Lecture 3: Luke's Historiography in the book of Acts
Lecture 3: Luke's Historiography in the book of Acts
a. Luke’s Resources
In the first two sessions, I was addressing a lot of material from antiquity that was outside that of the Bible. My PhD students from my doctoral level course, I often give them assignments to study a particular ancient historian. So, through their research, they bring their insights on these ancient historians. So Luke 1:1-4 tells us much about the resources available to Luke. There were written sources and oral sources with Luke confirming this with his own investigation with material that was already widely known by the early church. Luke probably wrote somewhere between the years AD 62 and AD 90 and perhaps more specifically in the early 70’s, though there are a number of people who take a later date. By the time that Luke writes, many people have already written. Luke chapter 1 verses 1 shows us that others had already written an account of these things; Luke used Marks and used some of the things from Matthew. He says that ‘many’ have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us. So, the events in which he refers to, happened some four and a half decades prior to his writing. For today, some of us can easily remember events that happened four and a half decades ago. Or least we know some people who were around at that time and others who have talked about such events. That would have been the case for Jesus’ disciples or even Luke, himself with the things that he experienced. In such cases, four and half decades aren’t that long. So we would expect everything to be shrouded in amnesia which is the approach some scholars have taken. Luke mentioned that he had oral sources which we see in Luke 1:2 saying, ‘just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.’
This term, ‘handed down’, in the Greek context, paradidomi – to surrender; it is talking about oral tradition; normally it was a technical term for a very careful oral tradition where students would receive information from their teachers and then would pass it on. How accurate could this be? Well, I had a neighbor who was ninety four years old; she was around before American dependence on radio, TV and even telephone. So, when she was growing up, even in the US culture, people would sit on their front porch and pass on stories from their parents and from their grandparents, etc. This neighbor, Anna, was able to account stories of her family going back to the 18th century. Some of this information was even a matter of public record which I checked and sure enough Anna had the stories correct. This was information that was passed on for a couple of hundred years, of which she still remembered in her old age. Her memory was very sharp. That is even more true in many other societies; many traditional societies. My wife, who is from Africa, has a PhD in history from France, the University of Paris - Seven. My wife says that a lot of oral history has been lost now with the younger generation. But it was passed on for generations. So, she has been very careful with family history interviewing people and writing that information down.
How accurate was oral tradition? Things we need to consider are memorization in antiquity. I will spend the most time on that. In the Gospels we have evidence for Aramaic rhyme also and prominence of eyewitnesses along with notes and other information. In terms of memory in antiquity, you often had story tellers who would tell stories for hours on end. Some think that it was only the educated people who had these really strong memories. That isn’t true; you had traveling bards who were virtually illiterate and yet they could repeat the entire Iliad from heart. By ancient standards, these were like forty eight books. So, story tellers could repeat these stories for hours. One of the five basic tasks of oratory for professional public speakers or politicians or anybody who had been trained in oratory was memorization, memorizing the speech in preparation to give it. And then you could add other things in when giving it. These were speeches that could be a couple of hours in length. They didn’t even look at their notes, if they had any because they had it all memorized. Elementary education and its most basic feature was memorization; often memorizing the sayings of famous teachers.
b. Learning through Memorization
The disciples of their teachers and the way those teachers taught them were part an advanced educational institution. In regards to the tertiary form of education where you had disciples of their teachers; in Greek schools, this would be focusing on philosophy or more often rhetoric, or on speaking, on oratory. For Jewish people, you had the Torah. A person often begins this in their mid-teens; Jesus’ disciples were on average in their mid-teens when they followed Jesus. Peter, who was married, may have been a little older, but he may not even have been twenty yet when they started. The primary responsibility of the disciples of teachers was to remember what their teachers taught and remain part of that school of thought. They were to pass on what their teachers had taught them. If they were philosophical disciples, they would continue to propagate that. Many founders of philosophic schools, many sages, their teachings became communal for their communities. They left the matter of publication to their followers, but going back to the 5th century BC; they often would write what their teachers taught them. This was a primary responsibility that disciples had. If you didn’t agreed with your teacher, that was allowed, yet you still owed them the respect of accurately representing what they said. You could disagree with them respectfully but you did make up words and put them in their mouths. There is no reason to think that Jesus’ disciples would have done that either. The example that is most dramatic is the example given of the Pythagoreans. They were not allowed to get out of bed in the mornings without repeating back everything they heard the day before. So, I could test you tomorrow morning but I am not a morning person! The Pythagoreans weren’t the only ones who did this. We read in the 2nd century work of Lucien; they were talking about some philosophers and they were repeating back everything they had heard the day before. People would learn the deeds of their teachers as well as their teachings. Their teachings would be a little bit more precise; you didn’t have to get the exact wording. You would learn from the teachings, but you would also learn from their deeds.
