In this extended series of posts, I hope to shed some light on the issue of how authors in the first century went about recording speeches in historical writings and more specifically, Luke’s account of the speeches found in his Acts of the Apostles.
There are several questions at hand: How did Luke include speeches that most likely he did not hear in person in his account of the Acts of the Apostles? Can these speeches be taken as authentic? Did Luke fashion the speeches to fit the story he was writing? How might this affect the veracity of the account?
My investigation will focus more on the historical and literary points to consider, but ultimately, the study has important apologetic implications and I will address those in Part 7.
So, let’s begin!
Upon even a cursory reading of the book of Acts, the importance of the speeches contained therein is readily apparent. The sheer amount of space given over to this type of discourse reveals one overarching fact: the author of this book used speeches with purpose. Of course, discerning this purpose within the study of Luke-Acts has been the quandary of bible scholars for years. Questions regarding the authorship of the speeches, their historicity, and their theology abound. As such, the purpose of this essay will be to survey the speeches of the book of Acts with a view to answering some fundamental questions that arise from their study. Upon review of some very general observations about these speeches, topics such as the sources of the speeches, traditional opinions on the speeches and how they should be studied, their form, function, and themes will be analyzed with a view to proposing their purpose within the book of Acts.
The speeches of the book of Acts occupy some 25 percent of the narrative within the book of Acts (Aune 125). Stated from another angle, Marion Soards wrote that 365 verses out of the total 1000 in the book of Acts are given over to speeches and dialogues (Soards 1).
In order to grasp the basic message of these speeches and their placement within the book, Soards’ model of delineating them in sequence can be referenced in the Appendix.
One of the first things a modern student of the book of Acts must do is realign their understanding of how historical narrative, and especially in this case, the speeches within the narrative were written. In the twenty-first century, moderns seem to want “just the facts.” Yet, curiously, despite the popularity of The History Channel, it is a good story that causes millions to flock to the box office every year. This is just the type of realignment necessary for a more pure understanding of the writing of historical narrative in Luke’s time. In a recent work, Barbara Shellard wrote that,
ancient historians were primarily trained not in history but in rhetoric, which formed the basis of their educational system. They aimed to convince the reader of the truth of their account of events, and the speeches they wrote were appropriate for the circumstances rather than verbatim records. (19)
Therefore, ancient historians such as Thucydides in the fifth century B.C.E. used speeches to enhance their report by fashioning speeches “in character” (Bailey 166). The ability to do this was a rhetorical skill known as “prosopopoeia,” which might be better understood in this generation as a form of literary impersonation (Lanham 124). The question of why this was done is a valid one, especially because it seems foreign to our twenty-first century understanding of history writing. One must consider at least two main reasons, and yet a third that should set the mind at ease concerning the constructing of speeches. First, as a rhetorical device, a speech might have been inserted to make the narrative more interesting for the reader. Second, even if a speech was actually given by the character in question, it was most likely not transcribed for the history writer to reference at a later date. Finally, it developed one’s impression of the character, just as similarly, in the movies, the personality, motives, and actions of characters are developed (Bailey 166-167). It is important, then, in the words of Shellard, to “judge Luke’s writing by the standards of his own time, and not our own” (19). Perhaps, then, a more realistic appreciation for Luke as a writer in his own day as compared to ours can be grasped.
