Thursday, November 06, 2014

The book of Acts: historically accurate or literary fiction?

I've just read the book 'Profit with Delight' by Richard I. Pervo. Not the greatest surname I've ever come across, but the guy certainly seems to know the book of Acts inside out and upside down. I think this book (written in the mid 80s) is basically a rehash of his PhD thesis (from Harvard, no less). Nothing wrong with that, of course. I've always meant to turn my PhD thesis into a book...

So what is his thesis? Well, his central thesis is that the book of Acts should be considered as a novel, not as a historical record. Yes, it may contain history, but it also contains fictional episodes and events which were written purely to entertain, and which have no basis in what actually happened.

The structure of the book is rather odd, at least I found it so. After a short introductory chapter, the author goes through the book of Acts in exhaustive detail, listing and discussing every story in the book which he thinks show signs of having been invented purely to entertain. In Chapter 2 he discusses all the scenes invented (according to his theory) to make the book an adventure story, in Chapter 3 he discusses the other entertaining features, such as the funny stories. Then, and only after he has discussed the above in detail for over half the book, does he address the question of what a novel actually is, in the context of the 1st and 2nd century setting. It would have made more sense to me to put this first and then ask "does Acts conform to this genre?" rather than start with the presumption that it does, and then answer the question towards the end of the book. Chapter 5 is a discussion of various novels from the period, including Acts, and then the book concludes.

My issue with the book is not the central thesis of the book. Pervo does a great job in Chapters 2 and 3 in convincing me, the reader, that many stories in Acts are inventions of the author (assumed throughout to be 'Luke'). No, my main issue with the book is the thing it assumes but never demonstrates, which is stated in these two quotes:
"Although clearly a theological book and a presentation of history, Acts also seeks to entertain." (p 86)
"My thesis is that the canonical Acts are best explained as an example of one type of historical novel. [...] I hope that it is now clear that relating Acts to ancient novels is hardly a means for writing the book off for being fiction, least of all, pure fiction." (p 122)
Pervo insists on several occasions that Acts is a book of history, containing historical details from pre-Lukan sources, and although it contains fiction, it isn't all fiction. But how does he know this? He gives no evidence. He presents no method for distinguishing the fact from the fiction.

I have to admit that the first of those quotes, which comes at the start of Chapter 4, caught me totally off guard. Having read all the discussion of the episodes which Pervo says are clearly fiction, I had assumed he was coming to the conclusion that this book is a work of pure fiction. But he denies this, with no justification.

Its similar to the assumptions I have noticed in the work of Bart Ehrman and others regarding the gospels. They view some of the gospel stories as clearly fiction (usually the miracles or other 'impossible' stories) but then assume the non miraculous stories contain kernels of history. Why?

If a work of writing clearly contains fiction and fabrication in numerous places, how can we assume that the other bits are in any way reliable? What if Luke simply made the whole thing up? How can we distinguish between a book that is 50% fiction and 50% fact, from one that is 75% fiction and only 25% fact, from one that is 100% fiction? Pervo doesn't give us this method. Neither, as far as I have seen or read, does Ehrman. They just both assume there is some truth in there.

But we know that Peter and Paul, etc., were real historical people, don't we? And so a story told about them, even if heavily embellished, must contain some truth, mustn't it? Well, no. And Pervo seems to know this. Regarding Jewish novels he notes that:
"Jewish novelists did not invent their characters. They elaborated figures and events from myth, legend, Scripture and history." (p 120)
The novels he's talking about here are pure fiction. But in a historical setting with historical characters as the main characters in them. Why can't Acts be one of these? No reason given.

So Pervo comes away from this study content to believe that Acts is an embellished history book, but I'm afraid that I come away from this study thinking that most, if not all, of Acts is not history.

What is a 1st or 2nd century historical novel? Well, its a story that generally contains themes of adventure, travel, sea voyages, companionship, persecution, apparent death (which the hero then recovers from), and so on, generally with religious or magical themes and overtones of love and sex. Hmm, apart from possibly the sex angle, Acts has all of that in bucket-loads. But if the sea voyages, travel, persecution, etc. were all just invented out of genre convention - apparently this was what 1st and 2nd century readers wanted in their books - then we know virtually nothing about what Paul or Peter, etc. actually did. Paul may throw us a few hints in his letters (but see the next post I am writing!) but they're not really enough to build a biography on.

Hmmm, yet another part of my once strong faith comes crumbling down. Which is either very sad, or about time too, depending on your viewpoint.

If anyone out there knows of any defence of the historicity of Acts, please point me in that direction. Even better, if anyone can offer a reliable means of detecting historical facts in stories containing fictional elements, I'd love to read about those! 

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