Saturday, November 11, 2006

How much does Acts shuffle events?

Today I'm reflecting just a little on the question of the extent to which Luke-Acts might move and combine various events to make for economic, artistic, and theological presentation.

If we start with Luke, we have some relatively firm evidence on this topic. Regardless of which of the dominant hypotheses you follow on the synoptic question, Luke is using either Mark, Matthew, or something like them. In any of these cases it is reasonable to think that if an event in Luke appears in a significantly different place, then Luke has likely moved it there for some reason.

One such event is Jesus' visit to his hometown. In Mark and Matthew this occurs well into the story: Mark 6:1-5 and Matthew 13:53-58. The similarities in these two accounts makes it highly likely that we are looking at the same traditional material, particularly the key point: "a prophet is not without honor in his hometown" (Mark 6:4; Matt. 13:57).

But in Luke, Jesus' visit to Nazareth occurs at the very beginning of his ministry, and there is a good deal of dialog that does not appear in Mark or Matthew. Is it the same traditional material, but placed at the beginning of Luke to present a kind of "inaugural address"? We have the same key point: "No prophet is accepted in his hometown" (Luke 4:24). This does not preclude the possibility that Luke drew the dialog material from other sources, but it would imply that he has intentionally shifted some things around and perhaps combined some incidences.

And as Luke follows the sequence of Mark and Matthew, the hometown visit is missing later (in fact does not appear elsewhere).

Here are the orders of events in the same "neighborhood" of the synoptics:

Mark: Parable of Seeds, Jesus calms storm, a dead girl and sick woman, prophet without honor, Jesus sends out 12, John the Baptist story

Matthew: Jesus calms storm, ... dead girl and sick woman, ... Jesus (talks about) sending out the 12, ... Parable of Seeds, prophet without honor, John the Baptist story

Luke: Parable of Seeds, ... Jesus calms storm, ... a dead girl and a sick woman, X, Jesus sends out 12 ...

It is thus reasonable to think that Luke has moved this event to become the "lead off hitter" in his presentation of Jesus. I won't die for it, but it seems to be the most logical conclusion given the evidence (add usual allowances that X doesn't always mark the spot), and I can't think of any faith considerations that forbid us from following the evidence.

I might just pause to say that I don't believe this contradicts the idea that Luke is inspired. We see the evidence for these kinds of modifications so often that I think it is unhelpful either to deny them or spend one's time explaining them away. Rather I think we need to sever the connection our culture tends to make between inspiration and the question of exact history. There is no problem with the text. The problem is with us. From my point of view, how can we even begin to talk maturely about the meaning of the biblical texts if we will not allow them to do and say what they seem to do and say?

Either to ignore these kinds of issues completely because they are "irrelevant" (I'm making no claim here that they are most relevant) or to deny them as untrue stunts the maturation of our theology. These issues should not be the main focus of our use of the text to be sure, but a mature use of Scripture is aware of them and integrates them at some level into its functioning. How could hiding our head in the sand be the sign of a healthy faith?

Well, this post is long enough so I'll leave the discussion there. Other candidates are the "Jerusalem Council" of Acts 15--is it Luke's version of Galatians 2? Another issue in the interpretation of Luke is why he has omitted a series of events around the sea of Galilee (the "great omission" of Mark 6:45-8:26). Vernon Robbins suggests it is in lieu of the sea adventures of Paul in Acts? I don't know about that one. It is interesting that 2 Corinthians 11 already tells us of shipwreck and a day and a night at sea long before Acts' day and a night at sea. Has Luke transplanted this event to the end of Paul's ministry for some reason?

Does Luke sometimes shuffle events to make theological points clearer, to conserve space, and to enhance the effect of the story? If so, what would be the implications for how we use Luke-Acts as Scripture, in our ministries, and in our personal lives?

First, it pushes us to focus on the theology of Luke more than the history behind Luke. Rearrangement of things might actually at times make Luke's theology clearer to us. The "inaugural address" of Luke 4, for example, tells us that Luke saw Jesus' earthly ministry as one that focused on the poor and disempowered. By placing this incident first, he sets the tone for the rest of Jesus' ministry.

And we have been right to read the first chapters of Acts as what the church should be like. This is in fact one of the main things I believe we are meant to take from these chapters. But we shouldn't moan that we are not like them and spend all our time trying to "get back" to the good old days. There's a fair chance that Luke hasn't told us all the warts of the earliest church (we learn some of them from Paul).

Second, we must listen to Luke's theology alongside of Paul and the other books. It is a mistake to blur the theologies together or dismiss parts of them in some quest to make history the common ground. Our theology is where we find the common ground, in dialog with "tradition, reason, and experience." So John has his own hint of Pentecost in 20:22. But we can't splice this with Acts to say that the disciples had already received the Holy Spirit before the Day of Pentecost. In the narrative world of Luke-Acts Pentecost is explicitly the fulfillment of Luke 3:16 (Acts 1:4) and no one has received the Spirit before that time.

I believe that a deep theology of inspiration and a mature use of Scripture will integrate these kinds of concerns into its use of biblical texts. It will neither fail to take them into account using irrelevancy as an excuse nor will it expend its efforts on ingenious attempts to harmonize texts together. I just don't see any other way if we truly want to listen to these texts for what they seem to say and continue to believe that God is a God of truth.

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