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Richard I. Pervo, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists. Polebridge Press, 2006.

Reviewed by Robert M. Price


Can God create a scholarly monument so great that he cannot carry it off? Who knows? But it is clear Richard Pervo can aim so high and manage to carry it off. He has done it in Dating Acts, in which he has, to my satisfaction, settled the questions of whether the author of Acts knew and used both the Pauline canon and Josephus, and when Acts was written: in the second century (about 115, though I think it better to tag it 150).

Did Acts’ author know the Pauline letters? Most say no, given the wide gap between Paul as he appears in those texts and as he appears in Acts (see Philipp Vielhauer’s famous essay, “The ‘Paulinism’ of Acts”). But Pervo gives a wiser answer: Acts’ author must have known the letters, since close statistical analysis shows he has mined them for characteristic Pauline language (e.g., the famous use of “justification” language in Acts 13). But he makes the mistake of having Paul speak like he wrote, not as he spoke, since he did not know the latter, not being an acquaintance of the apostle. Here I think of a modern parallel: Peter H. Cannon wrote a novel called Pulptime featuring authors H.P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long teaming up with Sherlock Holmes to solve a mystery. Cannon knew Lovecraft only from reading his highly formalistic fiction and his light-heartedly slangy letters. The aging Long Cannon knew personally. Long read the manuscript and pointed out that Cannon had depicted Lovecraft speaking in the same amusing slang idiom he only used in correspondence, whereas in person Lovecraft used to speak in perfect, formal Latinate sentences! So with Paul in Acts. He is made to speak lines from Ephesians and Corinthians.

But then why the gap pointed out by Vielhauer? Because the Acts author is separated from Paul by years of history and of theological (d)evolution. He is a second-century Paulinist like the author of the Pastorals. Plus, the author of Acts is a reconciling Catholic, which is why, no matter what his sources say, his characters are going to wind up sounding largely the same. (Similarly, all the “eyewitnesses” of Jesus in Jesus the Son of Man sound like their common author Kahlil Gibran.)

It is refreshing to see Pervo spill the insides of apologists Ben Witherington III and Colin Hemer, who otherwise manage to receive way too much serious regard. When Pervo is done with them, they sag like empty piñatas, only his blows reveal that neither donkey ever possessed any candy inside. Just one example: Pervo shows the gross inconsistency between believing on the one hand that Acts’ author knew Paul personally and on the other that he was not familiar with Paul’s letters.

As for Acts’ use of Josephus, Pervo shows in case after case that the most economical argument is that Acts depends on Josephus, rather than the two of them sharing unknown “common sources.” He is able to unscramble various problems in Acts’ representation of history as resulting from misreadings of Josephus by Luke-Acts’ author.

A survey of words and phrases held in common by Acts on the one hand and the Deutero-Paulinists and the Apostolic Fathers on the other demonstrates that Acts belongs very clearly on the latter side of the divide. As does a thematic comparison between Acts and theological themes in the second-century apologists.

Though Pervo has made his case even more strongly than one might have asked, there are still other fields of comparison that would have shown the proper place of Acts in the second century, namely Acts’ relation to both the Hellenistic novels and the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. Pervo’s occasional references to these makes one wish he had devoted extensive attention to them, too. But then one recalls that he already did. His wonderful book Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (1987) already covered this ground. It would not be too much to regard the present volume as a timely sequel to Profit with Delight.

Finally, one regrets to report that Dating Acts features a few too many typographical errors. An interesting discussion of the ascension suddenly appears unheralded amid comparisons of second-century vocabulary. A paragraph trails off with a hanging comma. Usage veers back and forth between the German preference “Lukan” and the Franco-British choice “Lucan.” And so on. But who cares? As James Orr once said concerning the Bible, it is such a great monument, why quibble over a couple of sandstone flecks in the marble foundation?


Copyright©2009 by Robert M Price
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