Tuesday 3 April 2012

The Speeches in Acts

"And so the speeches of Acts, which must date well before any of our Gospels, and almost certainly predate the writings of Paul himself..."  Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman is a scholar I admire.  I've read everything from The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture to Forged.  But now in the wake of Did Jesus Exist? I'm puzzled.

Take for example, Ehrman's insistence that the speeches in Acts reflect very early sources.

Ehrman concedes that these speeches were "placed on the lips of the apostles at key moments of the narrative."  He notes that "it was customary for historical writers to invent the speeches of their main characters," and that "historians came up with speeches that seemed appropriate for the occasion."

But then he continues:  "But the speeches in Acts are particularly notable because they are, in many instances, based not on Luke's fertile imagination but on oral traditions."  (p.109)

Really?  Evidence?

"The reason for thinking so is that portions of these speeches represent theological views that do not mesh well with the views of Luke himself, as these can be ascertained through a careful reading of his two-volume work."  He goes on to state that these speeches contain preliterary traditions.

All of this assumes that Luke-Acts in its present form is a literary unit.  We know, however, that Marcion used a much briefer form of Luke, and that Acts is attested later than Luke.

The usual explanation for the difference between Marcion's Luke and the expanded canonical version is that Marcion took a pair of scissors to it in order to make it servicable to his views.  Evidence?  None.  Just as likely, Luke was padded out later in an edition that made it more acceptable for emerging orthodoxy.

Even if preliterary traditions were used when crafting the speeches of Acts, it's quite a stretch from there to asserting that they form a reliable, independent source for the existence of an historical apocalyptic prophet named Jesus.  Here at least, Ehrman's line of reasoning seems tenuous.

From there Ehrman leaps all over the place.  On page 141 we hear that these speeches contain material that predate Paul's letters, on page 172 that the speeches preserve very primitive traditions that appear to date from the earliest years, on page 190 that they long predate the Gospels.  In none of these examples can I find supporting references.

If I had to choose, I'd still say the weight of the evidence supports the apocalyptic prophet reconstruction.  But that's what it is, a reconstruction, and one that's not universally accepted - witness the cynic sage of the Jesus Seminar or Richard Horsley's political reading.

Given what we know about the dating and accuracy issues with Acts, this is one line of argument that seems a tad underwhelming.  If we indeed hit solid ground in the speeches - the speeches that, if running true to form "were placed on the lips of the apostles", then that would be about the only place in Acts where we do!

"Acts is a beautiful house that readers may happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live."  Richard Pervo.

FWIW, some of the texts - none by mythicists! - that I think throw some real light on the nature of Acts are:

John Knox, Chapters in a Life of Paul, SCM, 1987 ed.
Mikeal Parsons & Richard Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts, Fortress, 1993.
Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle, University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
Richard Pervo, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling It's Story, Polebridge, 2008.

Pervo's The Mystery of Acts is a true mythbuster, and pulls no punches.


  1. It's almost like asking, "how did Gnostics appear?"

    Marcion was not a gnostic Xian but he was not an Orthodox Xian either. But, so many changes in the text of Luke and Acts shows that we can't depend on either one as being accurate in any modern sense of the word.

    That Ehrman thinks that Acts represents anything other than a 2nd or 3rd century revised version is also very telling as to his bias that Xianity is not a first century invention just like the gold plates of Mormonism.

    First you believe in the gold plates (Jesus) and then you believe everything that comes after - if your church says so.

    Ehrman is working under the delusion that these guys were honest and sincere and not religious con-men who had invented a new interpretation of Jewish scripture.

    And, how would he know? Lack of evidence for his presumption, maybe? That's why Ehrman should not presume to know before he reaches a conclusion based on it.

  2. It is problematic to try to make Marcion's version of Acts the original. The theology of Luke and Acts emphasizes that even Paul was obedient to the Jewish law, and so to posit that one of the most central themes of the work is a later interpolation makes little sense. It may not be strictly speaking impossible - few things are - but there is good reason why scholars and historians conclude that the reverse direction is the more likely scenario.

  3. Corky, I think that's not exactly fair to Ehrman, who is an excellent critical scholar with the flair to communicate to a wide general audience. He is anything but a stooge to churchly thinking.

    But maybe this HJ thing is his achilles heel. It's not that the mythicist position should be beyond criticism - any reconstruction should be tested to its limits - but that Ehrman takes a particularly wooden, humorless, polemic approach - ungenerous to those who see things differently. It's weird, but sometimes in this latest book he comes across like a crabby apologist, repeating himself and constantly overstating. This issue seems to hit a raw nerve with him. He seems to take it personally.

    Not a good way to convince the skeptics.

  4. Thank goodness we have the experts (Crossan,Casey,Ehrman,et al)who, with X-ray like vision, can peer through the clearly fictional bible texts and recover, they assure us, the "historical Jesus". Even though, by the time they're done, what we're left with (if you're lucky) is nothing more than a peripatetic seditionist with delusions divine mission (like many other wandering charlatans and apocalyptic doomsayers of that time).

  5. "But then he continues: 'But the speeches in Acts are particularly notable because they are, in many instances, based not on Luke's fertile imagination but on oral traditions.' (p.109) Really? Evidence?"

    Haven't read the book and don't know what speeches he means. BUT the speech put in Peter's mouth where he says something like "this man -- this prophet -- God has taken and MADE both Lord and Christ" and again where he speaks of the resurrection and quotes from Psalm 2 "Thou art my son, this day have I begotten thee" -- If the speech itself is not earlier than the gospels and Paul's epistles, in this case certainly the CHRISTOLOGY is because its plainly ADOPTIONIST. That is, Jesus is a mere man who good "took" at some point and "made" Lord and Christ and who was "begotten" as God's son at some point AFTER his birth (in this case, at the resurrection). This ties in well with the same theology in Mark where Jesus clearly becomes the son of God at the baptism by John, and the same theology is still present in the baptism story in Matthew and Luke despite being hidden by the new virgin birth legend. If that's his point, I agree with him.

