Sunday, September 30, 2007

On Luke's use of sources

I have enjoyed reading some of April DeConick's questions and reflections on Luke and History in The Forbidden Gospels Blog. In particular, a post headed Is Luke a Trustworthy Historian? asks:
Why is Acts written off today as a Lukan myth with little or no historical value? Why do scholars who wish to argue for the historicity of elements of Acts have to go through an inordinate amount of justification before doing so?
and there are a series of interesting points that focus the question, and I would like to comment on these points, even though doing so takes me off at tangents from April's main points.
1. When Luke uses Mark, he does not rework Mark as much as Matthew.
I did a double take when I first read this, thinking that perhaps April had joined us in the Q sceptical camp, but then I realized that I was reading it incorrectly! It is "he does not rework Mark as much as Matthew (reworks Mark)" and not "he does not rework Mark as much as (he reworks) Matthew". Nevertheless, I think the comment is debatable and for several reasons. First, Matthew features much more of Mark than Luke does; or, to put it another way, Luke omits much more of Mark than Matthew does. Second, the perception that Luke generally retains Mark's order more carefully than Matthew does is problematic. Matthew's rearrangement of Mark is primarily limited to Matt. 8-12. After Matthew 13 // Mark 4, Matthew follows Mark's order very closely. Luke is radical in some of his treatment of Mark, especially drawing forward the Rejection at Nazareth (Luke 4.16-30) from a much later point in Mark, and drawing forward the Anointing (Luke 7.36-50) from a later point still. (I have more on this in The Case Against Q, 86-90). Third, I would draw special attention to the Passion Narratives in the three Synoptics. Luke departs far more from Mark here than does Matthew. It is worth reminding ourselves that B. H. Streeter and Vincent Taylor conceived the Proto-Luke theory on the basis of Luke's massive departures from Mark in material like that.
2. When Luke uses Q, Q-scholars tell us that he retains Q better in terms of verbage and order than Matthew. In fact, our reconstructed Q is versed according to Luke.
From my reading of Q scholarship, I think this overstates the standard view. It is consensus in Q scholarship that Luke retains the order of Q better than does Matthew, but opinions are divided on how far Matthew and how far Luke retains Q's wording and there is no real tendency in either direction, at least if we are to go on the work of the IQP. With respect to the Lucan chapter and verses getting used for referring to Q, a practice I have criticized (e.g. in Case Against Q, 8), it is important to note that it has always been said that this is done for convenience and without prejudice to decisions about whether or not the order of a given pericope is better reflected in Luke or Matthew.
3. Luke tells us in the beginning of his gospel that he relied on older sources to rewrite the Christian narrative which we apparently trust given our hypothesis that Luke is a second edition of Mark.
4. If we think that Luke used Mark and Q as literary sources, wouldn't the best assumption be that he also used older traditional sources for the composition of Acts?
5. If 4 is valid, then shouldn't we be trying to figure out what those older traditions are and what they tell us about Christianity earlier than Luke?
These are interesting points. One thing that is worth taking seriously is to find out what we can about Luke's compositional and redactional habits from an analysis of his Gospel sources Mark and (I would say) Matthew and to learn from them in working out how he is writing in Acts. I argued on this blog a while ago (A Chronological Clue in Acts 9.25, The Jerusalem Council: Gal. 2.1-10 = Acts 15 and The Jerusalem Council: Gal. 2.1-10 = Acts 15: Response to Critics) and one day I will publish on this, that where Luke has Paul visiting Jerusalem in Acts 9, clearly out of sequence when we look at Galatians 1, he has brought the account forward in his narrative from its natural location three years later, just as he draws forward the Rejection at Nazareth in his Gospel from its Marcan location later in the ministry. My own feeling is that the more familiar one gets with Luke from studying his use of sources in the Gospel, the more light it sheds on the way he behaves in Acts, where we have Paul's letters as a useful point of comparison.


JC Baker said...

Very interesting response to this post Mark. I am currently focusing my work in Acts and am formulating a dissertation proposal on Acts and Group Identity. I appreciate your comments on April's post.

I am currently researching for a paper on Acts 15 and the formulation (or re-formulation) of boundaries in the early communities. One issue that really fascinates me is the questions of Luke's use of sources, particularly around this council.

Given the diversity of Acts 15 and Gal 2, what can we deduce about the source of that meeting in Jerusalem? Obviously both Luke and Paul have shaped that tradition to fit their own purposes, but can we look at their similarities and differences to arrive at some possible elements of that "original" tradition?

Geoff Hudson said...

