Report on the Acts Seminar
From The Fourth R
At this meeting, the papers not only addressed specific texts but also provoked further discussion about the developing working hypotheses of the Acts Seminar.
In our Friday session, we examined details of the Stephen story in Acts 6–7 that had not yet been fully discussed at previous meetings. Perry Kea’s paper, “The Hellenists and the Hebrews,” argued for the basic historicity of two Christian groups, the “Hellenists” in Acts 6:1 and the “seven” in Acts 6:5. The arguments in the paper represented a longstanding consensus in scholarship. Many of the Fellows, however, felt that Kea’s arguments were tied too closely to theories about the reliability of Acts based on the traditional scholarly view that Acts was written around 80 ce. In contrast, since more and more of the Fellows are now convinced that Acts was written in the early second century to respond to issues in its own day, a majority concluded that both “Hellenists” and “the seven” are more likely to be narrative devices rather than historical references and voted black or gray on all of Kea’s proposals. The Associates were less skeptical, giving the proposals a few pink votes. The discussion of this paper was of significant benefit to the seminar because it provided an occasion to grapple with the implications of dating for the interpretation of Acts.
The paper by Shelly Matthews, “The Stoning of Stephen and the Ethics of Historiography,” placed the discussion of the Stephen text in the larger context of historical method. Matthews proposed that the story of Stephen’s martyrdom fails on several criteria to qualify as historical. In addition, she gave special attention to the themes of the story in which Jews as a group are stereo- typed as killers of Christians. Her paper thus argued not only that the story is not historical but also that the traditional reading of it as historical has been closely associated with an anti-Judaism agenda in the writing of Christian history. Both the Fellows and the Associates affirmed her arguments with strong votes in favor.
In our Saturday session, we looked at issues of characters and characterizations in Acts. The paper by William O. Walker, Jr., “Luke’s Portrayal of Aquila and Priscilla and the Letters of the Pauline Corpus,” presented a set of finely reasoned arguments that Luke’s stories about this couple developed out of a creative use of data from Paul’s letters and contained no independent historical information. In concurrence with Walker’s arguments, the Fellows voted for the historical reliability of data derived from Paul, namely that a couple whom Paul called Prisca and Aquila were historical figures associated with Paul’s mission in both Corinth and Ephesus and that Prisca, mentioned first by Paul, was the more prominent of the two. The Fellows rejected the data derived only from Acts, namely that the two were “tentmakers” by trade, had been banished from Rome, and had once corrected the faulty teachings of Apollos, a Christian missionary mentioned by both Acts and Paul. This paper was especially important in providing a detailed case for the use of a collection of Paul’s letters by the author of Acts.
The paper by Chris Shea, “What Isn’t in a Name? Naming and the Mission of Acts,” addressed the tendency in Acts research to assume that proper names tend always to refer to historical figures. Shea utilized examples from Greek and Roman literature to illustrate a common occurrence in narrative texts in which an author provides a name for a character whose symbolic meaning fits the story within which the character is placed. She argued like- wise for Acts, that “names of characters found only in Acts are often assigned from theological or symbolic reasons rather than being based on historical fact.” This proposal was strongly affirmed by both Fellows and Associates. Also affirmed were Shea’s recommendations that the following names should be read as symbolic rather than historical: Theophilus (“God lover”; Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1), Felix (“Happy”) and Portius Festus (“Porky”; Acts 3:24–26:32), Tabitha or Dorcas (“Gazelle”; Acts 9:36), and Aeneas (based on a character in Vergil’s Aeneid; Acts 9:33–34).