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New Testament Historiography: The Gospels and Acts

The understanding of ancient history writing also has important implications for the New Testament, especially the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the book of Acts.62 See David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), 17–76. For useful overviews, see Frans Neirynck, “Gospel, Genre of,” The Oxford Companion of the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 258–59; and Willem S. Vorster, “Gospel Genre,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, 1077–79. New Testament scholars debate the genre of the Gospels. The tendency was to see them as a unique genre founded in popular traditions and stories about Jesus that had become the core beliefs of the early church. More recently, scholars have begun to explore other genres and have pointed increasingly to ancient biography, a subgenre of ancient history writing, for analogies.

Even so, the Gospels are not biographies in a modern sense. They do not present a comprehensive account of Jesus's life. For instance, they relate virtually nothing about Jesus's childhood. Rather, they use the story of Jesus to bring theological instruction to their respective audiences—to persuade them about Jesus's identity and nature, and to hold up Jesus's character and teachings as models to be emulated and followed.

Thus, something as presumably straightforward as a genealogy becomes a vehicle for theological instruction. Matthew (Matt 1:1–17), targeting Jews or Jewish Christians, begins Jesus's genealogy with Abraham in order to stress Jesus's Jewish identity. The writer includes the list of kings of Judah, showing that Jesus is qualified to be the Messiah or “anointed” in the line David. Luke's genealogy for Jesus (Luke 3:23–38) differs because his audience is different. He traces Jesus's line all the way back to Adam, making the point for his primarily Greek readers that Jesus's ministry was for all people.

Mark and John do not include a genealogy, perhaps because of their stress on Jesus as the son of God. John, whose work differs entirely from the other three Gospels, is explicit about his purpose in writing. It is not to recount exactly what happened during Jesus's lifetime but to convert the reader to faith in Christ (John 20:31). To be sure, there is genuine historical and biological information behind the Gospels. But like other ancient works of history, their main purpose relates to theological instruction rather than historical accuracy or detail. And like other ancient works of history, including ancient biography, the Gospels may contain materials that are fictional or based on plausibility rather than actual fact.

Much the same is true of the book of Acts.63 See Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 77–157. Acts is a continuation—volume two, so to speak—of Luke's Gospel. In the prologue to the Gospel (Luke 1:1–4), Luke notes that he conducted the kind of research that was the essence and root meaning of ancient history. He drew on examples of history writing and biography in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospel of Mark, and the Greco-Roman world in general in composing his two-volume work. Acts relates the history of the early church. But it is ancient history writing and does not meet the standards of modern historiography. Following the conventions of other ancient historians, Luke composed the speeches and letters in the book of Acts according to what he deemed appropriate to the occasion. He may also have invented some of the stories in the book, again according to what seemed appropriate.

Continuing the primary interest established in his Gospel, Luke is concerned to show the spread of Christianity beyond its Jewish origins. In particular, Luke traces the growth of the new faith, in the work of Paul, to Rome. Thus, he does not follow up on the spread of Christianity in Ethiopia in the wake of the conversion of the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26–4). Instead, he focuses on the controversy following the conversion of the centurion Cornelius (Acts 10–15) as part of his attempt to show that Christianity is not a threat to the Roman Empire. The historical accuracy of the book of Acts is a matter of ongoing debate. However, it is important to recognize that historical inaccuracy and invention would not disqualify Acts as a useful and significant example of ancient history writing—indeed, the first church history.

Notes:

62. See David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, Library of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), 17–76. For useful overviews, see Frans Neirynck, “Gospel, Genre of,” The Oxford Companion of the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 258–59; and Willem S. Vorster, “Gospel Genre,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, 1077–79.

63. See Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment, 77–157.

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