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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Genre.

1.

The literary genre of Luke's gospel, like its language, is effectively determined by its subject-matter and sources: it is a ‘gospel’, modelled closely on Mark's (LK A). Acts is a very different proposition, and even though it forms a narrative continuation to the gospel, it is widely accepted that we may need to look further afield for literary models for Acts. Most scholars believe that the title (The Acts of the Apostles) which is first attested in the Anti-Marcionite Prologue in the second century is not original. It is a rather misleading description of the book's content given that there are no ‘acts’ recounted for many of the twelve Apostles and Paul (to whom well over half the book is dedicated) does not rank as an apostle in Luke's eyes. Of the three principal forms of prose narrative in the literature of the Graeco-Roman world (history, biography, novel), Acts is possibly unique in having been ascribed to all three (Powell 1991: 9). Further on the question of genre, cf. esp. Powell (ibid. ch. 1); Winter and Clarke (1993 ).

2. Greek History.

Acts is commonly described as a history of the early church, and in a very broad sense that is what it is. But it is important to appreciate that Acts does not sit easily within the confines of the literary genre of ‘history’ as it was understood by Greek and Roman readers in the ancient world. In his formal prefaces and dedications, Luke echoes the language and conventions found in other secular prefaces of the time, prefaces to scientific or technical manuals or to academic treatises on ethnography or geography. Historians (who tend to avoid dedication) use this style sometimes in their more academic or antiquarian sections, but it is a far cry from the high-flown rhetoric that was expected of historical writers. Acts does not match the pretensions of contemporary historiography either in style or in subject-matter: history tended to concern itself with great men and public events, and was expected to express itself in language far removed from the everyday Greek of the streets. Within the broad realm of Greek historiography, Acts could perhaps most convincingly be classified as an antiquarian monograph dealing with institutional history; but this label does not seem to capture the real flavour of the book.

3. Biblical History.

It is far easier and more convincing to range Acts alongside other Greek narratives from Jewish writers seeking to place events of their own day within the broader framework of biblical history. Luke has an extensive knowledge of the Greek Bible (that is the Gk. translations of the HB used by diaspora Jews, principally but not exclusively the Septuagint or LXX) and assumes considerable knowledge of these texts in his readers. Quotations from the Bible form an important subplot of Acts, in the series of speeches that cumulatively presents the major scriptural testimonies used in early Christian hermeneutic. Some of these testimonia seem to reflect a very archaic stage of Christian hermeneutic and may go back to an early Florilegium such as those found at Qumran, an anthology of key scriptural texts arranged to support the sect's hermeneutic (cf. Brooke 2000: i. 297–8; Steudel 2000: ii. 936–8). Luke also draws on the Greek Bible for a rich fund of allusion, narrative typology, vocabulary, and style, all of which give his story a strongly ‘biblical’ flavour (Fitzmyer 1998: 90–5; 1981: 107–27). It is not surprising, then, that Luke's work should resemble biblical historiography much more than Greek: this is evident especially in its biographical structure (concentration on a succession of single characters) and in its overtly theological framework (Greek historians typically distance themselves from religious interpretations of events).

4. Biography.

Greek and Roman biography (an increasingly popular genre in the late 1st cent.) in many ways provides a better parallel to the scope and scale of Luke's work, especially the biography of philosophers: Luke's description of the gospel in Acts 1:1 would most readily suggest a philosophical biography to ancient readers. Philosophical biography is so far the most convincing genre that has been suggested for Luke's two-volume work, following the pattern found in Diogenes Laertius of the life of the founder of a philosophical movement plus shorter biographical notes on his followers. Extant examples of this genre seem to lack the religious intensity of Luke's work, but late first-century philosophical literature shows that there was a real interest in presenting the lives of philosophers as templates for living the philosophical life, especially the life (and even more the death) of the martyr-philosopher Socrates. A number of details in Acts would recall this paradigm for Greek-educated readers: cf. esp. ACTS 17:16–21; 21:1–16; 25:1–12 .

5. Novel.

The late first century also sees the growth in popularity of a less pretentious narrative genre, the Greek novel, and it has been suggested that Acts is a form of novel. Certainly many readers unaccustomed to biblical narrative might take the book as a novel, with its exotic settings, adventurous plot, framework of travel, and explicit religious ideology. Luke shows some inclination to novelistic narrative techniques in the elaboration of his more dramatic scenes (cf. e.g. ACTS 12:6–11 ), and the novel throws valuable light on Luke's narrative structure and textures. But there are also many differences, not least the lack of a love-interest, the lack of emotion (pathos), and the political realism of Luke's narrative: the heroes and heroines of the novels tend to move in a fantasy landscape which is only superficially parallel to Luke's pragmatic locations.

6. Apologetic.

Acts has frequently been described as an apologetic work, presenting the ‘speech for the defence’ for Paul, or for the church, or for Christianity, before a hostile world. The wide variety of constructions that have been put on this reading demonstrates its weakness: it is not easy to press the wide-ranging narrative of Acts into the service of a single apologetic purpose. It would be more correct to say that Acts contains a high proportion of apologetic speeches (some explicitly so described, e.g. 26:2 ), and that these must be taken into account when assessing the book's overall purpose and audience. Acts often shows Paul defending himself before a Roman tribunal, and takes pains to show that Roman magistrates believed him to be innocent of any offence against Roman law (e.g. 18:15; 25:8; 26:31 ), and this has often been taken to be the book's underlying purpose. But it is also noticeable that many of the damaging charges brought against Paul are left unanswered (e.g. 16:20–1; 17:6–7 ), and that Paul rarely gets the chance to speak in his own defence in these scenes (cf. 18:14; 19:32 ). The dominant social location addressed by the apologetic speeches in Acts is the Jewish community, both in Jerusalem (chs. 2, 4, 5, 7, 22 ) and in the diaspora (chs. 13, 28 ). Even where Paul is speaking before a Roman tribunal, he is addressing a Jewish audience and Jewish charges (chs. 24, 26 ). Despite Luke's interest in the Gentile mission, it is the relationship of the Christian ‘sect’ ( 28:22 ) to its Jewish parent that dominates his presentation; and this must be taken into account when assessing his audience and purpose.

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