Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Urban Legends: Acts 10:1--11:18 and the Strategies of Greco-Roman Foundation Narratives

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Urban Legends: Acts 10:1--11:18 and the Strategies of Greco-Roman Foundation Narratives

Article excerpt

The application of comparative texts culled from the traditions of ancient historical writing has been the basis for a number of important interpretations of Acts in recent years. Although their methods and results have varied, it is possible to identify a number of observations emerging from these studies that represent general points of agreement as to Acts' cultural and literary profile. Several of these observations can be summarized by way of introduction to a pivotal episode in Acts, the founding of Christianity's first Gentile church.

First, while it is clear that Acts represents a continuation of the biblical story,1 it is also true that its manner of literary self-presentation is not strictly biblical in nature. Like the OT narratives that inspire him, Luke conveys his Btdvota ("theme") through Itf)ooS ("plot"),2 but this is a mythos whose full meaning is grasped only in the light of expectations intrinsic to his readers' hellenized milieu. Acts not only situates nascent Christianity in relation to events of Greco-Roman history (e.g., 18:2), but the particulars of its narrative style, logic, and form situate the text itself in relation to conventions of Greco-Roman historical writing.3 In this manner, Acts brings to bear on Christian traditions an outsider's perspective, emplotting the Christian story according to the criteria of pagan storytelling.4

Second, it is within this context that Luke's status as an apologetic historian needs to be assessed. Especially in its rhetorical dimensions, Luke-Acts is analogous to the works of other "native" historians (Hecataeus, Manetho, Berossus, Josephus) in which a member of a national or ethnic subgroup hellenizes the group's traditions in hopes of promoting its standing vis-a-vis the host culture.5 Insofar as Luke's project is comparable to such attempts at communal selfdefinition, it would have been natural for him to conceptualize Christianity in terms of a political or ethnic group, establishing for his readers a "national consciousness," an awareness of their movement's rightful place as a distinct entity within the Roman empire.6

Third, even as Luke-Acts advances a historical interpretation of Christianity's raisons d'etre, the issue of distinctiveness posed a historical problem. In making his case for Christianity, it was incumbent upon Luke to account for profound changes that had occurred in the movement since its inception, above all its expansion among the Gentiles.7 The second volume of Luke's work in particular recounts Christianity's transformation from a small band of Galileans following Jesus to a vast, multicultural network of urban churches. In explaining the events that propelled this transformation, Luke engages in a specific kind of storytelling, one that may be termed a history of origins or, more accurately, a history of institutional origins. In the manner of Greco-Roman institutional histories, Luke chronicles the processes accompanying Christianity's emergence as a social, political, and religious entity, attending to issues such as the movement's relationship with other institutions, its patterns of growth, its internal structures, norms, and developments, and the roles assumed by pivotal figures.8 In all this, describing the impetus for the creation of communities that included Gentiles as well as Jews occupies a great deal of the narrator's attention. Luke's aim is to demonstrate how the church's Gentile mission is both a legitimate continuation of Israel, and hence rooted in ancient traditions, and the basis of the church's institutional identity and purpose.9

Fourth, the true nature of this identity and purpose is manifest in the manner in which Luke, like other Hellenistic storytellers, thematizes the activity of providence in history. 10 The author justifies the Gentile mission through a variety of narrative devices (especially epiphanies, prophecies, and miracles) that prove its divine authorization and guidance. …

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