The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History | Book Review

Is The Acts of the Apostles a source of authentic historical information about earliest Christianity?

Colin J. Hemer answers that question affirmatively in The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, published after his untimely 1987 death and edited by his friend and colleague, Conrad H. Gempf. Hemer’s argument is oblique, cumulative, and plausible. And although Hemer was an evangelical Christian, his argument approaches the topic empirically rather than confessionally.

Chapter 1 focuses on the history of the question of Acts’ historicity. Hemer wrote in the 1980s, near the end of a mid-twentieth-century period during which New Testament scholars (often German) emphasized the theology of Luke-Acts over (and often at the expense of) its historicity. Some claimed that “Luke”—not identified with the doctor-companion of the apostle Paul—invented his “history” of earliest Christianity to promulgate a theology by turns competitive with and contradictory of authentic Paulinism, among other historical errors. Pressed too far, such scholarship made any reconstruction of earliest Christianity fraught, if not entirely impossible.

Hemer notes how different the mid-twentieth-century status questionis was from the one that obtained prior to World War I. Then, both German and British scholarship seemed more open to the idea that Acts contained authentic historical information, though there were numerous disagreements over particular passages. “The discontinuities of the war generation have broken the sequence of discussion without obviating the need for fundamental re-examination of the accumulation of hidden and suspect presuppositions,” Hemer writes. “The question of Acts’ relationship to the history which it purports to relate is too important and fundamental not to be re-opened” (29).

Chapter 2 turns to “preliminary questions” such as the narrative unity of Luke-Acts, its genre, the meaning of historicity, how to measure historicity, textual variants within Acts, and extrabiblical sources that might throw light on the book. “It is possible to judge the work of an ancient writer from an unrealistic expectation by laying down criteria for acceptance which are too literalistically rigorous,” Hemer writes (43). Instead of doing that, he offers “a tabulation of guidelines to what seem to be the reasonable expectations of historicity in a writing like Acts” (46). Having tabulated those guidelines, he defends a contextual approach to the topic, explaining, “It is often through small and incidental points of fact that a text may be checked against its context, though we must be very careful about the conclusions drawn from such details” (53).

Chapter 3 turns to the question of whether ancient historiographers intended to communicate accurate historical information. Hemer demonstrates that ancient historians did strive for accuracy and outlined methods for rooting their accounts in what actually happened, though with qualifications and imperfections. Whether Luke is such an historian can neither be ruled out nor in without a patient examination of the “small and incidental points of fact” mentioned earlier, among other empirical data.

Hemer examines those facts in chapter 4 (“Types of Knowledge Displayed in Acts”), chapter 5 (“Evidence from Historical Details in Acts”), and an excursus (“Names and Titles in Acts”). The argument he presents in these sections is oblique rather than direct, and cumulatively forceful rather than individually dispositive. In other words, what he demonstrates is that Luke’s account of people, places, events, and vocabulary is broadly consistent with what is known from other sources regarding the context in that time and place, though not necessarily the exact event Luke reports. The patient accumulation of these “small and incidental points of fact” increasingly leaves readers with impression that Acts is historically plausible, which entails that its invention of events whole cloth is historically implausible. Hemer does not claim that these facts prove Luke’s account tout court, nor that they dispose of all historical difficulties in the book. And yet, they effectively remove reasonable doubt that Luke intended to present what actually happened. A wholly contrived report would not get so many details right across so many domains.

Chapters 6 and 7 turn to the main historical criticisms lodged by New Testament scholars against the historicity of Acts. These fall into two categories: (1) alleged theological disparities between Luke’s theology and Paul’s, disparities that scholars allege are difficult to explain if Luke were a faithful companion of Paul; and (2) chronological difficulties between Galatians and Acts on the topic of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem.

Hemer responds to the theological objection by arguing two points: “(1) These apparent conflicts are all matters open to explanation as deriving from different perspectives and contexts. … (2) The essential unity of the New Testament witness must be seen as capable of comprising a considerable degree of internal diversity without this diversity being seen as necessarily problematic as it seems to some” (247).

Hemer’s response to the chronological objection involves identifying “the visit of Acts 9 with that of Gal. 1, and the visit of Acts 11 with that of Gal. 2, the Council [of Jerusalem] visit of Acts 15 not being mentioned because it had not taken place by the time of the writing of Galatians (which on this hypothesis is the earliest of Paul’s epistles)” (247). A crucial objection to this reconstruction of Paul’s itinerary is the belief that references to “Galatia” and the “Galatians” cannot refer to cities visited on Paul’s first missionary journey,” since those cities were not ethnically Galatian (Galatian = Celtic). Rather than understanding “Galatia” and “Galatian” in an ethnic sense, Hemer presents inscriptional evidence that demonstrates a provincial understanding of the terms. Where the ethnic sense of the terms would point to what scholars call the “North Galatian” interpretation, Hemer’s provincial sense of the terms is consistent with a “South Galatian” interpretation.

Chapters 8 and 9 conclude the book with an examination of the authorship, sources, and dating of Acts. Hemer defends the traditional ascription of the Gospel and Acts to Luke, the Gentile convert and doctor-companion of Paul. He argues that Luke wrote Acts based on eyewitness sources whom he interviewed, access to Paul and his companions, and his own participation in the so-called “‘we’ passages” in the second half of Acts. He dates the publication of Acts to A.D. 62, at a time when Paul’s appeal to Caesar Nero in Rome is fast approaching. Hemer’s dating of Acts is probably more controversial than his identification of its author. The majority of contemporary scholars date Luke-Acts post-A.D. 70, with a date in the early 80s being the most common. There are a variety of reasons for this, a major one being the notion that Mark was one of Luke’s sources, and an A.D. 62 date is too early for Mark, let alone Luke.

Obviously, the truth of a matter does not depend on counting the noses of scholars. Hemer pushes back on the notion that a pre-A.D. 70 date for Acts is impossible simply by noting the leading New Testament scholars in the last two centuries—both conservative and liberal—who have affirmed an early date for its writing. Most importantly, he argues that such a date best explains features of the book, such as earliest Christianity’s conflicts with Sadducees, occasional alliance with Pharisees, generally positive portrayal of Roman officials, and the unresolved ending of the book.

So, is the Acts of the Apostles a source of authentic historical information about earliest Christianity?

Insofar as Acts is the sole account of most of the events it reports, its historicity cannot be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. (Proven in the empirical sense. Obviously, Christian scholars will believe its historicity as a confessional matter.) However, Hemer’s patient accumulation of “small and incidental points of fact” makes it possible to believe that Luke intended to report what actually happened. In this reader’s opinion, such facts make it impossible to believe that Luke simply spun a tale out of his own imagination.

The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History is a classic work, though now somewhat dated—the sad fate of nearly all historical scholarship. By criticizing the false choice between interpreting Acts theologically and historically, Hemer contributed to reopening the question of Acts’ historicity. One need not affirm Hemer’s precise reconstruction of the chronology of the events Acts reports or its date of publication to recognize the value of the case he has made for taking Acts seriously as an historical work.

Book Reviewed
Colin J. Hemer, ed. Conrad H. Gempf, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990).

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