The Genre and Purpose of Luke-Acts
©David Peterson (2010)
Genre can be defined in terms of the content, form and function of a particular text. Considering the genre of a book can be an important preliminary in the process of interpretation. With regard to Luke-Acts, it is necessary to investigate the character of each book individually, and then to consider the relationship of the two to each other. It is also instructive to consider these documents in relation to comparable forms of literature in the ancient world. A Christian writer with a desire to influence people in the first-century, Greco-Roman environment may well have reflected some of its literary trends, though the critical question is how closely or consciously. And what might have been the influence of the LXX and other Jewish literature?
A. The unity of Luke and Acts
Many contemporary scholars would agree with Cadbury’s proposal that ‘Acts is neither an appendix nor an afterthought. It is probably an integral part of the author’s original plan and purpose.’ However, Parsons and Pervo have offered a significant challenge to this approach. Acknowledging the common authorship of the two volumes, they insist that it is neither necessary nor helpful to force one to fit the pattern of the other. Indeed, Luke and Acts are sufficiently different to suggest two distinct genres.
Distinctive characteristics of Luke and Acts
If Mark was one of his sources, Luke clearly modified the Gospel form by more than doubling its length and increasing the time-span of the story. But his first volume still broadly resembles the other Synoptic Gospels in structure, character and style.
The Gospel genre was a unique creation of Christian writers, determined partly by the realities of Jesus’ life and partly by the exigencies of the Christian mission: a focussed ‘biography’, concentrating on the words and works of Jesus in his public ministry, especially those associated with his death and resurrection.
Structurally, Luke’s Gospel provides an ‘episodic series of events punctuated by numerous aphorisms and parables of Jesus’, whereas Acts ‘unfolds more smoothly as a continuous narrative featuring extended journeys and developed discourse by Jesus’ followers.’
Acts appears to be a highly selective history, carried forward by a number of significant speeches from key characters, covering a period of thirty or more years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. Luke’s innovation is to show that ‘the gospel-story is incomplete without the church-story.’
Analysing Luke and Acts from a literary perspective, Parsons and Pervo first conclude that, at the discourse level, it is inappropriate to speak of a narrative unity. ‘The two works are independent narratives with distinct narration, that is, they each tell the story differently.’ The narrative unity exposed by writers such as Tannehill is said to be almost exclusively at the level of the story and ‘does not reckon adequately with the disunity at the discourse level’.
Tannehill practices a conservative form of narrative criticism, approaching Luke-Acts as ‘an interactive whole, with harmonies and tensions that develop in the course of narration.’ This approach has been poorly assessed by Parsons and Pervo and they have inadequately considered its implications, particularly the theological coherence between Luke and Acts.
They rightly suggest that, where theological unity between Luke and Acts can be established, it should not be ‘a brush with which to efface particularity’. They also rightly argue that Acts is a sequel to the Gospel, rather than a simple continuation. But they obscure the literary, stylistic, and thematic links between the two volumes.
In short, Parsons and Pervo have offered an important caution in the ongoing debate about the relationship between Luke and Acts, but they have overstated their case. These two volumes may be different in genre, structure and style, but it is necessary to explain the links between them at the level of story, themes and theology.
A two-part work
Assessing a variety of theories about the relationship between the Gospel and Acts, Marshall describes this as a two-part work (whatever the process by which this two-volume work came to its present form). He particularly notes:
1. The evidence of the two prologues (Lk. 1:1-4; Acts 1:1), linking the works in terms of subject matter and purpose.
2. Some material in the Gospel appears to have been either adapted or excluded because of what is found in Acts (e.g. Mt. 15:1-28/Mk. 7:1-30 finds no parallel in Luke, presumably because the theme of true purity and healing/salvation for Gentiles is addressed so fully in Acts 10-11).
3. The overlap between the ending of the Gospel and the beginning of Acts is significant (Lk. 24:36-52 is recapitulated in Acts 1:1-14 and its predictions are shown to be fulfilled in subsequent narratives).
‘Luke’s justification for his fresh attempt to give an account of “the things that have taken place among us” was in the fact that his predecessors had treated only the material contained in the Gospel and not gone on to present the other, comparably important material about the spread of the gospel. Their story was incomplete.’
Moreover, ‘Luke planted some seeds in his Gospel that he did not intend to fully cultivate and bring to harvest before his second volume. In short, the first volume was likely written with at least one eye already on the sequel.’
B. Acts as an ‘historical monograph’
The term is a modern one, ‘commonly applied to ancient historical writings which deal with a limited issue or period without regard to the length of the books themselves.’
