John Taylor looks at the Classical context of a major piece of New Testament literature.
The New Testament is and is not part of Greek literature, but it deserves more attention from classicists than it usually gets. The Gospels and Epistles are rich sources of information about life in the eastern Roman Empire, but the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds intersect most dramatically in the book of Acts, describing the beginning of the Christian movement. Its author (traditionally identified as Luke, the ‘beloved physician’ of Colossians 4:14) also wrote the third gospel. The canon of scripture separates the two texts because Acts can be read as a sequel to any of the gospels. But they were clearly planned as a pair, both addressed to ‘most excellent Theophilus’ (a high-ranking patron, or a figure for the reader – ‘dear to God’). The two scrolls probably hit the bookstalls about AD 80.
Classical purists in the past disparaged the crudity of New Testament Greek. It is the everyday language of its time, the koine (‘common’) dialect – a simplified form of Attic – that had spread round the eastern Mediterranean after the conquests of Alexander. All the New Testament authors are now regarded as more skilful writers than was once allowed, but the greater literary sophistication of Luke (and of the anonymous author of Hebrews) has always been acknowledged. He has considerable knowledge of classical authors, and his use (in the birth stories and the account of Pentecost) of the style of the Greek Old Testament to evoke a revered past can be compared to the classicising impulse that was to dominate Greek literature in the following decades.
Acts would strike an ancient reader as a blend of genres. The preface to Luke’s gospel, about imposing order on inherited material, and probably meant to apply to both volumes, has its closest parallels in technical treatises and handbooks of rhetoric. The Odyssey is a pervasive background presence in this chronicle of Mediterranean voyages. Paul has something of the epic or tragic hero, as well as the subject of a biography (specifically that of a philosophical teacher). Scenes of miraculous escape from prison are indebted to Euripides’ Bacchae; they and the description of a shipwreck also take us close to the Greek novel. In obvious ways Acts would be read as an historical monograph. The speeches (a quarter of the text) are Thucydidean both because they evidently express what the author considered the significance of the occasion, and because (as well as addressing their inscribed audience) they present a cumulative treatment for the reader of a central topic: in Thucydides, the nature of Athenian imperialism; in Acts, the implications of ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32).
The traditional title is misleading: few of the original disciples of Jesus feature in the narrative. Peter, John and Stephen dominate the early scenes in Jerusalem. The conversion experience of Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-9) prepares the way for his central role. Peter’s vision of the acceptability of eating traditionally unclean animals, and his reception of the centurion Cornelius (10:1-30), give a foretaste of the Gentile mission. In the following years Antioch becomes the new outward-looking centre, and here followers are first called Christians (11:26). Barnabas summons Saul (referred to from this point onwards by his Roman name Paul) from his native Tarsus, and so begin what Luke presents as three big missionary journeys.
He probably tidies history up a bit. Paul’s own letters (written thirty years earlier) give us a more wild and unpredictable figure. Paul in Acts certainly encounters opposition, but he travels in secure conditions without red tape, made possible by the Pax Romana. Roman officials are portrayed favourably: an early example is Sergius Paulus, proconsul in Cyprus, ‘an intelligent man’ (13:7). Greek was the default medium of communication. Exceptions prove the rule: when in remote Lystra Paul heals a lame man, and Barnabas and he are hailed as respectively Zeus and Hermes (that way round presumably because Barnabas was the impressive figure, Paul the talkative one), they do not initially realise what is happening because the crowds shout in the Lycaonian language (14:11). The pairing is interesting, because joint dedications to Zeus and Hermes have been found in the area, and the adjoining territory of Phrygia is the setting of Ovid’s story of the two gods being entertained by Baucis and Philemon (Metamorphoses 8.626-724).
