When we read Luke and Acts, it seems obvious that Luke intended to write some sort of history of the expansion of the early church from a small messianic sect of Judaism in Galilee and Judea to an empire-wide religion which included both Jews and Gentiles. In the opening lines of the Gospel of Luke we are informed that a main purpose for writing the book was to create an “orderly account” which was “thoroughly investigated” by seeking out “eyewitnesses” to the events recorded.
This sounds very much like any Greco-Roman historian. As one reads through Luke and Acts there are any number of key figures and events which “fit” into the general history of the world. Figures like Augustus, Herod, Pilate, Gallio are all well-known characters. So too Luke’s geographical references attempt to show the expansion of the Gospel west from Jerusalem to Rome. There are things in the book which the modern reader fails to appreciate as historical, such as the detailed descriptions of sailing on the Mediterranean Sea in Acts 27.
But it is equally obvious that Luke writes this story as just that, a story. There are elements of the book included in order to enhance the story from the perspective of literature. He intends to tell an interesting story, with foreshadowing and surprising twists.
Perhaps the best example of this is the dramatic introduction of the main character of two-thirds of the book at the end of Chapter 7. Saul appears as “approving” the stoning of Stephen, then he is dropped from the narrative for a chapter to create narrative tension. Again, Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is told he is going to be the light to the Gentiles – yet that plot line is dropped in chapters 10-12, only to be picked up in chapter 13 perhaps a dozen years later. This is the work of a master story-teller, teasing his readers with hints and foreshadowing of what we know must be coming.
Yet there is a third part of Luke’s book which cannot be ignored. Luke is a theologian, and his book is telling the reader about the work of God in the world. He has theological interests, such as how God’s plan is unfolding in history, or the movement of the Holy Spirit as the gospel moves into new areas of the world. Darrell Bock’s recent The Theology Luke/Acts demonstrates that Luke had many theological interests which run throughout these two books.
It seems to me that interpreters of Acts can only hold one or two of these three points at any one time. Either Paul is writing history, or theology, it is assumed, because the two genre are distinct. This is true for a modern history for the most part, but not so an ancient history. There is no separation of church and state in the Greco-Roman world, nor can history and theology be neatly separated in Thucyidides or Josephus. It is impossible that a writer in the first century would create a dispassionate, non-theological history (as if he was a modernist living in 1850!)
It is equally impossible to read Acts as only a theological history without recognizing that he was an excellent storyteller who highlights some of his theological views by describing them in a highly organized, literary fashion. I am not sure anyone wants to read a history that is non-literary. I suppose that would be a list of names or a series of un-interpreted facts, although even a list of names is filtered in some way.
When we read Acts, all three of these elements ought to be held as more or less equal. That is something of a challenge, since most people are drawn to one or two of the points, rarely all three. Someone might find a great deal of satisfaction working on the historical questions in Acts but find very little use for narrative approaches to Acts. Another reader might focus solely on the theological issues without any sense of history. This is sometimes done in the service of application: what does Luke tell us about the Holy Spirit for today?
Can a reader approach the book with all three elements in mind? Are there other elements I am omitting?