Palmer contends that, ‘while Acts may be allowed an implicit function of apology or self-definition, its length, scope, focus and formal features fit the pattern of a short historical monograph.’
1 Esdras (2nd cent. BC) and 1 and 2 Maccabees (1st cent. BC) share many of the features of Greek and Roman historical monographs, though their religious perspective is influenced by earlier Jewish writings. They provide a link between ‘this double background in the past and the future composition of Acts.’
Witherington argues from Luke 1:1-4 that Luke intended both his volumes ‘to be compared to other ancient works of Greco-Roman historiography.’ However, reviewing various Greek and Roman models, Witherington argues that ‘Luke’s work stands much closer to Greek historiography than to the Roman sort.’
A particular hallmark of true history for the Greeks was ‘personal observation (autopsia) and participation in events, travel inquiry, the consultation of eyewitnesses.’ Acts also has a broad ethnographical and geographical scope, which is the pattern of the Greek histories, with a message about salvation for the nations being announced in the earliest chapters of the Gospel (Lk. 2:29-32; 3:1-6).
Witherington contends that Luke’s work is most like that of Polybius, and to a lesser degree, that of Thucydides. However, Luke differs from these Greek historians in at least two significant ways.
1. He is ‘not in the main concerned about the political or military history of the larger culture, but about the social and religious history of a particular group or subculture within the Empire. Luke believes it is a group which can and should continue to have a growing and ever broader impact, for they proclaim a universal savior and salvation.’
2. Luke includes many visions, prophecies, and amazing events in his narrative, to highlight God’s involvement in the story. However, Luke does not present the amazing and the supernatural in a way that suggests any immunity from historical scrutiny, ‘unlike some of the literature about the “fabulous” in antiquity.’
Witherington further observes a notable similarity between Acts and the work of the historian Ephorus, with respect to the arrangement and presentation of his material. In a given book or section, Ephorus would ‘only deal with matters in a particular geographical or major cultural region, usually proceeding with it in a chronological order.’
C. Acts and biblical histories
Rosner has argued that Acts is ‘consciously modelled on accounts of history found in the Old Testament.’
There is a Semitic colouring to some of Luke’s language, particularly in Luke 1-2 and Acts 1-15, though scholars debate the extent to which this is the result of deliberately imitating the LXX. Thematically, Luke-Acts shows a close relationship with the OT in dealing with matters such as promise and fulfilment, Jerusalem, the Law, and the Jewish people. Characters such as Peter, Stephen and Paul are presented to some extent as prophetic figures, following OT models. Furthermore, certain narratives in Acts appear to be patterned on biblical precedents. Together, these characteristics suggest that the author intended to create ‘a “biblical effect” for those readers familiar with the Bible.’
Rosner further investigates the extent to which the OT may have provided Luke with his understanding of the nature of history. God is in control—despite human wickedness and rebellion—with key terms being used to draw attention to the will and purpose of God and his direction of human history. Events are narrated as the action of God and there is a great stress on the fulfilment of divine promises in what is recorded, sometimes using specific quotations from Scripture to make the point.
The LXX appears to have influenced the language, form, content, and presuppositions of Luke’s work. Rosner agrees with Sterling that ‘our author conceived of his work as the continuation of the LXX.’ Luke was concerned to reflect upon sacred history for the benefit of the believing community, drawing a link between the time of Israel, the time of Jesus and the time of the early church.
D. Conclusion about genre
Having surveyed the options, I find myself largely in agreement with Witherington’s conclusion:
‘Luke-Acts bears some strong resemblances to earlier Greek historiographic works in form and method and general arrangement of material, as well as some similarities to Hellenized Jewish historiography in content and general apologetic aims. Furthermore, the echoes and quotes of the OT in Luke-Acts as well as the stress on fulfillment reveal a vital link to the biblical promises and prophecies of the past. Luke’s work follows no one model, but clearly enough it would not have been seen as a work like Roman historiography, Greek biography, or Greek scientific treatises. It would surely, however, have been seen as some sort of Hellenistic historiography, especially by a Gentile audience.’
Against Witherington, who tends to play down the differences between Luke’s two volumes in form, style and function, portraying the Third Gospel as an historical monograph like Acts, I would argue that two distinct genres are developed by Luke, and these are linked together in textual and thematic ways to achieve a remarkable degree of narrative unity.
Although there are other ancient examples of literary compositions in two parts, Marshall observes that even within the Christian context there is nothing corresponding to it: ‘Christians produce apocryphal Gospels and apocryphal Acts, but not apocryphal Gospels-cum-Acts.’
The previous discussion about the unity of Luke and Acts needs to be kept in mind as the issue of purpose is considered. It really makes a difference if Acts is considered together with the Third Gospel. Although Luke’s two-volume work may employ different literary genres, there are sufficient grounds for considering it as one project with a common aim.
Bruce considered that Luke deserves to be called ‘the first Christian apologist’:
‘The great age of Christian apologetic was the second century, but of the three main types of defense represented among the second century Christian apologists, Luke provides first-century prototypes: defense against pagan religion (Christianity is true; paganism is false), defense against Judaism (Christianity is the fulfillment of true Judaism), defense against political accusations (Christianity is innocent of any offense against Roman law.’
However, the apologetic aim has been differently understood. For example, O’Neill argues that ‘Luke-Acts was primarily an attempt to persuade an educated reading public to become Christians; it was an “apology” in outward form but, like all true apologies, it had the burning inner purpose of bringing men to the faith.’
He rightly opposes the view that it was designed to gain recognition for Christianity by Roman officials, arguing that large portions of Luke-Acts would be irrelevant to such a narrowly-defined aim. He rightly highlights the evangelistic dimension of the speeches in Acts and Luke’s interest in the progress of the word from Jerusalem to Rome. However, he assumes that Theophilus and those he represents were outsiders who were wrongly or inadequately instructed about Christianity, and needed to be corrected and persuaded about the true significance of what was being proclaimed.
But was Luke-Acts published for the benefit of unbelievers or was it designed to help Christians in their engagement with unbelievers? Maddox draws attention to the fact that the work ends with a long section about the imprisonment and trials of Paul, which ‘blunts the edge of any suggestion that Luke’s aim was evangelistic.’
Acknowledging the presence of apologetic elements in Luke’s narrative, Marguerat wisely cautions that this does not yet say what might be ‘the apologetic aim of the narrative itself.’ The decisive question seems to be one of audience:
‘The language of Acts is a language for the initiated. The implied reader is the Christian or an interested sympathizer, as for example, the most excellent Theophilus (Luke 1.3-4; Acts 1.1). Luke’s apologetic is addressed to Christian ‘insiders’ of the movement and a circle which gravitates around it.’
Marguerat links Acts with ancient apologetic histories that were designed to ‘unfold the identity of a movement by exposing its native traditions, by revealing its cultural dignity and the antiquity of its origins.’ He considers that Esler has given a sociological foundation to this view by describing Luke’s programme as a ‘sophisticated attempt to explain and justify Christianity to the members of his community at a time when they were exposed to social and political pressures which were making their allegiance waver.’
The danger with such an approach is to lose the evangelistic dimension entirely. If Luke-Acts was not addressed directly to unbelievers, it must surely have been intended to motivate and equip believers to bear faithful witness to the apostolic gospel.
Marguerat allows for this when he argues that Luke wanted to help his readers ‘to understand and speak of themselves (to others, to the Jews and the Gentiles).’
Maddox does the same when he concludes that Luke writes ‘to reassure the Christians of his day that their faith in Jesus is no aberration, but the authentic goal towards which God’s ancient dealings with Israel were driving.’ With this reassurance, ‘Luke summons his fellow-Christians to worship God with whole-hearted joy, to follow Jesus with unwavering loyalty, and to carry on with zeal, through the power of the Spirit, the charge to be his witnesses to the end of the earth.’
Other recent scholars have also identified Luke-Acts an apologetic work for a Christian readership. Johnson compares Jewish apologetic literature at the time, which had the dual function of seeking to defend Jews against misunderstanding and persecution by outsiders, while aiming to help them understand their own traditions within a pluralistic context.
Luke wrote to give his Christian readers ‘full confidence’ (τὴν ἀσφάλειαν, Lk. 1:4), by the way he told his story ‘in sequence’ (καθεξῆς, 1:3). In the broadest sense, his approach was to write a ‘theodicy’, defending God’s activity in the world:
‘Luke-Acts ostensibly addresses a wider audience in the clothing of Greek literature; but its main interest is to construct a continuation of the biblical story for Gentile believers in order to help them come to grips with the profound puzzle generated by their own recent experience.’
Johnson believes that the success of the Gentile mission created ‘a serious problem of confidence in the very God who accomplished it.’ The failure of many Jews to believe and experience the blessings of the messianic salvation raised questions about the faithfulness of God and his ability to sustain Gentiles in their faith. Luke aims to assure his readers by setting forth ‘the sequence of events in the story’, showing how God has fulfilled his promises.
