In Colin Hemer’s landmark book, The Book of Acts In the Setting of Hellenistic History, he gives a great evaluation of Acts (and some of Luke) from the perspective of a trained historical scholar. Hemer does not write from the perspective of an apologist, but from that of a historian, trained to take their perspectives. He thus does not shy away from pointing out problems as he sees them, nor listing the strengths found in Luke’s writings. He does not tie his conclusions up in nice little packages with bows.
In the section on perspectives of the ancient historians, Hemer says the following:
A complex narrative must in fact strike a clear balance between the chronological and the thematic. Chronology must be given sufficient attention if the narrative is to unfold clearly, but the actual resolution of the tension will vary according to subject, circumstances and choice. The tracing of complicated and intermeshed causes sets a premium on clarity of arrangement . . . It may be a real test of literary skill to be clear to the reader, but the thing itself is evident and critically unimportant. The choice is not necessarily one between being chronological and being unhistorical, but may be between coherence and confusion.
If, however, a narrative is episodic, woven for instance around the impact of a personality, it is not surprising if there is a much freer variation of order between versions. The factor of topical, and variable, arrangement is apparent in the Gospels, and equally in ancient biographers like Suetonius, Plutarch, or Tacitus . . .
Some problems of sequence are problems. Some are not. Notes of time should be evaluated rather than discounted. To treat pericopae in isolation is to take them out of context. . . . Where the context is temporally or logically sequential, the case differs from the merely topical and episodic. Acts has a stronger sequential thread than the Gospel of Luke, and we must recognize that. But we should not in either case make unnecessary difficulties for ourselves. (p.74-75)
Hemer here points out what all historians know, that the authors have a point they are trying to make, and write accordingly. No history is a raw video of the past, but a selective telling of a story, including some details and leaving out others, varying sequence as needed to the make the point the author is telling.
That the four Gospels and Acts have different points to make is evident upon reading them. Their chronology, pace, emphasis, level of detail, are all written with a goal in mind: e
- Matthew writing to the Jews, presenting Jesus as king.
- Mark writing to the Romans, presenting Jesus as a man of action.
- Luke has the Greek culture in mind, and presents the humanity of Jesus.
- John is writing to the church, presenting Jesus as God.
- Acts has the beginnings of the church, structuring the book in two halves, with the first half focusing on Peter and the second on Paul.
We should thus not impose a modern yardstick onto ancient history, assuming we know what the author should have emphasized.
But Hemer’s point goes deeper. Issues of evaluating an author must take into account that the story the author is trying to tell might not be coherent if he is not selective in what he tells. A pile of raw data likely will not communicate history unless given a story.
Hemer goes on to mention varying of sequences, flashbacks, sequential vs. topical arrangements, and what traditional Greek literature would assume the reader knew. Hemer, the historian, says that sometimes “the thing itself is critically unimportant” to the overall story. While the theologian bristles and begs for clarification of such ideas, nevertheless the historian and literary critic would hold to this.
We can at least agree with the historian that when reading ancient literature, we should not make unnecessary difficulties for ourselves. To do so is not fair to the author’s text, and often shows our own bias. We again urge you to read the Bible as it was written, as the eyewitness accounts that it is.