In Praise of Christian Origins, a revision of Todd Penner’s 2000 doctoral dissertation from Emory University, tackles a thorny problem in New Testament scholarship: the significance of Stephen and the Hellenists in the nascent stages of Christian development (Acts of the Apostles 6:1-8:3). Arguing against those who find varying degrees of historicity in this episode, Penner asserts that the text has little to offer in this regard. Instead of looking for kernels of historical “facts,” Penner takes a different tack by examining how the story functions as a rhetorical composition. After examining the genre of ancient historiography in both Greco-Roman and Jewish sources, Penner argues that Luke’s description of the conflict between the Hellenist and Hebrew members of the Christian community and the subsequent martyrdom of Stephen is best understood as an example of apologetic history advanced through the use of epideictic rhetorical techniques (260). For Penner, this strategy is closely aligned with Luke’s larger concern “to present the origins of the new [Christian] community or politeia in continuity with its Jewish heritage and in a manner consonant with Greco-Roman values and perspectives” (260; cf. 111).
Penner begins with a Forschungsbericht outlining the interpretive trends that have dominated New Testament scholarship on this issue (“Hellenists and Historia : Constructing Christian History and Theology in Modern Scholarship”). He begins by broadly framing previous scholarship as working from the assumption that Luke writes either as a historian or a theologian. On the one hand, proponents of the former position (e.g. F.C. Baur, B.W. Bacon, M. Simon, and M. Hengel) have advanced the belief that Acts 6:1-8:3 testifies to a historical moment in the early church. On the other hand, those who have taken a redaction-critical approach to the text (e.g. M. Dibelius, H. Conzelmann) have de-emphasized historicity in favor of a reading that highlights the author’s kerygmatic agenda. Underlying this debate is the assumption that historical data reveals the historicity of earliest Christianity and, more importantly, Christian theology. Although more recent investigators have made advances in assessing the generic category of Acts (assuming it to be some form of historia), Penner states that the historian-theologian dichotomy persists and has tended to inhibit discussion of the major issue, namely, “the character of the historia that Luke relates/(re)produces” (7; cf. 52). Penner’s contention is that a rhetorically-sensitive critique of the historia of Acts 6:1-8:3 will show that “there are important limitations on what can be considered historical (i.e., related to the historicity of events) vis-à-vis early Christianity … and what is understood to be Lukan theology/ideology proper” (59).
Chapter two (“Textualizing the Hellenists, Contextualizing Interpretation: Mapping the Exegetical Terrain”) offers a close reading of Acts 6:1-8:3 in order to show how previous scholars have shaped the debate. The first part of the chapter addresses the interpretive issues of Acts 6:1-7. Penner’s efforts here are devoted to undercutting the consensus position that this section, while largely a product of Luke, nevertheless contains at least some traditional (i.e. historical) data. His most important argument is that the meaning of the word “Hellenist” is primarily linguistic (i.e. “Greek-speaking”) rather than geographic (i.e. Diaspora Jews) or theological (i.e. liberal interpreters of the law) (66-69). This assertion allows him to question historical reconstructions that argue that the Hellenists can be used to explain the emergence of Pauline Christianity. The second part addresses the narrative portions of the story (Acts 6:8-7:1; 7:54-8:2). As in the previous analysis, Penner questions the assumption that removing Luke’s hand from these sections can reveal reliable historical data (e.g. an orderly trial or mob lynching). Instead, he argues that these verses continue Luke’s literary artistry by linking themes found in 6:1-7 with the common formulation of a story of the unjust death of a righteous man (80-81). The third part of Penner’s analysis centers on Stephen’s speech (Acts 7:2-53), which has appeared to many interpreters as a traditional (i.e. historical) passage from Diaspora Judaism, unconnected to the preceding narrative but reworked by Luke and inserted into Stephen’s mouth. Building upon recent rhetorical examinations, however, Penner contends that there are important connections between the speech and its larger context, a conclusion that undermines attempts to locate a historical core in the speech and signals the necessity of examining how the speech functions within the context of Luke’s understanding of historia (102-103).