So, for example, in the case of a later Rabbi, these Rabbis would learn the deeds of earlier Rabbis and sometimes used them as legal precedence. Well, this can’t be against the Torah because this Rabbi did this and they would cite that as an argument. There is one hyperbolic story, an extreme story; it’s said that one Rabbi was getting ready to spend some time alone with his wife when he found a disciple under his bed. Startled, he exclaimed, ‘what are you doing under my bed?’ The disciple replied, ‘it is said that we must learn everything from the example of our teachers.’ In any case, disciples of teachers had to learn from what their teachers did and taught and often these were gathered in lives and sayings and collections afterward. In terms of taking notes; in Jewish tradition, it was mainly oral so far as we can tell from the Rabbis. They mainly memorized, but sometimes they did take notes to help them remember larger blocks of materials. Rabbis often spoke in an easy form so that their students could memorize what they were saying more easily. One Rabbi said that his student was like a cistern, a water tank that never loses one drop of water. That is just one example; I found that in rabbinical literature and others have cited this. But this is an illustration of the broader principle of how seriously this was taken. Rabbinic literature is preserved over many generations. So over the course of many generations, some of the oral traditions would get mixed up. But we are not talking about that in the case of what we have with tradition of teaching during Jesus’ time. Note that Mark is writing within a generation after Jesus’ public ministry. I actually went back and paralleled different ancient biographies of common figures and the degree of overlap is substantial, which suggests that even when you got different writers writing about people just a generation before, we are not talking about them fabricating things, we are talking about them having a whole lot of material in front of them. For the most part the substance of it was accurate.
Rabbi’s disciples could take some notes, but they mainly worked orally. Some think that they were so interested in morality that the stuff wasn’t written down until the early 3rd century. Josephus wrote in the 1st century and talks about the practice of memorization as Jews orally memorized the Torah. So these memory skills were very widely valued in antiquity to a degree in which many westerners feel uncomfortable with. It was a culture where mnemonic skills were highly valued. Seneca the Elder was quite literate and he provides us with a stark and graphic example of how memory could go and people valuing memory. He said that when he was younger, he could hear two thousand names and then repeat them back in the extra sequence in which he heard them. He could be given two hundred lines of verse and he could repeat them back in reverse order. That is a remarkable memory. He says now that I am old, I don’t remember things as well, and my memory isn’t so good. But then he proceeds in his work, the Controversiae, which recounts sections of over a hundred decimations; practiced speeches in oratory school. From over a hundred speeches, practice speeches of his colleagues in oratory school. Now, I had homiletics and I remember from my second homiletics class, I remember the text and the general subject from my first sermon but I couldn’t give you anything verbatim and I have no recollection of what anyone in the room preached. So, Seneca had this remarkable memory. But Seneca wasn’t alone in that, there were others. So, memories could be quite accurate. I would say that ordinary people couldn’t do that, but because the culture valued memory so much. In many cultures, memory skills are inversely proportional to literacy. When you can look things up, you don’t have to remember them quiet as well. In some Quranic schools today, you have students who can repeat back even the entire Quran from memory in Arabic where sometimes they don’t even know Arabic.
So, memory can be disciplined; I like to remind my students of that. In any case, sometimes students took notes. This was more common in Hellenistic culture. Greek disciple’s notes could be quiet accurate. You will find this in both philosophical schools and in oratorical schools. Quintillion was a professor of rhetoric in Rome. His students were boys and they took such copious and careful notes on his lectures that they went out and published a book in his name. To which he responded they should have consulted me first because I could have corrected certain inconsistencies of grammar, etc. So, notes were sometimes taken. Among the disciples of Jesus, we have Matthew who followed Jesus; he certainly would have had the skills to take notes. I suggested that in case of the Book of Acts, Luke having a travel journal, he probably took some notes as well.
