Thursday, June 30, 2016

Assessing Ernst Haenchen on the Purpose of Acts

I summarized Ernst Haenchen's understanding of the purpose of Acts yesterday (here). Today I want to comment briefly on three key aspects of his model:

1. Authorizing Christianity - The suggestion that Luke wrote to secure approval for the early Christian movement as a "tolerated" religion remains very popular, at least in a modified form. Although some scholars deny that a religio licita category existed in the first two centuries CE (see Maddox, on the one hand, and the fine discussion in Keener, on the other), it is common to suggest that Luke presents Christianity in the Roman world as a legitimate and honorable religious alternative by highlighting its Jewish origins and appealing to the antiquity of its traditions in the Jewish Scriptures. (See e.g., Gerald Downing, Philip Esler, François Bovon, Daniel Marguerat, Craig Keener.)

My question is this: Does a bid for legitimacy in the Roman world adequately explain a trial narrative that appears to address and respond to Jewish concerns--in particular, concerns which I will argue elsewhere have to do with a perceived threat to Jewish identity posed by Paul's Gentile mission? Not impossible, but it seems an odd way to go about it.   

2. Jewish Opposition - Haenchen's model supposes that Jews complained to the Romans that Christian Gentiles were not legitimate Jews and hence were "hostile to the state." But when, where and under what circumstances would Jews care about Gentile Christians, and would they have been in a position to complain to the state after 70 CE? Shaye Cohen's recent comment about the "parting of the ways" seems relevant here:
    "There was no parting of the ways between gentile Christians and non-Christian Jews for the simple reason that their ways had never been united. ... [F]or gentiles who believed in Christ and for Jews who did not, there was no need for a parting of the ways, even if there was a need on occasion for polemic, apologetic, and recrimination" (From the Maccabees to the Mishnah [3rd ed; WJK, 2014], 232-3).
3. An External Audience - Haenchen's claim that Luke's apology in Acts was "designed to win over the Roman authorities" (116) has probably received the most criticism--and rightly so. C.K. Barrett's famous rejoinder is compelling: "No Roman official would ever have filtered out so much of what to him would be theological and ecclesiastical rubbish in order to reach so tiny a grain of relevant apology" (Luke the Historian in Recent Study [London: Epworth, 1961], 63).

Barrett, C. K. Luke the Historian in Recent Study. London: Epworth, 1961.

Bovon, François. “The Law in Luke-Acts.” In Studies in Early Christianity, by Bovon, François, 59–73. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Cohen, Shaye. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. 3rd ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

Downing, Gerald F. “Freedom from the Law in Luke-Acts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (1986): 49–52.

———. “Law and Custom: Luke-Acts and Late Hellenism.” In Law and Religion: Essays on the Place of the Law in Israel and Early Christianity, edited by Barnabas Lindars, 148–58. Cambridge: James Clarke, 1988.

Esler, Philip Francis. Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology. SNTSMS 57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971.

Keener, Craig S. Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 1: Introduction and 1:1--2:47. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

Maddox, Robert. The Purpose of Luke-Acts. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982.

Marguerat, Daniel. The First Christian Historian: Writing the “Acts of the Apostles.” Edited by Gregory J. Laughery and Richard Bauckham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Other posts in this series:
Jewish Christianity in Acts: In Search of a Sitz im Leben
Part 1: Reflections on Hermeneutics and the Purpose of Acts
Part 2: The Purpose of Acts: Some Alternatives
Part 3a: Ernst Haenchen on the Purpose of Acts
Part 3b: Assessing Ernst Haenchen 

Assessing Ernst Haenchen

Ernst Haenchen (1894-1975) is not exactly a household name, except in scholarship on Acts and John. When his contribution to the prestigious German KEK series first appeared in 1955, it quickly established itself as the standard critical commentary on Acts. When a revised edition was translated and added to the NTL series in 1971, W.D. Davies lauded it as "a great work of scholarship" and celebrated its appearance, at last, in English.

Jacob Jervell, whose very different 1998 German commentary on Acts replaced Haenchen's in the same series, described his predecessor's contribution as "the most comprehensive and important work of the critical German post-World War II research on Acts."*

(As an aside, Martin Rese describes how "From the end of the sixties until his death in 1975 Ernst Haenchen took me as one of his discussion-partners. He called me up nearly every day for at least an hour, and we talked about the problems of interpreting Luke-Acts and the gospel of John."** What would that have been like, I wonder?)

