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Luke's Preface: The Greek Decree, Classical Historiography and Christian Redefinitions*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 September 2011

John Moles
School of Historical Studies, Newcastle University, Armstrong Building, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK. email:


The single type of writing that Luke's Preface resembles most is the Greek decree. Along with other indications, the structure situates Luke in the tradition of Classical historiography. It also creates important links to the narrative, helping to define: the relationships between Roman power and Christianity and between Classical and Lukan historiography; the character of the Christian politeia; the superiority of Lukan historiography both to Classical and to previous Christian historiography; the superiority of Lukan Christian doctrine; and the superiority of the ‘reward’ from Luke's Christian ‘contract’ to the ‘rewards’ of the Classical historians Thucydides, Livy and Augustus and to those of the Roman politeia.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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1 E.g. Alexander, L., The Preface to Luke's Gospel: Literary Convention and Social Context in Luke 1.1–4 and Acts 1.1 (SNTS 78; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1993; pbk 2005) 103–5, 175CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Seminally, Cadbury, H. J., ‘Commentary on the Preface of Luke’, The Beginnings of Christianity: Part I, The Acts of the Apostles. Vol. 2. Prolegomena II Criticism (ed. Jackson, F. J. Foakes and Lake, K.; London: MacMillan, 1922) 489510Google Scholar.

3 Selectively: L. Alexander, ‘Luke–Acts in its Contemporary Setting with Special Reference to the Prefaces (Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:1)’ (D.Phil. thesis; Oxford, 1978); Preface; Luke's Preface in the Pattern of Greek Preface-writing’, NovT 28.1 (1986) 4874Google Scholar; ‘Formal Elements and Genre: Which Greco-Roman Prologues Most Closely Parallel the Lukan Prologues?’ Jesus and the Heritage of Israel (ed. Moessner, D. P.; Harrisburg: Trinity, 1999) 926Google Scholar; Acts in its Ancient Literary Context (LNTS 298; London: T&T Clark, 2006; pbk 2007) 16Google Scholar, 12–20, 161.

4 German ‘Fachprosa’: Rydbeck, L., Fachprosa, vermeintliche Volkssprache und Neues Testament (Lund: Almquist & Wiksell, 1967)Google Scholar; Alexander, Context, 3–4, 18–19, 231–52.

5 Alexander, Preface, 176–84.

6 Alexander, ‘Formal Elements’, 23.

7 I accept the general consensus that one writer wrote Luke and Acts, which constitute a two-book unity, and, more controversially, that Luke 1.1–4 is a Preface for that unity, Acts 1.1 introducing a ‘second preface’.

8 So e.g. Green, J. B., The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 16Google Scholar; Witherington, B. III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998)Google Scholar 11, 13.

9 This, rather than ‘most surely believed’: Cadbury, ‘Commentary’, 495–6; Alexander, Preface, 111, though the latter may be a secondary implication.

10 Cf. e.g. Thomas, R., Herodotus in Context: Ethnography, Science and the Art of Persuasion (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000; pbk 2002)Google Scholar; Raaflaub, K. A., ‘Philosophy, Science, Politics: Herodotus and the Intellectual Trends of his Time’, Brill's Companion to Herodotus (ed. Bakker, E. J., de Jong, I. J. F. and van Wees, H.; Leiden: Brill, 2002) 149–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hornblower, S., Thucydides (London: Duckworth, 1987) 129–35Google Scholar.

11 Alexander, Context, 14.

12 Stichwort: Lukas, Historiker’, ZNT 18 (2006) 29Google Scholar; cf. p. 479, below. I use ‘Classical’ in the same way as Alexander, as: (1) Greek (and Roman) rather than Jewish; (2) considered normative, both by ourselves and by the ancients. While (2) is less true of Polybius than of Herodotus and Thucydides, he remains in the ‘great’ Thucydidean tradition.

13 Cf. Bauckham, R., Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 119–20Google Scholar.

14 Sterling, G. E., Historiography and Self-definition: Josephos, Luke–Acts and Apologetic Historiography (NTS 64: Leiden: Brill, 1992) 349CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 E.g. Earl, D., ‘Prologue-form in Ancient Historiography’, ANRW 1.2 (1972) 842–56Google Scholar (on Sallust as ‘philosopher’); Kraus, C. S., ed., The Limits of Historiography: Genre and Narrative in Ancient Historical Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1999)Google Scholar; McGing, B. and Mossman, J., eds., The Limits of Ancient Biography (Swansea: University of Wales, 2006)Google Scholar; Marincola, J., ed., A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (2 vols.; Oxford: Blackwell, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; below, p. 474.

