Research on Acts often gets hung up on how good of a historian Luke was (assuming, as I do, that Luke, the companion of Paul, actually wrote the book). A who’s who in NT studies has weighed in on the question, some arguing Luke was a good historian who got his facts straight, others that the author of Acts essentially made up most of the work, and everywhere in between. The arguments essentially break down into two pieces.

Are the details right?

The first question is whether Luke was a good historian in the sense of does the narrative which he records comport with history in its details. There are good reasons to believe that Luke is a reliable chronicler of the details, both small and great, that appear in Acts. Probably the most robust summation of evidence and arguments to date is that of C. Hemer, in his posthumous work The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Basically, the argument is that when we compare the historical details in Acts with what we can know from other documents, archaeology, and geography, Acts turns out to be very accurate in its descriptions of places, people, and the sorts of things that happened during the time period in which it is set, indicating whoever wrote it knew their stuff. Bottom line: in the details, Acts presents information which is accurate to the time and places in which the narrative claims to take place.

But what about those speeches?

Of course, anyone who has ever read Acts knows that the reporting of historical details, while important, is hardly the main point of the book. The speeches, on the other hand, are clearly of very high importance. Approximately 25-30% of the Acts is made up speeches, which are vitally important to the text.[1] Leaving aside the important question of what these speeches are doing in Acts in a literary and theological sense, a pertinent question arises when considering Acts as history: how accurate are the speeches, and in what way?

In answering this question, a particular Ancient Greek historian often looms rather large in the discussion: Thucydides. Both those who assert some degree of historical accuracy in the speeches (meaning that they contain, in some real sense, the content of what was spoken by the people on the actual occasions as reported in Acts) and those who argue that Luke (or “the author”) made up the speeches appeal to Thucydides as back up. Why does Thucydides, the author of only one known work who died close to five centuries before Acts, feature so prominently in this debate?

Thucydides c. 460-400 BC

The answer boils down to one important passage in Thucydides’ work where he describes his methodology of historical research concerning events and speeches, which I quote here in full:

Insofar as these facts involve what the various participants said both before and during the actual conflict, recalling the exact words was difficult for me regarding speeches I heard myself and for my informants about speeches elsewhere; in the way I thought each would have said what was especially required in the given situation, I have stated accordingly, with the closest possible fidelity on my part to the overall sense of what was actually said. About the actions of the war, however, I considered it my responsibility to write neither as I learned from the chance informant nor according to my own opinion, but after examining what I witnessed myself and what I learned from others, with the utmost possible accuracy in each case. Finding out the facts involved great effort, because eye-witnesses did not report the same specific events in the same way, but according to individual partisanship or ability to remember. And the results, by avoiding patriotic storytelling, will perhaps be less enjoyable for listening. Yet if they are judged useful by any who wish to look at the plain truth about both past events and those that at some future time, in accordance with human nature, will recur in similar or comparable ways, that will suffice. It is a possession for all time, not a competition piece to be heard for the moment, that has been composed.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, translated by Steven Lattimore, Sec. 1.22

Armed with this quotation, a debate about how “Thucydidean” the speeches are in Acts has raged in fits and starts over the past century. The details of this debate need not detain us here. I simply want to highlight two problematic assumptions that pervade the literature. These two main issues are as follows: 1) assuming it is clear what Thucydides actually says, or better yet, what he meant by what he said, and 2) assuming that what we understand of Thucydides and his legacy is what a first century Greco-Roman author would also have understood about him and his legacy (or, briefly stated, ignoring the cultural situatedness of the author of Acts). The first problem I will gloss over briefly, as it has been well-covered by others. The second point I will share a bit more thoughts on, as it is the subject of my upcoming Evangelical Theological Society paper presentation and I have more original thoughts to share on it.

What did Thucydides really say?

In short, the Greek of the famous quotation listed above is open to several interpretations with a startling variety of meanings, some of which are contradictory. Stanley Porter pointed out this problem some 30 years ago, and his paper is worth consulting on the subject.[2] The basic problem at this point is that debate among NT scholars about how “Thucydidean” the speeches in Acts are has tended to ignore the problems in understanding the main passage. To make a solid argument about how much Luke was like Thucydides logically requires first making a convincing argument about how much Thucydides was like himself, as it were. Thus, NT arguments often have a weak foundation.

Will the real Thucydides please step forward?

In my work I add another wrinkle to this problem. Not only do we need to consider what Thucydides actually claimed when he was writing in the late 5th century BC, but we also need to consider what an educated 1st century AD individual likely would have thought about Thucydides and his legacy. If Luke was influenced in anyway by Thucydides and his legacy, we have to consider “which Thucydides” he was influenced by.[3] In other words, what would he likely have thought of Thucydides and his legacy as a historian. It is not self-evident that the way we read Thucydides today (and there are many ways) is how he was read 2000 years ago. We need to do some Reception History work.[4]

Sparing the gory details, we have record of interactions with Thucydides’ work during the period of roughly 300 BC to AD 300 in the form of a commentary on his rhetorical style by Dionysus of Halicarnassus, an anonymous commentary found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri, an essay by Lucian of Samosata on history writing, and Josephus’ emulation of Thucydides.[5]

What can we say about Thucydides and his legacy from these sources? The main take away is that Thucydides had a clear legacy as an important historian. He is often called “the greatest historian” or similar epithets. Also, he had a reputation for “telling it straight” as we might say. This all sounds promising for describing the historical status of the speeches in Acts. If Thucydides “told the truth and nothing but the truth so help me God” in his speeches, and Luke writes in a “Thucydidean” manner, then we can argue that the speeches in Acts are accurate portrayals of what was said. While I don’t want to argue against this conclusion, the line of argumentation is problematic. When we get into the details of how Hellenistic writers talked about Thucydides, we discover that everything is not as it first seems.