This conclusion leads Penner to an analysis of the methods and features of ancient historiography, the subject of the third chapter (“Writing History in Antiquity: Identity, Rhetoric, and Compelling Narrative”). Penner prefaces this chapter with words of caution regarding the persistent assumptions that ancient historians were sober and scientific investigators who, by collecting factual and verifiable data, produced accurate reconstructions of the past. For Penner, this view fails to appreciate recent studies that have uncovered a rhetorical edge to Hellenistic historiography. Equally important, this traditional portrait demonstrates how modern historical sensibilities continue to color interpretations of how the ancients practiced this craft and reveals how discomforting it may be to admit that the history writers of antiquity may not have been as concerned for the “truth” as those of the post-Enlightenment think they were (or want them to be).
These observations frame the rest of the chapter, which argues that the so-called “dramatic” or “tragic” historians (as opposed to “serious” historians such as Thucydides and Strabo) readily appropriated a wide array of rhetorical devices that amplified the historical “facts” of their work. This practice, as Penner notes, primarily served a pedagogical function: histories were meant to support fundamental Greco-Roman mores and advance a moral lesson with universal significance. In these efforts, epideictic discourse proved invaluable for framing narratives that inculcated “within the reader the practical and moral foundation of paideia” (161). Penner observes, however, that this focus effectively blurred generic distinctions, so that history writing became “more encomiastic, apologetic, and polemical” (136). In their desire to develop a plausible, persuasive, and vivid narrative with pedagogical import, historians consciously deployed all of the arrows in their rhetorical quivers (e.g. ekphrasis, topoi, synkrisis, and prosopopoiia).
The results of this investigation become the lens through which Penner analyzes Acts 6:1-8:3. Before turning to this topic, however, he examines the strategies found in Jewish historiography, another current that influenced Luke. In the fourth chapter (“Jewish Apologetic History: Cultural Identity and Rewriting the Past”), Penner builds upon G.E. Sterling’s suggestion that apologetic concerns dominate much of Jewish history writing (228-229; cf. 138-146). While this type of literature was naturally invested in refuting accusations from outsiders, Penner highlights its ability to create an identity for insiders by rewriting “native” traditions in terms palatable to Hellenistic sensibilities (236). In this enterprise, epideictic rhetorical techniques once again take center stage as Jewish authors attempt to articulate their history (especially the exodus story) by praising its notable aspects and comparing it with other, non-Jewish traditions. Such encomia primarily centered on elevating the temple and the law as examples that highlight the civilized (and superior) nature of the Jewish tradition. According to Penner, Jewish authors found this strategy particularly useful because it established both the religious and political origins of the Jewish politeia.
In like manner, Luke also evinces a concern for presenting the early Christian community as a legitimate politeia worthy of praise. The final chapter (“In Praise of Origins: The Hellenists, Stephen, and the Christian Foundation Narrative”) develops this position through a rhetorical analysis of Acts 6:1-8:3. Specifically, Penner argues that the narrative functions to promote an image of the early Christian community actively engaged in defusing stasis and promoting philia and philanthropia. By successfully resolving the crisis surrounding the widows in 6:1-7, Luke depicts the apostles as responsible leaders whose preservation of koinonia exemplifies Roman virtues. Moreover, by noting that the original composition of the community was comprised of both Diaspora and Palestinian Jews, Luke offers a literary rather than historical explanation for the movement’s mission from Israel to the larger Gentile world. Luke’s attention to the interaction among community members represents his interest in establishing Christian philia, while the inclusiveness of the oikoumene establishes a bridge to the larger Greco-Roman population and underscores Christianity’s dedication to philanthropia (284-285).
Penner argues next that the narrative information surrounding Stephen’s speech (6:8-15; 7:54-8:3) is an example of synkrisis that reinforces the praiseworthiness of the Christian movement by contrasting the nobility of Stephen with the misanthropy of his Jewish opponents. While Stephen acts and speaks in a manner that elucidates his moral virtue, the words and deeds of his adversaries demonstrate their incivility and immoderation (291-293). Thus, unlike the Christians, who in 6:1-7 were able to prevent community discord, the Jewish leadership succumbs to mob violence that ultimately leads to persecution.