c. Aramaic Rhythm of the Gospels
In the Gospels, we often have Aramaic rhythm. Jesus was probably bi-lingual, given what we know of lower Galilee. He may have spoken some Greek in Jerusalem at least, but he probably spoke Aramaic, especially in the Galilean countryside. Aramaic was the mother tongue of Galilean farmers. Fairly early, because of the Hellenist and the Jerusalem church, you have a transition to Greek as the one shared language that everybody in Jerusalem understood, at least, somewhat. So their sayings were probably translated fairly early and in more than one way by different people. My wife, who is from the Congo, speaks five languages. She will get on the phone with one person and she will be speaking one language and then which to another language with someone else. When she translates, sometimes there are figures of speech that go over into other languages. Basically, she has these different tracks in her mind and she able to do this, even simultaneously. So, it is very likely that many of these things were translated into Greek very early. But, nevertheless, we often have Aramaic figures of speech. For example in Jesus’ speech, we often read about, ‘the Son of the Man’, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. That is a Semitism, it makes sense in Hebrew and Aramaic but it didn’t make sense in Greek. It is translated into Greek with that idiom. We have a number of cases where we can reconstruct the Aramaic rhythm. So, what this suggests to us is that a lot of things were carefully preserved. A lot of Jesus’ sayings reflect Judean and Galilean customs, Judean and Galilean figures of speech, sayings, ideas and even his form of story parables. These aren’t things that was followed by the later church nor used in Greek in the Diaspora of the Mediterranean world. Most Greeks outside of Judean Galilean in the Mediterranean world spoke Greek. So, we have a number of features to show that Luke accurately preserved information that was available to him, even though he often cleaned it up to better Greek.
Further, eyewitnesses remain prominent in the early church. We know from Galatians chapter 2 and 1st Corinthians 15 of which all scholars virtually agreed are authentically written by Paul. And of course, they agree with, because the details in those works would have made no sense other than being addressed to general and local congregations. Everybody agrees that these are authentic but they mention the leaders in the church up until the mid-first century; you have Peter where Paul calls him by his Aramaic name, Cephas. So, there was Peter, John and then James, the brother of Jesus; these were leaders in the Jerusalem church. They were known and respected even in the diaspora churches; churches elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. In Greece and in Asia Minor, these eyewitnesses remained prominent in the early church. They remained a major source for information about Jesus. People in antiquity, just like people today, if you study ancient historians at all, they understood just like we understand today; if you want to get the best information, you go to the eyewitnesses. That would deal with some of the material about Jesus. When you deal with some of the material in Acts, you should get even closer to the author’s own time so that the span of time between the events and the recording of the events by Luke is even less. And we could make some other arguments about things; clearly the early apostles were people of integrity; they weren’t just making these things up. They were prepared to die for the truth of their claims. People die for falsehoods, but they don’t ordinarily die for things that they know to be false and especially not a whole group of them. So, if they claimed to have seen things, chances are that is what they saw. Luke, like in the other Gospels, there were women in the resurrection despite the fact that the testimony of women were often looked down upon, both in Jewish law and in Roman law. Josephus said that the testimony of a woman should not be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their gender.
d. Luke’s Personal Knowledge
Luke also had thorough knowledge; we see in chapter 1:3 of Luke’s Gospel. Some translations say that I carefully investigated; you could also translate it as, ‘I have thorough knowledge.’ So, when could Luke have acquired this knowledge and when could he have investigated it. The best Hellenistic historians actually did like to investigate things. They like to go to the scenes where things took place. I don’t think Luke went into many parts of Galilee. That probably would not have been safe in the 60’s of the 1st century, especially with him being a gentile; perhaps even he were a Greek speaking diaspora Jew. Luke does appear to have gone to many of the other places and to have gathered information from the people who were there. So, how do we know that? Okay, how about Luke? When could he have checked out these sources? Well, remember the ‘we’ narratives. There is a lot of the ‘we’ in chapters 16 to 28. Part of the ‘we’ narratives; we have already talked about the evidence for the ‘we’ narratives going back to an eyewitness. But, the ‘we’ narrative includes up to two years spent with Paul in Judea; chapter 24:27 which says that Paul was kept in custody in Caesarea for up to two years. When the ‘we’ had already been with him and when Paul leaves in Acts 27:1-2 to go to Rome, the ‘we’ is still with him. So, that suggests that Luke had a great deal of time in Judea; probably most of it was spent at Caesarea on the Judean coast. There was a large Jewish Christian population there. He met with Minasyan, an old disciple that went back to early times. He was hosted by Philip the evangelist who had been a believer since early times in the church. He met James, the brother of the Lord. And, as for the stories about Paul, he was there for up to two years and he had been with Paul quiet a lot. People in prison were allowed visitors; in this case in Acts 24, even Felix, the corrupt governor gave orders that people could visit him as much as they wanted. So, Luke had plenty of time with Paul to hear these stories. So, that is how he would have known Paul’s stories fairly well. Then for the last quarter of the Book of Acts, he was actually there for most of the things.
