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Ancestors of Faith: Copying Others’ Work: Influence of Josephus on the Narrative of Acts

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When I was in elementary school, we had to turn in our homework nightly in a tray by the classroom door. Occasionally someone didn’t finish theirs. On one such occasion, another student grabbed my paper out of the tray, copied everything that I had written—including my name—and handed it in. This was obviously his downfall. Not unlike lazy school kids, ancient authors sometimes copied others’ work, too. In fact, just within the past decade, one of the more egregious examples in the study of the New Testament has come to light. This new research has the potential to radically alter the date of an important piece of Christian Scripture. It involves “Luke,” the author of the Acts of the Apostles. In an important recent book, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa, Ca., 2006), the New Testament specialist Richard Pervo explains that the author of Acts cribbed some information from the Jewish writer Josephus. The best illustration which Pervo has documented comes from Acts 5. In that chapter, a Pharisee named Gamaliel delivers a stirring speech. Gamaliel calms a group of Jews, who had become incensed at Peter and other Christians. He does so by mentioning two Jewish revolutionaries in the following order: For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him [Theudas], Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered (Acts 5:36-37; translation from the NRSV). Unfortunately, something is amiss in this sequence of rebellions. Historians know that Theudas led his revolt around 44 C.E. And Judas led his a generation before Theudas—in 6 C.E. So why does “Luke,” the writer of Acts, mention the later example first? One compelling explanation, according to Pervo, is that “Luke” copied someone else’s work: in this case, the Jewish historian Josephus. In his monumental work the Antiquities of the Jews (20.97-102), written at the end of the first century C.E., Josephus also mentions the two revolts of Judas and Theudas. And like the writer of Acts, Josephus places Theudas’ revolt first. Why would these two ancient writers preserve the same odd sequence of events? (It helps to know that Josephus and the author of Acts are the only two people in antiquity who reversed the order of these revolts. It also is significant that, as Pervo has astutely observed, these two writers are only ones who ever describe Theudas as an insurrectionist.) The answer is that—just like my old elementary school classmates—the writer of Acts borrowed Josephus’ work (or the two writers were dependent on a shared, mistaken tradition). This proposal, which has started to gain wide acceptance, has profound implications for our understanding of the stories in the Acts of the Apostles. If the author of Acts did use Josephus as a source, he must have composed Acts some time after the completion of the Antiquities of the Jews—that is, after 93-94 C.E. It is now increasingly likely that the Acts of the Apostles was composed in the early second century. It is also highly probably that other literary sources lie behind its narrative, too. Paul’s letters, for example, most likely functioned as another important source. Christians had collected Paul’s letters by the end of the first century. These would have been an ideal source for someone living in the early second century who was motivated to tell the story of Christianity’s beginnings. If true, then the author of Acts, “Luke,” wasn’t a traveling companion of the apostle Paul at all. In my own work on leadership structures in Acts, I note the ways that “Luke” used other sources selectively, like Paul’s letters. “Luke” elevates the status of Peter and the Jerusalem church, minimizing the role of Paul in authenticating the mission to the Gentiles. All in all, as a second century text, Acts reflects emerging concerns of the Jesus movement at a time when the ideological and leadership structures of Christianity remained fluid.