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My Problem with Luke-Acts

December 11, 2007

I am having a problem with Luke-Acts. While it is undoubtedly true that Luke-Acts is a single literary unit, the fact of the matter is that they were split canonically — Luke is sandwiched between the gospels of Mark and John, while Acts functions as a spearhead of narrative jutting into the epistles. One might almost be tempted to call Acts’ canonical location “liminal.” It is this transitional character I am having troubles with.

The fact that Acts has this strange function in the New Testament canon that doesn’t coincide with its literary unity makes me wonder if I can push Acts even further back in my Intro class next semester. The class will start with some general introduction into the Hellenistic context of first century CE Palestine and then transition into analysis of the four gospels. I am tempted at this point to move into a discussion of letters in the ancient world and the genre of the epistle, followed by a day or so in the epistle of James.Only after James will I move to a discussion of Acts.

I think that Acts makes a great setup for a discussion of Paul and his letters, but I think discussing James after Paul is how the book has gotten a bad rap to begin with. By fronting James, the continuity between the its message and the gospels is stressed and I can compare James’ message to Jesus rather than to Paul. (N.b. I’m not advocating by this arrangement an early date for either the gospels or the letter of James. I’m looking for an order that works pedagogically rather than chronologically.)

On one level, this transition makes a whole lot of sense. I think it will give students a better narrative for discussing New Testament writings and perspectives. However, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m some how doing violence to the text of Luke-Acts by taking half a book that has already been displaced and moving it even further apart.

  1. December 11, 2007 12:07 pm

    I don’t like the idea of moving Luke-Acts even further apart. I see the pedagogical reasoning behind it, but I still don’t like it. On top of that, you might consider coming to James after Paul. James does have a bad rap on occasion, but sometimes the only way to change that is to confront it directly. At the same time, this is only a survey course so…*shrugs*

  2. December 11, 2007 4:20 pm

    Are there other criteria at hand when ordering the canon? My understanding about the letters for example is that they could be arranged according to someone’s idea of priority.
    It was suggested to us at seminary that Hebrews comes after the Pauline texts because of its obvious stature and ‘stand-alone’ integrity,(though it was thought by many to have been written by Paul) that James comes next giving the ancient Church’s priority to the Lord’s brother (cf his role in Acts) then Peter. John is grouped together and Jude is just tucked in.
    Or it could be that they are (as is commonly proposed) just grouped by length whilst keeping common authorship together.
    The Gospels are grouped in what was thought to have been their order of chronological authorship. Bearing in mind that it could reasonably look as though Mark was later than Matthew as there are no birth narratives.

  3. December 11, 2007 5:24 pm

    I’m thinking you’re on the right track. If you’re not going to do Luke-Acts together than you need to use it as an introduction to the Pauline letters so folks can read him as a missionary (the way Paul should be read).

  4. December 12, 2007 9:21 am

    It is an interesting idea to put James before Paul’s letters as he does fit in close with the gospels and plays a role in Acts. Of course it also makes lots of sense to go from Acts into Paul’s letters since Luke’s whole point in Acts is that Paul is not acting out against the law/a heretic. That is a tough call. I wonder what Tannehill would have to say about that in his 2 volume – Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts.

  5. December 12, 2007 11:23 am

    I don’t like the idea of splitting Luke-Acts, but it is just one course, so hopefully they don’t forget Luke by the time you get to Acts (that is, if they even read either of them).

    If feels weird to me to place James before Acts, but that’s just because my brain is either tied to canonical order or some sort of putative chronological order and a third pedagogical order just messes with my head.

  6. jspinti permalink
    December 12, 2007 2:13 pm

    A point that is often forgotten in our printing press world is that the order of the books was not officially fixed until the time of the printing press…so why not do what works for you?

    It might even make you look post-modern and on top of things to your students : )


  7. jimgetz permalink*
    December 12, 2007 9:16 pm

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

    Calvin and Patrick,
    I understand your concerns about keeping the two halves together. Trust me, I’m feeling a bit conflicted about this. On the other hand, part of the reason why we all feel this way is that we’ve been taught to think of them as one book. Obviously, the Church didn’t seem to have a big problem splitting it up. Plus, using Acts as a way of introducing Paul’s letters helps stress that he was a missionary not a systematic theologian.

    Wasn’t it with the invention/proliferation of the codex that the order started to matter? The printing press definitely codified a lot of things (and we all love a certain contemporary press in Indiana!), but I thought that the canonical order of the NT was worked out earlier. As far as being postmodern, I think the shaved head and six earrings makes already puts me in that camp for most of them 😉

  8. December 12, 2007 11:15 pm

    Blomberg in Jesus and the Gospels has a nice chart showing how Luke’s structure is the inverse of Acts’

    See this post for that information.

  9. jimgetz permalink*
    December 13, 2007 11:10 am


    Thanks. I was aware of that, though I haven’t been wholly convinced. I tend to have a lot of doubts about supposed chiasmus in biblical texts (e.g. Wehnam’s chiastic chimera in the flood stories).

    I do like the structure as set out in the beginning of Acts: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the nations. It might provide a nice springboard to them talk about the apostle to the Gentiles.

    I’ll definitely give Blomberg a second look on this.

  10. December 21, 2007 9:57 am

    It is hard to say Luke really had that in mind as Blomberg may be getting a little creative with making it fit.

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