Richard I. Pervo,
Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists.
Polebridge Press, 2006.
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
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
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?