Bible Book List
Asbury Bible Commentary – Historiography


In discussions of NT genres, the Acts of the Apostles is commonly set apart from the Gospels and classified as “history,” since it narrates a series of events extending beyond the terminus of the ministry of Jesus in the Gospels.

Yet such a viewpoint must be refined in two ways. First, as has been established for decades, Acts must be seen as one part of a larger literary whole of Luke-Acts. And, as has become increasingly apparent, Luke and Acts are bound together not only externally by the preface of Acts (Acts 1:1-5), which recalls the Gospel, but by stylistic, thematic, and theological commonalities running through their length. Even the Lukan infancy narrative (1:4-2:52), which has often been considered a late addition to the Gospel, manifests clear organic connection to the whole. The two volumes must be considered together, then, when the question of literary genre is raised.Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 77-80.

A second point of refinement concerns the classification of Luke-Acts as historiography. On the one hand, such a classification is well justified in light of the writings of the work of such ancient historians as Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and Josephus. Impressive similarities between their work and Luke-Acts are their multivolume formats and their use of prefaces. Luke 1:1-4 is a shining example of a historiographical preface that suggests the importance and scope of the work, the qualifications and intentions of the writer, and the role of predecessors. The whole preface is carefully arranged in a chiastic pattern, making it one of the most literarily sophisticated passages in the NT.

But on the other hand, presumptions about the nature of ancient historiography should be scrutinized. In one widespread modern caricature of history writing, the historian proceeds in strictly chronological order, mapping out in a precise and vigorously objective fashion some course of events. Coverage of the target events is relatively complete and evenly proportioned. The historian's motives arise largely from his status as a professional whose guild is committed to the accurate recording of human history for the general benefit of future generations.

However, little modern historiography conforms to such a caricature, even less does ancient historiography. In the case of Luke-Acts, the narrator writes without apology as an advocate of the Christian gospel, as one seeking to persuade and instruct his readers. Most certainly, these goals were not pursued less with a view toward the general well-being of future generations, than with a view to immediate difficulties pressing upon particular Christian communities. Furthermore, the order (cf. Lk 1:3 “an orderly account” [καθεξη̂ς]) with which he narrates events is chronological in its broad strokes, but not minutely so. For example, Jesus' visit to Nazareth has been transposed from a later position (as in Mk 6:1-6) to an initial, keynote position for Jesus' public ministry (Lk 4:16-30), while the so-called Travel Narrative (Lk 9:51-19:44) defies all attempts at chronological and geographical plotting. The order by which the narrator arranges material is that order that best serves the rhetorical purposes toward which the whole work has been aimed.

Examination of Acts reveals that the writer makes no claim to a comprehensive and proportional history of the early church. Early on, the story grows progressively restrictive, until at its midpoint, a single character (Paul) becomes its exclusive focus. The radical selectivity of the narrator surely serves his immediate theological purposes. Finally, the narrator must be acknowledged to be more than a matter-of-fact chronicler. The creation and maintenance of suspense, use of irony, recurring themes and patterns, as well as stylistically distinct prefaces all point to a literarily sensitive writer.

One of the strongest links between Luke-Acts and ancient historiography is found in their common interest in the speeches of major characters. Even a cursory look at Acts reveals their importance, not only by their bulk but by their strategic functions. But do these speeches represent the exact words of the speakers as preserved in oral and written sources? While it is impossible to answer with certainty, the practices of ancient historians are suggestive. It was not uncommon for the gist of a speech to be acquired by the historian, and later (during the literary composition of the narrative) filled out according to what was known about the speaker and what would be appropriate to the setting in which the speech was delivered. The essential content of the speech could be attributed to the speaker, while the style and phraseology could be attributed to the writer.Ibid., 91-93; 124-28. If such were the compositional history of various speeches in Luke-Acts, some differences between, for example, Paul's speeches (in Acts) and his communication with churches (in the epistles) could be accounted for without great difficulty. As this example demonstrates, awareness of the literary genre of Luke-Acts, and the accompanying awareness of its literary relatives, can help the reader determine more readily the nature and intent of NT historiography.