16 Burridge, R.A., What are the Gospels? (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2nd ed. 2004)Google Scholar; Frickenschmidt, D., Evangelium als Biographie: Die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunst (Tübingen: Francke, 1997)Google Scholar.

17 P. 473 below.

18 Plummer, A., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to S. Luke (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 4th ed. 1901)Google Scholar 1; Creed, J. M., The Gospel According to St. Luke: The Greek Text with Introduction, Notes, and Indices (London: MacMillan, 1930)Google Scholar 3.

19 Alexander, Preface, 108.

20 Evans, C. E., Saint Luke (TPI New Testament Commentaries; London: SCM, 1990) 128Google Scholar; Alexander, Preface, 127.

21 Alexander, Preface, 127.

22 E.g. Padilla, O., ‘Hellenistic παιδεία and Luke's Education: A Critique of Recent Approaches’, NTS 55 (2009) 416–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Whoever or whatever Theophilos is (real person? patron? pseudonymous real person? ideal reader? etc.), qua ‘most powerful’, he seems (many note) to be conceived as of similar worldly status to the Roman governors Felix and Festus: Acts 23.26; 24.3; 26.25.

24 Some educated second-century pagans besides Celsus did read Luke: Cook, J. G., ‘Some Hellenistic Responses to the Gospels and Gospel Tradition’, ZNW 84 (1993) 235–54Google Scholar; Bowersock, G. W., Fiction as History: Nero to Julian (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California, 1994)Google Scholar; J. König, ‘The Cynic and Christian Lives of Lucian's Peregrinus’, Limits of Ancient Biography (ed. McGing and Mossman) 227–54, at 230.

25 Rhodes, P. J. with Lewis, D. M., The Decrees of the Greek States (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997) 45Google Scholar; Rhodes, P. J. and Osborne, R., Greek Historical Inscriptions, 404–323 BC (Oxford: Clarendon, 2003) xix–xxGoogle Scholar.

26 LSJ s.v. II.2.

27 Alexander, Preface, 107–8.

28 Alexander, Preface, 107–9, 114–15, 126–7.

29 Alexander, Preface, 75, 136.

30 Alexander, Preface, 108, 127; Galen K V 587; K VI 816–18; K VII 584–6.

31 Rhodes and Osborne, Inscriptions, 263–4 (no. 55).

32 Alexander, Preface, 106 and n. 5.

33 Pace Droge, A.J., ‘Did “Luke” Write Anonymously? Lingering at the Threshold’, Die Apostelgeschichte im Kontext antiker und frühchristlicher Historiographie (ed. Frey, J., Rothschild, C. K. and Schröter, J.; Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2009) 495518Google Scholar; arguments for original titles and names (Hengel, M., The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Investigation of the Collection and Origin [London: SCM, 2000] 4856Google Scholar; Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 300) are particularly strong for Luke, which does not initially claim to be a Gospel, though of course it is also one.

34 Cf. e.g. Arrian Anabasis 1.12.5, with Moles, J., ‘The Interpretation of the “Second Preface” in Arrian's Anabasis’, JHS 105 (1985) 162–8 at 167CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Livy Praef. 1, with Moles, J., ‘Livy's Preface’, PCPS 39 (1993) 141–68 at 141Google Scholar, reprinted in Chaplin, J. D. and Kraus, C. S., eds., Livy (Oxford Readings in Classical Studies; Oxford/New York: Clarendon, 2009) 49–87 at 51Google Scholar; generally: Marincola, J., Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1997) 271–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Alexander, Preface, 117–18, 124.

36 Alexander, Preface, 82–5, 118.

37 E.g. Thucydides 1.1.1; 5.26.1 (both, as will emerge, relevant here).

38 E.g. Josephus C. Apion 1.8; note also the insistent παρα-compounds of Thucydides 1.21–22, with Moles, J., ‘A False Dilemma: Thucydides’ History and Historicism', Texts, Ideas, and the Classics (ed. Harrison, S. J.; Oxford: Clarendon, 2001) 195–219 at 208Google Scholar; on historiographical ‘tradition’ see Marincola, Authority, 3–11, 103.

