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Talbert, Charles H.


Reading Luke-Acts in its Mediterranean Milieu.


Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2003. XII, 255 S. gr.8 = Supplements to Novum Testamentum, 107. Geb. Euro 70,00. ISBN 90-04-12964-2.


Rick Strelan

This is a collection of thirteen articles written by Talbert, eleven of which have been published previously. The introductory chapter, On Reading Luke and Acts, offers a history of the interpretation of Luke, and then outlines the approach taken in the articles that follow. T. is interested in how various audiences relate to a text. In particular, he focuses on how members of a particular culture communicate with one another (16), and wants to determine the conceptual world in which the authorial audience might have heard the texts. This approach is the thread that holds his articles together.

The other previously unpublished article is, Reading Aune's Reading of Talbert. It deals with seven criticisms by Aune that were published in 1981 and 1987, but in the end, T. does little more than claim Aune has so repeatedly misread and so inaccurately reported on his work, and that he opposes a straw man of his construction (63). What is more, T. calls Aune's academic contribution and integrity into question. There is little to be gained from the chapter.

The chapter, Succession in Luke-Acts and in the Lukan Milieu (1998), addresses the question, How would ancient auditors have heard sections in Luke-Acts that deal with succession?, and offers lists of passages from Jewish and other ancient sources that deal with the succession of rulers, priests, philosophers (the succession of whom is dealt with in an excursus) and others. An attempt is made to find a conventional form of the Succession Story in Jewish, Christian and Greco-Roman literature, and the conclusion reached that succession is a cross-cultural phenomenon not limited to any one social context, is not genre specific, and in language and form is remarkably consistent over almost a millennium of literary material. The second section (43-55) looks at succession material in Luke-Acts itself, and inevitably concludes that Luke's succession material follows the same form, language and structure as that of other ancient writers.

Chapter Four examines Luke 1.5-4.1, which deals with Jesus' destiny, his prodigious youth and his genealogy, in the light of Greco-Roman biographies. These biographies constitute a genre of the pre-public careers of great men in the Mediterranean world, and Luke used that convention in telling the story of Jesus. This chapter is followed logically by one on Jesus' birth in the Lukan narrative and on the nature of religious language. In essence, the subject matter of the two articles is very similar, with the latter looking a little more at the religious language used in Luke's opening chapters. The article concludes with a one-page rejection of Richard Horsley's political reading of Luke 1-2, which T. calls a Marxist reading of Jesus birth which misses the whole point of the narratives because Horsley's view of religious language is skewe (89-90). T. thinks Luke's language is theological and not political. Rather ironically, given T.'s agenda to read texts as an ancient auditor might have heard them, T.'s separation of the theological and the political is not likely one that an ancient auditor would have made.

T.'s next article (of 1982) deals with a facet of Luke's spirituality that T. hopes might contribute to the modern struggle for an acceptable spirituality. The way of Jesus follows five stages in Luke's model: dedication to God as an infant, confirmation of parental decisions as a responsible youth, empowering for service, rejection and suffering as the perfection of obedience, and glorification. T. suggests this might be a helpful model or ideal for modern Christians.

Luke portrays Jesus' and Stephen's deaths as parallel martyrdoms that are seen in terms of rejection on the part of Israel, and as giving legitimacy to Christian evangelistic outreach. In Chapter Seven, T.'s 1983 article looks at the social implications of Luke's view of these martyrdoms. T. rejects Cassidy's political reading of the passion narrative in Luke, seeing instead the Lukan Jesus as politically middle-of-the-road as he called on his followers to form communities that embody God's grace (118). I suspect that the Lukan Jesus has a far sharper political edge than T. admits.

In Chapter Eight, T. examines the resurrection in Luke's theology with its christological, soteriological, ecclesiological and missiological ramifications. Then follows an article on conversion in Acts. T. ignores the fundamental issue of monotheism and polytheism in conversion; as a result, he thinks an ancient auditor would have felt little formal discontinuity if and when they heard the narrative of Acts with its depiction of conversion (143). The ideas of turning from and to, of miracles and preaching as catalysts for conversion, of the role of divine grace, and of a continuing change of life, T. thinks were all completely understandable to an ancient audience. At least T. acknowledges in the final sentence that the object/content of the Christian conversion experience would have caused difficulty, even if its formal components did not (148). But any discussion of conversion without its content/object of conversion is somewhat futile.

The latest (2000) published article in the collection looks at Acts 20.7-12 as an early Christian apologetic. The reference to the many lamps (20.8), and to the fall, death and resuscitation of Eutychus are seen as indications of the apologetic aim of this passage. Luke wants to legitimise Christian night meetings against suspicions that pagans had about them, and to defend Christians from accusations of infanticide and cannibalism.

The following chapter deals with the gentile mission in Luke-Acts based on two questions: How is the origin of the gentile mission in Acts to be understood theologically? And, why is there a disproportionate amount of attention given to the Jewish rejection of the gospel in Acts? (161). The first is answered by subsuming the gentile mission under the divine plan. However, it is highly questionable whether Luke's notion of the divine dei and the pagan idea of tyche can be seen as identical or even similar, as T. infers (165). The second issue is dealt with rather cursorily, and the Jewish rejection is seen as being consistent with Luke's general theme of status reversal. Jewish tradition knew of God's initial offer to the gentiles who declined it, so it was made to Israel. Luke reverses the process.

The penultimate chapter is T.'s theological reading of the Storm Stories in Luke-Acts (1995). Examples of similar stories in Greco-Roman literature and in Jewish literature are listed, and the conclusion reached that all audiences would have basically heard the same message: You cannot stop the divine plan. Jesus in Luke and Paul in Acts both exemplify God's authority over the sea and his protection of the righteous.

The collection concludes with T.'s 1997 article on the question of historicity in Acts. It is a question not fully answered, but T. implies rather clearly that Acts is of historical value, and he argues that on the basis of contemporary colour (titles of officials, details of administrative affairs etc.), historical sequence (date of Herod's death, the Claudius edict etc.), and individual events and episodes that are confirmed by external evidence, and manifest unity and integrity. T. adopts the common Western view that the opposite of history is mere fiction (217), a dichotomy again a touch ironic because I suggest that many an ancient Mediterranean auditor would not have made it.

The book is not without its typographical and other such errors. There is the inconsistent spelling of Aulus Gellius and of Absalom; the misspelling of Knox, of Niebuhr, and of Schürer; and a few spacing and bracketing errors.

T. has helpfully arranged his articles with some logic, and it is clear that his fundamental interest is in trying to read Luke-Acts as an ancient auditor might have heard them. It is a useful collection in that it provides a good example of recent literary critical readings of Luke-Acts, and is a useful resource for parallel literature and understandings from the Greek and Roman worlds.