Interestingly you have used the word 'forward' (referring to the drawing forward by an author of source text) four times. You make the practice seem common place. These authors didn't even bat an eyelid or get sweaty palms when they did it. A modern lie detector wouldn't have found them out. No wonder therefore that April takes a sceptical approach to Acts, and I presume, to any other text from around the time, such as 'Paul's letters. But it is amazing to me that most scholars of Josephus take the text attributed to Josephus as gospel (more reliable than Acts say), particularly with regard to order of events.

Christopher Shell said...

Although April De Conick is right that the thoroughgoing sceptical position is untenable, I am not sure her own moderate position is much more so.

Why speak of sifting through the text to glean historical nuggets (the implication being that the nuggets are so much smaller than the rock in which they are embedded)? A commonsense reading of the text of Acts tells us that the author was a first-hand participant. Nor is there any compelling reason to doubt this (the supposed device of using 'we' from a source, especially for sea voyages etc, is controversial, and it is in any case hard to see what purpose such a convention would have served even if it existed. It is even harder to see on what grounds the mere possibility of such a supposed device being at work was ever elevated into 'probability': into being regarded as the default theory.).

It is also clear that the reportage becomes most detailed (and increasingly detailed) from around the moment Luke (or whoever the author is) enters the scene at 16.9.

To echo Green-Armytage, didn't they have real people with memories in those days? Did they only have disembodied 'nuggets' of tradition floating around?

Geoff Hudson said...

I am not sure I understand the difference between thoroughgoing sceptical and sceptical.

I thought a vision of a man was of a disembodied man (16.9)

'We' goes with 'I' and 'us'. Acts was once completely autobiography written by its first-hand witness. So yes, it was not simply disembodied nuggets. 'Luke'was a Pauline editor, not an eyewitness.

Richard Fellows said...

I agree completely with Christopher Shell. The author of Luke/Acts wrote at a time that was closer to the events of Acts than to the events of the gospel. In any case he faithfully reproduced more of Mark than he modified.

If a first century persecutor of the Christians had got hold of a copy of Acts, would they have found useful information in it to help them identify and round up the leading Christians? It seems to me that Luke was careful not to give away any sensitive information. Thus he mentions Prisca, Aquila, Sosthenes, Erastus, Aristarchus and Timothy, but does not say where they ended up. Similarly his addressee is identified only by an epithet, "Theophilus". Luke himself is anonymous and is deliberately vague about where he joined the second and third missionary journeys. Any opponent wanting to identify the author of Acts would not know where to send spies to find out. I therefore suggest that Luke limited his use of the first person to sea voyages to make it hard for others to trace him. I have written more on such matters here:
and here:

Geoff Hudson said...

What you are implying, in effect, Richard, is that in his editorial, 'Luke' was careful to conceal much of the information about the earliest 'Christianity' and the earliest 'Christians' that he read in the original Acts.

I once spoke to Robert Eisenman in relation to fabrication in the writings attributed to Josephus. I recall that he said something to the effect that the Flavians would have had their spies everywhere. They were probably at least as ruthless as the Generals of Burma. And the Flavian historians were undoubtedly unscrupulous with the information they passed down to later writers such as Suetonius. That was the milieu in which the NT documents were edited.

Geoff Hudson said...

I also recall in the same conversation with Eisenman that he said, in effect, that the Flavians were having fun writing their own versions of history.

Geoff Hudson said...

If Acts was originally autobiography, then why not look for sentences that could have been in the first person? Take Acts 1.15 for example. One might have expected that the natural leader would have stood up to address the group. This leader could have been the original writer of Acts, particularly if he was the one later chosen. Thus he would have written: ’I stood up among the brothers.’ (brothers implying Jewish brothers is explicit in 1.16).

Then there is the concluding sentence related to the person chosen to succeed Judas in 1.26: ‘So he was added to the eleven apostles’. This could have been simply: ’So I was chosen’, that is the writer was chosen in response to his statement ‘It is necessary to choose ONE of the men who has been with us the whole time’. The choice could still have been a majority vote by secret lots. 1.22-26 about making a choice by lots between a Joseph a and a Matthias looks like an editor’s fabrication.

If the natural leader who stood up in the first place was chosen to replace Judas, then was Judas the original leader of the earliest ‘Christians’?. I suggest that 1.16 was originally about the Spirit (explicit) speaking through the mouth of Judas (not the editor’s 'David') who served as a leader (not the editor’s 'guide for those that arrested Jesus'). That the editor thought this was a leadership issue is reflected in his quotation of Psalm 109.8. The ‘Christians’ were looking for a prophet successor to Judas. It had to be someone through whom they believed the Spirit could speak to them.