Luke/Acts as Historical Fiction

...take two every four hours for nine days...

The Gospel of Luke (GoLuke) has about 19,400 Greek words.  Acts of the Apostles (Acts) has about 18,400 Greek words.  That is a grand total of about 37,800 words, one-fourth of the entire New Testament.  There are more words in Luke/Acts than in all the letters of Paul combined (about 32,300).  Luke/Acts has  been called a Greco-Roman romance novel.  It is also very, very favorable and sensitive to women.  So sensitive that it might have even been written by a woman, but that is speculation.  No one actually knows who wrote Luke/Acts.  It is anonymously written and was not associated with “Luke the physician” until the middle of the second century CE.  Scholars agree that whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts.  They debate whether the two were originally one written document and later separated, or whether they were written individually by the same person, but it is not out of line to call them Luke/Acts.

Now how would one prove that Luke/Acts is historical fiction?  It’s actually quite easy; just decide if the author is writing historical accounts of events described or if he/she was not writing historical accounts of the events described.  In other words, was he/she remembering or was he/she creating?

One can easily compare GoLuke with the other Gospels of the New Testament and discrepancies can be found from the beginning all the way through to the end.  For instance, one can compare the Birth Narratives from GoLuke and GoMatthew, the only two New Testament Gospels to include birth narratives, and plainly see that these are not two versions of the same story at all, but in fact, two completely different stories altogether.  It’s easy, just read the two accounts at GoMatthew 1:18-2:23 and GoLuke 2:1-40, write down the events as they happen, then compare the two lists.  Simple, I highly recommend doing that if one is interested.  A few more examples include:

Ancestry of Jesus: GoMatthew 1:2-16 and GoLuke 3:23-38

Criminals on the Cross: GoMatthew 27:38-40 and GoLuke 23:39-43

Easter Experience: GoMatthew 28:1-15 and GoLuke 24:1-11

Post-Resurrection Experience: GoMatthew 28:16-20 and GoLuke 24:33-54

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the unknown author of GoLuke is creating fiction.  GoMatthew might have the information wrong and the information in GoLuke might be true, or they may both be false, but they can not both be true.  It is the Principle of Non-Contradiction.  Without corroborative evidence, a conclusive decision can not be made.  So what we need is some type of evidence, something first-hand that we can use to compare against Luke/Acts.  We just happen to have that very thing.  The writings of Paul.

It should first be noted that Acts even disagrees with itself at times.  For instance, Paul’s fictional conversion experience, never once mentioned by Paul, is mentioned three times in Acts.  In one version the bystanders remain standing (9:7) and in another they fell down (26:14).  In one version they bystanders hear a voice but see nothing (9:7) and in another they see a light and hear nothing (22:9).

Nearly two-thirds of Acts focuses on or around Paul.  Paul is “the hero” of the Acts part of Luke/Acts.  Several times Acts and Paul relay the same events.  We can use these comparisons to see what Paul says about himself and what Acts says about Paul and clearly see that the author of Acts is writing fiction, not relaying history.  It’s simple.  If the two stories jibe, then we have corroboration, but if they do not then we must once again apply the Principle of Non-Contradiction.  One or the other might be true, or they might both be false, but logically both can not be true.  Then we just have to decide if we should believe what a man said about himself in his own words, written during his own lifetime around the middle of the first century CE, or whether we should believe what an unknown author says, writing 30+ years later, who betrays no knowledge of Paul’s letters, and, well, sometimes gets just wacky.  For instance, Acts 5:15 tells how people were healed in the street by simply having Peter’s shadow fall on them as he walked past.

So let’s have a look by using a few specific examples with which we can compare Paul on Paul against Acts on Paul.  I’ll be quoting from the International Standard Version.  It should be fun.

Was Paul known by sight to the churches in Judea?

“They threw him out of the city and began to stone him (Stephen) to death. Meanwhile, the witnesses >laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. <”
Acts 7:58

“Now Saul heartily approved of putting him to death. That day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all of them, except for the apostles, were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen as they mourned loudly for him. But >Saul kept trying to destroy the church. Going into one house after another, he began dragging off men and women and throwing them in prison.< “
Acts 8:1-3

“I persecuted this Way even to the death and kept tying up both men and women and putting them in prison, as >the high priest and the whole Council of elders can testify< about me..
Acts 22:4-5a

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia but >raised in this city< and >educated at the feet of Gamaliel< in the strict ways of our ancestral law.
(Acts 22:3)

What does Paul say?

“But >I was unknown by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea<. The only thing they kept hearing was this: “The man who used to persecute us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy!””
Galatians 1:22-23

If Paul had been a student of the renowned Gamaliel, had been present at the stoning of Stephen, had gone throughout Judea dragging people out of their homes and throwing them in prison, claims that Paul never makes in his own writings, why would he say that he was unknown by sight in Judea?

