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Fact, Fiction and the Genre of Acts*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009

Loveday Alexander
Dept of Biblical Studies, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, UK


This paper explores the boundaries between fact and fiction in ancient literature. The historians effectively created the concept of ‘fiction’ in Greek literature by defining what could be incontrovertibly established as ‘fact’ by accepted rationalistic criteria. Anything beyond these limits (tales involving distant places, or the distant past, or divine intervention) was widely perceived as belonging to the realm of ‘fiction’. To readers from this background, Acts would fall uncomfortably on the boundary: much of the narrative would sound like fiction, but there is a disturbing undercurrent which suggests that it might after all be intended as fact.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1998

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1 Ramsay, W. M., St Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1895)4.Google Scholar

2 Cf. Knox, W. L., The Acts of the Apostles (Cambridge: CUP, 1948) 4;Google ScholarBarrett, C. K., Luke the Historian in Recent Study (London: Epworth, 1961) 912;Google ScholarDibelius, M., Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (tr. Ling, M. & Schubert, P.; London: SCM, 1956Google Scholar =Aufsätze zur Apostelgeschichte [ed. Greeven, H.; Göttingen, 1951]).Google Scholar

3 Bowersock, G. W., Fiction as History, Nero to Julian (Sather Classical Lectures 58; Berkeley: University of California, 1994).Google Scholar

4 Perry, B. E., The Ancient Romances (Sather Classical Lectures 37; Berkeley: University of California, 1967) 55.Google Scholar

5 E.g. Herod. 7.20.2–21.1; Thuc. 1.10.3.

6 Moles, J. L., ‘Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides’, in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (ed. Gill, C. and Wiseman, T. P.; Exeter: University of Exeter, 1993) 96Google Scholar (hereafter Lies and Fiction).

7 2.72; cf. 3.115.1; 4.16.1.

8 7.189 (tr. A. de Selincourt; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954).

9 Lown, John S., ‘The Miraculous in the Greco-Roman Historians’, Foundations and Facets Forum 2 (1986) 3642.Google Scholar

10 Wiseman, T. P., ‘Lying Historians: Seven Types of Mendacity’, in Lies and Fiction, 122.Google Scholar For the ancient (and modern) debate on Herodotus, cf. Pritchett, W. K., The Liar School of Herodotos (Amsterdam: Gieben, 1993).Google Scholar

A similar complaint is made in Jos. C.Ap. 1.12–14: but note how Thackeray's translation of pseudomenon here equivocates between ‘lying’ (‘mendacity’) and ‘mistaken’.

11 Tὸ коμιδή μνθῶδεζ: How to write history §10, Loeb tr.

12 Cf. Bowersock, Fiction as History, ch. 1; Gabba, Emilio, ‘True History and False History in Classical Antiquity’, JRS 71 (1981) 5062;Google ScholarWheeldon, M. J., ‘True Stories: the Reception of Historiography in Antiquity’, in History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History (ed. Cameron, A.; London: Duckworth, 1989) 3363;Google ScholarWiseman, T. P., Clio's Cosmetics (Leicester: Leicester University, 1979) 41ff, 149ff.;Google ScholarWoodman, A. J., Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (London/Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988) esp. chs. 1–2, Epilogue.Google Scholar

13 There are of course other important factors, especially the role of rhetoric: cf. previous note.

14 ’Αποϕαντιкὸν ἐγкεкλιμένον: Hermogenes Prog. 2/18.

15 Dionysius of Halicarnassus De Thuc. 6, tr. Pritchett, W. K., Dionysius of Halicarnassus: On Thucydides (Berkeley: University of California, 1975).Google Scholar

16 This kind of ‘agnosticism’ is evident throughout Dionysius' treatment of the mythical origins of Roman history: Gabba, E., Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome (Sather Classical Lectures 56; Berkeley: University of California, 1991) 118–25.Google Scholar

17 Plutarch Life of Theseus 1, tr. Clough, A. H., Plutarch's Lives 1 (London: J. M. Dent [Everyman], 1910) 1.Google Scholar

18 Romm, James S., The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton: Princeton University, 1992)Google Scholar ch. 5.

