August 6, 2022

Prioritizing Representation Despite Fictionalization (Acts)

 Suppose for the sake of this argument that the book of Acts is a forgery, an elaborate fiction, composed decades after the fact by someone who did not actually travel with Paul of Tarsus, as the narrative claims. Obviously, every claim by the narrator is now immediately suspect, but I daresay the guild has been wrong to prioritize questions about historical accuracy. We have other questions that should be prioritized. Please note, I say "prioritized" because the literary approach should not be a silo but a prelude to historical critical examination. How can one determine whether the text conveys truth unless one has first prioritized a determination of meaning? The literary must precede the historical. Observe.

 Given the supposition that Acts was not actually written by Paul's friend Luke, the apparent fraud still constructs a particular story world which incorporates specific contextual details, and those details affect our reconstruction of the authorial meaning. This is all the more important if we do suppose fictionalization because the non-fiction writer may occasionally report facts which do not serve their agenda but the fiction writer (of necessity) thinks constantly about whether each detail fits the overall tapestry. Whether or not narrative content is true does not determine whether or how it should affect our understanding of the text.

 In this blogpost, I offer two examples.

 The more straightforward example is the text's comprehensive avoidance of Nero's popular name. Observing the changeover from Felix to Festus, the narrator provokes a knowing audience to infer (quite easily) that the developing storyline has by now entered the time period of Nero's administration. We then proceed through several chapters of text within which characters continue referring to the ostensibly present-day emperor as "Caesar" (Acts 25-28). As language in dialogue, these perfunctory honorariums are neither telling nor unique because we observed the same verisimilitude in Acts 17, when Thessalonian people referred to "Caesar" while the story world remained explicitly set in the era of Claudius. It was most appropriate for people to call the sitting Emperor by the title (assumed name) of Caesar, and so this itself is a minor instance of maintaining verisimilitude. However, what is striking and unusual about this extended passage in Acts 25-28 is that the narrator has so many opportunities to add a clarifying "Nero" as explanation but avoids doing so throughout. Furthermore, this contrasts sharply with previous references to Augustus (Luke 1), Tiberius (Luke 2), and Claudius (Acts 11, 18). The apparent implication is that the (fraudulent) author would like for the audience to infer that this narrator was speaking (as the author was composing) while also alive during the time of Nero.

 Now, I should clarify emphatically that the above point cannot justify anyone's apologetic maneuver to claim that said instance of verisimilitude provides evidence of probable historicity. It does not. As Harry Frankfurt has said, liars are quite careful about presenting ostensible truth. Succeeding in lies, by definition, requires maintaining the believable appearance of truth. Thus, in all sincerity, I maintain this position: verisimilitude is only evidence of verisimilitude. Furthermore, this issue has been contentious among Biblical scholars because they so often prioritize questions about historicity. What SHOULD be prioritized instead, in my humble opinion, is understanding what the text ostensibly seeks to convey.

 Thus, we should find it easy to conclude that the author of Acts, whom we for now will continue to assume has committed a fraud, clearly wanted their audience to believe that the text had been written in the days of Paul and Nero. We might also note in passing that, of course, if the text is not a forgery then the same literary conveyance remains apparent. Ostensible composition during the time of Nero, whether true or false, is something the author wished to convey.

 My second example is somewhat more involved, but makes exactly the same point. 

 Let us continue presuming that Acts is a forgery and observe that the fraudulent author has given his fictitious self (through narration) a close affiliation with the church in Caesarea. We know this not only because Caesarea explicitly supports Paul and warns him about danger, and not only because pseudo-Luke (the character) appears to spend two years among them while Paul sits in prison, but also because Caesarea ostensibly provides the narrator with so much of his information about the early days of the church in Jerusalem; or at least, so we may gather via narrative subtext, as follows. 