Why would Luke/Acts create this fiction?  Could it perhaps be to show the continuity between the earlier Jewish believers and the contemporary Pagan believers?

Who was out to get Paul in Damascus?

After several days had gone by, the Jews plotted to murder him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were even watching the gates day and night to murder him, but his disciples took him one night and let him down through the wall by lowering him in a basket.
Acts 9:23-25

In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas put guards around the city of Damascus to catch me, but I was let down in a basket through an opening in the wall and escaped from his hands.
2 Corinthians 11:32-33

According to Acts, “the Jews plotted to murder him”, “They were even watching the gates day and night to murder him. According to Paul, “the governor under King Aretas put guards around the city of Damascus to catch me” but Paul “escaped from his hands.”

How many trips did the converted Paul make to Jerusalem?

“When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they all were afraid of him because they wouldn’t believe he was a disciple.”
Acts 9:26

“When Barnabas and Saul had fulfilled their mission, they returned to Jerusalem, bringing with them John who was also called Mark.”
Acts 12:25

“When they (now Paul and Barnabas not Barnabas and Saul) arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, the apostles, and the elders, and they reported everything that God had done through them.”
Acts 15:4

“When he (Paul) arrived in Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem, greeted the church, and then returned to Antioch.”
Acts 18:22

“When we arrived in Jerusalem (Paul was part of the group), the brothers welcomed us warmly.”
Acts 21:17

What does Paul say?

“Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days.”
Galatians 1:18

“Then fourteen years later I again went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus with me.”
Galatians 2:1

“Right now, however, I am going to Jerusalem to minister to the saints.”
Romans 15:25

We have no record of Paul ever completing that last journey.  He simply seems to disappear from the historical record after The Epistle to the Romans.

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop?  Acts has Paul return to Jerusalem regularly to “check in” with the authority.  Paul made it clear in his own writings that he WAS the authority, he didn’t need to check in with anyone.

After his conversion, does Paul go directly to Jerusalem?

“For several days he stayed with the disciples in Damascus. He immediately started to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “This is the Son of God.” All who heard him were astonished and said, “This is the man who harassed those who called on his name in Jerusalem, isn’t it? Didn’t he come here to bring them in chains to the high priests?” But Saul grew more and more powerful and continued to confound the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that this man was the Christ. After several days had gone by, the Jews plotted to murder him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were even watching the gates day and night to murder him, but his disciples took him one night and let him down through the wall by lowering him in a basket. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they all were afraid of him because they wouldn’t believe he was a disciple. Barnabas, however, took him and presented him to the apostles, telling them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how courageously he had spoken in the name of Jesus in Damascus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking courageously in the name of the Lord. He kept talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews, but they were bent on murdering him. When the brothers found out about it, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus.”
Acts 9:19-30

“But when God, who set me apart before I was born and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him among the gentiles, I did not confer with another human being at any time, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead, I went away to Arabia and then came back to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and I stayed with him for fifteen days. But I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother. (I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.)”
Galatians 1:15-20

What does Acts say?

For “several days he stayed with the disciples in Damascus, “he arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples”, “went in and out among them in Jerusalem, then the church “sent him away to Tarsus.

What does Paul say?

Not just no, but HELL no.  He even swears to it.

“I did not confer with another human being at any time, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me. Instead, I went away to Arabia and then came back to Damascus. Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem”.  “I declare before God that what I am writing to you is not a lie.”

Luke/Acts is creating fiction, not relaying history.  He/she was creating a foundational document for a specific set of believers, just like GoMark did, just like GoMatthew did, just like GoJohn did, just like GoThomas did and just like many other members of many other religious organizations have done, and continue to do trying to portray the significance of their own specific sect of their religion.  Today we call it mythology.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Luke/Acts as Historical Fiction

  1. the point is well made, the author of luke-acts was writing creatively. however most of the examples are from acts… perhaps goluke is ok but acts is not? i recently read an author (richard carrier?) who made a very strong case for the author of goluke copying from josephus and another contrasting the dates of the nativity in gomatthew from that in goluke. wherein lies the truth then?

    Posted by chilaka febian | September 9, 2012, 3:41 pm
  2. Even though Acts portrays Paul as a hero, it presents a none-too-flattering profile of him. There are factions within Christianity that contend that He was both a liar and a coward! And that he finally got caught up in those lies. And I don’t think any of these “historical” documents were historically accurate. Like you said, they each had an agenda.

    But the common agenda was the same as Paul’s: present Yeshuah (name changed to Ihsous = Jesus) as crucified and resurrected. And make Christ Jesus’ last name!

    Posted by Ed-M | November 5, 2011, 10:08 pm

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