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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?"

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