On the Speeches In Acts – Part 2 of 8

With an understanding of how speeches were crafted in historical narrative, and some background information presented regarding Luke’s sources, a brief sketch of the traditional views regarding the speeches in Acts may now be addressed.

It is not an understatement to point out that Martin Dibelius’ work on the speeches in Acts cleared the way for the recent tide of research on the topic.  As Joel Green points out in his article on the “Acts of the Apostles,” since Dibelius, there have been two schools of thought with regard to the study of the speeches in Acts.  One school, led by Dibelius, classifies the speeches in tradition and history and examines them as Lukan instruments of discourse.  The other led by more recent scholars such as Tannehill and Soards classify the speeches by their setting and elements and seek to understand how they unfold the narrative (Green 11).  In the midst of this has surfaced, as Green puts it, a “via media” in the writings of C. H. Gempf, through which,

literary aspirations do not preclude historical value, and the presence of Lukan style and theology in the speeches of Acts does not necessarily lead to the inference that these speeches are Lukan in origin. (11)

Clearly, while the extremes of two schools of thought have been established, the false dilemma of having to accept one or the other is absurd.  Yet, a via media, which states that Luke “would compose a speech in keeping with what could be known of the traditional data available to him” seems to be nothing more than a nod in the direction of Dibelius (Achtemeier 264).  More realistically, if one school of thought states that Luke made up the speeches because it was an accepted method of writing, and another school of thought states that he carefully sought to represent actual speeches in his writing, then perhaps a more pure via media would acknowledge that Luke used credible sources to carefully transmit, albeit according to both popular and Lukan style, the content of actual speeches given according to God’s purposes.

Then again, what if the whole idea of creating speeches cannot be clearly proven?

From this perspective come the words of some who think it quite impossible to assert that the fashioning of speeches “in character” can even be proven at all.  Stanley Porter has come up with “several problematic words or phrases” in Thucydides’ statement on speech writing (Paul, 110).  He even questions the idea of the legitimacy of a “Thucydidean View” (NovT, 121-142).  Others, who comparatively scan the historical horizon for writers who practiced such methods concede, as C. W. Fornara did, that, “there was no convention of inventing speeches for historical works,” and McCoy goes on to state “though some armchair and highly encomiastic historians, who did not bother to investigate their subject matter closely or inquire of the witnesses what was said, did so” (28).  As already clearly stated above, Luke does not fit into the category of an “armchair historian.”  McCoy further points out that there was an ongoing debate in Luke’s time and just before it regarding this issue.  He writes that, “Livy, whose use of sources can be checked when he draws on a speech from Polybius, does not seem to have engaged in the free invention of speeches; rather ‘he substantially reproduced the source-content of the speeches he inherited from others’” (McCoy 28).  It seems, then, that there might be more similarity between Luke and Polybius than Luke and Thucydides.  If we believe Luke really did careful research, then it makes sense to put these two men in the same class of writers.

One final and most compelling point that McCoy makes is regarding the “internal debate among historians” even before the Roman Empire who argued “whether distortion or free invention was allowable in a historical work in the service of higher rhetorical aims” (McCoy 29).  It becomes increasingly clear, then, that the idea of a “Thucydidean View” is a phantom, perhaps only visible to a few.  In light of this evidence, perhaps it should not be so difficult to give Luke the benefit of doubt with regard to his sources and purpose in the faithful representation of the speeches of the book of Acts, especially when he can be so trusted with other historical facts, names, and places.

How, then, did Luke shape and craft the speeches to fit into the whole of the book of Acts?  What was their substance?  How did they relate, if at all, to those of his contemporaries?

To begin to answer these questions, the issue of form should first be addressed.  In short, Luke’s speeches had similar essential elements to those of his contemporaries, yet were specifically diverse.  In general, the essential elements, at least in the major speeches and somewhat in the minor speeches, can be seen in the standard forms of the Greco-Roman speech:

1.        exordium/prooimion…catches the audience’s attention

2.        narration/prothesis…sets forth the facts / proof/pistis…sets forth the arguments that support one’s case

3.        peroration/epilogus…sums up arguments and stirs audience…often an impassioned summary  (Lanham 171…114)

4.        interruptio/aposiopesis…stopping suddenly in mid-course, leaving a statement unfinished…sometimes for effect  (Lanham 20)

The points at which Luke’s speeches essentially replicate are seen in the following points:

1.     appeal for hearing, including a connection between the situation and the speech,

2.     christological message supported with scriptural proof,

3.     offer of salvation, and (often)

4.     interruption of the sermon by the audience or by the narrator himself (Achtemeier 264).

Again, in general, these are the four points where most, if not all of the similarities will be found.  Therefore, while there is a similarity in form and style, there are no further viable points of comparison with Greco-Roman speeches (Soards 143).  Beyond that, one may wonder what, if any points of comparison may be found in the Deuteronomic or Hellenistic speeches.  Soards succinctly states that there are some similarities, but especially because of the apologetic tone of many of the speeches of Acts, that there are no real points of comparison (157-160).

At this point the forms and content of the speeches must not only be seen as their most distinctive feature, but their most purposeful as well (Soards 161).  While purpose will be examined more specifically in the next post, one point must be made clear: Luke’s concern was to advance through these speeches a distinct (though not at all points distinctive) view of God’s purpose (Achtemeier 264).  So, while conventional similarities exist in the style or structure, the content forcefully drives home the point of the story – the supernatural revelation of the gospel to all nations through common means.

Achtemeier, P. J., J. B. Green, M. M. Thompson.  Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature

and Theology.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.

Aune, David.  The New Testament in Its Literary Environment.  Philadelphia: Westminster,


Dibelius, Martin.  “The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography.”  Studies in the Acts of the

Apostles. Ed. Heinrich Greeven.  Trans. Mary Ling.  New York: Scribner’s, 1956.

Green, J. B.  “Acts of the Apostles.”  DLNT.  Eds. R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids.

Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1997.

McCoy, W. J.  “In the Shadow of Thucydides.”  History, Literature, and Society in the Book of

Acts. Ed. Ben Witherington.  Cambridge: University Press, 1996.

Porter, Stanley.  The Paul of Acts: Essays in Literary Criticism, Rhetoric, and Theology.

WUNT 115.  Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.

_____.  “Thucydides 1.22.1 and Speeches in Acts: Is There A Thucydidean View?”  NovT 32.

1990.  121-142.

Soards, Marion.  The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Contexts, and Concerns.  Louisville:

Westminster/Knox, 1994.

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