The Book of Acts as Story: A Narrative-Critical Study

The Book of Acts as Story: A Narrative-Critical Study March 20, 2022

The Book of Acts as Story: A Narrative-Critical Study is a new book by David R. Bauer.

Recently, I caught up with David to discuss the book.


There are many volumes on Acts in print today, why did you write this one? How is it different from others?

The consideration that the Book of Acts is essentially a narrative suggests the value of applying “narrative criticism” to its study.  Yet this has seldom been attempted for the Book of Acts as a whole, and the attempts that have been made are rather dated and (in my judgment) had some deficiencies.

Explain (to a non-academic audience) what you mean by “narrative criticism” and how is it helpful?

Narrative criticism is a discipline that has arisen over the past several decades which seeks to discover how features that belong to narrative can help us understand more accurately and more fully what the writer of the narrative wished to communicate.  My purpose was to reach a deeper and more reliable sense of what the inspired writer, Luke, wanted to communicate to his original audience, which of course has profound significance for Christians today.

Explain (to a non-academic audience) what you mean by “literary structure” and how is it helpful?

Literary structure refers to the way in which a writer has constructed, or assembled, or put together, a passage or an entire book.  Every act of communicated, and especially a literary passage or book, has structure; and it is through this structure that a writer communicates meaning.  There is really no such thing as pure content; we can understand the content (the meaning) of any passage by how it is structured.

We usually process this sense of the meaning of a passage through its structure automatically and subconsciously.  But it is helpful intentionally to analyze the literary structure of a passage to understand it fully and deeply. For example, if a passage employs the term “but,” that points to the literary structure of contrast; and we can understand fully what that passage is communicating only if we think seriously about the differences (contrast) that the writer is putting forth here, and how he develops the differences he has in mind.

You say that Acts belongs to the genre of ancient historiography. What does that mean, exactly? Please also give examples of other historiographies.

Not only does every book have a literary structure, but every book also employs a genre.  A genre is a literary form in a culture that people in that culture will be expected to recognize when they come upon it. In our own culture, for example, we are familiar with the genre of science fiction (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), or the genre of a historical novel (The Killer Angels).

To understand any book we must read it according to the characteristics and expectations that belong to the genre in which it is cast.  To take an extreme example, we know that we should not construe a book that is of the genre of fantasy, like the Lord of the Rings, in the same way we would a historical novel, like Michener’s The Source.

Almost everyone acknowledges that the Book of Acts represents ancient historiography, that is, it is of the genre of ancient history.  And the genre of ancient history differs a bit from our modern works of history.  For example, ancient histories do not attempt to be “objective” or to present events in a dispassionate way—they are quite clear that this is not what they are about; rather, they have the purpose not only of telling about events that happened, but also trying to persuade the audience to accept a certain point of view (modern histories may do this, too, but their writers generally do not want to admit it, and therefore this expectation is not part of that genre).

Another way of putting is to acknowledge that the writer of Acts is, in a sense, preaching the gospel through his narrative, and not simply presenting the first “chapter” of the history of the Church.  Among the most famous of ancient histories is Heroditus Histories, and Thucydides, Peloponnesian War.

Aside from Theophilus, who is the primary audience of Acts and are they Jewish or Gentile?

Theophilus had probably underwritten the expense of the writing/production of the Book of Acts, and accordingly Luke dedicated the book to him.  He was, therefore, a primary recipient of the book, and could be considered at the center of the audience.  But clearly the intended audience was broader than Theophilus.  The book itself suggests that the original intended readers were for the most part Gentile Christians who were acquainted with the Old Testament, and to an extent, with certain Jewish customs and traditions, late first-century members of the Mediterranean society.

Who exactly was Theophilus?

Apparently Theophilus was a wealthy Roman who was acquainted with the Christian faith, but may or may not have fully embraced the Christian message.

You say that Acts 1:8 contains the primary program for the entire book. Can you unpack what you mean by that?

Acts 1:8 is really a point-by-point summary, or capitulation, of the entire Book of Acts.  Here Jesus describes the ultimate cause of everything that the Church will do in the narrative, namely the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, and then outlines the progression of the story of the narrative: witness to Jerusalem (chs. 1-7); witness to all Judea and Samaria (chs. 8-12); and witness to the ends of the earth (chs. 13-28).  He describes the essence of the Church’s activity as witness.

What is the purpose of the repetitions in Acts, and what does it signify?

Writers, including Luke here in Acts, employ repetitions to point to emphasis (that which is most importance); to allow readers to understand that which is repeated in a full way, since each occurrence (in its immediate context) of the repeated element makes its own contribution to our understanding of the repeated motif; and to mark development of the theme, as, e.g., we see a development of the theme of “witness” in its repetition throughout Acts.

Why do you presume Luke ended his gospel with Paul in Rome on house arrest?

The Book of Acts is not primarily concerned with Paul himself, but rather with the geographical (and linked to that, ethnic) spread of the gospel as far as Rome, the center of the civilized world. For this reason, Luke is not especially concerned with what happened to Paul, that is the outcome of his appeal to Caesar.

Luke brings Acts to a climax, then, with the gospel having reached Rome (the gospel had reached Rome before Paul, as ch. 28 of Acts makes clear, but Paul proclaimed the gospel for the first time to the Jewish leadership in Rome, and thus brought to consummation the proclamation of the gospel to Rome.  Luke wants to emphasize that Paul was truly the preacher of the gospel at Rome over two years, and that even his house arrest will not hinder the powerful spreading of the word of the gospel.  In the language of 2 Timothy 2:9, “the word of God is not bound.”

Do you believe the traditions that Paul made it to Spain after his first imprisonment (which would show that he brought the gospel of the kingdom as far as Tarshish, which is Spain, mentioned in Acts 2 — the western most point of all the cities mentioned in Acts 2. Paul’s travels clearly pushed from east to west)?

It is possible that Paul was released from prison (after his two-year house arrest) and was later re-arrested and martyred in Rome.  This would help leave room in Pauline chronology for the epistles of 1 Timothy and Titus.

After a reader finishes your book, what do you hope he/she will take away from it?

I hope that the reader will come away with a recognition of the activity of the exalted Christ in his Church and through his Church in the world in which we live, and through this will come to a greater appreciation and personal embrace of the gospel in which the living Christ is the center.

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