(As a second aside, I note with dismay that, according to this German Wikipedia entry, Haenchen was a member of the Nazi party during WWII: That decision may have secured him a promotion during the War, but it cost him his official position, at least, after it was over. Update: See Joseph Tyson's longer discussion of Haenchen here. Tyson does not mention Haenchen's membership in the National Socialist party.)

For my part, I share W. Ward Gasque's judgement that the commentary "is in every way a magnificently impressive piece of scholarship -- a treasury of bibliographical, philological, and exegetical detail. ... Even when one does not agree with the conclusions of the author ... he must confess that Haenchen has made him look at  the text and the problem raised by it from every possible angle" (A History of the Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles [Hendrickson, 1989], 243).

To be sure, Gasque immediately went on to add:
"When all is said and done, however, it must be noted with a sense of disappointment that it is probable that Haenchen's great commentary will be regarded by future generations of scholars more as a historical phenomenon belonging to one era of the history of exegesis than as a lasting contribution to New Testament research. ... [W]hen the storm has subsided and New Testament critics are in a position to look back over the past two or three decades of research from the perspective of history they will, I think, be able to see that the commentary of Haenchen is as tendentious and ultimately as unhistorical as he thinks the author of the Book of Acts was." (Gasque, History, 244).

For better or worse, Gasque's prediction has not come true: Haenchen's commentary remains a classic, and the recent excellent critical commentary by Richard Pervo in the Hermeneia series stands very much in the same tradition. (See this post for my initial reflections on Pervo's commentary.)

*Jacob Jervell as translated and quoted in Martin Rese, "The Jews in Luke-Acts: Some Second Thoughts," in The Unity of Luke-Acts (J. Verheyden, ed.; Leuven: Peeters, 1999), 185-6.
**Martin Rese, "The Jews in Luke-Acts," 185.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Ernst Haenchen on the Purpose of Acts

The introduction to Ernst Haenchen's classic commentary on Acts contains no separate section on the purpose of Acts, but it is clear enough from his discussion that he thinks Acts was written (1) to reassure Christians (a) about the continuation of the Christian story after the death and resurrection of Jesus (i.e., to respond to the delay of the parousia) and (b) about the salvation-historical continuity of Gentile Christianity with the story of Israel (i.e., to demonstrate the legitimacy of the law-free Gentile mission). In addition to reassuring Christians about these two theological issues, Acts was also written to address a political problem. In the face of criticism by Jews, Luke wrote (2) to convince Romans that Gentile Christianity should be tolerated as a religio licita, just as Judaism was:
Luke's narrative suggests "a problem-free, victorious progress on the part of the Christian mission. But in reality Luke the historian is wrestling, from the first page to the last, with the problem of the mission to the Gentiles without the law. His entire presentation is influenced by this. It is a problem with two aspects: a theological and a political. By forsaking observance of the Jewish law Christianity parts company with Judaism; does this not break the continuity of the history of salvation? That is the theological aspect. But in cutting adrift from Judaism Christianity also loses the toleration which the Jewish religion enjoys. Denounced by the Jews as hostile to the state, it becomes the object of suspicion to Rome. That is the political aspect. Acts takes both constantly into account" (100).
Luke's answer to the theological question about salvation-historical continuity also responds to the political problem:
"As a religion of the resurrection, Christianity was in the direct line of succession to Judaism. And one cannot ... expect the Roman State to trouble itself with theological niceties alien to its concern. On the other hand Christianity does not imply any transgression of Roman laws. Consequently the intelligent representatives of Rome always took a benevolent view of the Christian mission" (102).
According to Haenchen, Luke conveys the continuity between Christianity and Judaism (a) by emphasizing that the extension of the Gospel to Gentiles was divinely initiated and (b) by depicting Paul and the apostles--those who first carried the Gospel to Gentiles--as completely law-observant. Haenchen declares that "Luke knows no break in Paul's attitude to the law" (625). Paul's trial narrative, with its stress on Paul's innocence, illustrates this.

But Jewish Christianity was no longer a factor in Luke's Gentile church, and there were no longer any actual positive connections with non-Christian Jews when Luke was writing. In Acts, Jewish Christians (represented by the apostles, the Seven and Paul, etc.) play a symbolic role in witnessing to Jesus and securing the transition to a Gentile Church. This means both that Jewish Christianity has transitioned to Gentile Christianity and that "Christianity was in the direct line of succession to Judaism" (102).

Haenchen seems to suppose that after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, any Jewish Christianity that still existed survived as an inconsequential Christian sect: "Jewish Christians after 70 had become unimportant, and the Gentile Christians were not Paulinists who had to contend with Judaizers for recognition. Luke no longer hoped for the conversion of the Jews" (693).

