Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What if the Acts of the Apostles is Fiction?

The Westar Institute, popularly known as the Jesus Seminar held its Spring meeting in Salem, Oregon, March 30th through April 2nd. It was the final meeting of the Acts Seminar. For ten years the Fellows have been sifting through the book of Acts to determine what might be historical about it.

The original plan was to create a color-coded Acts similar to the color-coded gospels in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. But as they got into it, they realized it wasn't needed.

They discovered that Acts is mostly fiction.

Jesus ascending to heaven? Fiction
Twelve (Male) Apostles? Fiction
Receiving the Spirit at Pentecost? Fiction
Preaching of Peter? Fiction
Conversion of Paul? Fiction
Journeys of Paul? Fiction

The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts is a second century work, perhaps as late as 130 CE. One of the Fellows, Dennis Smith, presented a paper, "Top Ten Accomplishments of the Acts Seminar." Here are those top ten accomplishments:

1. The use of Acts as a source for history needs critical reassessment.

2. Acts was written in the early decades of the second century.

3. The author of Acts used the letters of Paul as one of his sources.

4. Except for the letters of Paul, no other historical source can be definitively identified for Acts.

5. Acts can no longer be considered an independent source for the life and mission of Paul.

6. Contrary to Acts 1-­7, Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Christianity.

7. Acts constructed its story on the model of epic and related literature.

8. The author of Acts created names for characters as a storytelling device.

9. Acts constructed its story to fit ideological goals.

10. As a product of the second century, Acts is a historical resource for understanding second century Christianity.
Dennis Smith concluded his paper:
Comparing the Acts Seminar with the Jesus Seminar only goes so far. While the Jesus Seminar, in sifting through the Jesus tradition, was able to find a credible core set of data about the historical Jesus, the Acts Seminar has not found there to be a core historical story of Christian beginnings in Acts. Acts has emerged instead as a hindrance to the historical reconstruction of Christian beginnings because its story has dominated in the Christian imagination for so long.

We must now rethink how we reconstruct Christian origins in the absence of the Acts default. At the same time, Acts has emerged as a primary resource for early second century Christianity, which has engendered a program of research that is increasingly attracting the attention of a new generation of Acts scholars.
The Acts Seminar has opened the way for new ways to look at Acts and the history of the early Jesus movements. They plan to publish a book on their findings in 2013.

In the meantime, I invite you to check out the work of Richard Pervo. He is one of the Fellows and he has written a couple of important books on Acts, Dating Acts and the more accessible,
The Mystery of Acts:
The author of Acts unwittingly committed a near-perfect crime: He told his story so well that all rival accounts vanished with but the faintest of traces. And thus future generations were left with no documents that recount the history of the early Christian tradition—because Acts is not history. According to Richard Pervo, “Acts is a beautiful house that readers may happily admire, but it is not a home in which the historian can responsibly live.” Luke did not even aspire to write history but rather told his story to defend the gentile communities of his day as the legitimate heirs of Israelite religion.
My clergy colleagues may remember being introduced to early Christian writings such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla or The Acts of Andrew. We rightly understood them as legend. The Acts of The Apostles appears to be more like them then not, that is, legend not history.

This is again interesting for us who lead worship. The major holy days of the Christian faith (in order of importance) Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost are all based on fictional narratives.

So, what does a preacher do with that assertion? There are several options:

1) Deny it. Follow the lead of Lee Strobel and other fundamentalists and "prove" that the Gospels and Acts are historical. That is about as much of a dead end as creationism.

2) Ignore it. Just tell the story and assume it happened even though it didn't. Don't look too closely into a gift horse's mouth. Don't want to upset the faithful.

3) Admit it and give it up. Since it isn't historically true it has little value. Leave the church and join the ranks of the "church alumni association".

4) Admit that these fictions are legends and enjoy them. This is similar to option two except that you publicly say that these legends are just that but there is value in them. They can still "preach".