39 This even on the conservative view (which I accept) that Luke was—and implicitly claimed to be—Paul's companion.

40 Alexander, Preface, 120–3.

41 Generally: Marincola, Authority, 63–86.

42 2.29.1 (Herodotus himself); 3.115.2 (no eyewitness); 4.16.1 (no eyewitness); 8.79.4 (Aristides); 8.80.1 (Aristides).

43 Cf. Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 118–19.

44 Examples: Harris, E. M., ‘Pheidippides the Legislator: A Note on Aristophanes’ Clouds', ZPE 140 (2002) 35Google Scholar, at 5 n. 13.

45 J. Moles, ‘Anathema kai Ktema: the Inscriptional Inheritance of Ancient Historiography’, http://www/ (bibliography at 26 n. 32); ‘Interpretation’, 166; pp. 477–78 below; Josephus C. Apion 1.3 (echoing Thucydides 1.22.4), 9–11, 21, 23; nothing here requires direct links with Josephus (cf. recently Mason, S., Josephus and the New Testament [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2nd ed. 2005] 251–93Google Scholar), though these, if granted, would ‘help’ Luke's use of αὐτόπται and the inscription analogy.

46 Respectively, pp. 478 and 472 below.

47 E.g. Dionysius Ant. Rom. 1.6.3; note Thucydides' elaborate ‘playing’ with the formula: 1.22.1–2.

48 Cf. recently Ramsby, T. R., Textual Permanence: Roman Elegists and the Epigraphic Tradition (London: Duckworth, 2007)Google Scholar.

49 Cf. e.g. Wallace, R. and Williams, W., The Acts of the Apostles (London: Duckworth, 1993) 26–7Google Scholar; Barrett, C. K., The Acts of the Apostles II (ICC; London: T&T Clark, 2004) cxivGoogle Scholar.

50 Cf. e.g. Penner, T., In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic History (Emory Studies in Early Christianity 10; New York: T&T Clark, 2004)Google Scholar; Rowe, C. K., World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford: Clarendon, 2009) 45Google Scholar.

51 Josephus Ant. 1.2, etc.

52 North, J. L., ‘Is Ἰδεῖν Περί (Acts 15.6 cf. 18.15) a Latinism?’, NTS 29 (1983) 64–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Cf. Acts 5.17; 24.5, 14; 26.5; 28.22; Josephus BJ 1.110, 2.162; Ant. 17.41; Vit. 189, 191; Mason, Josephus, 288–91.

54 LSJ s.v. 3.

55 Johnson, L. T., The Acts of the Apostles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1992) 276Google Scholar.

56 Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 397, 401.

57 LSJ s.v. ἀναγκαῖος II.2.

58 Further p. 476 below.

59 LSJ s.v. οἰκεῖος; s.v. ἀλλότριος.

60 Epicurus, Deperd. lib. fr. 29.28.5–6, 11–12; fr. 29.30.16; fr. 30.31.1; fr. 31.2.4–6; fr. 36.10.3.

61 Similarly, Cicero Ac. pr. 2.27.

62 Recently: Kim, S., Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008)Google Scholar; Rowe, World Upside Down; Yamazaki-Ransom, K., The Roman Empire in Luke's Narrative (LNTS 404; London/New York: T&T Clark, 2010)Google Scholar.

63 Recently: Yamazaki-Ransom, Roman Empire, 72–4; C. Blumenthal, ‘Augustus’ Erlass und Gottes Macht: Überlegungen zur Charakterisierung der Augustusfigur und ihrer erzählstrategischen Funktion in der lukanischen Erzählung', NTS 57 (2010) 130Google Scholar.

64 Precise treatment: Llewelyn, S. R., New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, vol. 6 (Marrickville: Macquarie University, 1992) 123–32Google Scholar.