For all its strengths, Johnson’s approach does not sufficiently highlight the problem of persecution from Jewish quarters, nor the need to help Christians communicate effectively with Jewish and Gentile opponents.
However, Green incorporates these emphases when he proposes that ‘the purpose of Luke-Acts would have been to strengthen the Christian movement in the face of opposition by (1) ensuring them in their interpretation and experience of the redemptive purpose and faithfulness of God and by (2) calling them to continued faithfulness and witness in God’s salvific project.’
Squires similarly concludes that Luke’s work is a kind of cultural ‘translation’, an attempt to explain and defend Christianity to hellenized Christians. Various techniques familiar to educated readers from contemporary histories are embedded into the story of Luke-Acts to show how the gospel related to their thought-world.
Luke’s appeal is to ‘insiders’, using the categories provided by ‘outsiders’. Although the primary audience for which Luke writes is the Christian community, his apologetic method offered Christians a ‘missionary tool’, to assist them in evangelism. Even the prominence of the Hebrew Scriptures and the insistently Jewish practices of Jesus and the earliest Christians in Luke-Acts ‘reinforce the notion (essential in the hellenistic context) that Christianity was “no mere novelty”, but was able to claim a long antiquity in Israel’.
Luke’s attempt to outline the continuity between Christians and Israel and between the events of Jesus’ career and OT prophecies was an important aspect of his response to criticisms of Christianity that may have been made, both by Jews and by pagans.
 Cf. D. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 5-15.
 H. J. Cadbury, The Making of Luke-Acts (Naperville, IL: Allenson, 1927; 2nd ed. London: SPCK, 1958), 8-9. Since Cadbury’s foundational work, a variety of publications regarding the generic, narrative, and theological unity of Luke-Acts have emerged. Cf. J. Verheyden, The Unity of Luke-Acts, BETL 142 (Leuven: Leuven University, 1999).
 M. C. Parsons & R. I. Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1993), 37-40.
 F. S. Spencer, Acts (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1997), 14.
 R. Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Edinburgh: Clark, 1982), 10.
 Parsons & Pervo, Rethinking, 82.
 Parsons & Pervo, Rethinking, 83. Cf. R. C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, Volume 1 The Gospel of Luke (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1986), and Volume 2 The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).
 R. C. Tannehill, ‘Narrative Criticism’, in R, J, Coggins and J. L. Houlden (ed.), Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (London, SCM; Philadelphia: TPI, 1990), 488. R. C. Tannehill, The Shape of Luke’s Story. Essays on Luke-Acts (Eugene: Cascade, 2005), offers a convenient republication of articles in which he has demonstrated his methodology over several years.
 Parsons & Pervo, Rethinking, 126.
 I. H. Marshall, ‘Acts and the “Former Treatise”’, in B. W. Winter and A. D. Clarke (ed.), The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1 Ancient Literary Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1993), 163-182. Cf. Maddox, Purpose, 3-6, 9-12; C. K. Barrett, ‘The Third Gospel as a Preface to Acts? Some Reflections’, in F. Van Segbroeck (ed.), The Four Gospels 1992. Festschrift Frans Neirynck (Leuven: Leuven University, 1992), 1451-66.
 Marshall, ‘Acts and the “Former Treatise”’, 176-7.
 Witherington 1998, 8. M. F. Bird, ‘The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion’, JSNT 29 (2007), 425-48, surveys a number of scholarly responses to Parsons & Pervo, concluding that they have failed to convince the majority due to ‘the success of Cadbury, and others like Tannehill, who have constructed arguments that are both persuasive on the textual level and that resonate with the current interests of scholarship in literary-critical studies’ (435).
 D. W. Palmer, ‘Acts and the Ancient Historical Monograph’, in Winter and Clarke, Book of Acts I, 4. Palmer, 26, concludes that ‘the fragmentary evidence for numerous Greek monographs and one in Latin confirms the existence of the genre, but does not give a picture of what an individual example looked like.’
 Palmer, ‘Ancient Historical Monograph’, 18. Palmer includes the notions of apology and self-definition in his evaluation because he has compared Acts with the Jewish Antiquities of Josephus.
 Palmer, ‘Ancient Historical Monograph’, 27. See below for comments on Acts and Biblical History.
 Witherington 1998, 381.
 Witherington 1998, 27. He notes that Josephus, ‘by limiting himself to the chronicling of developments among one people (the Jews rather than the Romans) and attempting a “universal history” of this one people, much more closely approximates some of his Roman predecessors and contemporaries.’