Finally, Luke appeals to what was already common knowledge in the church as shown in verse 4, ‘that you may know the certainty of those things, wherein you have been instructed.’ You remember that in the previous session of this, I was lecturing on paleobotany; no, actually you wouldn’t remember that because that is not what I was doing. Normally you don’t make up things that contradict what your hearers already know and appeal to the knowledge of it. So two thousand years later, we can’t go back and interview Luke; we certainly can’t interview the people Luke interviewed. We can only be grateful that Luke interviewed them, getting this material from eyewitnesses. What we can also be grateful for is that Luke appealed to Theophilus’ knowledge of this. Luke sees his job as confirming something that was already known. This was information that was known before Luke wrote. It was the same as Paul citing the knowledge of the miracles that were done through him in 2nd Corinthians 12:12. He said that you saw these signs of an apostle when I was among you. Chances are that means they had actually seen them. Luke loves to parallel his Gospel and Acts. Well, a big issue in Acts 15 somewhere around the year AD 50, a big divisive issue was whether or not gentiles had to be circumcised. And yet, we don’t find Luke reading that back into the Gospel where Jesus had any sayings on whether they had to be circumcised or not. You would have thought that if people were randomly making things up about what Jesus said, you would have people saying that Jesus said to be circumcised or either saying that gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised. But you don’t have any of that and certainly not in Luke. Paul, the earliest New Testament writer confirms things in the Gospel: the resurrection and its witnesses, the Lord’s super being passed on in Luke 22 which is also in Mark and Corinthians. There are also the divorce sayings in 1st Corinthians 7 where Paul specifically distinguishes what he says and what Jesus said; not disagreeing but qualifying them for different situations. He doesn’t invent something for Jesus. There are also Paul’s end time’s teachings which echo those of Jesus’ end time’s teachings. If writers were freely inventing stories, we wouldn’t have synoptic Gospels and we wouldn’t have the degree of overlap that we have.
e. Act’s External Historiography
You have the family of Sergius Paulus which was known; Luke would not have had the audacity to make up such a name. Iconium was ethically Phrygians unlike most towns; Lystra preserved its local language (chapter 14:11). Zeus and Hermes were paired in local inscriptions; the people thought that Barnabas and Paul were Zeus and Hermes in that same area. From the south you would come to Derbe before arriving in Lystra; anything about the interior of Asia Minor. The only way that you would know much about that; you would have had to be there. Luke probably didn’t go there himself but he knew sources that did. Thessaloniki was a free city. It was also known as Thessalonica or Salonica and therefore the populous was called the demos and their officials were politarches. He gets that correct in chapter 17. In chapter 18:2 in speaking of Claudius and the expulsion of Jews from Rome; it fits the known time. The majority of scholars think that the date of this was around AD 49. In chapter 19:35 the title for the chief officer locally was the grammateus. In the village, this would be a village scribe that executes documents. But in Ephesus, it is the city clerk who was the chief officer. Now Artemis was a Greek goddess or in Greek thea and so normally you would speak of her as the goddess. If it was Apollos, you would refer to him and the god. But sometimes, in regards to the local inscriptions from Ephesus it also speaks of the Ephesian Artemis as the god and this is found in Acts 19 which sounds like it was from someone who was there. In chapter 19:38, the custom of the governor holding courts in various districts in Roman Asia. In chapter 20:4 the form of Berea’s name fits local inscription and in chapter 21:35-40 archeology confirms Luke’s topography of the temple with the soldiers pulling Paul out of the crowd in the outer count.
Claudius Lysias in Acts 23:26 is a Greek who acquired Roman citizenship and he had taken the name of the previous Roman Emperor under whom he had received citizenship. This fits citizenship acquisition and also the fact the Claudius was selling Roman citizenship during his reign. Citizenship was also cheaper toward the end of his reign which may be why this Claudius Lysias said to Paul that he had paid a lot for his citizenship. We see that he talked about Ananias the high priest who was indeed the correct high priest at the time. He mentioned Felix in Acts 24:27 and his tenure fit the date of the narrative. Felix also had three different wives over the course of time, but the wife that he had at this time was Drusilla, a Jewish princess, the sister of Agrippa II. This is not something the novelists would go back and research. Antipatris in Acts 23:31 is the correct stop between Jerusalem and Caesarea. Archeologists have now uncovered the road there. It was the place among the gentiles to relieve the infantry while the others went onto Caesarea. When Paul gets before the governor of Judea, Felix asks what province was he from. He was from Cilica. Felix then decided to try the case himself instead of passing it on to his superior. The province of Syria at this time had been joined with Cilica, so he didn’t send Paul back to his own area to be tried. Also in regards to the arrival of Porcius Festus in 24:27; he came at the time that Acts depicts. He probably wasn’t in office very long, but he acts in character in the way he appears in Acts and in Josephus. I have argued that Agrippa I acted the same way in Acts as he did in Josephus. They pretty well act in conjunction as they do in Josephus. Bernice was with Agrippa II, her brother at precisely this time. Now Bernice was married at some point but her marriage broke up and she went back to stay with her brother. And it was at this time that she was with her brother. A novelist would not get this down to such preciseness, especially in terms of the year. Also Agrippa and Bernice were known to visit new officials; so it is not surprising that they came to visit Festus so soon. Soon after, he assumed his duties to his office. In Acts 27:1-28:15, Paul’s voyage to Rome with the itinerary, the weather conditions, the actions of the sailors are often correct down to minute details including where the ship was being blown, how many days it took to get there, etc. This was studied by a mariner who experienced some of these storms.
f. Paul’s Letters Collaborate Acts
Adolf von Harnack who was a liberal German Lutheran theologian in the early 20th century said that Paul’s letters collaborate Acts; giving thirty nine examples of that. Here are some of them. Jerusalem is the starting place for the Gospel; Paul collaborates that. The persecution of the Judean churches by other Judeans in 1 Thessalonians 2; the Judean churches kept the Law as we see in Galatians 2:12. Paul wondered how the Jerusalem church would accept him when he was returning to Jerusalem. He talks about that in Romans 15:31. The twelve led the Jerusalem church as shown in Galatians 1 and 1 Corinthians 15. Barnabas was one of the apostles but not one of the twelve (1 Corinthians 9). Among the twelve, Peter and John were special leaders as seen in Galatians 2:9 with Peter being the main leader as also seen in Acts. Peter made journey’s which you see in Galatians and in Acts. The Lord’s brother James is prominent in the early church. You see that in 1 Corinthians 9. James heads the group and is an important leader as shown in 1 Corinthians 15. Barnabas was Paul’s chief co-worker in his earlier mission. You see that in Galatians 2 and 1 Corinthians 9. He was known in those communities and they apparently talked about him. Mark was also closely connected with Barnabas. We find out in Pauline correspondence that Mark was a relative of Barnabas. We see that Silas was Paul’s companion. And Timothy was also his companion in the later mission around the Aegean realm. And there, Timothy is the subordinate with Paul being the main leader of the group. You have many members in the Jerusalem church in an early period where over five hundred who had seen Jesus alive. Baptism was used as initiation and signs and wonders being associated with the apostles. You have Paul admitting that he had persecuted Christians. In Galatians 2, Paul was on par with Peter and of course Paul being converted near Damascus by a revelation of the Lord in Galatians 1 and 1 Corinthians 15. Paul escapes from Damascus using a basket down the side of a wall in 2nd Corinthians 11:32. In Galatians 1, Paul went to Jerusalem afterwards and ministered in there (Romans 15). The cities in Paul’s ministry in Acts 13 and 14 fit with what we have in 2nd Timothy 3:11 and also Paul ministering in South Galatia with Galatians fitting in with Acts very well. We see that Acts 13:38-39 fits Paul’s teachings about justification by faith.