65 Cf. e.g. the influential Pelling, C. B. R., ‘Plutarch's Adaptation of his Source-material’, JHS 100 (1980) 127–40CrossRefGoogle Scholar, reprinted in Pelling, Plutarch and History (Swansea: University of Wales, 2002) 91115Google Scholar; Moles, J. L., ‘Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides’, Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (ed. Gill, C. and Wiseman, T. P.; Exeter: University of Exeter, 1993) 88121CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

66 Another, probably, Ps 87.6: Green, Luke, 125 n. 19.

67 Acts 5.37; Josephus BJ 2.117–118; Ant. 18.1–5; Mason, Josephus, 274.

68 Pace Syme, R., ‘The Titulus Tiburtinus’, Vestigia 17 (1972) 600Google Scholar.

69 Recently: Scheid, J., Res Gestae Divi Augusti (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007)Google Scholar; Cooley, A. E., Res gestae divi Augusti: Text, Translation and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2009)Google Scholar.

70 Phil 24; Col 4.14; 2 Tim 4.11; Acts 28.16, etc.

71 Eusebius HE 3.4.7; Jerome De vir. ill. 7.

72 Acts 11.19–30.

73 Why ΑϒΓΟϒΣΤΟΣ? A Note to Luke 2.1’, NTS 38 (1992) 142–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Thus Woodman, A. J., in a paper to appear in From Poetry to History: Selected Papers (Oxford: Clarendon, forthcoming 2012)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 E.g. Acts 26.29 (Paul to Agrippa and company).

76 The point disappears in RSV's ‘things’; κατηχέω ~ orality: LSJ s.v.; Alexander, Preface, 139, 141.

77 Even quadruply pointed, for Herodotus's text is also a ‘road’, just as Luke–Acts is a ‘leading through’ the ‘road’ of Christianity (p. 476).

78 E.g. common imitation of/rivalry with Livy's ‘exemplary’ History: for Augustus ~ Livy see especially Luce, T. J., ‘Livy, Augustus, and the Forum Augustum’, Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate (ed. Raaflaub, K. A. and Toher, M.; Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford: University of Berkeley, 1990) 123–38Google Scholar; note also ‘placed’/‘exemplar’ (RG Praef.) ~ ‘placed’/‘example’ (Livy Praef. 10); for Luke ~ Livy see p. 479 below; for another possibility see p. 481 below.

79 Adequate survey: Plummer, Luke, xviii.

80 Blumenthal, ‘Augustus’ Erlass und Gottes Macht', 19–21.

81 E.g. Cadbury, ‘Commentary’, 490.

82 Herodotus Praef.; Thucydides 1.1.1–2, etc.

83 Bauckham, Eyewitnesses, 121–2.

84 So Phrynichus.

85 Alexander, Preface, 103.

86 Thus, of the immediate narrative, rightly, Johnson, L. T., The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1991)Google Scholar 38: ‘the prophecy of Jesus’ birth would have made excellent sense to any Hellenistic reader'.

87 Acts 26.26 ‘not in a corner’, with Haenchen, E., The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971) 689Google Scholar, cf. Chrysostom Hom. 52.4 (quoted in the main text); the phrase also has philosophical implications: Malherbe, A. J., Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 147–63Google Scholar.

88 See my ‘Time and Space Travel’.

89 On the name ‘Paul’ see Moles, J., ‘Jesus and Dionysus in The Acts of the Apostles and early Christianity’, Hermathena 180 (2006) 65–104 at 79Google Scholar; Acts 26.22, 24, 28–29 (‘meta’ of Acts itself).

90 Herodotus 1.5.3–4; Xenophon Hell. 2.3.56; 7.2.1; Tacitus Ann. 4.32.1–2; J. Moles, ‘Cry Freedom: Tacitus Annals 4.32–35’,; Nepos Praef., Pelop. 1.1; Plut. Alex. 1.1–2; Xenophon Sym. 1.1, etc.

91 Cadbury, ‘Commentary’, 508–10; Alexander, Preface, 137–41.

92 Acts 2.36; 25.26; 21.34; 22.30 (the latter two with the simple rather than the compound verb); P. Giss. 1.27 (cited by Cadbury, ‘Commentary’, 509).

93 Thucydides 1.22.4; Moles, ‘Truth’; Marincola, Authority, 160–2.

94 Alexander, Preface, 137.

95 LSJ s.v. C.5.

96 See n. 76.

97 Cadbury, ‘Commentary’, 509; Alexander, Preface, 140.

98 E.g. Xenophon Hell. 5.4.51.

99 Cf. e.g. Luke 2.52; 9.51–19.41, with e.g. Johnson, Luke, 163–5; Green, Luke, 396–9; Acts 8.30-31; full exploration in Moles, ‘Time and Space Travel’.

