In reading the book of Acts, we must give serious consideration to the art of rhetoric and how it was used in this primarily oral culture. Luke begins this second work of history with a summary of his first book.

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen (Acts 1:1-2, ESV).

What was Luke’s intent? Was he a theologian trying to persuade? Was he a passionate historian trying to tell a simple story? To give some important context, I turn to the fine Socio-Rhetorical commentary from Dr. Ben Witherington and his introduction to Luke’s prologue in Acts.

At this juncture we must deal with a subject that sets much of ancient historiography apart from modern history writing—the influence of rhetoric and rhetorical conventions. Various historians and classics scholars have canvassed this latter subject, and the verdict seems clear enough. Early Greek history writing as embodied in Herodotus and Thucydides was affected by the earlier genres of Greek drama and epic poetry. From the time of Aristotle on there was an increasing influence of other literary traditions as well, especially rhetorical conventions, on the writing of history. By the time we arrive at the first century a.d. some works that claimed to be ιστορια often owed more to declamation and Greco-Roman rhetoric than to careful historical study of sources and consulting of witnesses…
Even well before the Empire there was an internal debate among historians about how much concession should be given to rhetorical concerns in the writing of history, with continuators of Thucydides like Cratippus disapproving of the inclusion of speeches in history at all since it gave too much freedom for rhetorical invention, while on the other end of the scale Theopompus was so obsessed with the literary qualities of his history writing that it may be said that he never saw a rhetorical device that he did not like and use.
It was not, however, a matter of the nonrhetorical historians versus the rhetorical ones. The debate was over whether distortion or free invention was allowable in a historical work in the service of higher rhetorical aims. No one was seriously arguing that composers of written history should eschew all literary considerations. As H. F. North says, “there were two essential elements in the ancient concept of history: fidelity to truth and perfection of style—narratio and exornatio.”

Witherington goes on to show that there is truly a “sliding scale” among historians ranging from those gave great weight to rhetorical considerations in order to elicit an emotional response from the reader and those who used rhetorical devices of the day to convey an historical message.

This brings us back to Theophilus, probably Luke’s patron, and more certainly of some social standing and thus likely having considerable education. If Luke wished for Theophilus to give ear to the case he was making, he would almost certainly have had to give attention to the rhetorical properties and potentialities of his composition. It may come as some surprise to us, but it was often thought in antiquity that the person most suited to write a work of history was a great orator, like a Cicero. A work of history could be seen as an exercise in producing an extended narratio—the statement of the facts that provide the points of reference for a rhetorical speech…
In other words, the art of persuasion, otherwise known as rhetoric, was essential in history writing, but serious historians would follow the conventions of deliberative rhetoric which had to do with giving advice and counsel about the future, and perhaps also forensic rhetoric which had to do with defending the past, but would stay largely away from epideictic rhetoric, the rhetoric of free invention, and mere display and declamation.
Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 39-43.

 

Dr. Joe Miller (aka JR) is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. In addition, he is a church planter and coach for emerging leaders. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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