Friday, April 10, 2009

Acts Enters the No-Spin Zone

I just received my copy of volume 2 of James Dunn's Christianity in the Making, Beginning from Jerusalem. It is fantastic. In volume 1, Jesus Remembered, Dunn gave his take on the "quest for the historical Jesus," and in volume 2 he introduces the "quest for the historical early church." How can he get 1300 pages out of that? you might ask. After all, Acts is only 28 chapters long.

Have you ever wondered about the differing pictures of the early church in Acts and in Paul's letters? In Acts, the church is a bunch of shiny happy people holding hands. They live together, share their property, help orphans and widows, and God adds to their numbers daily those who are being saved. In Paul, they shack up with their step-moms, judge one another about eating meat, deny important doctrines like the resurrection, force each other to be circumcised, and bicker over who is a better teacher--Paul, Cephas, or Apollos. Paul can't get along with Peter. Paul can't get along with "some people from James." Paul can't get along with Barnabas. (Ancient church leaders generally disliked Paul.)
How do we reconcile these pictures? What was the early church really like? This is the task that James Dunn has taken on--reconciling the early documents to get a clearer picture of the "historical early church."
Consider this from Beginning from Jerusalem:
No doubt it is necessary to discount, or at least to take account of, the 'spin' which Luke puts on his narrative, but the twenty-first century reader (or viewer) of historical studies and portrayals is well accustomed to doing so. It is of first importance in all this that we neither attribute to Luke an unrealistically idealistic quality as an ancient historian nor assume that his mistakes and Tendenzen show him to be unworthy of the title 'historian'. (87)
Dunn makes a good point. Acts makes no attempt to present an unbiased interpretation of the "Acts of the Apostles." Luke wants to show the world that God is behind the movement. Thus, he includes what helps him show this and he omits what doesn't help show this. In effect, he puts a 'spin' on the story. Are we comfortable with that?

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