Hamark pointed out these kinds of things, but it is not just him. Thomas Campbell in a JBL article noted that the chronology of Paul that we get from his letters fits the chronology and sequence that we have in the Book of Acts. Now, some of these things are just common sense; if you are traveling, you don’t jump to Rome and then come back to a city in between them. Normally, you go in sequence. But the correspondence is really remarkable; persecution (Galatians 1), conversion (Galatians 1). Paul goes to Arabia; that part is not in Acts although the Nabateans were in an area around there and we do know that he had some conflict with Nabateans. He goes to Damascus and Jerusalem, to Syria and Cilica next and then returns to Jerusalem and then fourteen years later, he goes to Antioch and he goes to Philippi and to Thessalonica; he goes to Athens as mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 3. He goes to Corinth and to Ephesus and to Troas and to Macedonia and comes back to Corinth and go back to Jerusalem and then to Rome. Now, we can’t expect everything that happens in one source to be tested in another. Paul’s letters were occasional letters as he wasn’t giving a biography of his life. But the correspondences are all the more remarkable for that reason.
The objections that has been raised relates to Luke’s non-Pauline theology. Everybody agrees that Luke wrote up the speeches in his own words. Luke has some Pauline phrases but for the most part Luke’s writings are in his own words. Some of those speeches are actually closer to Paul’s own words, like in Acts 20. But student’s emphasis and vary from their teacher’s emphasis. I hope that my teachers even though we disagreed on some points, still realize how much I respect them. I’ve dedicated books to them, etc. But we don’t always agree on every point. I studied with V.P. Sanders; I dedicated my Historical Jesus of the Gospels to Sanders and Charlesworth. I dedicated my John’s commentary to D. M. Smith who was my doctorial mentor. Moreover the natural theology in Acts 17 that people have tried to contrast with the natural theology in Romans 1, but how did natural theology look in general among each of the philosophers? Actually Acts 17 and Romans 1 sound very similar and of course they do fit into the broader framework of what was available at that time. Acts 9:20 speaks of Jesus as God’s Son and 13:38-39 that speaks of justification. Acts 20 includes wording that is very close to Paul’s own wording. Why in Acts 20? Well, ‘we’ was there. Luke was there when the speech was given. The major problem that F. Hower pinpoints is that Paul keeps the law. That reflects on Hower’s theological miss-reading of the epistles as is often noted. E.P. Sanders and others have brought that out; but it hasn’t been just E.P. Sanders. Most scholars agree that Paul wasn’t against the Law in the way the Field Hower would have thought. Also in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul says that he became all things to all people. He was a Greek to the Greek and a Jew to the Jews. Being a Jew to the Jew was easy for him as it was his own culture, so it shouldn’t be surprising if Paul would accommodate his culture like circumcising Timothy in Acts 16 or like shaving his head because of a vow in Acts 18:18, etc. In fact, Paul in his own writings sometimes commented on things in ways that Luke doesn’t describe. Paul talks about a number of times of being beaten with thirty-nine lashes. If he had chosen to withdraw from the synagogue, he could have said that he was a Roman citizen and didn’t have to submit to that and they couldn’t have beaten him. But he didn’t do that; he identified with his people and so I think Luke’s depiction of this fits.
h. Observations on Lukean Historiography
So, now I’m speaking on where the majority of scholars in regards to Luke & Acts stand. The challenges to Luke’s accuracy come up amongst scholars where we would most expect them. A speech behind closed doors in Acts 5:36-37 is one of the major places where people raise questions. You also have a speech behind closed doors in Acts 25:13. But he is most accurate where we would expect for an ancient historian. It is Accurate and detailed in the ‘we’ narratives and it fits the chorological sequence wherever it is available in Paul’s letters. It preserves the substance of Mark and the shared material with Matthew in the Gospel; so it fits. Where the questions have been raised the most have been the speeches. About a quarter of the book’s content; scholars differ on the precise percentage of the speeches because it depends on whether you include the narrative context and whether you include other conversations, etc. But it is somewhere around a quarter of the book’s content. Many of the speeches are apologetic speeches; they are defending the faith, answering Jewish charges in Acts 7, Paul’s defense speeches in Acts 22 before crowds and in Acts 24-26 before governors. Others are evangelistic like the synagogue sermon in Acts 13 where Paul appeals to Scripture or Paul appeals to nature when he is speaking to farmers in Acts 14:15-17 or Paul appeals to Greek poets and similar motifs that were shared between Old Testament theology and Greek Philosophers in his speech in Acts 17:22-31. Those are evangelistic speeches.