19 ‘Credibility ethic’: cf. Romm, , Edges, 174.Google Scholar

20 Antonius Diogenes, The Wonders Beyond Thule (Photius Bibl. 166.109b), tr. Sandy, ; cited from Collected Ancient Greek Novels (ed. Reardon, B. P.; Berkeley: California University, 1989) 778.Google Scholar

21 On the geographical associations of autopsia, cf. Alexander, L. C. A., The Preface to Luke's Gospel (SNTSMS 78; Cambridge: CUP, 1993) 3441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

22 Gabba, , ‘True History’, 53.Google Scholar

23 Phlegon of Tralles, Book of Marvels (ed. & tr. Hansen, William; Exeter: University of Exeter, 1996).Google Scholar

24 Gabba, , ‘True History’, 53;Google Scholar cf. Hansen, , Phlegon, 9.Google Scholar

25 Hansen, , Phlegon, 7, 29.Google Scholar

26 Cf. Hansen's notes ad loc.

27 Dilke, O. A. W., Greek and Roman Maps (London: Thames & Hudson, 1985) 25.Google Scholar

28 Pytheas frg. 7b (Polyb. 34.5.3–4; Strabo 2.4.1), cited from Romm, , Edges, 22.Google Scholar

29 Braun, Martin, History and Romance in Graeco–Oriental Literature (Oxford: Basil Black–well, 1938).Google Scholar

30 Joseph and Aseneth, of course, does the same thing with biblical history.

31 Achilles Tatius l.lff., Reardon, 175: cf. Winkler's note ad loc.

32 Daphnis and Chloe, 1.1. Reardon, 289: cf. Gill ad loc.

33 On the role of travel in the novels of Chariton and Xenophon, see further Alexander, L. C. A., ‘“In journeyings often”: Voyaging in the Acts of the Apostles and in Greek Romance’ in Luke's Literary Achievement: Collected Essays (ed. Tuckett, C. M.; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995) 1749;Google Scholar and eadem, ‘Narrative Maps: Reflections on the Toponymy of Acts’, in The Bible in Human Society: Essays in Honour of John Rogerson (JSOTSS 200; ed. R, M. Daniel Carroll., Clines, D. J. A., Davies, P. R.; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995) 1757.Google Scholar

34 Morgan, J. R., ‘Make–Believe and Make Believe: The Fictionality of the Greek Novels’, in Lies and Fiction, 175229.Google Scholar

35 Bowersock, Fiction as History, ch. V.

36 For a detailed and persuasive reading of Acts as novel, cf. Pervo, R. I., Profit with Delight (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987).Google Scholar

37 Both the similarities and the differences argued in this paper are set out more fully in Alexander, ‘Voyaging’ and ‘Narrative Maps’.

38 Contrast also the treatment of eros in Philostratus' Life of Apollonius: Bowie, E. L., ‘Philostratus: Writer of Fiction’, in Greek Fiction: The Greek Novel in Context (ed. Morgan, J. R. and Stoneman, R.; London: Routledge, 1994) 193.Google Scholar

39 Paul apparently feared bandits (2 Cor 11.26), but there are none in Acts.

40 Bowersock, Fiction as History, ch. I.

41 Antiquities 1.5, 10–12, 15–17; Contra Apionem 1.15–27, 45–56.

42 Alexander, Preface, chs. 4–5.

43 Alexander, , Preface, 122, 138.Google Scholar

44 Contrast Philostratus' use of his Damis source, which Bowie sees as consciously novelistic Bowie, ‘Philostratus’, 195.

45 Bowie, , ‘Philostratus’, 195.Google Scholar

46 Bowie, , ‘Philostratus‘, 193.Google Scholar E. P. Sanders makes a similar point about Paul: Sanders, E. P., Paul (Oxford: OUP, 1991) 15.Google Scholar

47 Bowie, E. L., ‘Lies, Fiction and Slander in Early Greek Poetry’, in Lies and Fiction, 137, on p. 6.Google Scholar

48 Alexander, , Preface, 139–42, 191–2.Google Scholar

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