5) Admit that these fictions are legends and challenge them. These fictions serve power interests in the past and in the present that need exposing. Reconstructing history is important liberating work. The church may need a new history of origins. You hold out a willingness to change your views completely even as they go against cherished beliefs including creeds.

Perhaps there are other options or a combination of the above. I tend to combine options 4 and 5. But I admit that I am haunted by the prospect that the church's mojo has been based on options 1 and 2. It has placed its eggs in the historical Easter basket. When the basket gets ripped full of holes, there go the eggs.

It would seem to me for institutional interests (let alone reasons of honesty and integrity) that we explore what would church mean if we admitted that we pretty much made it all up and ask seriously, "Where do we go then from here?"


  1. "2) Ignore it. Just tell the story and assume it happened even though it didn't."

    I'm not sure I see how that's actually any different than some people (and churches) do already. While I love a big old church with its expensive pipe organ and beautiful stained glass windows, I'm not sure that's what the writer of Acts had in mind when they wrote:

    "All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need."

    Or, can you imagine casting lots to decide ordination? That would pretty much KO the whole G-6.0106b fight wouldn't it? In fact, you can defend our current way of doing ordination only if you ignore Acts.

  2. The verse about the believers holding all in common is one of my favorite verses and I completely ignore it in the way I live my life.

    When I lived in upstate NY, the largest Protestant group was Mennonite. They ranged from very conservative (almost Amish) to more worldly. But I think all of them ordained their leaders by lot. The preachers had "real jobs" outside of church and were selected by lot to lead congregations.

  3. The first book on theology that I read was Tillich's The Dynamics of Faith in 1968. if I remember correctly Tillich writes about myths and symbols as the language of our faith. It uses the stories of peoples in time and space to refer to the ultimate which is beyond time and space. Consequently for me the historical accuracy of the Bible has never been of much concern for me. So I have little concern To learn that the Acts of the Apostles is not a true historical account. I do find the work of the Seminar interesting and valuable.

  4. A couple questions:

    1. Did anyone talk about the stylistic similarities between Luke and Acts? Does this suggest a later date for Luke if we keep them together?

    2. Does this suggest that the writer of Acts had Paul's letters available and wrote about places Paul wrote to? Even if you take the shortest of lists Thessalonika Galatia and Cornith appear on the lists. Of course you have to redivide Corinthians and then decide if some belongs and some doesn't.

    Curious though, Acts doesn't deal with the controversies in the various letters of Paul except that of Judaism and Christianity. Given the various conflicts between Paul and Jews in Acts one could say this is a common theme. Did they take into consideration that past 100 AD you go past the time that the Christianity(ies) and Judaism(s) separated. Or do they suggest that Christians were trying to differentiate themselves from Jews and the bar Kocbah revolution?

    Just some thoughts. Probably ought to read the book, huh.

  5. I want to echo Robert's question: what is the implication for the dating of Luke?

  6. certainly does lead to that question. Standard dating for both Luke and Acts has been 85ish. If Acts is now 120 or so then could Luke be the same time? If that is the case, then Luke is really a source for 2nd century Christianity.

  7. I don't believe the Westar Institute exists. It is just an invention but it is a resource that can help us understand 21st. Century Christianity.

  8. I think we should demand the Fellows present their birth certificates!

  9. I know a man in Hawaii who can help them out with that if they have "lost" the originals.

  10. Robert's questions are terrific -- and I think the jury is still out, although it certainly looks like Luke/Acts is a 2nd century project -- or maybe the gospel was written around 85, and the Acts story some time later . . .

    I strongly recommend the new book The Authentic Letters of Paul to go along with the Pervo book on the Mystery of Acts. The new translation of the letters is extremely enlightening, and is a great resource for 21st century, post-modern (even post-Christian) exiles from orthodoxy.

