. I.e., it sure seems that Luke really did what he said, and investigated and shared what he found.

So again, why question what Luke presents us with? Maybe it’s not so much Luke is unfamiliar with Paul’s theology, as he chooses to present only those parts that suit his narrative—leaving it to Paul to do the rest? Perhaps it’s not that he is “unaware” of Paul’s letters, but does not see why they need to be mentioned in Acts.

We know this—Luke composed these two works, and in doing so, he worked hard to gather and compile his narrative. It shows great craftsmanship: so I wonder: regardless of dates, over how long did he do so?

Here’s another thought—when scholars say, Luke seems not to reflect Paul’s theology, maybe all that reveals is that the scholars know less of Paul’s theology than they thought!

One annoying feature of much of this sort of scholarship is to create oppositions and separations where none need exist: so they argue, for example, that because certain terms or styles of speech occur infrequently or not at all in certain letters traditionally attributed to Paul, this calls into question whether he actually authored them—as opposed to alternate conclusions, such as, Paul may be capable of more stylistic variety and change than they can suppose (or perhaps that reflects the involvement of a secretary or helper). Likewise, maybe Luke and Acts are full of Pauline theology, only its theological reflection the scholars never conceived Paul was capable of. Or; perhaps this is how Paul’s influence “looks” when it is strained, as it were, through Luke.

Of course, all these scholars are very smart people, and I don’t want to claim to be smarter than they are; if I can think of these things, so can they; and they can, no doubt, show why my qualms are all wrong and their scholarship is most likely right.

I would be far more reluctant to raise the questions at all, if it weren’t for the fact that so often, this same school of thought tends to offer “explanations” that don’t seem very explanatory. The best example I can offer is the whole multiple-source theory, which is applied to so many books of the Bible: the first five books of the Bible “must” have multiple sources, because of the unevenness in the text we have; what we see are the “seams” where an editor or (“redactor”) stitched together multiple sources.

But then I wonder, why—in stitching various accounts together, didn’t the editor make it seamless? It can’t be because the redactor was unwilling to alter the accounts he knits together; on the contrary, this same scholarship will readily point out where it seems that did happen. In the end, it seems we “explain” a “sloppy” single author with recourse to a sloppy editor of multiple sources: an explanation that fails to explain the original problem, the seeming “sloppiness” or unevenness, or so-called “contradictions.”

In the end, I think I owe it to you to present these various schools of thought, with various pros and cons, at least as I see them, and be candid about my own views—but in the end, but not prevent you from reaching your own conclusions.

Because this prevailing view about Luke and Acts, having to do with the date of composition and how closely Luke was associated with Paul, stands in the way of a very interesting—but, perhaps totally wrong—reconstruction:

If Luke was a close companion, and if he did compose Acts in the 60s (that explains the silences about Paul’s death and the fate of Jerusalem), then we might wonder, was Luke composing Luke and Acts while he journeyed with Paul? If so, maybe it was while visiting Ephesus, he met Our Lady; although Scripture is silent about that, Tradition not only holds he did so, but that he painted an image of her.

Some would scoff at that, but so be it. Scholars don’t scoff, but they try to be rigorous, and constrained in what they can firmly say, and I respect that—they are right about that. Scripture scholars will say, they only have so much data to go on, and they can’t go much farther than that. Maybe the problem in some cases is too narrow a view.

In any case, we’ll look at Acts, and see what we can see from the text itself. We have that. And it will raise some very interesting questions.

For example: why is it called “The Acts of the Apostles”? The text itself does not give an account of what all the Apostles did, and it gives only a little on most of them. But it does give us quite a lot about some of them—two in particular: Peter…and Paul.

Why those two? What do they have in common? Many things, but I have one idea in particular. There is one community that would be likely to refer to these two as “the Apostles”—and that would be the Church of Rome—because of the role each Apostle clearly had in Rome. Does that mean that Acts—which curiously ends abruptly in Rome?—is particularly associated with that Church? It’s a interesting question, and I hope to investigate it more and see if it bears fruit, and share with you.


Mark Daniels said...

Best wishes on your study of Acts, a great book that affords we postmoderns "church lessons."

As to your general discussion about scholarship, I often think that it requires more faith to buy into the sometimes thinly-founded assertions of scholars than to accept the canon as is. (Although I do value much contemporary scholarship.)

You wrote, "One annoying feature of much of this sort of scholarship is to create oppositions and separations where none need exist..." Amen!

God bless you.

Pastor Mark Daniels

Anonymous said...

Father - Which Bible Study program are you using?

Fr Martin Fox said...


We read the Bible together.

As needed, I can look things up in various resources; although I do question some of the conclusions reached, the notes in the Catholic Study Bible are usually very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting this online since some of us do not have the option of attending in person.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting this online since some of us do not have the option of attending in person.