However, must the conclusion be reached that all writers of history used such fanciful methods in the improvising of speeches? Moreover, would Luke have done this? The answer is increasingly being answered in the negative as scholars of late have begun to look past a historical-traditional approach and move toward a more focused understanding of the importance of each speech within Luke’s narrative (Green 11). From the opening of his gospel, Luke’s intent can be discerned. For he states that he desired to:
set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4 NRSV)
These words clearly affirm that the research Luke did was indeed “careful” and “orderly.” Luke’s choice of the word diegesis, “an orderly description of facts, events, actions or words” (Lk. 1:1) and diegeomai, “to give a detailed account of something in words” (Lk. 8:39; 9:10; Acts 16:10; 9:27; 12:17; 16:40) reveal that he went to great lengths to ensure a truthful account (BDAG). As such, Luke’s purpose in writing historical literature can be placed in a most honorable category, in that he chose to see truth reign in his account in comparison to what was both accepted and popular within the same genre of his day. Further, one must not forget that had Luke not, as best he could have, faithfully represented the speeches of the apostles of the early church, Luke-Acts most likely would not have achieved canonical status after generations of careful review and critique by his peers in the faith. A final note on the issue should also be made regarding Luke’s choice of the word “diegesis” in Luke 1:1 over Mark’s use of “euangellion” with reference to the gospel narrative (Aune 116). This drives home the point that Luke clearly chose to be as faithful as possible to the truth of the events of the life and death of Jesus Christ. Indeed, to prove that his intent had changed with the Acts narrative would be no simple feat. In fact, Gasque explicitly writes, “those who believe that the author of Acts invented speeches tend to dismiss the speeches of the third gospel…as evidence for the author’s methodology in the Book of Acts” (62). To posit that Luke did not remain faithful to his stated purpose is tantamount to discrediting him; the burden of proof rests with the critic.
At this point, the sources Luke might have used must be considered. Invariably, Luke could have used any combination of eyewitness accounts, oral traditions, and written reports available to him at the time of his writing Luke-Acts. Aune, while revealing the unlikelihood that written evidence was in existence, wrote that Luke had three options with regard to the material used for the speeches:
(1) To interview those present or (if he were present) to recall the substance of what was actually spoken,
(2) To freely improvise speeches according to the principle of appropriateness
(3) To combine research and memory with free composition. (125)
Aune goes on to state that Luke used option number three. This is highly plausible, but quite possibly insufficient. If, as James Dunn has so well stated in his recent work “Jesus In Oral Memory” that oral tradition played a large part in the sources used to compose the gospels, perhaps it is just as plausible that such oral traditions were passed on from gathering to gathering as the early church met and discussed the faith, words, and deeds of the major characters in the book of Acts. Dunn even uses Luke’s retelling of the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts as the primary example of his faithful handling of oral tradition, stating that he would indeed handle the oral traditions of Jesus in like manner (9). More will be written about this in the discussion of the content of the speeches in Acts, but Dunn’s point about the oral traditions of the early church, especially as they relate to Luke, must not be overlooked. Further adding to the category of Luke’s credibility, Dunn writes that,
Luke was himself a good story-teller, and that his retelling of the story of Paul’s conversion is a good example not simply of the use of oral tradition in a written work, but of the oral traditioning process as a whole.” (9)
So then, it appears that at the very least, there was also the well of oral tradition that Luke would have been able to draw from in order to carefully transmit the essence of the speeches within their proper historical context, thus fulfilling his purpose from the beginning. Overall, for these reasons, it seems unlikely that while some ancient historians could and did fashion speeches for the sake of their purpose that Luke would have done the same. Perhaps, in Luke’s estimation, this literary device was simply an unnecessary convention for the material he was writing.
Aune, David. The New Testament in Its Literary Environment. Philadelphia: Westminster,
Dunn, James D.G. “Jesus in Oral Memory: The Initial Stages of the Jesus Tradition.”
NTGateway. June 2000. <http://www.ntgateway.com/Jesus/dunn.rtf>
Gasque, W. Ward. “The Book of Acts and History.” Unity and Diversity in New Testament
Theology: Essays in Honor of George E. Ladd. Ed. R. A. Guelich. Grand Rapids:
Green, J. B. “Acts of the Apostles.” DLNT. Eds. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids.
Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1997.
Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Second Ed. Berkeley: University, 1991.
Plumacher, E. “diegeomai.” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 1. Eds. H. Balz
and G. Schneider. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.
Shellard, Barbara. New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources, and Literary Contexts.
JSNT Supp. 215. Exec. Ed. Stanley E. Porter. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
Soards, Marion. The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Contexts, and Concerns. Louisville: