Thursday, August 05, 2010

Acts and scholarship and rubbish

I mentioned back in March that one of the things I wanted to do in all the time I spent ignoring my blog was to undertake a good study of Acts.  And while the days are counting down before my fall historiography class starts, and while I have undertaken the creation of a second Dragon Age mod (bigger and I think better than my first), it doesn't mean I have not gotten to it. I haven't finished it*, but I have read a half-dozen books and a couple dozen scholarly articles and have reached something of a tentative conclusion: while Luke knows what he's talking about a significant portion** of "bible scholars" simply do not. Or will not.

Case in point: Acts 18 puts Paul in the Greek city of Corinth at the same time as the Roman consul Gallio, and an inscription discovered in Corinth makes Gallio the Consul there around 50-51ad. While there, Paul was accosted by Jews who objected to the Gospel, they brought Paul before that magistrate, and he acquitted Paul because he had no interest in Jewish squabbles. So the "hard date" upon which much of Paul's chronology is attested by archaeology. That does not stop some bible scholars from attempting to use presumption to negate Luke's claims of what happened there.

I was particularly amused by a couple of quotes which expose and explain the methodology which, like kids in a lake who kick up muck on purpose, serves only to obscure the view of other swimmers. The first is from Leudemann's "Paul" (p.160), which says,
As regards to the trial of Paul... Gallio reacts in a manner which Luke considers exemplary for the representative of the state involved in controversy between Jews and Christians. This insight prohibits us from viewing such a trial of Paul as historical.
Think about that for a moment. What the author is saying is that if Luke records an outcome that he would see as favorable, we must disbelieve him. That Gallio basically said, "I don't care about your Jewish squabbles****" could not have been recorded because Luke was happy at the outcome or because Gallio truly didn't care whether Jesus was the Jewish messiah, but is taken as conclusive evidence that the trial never occurred.

Imagine if such a rule was applied to other history. Because Caesar recorded that the Gauls agreed to his demands, that "prohibits us from viewing" his conquest of Gaul as historical.  Because a New Orleans Saints website says that the Saints won the Super Bowl this year - a very favorable outcome indeed - that "prohibits us from viewing" such a victory as historical.  It's rubbish, and nowhere could it possibly be applied except in the isolated world that is bible scholarship.

A second example is not as obvious, but just as silly:  
"...from a redaction-critical perspective the highly tendentious nature of Acts 18 makes probable that its structure as well as key elements within its narrative owe their existence to the creative ability of the author of Acts." 
-- Dixon Slingerland ("Acts 18:18, The Gallio Inscription, and Absolute Pauline Chronology," 1991)
In other words, Luke made it up. Never mind that the "tendentious structure" is largely made up of the author ignoring what the text plainly says in favor of what he wants to it say*****. And never mind that this article is almost in toto an attack on the probabilities of other historians, replacing them with his own, less-attested ones. The author's presumptions (in this case, a "redaction-critical perspective") dictate that we can know nothing, or at least that we can know nothing worth knowing. Of course, this is exactly the kind of scholarship that gets quoted in Time magazine as authoritative.

Acts is an excellent piece of history, explaining the reasonable reaction to the Jews to the treasonable actions of the Christians, so long as one approaches it with the kinds of presumptions that can be applied to all history, not ready-made ones especially for the bible, designed mostly to kick up muck so no one else can swim.

* when is a study of this nature truly "done"?
** I am, of course, tempted to say, "a majority" or even "a vast majority," but while that might be acceptable under the rhetorical looseness I am so fond of, I find it hard to say when my subject today argues against the scholarly consensus*** that "eighteen months" means "a year and a half."
*** "Scholarly Consensus" is perfectly acceptable in history, as it does not pretend to be science. Or at least it should not make such pretensions.
**** "If it were a matter of wrong or lewd actions, it would be reasonable that I should hear you Jews. But if it's merely a question of words and names and your law, look to it yourselves. I will not judge such matters." - Acts 18: 14b-15. It's the same response one might expect if Baptists sued Jehovah's witnesses today over their teachings in regards to the Trinity.
***** One example must suffice. The author claims that Luke's Acts 18 section "consistently creates, shapes, and organizes materials so as to discredit Jewish populations within the Roman Empire." This section "begins by reminding the reader how the emperor Claudius found it necessary to expel all Jews from Rome..." The implication here is that Luke goes to some length to show how horrible the Jews were, necessitating or at least deserving Claudius' response. 

What Luke actually said was this: "After these things Paul departed from Athens and came to Corinth. He found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus but who recently arrived from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome) and he stayed with them" - Acts 18:1-2.  

Luke mentions the Claudian expulsion in passing to explain why Roman Jews Aquila and Priscilla were in Corinth at all, yet Slingerland makes it somehow an attempt on Luke's part to smear Jews as a group.


tom sheepandgoats said...

What do they say about the next passage, vs 17, in which they lay ahold of Sosthenes and beat the daylights out of him right in front of Gallio, who, nonetheless, "would not concern himself at all with these things."?

The entire passage is a favorite of mine, almost for the sake of comic relief.

El Borak said...

Slingerland* describes that part of the story as "an account of the humiliation of the Jewish community in Corinth by no less a figure than the very representative of Roman power in Achaia, the proconsul Gallio."

I think somebody is a little thin-skinned and takes this a little too personally. For Gallio's part, it looks as if he didn't give a ratsass either way. If there was humiliation (and there was) it sure was not brought about by Gallio.

* it's actually the second half of the aforementioned sentence in which Claudius 'found it necessary" to expel the Jews from Rome.

Justin said...

The impulse to discredit these passages is a psycho-emotional one. If Luke is allowed to be "early", it blows their entire documentary hypothesis out of the water. Naturally, given their response as psycho-emotionally driven, they will be led to analyses that are, to the outsider, clearly non-reasonable, or even bizarre.