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.

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