 Witherington 1998, 27. Cadbury, Making, 220, concluded from the style of Luke-Acts that the author must have been ‘for his time and station a gentleman of ability and breadth of interest, whatever his past reading and training may have been.’ D. Mealand, ‘Hellenistic Historians and the Style of Acts’, ZNW 82 (1991), 59, concluded that Luke ‘is a skilful literary artist who can use varieties of style for effect.’
 Witherington 1998, 32.
 Witherington 1998, 31.
 Witherington 1998, 32. Witherington, 31, compares Luke’s style to that of Herodotus, ‘the so-called father of Greek historiography, who wrote what can rightly be called a form of theological historiography.’
 Witherington 1998, 34. Ephorus’s method became standard for Greek historians after him and Witherington submits that Luke followed his approach.
 B. S. Rosner, ‘Acts and Biblical History’, in Winter and Clarke, Book of Acts I, 68. Cf. J. Jervell, The Theology of the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1996), 104-26.
 Rosner, ‘Biblical History’, 73. Rosner argues that Luke is not inventing material to fit the pattern, but rather he is making important theological links by his use of OT language and allusion.
 Rosner, ‘Biblical History’, 81, citing G. E. Sterling, Historiography and Self-Definition: Josephus, Luke-Acts and Apologetic Historiography (Leiden: Brill, 1992), 363 (Sterling’s emphasis).
 Witherington 1998, 39. D. Marguerat, The First First Christian Historian. Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, SNTSMS 121 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2002), 34, identifies Acts as a work of apologetic historiography, specifically a ‘narrative of beginnings’.
 Marshal, ‘Former Treatise’, 180. He concludes that ‘the whole work demonstrates affinities both to historical monographs and to biographies, but it appears to represent a new type of work, of which it is the only example.’
 Cf. Peterson, Acts, 26-39.
 Maddox, Purpose, 4, rightly observes that we can only speak confidently of ‘the purpose of Luke-Acts’ if Luke planned the whole work as a unity, though in two volumes.
 Bruce 1990, 22. Bruce argues that Acts contains a defence against paganism (e.g. 14:15-18), and a defence against Judaism (e.g. 7:2-53; 21:39- 28:28). Bruce 23-5, does not agree with the view that Luke-Acts was written to provide material for Paul’s defence at his trial, but he nevertheless discerns a political apologetic throughout. This concerns the innocence of Christianity in relation to Roman law. Bruce, 25-7, further notes that there is also a sense in which Acts has an apologetic intention with reference to some sections of the church.
 J. C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts in its Historical Setting (2nd ed. London: SPCK, 1970), 176. He acknowledges the need to demonstrate ‘the innocence of the Christians of any revolutionary political tendencies’ (p. 179), but insists that this was a subsidiary aim. Cf. Marguerat, First Christian Historian, 27-8. O’Neill, 181-5, goes on to consider a number of specific warnings to the church which flow from Luke’s apologetic and evangelistic material.
 Maddox, Purpose, 181. Maddox, 12-15, considers the options carefully and concludes that there are ‘good reasons for doubting that Luke was writing for an audience outside the Christian fellowship.’
 Marguerat, First Christian Historian, 29.
 Marguerat, First Christian Historian, 30. He defines the implied reader as ‘the image of the recipient of the narrative, as the text makes him appear (his presupposed knowledge) and as the narrative constructs him (his cooperation in reading the text).’.
 Marguerat, First Christian Historian, 30.
 P. F. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology, SNTSMS 57 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1987), 222. Maddox, Purpose, 21-3, 182-3, reviews and critiques four theories concerning issues of faith that Luke may have been addressing in the church of his day. The dominant themes of Luke-Acts are identified as ecclesiology (with special reference to Israel and the promises of the OT) and eschatology (pp. 183-6).
 Marguerat, First Christian Historian, 31 (my emphasis). However, it limits the scope and intent of Luke’s work to describe it as ‘a tool of self-understanding.’ Cf. Longenecker 2007, 676-8, on the kerygmatic purpose of Luke-Acts.
 Maddox, Purpose, 187.
 Maddox, Purpose, 187.
 L. T. Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina 3 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 9. Such literature could provide security or reassurance to Jewish readers ‘by demonstrating within a pluralistic context the antiquity and inherent value of their traditions.’
 L. T. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina 5 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), 7.
 Johnson 1992, 8.
 J. B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997), 21-2. Green considers that the genre of Luke-Acts suggests the Evangelist’s concern with ‘legitimation and apologetic.’
 Squires, Plan of God, 191. Note the way Squires, 192-4, develops the argument that Luke’s apology was directed to hellenized Christians.