According to Haenchen, then, Acts depicts Jewish-Christianity as Torah observant, but because Jewish Christianity had, for all intents and purposes, passed from the scene, the church of Luke's day still represents a movement away from Judaism and the law. Although Luke claims continuity with Judaism, the evidence for that continuity lies in the past. Paul, according to Luke, may have been innocent of the charges against him, but the church of Luke's day was not. Luke's Jewish contemporaries were, in fact, right to accuse Christians of opposition to the Torah, Temple and the Jewish people (Acts 21:28). "For Luke the Jews are 'written off'" (128).

This is the third (or fourth) post in a series on the purpose of Acts. The earlier posts in this series, which also link to some of my reflections on the topic from previous years, are here:
Jewish Christianity in Acts: In Search of a Sitz im Leben
Part 1: Reflections on Hermeneutics and the Purpose of Acts
Part 2: The Purpose of Acts: Some Alternatives

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Purpose of Acts: Some Alternatives

In his excellent but now rather dated introduction to scholarship on Acts, Mark Allan Powell organizes proposals about the purpose of Acts into six major categories, which he admits are not mutually exclusive:
  1. Irenic - Acts was written to unify Petrine and Pauline branches of early Christianity (F. C. Baur).
  2. Polemical - Acts was written to respond to and reject heresies within Christianity--either Gnosticism (Talbert) or Jewish Christianity (Jack T. Sanders).
  3. Apologetic - Acts was written to respond to opposition from either Roman or Jewish outsiders. In some forms of this view, Acts is addressed directly to the outsider audience as an attempt to persuade them that, for instance, Christianity should be recognized as a legal religion, as Judaism was (Haenchen). Others argue that Acts was written to Christians to enable them to respond to opposition from outsiders. Jacob Jervell, for example, suggested that Acts was written to a Christian church facing opposition from Jewish opponents. 
  4.  Evangelistic - Acts was written to encourage non-Christian readers to convert to Christianity or to provide a model for Christian witness to non-Christians (F. F. Bruce).
  5. Pastoral - "If the book of Acts is addressed primarily to believers, then Luke's purpose may be to strengthen their faith and to offer them pastoral guidance" (17).
  6. Theological - According to Hans Conzelmann, Acts responds to "a theological crisis in the life of the early church" caused by the delay of the second coming of Jesus.

  7. Mark Allan Powell, What Are They Saying about Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1991), 13-19.
This is a helpful orientation to the topic, but it will not take us very far if we are concerned primarily with the way in which proposals about the purpose of Acts account for the function of the extensive trial narrative in Acts 21-28: I would not have guessed from reading Powell's summary that Ernst Haenchen gave tremendous weight to the trial narrative in the latter chapters of Acts, and insisted that the book was written to legitimate the Gentile mission as well as to convince a Roman audience to treat Christianity as a legal religion. More on Haenchen in the next post.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Reflections on Hermeneutics and the Purpose of Acts

Recent scholarship on the purpose of the book of Acts is in disarray. I will explain below why I think this matters and then suggest two factors that need to be taken into account in any discussion, but first a sketch of the current situation:
  • Although some 20th-century scholars dated Acts before Paul's death in the mid-60's and a few others dated it to the 2nd century, it is fair to say that most scholars during the 20th century were content to locate Acts in the mid-80's CE. I still think a mid-80's date is preferable, but the current trend is to date Luke's second volume to 115 or beyond.
  • Dating is only one relatively minor introductory issue: Was Luke Jewish or Gentile? Was his church composed primarily of Jewish or Gentile Christians? To what extent can we read between the lines of Luke's narrative and recover the issues facing the church in Luke's own day? When does Luke idealize the past and when does he anachronistically impose his own context onto the past? On all these questions scholars remain divided. (For one example, see this post.)

These questions are important because construing the meaning of a text normally (always?) involves reconstructing its purpose. And when you ask why a text was written, you are soon asking when it was written and to whom.  

