Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Purpose of (Luke-)Acts?

The proposed purposes for Luke-Acts are manifold. To name but a few:

1. Replacing apocalyptic enthusiasm for the parousia with "salvation-history".
2. Legitimizing the identity of Christian Gentiles (a favourite these days).
3. Reconciling Pauline and Petrine Christianities.
4. An apology for the Apostle Paul.
5. To evangelize Jews of the Diaspora.
6. To extol the virtues of the Christian community as worthy of imitation.
7. An attempt at biography/historiography relating to Jesus and the history of the early Christian mission.

There are elements of all of these that I find plausible on some level or other. As Kasemann said, you do not write the history of the church if you're expecting the world to end tomorrow. The place of Gentiles in the church is certainly a key concern for Luke. There is no doubt that Luke does flatten out many of the controversies and divisions in the early church, although it is definitely not a white washed account. The fact that Paul gives his testimony twice under forensic conditions shows that Luke wants to exonerate Paul from certain charges. While some might argue that these Christians are a threat to the Roman system of justice and social order, Luke is keen to show that Roman justice ain't quite so just for those on the bottom rung of the ladder. The emphasis on "Jesus as the Messiah" in Acts could be indicative of an attempt at creating a missionsschrift like other Jewish Hellenistic apologetic-propaganda literature and this is enhanced by the inclusion of a life of Jesus. There is nothing to say that Luke is not simply wanting to convey information to interested parties (adherents and critics of Christianity) like Theophilus about Jesus and the apostolic mission. I'm no fan of the "Lucan community" hypothesis (see Dale C. Allison and Richard Bauckham) but we cannot discount the value of Luke-Acts as part of general Christian instruction either.

But one verse that I regard as key in locating Luke's purpose is Acts 28.21-22 "'They replied, 'We have not received any letters from Judea concerning you, and none of our people who have come from there has reported or said anything bad about you. But we want to hear what your views are, for we know that people everywhere are talking against this sect'" (TNIV). Does this reflect the Sitz im Leben of Luke and his readers and foster the occasion for Luke to write his two-volume work? Is Luke writing to correct misinformation about Jesus and "the Way", trying to refute several allegations about how followers of Jesus disrupt the peace and security of society, and to defend Paul in particular from various rumours and charges? I find that it is often at the end of a document that one finds a window into the concerns of the author since that is where he impart his main point to his audience. In this sense, I tend to think of Acts as having a number of purposes and uses (which are not the same thing) but perhaps the apologetic purpose stands out as the strongest candidate.


Ben said...

I share a lot of your sentiments, especially that the end of Acts is critical for understanding the purposes of Luke-Acts.

Can you mention who some of the proponents for #5 are? (To evangelize Jews of the Diaspora). Thanks

Michael F. Bird said...

I've experimented with the evangelism view in a short article in RTR last year and I think Rebecca Denova has put such a view forward as well and there is no doubt others but I cannot recall them off hand. Maybe Steve Walton would know!

Phil said...

I love the idea that Luke-Acts functions as a defense of Paul... I'm tempted to think it could even function as a pre-trial briefing or something similar. I'm attracted to the idea mainly because of the way the narrative trajectory of the final chapters of Acts - Paul MUST get to Rome and appear before Caesar - is then abruptly cut short. In other words, the trial is so central to the final movement of the book, and yet isn't actually IN the book... so perhaps the narrative has a function beyond itself, in the trial. John Mauck, a lawyer, wrote a book suggesting this a few years ago. I think it disappeared without trace...

Geoff Hudson said...

"I WAS compelled to appeal to Caesar" (28:19), sounds like the appeal had already been heard. Caesar's decision was, go to Jerusalem and sort things out with the priests. Thus 28:20 should be: For this reason, Caesar has asked me to see you and talk to you - the meeting was in Jerusalem, not Rome. And the man from Rome was James who was later executed by Ananus.

Anonymous said...

Good post Mike!

Let me share a few things here:

According to Knox, the purpose of Acts was to encounter marcionite (christianity) theology – How?

1)by emphasizing the relationship between Christianity & Judaism (i.e. continuity)
2)Luke places Paul among the apostles in Acts
3)Luke-Acts is an apologetic response to marcionism and attempts to retain both a Gospel and Paul from the marcionite
4)According to Knox, the marcionite Gospel serves as model for both Luke-Acts and the orthodox canon
5)The Marcion’s version of Luke is a proto-Luke, an abbreviated one

Brian said...

I think too Luke highlights the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer and the Church. He is also highlighting missions and evangelism (by the power of the Holy Spirit) as key to the purpose of the Church.

Geoff Hudson said...

The high priests of Jerusalem had received letters from Caesar about the visit (28:21) - Acts is a book of editorial reversals.

Geoff Hudson said...

The visitor to Jerusalem told his hearers that God's Spirit had been SENT to Israel (not the Gentiles) and that they would listen (i.e. Jews everywhere would LISTEN to the Spirit speaking to them -28:28). The Spirit was the hope of Israel (28:20).

Anonymous said...

Luke’s conception of the Spirit and of the Church, according to which the outpouring of the Spirit is no longer itself the start of the Eschaton, but the beginning of a longer epoch, the period of the Church. Moreover, Conzelmann maintains that the Spirit Himself is no longer the eschatological gift, but the substitute in the meantime for the possession of ultimate salvation; He makes it possible for believers to exit in the coming life of the world and in persecution, and He gives the power for missionary endeavour and for endurance.

Richard Fellows said...

Isn't Luke's purpose to encourage Theophilus and others to give to the poor, and particularly to those in the church? This would explain why Luke-Acts stresses the need for the rich to give their wealth to the poor. It is surely no coincidence that the gospel that puts the most emphasis on the need for wealth redistribution is the only gospel that is addressed to a wealthy man.

In the ancient world people encouraged future benefactions by honouring benefactors. Notice how Luke names, and thereby honours, many benefactors in Luke-Acts (Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Lydia, Jason, Titius Justus, Crispus and others). One way that benefactors were honoured was to give them titles such as Soter, Euergetes, and (importantly) Philotheos and probably Theophilus. Therefore it seems plausible that "Theophilus" in Luke-Acts was an epithet that Luke afforded the addressee to honour him and thereby encourage future benefactions.

I'm not saying that this was the only purpose of Luke-Acts, but let's not overlook the importance of benefaction for ancient associations, synagogues and congregations.