Paul’s impromptu sermon at Lystra, the first to an entirely Gentile audience, using arguments from natural theology, is a dry run for his famous speech to the Areopagus in Athens about the Unknown God (17: 22-31). It historicity is vigorously debated (and it doesn’t make many converts anyway), but it is central to Luke’s purpose of showing that Christianity should be taken seriously by intelligent people. The allegation that Paul is ‘proclaiming foreign divinities’ echoes the charges against Socrates in 399 BC; ‘Jesus and his Anastasis’ (‘resurrection’) were perhaps taken as a divine couple. The venerable name ‘Areopagus’ seems at this date to have referred to the town council, but its older associations could still be evoked: Luke has Paul implicitly contradict Apollo’s statement in the trial of Orestes that ‘when the dust once drinks the blood of a dead man, there is no anastasis’ (Aeschylus Eumenides 647-8). Paul’s arguments draw on a quasi-monotheistic idea of Zeus foreshadowed in Aeschylus and common currency by Hellenistic times: ‘as even some of your own poets have said, “For we too are his offspring”’ (17: 28, quoting line 5 of Aratus’ Phaenomena, a popular didactic poem on the heavenly bodies).
In Corinth Paul’s hosts are Aquila and Priscilla, expelled with other Jews from Rome under Claudius (Luke alone among New Testament author refers to any Roman emperor by name), and with them he pursues his trade as a tent-maker. In Corinth too, attacked by hostile Jews, he is brought before the proconsul Gallio, who provides another anchor in Roman history, and a rare absolute date. Gallio was brother of the philosopher Seneca, and an inscription found at Delphi in 1905 (combined with other evidence) enables us to put his encounter with Paul in autumn 51 AD.
The bema at Corinth
Acts throws important light on city life in the eastern provinces. At Ephesus a disturbance is created by the silversmith Demetrius, who makes miniature models of the shrine of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders (19:24): hostility motivated by threat to trade is a recurrent theme. A crowd gathers in the theatre and for two hours chants ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.’ The diplomacy of the town clerk quietens them (and rescues Paul): his clinching final point ‘we are in danger of being charged with rioting today’ (19:40) reveals the fear of Roman intervention, and reputational damage or worse.
Paul’s own resolve to go to Rome after a return visit to Jerusalem (19:21) will be fulfilled in an unexpected way. He and his companions have dominated the central section of the text. In its final third, the focus is on Paul alone. His speech at Miletus to the Ephesian elders (20:18-35) has an elegiac valedictory tone. Paul’s death is foreshadowed but not narrated, like that of Achilles in the Iliad. It is less likely that Luke knew Virgil, but readers might see similarities there too: the Aeneid, like Acts, is the story of a journey from a venerable ancient city (Troy or Jerusalem) to Rome, where the future lies. The endings of the two works are alike in their abruptness, and perhaps also in an implied contrast between present trials and eventual triumph.
Jewish hostility in Jerusalem sees Paul arrested on a trumped-up charge of taking a Gentile into the Temple (21:28-9). The resulting commotion brings in the Roman tribune Claudius Lysias, but he is given pause (as the authorities in Philippi earlier were) by Paul’s claim of Roman citizenship, and thus immunity from physical harm. Paul is sent by Claudius Lysias to the Roman governor Felix. He, like Gallio, has a famous brother: Pallas, the most influential of the freedmen at the court of Claudius. Felix keeps Paul in custody for two years, but also has serious and civilised conversations with him. Under Felix’s successor Festus, Paul exercises his citizen’s right of appeal to Caesar (25:11). The account of the long voyage (27:1-28.11), which will see him shipwrecked off Malta, is one of three passages in Acts where the story is told as ‘we’ rather than ‘they’, all of them involving journeys by sea: either extracted from, or written to give the impression of, Luke’s travel journal. Its vocabulary includes specific echoes of the Odyssey.
When Paul comes at last to Rome, local Christians come out to meet him on the Appian Way (28:15). As with Aeneas’s journey up the Tiber to the site of Rome in Book 8 of the Aeneid, there is for the reader a paradoxical sense of homecoming. Paul lives for two years under house arrest, but able to receive all comers (there is perhaps an echo here of Socrates in prison) and to teach ‘without hindrance’ (28:31) – that final positive note struggling against our knowledge of his impending death, probably in the persecutions under Nero.
John Taylor teaches at the University of Manchester, after a long career teaching in schools. His book Classics and the Bible (Bloomsbury) was published in 2007 and he is currently working on a full edition (with text, translation and commentary) of the Acts of the Apostles for Liverpool University Press.