Luke the Historian? Or the Storyteller?

On The Forbidden Gospels Blog, April DeConick asks a very important question: Is Luke a trustworthy historian? Or, to put it differently, “Why is Acts written off today as a Lukan myth with little or no historical value? Why do scholars who wish to argue for the historicity of elements of Acts have to go through an inordinate amount of justification before doing so?” She presents a number of arguments for an increased appreciation of Luke as a historian, including the contention that Luke does not redact Mark (or Q, for that matter) as much as his Matthean counterpart, as well as Luke’s own admission that he relied upon earlier sources as the basis for his own gospel (Luke 1:1-3). I’m not a Q scholar, and therefore am not qualified to evaluate his use of this source (although Mark Goodacre, who is an expert in this field, has raised a number of interesting points in his own response). Furthermore, I’m certainly willing to grant that Luke probably had access to written and/or oral sources during the composition of Acts. I find it likely that there are at least some vestiges of authentic first-century Christianity in this work.

But it seems to me that a number of pericopes in Luke-Acts show signs of subtle yet unmistakable redaction. First among these is the Lukan account of Jesus’ return to Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), which has been dramatically expanded (to include Jesus’ participation in the local synagogue, his public self-identification as the fulfillment of prophecy, and the Nazarenes’ unsuccessful attempt on his life) and placed at the inception of his ministry. It cannot be a coincidence that the basic narrative elements of this meticulously crafted episode–Jesus’ status as an unabashed prophetic messiah, his initial confession of said status among his own countrymen, their ignorant and futile response, and his subsequent departure to carry his message elsewhere–represent a microcosm of Luke’s vision of the rise and spread of the Christian movement which is revealed in the following chapters. There may well be a kernel of history here, but it is difficult to crack.

Luke’s description of the “Jerusalem Conference” (Acts 15) is another provocative example, as most scholars assume that the events at the heart of this description are identical to those mentioned by Paul in Galatians (Gal. 2:1-10). If this is indeed the case, then the critically sensitive reader is faced with a number of perplexing problems. Paul declares that he attended the meeting only in response to a (presumably divine) revelation; Luke states that Paul and Barnabas were appointed to attend by the Antiochene church. Paul identifies himself as the one “entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (2:7); Luke includes a speech in which Peter identifies himself as “the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the good news and become believers” (Acts 15:7). Paul hints that the ultimate decision to allow Gentiles to “convert” to Christianity without adopting Jewish practices was a joint one; Luke grants the last word to James the brother of Jesus, who abruptly brings the debate to a close by intoning, “I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (15:19-20; italics added). One need not assume that one of these depictions is true and the other false; personally, I find it much more likely that both writers were adapting the historical framework to serve their larger apologetic needs. Given the fact that ancient historiography cannot and should not be measured according to the modern obsession with “objective history,” no negative stigma should accompany the conjecture that Luke, or Paul, or any other early Christian writer did not faithfully represent the actual historical record. It simply serves as a reminder to the reader not to blithely accept the text at face value.

It must be noted that the above examples are only a minute sampling of the traditions found in Luke-Acts, and certainly do not invalidate DeConick’s basic thesis that there is some authentic historical material to be had in these works. But even if she is correct and we are in danger of “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” it’s still time to take the baby out of the bath. We just have to be careful while doing it. 😉

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September 2007


© 2006-2009, Matthew Burgess. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use of the original content of this website is strictly prohibited. Quotations or citations should include a link to this website. The views and opinions given here are my own and do not represent those of the University of Virginia (or anyone else, for that matter).

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