Before I go on, a few caveats and clarifications are in order:
  1. Reading a text in light of its overall purpose is more important for some texts--and some parts of some texts--than for others. You don't need a specific Sitz im Leben to read much of Genesis well because individual narrative cycles and thematic elements help explain the meaning. In the same way, Acts can be read with profit and insight from the general orientation provided by Luke's preface--Luke writes both volumes to confirm the Gospel (so R. Maddox)--and through attention to major themes.
  2. There is a hermeneutical circle, though not a vicious one. You get at the overall purpose in the first place by considering the details within the text, not primarily from larger models drawn from external evidence about, say, the structure of early Christian communities.
  3. Scholarly reconstructions can be overdone. The 20th century is littered with the remains of ever more elaborate, hypothetical, speculative settings constructed by historical critics to account for the purpose of a book. In such cases, the payoff tends to be limited.  Better to leave questions of setting and purpose unanswered than to impose a model that ignores or results in forced readings of specific details in the text.
  4. Some authors may not be able to articulate why they write, and may only have a general sense of their work's purpose. To take one example, I have been wondering why I am writing this blog post, and I am not at all sure who it is for. Perhaps it is only my attempt to work out for myself what I referred to recently as the great puzzle of the setting and purpose of Acts. Returning to Acts, it is possible that Luke included some episodes in Acts simply because they were interesting--they made a good story.
Nevertheless, I am persuaded by recurring emphases in the text itself that Luke wrote to address specific issues or, to put it another way, as he was writing Acts, he was preoccupied with specific questions. If it is true that "We can understand a text only when we have understood the question to which it is an answer" (Collingwood/Gadamer), what was Luke's question? 

I suggest that any construal of the purpose of Acts needs to take seriously the prominence of the Jews and Judaism at the beginning and end of Acts. The first 7 chapters of Acts announce the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel in the Jewish community of Jesus followers, a community that by chapter 6 has emerged as a separate Jewish sect. The final 8 chapters insist that in extending salvation to the Gentiles Paul (representing Jewish Christianity as a whole) has not violated the law.

Identifying Luke's emphasis on the Jewish beginning and Jewish ending of Acts is not yet an articulation of his question, but it provides a means of evaluating other attempts to summarize the purpose of Acts.

No promises, but I hope to return to the topic in another post or--don't hold your breath--a series of posts.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Back up your data!

My computer suffered a catastrophic failure last weekend, and is now in process of being replaced. Because it was one of those fantastic light-weight "tablets that can replace your laptop," it is impossible to remove the hard disk to recover its contents (without destroying the computer)--and my last backup was 3 weeks before the crash.

I knew, of course, that I should back up regularly and that my usual practice of periodic back-ups wasn't sufficient. I also had the sense that another back-up was past due. But since there were no signs of imminent collapse, I didn't get to it in time.

On the positive side, I only lost one (very productive) day from the notes I was taking in Zotero, and only 3 weeks of everything else. And it wasn't the worst time to lose data: It wasn't mid-semester and I wasn't in the thick of drafting an essay.

Still, one week later, I am still trying to remember, record, and retrace my steps as well as I can, and it will be some time before a permanent replacement will be in hand and ready for work.

Lesson learned, I hope. In future, my computer will be set to back up automatically to an external hard drive, and/or to my institution's server, and/or to the cloud. I recommend you do the same.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity

I am happy to announce the release (in July) of Torah Ethics and Early Christian Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), edited by my friend and colleague, Susan Wendel, and yours truly.

The book is dedicated to our Doktorvater, Stephen Westerholm, whose interest in matters of Torah and ethics is long-standing.

The volume explores a question that is sometimes overlooked in the larger academic discussion about the role of the law in early Christianity: How did the Torah continue to serve as a positive reference point for Christians regardless of whether or not they thought Torah observance remained essential?

For those who care about such things, it should be clear from the roster of contributors that the essays do not hew to a particular "old" or "new" perspective:


Anders Runesson, "Entering a Synagogue with Paul: First-Century Torah Observance"

John W. Martens, "The Meaning and Function of the Law in Philo and Josephus"

Wesley G. Olmstead, "Jesus, the Eschatological Perfection of Torah, and the imitatio Dei in Matthew"

S. A. Cummins, "Torah, Jesus, and the Kingdom of God in the Gospel of Mark"

David M. Miller, "Reading Law as Prophecy: Torah Ethics in Acts"

Adele Reinhartz, "Reproach and Revelation: Ethics in John 11:1–44"

Scot McKnight, "The Law of the Laws: James, Wisdom, and the Law"

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, "Questions about Nomos, Answers about Christos: Romans 10:4 in Context"

Terence L. Donaldson, "Paul, Abraham’s Gentile 'Offspring,' and the Torah"

Richard B. Hays, "The Conversion of the Imagination: Scripture and Eschatology in 1 Corinthians"


Susan J. Wendel, "Torah Obedience and Early Christian Ethical Practices in Justin Martyr"

Peter Widdicombe, "The Law, God, and the Logos: Clement and the Alexandrian Tradition"

Stephen Westerholm, "Canonical Paul and the Law"

You can pre-order your copy today from the Eerdmans website (for $35; listed as shipping July 26) or from Amazon (for $25.52; listed as shipping July 7).