Thursday, April 15, 2010

Acts of the Apostles: Insights and Implications of Talbert's Work (Part 1)

One of the most important monographs I have read on Luke-Acts is Charles Talbert's, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes (1974).[1] Here I’d like to share some insights drawn from Talbert’s work. I’d like to go on and then talk about the implications of his analysis for other issues, such as dating the book and our understanding of the apostles’ ministry.

Of course, liturgically, this is the right time of the year to be looking at Acts. During the Easter season the lectionary readings are drawn from this important, though often neglected, book.

This is going to be a multi-part series so: stay tuned! Frankly, I’m also hoping that by stretching it out a bit over a series of posts this might give time for others to spread the word about this series.

So, please, help me get the word out. Thanks!

Luke-Acts as a Unity

First, let me give some backdrop. As most people know, the author of the Gospel of Luke is the only New Testament writer who wrote a sequel to his Gospel.[2] Acts is written as a follow-up to the Gospel of Luke. The book relates the history[3] of the early Church beginning with Jesus’ ascension and ending with Paul’s preaching in Rome.

The important unity of the works is clear from simply reading the introductions to the two books:
Luke 1:1–4: Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent The-ophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.

Acts 1:1–3: In the first book, O The-ophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.
The similarities in the introductions are significant, e.g., both books are written to "Theophilus," and play into the larger similarities between the two books I will discuss further down the road.
Here though let us notice a key element in the introduction to Act. Acts 1 explains the purpose of Luke as relaying “all that Jesus began to do and teach”. Richard Burridge puts it well: “. . . the description of the first book as ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς, what ‘Jesus began to do and teach,’ suggests that Luke’s second volume recounts what ‘Jesus goes on to do and teach’ in the continuation of the same story.”[4] As we shall see, Acts, in a certain sense, shows us how Jesus continues his ministry in the life of the Church.

Why Do you Persecute Me?
The close relationship between Jesus and the Church is highlighted in the story of Paul’s conversion. Saul/Paul, on his way to Damascus sees a great light and is knocked to the ground on the road. He hears a voice speaking to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. . .” (Acts 9:4-5).

Note here Jesus’ exact words: “Why do you persecute me?” Saul could have easily answered, “I’m not persecuting you―I am going after your disciples.” However, it seems Jesus’ words illustrate precisely the critical point which is emphasized over and over again in the book of Acts: Jesus is to be identified with his Church. I think Paul reflected on the significance of these words his entire life. The ecclesiology of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ seems to flow from reflection on this thought. As Paul says elsewhere, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Thus, as Christ lived in his earthly body, he now lives in the Church. What he did in his earthly body he now does in his Mystical Body. This thought is fleshed out throughout the book of Acts as Talbert especially underscores. Let me explain. . .

[Continue to Part 2].

[1] Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press, 1974.
[2] Some have tried to make a case that Luke should not be considered the author of the two works (cf. A.W. Argyle, “The Greek of Luke and Acts,” NTS 20 (1973–74): 441–45; J. Wenham, “The Identification of Luke,” EvQ 63 (1991): 3–44. I have discussed Martin Hengel’s work elsewhere regarding the authenticity of the superscriptions of the Gospel (see "Naming Names" near the bottom of this post). I am not going to rehash all that here. In sum, I see no reason to deny the unanimous testimony of the early church regarding Luke’s authorship of either the third Gospel or the book of Acts. In fact, truth be told, I think arguments against Lukan authorship fail on a number of grounds. Thus here I side with the vast majority of scholars who think Luke indeed is the author of both books. See the important convincing recent discussion in Darrell Bock, Acts (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). I largely agree with Bock’s conclusion: “In sum, the external evidence strongly favors Luke as the writer of Acts. That no other Pauline companion was ever put forward as the author of this work when many such candidates existed is key evidence. It is true that the internal considerations and theological emphases raise questions about whether Luke is the author; but not to a degree that cancels out the likelihood that he was the author and that the tradition has the identification correct.” I might add here that the given the strong evidence favoring the authenticity of the superscription of Luke’s Gospel, the “internal” evidence is far less ambiguous than even Bock suggests here. Other scholars who favor Lukan authorship include, e.g., Martin Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul: Studies in the Earliest History of Christianity (London: SCM, 1983), 97–128; F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (rev. ed.; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 7. See also the fuller bibliography in A. Wikenhauser and J. Scmid, Einleitung in das Neue Testament (6th ed.; Freiburg im B.: 1973).
[3] Here I will not give a long discussion on the genre of Acts. I side with those who have argued―I think rather definitively―that the work should be classified in the genre of Greco-Roman history, though it certainly has certain overlaps with other kinds of writing. Again, the most recent discussion offered by Bock (Acts, 1–3) should be consulted by those interested in learning more.
[4] Richard Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 228.


Mitch said...

I am pleased to see my old professor highlighted, and have always thought his work should be more widely discussed. I was an undergraduate student with Dr. Talbert when this book was published. He laid a foundation for my approach to New Testament interpretations that is still with me today.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thanks Michael
I have been asking (in random comments and on my own blog) about what the Church is to be seen as. My own prejudice is from what I find in the TNK - an anointing every bit as lovely as the NT. So I am looking for a 'Church' that goes beyond a 'beginning' in the year +x.

I worship in a high Anglican church and I am not likely to become either RC or Jewish. In 'fear and trembling' combined with passion and joy, through the gift of his death for me and my being in him, I find myself 'in Christ' as Paul says. How will I allow a wider view than the parochial?

Guessing that you don't read the place I dropped my last comment, I repeat it here - hoping I might stimulate you to a post on the subject.

--- comment on Jesus creed (re HJ studies and responses)
When you say you choose the Church's story, what do you include in 'Church'? In his response to you, Wright writes: Jesus must have been recognizably (if crucifiably) Jewish, and recognizably (if uniquely) the starting point for what we now call "the church."

Is there no Church before the time of Jesus? When the gospel writers write of Jesus saying "on this rock will I build my Church" are they thinking, or was Jesus thinking, about a future assembly only?

Even if I stop at the implication that 'the Church' exists before the time of Jesus, I can't understand how your adjective 'the Church's' can help identify which Jesus you speak of - Roman, Orthodox, Reformed, Protestant, etc, etc? Which 'assembly' will I trust? What parochialism will I submit to?

Unfortunately, this is a question to which I see no answer. I am torn between a radical individual unsharable apprehension of the Anointing and what I know must be a 'great assembly' (Psalm 22) before which the name of the Lord will be proclaimed. And I don't see that assembly as adequately represented by any identifiable body on earth alone. Maybe you might like to write about what you mean by 'the Church'.

Michael Barber said...


I am glad to see that a former Talbert student approves of this post. I met him for the first time last year at the Catholic Biblical Association. He was so warm and friendly--his kindness testified to the fact that he is not only a Scripture scholar but a man who lives what he has learned. It was a pleasure to meet him in the flesh.


I LOVE your comment. Indeed, I think I will write more on what I mean by "church". In fact, in my doctoral dissertation I spent about 100 pages on Matthew 16:17-19 and dealt with the word "church" in detail. I will definitely share some of my thoughts in a future post. Thanks so much for the suggestion!

Michael Barber said...


I do read Jesus Creed, though I do not often participate in the comment boxes. If I start writing it consumes me too much and I spend hours there.

Bob MacDonald said...

Thank you Michael - I will look forward to it. Just to cast the net wide - I note this remarkable and positive post from Irshad Manji on the nature of the Roman Catholic Church.

Loga'Abdullah said...

I reviewed Irshad Manji’s book here – I think you may find it interesting

Feel free to contact me if you have any comments or suggestions about this book review.