A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles

Written by Ward Gasque Reviewed By Max Turner

E. Haenchen, in his magisterial commentary on Acts, deplores the lack of a critical history of the Actaforschung comparable to Albert Schweitzer’s histories of Gospel criticism and Pauline research. Gasque’s thesis seeks to fill the breach, though it is probably a very different work from the one Haenchen had in mind!

Gasque’s contribution to this well-known series is substantially a writing-up of his earlier research, conducted under F. F. Bruce and accepted for the degree of PhD at Manchester in 1969. In ten chapters Gasque attempts to give an account of the major contributions to the study of Acts from the time of Calvin to the present day. In his first chapter he discusses the many merits of the ‘pre-critical’ writings of Calvin, Grotius, J. Lightfoot, Bengel and Paley. Subsequently he outlines the position of F. C. Baur and the Tübingen school (ch. 2); the right-wing and left-wing reactions to it (chs. 3 and 4) and the position of German scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century (ch. 5). He then analyses the contribution of nineteenth-century British scholarship (ch. 6); the arguments of W. Ramsay, Th. Zahn, A. Harnack, A. Wickenhauser and E. Meyer in defence of Luke the historian (ch. 7); the American contribution (ch. 8); the influence of Martin Dibelius (ch. 9) and lastly ‘Luke the Historian in Recent Research’ (ch. 10). The last two of these chapters together constitute about one third of the total work.

Most of Gasque’s book is descriptive and this makes his contribution an excellent source-book (when I started as a research student on Acts I took some 44 pages of notes from his thesis!) and a much more balanced guide than Haenchen’s own summary of the scholarship on Acts in the introduction to his commentary. Haenchen is quite able, in his selective description, to give the impression that the essentials of the Baur-Dibelius-Conzelmann axis are only attacked by arbitrary hypercritics (e.g. B. Bauer), Catholics and ‘wherever, as in England, scholarship is governed by a spirit of Conservatism’. This is certainly not the view put forward by Gasque. He argues that the whole of Baur’s position was carefully dismantled by the astute and critical scholarship of H. A. W. Meyer, Ritschl, Lechler (whom Haenchen admits made a fair blow) and Lekebusch on the continent, and it was dramatically routed by J. B. Lightfoot in Cambridge who blazed the trail for subsequent English scholarship. But the arguments against Baur were quietly ignored by the German critical orthodoxy of the turn of the century and his spirit lived on. Certainly the historical value of Acts continued to be seriously doubted and the alleged dichotomy between Paul and the earliest apostles was still firmly held (ch. 5).

While Haenchen’s introduction refers on occasion to more conservative views, the interlocking strength of their case is never examined. By contrast Gasque, in perhaps his most positive chapter, parades the historical and linguistic arguments adduced by a variety of workers at the turn of the century. Gasque gives considerable weight to W. Ramsay who developed in detail the sort of argument, first used by J. B. Lightfoot, to the effect that Luke is continually proved accurate on small details of Roman provincial government, society and life which would have been all but impossible to track down after the events without the equivalent of a good modern reference library. Harnack’s linguistic arguments are rehearsed and Gasque brings to light two works which tend to be overlooked: the immense and erudite considerations of the historicity of Acts by A. Wickenhauser and E. Meyer. In the light of what is said by these four scholars, Gasque urges, the burden of proof rests with those who wish to dispute Acts’ historicity and the arguments put forward by them must be fairly examined.

Just this, Gasque complains, has not happened. Dibelius’ essays on ‘Style-criticism’ in Acts, which purport to be purely literary analyses, in fact assume all that Ramsay et al. denied, without so much as a ‘by your leave’. Nor does Dibelius appear to have learnt from what previous writers had said on the issue of Thucydides’ speeches. According to Gasque, Haenchen’s commentary too readily assumes Dibelius’ ‘findings’ on these critical issues. Indeed he feels quite free to go beyond Dibelius’ conclusions to affirm that Luke could not have been a companion of Paul, nor one who lived in the apostolic age, nor, again, was he even interested in verisimilitude: simply with edification. Gasque feels that Haenchen offers only his own doctrinaire statements with all too little evidence to support his case—a case which only has the appearance of strength as long as the arguments of Ramsay et al. are forgotten. Conzelmann’s commentary may well provide the reductio ad absurdum of the whole school.

The last chapter, perhaps slightly weaker than the others, surveys recent scholarship on Luke-Acts outside the immediate influence of Dibelius. One can hardly speak of any ‘trend’ in a chapter which looks at the contributions of (inter alia) W. L. Knox, F. F. Bruce, R. Morgenthaler, E. Trocmé, J. Munck, A. J. Matthil, A. N. Sherwin-White, R. C. P. Hanson (who is allocated too much space), P. Vielhauer (on which Gasque makes many good points), H. Conzelmann (on Luke), J. C. O’Neill and C. H. Talbert. One might almost give these pages the title ‘Rugged Individualist’.

Gasque’s book is the fruit of much reading. He is always patient and ready to appraise a work positively even when he disagrees considerably with the conclusions. He accepts that we have much to learn from such men as Dibelius and Haenchen, but that they in turn have much to learn from the caution and meticulous historical scholarship of men such as J. B. Lightfoot, Wickenhauser, Cadbury and Sherwin-White. Ingenious but overhasty ideas, and a rash of false antitheses, could bring even so massive a commentary as that by Haenchen to a premature grave with those of Loisy and Overbeck.

No doubt disciples of Haenchen will judge that Gasque too readily jumps from the accuracies of Luke’s sources to Luke’s worth as a historian. They will also wish to assert that Luke is much more interested in theology than even Gasque allows. But one hopes that they may have the grace to recognize, in future, that the reluctance in certain circles to accept the Dibelius line is occasioned less by ‘a spirit of conservatism’ than by some hard arguments and an awareness of the course of the debate on Acts such as is provided by Gasque’s book.

Max Turner

London Bible College