On the Voting Results for the Acts Seminar

Dennis E. Smith, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 22-2
March-April 2009

At the October 2008 meeting of the Acts Seminar, the papers addressed how Acts portrays Paul in a number of guises, including traveler, practicing Jew, and miracle worker. Our goal was to determine what might qualify as fact and what might likely be fiction.

The first set of papers, by Perry Kea and Chris Shea, analyzed the texts about “Saul,” the character who comes to be identified in Acts as “Paul.” In Perry Kea’s paper, he noted how Acts 8:1-3 and 9:26–31, which tell of Paul persecuting Christians in Jerusalem, on the one hand probably derive from Paul’s own references to being a former persecutor of Christians (Gal 1:13), but on the other hand contradict Paul’s insistence that he was unknown to Christians in Jerusalem until well after his conversion (Gal 1:22). The story in Acts 13:1–3, in which Saul and Barnabas are appointed missionaries by the church in Antioch, coordinates with the fact that Paul was connected with the church in Antioch early in his career (Gal 1:21, 2:11). But the detail about the ceremony of laying on of hands seems anachronistic and most likely represents practices from Luke’s own time. Therefore, based on the arguments in Kea’s paper, both the Fellows and Associates voted consistently with his recommendations that the details of these stories are not historical. The one exception was his recommendation that the names of leaders in Antioch mentioned in Acts 13:1 should be given a benefit-of-the-doubt pink vote, based on the possibility that there was an Antioch source used by Luke that might have been historical and that mentioned names of leaders. Fellows and Associates maintained their scepticism, however, and only allowed a gray vote.

The famous text in Acts 13:6–12, in which “Saul” is first called “Paul,” was analyzed in Chris Shea’s latest study of names in Acts. She pointed out that the text has long been considered enigmatic by scholars, since the author is not at all clear why he chooses to present a name change at this point in his story. The enigmatic nature of the text is not an argument for historicity, however. After all, Paul’s letters never refer to his having a second name. The author of Luke-Acts, on the other hand, has a tendency toward providing appropriate names for characters to fit his story (see, for example, “Stephanos” [or “crowned”] as the name of the first Christian martyr in Acts 7). Fellows and Associates concurred with Shea’s recommendations that the name change story is not historical, and that the Paul of the letters was never historically known as Saul. Shea also pro- posed that Luke may have used as a source a story found in Galen about an individual named Sergius Paulus. Fellows were sceptical and only gave this proposal a gray vote; Associates, however, voted pink.

In Acts 16:1–5, Paul is said to have circumcised his co-worker, Timothy, born to a Jewish mother and a Greek father, in order to appease the Jews with whom they were to come in contact. Yet in Galatians 2:3 Paul strenuously resisted having the Greek Titus circumcised when he accompanied him to Jerusalem. In an extensively argued paper, Nina Livesey analyzed the Paul of the letters and the Paul of Acts using a systems development approach as her model. There are three phases to the model, a definition phase, a development phase, and an installation phase. Livesey argued that the Paul of the letters exhibits the first phase, in which his insistence that circumcision was not to be required of either Jews or Gentiles “in Christ” was still a new and difficult idea. Acts, however, represents the third phase, in which the ideas of Paul are adapted to a new situation. Livesey argued that Acts contradicts Paul to such an extent that it loses credibility as history. Fellows and Associates were persuaded by Livesey’s arguments and voted that Acts 16:1–5 does not represent the historical Paul but rather represents an attempt by Acts to picture Paul as more compatible with Jewish practices than he was in his letters.

Dennis MacDonald analyzed three stories of prison breaks in Acts and found parallels in Greek literature. His study reminded us that “sources” for Acts must also include literary prototypes of Luke’s day. With his highly developed method for identifying mimesis (literary imitation) in early Christian literature, MacDonald demonstrated how Acts 5:17–33 and 16:13–40 used prison break stories from Euripides’ Bacchae and how Acts 12:1–17 emulated Priam’s escape from Achilles in the last book of the Iliad. Both Fellows and Associates found his arguments convincing and concurred with his recommendations that these stories represent mimesis and therefore are not historical.

Explanation of colors used in voting

  • R true
  • P probably true
  • G probably not true
  • B not true

*Weighted average

Acts Fall 08 Ballot 3
Acts Fall 08 Ballot 4
Acts Fall 08 Ballot 9
Acts Fall 08 Ballot 10