Stephen’s speech (7:1-53) continues the epideictic thrust of the narrative by rehearsing the ancestry of the Jews. In this section, Penner places the speech within the matrix of Jewish apologetics but notes that Luke’s elaboration of Jewish history distinguishes itself from other Jewish texts by juxtaposing negative and positive events from the past and associating them with the Jewish leadership and Christian community, respectively. Penner’s examination of the exodus motif is central to this discussion: unlike other Jewish commentators, Luke does not praise the construction of the temple. Rather, as Stephen elaborates on the theme of promise and fulfillment, the “place” ( topos) is not the temple but the land itself. This exegetical move demonstrates that, in this instance at least, Luke views the temple negatively as a deviation from the pristine religious politeia established by Moses. For Luke, the construction of the temple represents an act of disobedience that continues to find expression in those who adhere to its traditions (i.e. the Jewish leadership). Ultimately, then, Luke’s epideictic reading of Jewish history intends to praise Stephen for his righteousness and his consistency between word and deed while blaming his opponents for perpetuating the worst aspects of Judaism’s story. This polarity, according to Penner, is consistent with the earlier narrative and furthers Luke’s overall interest in establishing the Christian ekklesia as the true inheritors of the Jewish politeia.
Throughout this book, Penner employs a socio-rhetorical methodology that, while not entirely new, is nevertheless characteristic of the most recent work on Acts. Broadly speaking, Penner may be grouped together with those scholars who have insisted upon reading Acts, not for its historical value, but rather for the insights it reveals about Luke’s socio-cultural world. As Penner states in his epilogue, “The question of the historicity of the Hellenist episode is both difficult to answer and ultimately irrelevant for understanding Acts as a sociocultural and sociohistorical product” (331; emphasis added).1 As a result, his work represents a challenge to those who continue to mine Acts for historical data and/or for evidence of Lukan redaction.2 For Penner, such an enterprise runs the risk of falling prey (perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not) to Luke’s presentation of the “facts”.3 Such assertions reflect the direction in which much of contemporary (North American) research on Acts has been leaning, and Penner’s thoughtful, meticulous, and incisive argumentation will undoubtedly spur others to look at the text in this new light.
Even so, it is likely that scholars may continue to disagree with Penner on a few points and ask for further clarification on others. For example, Penner’s classification of Acts as apologetic historiography marked by epideictic rhetoric, and his willingness to place a remarkably diverse amount of literature under this same rubric, has not won absolute approval.4 It is also unclear whether Penner’s reading of the word “Hellenist” as “Greek-speakers” will solve this particular issue, and perhaps Penner may be seen to waver on this matter when he concedes that the word may also contain “overtones of geography”(70). Nevertheless, his main contention that Acts 6:1-8:3 should be viewed as a coherent unit, and that Luke employs epideictic rhetorical strategies to praise the Christian community and blame the Jewish authorities, is supported by weighty and convincing arguments, and represents an original contribution that has ramifications not only for the study of Acts, but for rethinking Christian origins as well.
1. See also his remarks in “Civilizing Discourse: Acts, Declamation, and the Rhetoric of the Polis,” in Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse, eds. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (SBLSymS 20; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 84: when approaching Luke’s speeches from a rhetorical perspective, “one is no longer interested primarily (or even at all) in the historicity of the material in Acts but rather in examining the only thing that Acts can really yield in the end: a window to Luke’s sociocultural world.”
2. For a review of past approaches to Acts and recent trends, see Joseph B. Tyson, “From History to Rhetoric and Back: Assessing New Trends in Acts Studies,” in Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse, eds. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (SBLSymS 20; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 23-42.
3. In chapter one, Penner uncovers contemporary biases in modern historical-critical research. See also his comments in “Madness in the Method? The Acts of the Apostles in Current Study,” Currents in Biblical Research 2 (2004): 246: “Luke adeptly draws his readers to the central figures, incidents and places in his story, and his dynamic and engaging narration fixes our gaze and interest on these focal points of his literary canvas. Yet how much of this phenomenon is our own desire (need?) to recover the real history of earliest Christianity? … And, most importantly, how much of this quest is in fact created by the literary and rhetorical force of Luke’s presentation? If it is true that Luke has engendered in the reader a belief (or pistis) in the historical accuracy of the work, then our continual attempts at retrieval may in fact confirm his rhetorical superiority” (emphasis in original).
4. In the session devoted to Penner’s work at the Society of Biblical Literature’s 2004 meeting, many of the respondents focused their remarks on issues related to genre. Yet Penner himself has nuanced his thoughts on genre in other publications, as evidenced by his remarks in “Reconfiguring the Rhetorical Study of Acts: Reflections on the Method in and Learning of a Progymnastic Poetics,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 30 (2003): 436-437, and “Madness in the Method?” 233-241.