A Novel Official in Acts 8:27?: The Debate

Some scholars claim that the account reflects the style of legend, but this judgment appears subjective , since ancient historians used many of the same narrative techniques empolyed by storytellers and novelists. As Barrett points out, “There is no means of checking the historicity of the narrative unless it can be assumed that angels do not exist or that they do not order missionaries about or provide transport for them.” Whether or not it pleases modern readers, most of Luke’s contemporaries assumed such events not only in novels but in their own real world. Others have suggested that the story is “completely mythical” because so many details have symbolic value; but parallels between different accounts in Plutarch show that stories laden with narrative connections and allusions could have historical bases.

Other scholars have countered with various arguments in favor of the historical accuracy of this narrative (not least of which is the overall historical genre of Acts). If Philip did meet a pilgrim from Nubia, such a pilgrim might well have been a person of means to make a such a journey. If Philip was Luke’s oral source, as 21: 8-10 might well suggest, Luke may have known and wished to reveal to his audience an event that prefigured the church’s official story in Acts 10. Other scholars argue forcefully from the apparent narrative tension with Luke’s account of Cornelius that Luke would not likely have invented this account, though he certainly enlists it to good effect once he has it.

Here, however, I focus on a particular literary question. Richard Pervo has argued that Luke includes the story of the African official because the latter was “exotic,” being from a distant and fabled land. By contrast to this approach, Luke’s narrative lacks the fictitious elaborations about a distant land characteristic of reports in novels and novelistic sources. Luke’s details, sparse as they are, display a higher proportion of accuracy than in even many historians’s speculations; they certainly lack the colorful but inaccurate depictions common in fiction.

This content is by Craig Keener, but edited and posted by Defenders Media.

For more, please check out Dr. Keener’s Between History and Spirit.

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