Monday, August 16, 2010

Masonic reading of Luke-Acts

I am finishing up Steve Mason's book, Josephus and the New Testament (second edition; Peabody, MA: 2003). This may be one of the best books I've read recently; it's easy-to-read, original in its reading of Josephus and his texts, and well-structured around its central purpose (to explore how to capitalize on Josephus' value for New Testament and Christian origins scholarship). I recommend this book to anyone interested in the New Testament, first-century Christianity, or Josephus.

Without diminishing the praise I have for this book, however, I think Mason's thesis in chapter six, "Josephus and Luke-Acts" (251–95) suffers serious flaws. His overall point in265– this chapter lies squarely in the mainstream: that Luke-Acts and Josephus rely on common written and/or oral traditional sources. But Mason opens the door to the idea that Luke-Acts "builds its case with knowledge of Josephus's advocacy of Judaism" (252), an idea of which I am not yet convinced. But some key features of his analysis of the generic similarities between Josephus and Luke-Acts—"they are both histories, written in Greek according to the conventions of their period, which we may loosely call Hellenistic" (252)—strike me as oddly lacking in nuance.

For example, Mason says more than once that both the author of Luke-Acts and Josephus "write from the margins of society, using their accounts to convey essential features of their communities' values" (252; see also 265–67). While this is generally true, Mason does not clarify the very important differences between Josephus' and Luke-Acts's location "at the margins" and their relation with Roman centers of political, cultural, and social power. Anyone familiar with the Greek of both authors—and Mason is intimately familiar with their Greek—knows that these texts come from very different worlds and, despite Luke's nod toward his literary patron (κράτιστε Θεόφιλε [Luke 1.3]), are written for very different audiences.

As a result of his blurring the differences between Josephus and Luke-Acts, Mason distorts a number of Lukan features. As an example, he spends some time aligning Luke-Acts more closely with Josephus than with the other canonical gospels, despite real problems raised by this realignment.
Mark (3:6) and John (5:18) place Jesus in dire conflict with the Jewish authorities almost from the beginning and, in their different ways, make Jesus' own Jewish identity ore or less irrelevant to his role as savior. In Luke-Acts, however, Jesus operates comfortably within the Jewish world throughout the entire gospel, attending temple and synagogue (2:21, 41, 49: 4:16), consorting in a friendly manner with popular Jewish teachers (7:36; 11:37; 14:1), and debating with other teachers the correct interpretation of Sabbath law. (256)

This is a terrible reading of Luke. Luke's Jesus is indeed thoroughly Jewish, but even here, as a Jewish teacher in a Galilean synagogue, Jesus is nearly shoved off a cliff at the very beginning of the narrative (4.28–29). Indeed, Luke's Jesus is barely a week old when the old man Symeon sounds an ominous note of opposition over the baby's future (2.34–35). Notice that I agree with Mason that Luke's Jesus "operates comfortably within the Jewish world," but I fervently disagree with him that this is different than in the other gospels, especially Mark and John.

Additionally, in his effort to demonstrate affinities between Luke-Acts and Josephus, Mason turns to the preface of Luke's second volume. (I should disclose here that my doctoral supervisor, Loveday Alexander, has published multiple researches on the prefaces of Luke-Acts. Obviously this doesn't make me an expert on these prefaces, as if by association. But I do clearly have alliances in this discussion.) As Mason reads Acts,
Like Josephus, Luke glides easily from a summary of his earlier work to his present book. Whereas the former history had dealt with Jesus' actions and teachings, this one will recount the actions and teachings of his apostles. (257)

Again, this isn't the most helpful reading of Luke-Acts. Yes, "Luke glides easily from a summary of his earlier work to his present book." In fact, unlike the gospel (the preface of which clearly ends after 1.4, with a new section beginning at 1.5), Acts's preface doesn't so much end as fade into the scene of the risen Jesus eating with "the apostles." But Luke describes his "former book" [πρῶτον λόγον] as an account "of those things which Jesus began both to do and to teach" [ὧν ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς ποιεῖν τε καὶ διδάσκειν (1.1; my emphasis)]. Thus Mason's distinction between Luke and Acts—the former an account of Jesus' teachings and life, the latter an account of Jesus' followers' teachings and lives—is blurred in the preface, which frames the Acts as the account of what Jesus continued to do and to teach through those he sent out to the ends of the earth (1.8).

Problems also attend Mason's reading of the Lukan Paul vis-à-vis the Paul of the epistles. This is certainly a complicated and controversial subject, but Mason's position here needs some refinement.
[A]ccording to Acts, out of all the possible Scriptures that one could cite as proof texts, Peter and Paul choose the same ones and use them in the same way. . . . In his letters [however], because he writes as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul spends no time at all proving that Jesus is the Messiah or recounting Israel's history in any connected way. Indeed, the absence of Jewish content in his gospel is what provoked a response from his Jewish-Christian opponents. (263)

Mason offers Romans as "only a partial exception" to this observation. A lot depends on how we read his qualifier, "in any connected way." Certainly the epistolary Paul does not offer an exegetical presentation of the gospel akin to that found in Acts 13. But Paul's own thinking relies so firmly on categories, images, and narratives drawn from Hebrew biblical traditions that the discordance between the epistolary and the Lukan Pauls is less pronounced than Mason suggests. Romans certainly argues about as well as through Jewish texts and traditions (esp. Rom. 2–5; 9–11); we find similar arguments in 1 Cor. 1–2; 10; 15; 2 Cor. 6; Gal. 3, 4; Phil. 2 (and others besides). This may not represent a "connected" presentation of the gospel or argument that Jesus is Israel's Messiah, but the generic differences between Paul's letters and Acts's narrative account for these differences. Indeed, the same Lukan Paul who gave a strikingly "Petrine" sermon in Acts 13 gives a non-biblical sermon in Acts 17. I'm not arguing that there aren't any differences between Luke's Paul and the Paul of the letters. But these differences are not solely the result of Luke's literary and rhetorical interests having their effect upon his presentation of Paul. Portraying a historical figure in literature, no less than presenting a self-portrait, is complicated business.

I have other issues with Mason's reading of Luke-Acts, but my discussion thus far suffices to demonstrate the kind of thing I don't like about this chapter. Even so, these criticisms should not detract from my endorsement of Josephus and the New Testament as an excellent book. Mason offers us an impeccably responsible demonstration of how to take Josephus on his own terms and allow him to shed his own light upon the history and literature of earliest Christianity. The danger of proof-texting Josephus in order to bolster or question this or that NT text plagues scholarship at least as doggedly as the danger of proof-texting the NT itself to bolster or question this or that doctrine plagues popular Christianity (of whatever theological position). Mason provides vital context for understanding Josephus first and then bringing his writings to bear upon early Christian texts.

1 comment:

benbyerly said...

Thanks for this post (and the earlier ones). Like you, I enjoyed Mason's book too but had some of the same questions. It's nice to see them articulated so clearly. I tend to find conflict with the Judean leadership all through Luke and Acts. I think it's even central and may help explains the nature and extent of his defense of Paul.

Who do you see as Luke's audience (in contrast to Josephus as you've noted)?

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