Well, historians often used speeches as we mentioned before. They sometimes used them to summarize speech events. A speech was known to be given on occasion; a historian would compose a speech that would come as close as possible to what they thought would have been delivered on that occasion. To communicate different points of view, sometimes they would write a speech in character of what would a person have said given and what you know about that person and situation. That way, you have contrasting speeches and it was a way that historians tried to fill things out, fresh out the narratives as historically accurately as they could, but they had more freedom in the speeches where they often worked from inference. It was to provide a perspective on events. Well, how accurate were the speeches? They depended on who wrote them and how much information that had. Josephus on the speech at Masada is often cited as a case in point as a made up speech. Josephus reports a speech where the leader of the group says that they could allow the Romans to conquer them instead of being humiliated. Let us just slay ourselves and so they kill themselves and the Romans find them all dead. Well, what is Josephus’s source for this speech? There were a couple of women that did survive that went into hiding. Josephus doesn’t tell us whether they were the source for the speech. I suspect that they weren’t because it was a speech where a radical nationalist is talking about the immortality of the soul in language like that of Plato. These women, given what we know of the level of women’s education; usually in those kinds of circles, we probably would not have been able to reproduce that speech even if he had been able to give it. So Josephus was probably showing off his rhetorical skills in proposing that speech and probably all of his audiences knew that was what he was doing. Normally when historians had access to the substance of the speech, they would use it. It was considered best to make as much like the person in character as possible. Thucydides says that he usually followed the basic thrust when it was available. But later, historians would simple rewrite earlier speeches of other historians. Once it was in history, it became a source to use. So they just put the substance in a new way.
Debailius an early 20th century Acts scholar argues that historians rhetorically composed speeches. That is true depending on how you define the word composed. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t use sources if they were available. Even Livy, who wasn’t the most careful of ancient historians, follows the basic substance of Polybius’ speeches. So, the truth is somewhere between those who say that speeches were preserved very accurately and speeches were just made up. Sometimes notes were taken; the ideal was to get the gist correct when that was available and also trying to use what you knew of the speech maker’s style and techniques. You would work toward getting it as close as possible. Keep in mind that ancient historiography is not the same as modern historiography. So, if we are judging it by the standards of its own genre and not by some standards that are artificially imposed on it, then authenticity means something different the way a modern historian might do it.
So, what is the case in the Book of Acts? Well, probably Luke was still the same historian when he wrote the Gospel of Luke. If you compare Jesus’ sayings in Luke with that of the other Gospels, they are the same, especially when he is using the same sources. But for so much of it, Luke has authentic sources and he may have cleaned up Mark’s grammar, but they are the same sayings. Also, in regards to the speeches in Acts, Luke should have had access to at least the substance of many of these speeches. Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost would have been a big deal. People would have remembered the kinds of things that he had talked about, perhaps not the details. This was the same for other occasions. Some of these, we can argue whether it was the kind of thing that they spoke within the genre of ancient historiography. If you don’t know everything that he said, but you know what he spoke about. You could use that kind of material in a speech. But the speeches themselves were considered historical events worthy of memory and there would be reasons to think that much of this would have been preserved. Rhetorical historians like to elaborate just like Josephus does but many of these elite historians elaborated but look at the speeches in Acts; are they elaborated, are they lengthy? What we have in Acts are speech summaries. These are speeches that have been shortened. Even Acts 2, you might think that the speech was long, but it doesn’t take very long to read the entire speech. In Acts 2:40, Luke says and with many other words, Peter exhorted them.
So in the speech summary, Luke is not out to show off his rhetoric, Luke is out to give you what he has. He does edit to bring out consistent themes but as C.H. Dodd pointed out, there were probably some consistent themes; things that the apostles often preached about. The kind of apostolic message that we have elsewhere in the New Testament; we have good reason to believe that was at the heart of apostolic preaching, especially where we have consistency throughout much of early Christianity. So, we will talk more about this afterwards. Just to say, there was a range of reliability in speeches. In comparing this with Luke, we have reason to respect Luke’s speech writing more than we have reason to respect that of many of the other ancient historians.