 On a first reading, there is no apparent reason why the activities of Philip (a minor character introduced at 6:5) should occupy the bulk of chapter 8, nor why the episode with Cornelius is excessively drawn out when the narrator's immediate rhetorical need (to show Peter being challenged on the issue of circumcision) could have been fulfilled so much more succinctly. Although the randomness of this focus upon Philip and Cornelius can at first be received as the kind of arbitrary occurrences typically proffered by most works of history (i.e., presented as if this is simply what happened), the reader of Acts will eventually learn otherwise. In 21:8-9 we are told Philip is now present in the home town of Cornelius, apparently having settled there long enough to raise four daughters accustomed to speaking up (προφητεύω) in the church meetings. Furthermore, this church in Caesarea supports Paul passionately (21:10-16) whereas James and the elders show indifference and arguably even disdain (21:18-25) for Paul's mission. Even if we cannot quite reinterpret Agabus's warning as a prediction that Paul would receive no help from the church in Jerusalem, we still cannot avoid the strong contrast between these gentile believers in Caesarea (who fear setting foot in Jerusalem), on the one hand, and James and the elders (who not only require Paul to publicly distance himself from gentile believers but also apparently fear no danger from being in Jerusalem themselves), on the other.

 In hindsight, these late discoveries should absolutely remove our sense of randomness about those earlier episodes. On a second reading, we can more easily note that the episode about Stephen is bookended by his association with Philip (6:5, 8:4). We can also now observe that Philip's early story is framed by the question Cornelius had not yet answered for Peter: can Gentiles receive the holy spirit without being circumcised? At least, Philip's purported experience shows Samaritans (who as children of Abraham were well known to practice circumcision) receiving the holy spirit and the Ethiopian eunuch (who most audiences would most naturally assume could not have been circumcised, even though it is true that some eunuchs lost only their gonads) being baptized in water only. Ostensibly, as literature, this contrast is quite evidently serving the authorial purpose. Even the early controversy about gentile widows must now be reinterpreted through the Caesarean (and Antiochean) perspective; because we know Peter had not yet met Cornelius, we should assume that Peter would not associate with those gentile women. Their dead husbands could not be circumcised on their behalf.

 Remember, none of this is an argument about historicity. All of this is about literary constructedness. My argument above has nothing to do (necessarily) with the historical Peter. It has everything to do with the authorial Peter, as presented in Acts.

 As a fraudulent author (which I maintain for the sake of this argument), the writer of Acts has composed a fake history and constructed his own narrative world, carefully orchestrating every detail within it. Among those details, some are more subtle than others, but their implications can be massive. In other words, the forger has left clues to his literary purpose and we must piece together all of those clues if we wish to determine exactly what that forger was trying to convey. 

 So, to wrap up this second example, here is what I contend. The fraudulent author of Acts, while composing his forgery, has clearly attempted to present himself, both as a character within the story world and as an author, being in political alignment with the Christians in Caesarea, as depicted in Acts 21. Whether or not this literary representation of the past bears any historical accuracy (because the best lies often contain bits of truth), the substance of said representation nevertheless should be taken as context for any interpretations of its literary meaning. That is, the ostensible (albeit implicit) claim that the author aligns himself with the perspective of these gentile Christians in Cesarea is a claim that must contextualize our exegetical analysis of every other passage in Acts 1-28. 

 By the way, everything I am saying holds true also if you prefer to assume that the author of Acts is actually Luke, Paul's historical traveling companion, but it holds true all the more if the author of Acts is a fraud. What matters is that the author wanted his audience to believe something and he wanted them to understand something and we must examine the overall literary construction in order to us to discern what was being conveyed.

 This concludes my second example, about the church in Caesarea.

 In conclusion, I repeat most emphatically, if we do not fully entertain the ostensible representation for the purposes of comprehension, then we cannot hope to reconstruct the literary meaning for any first century audience, that is, what all the authorial audience would have taken the text to convey, on every level: from the basic narrative substance to its deeper literary meanings and its apparent rhetorical purpose. In turn, if we do not reconstruct such a comprehensive reception as literature (=ostensible history) then we cannot begin to ask whether the text, in its time, was conveying any aspects of factual truth. A fully robust and historically contextualized literary analysis must precede and inform the historical critical analysis. If one has misunderstood what is being said, how can one determine whether or not it conveys truth?

 Altogether, I am trying to establish one single point.

 Understanding the basic substance of narrative content is what we must prioritize while reading.

 Otherwise, we will not understand...

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton