Report on the Acts Seminar

Dennis E. Smith, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 21-3
May-June 2008 (a report on the Spring Meeting 2008)

The Acts Seminar papers for March 2008 addressed a variety of issues related to the author’s use of stylistic and apologetic devices in his story of Christian origins. Rubén Dupertuis’s paper, "Parresia, Opposition and Philosophical Imagery in Acts," analyzed the use of the term Parresia ("free speech" or "bold speech") in Acts. Dupertuis proposed that the term was part of a larger apologetic theme in Acts to portray early Christian leaders as philosophers, modeled after the literary portrayal of Socrates and other philosophers in the Greco-Roman world. More specifically, according to Dupertuis, Acts utilized the term Parresia in stories of opposition and stories which evoke the claim of a divine commission, all of which served the larger apologetic purposes of Acts. Therefore, Dupertuis argued, Acts’ portrayal of early Christian leaders as “bold” speakers derives from Acts’ apologetic agenda and not from historical memories. Both Fellows and Associates concurred, and so voted black on the historical datum that early Christian leaders were bold speakers.

Gerd Lüdemann’s paper, “Historical Issues in Acts 28:11–31,” supported a long list of ballot items detailing characteristic literary and theological themes in Acts, many of which had been discussed in previous seminar papers. Fellows and Associates voted red on the entire list save for one. Item 10, “by its very nature objective history excludes theological presuppositions,” while it received a pink vote, nevertheless received quite a bit of discussion about how the terms of the statement were to be interpreted. The discussion revealed significant uneasiness in the seminar about how to assess this proposal, but the vote indicated a desire to affirm it in principle.

Lüdemann’s paper also proposed historical judgements about Acts 28:11–31. Based on supporting data from 1 Clement, Lüdemann was able to affirm as historical the data that “Paul was imprisoned in Rome” and that “Paul was executed by imperial authority in Rome.” Both Fellows and Associates voted pink on those items, indicating a willingness to affirm but acknowledging that the evidence was not unimpeachable. The details that “Paul engaged in unhindered preaching in Rome” and “met Jewish leaders in Rome” were both voted black since they represented clear aspects of the apologetic themes of Acts. Other details about Paul’s imprisonment were affirmed by Lüdemann’s paper but did not pass muster in the votes. Thus both Fellows and Associates voted gray on the itinerary of Paul’s trip to Rome, Paul being guarded by one soldier (instead of the normal two soldiers), and the idea that Paul “practiced his craft and underwrote the expense of his guard.”

Joseph Tyson’s paper, “Christian Self-Definition and Anti-Judaism in the Second Century: Marcion, Acts, and Justin,” attempted to tease out further the implications of reading Acts as an early second-century document. Tyson’s target in this instance was the function of anti-Judaism as a component of the developing self-identity of second century Christianity. He chose three examples of this process to compare and contrast: Marcion, the author of Acts, and Justin Martyr.

Tyson pointed out that both the author of Acts and Justin Martyr constructed Christian self-identity over against Marcionism on the one hand and Judaism on the other, a proposal which both Fellows and Associates affirmed. Whereas Marcion rejected Jewish scriptures, the author of Acts and Justin affirmed them, but did so by proposing Christianity as the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. Acts embedded this theme in its story. Justin distinguished his non-literal interpretation of scripture, which supported the promise-fulfillment theme, from the literal interpretation he proposed as characteristic of Judaism of his day.

In her response to Tyson’s paper, Amy-Jill Levine agreed that Acts played a pivotal role in the development of a Christian self-definition in which anti-Judaism was an essential component. She then proposed several areas in which we as scholars need to sharpen our analysis. Does the author of Acts, she asked, really engage the Judaism of its day or merely a caricature of it? And is the author’s use (and misuse) of the Torah always to be equated with “Jews,” “Judaism,” and “Jewish practices” of his day? Levine’s comments reminded the seminar always to take seriously the complex reality of first- and second-century Judaism as we develop our theses about Christian origins.

Tyson’s paper helped to broaden the case for the placement of Acts within debates about Christian self-identity in the second century ce. He argued that “despite the diversity to be seen among Marcion, the author of Acts, and Justin, one unifying factor was their anti-Judaism,” and “what unifies Marcion, the author of Acts, and Justin is their effort to construct Christian self-identity on the basis of anti-Judaism.” These items were affirmed by both Fellows and Associates, though the predominance of pink votes indicates a continuing debate about the definition
of anti-Judaism as an apologetic motif in a second-century context.

Explanation of voting

    • Black not true (0–.25*)
    • Grey probably not true (.2501–.5)
    • Pink probably true (.5001–.75)
    • Red true (.7501–1)

*Weighted average
Acts Spring 08 Ballot 1

Acts Spring 08 Ballot 2 part 1

Acts Spring 08 Ballot 2 part 2

Acts Spring 08 Ballot 7