In short, people seemed to agree on the honorific titles given to Thucydides; however, people writing and speaking about the past would intentionally style themselves as “Thucydidean” to benefit from his reputation, while themselves having a wide variety of approaches to writing history, many of which would not be considered “historical” by any measure today. This state of affairs is most obvious in Lucian’s essay “How to Write History,” though it is implicit in the other authors as well. The point is that for a Greco-Roman writer writing history in the Hellenistic era, it is not at all self-evident what they would have understood “Thucydidean” history to be like, in the details. In fact, the name “Thucydides” could be enlisted to support a wide variety of different approaches to writing about the past, many of which were not even considered a valid way to “do history” by other people writing history in the time.

Talking seriously about the past

This raises the final point, which is probably the most important. It is not entirely clear what “doing history” would have meant to Luke, let alone any other writer doing it in his time. There are a wide variety of ways of talking seriously about the past evidenced in the time in which Luke was writing, many of which we would certainly not call “history” today. Calling Thucydides, or even Luke for that matter, a writer of history, is not an unproblematic thing to say.

We have specific–though usually unstated and unconscious–expectations of what writing about history entails in our culture. Spending even a small amount of time reading Greco-Roman histories will make it plain that there are ways in which they believed it appropriate to talk seriously about the past which are different from our own. For example, even when Lucian is lauding Thucydides as one who “tells it like it is,” his primary focus is not on “the facts of the matter” but on how Thucydides talked in appropriate ways about the “virtue and vice” of great men of the past. Reading history well involves learning how to take these differences between our expectations of history writing and the expectations of other cultures and places seriously. There are certainly overlaps in the ideas, but a cursory glance also indicates striking differences in “history” as well.

Summary Thoughts

Does it matter that Luke seems to style Acts in a way that indicates it belongs within a “Thucydidean” stream of talking about the past? Of course it does. However, that piece of information does not, in and of itself, tell us anything of great certainty about how “historical” the speeches in Acts are. What Thucydides meant by what he said is uncertain and, more to the point here, what educated Greco-Roman’s thought about Thucydides and his legacy was wide-ranging. Probably a better place to start in trying to defend the historicity of Acts and its speeches is not to go looking for ways to prove that Luke wrote about the past in ways that are normal for us today, but to begin the long, arduous, and sometimes mind-bending journey of trying to understand what it meant for someone in 1st century Greco-Roman culture to talk seriously about the past in their writing.

[1] Incidentally, this speech to narrative ratio is essentially the same as in Thucydides’ work, in which the speeches also play the a very important role in the purpose of the narrative. This was pointed out by Richard Claverhouse Jebb in The Speeches of Thucydides, Hellenica: Essays on Greek Poetry, Philosophy, History, and Religion (London: Rivingtons, 1880), sec. 1.

[2] Stanely Porter, “Thucydides 1.22.1 and Speeches in Acts: Is There a Thucydidean View?” Novum Testamentum XXXII, no. 2 (1990): 121–42

[3] Surviving school-drills from Egypt and discussions of education practice indicate that Thucydides was one of the authors who was read in the Imperial age by students (Joy Connolly, ‘Problems of the Past in Imperial Greek Education’, 339-72 in Yun Lee Too, ed., Education in Greek and Roman Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 348). Vit Bubenik also addresses the matter of the Greek literary cannon in Hellenistic times in Hellenistic and Roman Greece as a Sociolinguistic Area, ed. E.F. Konrad Koerner, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 57 (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1989), 63. On the assumption that Luke (or “the author of Acts”) had undergone formal education to some degree–which is not at all a difficult thing to assume–it would be likely that he had had at least some exposure to Thucydides. Whether or not he had read the work in whole or with great understanding or a keen literary eye is beyond demonstration, naturally. Of course, direct exposure to the work is only one means by which he would have been influenced by Thucydides.

[4] Reception History, a discipline growing in its current form from the philosophy of Hans Georg Gadamer, is the English equivalent for the German Wirkungsgeschichte, “history of the impact/effect (of a text).” The English term “reception history” seems to privilege the receiver rather than the text-as-agent, whereas Wirkungsgeschichte seems to privilege the text as having effective power throughout history. Personally, I think the German term better describes what the discipline as I have it in mind actually does. See this introduction for a brief description of Reception History as it is generally understood in biblical studies.

[5] Lucian, “How to Write History”; Dionysius, “On Thucydides”; The Oxyrhynchus Papyri Part VI, 107-49, “853. Commentary on Thucydides II”. For the most obvious place where Josephus emulates Thucydides, see the beginning to Jewish War. These are only extant Greek works; we know of more commentaries on Thucydides’ work from this era which are not extant. Further, it is possible that he left a noticeable impact on the Latin historiographical tradition, but that is beyond my competence and investigation.