100 Acts 9.2; 19.9, 23; 22.4; 24.14, 22. ‘Road’ better conveys the interaction with the organic ‘road’ imagery than the traditional translation ‘Way’.

101 LSJ s.v.

102 E.g. Plutarch De superst. 171e; Justin Martyr Dial. 8.1, cf. Lucian Men. 4; Mason, Josephus, 285; Dio Chrysostom Or. 4.8; Schofield, M., ‘Epicurean and Stoic Political Thought’, The Cambridge History of Greek and Roman Political Thought (ed. Rowe, C. and Schofield, M.; Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2000) 435–56 at 437–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for Stoics, cf. the Lat. constantia and Epictetus 2.13.7 (‘writing a security’ as an analogy for correct philosophical behaviour).

103 Moles, ‘Inscriptional Inheritance’, 9–13.

104 Moles, ‘Inscriptional Inheritance’, 3–4, 8, 22 n. 5.

105 Examples in Harris, ‘Pheidippides’, 4.

106 Moles, ‘Inscriptional Inheritance’, 26 n. 32.

107 Moles, ‘A False Dilemma’, 213–15.

108 Moles, ‘Preface’, 153–4; ‘Inscriptional Inheritance’, 19–20.

109 LSJ s.v., esp. II; similarly, the simplex: LSJ s.v.

110 E.g. LSJ s.v. σϕάλλω II; note Acts 5.23.

111 γίγνομαι in Herodotus can effectively = ‘be done’: LSJ s.v. I.2–3.

112 Haenchen, Acts, 594 n. 5; Plümacher, E., ‘Eine Thukydidesreminiszenz in der Apostelgeschichte (Act 20,33–35—Thuk. II 97,3f.)’, ZNW 83 (1992) 270–5Google Scholar; Barrett, Acts, 983–4; pace Kilgallen, J. T., ‘Acts 20:35 and Thucydides 2.97.4’, JBL 112 (1993) 312–14Google Scholar, and Padilla, ‘Hellenistic παιδεία’, 427–9.

113 Acts 27.14, 17 ~ Aen. 1.102–12; further: S. Krauter, ‘Vergils Evangelium und das lukanische Epos? Überlegungen zu Gattung und Theologie des lukanischen Doppelwerkes’, Die Apostelgeschichte (ed. Frey, Rothschild and Schröter) 214–43.

114 LSJ s.v. IV.2; note that this gives ἀσϕάλειαν yet another image resonance (common in moral/theological contexts): a legal/financial one (LSJ s.v. 6), which makes a ‘ring’ with 1 πεπληροϕορημένων, which can also be ‘legal/financial’ (LSJ s.v. I.2–3).

115 LSJ s.v. 2.

116 Luke 2.34; 14.14; 20.27, 33, 35, 36; 24.6–7, 34, 46; Acts 1.22; 2.31; 4.2, 33; 17.18, 32; 23.6, 8; 24.15, 21; 26.23, etc.

117 Further on these matters in my ‘Time and Space Travel’ and ‘Accommodation or Opposition?’.

118 Cf. the archetypal ‘Roman mission’ of Virgil Aen. 6.847–53: ‘you, Roman, remember to rule the peoples with power; your arts will be these: to impose the custom of peace, to spare the subjected and to war down the uppity’.

119 I have suggested (The Thirteenth Oration of Dio Chrysostom: Complexity and Simplicity, Rhetoric and Moralism, Literature and Life’, JHS 125 [2005] 112–38, at 126 n. 140CrossRefGoogle Scholar) an organic relationship between Acts and Dio Or. 13 (Dio, I now think, influencing Luke). Interesting, therefore, is Or. 13.34: ‘[Rome's] greatness is not at all secure from falling [ἀσϕαλές]’.

120 Typically: Green, Gospel, 37 and n. 20; contra e.g. Alexander, Preface, 110, 115–16, 133–4; Mason, Josephus, 254–6; Tyson, J. B., Marcion and Luke–Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, 2006) 111–13Google Scholar; Strelan, R., Luke the Priest (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008) 153Google Scholar.

121 E.g. recently, Tyson, Marcion, 111.

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