  11. it is high time for all of us to talk about multiple Christianities and Judaisms

    Arguments don't necessarily mean that there were lots of distinct forms of Christianity. I think we may be in danger at the moment of seeing things we want to see in the early church. In reality, it was probably quite boring just like it is today.

  12. "The surviving accounts of Alexander's reign were all written down centuries after the events they describe."
    --Simon Hornblower, from the Appendix, "Sources for the Reign of Alexander" in "The Greek World, 479-323 B.C."

    Perhaps we can at least be grateful that the scholars of the JS are not purporting to lecture us on classical history:

    Pupil of Aristotle: Fiction!
    Founder of Alexandria: Fiction!
    Battle of Gaugamela: Fiction!
    The March down the Indus: Fiction!

  13. Is the ascension of Jesus to heaven as historical to you as the march down the Indus?

  14. "Is the ascension of Jesus to heaven as historical to you as the march down the Indus?"

    Depends upon one's canons of historicity, doesn't it?

    If by "as historical," you are asking, was the narrator closer in time to the events narrated, then, yes, of course, the account of the ascension was as historical, more historical, than the account of Alexander's Indian campaigns.

    And if your canon of historicity excludes anything you personally consider impossible, and if you consider the ascension impossible, then it wasn't. But I would say then that isn't really a historical consideration, but a metaphysical one, disguised as history. Hence my problem with the "historical quest" as pursued by the JS. They consider certain things impossible, and declare their scepticism behind the screen of history.

  15. No it depends more on common sense. It isn't that complicated. I think it is probable that any story of anyone ever ascending to heaven (Elijah, Jesus, Muhammad, whoever) is fiction. If you want to believe that at one time someone really did it, that would be a matter of faith. History deals with what is probable. Miracles by definition are not probable.

  16. History deals with what is probable.

    No. History deals with what happened. Probability has nothing to do with it.

    As you were.

  17. But we don't always know what happened, so historians actually do deal with probabilities.

  18. It is not the job of a historian to decide what is possible. It is the job of the historian to discover what happened. At this moment in time historians have not discovered that Jesus ascended into history so it is not history. I'm only correcting you on your definition of "history." You were being naughty in adding to it to suit yourself. But it's not necessary anyway.

  19. Being naughty?

    At this moment in time historians have not discovered that Jesus ascended into history so it is not history.


  20. Yes. Being naughty.
    You were trying it on, as we say in these parts.
    Fortunately I was around to correct you and lead you back onto the path of righteousness.

  21. " depends more on common sense."

    I think commmon sense is quite good at dealing with the commonplace. But I don't see why the extraordinary and the historical should be incompatible.

    "I think it is probable that any story of anyone ever ascending to heaven (Elijah, Jesus, Muhammad, whoever) is fiction."

    I can't think of any historical event that isn't, in itself, improbable. How is that a criterion of historicity?

    "If you want to believe that at one time someone really did it, that would be a matter of faith."

    Yes. Faith in the reliability of the witness who related it. Just as all other history relies on such evidence.

    "History deals with what is probable. Miracles by definition are not probable."

    Therefore, with your definitions, if a miracle occurs, history will miss and exclude it. So therefore history is worthless for evaluating the existence of the miraculous, yes?

    Are you familiar with John Meier's series of books on the historical Jesus? In the first volume he carefully distinguishes the "real" from the "historical," and warns against the naive assumption that they are the same. I think he makes a good point.

    It's been, I should probably add, a good 35 years since I first read Schweitzer's "Quest of the Historical Jesus," and I think the scepticism he expresses about this enterprise remains valid. It is useful that we can produce gnostic Jesuses, cynic Jesuses, Pharasee Jesuses, apocalyptic Jesuses, ethical Jesuses, by working our various methodological magics on the texts. But in the long run those seem to me simply variations on the strands found in the gospels as they now stand, and which are best grasped in the complex forms in which they were composed, without the grand simplifications which we think somehow clear them up.

