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The Past as Legacy. Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic.
Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2000. X, 230 S. 8. Kart. US$ 20,00. ISBN 0-8006-3225-7.
Loveday C. Alexander
Marianne Bonz's book, based on her Harvard doctoral thesis, is a learned and well-documented analysis of Luke-Acts, built around a comparative study of Luke-Acts and Roman epic. The book contains much useful material. A rather conventional Forschungsgeschichte of twentieth-century approaches to the genre and interpretation of Luke-Acts (ch. 1) leads to the conclusion (26) that "Luke's solution to the historic problems presented to the predominantly gentile Christian communities of his generation was remarkably similar to that applied by Vergil to the problems and challenges of Augustan society. Just as Vergil had created his foundational epic for the Roman people by appropriating and transforming Homer, so also did Luke create his foundational epic for the early Christian community primarily by appropriating and transforming the sacred traditions of Israel's past ... Through this process of appropriation and transformation, Luke sought to confer a noble identity and an aura of destiny upon the Christian present, raising the designation Christian to the level of universal human aspiration." B. then supplies an overview of the Aeneid (ch. 2) and its first-century adaptations (ch. 3), followed by a detailed analysis of "The dramatic unfolding of prophecy and history in Luke-Acts" (ch. 4) and a narrative analysis of the whole text (ch. 5).
Much of this is unexceptionable, and there are interesting and potentially significant insights throughout. For B., one of the specifically epic elements in Luke-Acts is "the dramatic presentation of the central theme in terms of a divinely ordained mission that finds its ultimate resolution in the reconstitution of the people of God" (95): "Just as the gods who had willed the destruction of Troy also ensure the survival of a faithful remnant, so also does Luke portray the division and ultimate collapse of the house of Israel as a result of the expressed will and plan of God. The faithful remnant, the true descendants of Abraham who are obedient to the divine Spirit, form the nucleus of a new community. To this core, a great number of gentiles are added, just as in Virgil's narrative the Trojan remnant is led by divine guidance to merge with the numerically superior Latin peoples, taking a new name ...". (128).
There are some valuable and imaginative insights here, not least into the theological resonances Vergil's narrative may have carried for Christian readers of a later era. These thematic echoes raise the question of Luke's own relationship with Rome and the odd sense of "homecoming" when Paul finally arrives in the Eternal City in ch. 28. I would agree with B. that for Luke himself, the relationship with the Roman myth should probably be seen in terms of transvaluation rather than simple adoption: what Luke provides is "a rival vision of empire, with a rival deity issuing an alternative plan for human salvation", and a very different kind of hero (182). Part of the value of this kind of comparative study lies precisely in the way setting the two texts together brings out their ideological differences, and allows us to understand a little more clearly how the Christian story was able to challenge and ultimately subvert the dominant grand narratives of the Empire.
But does any of this make Luke-Acts an "epic"? It is widely recognised that the role of the Hebrew Bible in Jewish and Christian discourse exactly mirrors the role of the foundational epics as classic resources for allusion, mimesis and transvaluation in their societies. Thus, for B., "the use of literary allusion to add complexity and ambiguity to the surface level of the narrative" in Acts is treated as one of "the specific elements from contemporary Greco-Roman epic tradition" (95). But this is surely a non-sequitur. There are many different ways of paying homage to a cultural classic (quotation, allusion, parody, pastiche, to name but a few), and most of them fall a long way short of generic imitatio, that is the attempt to emulate a classic text by producing something in the same genre. Homer is the most widely-quoted author of classical antiquity, but very few of the writers who quote him are themselves claiming (or even remotely aspiring) to write epic poems. In fact a measure of the awed esteem in which Homer was held is precisely the mockery with which someone like Lucian treats contemporary historians who try to write in Homeric fashion (Lucian, How to write history 14). Moreover, imitatio (in either the broad or the narrow sense) is not a specific characteristic of epic but a widespread cultural phenomenon fundamental to ancient Mediterranean society. And it is part of an educational pattern that placed a high value on sensitivity to genre and linguistic register. No reader trained in this system could ignore the fact (dismissed in two lines as an "important exception", 190) that epic is essentially a verse genre with its own distinctive patterns of discourse - epic metre, epic diction, epic similes - and that Luke's work contains none of these.
Even on a broader, cross-cultural level, there is no attempt to engage with the classic definitions of epic, such as those of C. M. Bowra or Frank Cross. In fact few (if any) readers have claimed for New Testament narrative the qualities of "epic" as something conveying the values of a heroic world-view, or something with that "majestic" or "grandiose" quality that epic seriousness seems to require. Instead, B. suggests a number of structural points of comparison between Acts and the Aeneid, most notably the bipartite structure (148); the programmatic use of balance and repetition (174 ff.); the use of prophecy to provide the link between the present and the mythic past (191-92); and the "use of supernatural beings as a narrative device employed at critical junctures to shape the direction and further the movement of the plot" (164). The first two are well observed, but much too general to identify Luke's narrative as "epic". The latter two are crucial, and linked. B. correctly observes that the mingling of supernatural beings with human characters is problematic in Greco-Roman historiography (163). But it is hard to understand her view that the only Greco-Roman genre in which such mingling can be found is epic (what about the novels?); and the judgement that "there are no biblical narratives that can serve as literary parallels for the numerous angelic encounters in Acts" (ibid.) can only be sustained by special pleading. Yes, there are differences of detail between Luke's handling of such encounters and those found in the Hebrew and Greek Bible; but there are also many (and, I would argue, much more significant) differences between Acts and the narrative management of the supernatural in the Aeneid. The reason Vergil can afford to let his human actors mingle with divine characters is precisely because his story is set firmly in the mythological past, with his own political present represented through the device of prophecy. Luke's strategy is the reverse of this: his story is in the present, and it is prophecy that links it to the mythological past. In fact, what I miss in this book overall is a detailed comparative analysis of the way epic works as narrative - and this, I suspect, might lead to a rather different estimation of Luke's project in generic terms.