  6. Also put in Peter's mouth is "whom you SLEW AND HUNG on a tree" -- which supports the Talmud's version of how Jesus died, as well as the description in Deuteronomy 13 as to how to kill a false prophet. In other words, the description of the 'crucifixion' which Peter is made to give supports the idea that Jesus was STONED and then hung on a tree after already being dead. How'd that kind of anachronistic view end up in Acts when it was clearly written in the 2nd century and everyone believed Jesus was crucified as in nailed to either a T or chi rho cross until he affixiatd?!!!? Clearly the author was using older theology in his speeches -- theology that had already been replaced by a newer orthodoxy.

  7. I think I kind of agree with you, Gavin. Ehrman also spends way too much time putting down irrelevant MJ arguments.

    Because there is never any evidence of a negative, the MJ folks are left with trying to disprove the positive in order to prove a negative. It can't be done and Ehrman knows this.

    There's no way to prove that God (or Jesus, or the pink unicorn) doesn't exist, it's as simple as that. The only thing the mythicist can do is show that any extra-biblical mentions of Jesus may be only hearsay and/or interpolation and insertions from the Xians themselves at a later date.

    That only, of course, shows the possibility and says nothing of the probability. Nothing short of getting Paul to confess that he invented Jesus and the resurrection out of Jewish scripture can prove the Jesus myth position.

    But, to me, it's pretty simple. If Paul wasn't lying about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead then he wasn't a liar. If Paul was lying about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead then he invented a myth.

    Because, and this is important, no one knows what the "ecclesias of God" believed before Paul came along - nor does anyone know that there were other apostles of Jesus before Paul. We only have Paul's word for that in his letters. As far as we know, Cephas, James and John may be just as much an invention of Paul as Jesus and his resurrection.

    Did any of the Galatians, Corinthians or Thessalonians check out Paul's story of Jesus? Probably not. Instead "they examined the scriptures daily to see if these things were so" (Acts 17:11).

    So, yeah, it could have all been done by a con-man (or 4, since Paul wasn't working alone - Acts 9:7). But even that story doesn't match the one in Galatians 1 - at all. Because, according to Paul in Galatians he wasn't known by face to any of the others except Cephas and James for at least 17 years.

    Ehrman completely ignores the possibility that Xianity could be the result of religious con-men and as far as I know, so do the mythicists. Now, if we could only disprove the existence of Joseph Smith's gold plates...which also ascended into heaven.

  8. "And so the speeches of Acts, which must date well before any of our Gospels, and almost certainly predate the writings of Paul himself..." Bart Ehrman

    While the speeches of Acts may predate Paul's letters, they certainly don't predate Paul. Paul had been preaching his gospel for at least 17 years before he wrote Galatians (Gal. 1:18 and 2:1).

    Is that important? It sure is, because, either Paul changed his own story or someone else did. Either way, it changed and someone lied - Paul or Luke, take your choice.

  9. Beo, from what I can gather from the literature I've seen this area of the historical sources to the speeches of Peter and Paul in Acts is highly contested territory - a bit of a quagmire. I'm intrigued enough to dig a bit deeper, but at this stage I'm not sure, despite Ehrman's assertions, that there is anything much of a consensus. Regardless, he appears to consistently oversimplify and overstate in the pursuit of an apologetic point.

    I feel a 'part 2' on this topic coming on ;-)

  10. "While the speeches of Acts may predate Paul's letters, they certainly don't predate Paul." (Corky)

    Uhhh...what???!!!? Did you forget that Paul wasn't one of the 12? Because Peter's speech at Pentecost would have to be a long time before Paul ever even "saw the light." Paul's conversion, by my reading, was 10 years after the crucifixion.

  11. Beowulf, that wouldn't work time-wise because the first letter of Paul, 1 Thessalonians, was written in about 49 AD. Subtract 17 years (Gal. 1) from that and you come to 32 AD. That is 2 years after Jesus is crucified if the crucifixion was in 30 AD.

    However, there is also a problem with that too - Jesus is crucified after John the Baptist is beheaded and that didn't happen until 36-37 AD.

    Also, if you count backward from the famine which occurred in 44 AD - then Paul was a Christian before Jesus was ever crucified - i.e., in 26-27 AD.

    This all shows that you can't pin down the dates in the NT at all. It's all a mess of contradiction. The only thing that makes sense is that it all started with Paul and not before.

  12. Gotta agree with Minimalist on this one. Most of the books are anonymous, many of the others are pseudographical, and all have had parts added, deleted and revised by countless editors prior to arriving in their present state. Under these circumstances, what can possibly be gained by "studying" which parts might have been written first, or by whom?
    This hash is 99% baloney and nobody can agree about the 1% that isn't.

  13. It is remarkable that all this very early tradition that the anomymous author of Luke knew about (and which does not seem to include the information that Jesus had a brother called James), all lacked historical context to the extent that the author was unable to put a date to any event in the life of Jesus.

    What are the odds, eh?

  14. 'But then he continues: "But the speeches in Acts are particularly notable because they are, in many instances, based not on Luke's fertile imagination but on oral traditions."

    So when Peter in Acts 3 says Jesus was 'the author of life', this backs up Ehrman's claim that the earliest Christians did not think of Jesus as a pre-existing being, but just as an ordinary man.