  22. I don't think it is that complicated.
    Jesus ascending into heaven is neither historical nor real. It is a story and one can gloss it with all kinds of theological language but nevertheless it only "happened" in the mind of whoever attached this story to Jesus and whoever continues to believe it today. I would rather doubt that any historian except one tied up with special pleading for Christian mythology would say Jesus ascended to heaven in any sense other than the imaginative/metaphorical.

    Now my soap box. I think that requiring people to "believe" 1000 impossible things before breakfast is an unsustainable way to run a religion.

    If all Christianity has going for it is a bunch of supernatural miracles that people are supposed to believe happened folks will eventually find other things to occupy their time.

  23. On the Bodily Ascension . . .

    God deemed it necessary to instill in humanity the belief that "He" was "up there."

    So God had Jesus rise into the air, past the clouds, and then disappear from sight into another dimension as soon as Jesus got past that first cloud. No use going further than that.

    Yes, it was sort of deceptive because even if Jesus' body passed beyond the clouds and then suddenly sped up to travelling at the speed of light he'd still be well within our galaxy wich is tens of thousands of light/years in diameter (over 100,000?) not to mention the fact that there's billions (is it 100-300 billion galaxies) beyond ours, with even greater spaces between each one. So Jesus would have to be travelling at least as fast as Warp 1,000 to get out of the whole cosmos and reach "heaven above" wherever that might be, if heaven truly is "above." And of course dodging cosmic obstacles and radiation along the way, in his physical fleshly body that was still digesting the fish he'd eaten per Luke's story. I mean, all in all, such a trip at such a speed in a human body is perhaps the least heralded miracle, but perhaps one of the greatest of all of Jesus' miracles, especially to an astrophysicist.

    So, yes, the rising of Jesus' body into the sky past the clouds was deceptive, like an Indian fakir who climbs a rope and then suddenly vanishes at the top of the rope. So I guess God just wanted to continue pulling one over on us all concerning the whereabouts of heaven ("above the earth"), as he did throughout the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation (in the lattermost work a city is depcited as descending from heaven, and lands I suppose on a flat earth, because otherwise the city's fantastic length on each side, something like 1,500 miles, would mean it wobbled on the surface of our spherical earth).

    But also note that only Luke tells the story of how the resurrected Jesus denied entirely that he was "a spirit," said he had "flesh and bones," even "ate some fish" and then "led them out to Bethany," walking presumably through Jerusalem, out the gates to Bethany. Too bad that exit party didn't raise more of a ruckus. Instead the raised Jesus, utterly triumphant over death, sin, the devil, etc., simply withdrew from the scene. Acts says only the eleven apostles saw the bodily ascension into heaven. Not exactly a fireworks show, and nothing like the show put on when Jesus first arrived in Jerusalem, with crowds waving palms, shouting Hosannas. No, Jesus' departure was a minimalist affair to be sure. A quiet departure from the scene, per Luke-Acts. I guess it had to be since otherwise historians might have recorded it, heaven forbid. I don't recall Josephus mentioning any bodily ascension either, except Moses! A story whose popularity directly preceded the tale of Jesus' ascension into heaven.

    Really, when I think of all that an infinite Being could have left behind and shown the world, both then and now, the Gospels seem like insults to the inquiring minds each of us has (or was "given," depending on whether you're an atheist or a general theist of some sort). And to add to that insult, there's still fundamentalists bellowing, "believe it all as I believe it or be damned," as if the threat of hell would make such partisan fairy tales and legends more believable.

  24. If Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost are all based on fictional narratives, Christianity is reduced to a few useful sayings by a Jewish apocalyptic preacher. Sadly, I can find more useful and inspiring sayings in my Facebook feed than from the supposed sayings of Jesus.

    This past year has been one of discovery for me and I've learned more and more about how the things I was taught to believe were actually not true. It's been a difficult journey, but one I've been glad to go on. I want to know the truth, no matter how difficult that revelation may be.