Leuven Symposium on Luke-Acts: Personal Summary on Acts and Pliny

This past Friday concluded a three day symposium at KU Leuven entitled, “Luke on Jesus, Paul and Christianity: What Did He Know?” Organized by Joseph Verheyden and John Kloppenborg, it brought together a wide array of fine scholars who explored the sources and intertextualities of Luke and Acts. Most of the papers will likely be published as an edited collection, probably late in 2015. In an upcoming post, I will include a brief summary of each conference paper, but I am giving the presenters a chance to comment on my summaries before I do that.

In the meantime, I will take the liberty of summarizing my own paper and discuss its response. Here is the abstract:

A movement is afoot among scholars to situate the Acts of the Apostles in the 2nd century. An important test case for this thesis (whether to reject, to support, or to nuance it) is the relationship between Acts and the letters of Pliny the Younger, in particular his correspondence with emperor Trajan about Christians. A close comparison of the two texts reveals parallels notable for their analogical imitation, volume, frequency, order, distinctiveness and coherence. These parallels include: 1) marketplace disruption as the impetus for arrest and trial, 2) the presiding official’s abjection over the spread of Christian influence, 3) a puzzled response at the accused and official inquiry made to a political superior, 4) direct appeal to the emperor as a sacred custom, 5) the use of the term Christian as a opprobrium by a Roman official during a trial, 6) considerable vexation about the application of the Christian label, 7) survival predicated upon paying homage to the public gods, 8) official pressure for the accused to face actual charges in a proper trial, 9) the presiding official’s ridicule of Christian citizens as mindless, and 10) the remittance of Christian citizens to the capital for trial. Both even 11) know a lawyer with the uncommon name of Tertullus who represents an anti-Christian party. Finally, an intertextual relationship enhances interpretability, clarifying Acts rather than obscuring it. This correspondence would indeed have been available and known to someone writing in western Asia Minor in the 110s or subsequently. The earliest history of the interpretation of both texts also dovetails. In sum, it is probable that Acts depends on Pliny’s correspondence with Trajan. Moreover, in its broader cultural, social and historical context, Acts not only presumes Pliny’s letters but is situated in the very world brought about by them.

Essentially, this was a modestly edited version of a presentation I gave at SBL in 2009. That presentation, made on the last day of the conference and lightly attended, seemed to go over the heads of most in the audience, probably because a 2nd century date for Acts was a relatively new idea at that point in time.

This conference was different in many ways. I had a full 45 minutes to present, followed by 30 minutes of discussion. Some of the world’s best New Testament scholars were in attendance. A complementary case for Acts having an historical (though not literary, per se) relationship to Acts was made by my colleague, Tom Phillips, based on an SBL presentation he made in 2010. Over the past five years, the number of scholars entertaining a 2nd century setting for Acts has grown, and several of the conference attendees voiced their view that Acts belonged to a Hadrianic timeframe.

So, with these many advantages, I felt that my argument was heard and taken seriously. That is not to say, however, that everyone was instantly persuaded. Some expressed a hesitant acceptance, others pointed out possible issues and problems to consider, and still others said that they were not convinced, but would continue to consider the case I made.

As I said in the introduction to the presentation, the argument that Acts depends on Pliny (even if second-hand or as an oral tradition) is probably a fairly controversial idea to most scholars today. That said, I felt that my paper received a sympathetic and critical hearing, and I could not ask for anything more than that!

– Mark Glen Bilby

Leave a Reply